Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Providential Return of Squanto

December, 1619: the view from a distance of his home village Patuxet on Cape Cod Bay startled Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian: his people’s dome-shaped wetus roofed with bark were gone. White men dressed in clothes made of fabrics rather than skins, were framing a house that obviously to resemble others already finished: rectangular cottages with clapboard siding, pitched roofs. Squanto had seen houses like these in London suburbs.

He’d had been accustomed to speaking English with white associates in Cornhill, London, the past four years, and wanted to ask these English what had become of his people, but how he might be received by them being uncertain, he circumvented the village and started inland along the path to Nemasket, home of the Pokonokets. He could see over his shoulder, the sails of the ship that delivered him back to America were disappearing over the horizon. 

The group of Pokonoket women and children returning from the bay with lobsters he met contemplated his baggy linen pants, loose jacket, and floppy felt hat suspiciously.  The children pointed and laughed. Squanto identified himself as a Patuxet native, and learned from the women that his people had perished in a plague; and yes, the men building houses there now were English.

As he approached Nemasket, squash rattles and wowachs’ chants were audible.  These sounds, coupled with the variously costumed tribesmen milling about, suggested something out of the ordinary was afoot.

The women who had accompanied him into the village explained to locals that Squanto had come from England, and spoke English. He was introduced to the visiting chief of the Abenaki people, Samoset, who also spoke that language. The two traded stories of experiences  with the English. Samoset had learned their language as a boy while associating with them at a fishing camp on Monhegan Island in the Gulf of Maine.

Squanto had been with a group of Patuxets lured onto an English ship, ostensibly for trading, before being shipped with a load of dried fish to Malaga, Spain, and sold into slavery. He had served as gardener for a wealthy Moorish vintner two years before a Spanish friar assisted his escape to London. There he worked for the ship-maker Slany who hoped to found a colony at Newfoundland and found Squanto’s ability to communicate with the natives useful. After six years of service to Slany, Squanto expressed a desire to return to his people, and  Slany arranged for him to ship with Captain Dermer who was exploring the North American coastline.

Squanto learned From Samoset, that when the English arrived earlier that winter in their great canoe, the Nemasket chief Corbitant had ordered an attack on them. The musket fire that responded to the flurry of arrows shot into the English encampment put the Indians to flight, and since there had been a standoff between the two peoples.  

The to-do in Nemasket that Squanto had observed upon entering the village was the result of the regional grand sachem of the Wampanoags, Massasoit, having summoned a council of area chiefs to decide on a suitable collective response to the English presence. During these deliberations, there had been tension between the outlooks of the peace-loving chief Massasoit and the angry Corbitant, the latter convinced that the English arsenal included not only exploding firearms, but magic for spreading plague. Corbitant recalled the earlier depredations of the Spanish and believed the tribes should organize for an all-out attack on the new arrivals weakened at the moment by malnutrition and disease. Hoping for demonic assistance for putting the English to flight, Corbitant had, without informing Massasoit, invited area wowachs to the council.

Samoset’s knowledge of the English people, and his ability to speak their language, had made him a confidante and advisor to the peace-loving Massasoit who believed warring on the newcomers was unadvisable. An all-out offensive effort by the Indians, superior in numbers, could undoubtedly destroy the colony the English called Plymouth. However, there was every indication that immigration from abroad was going to continue, and in light of that Massasoit believed the Indians’ best interest would be to assist the English with the difficulties they were now experiencing, cultivate brotherhood.

Squanto’s ability to communicate in English would interest Massasoit, Samoset knew, and the two men were walking across the village to the weru where Massasoit was staying during the council, when they encountered Corbitant. Samoset introduced Squanto and mentioned his origins in Patuxet and his recent return from England. Corbitant looked at the Squanto’s getup suspiciously, voiced a perfunctory welcome, and went about his business.                                                  

Massasoit, an impressively large, strongly built man with an oiled face and scalp and a  deerskin wrapped around his shoulders, sat by the fire in his weru. Samoset described for him Squanto’s experience with the English, and their encounter with Corbitant just now.

“He didn’t seem overjoyed by Squanto’s presence.”

Massasoit smiled.  “He probably saw Squanto as an incarnation of Windigo—if not an English spy.”

“I’ve described to Squanto your conflict with Corbitant.”  

Massasoit held to the fire a splinter of wood that he used to light a long-stemmed pipe. He blew a puff skyward to honor the Great Father, and a second puff to the earth, acknowledging the Great Mother, then inhaled deeply smoke he blew out his nose. He handed the pipe to Squanto, who smoked briefly, then passed it on to Samoset.

Massasoit spoke in his Algonquin tongue: “I can understand the support for Corbitant’s position among certain of the chiefs. Peoples from across the Great Water have cheated us in trading. They’ve enslaved people. They’ve raped our women. They’ve killed Indians simply because they don’t like their looks.”

We’ve done the same to them,” Samoset observed.

Massasoit nodded agreement. “We’re as strange to them, as they are to us, so distrust is inevitable…Samoset, you have led me to believe that difficulties across the Great Water have brought these peoples here.”

Squanto nodded his agreement

“For them to have braved the dangers of the Great Water, those difficulties must have been very great They deserve our sympathy. They are human, not devils. Expressions of brotherhood on our part will be reciprocated.”

The pipe having gone the round again reached Massasoit, who paused in his remarks to relight it. “I heard recently from a diviner that a stranger would come from afar who would assist us in seeking peace with the English.” He smiled at Squanto. “Our land is very great. There are ample land and provisions for all.  With the assistance of you two English speakers, we will seek peaceful relations with the newcomers, and discuss our willingness to become the subjects of their powerful King James.”

“That will infuriate Corbitant and his allies,” Samoset observed.

“He will get over it, especially if King James assists us in subduing our enemies, the Narragansetts.”

* * * * *

Englishmen in a field beyond Plymouth village were shooting at targets on a sunny, unseasonably warm January afternoon, when the tall straight Indian with black hair hanging long at the back of his head, approached, alone and unarmed.

“Could you fellows spare a thirsty man a beer?” Samoset asked.

The English lowered their muskets. One of the Englishmen led Samoset into his house where his screaming wife fled out the back door with her two children.

Samoset, offered a seat in the rocking chair by the fireplace and plied with beer, bread, and cheese, described the plague that had decimated the Indians at their village Patuxet of which the white men, who had been puzzled by the remains of the village, had been unaware. Samoset answered his hosts’ questions about tribes in the vicinity and described a voyage he’d once made to London and back with English fishermen. Then he explained the will of the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit that there might be peaceful relations between the Indians and the English.

A few days later, Samoset returned to Plymouth with Squanto and arranged a meeting between Massasoit and the English representative Edward Winslow. The treaty agreed to at the meeting of the two leaders stipulated that when the English and the Wampanoag met for consultations in any matter, neither side would be armed; that expressions of hostility of any kind on either side would be punishable; and that if either side should be attacked by a third group, the other would come to its defense.

At a banquet celebrating the agreement, Massasoit announced that the English-speaking Squanto would reside with the newcomers to evaluate their needs which the Indians might supply, as well as to provide practical advice about local planting, hunting, fishing, and participation in the fur trade.

The English settlers, for their part, represented Squanto’s timely return to America as a “divine providence.” Squanto had the satisfaction of knowing that not only had he assisted in preventing war in which many would have died, but that his presence had increased the likelihood of future peaceful relations between the two races.

There was a disconcerting rumor that Corbitant and his followers were conspiring to ally with the Narragansetts to overthrow Massasoit, install Corbitant as the regional sachem, and attack the English; but if that were to occur, surely King James would lend a helping hand.


James Gallant was the winner of 2019 Schaffner Press Prize for music-in-literature for his story collection, La Leona and Other Guitar Stories, published in 2020. Fortnightly Review (UK) published a collection of his essays and short fiction, Verisimilitudes: Essays and Approximations. His first novel, The Big Bust at Tyrone’s Rooming House: a Novel of Atlanta, was published by Grace Paley’s small press, Glad Day Books.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Providential Return of Squanto

The Boston Doctor by Lisa Gordon

“Don’t look back,” Nels said.

The gravity in his voice, her only comfort. The train ride had been long and unrelenting. Crowding in against countless others, Millie hushed Thelma, their new baby girl, so often her voice turned to gravel in her throat. The smell, unbearable: humanity at its worst. The persistent grumble of the tracks beneath them, the constant bump and jostle, a new torture. The only color, for so long, the backs of their eyelids. 

“Almost there darling, almost there,” Nels whispered, over and over, his eyes squeezed fiercely shut, his full lips pressed in a hard line. Who was he speaking to, she wanted to ask: her? Or Thelma? But she did not, she could not. That question was born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear. Nels had taught her that; had taught himself that. And there was time for neither in their new life. She tightened her grip on the blanketed bundle of their daughter, and tried to imagine it:


Nels had pointed to it on a map and told her it would be filled with bricks the color of persimmon and windows high in the starry sky. “All the medicine in the world is happening here,” he’d said. “And we’re going to be a part of it, yes, yes we are.”

She loved him for that, how he included her, as if she, too, were taking a scalpel to someone’s throat, or administering penicillin on the backs of dying tongues.

They arrived at Back Bay station to little splendor. The planks below her feet swelled with weight. Humidity clung to her skin like sweat. Immediately, the fashions affronted: swooping skirts, high-necked blouses, wide-brimmed hats. And the colors—oh! Colors Millie was not sure she knew the names of; colors of vegetables and fruits, perhaps, that didn’t grow on her family’s farm. Purples, greens, oranges bright as sunsets. 

Thelma bucked in Millie’s arms, silent, her eyes wild. 

“We’re here, baby girl, here we are!” Nels sang. His demeaner was back—another comfort she needed. He kissed Thelma’s cheeks with lips pursed big and swollen. “Boston here we are!” 

“Shushhh,” Millie hissed, gripping his arm. But inside, she soared. 

Nels pointed across the street. “There,” he said. 


“There!” Nels grinned, easy with the thrill of surprising her. “Our new apartment building.”

“An apartment!” Millie said. “Nels!” She nearly dropped Thelma. The building stood before them, of quality Millie couldn’t properly determine, but to her, it was wondrous.

“I promised,” Nels said, taking her by the elbow and leading her across the tracks.

He had promised. It hadn’t been her place to ask, but she had hoped; oh, how she had hoped! And now: an apartment of their very own. Their very own. It stood mightily, bricks upon bricks, just passed the station. Nels retrieved a key from his satchel, dangling it in front of her face, his smile enormous, infectious. The landlord, Nels said, had sent it two weeks ago. Gratitude and confusion—but how did he, when could he have—rushed to the surface of her cheeks. She kissed him, before remembering herself, then laughed, embarrassed.

Look at us, she thought, this new family, their new life. She couldn’t get over the new smell of rust mixed with dry air, or the new sound of the train hissing, the porters calling out in their glossy voices, or the elegance of the ladies, the swish of their dresses. How quickly she came back to earth, the earth where they didn’t belong.

Her Ma and Pa back home, her sisters and Uncle Rep: what would they say, if they saw her now?

The quarters were small and modest, but they were clean. A small mirror atop the mantle. An armchair in the corner, near the window. A straw bed, in the front room. A belly stove.

“We’ll need to buy everything else, in due time,” Nels explained. He set Thelma on the floor, shiny with wood polish. “My exams are next week. I expect to be employed soon thereafter.”

What Millie wanted to say, she knew she couldn’t. Was he certain the hospitals would hire him, here? Back in South Carolina, he’d gone to both local hospitals, dressed to the nines. He’d gone to many of the local physician practices, white and Black. He’d been turned away from every door. At first, his anger erupted like a rock thrown through glass. Then, it tempered, becoming more even, fueling his motivation. 

He took Millie’s cheeks in his hands. “I hope you are pleased, my darling,” he whispered. 

Millie squeezed the tears from her eyes, lest he see her cry. For he’d believe they were tears of joy. But once Nels left for the lay of the land, a strange sadness came over her—it had, perhaps, been there all along. He told Millie to rest, but she could not. From the window, she saw the wooden planks of the train platform, the steam hung in the air with a hot energy, the Boston skies grey and unwelcoming. People of the kind she knew nothing about on their merry ways, living their strange lives. Thelma fussing in her arms, her mouth a pink animal, wailing.

Millie watched her husband leave, thinking, when he came home, she’d have to find new ways to be a wife to him.

* * * * *

That first autumn, as the leaves fell and the sky stayed endlessly gray, Nels prepared for his licensing exam. Millie passed the time by taking walks with Thelma when she fussed. The accents were different in Boston. Clipped syllables, tight lips. She missed the sing-songyness of Southern talk, the rise and fall, how voices bloomed with vibrancy and anger, with gossip and laughter. She knew her accent marked her, but many other things did, too: the daughter of a former slave, she was also half white, a plantation owner’s daughter, but too dark to pass. She’d feared she’d never match the Bostonian poise, a poise Nels already seemed to embody.

Millie preferred to the parks in the Commons to the commotion of the streets. Thelma loved the lake between the trees best, marveling at the big white birds gliding in the water. Later, she learned what they were: swans. She, too, was stunned by their majesty and elegance. She preferred to stay there as long as she could, but there was much to do at home. Walking briskly, she tried shed the imposter feeling as if it was weight she could lose.

Nels was late. Millie had barely anything other than barley and peas for dinner, and he was expected with their Sunday roast. She fretted at the window, trying to quell her eager stomach by sucking on rosemary leaves. She longed for a drink and wished she could ask Nels to bring some home, but knew how unladylike that was. Finally, he arrived with a parcel wrapped in newspaper. 

“Today was grand,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “I shadowed Dr. Worthy all day. He’s a fine man, indeed, and a finer doctor. He will help establish my practice.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said. She opened the parcel and was surprised to find a rack of lamb. 

“I thought you would like it.”

“Oh, but we can’t afford this!”

“It’s on loan-away from the butcher. I’ll pay back more next week.”

“But your boards aren’t for a few more weeks, and even then—”

“I’m going to be a doctor, Margaret. Here, in Boston. I am. And not a word of it again.”

Nels’ key had turned; he locked her door and was opening Thelma’s, instead, reaching for her to hold her high in the sky, his smile as wide as her squeals of joy.

“I can’t believe you’ll be educated as a Bostonian,” he murmured to her, burying his face in her neck.

She was envious of her own daughter, the very thing that sucked her dry of milk, of self. Envious of the life her daughter would lead. Envious of the love her husband showered her, copious, unbounded love. Her love for her daughter was love, yes. But it was rageful in its purity.

She opened the lamb, pressing her hands into its raw meat, realizing only then that she didn’t know how to cook it.

* * * * *

Millie went to bed but couldn’t sleep. She lay watching the candle burn out until Nels came barreling into the bedroom. He’d gone out with new comrades, at some saloon in Copley Square, drinking away money they still didn’t have. She pretended to be asleep, but whether or not he knew that, he didn’t let on.

“Millie-my-Margaret-my-lady-oh-my,” he sang. “I’ve got it, I’ve got just the thing, the very thing indeed, indeed indeed indeed!”

Millie couldn’t help but smile, though she kept it small and hidden in her face. Oh, how she did love seeing Nels like this, truly elated, walking on clouds, taking her along for the ride.

“The thing?” she said demurely.

He laid down in bed and kicked off his shoes with great labor—they toppled to the wooden floors Millie had cleaned hours earlier.

Sshhh,” she chided him. “Sometimes it’s as if you forget you’ve ever had a daughter at all!”

“Oh, gracious me!” he cried, extending his arms beyond his head and grinning ear to ear. “As if I’d ever forget the love of my very life.” He turned to her, his eyes bright and swimming.

Her skin sang, then quickly bristled, once she realized he’d not meant that she was the love of his life. At the same time, he caught his error, smart man that he was, even if drunk: “Second-in-standing, mind you.”

“What, is it Nels?” she said, impatient now. She was jealous of the fun he was having, the fire lit in his brain.

“The thing,” he said, “yes.” He closed his eyes and rested his hand on her forearm. The rich, dark smoothness of his skin shone keenly in the candlelight.

“A hospital!” he cried.

“A…hospital,” she said, not sure what he meant.

“My own, my very own.”

“Your—your own? Your own hospital.”

“Yes! Men have done it. A Negro man in Chicago. A Negro man in Georgia. Purchased small home dwellings and converted them into hospitals. Trained, Negro doctors. They’ve done it.”

 “But you’ve not yet—”

“It will be open to all patients. Anyone. Free of charge, if need be. And I will employ only Black physicians, and I will create a nurses’s training program for young Black women, they need careers too, we need—”

“Impressive, Nels. But—”

“My sweet dear. I have responsibility. To forge it for others. To create opportunities for others. To raise us up.”

“But Nels, you’ve not yet—”

“I will train them. I will give them jobs. He groaned, his body beginning to twitch. “Donations will function here. We need to find a church.” At that, he seemed to wake up, brightening. “Why haven’t you found us our church?”

She hadn’t known if Boston churches would be different from home. She hadn’t known how to find out. “I…I don’t know,” she whispered.

He turned then, deciding to sleep, and this was a small gift. Millie had not yet said her piece—he had not let her. They both knew that he hadn’t yet passed his boards. Nels knew that he would. Millie’s uncertainty extended deeper than that. She was quite sure he’d pass his boards, but his larger plans frightened her. Not that he couldn’t achieve them, but that she wouldn’t grow with him. Wouldn’t become the wife he’d need for such a life. That she wouldn’t know how. She couldn’t even find their church.

Tears came to her eyes. Luckily, they were only the beginnings of tears, tiny wells of water too timid to flow. She wiped them on the lace sleeve of her nightgown and began to undress her husband, who was snoring now, tumbling into dreams.

* * * * *

The house on East Springfield Street was unimpressive, but strong. And it was more than a house. A whole brick building of a thing—three, four floors from what Millie could tell.

Nels stood off to the side, watching her approach. “Well?” he said. Already impatient for her reply, though she’d just arrived.

Millie looked up and down. It was the same as the other rowhouses on the block, lined with early trees, forming a young canopy. “The street is quite lovely,” she said, turning her head back to the building.

“The loveliness of the street is a side thought, if at all. Have you focused your attention on what’s at the end of the block?”

Millie had not. Now she did. Beyond them lay the resplendent center pavilion of Boston City Hospital, its iron-domed pillared building just beyond view.

Nels reached into the bassinette and drew out his daughter, held her up, up, up. “Look!” he said. She made not a sound, but her smile disappeared into the sky. “That’s Daddy’s, yours and mine, it’s ours, baby girl!”

But it wasn’t.

“It rings, Millie. It rings!” he exclaimed, circling the baby in the air, pointing her toward the city hospital, up and down the street, the building that might become his.

Ever the questions! Was it proper to have the city hospital a block away? Where and how would the patients find them? How would they pay? Who would he hire? Could they afford it? What about supplies? Was the city ready for a black physician? Were they? She bit her tongue, reminded of Nels’ words: questions were born of insecurity, and insecurity bred fear.

But fearful, she was.

“So this will be just—”

“I will need somewhere to practice, Millie, in case they won’t take me.” He nudged his chin toward the hospital at the end of the block, its enormity looming. “I need somewhere to train others like me. I need to help us.”

Oh, her good husband. Her good, courageous husband. She needed to chew her own fear and spit it out. 

“You will, Nels. It could be—” Millie searched for words. “Revolutionary.”

At that word, he seemed to deflate. He sat down on the front steps and settled the baby in his lap, her arms and legs squirming, wanting more of him. Millie watched his face, seeing this doubt upon him like a new skin. She knew she needed to scrub him clean of it.

She went to him and placed her palms on the sides of his head. She looked him in the eye, square as she could, and in them she saw two Corneliuses: one, the young man she knew so long ago, the dreamer; and two, the grown up version of that young dreamer, smoothing out his dreams like untangling a knotted rope.

“You will not just be good. You will be excellent.”

He nodded back to the house. “If not I, someone else will do it,” he said. 

“Perhaps, though not as well.”

She thought of him as a little boy, hauling coal into the fire of the McCrossin’s home, his father out back chopping wood, his mother long dead; she thought of his tiny, capable hands, his brain, alive with fire, and how the couple admired him so much they paid for his schooling. They saw it in him, even then. (Sometimes, when she looked at Thelma, she thought: do I see that in her? Do I? And she thought: did anyone see it in me?) She thought of the letter from McCrossin that Nels kept in a cardboard file in his desk, next to the brass letter opener. 

It seems to be but yesterday when you as a little boy was studying your Spelling book and performing your House-hold duties at our Home; how well I recollect the day you started to school and again I say that it fills my heart with pride to see that my advise has been kept by you and you have distinguished yourself at school and won a higher place than ever, in my friend-ship, I trust and predict that you will able, as a man of the world, to distinguished yourself among man-kind and do good for the race to which you have been born, there-by setting a fair example to the countless millions of your people.

“No one is as skilled as you,” Millie said. 

“But they are, Millie. I’ve good training, of course. But medicine is medicine.”

“But medicine is not medicine. It is your touch, your manner, your temperance, that makes it so. Your confidence.”

He looked toward the building again, gripping her fingers. “Perhaps that is why they won’t follow my lead—” He turned Thelma toward him, cradling her in one arm, stroking her eyelids and nose with the light touch of a finger.

“No,” Millie said, shaking her head slowly, side to side. “That is exactly why they will.”

And, she wished she could add, exactly why I have, too.

* * * * *

He passed his medical licensing exam with flying colors. “Fireworks!” he said when he came home, his hands exploding in front of his face. “Fireworks!” As if saying the word made them appear. But, his eyes all lit up with stars and planets, his movements singeing with afterglow, she could almost smell the gun powder.

It seemed Thelma’s tiny arms reached for him before he’d entered her vision. He flew her on his back, zooming about, singing me oh me oh my. Thelma’s little giggles heaps of glee, dollops of creamed sugar fluffed on every other note, together their song becoming more familiar, yet more unpredictable, at once.

She wiped her hands on her apron. Back in the kitchen, Millie listened to the heady bubble of boiling water, the thud of the rolling pin on dense dough, until the sound of her own song became the only one she could hear. 


Lisa Gordon’s fiction has been published in Paper Darts, Storychord, Hypertext, and others. She is working on a novel about Cornelius Garland, a Black physician from Alabama who founded and operated the first and only Black hospital in Boston, from 1908-1928.

Posted in Copperfield Review Quarterly, CRQ, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on The Boston Doctor by Lisa Gordon


The stars changed two days after their ship left Greenland, while Harald was at the tiller.

On a dark, clear, cold night, sea calm as glass, the stars suddenly and silently began to whirl and dance and rearrange themselves in bright streaks of white light. When they settled again, they were in patterns Harald did not recognize, and he knew they were now lost. The women and children were sleeping, but the men exchanged silent glances and whispers. They would not let their families know. There would be panic. Harald continued to hold a course that he hoped was still southwest, towards Vinland, and the new settlement of Leifsbudir. But the strange stars gave no clues, and he avoided looking at them.

Three days later, the mirror ship appeared.

Harald’s youngest boy was the first to see it, looming in and out of the heavy snow and crushing fog that enveloped them in the morning. The swell was rolling high, and their ship was spinning like a top in the salt and spray. At first, his family did not believe him. Children invent tales for reasons entirely their own. But as the fog slowly began to lift it could not be ignored. It was the smell that made it most real; the stench of death, and their own panic.

In the daylight, it was silvery grey, as though it were made of rain. It was always there, immediately to their south. When it became clear that young Olaf had been telling the truth, and the families had all rushed to the rail to see, it had been far off to the port side. But not so far that they couldn’t see the black-clad shapes, gathered on the starboard side of the mirror ship, mimicking and mocking their every move. Mikael hailed the other vessel, demanding they identify themselves. But there was no sound in return; only the roar and crash of the waves, and the howl of the ice-cold wind. For hours, the two ships sailed together. Harald experimented with veering away and veering towards the strange apparition, but it always doubled his movements and remained exactly where it had been before.
Karl left the crowd of watching women and children and sauntered across the deck to Harald at the tiller.

Karl left the crowd of watching women and children and sauntered across the deck to Harald at the tiller.

“They’re Draugr.” Lifeless, undead beings, of ill-omen and ill-fortune.

“Maybe. But if they stay where they are, they’re the least of our problems.”

“How much food do we have left.”

“Enough for another week. It’ll be pickled herring and nothing else by the end, though.”

“Good.” There was a silence.

“Do you have any idea where we are?” Karl asked quietly.

“No. By dead reckoning, I’d say we were east of Markland. But I have no idea.” He swallowed.

“Do they know?”

“No. They were asleep. I don’t think any of the women have noticed.”

“And the children?”

“Your Olaf is a sharp one. He may have spotted something.” Their eyes turned back to the apparition, bobbing silently on the swell beyond. “What do we do?”

“Nothing. There’s nothing we can do. We can’t turn back. We just keep sailing.” He dashed the spray from his eyes. “Your brother was lost in these seas last year, wasn’t he?”

“Yes. Or at least, that’s what Aalsund said when he came back from Vinland. Said their ship never arrived at Sálarhöfn.”

At night, it became worse. The ship glowed a sickly green, and they could see it clear as daylight marked out on the black of the sea and sky. When the snow faded and the seas began to calm after midnight, the men thought they could hear a keening that continued after the wind; a sombre, ghostly note. At night the smell of charnel houses and charred wood and clammy earth became more pungent; an alien stench beneath the tang of the salt air. The stars peeked out again through the clouds. They were of no help. The air was getting colder. Karl and Harald’s breath hung in misty clouds before them, as they shivered at the tiller in silence.

At dawn, the eerie glow faded, but the mirror ship was still there. Karl spoke in a low voice.

“Is it the curse? Did the old man’s evil follow us here?”

This was the first allusion to the reason they had left Greenland. To the feud with Red Erik, who refused to bow to the Christian God. Who ruled Greenland through dread, and the rights he claimed as the discoverer of the land. Who had expelled Harald and Karl and Thorfin and Mikael, and all their families, for daring to show their loyalty to his son Leif, who had tried and failed to persuade his father to abandon Odin, Thor, and the other gods. Who had cursed them, as their ship left Gardar, all the old Greenland families huddled on the cliffs behind him, his hands extended in malediction. They had hoped that in Vinland, they would be safe, among Christians. Now they did not know if they would see another living soul again.

“No. Something else is at work here. I can feel it.”

“Should we turn back?” Karl’s voice was calm.

“No. It’s too late now.” Harald’s hands flexed on the tiller. Karl nodded.

“I trust you.”

It grew colder. Icebergs, always present, began to crowd thick and fast on the horizon. Great looming mountains of blue and white, sailing majestically south. But what was south? Where were they headed now?

On the fifth day, they saw land.

Again, young Olaf was the first to see it. He ran the length of the ship from the prow to the stern, calling

“Land! Land!”

A sigh of relief rose from the women and children huddled in the centre of the ship. Harald’s wife Anna rose from the group and followed Olaf towards Harald, smiling broadly, her teeth gleaming in the sun.

“Jesus Christ be praised. I knew He would not abandon us.”

“Jesus Christ be praised,” Harald repeated, with a forced smile. Harald did not know how comfortable he felt with this new God, this interloper from the far desert. What business did He have on these seas? He held his peace for Anna’s sake, though.

“Do you recognize it?” She asked.

Harald squinted at the land, still so far away. As they grew nearer, he smiled.

“Yes. Yes!” He laughed with relief. “It is Helluland!”


“Yes! The land of flat stones. Two hundred leagues north of Markland! We are safe! We’ve crossed the sea.”

Anna’s pale blue eyes turned and squinted at the shore, now looming grey and imposing above them, all dead stone and dark lichen. Seabirds cawed and wheeled, desperately small, overhead.

“It looks a ghastly place.”

“It is, ” Harald agreed. He did not tell her the stories he had heard from other sailors in Gardar. That it was an alien, demon-haunted land. A harsh and unforgiving landscape, full of strange presences in the ice and snow. “We will not linger here. But we must find fresh water and see if we can kill some seals to replenish our stores. Then, thank God, we’ll be on our way south.” Harald did not tell Anna that his constant efforts to steer them south under the unfamiliar stars had somehow brought them north. Further north even than Greenland.

“Father, we found land!” Olaf was giddy with excitement. His shock of red hair waving frantically in the wind.

“Yes, we did, my boy! Welcome to Helluland.” He scooped the boy up in his arms, and the child giggled and squirmed.

“And the ship is gone!”

Harald looked south. And indeed, the mirror ship had vanished. He exhaled heavily, relief flooding through him.

The ship ran south (and Harald now recognized the coast, and knew it was south) for ten leagues along the rocky cliffs. They were monumental, titanic. Streaked with snow and capped with ice, with sea ice piled in jagged shards at their base, even in this high summer. No man could live on these terrible mountains. But the more Harald saw, the more he felt the tension and horror of the last few days stream away behind him. He knew where he was.

“Within a day we’ll come to Sálarhöfn. It is Aalsund’s trading post. He and his men barter with the Skraelings here.” It was hard, dangerous, but lucrative work, trading in these northern waters. The Skraelings, strange, copper-faced, small men dressed in furs and skins, would never stay, but they would bring strange wonders, narwhal tusks, whale oil, sealskins, and other bounties of these harsh, northern seas, and receive in return iron, and leather, and whatever other goods Aalsund and his men had managed to procure from Europe. Harald had never been to the trading port, but he had heard Aalsund speak of it often.

Sure enough, after they had run with the icy north wind all down that majestic, desolate coast, the cliffs gradually shortened and faded, and late that night, the sun barely dipping low in the summer sky, they passed the mouth of a fjord. Harald knew it by sight, and he steered the ship through the gates of the inlet, where the wind abruptly faded. They got out the oars and rowed the ship down the channel, the cliffs lowering on either side of them. After a half-hour or so, they saw the little hamlet of longhouses and barns and wharves in the distance.

As they got closer, they saw that they were ruins. Blackened, collapsed, and silent. No smoke rose from the charred remnants of the settlement. It had been dead for some time.

They beached their ship in silence, and slowly filed off onto the grey pebble beach. The stone walls of the longhouses were charred black, the sod roofs had buckled as the wooden beams beneath them had given way. Burnt corpses of sheep and chickens littered the ground. The air stank of ash, smoke, and burnt flesh. They had smelled it before. It was the smell that had followed the Mirror Ship. Karl was first to speak.

“What happened here?”

“I don’t know.”

The women and children stayed huddled by the ship. Karl, Harald, Mikael, and Thorfin drew their swords and advanced to explore the ruins. Anna followed them. Harald turned and gestured for her to say with the boats.

“I’m coming with you.”

“It isn’t safe.”

“I don’t care. I need to know.” Harald didn’t say a word, he just turned, and let her follow. He turned to Mikael. The young man was trembling, his lip quivering.

“He may not have been here.” Mikael’s brother Bjarni had sailed for Sálarhöfn the previous summer. He had not been heard from since.

“He was. I know it.” Mikael’s voice was cracking. Harald put his hand on his shoulder. It began to snow lightly.

“Search the rubble.”

The ashes of the buildings were long cold, but the snow had not yet fallen thick enough to bury them. Tendrils of powdery snow snaked over the ruins and across the ground in the cold breeze. Gusts pulled it into strange shapes and writhing snakes of white. Legs of cows and sheep were frozen in the air in horrible, gnarled positions. There was no sign of any of the human inhabitants. Until they came to the church.

The church appeared intact, but for the wooden cross hanging askew from a small steeple, one of its arms broken and dangling. But the roof was still standing, and the men could pass through the door into the dark space within.

The interior of the chapel was unburnt. The five or six rough-hewn wooden pews remained whole, covered in a thin dusting of snow. Pale evening light passed through the four small windows.

The bodies of the inhabitants of Sálarhöfn were piled before the altar of the church. Thirty men, women, and children sprawled on the flagged stone floor, arms and legs contorted, rictuses on their rotting, eyeless faces. They were sprawled in various attitudes towards the cross that still stood on the driftwood altar. No body bore a mark of violence.

Mikael ran forward and frantically began turning over the bodies, panting as his breath came faster and faster. At the fourth body, he let out a wail and sank to his knees. Harald walked forward and looked down at the sobbing young man, and the grinning corpse beneath him. It was Bjarni. His blond hair still visible above the green flesh of his collapsing face. Karl nudged Harald, and gestured to the space behind the altar, where the altarpiece once had been. It was gone. A pile of ashes and wooden remnants was all that remained of the elaborately carved reredos that Aalsund had brought all the way from distant Kiev. A word was scrawled messily in black ash on the wall behind where the wooden structure had once stood. The runes read:

Tornrakr. No one knew what it meant.

No one spoke. Then Anna ventured:

“They died seeking the protection of the Lord.”

“And the Lord did not provide it,” said Karl.

There was no sound, except for Mikael’s racking sobs. Thorfinn spoke.

“The wind is coming up. We should leave this place and leave it now.” He gestured with his sword to the door. “To the ship.”

The snow had intensified. It was howling through the ruins now in great eddies. The wind had risen, and the sky was darkening. Harald felt a chill seize him. It should not be getting this dark, or this cold. Not in summer. Not this far north. The darkness was unnatural. In the distance they heard a scream. Harald recognized Olaf’s young voice.

They ran back onto the beach and beheld their wives and children huddled in the centre of a cyclone of blowing snow. A solid wall of white, weaving and rising and falling above the ground. They struggled through the wind and eventually broke through the snowy curtain. Harald felt as though he had been plunged into ice water, as he broke through the barrier, and struggled to catch his breath. He found Olaf and clutched him close, smelling the boy’s hair, and feeling his warmth and his quivering body. He hugged him and tried to keep the fear and helplessness from overpowering him. He looked through the snow for his ship, and he saw that it was gone.

The cyclone of snow grew stronger, and the darkness became complete. Harald could feel his hands and feet going numb as the temperature plunged. He looked up, and instead of the stars there was a great undulating curtain of light, stretched across the entire sky. But it was not the familiar green he had seen so many times before. It was blood red.

As the wind grew stronger, he began to see faces in the snow around him. Horrible faces. Faces of animals, faces of men. Howling, snarling faces, malevolent and mocking. Wolves, eagles, bears, foxes, seals, dolphins, whales, and fell men, deformed and monstrous. The human faces were laughing, smiles of jagged, cruel teeth leering at them. A chanting began, low and insistent, guttural and droning. He grew colder and colder. The screams of the women and children faded away. He saw Karl and Thorfinn lash at the faces in the snow with their swords, and saw the swords snatched from their gasps. He saw Mikael run screaming into the snow curtain, immediately lost from sight beyond the maelstrom. He saw Anna’s hands locked together in useless prayer. He saw Karl fall to his knees and saw a laughing, dreadful face loom over his friend. His vision started to fade to black, and the last thing he saw, before his eyes closed, was the face of a bear with gnashing teeth, and a mocking gleam in his eye.

The maelstrom faded away, and the bodies lay on the beach for a day and a night. When night fell on the second day, the bodies rose. They were much as they had been. Except they did not speak. And their eyes were black as coal. They stared around them with blank faces. A ship sailed into the harbour. It glowed a sickly green. The sail bore Harald’s sigil, reversed, a black sail where there once had been a white.

They boarded the mirror ship in silence. The men took up the oars, and they rowed the ship to the mouth of the fjord. When they caught the wind, they stowed the oars and sailed the ship east. Or what had once been east. Or whatever direction lay beyond the shores of Helluland.

Atop the cliffs, in the grim polar night, a small knot of short, copper-faced men and women looked down upon the departing ship. Their skin coats were pale, and the hoods they wore over their heads were trimmed with fox fur. One man, taller than the rest, stepped forward to the edge of the cliff, watching the ship begin to glow green.

As they watched the ship, infinitely small all those hundreds of feet below them, a glowing green speck upon a black ocean, they saw an immense shape move beneath the water. It was larger than the largest whale and faster than the fleetest seal, and it rolled and spun beneath the surface of the water without disturbing it in the slightest. It glowed the same pale green as the ship. Swirling and coiling upon itself like a school of glowing mackerel, it gradually turned a face towards the surface, rising beneath the distant craft. It was the face of a woman, blank of expression, empty eyes framed by grey hair, face cold as grey stone. The face lingered there, its lips beneath the ship, for a few moments, and then sank bank into the depths. In the blink of an eye, and in a flash of grey-green movement of uncanny speed, the massive thing was gone.


Nicholas Pullen is a gay Canadian writer, whose story ‘Famous Blue’ came third in the Toronto Star short story contest, and whose work has also appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic. A graduate of Oxford and McGill, he knows the names, locations, depths, and stories of every shipwreck in the Great Lakes.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Hellulandsaga

Flying With William

As the sun went down, I snuffed out the candle and bedded the bairns on the floor, their plaids wrapped round and round. Little Maria was demanding more milk, but the cow had not yet recovered from the winter, and there was no more, so I gave her a cup of ale I’d hidden behind the chest and a dram to the other two, as well. Immediately, the three bairns fell fast asleep. I banked the peat on the fire, peeled off some hay from the bale, threw it over the byre for the animals, and spread the extra plaids on the mat in the corner. And then my husband Hugh Gilbert, who had been watching me in silence, grabbed me and pulled me down.

I submitted, as always. And as always, Hugh was fast and rough. This time, I felt some pleasure as I thought of Thomas the Rhymer, the man in green, and my body delighted as the warmth of Thomas came into me.

Hugh began to snore. I closed my eyes, and my body went still. Would I see him? Thomas, as full of sunshine and light as Hugh Gilbert was consumed in sullen darkness.

Would tonight be the night? Slowly, slowly, the familiar feeling came. My body became stiff, and now I was above it, with body beneath me. It was not my body now, but a stiff wooden thing: a broom, a besom, a twig tied with branches and straw. The besom would lie in the bed. And if Hugh awakened before I returned, he would think this piece of wood and straw to be his wife.

Now I was outside the hut, and here was Thomas, his clothing all white this time, his long yellow beard and hair wild and fiery. “Are you ready, my lady?” His eyes glittered like sunlight on water. Beside him hovered a slight and vigorous spirit all in red, a tiny figure with long red hair. The Red Reiver: my own sprite. I knew him in my heart and mind and soul. He was, in fact, a part of me, in me and beside me, a spirit to protect me in my sojourns into this other world. 

“I am ready, Thomas.”

Thomas lifted his chest and looked down at me. “But lady, my name be William.” 

I stepped back. “William?” I stepped further back to the door, or what passed for a door, that hole in the mud wall.

“Aye,” he roared, standing taller and taller. “Thomas be the king of the Fairies, but I am greater and grander.”

I had thought to meet with Thomas the Rhymer, he who lives with the fairies and courts the fairy queen with his silver harp. I lowered my head and peered at him through my lashes. “And why should I go with you?” I demanded. Was there something here to bargain for?

 “I can give you power.”

I felt the Red Reiver spritely and close. He nodded vigorously and hopped up and down. “Power? I have the power. I know the power of the sea, and the crow and the hare, the plants to heal, the charms and the cures.”

“Ah.” He looked down from his great height with the merriest of smiles, his face aglow with light and honey. “But with me, you will fly. You will eat and drink your fill, you will learn to spite your enemies. You’ll be invisible; you will be able to strike and kill who you will.” His smile was a fiery glint. “All this and more.”

 I had hoped for Thomas, but perhaps this William was greater. I could journey with him, and have all manner of power. I could spite my enemies.

 “Come,” beckoned William, fast astride his black stallion.

And now I saw that my own white steed awaited. I sprang upon the horse as quick as lightning, calling, “Horse and hattock, ho! Ho and away!” And now I was aloft, and my body alive, every part, with the flight and the thrill and the speed. I was no longer hungry, and pain was unheard of, unknown, unimagined. My body was light—light as air. And now I was large, so great that I was part of everything, and everything a part of me. “Horse and hattock, ho!” I called again, and we flew through the night, over farmtown and field, over dunes and machair and mountains.

I could swoop without effort, and even through clouds, see all below. We soared, almost to the Cairngorms, over Ben Rinnes, its mountaintop painted white with snow. Now fading and misting, now clearing, but yes: a dingle, a fire, a camp. Men and horses, stomping and shouting and bucking. 

“No time to stop,” William called, and on we went, above the mountains and west, all the way to Darnaway Castle. In through the chimney and into the Great Hall, the seat of the Earl of Moray, the grandest hall in all of Morayshire and perhaps all of Scotland. 

Here were noblemen and ladies in the finest of dress, gowns in silks and velvets, diamonds in their hair and on their fingers. They stood in the dusky hall in torchlight and candlelight, their satin and jewels glittering in the shadows. With glances and whispers, they stared at me. “Who is she?”

No longer the ragged peasant, one who was ignored and dismissed, now I was seen—and not only seen, but honored. The noble people looked at me in awe. I was their queen. I wore a shimmering gown of diaphanous silver, the most dazzling one of all. The people bowed to me, and I felt my power. Here was Elspeth Nychie, whom William called “Bessie Bold;” and now Lilias Dunlop, “Able and Stout.” Here were Bessie Wilson and so many others from the farm town, all dressed as fine ladies, though none as fine as Isobel the Cunning Woman.

The room flickered and thrilled with the presence of William: lusty William, so full of secret delight that when he passed and touched me with the softest graze, I warmed and quivered to my very root. This was a feeling Hugh Gilbert could never cause, let alone imagine. 

William had transformed again. He was now clad all in black. A long black doublet, black breeches and boots, his hair and beard and eyes…all black. We were in the kitchen now, and he opened his arms and waved his hands over everything. “Eat! Drink!” I didn’t stop to wonder why he had transformed again, this time from light to dark. I was hungry, and I ate.

Meats and breads, cheeses, cakes, and fruits on delicate plates, and wine in crystal glasses. We feasted until we were full and could eat no more.  We laughed and danced to the pipes and sang until dawn had nearly come, right there in the castle kitchen. 

In an instant, a flash of the eye, we were back on our steeds and flying. Through the sky and back to my bed I flew, a woman of power. I, who knew words and rhymes, the thread and straw and clay, the fruit of the corn, the sheaves of rye, and knew what use to make of them. And now I knew more…so much more.


This is an excerpt from Nancy Kilgore’s recently published novel, Bitter Magic (Sunbury Press, 2021.) The novel is inspired by the 1662 witchcraft trial of Isobel Gowdie in Auldearn, Scotland. Nancy is the author of two other novels, Sea Level (RCWMS, 2012) and Wild Mountain (Green Writers Press, 2017). Nancy has received the Vermont Writers Prize, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year award.

hair. The Red Reiver: my own sprite. I knew him in my heart and mind and soul. He was, in fact, a part of me, in me and beside me, a spirit to protect me in my sojourns into this other world. “I am ready, Thomas.”Thomas lifted his chest and looked down at me. “But lady, my name be William.” I stepped back. “William?” I stepped further back to the door, or what passed for a door, that hole in the mud wall. “Aye,” he roared, standing taller and taller. “Thomas be the king of the Fairies, but I am greater and grander.” I had thought to meet with Thomas the Rhymer, he who lives with the fairies and courts the fairy queen with his silver harp. I lowered my head and peered at him through my lashes. “And why should I go with you?” I demanded. Was there something here to bargain for? “I can give you power.” I felt the Red Reiver spritely and close. He nodded vigorously and hopped up and down. “Power? I have the power. I know the power of the sea, and the crow and the hare, the plants to heal, the charms and the cures.” “Ah.” He looked down from his great height with the merriest of smiles, his face aglow with light and honey. “But with me, you will fly. You will eat and drink your fill, you will learn to spite your enemies. You’ll be invisible; you will be able to strike and kill who you will.” His smile was a fiery glint. “All this and more.” I had hoped for Thomas, but perhaps this William was greater. I could journey with him, and have all manner of power. I could spite my enemies. “Come,” beckoned William, fast astride his black stallion. And now I saw that my own white steed awaited. I sprang upon the horse as quick as lightning, calling, “Horse and hattock, ho! Ho and away!” And now I was aloft, and my body alive, every part, with the flight and the thrill and the speed. I was no longer hungry, and pain was unheard of, unknown, unimagined. My body was light—light as air. And now I was large, so great that I was part of everything, and everything a part of me. “Horse and hattock, ho!” I called again, and we flew through the night, over farmtown and field, over dunes and machair and mountains. I could swoop without effort, and even through clouds, see all below. We soared, almost to the Cairngorms, over Ben Rinnes, its mountaintop painted white with snow. Now fading and misting, now clearing, but yes: a dingle, a fire, a camp. Men and horses, stomping and shouting and bucking. “No time to stop,” William called, and on we went, above the mountains and west, all the way to Darnaway Castle. In through the chimney and into the Great Hall, the seat of the Earl of Moray, the grandest hall in all of Morayshire and perhaps all of Scotland. Here were noblemen and ladies in the finest of dress, gowns in silks and velvets, diamonds in their hair and on their fingers. They stood in the dusky hall in torchlight and candlelight, their satin and jewels glittering in the shadows. With glances and whispers, they stared at me. “Who is she?” No longer the ragged peasant, one who was ignored and dismissed, now I was seen—and not only seen, but honored. The noble people looked at me in awe. I was their queen. I wore a shimmering gown of diaphanous silver, the most dazzling one of all. The people bowed to me, and I felt my power. Here was Elspeth Nychie, whom William called “Bessie Bold;” and now Lilias Dunlop, “Able and Stout.” Here were Bessie Wilson and so many others from the farmtown, all dressed as fine ladies, though none as fine as Isobel the Cunning Woman.The room flickered and thrilled with the presence of William: lusty William, so full of secret delight that when he passed and touched me with the softest graze, I warmed and quivered to my very root. This was a feeling Hugh Gilbert could never cause, let alone imagine. William had transformed again. He was now clad all in black. A long black doublet, black breeches and boots, his hair and beard and eyes…all black. We were in the kitchen now, and he opened his arms and waved his hands over everything. “Eat! Drink!” I didn’t stop to wonder why he had transformed again, this time from light to dark. I was hungry, and I ate. Meats and breads, cheeses, cakes, and fruits on delicate plates, and wine in crystal glasses. We feasted until we were full and could eat no more. We laughed and danced to the pipes and sang until dawn had nearly come, right there in the castle kitchen. In an instant, a flash of the eye, we were back on our steeds and flying. Through the sky and back to my bed I flew, a woman of power. I, who knew words and rhymes, the thread and straw and clay, the fruit of the corn, the sheaves of rye, and knew what use to make of them. And now I knew more…so much more.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Flying With William

April’s Winds

Propped against the inside sideboard, William’s wheat-colored body moved with the wagon as it rambled up the dirt drive. Fortunately, it was too early for dust; spring was just barely in the air. Winter had been long and still hadn’t fully yielded. Defiantly, though, grass was greening, leafy fingerlings were rising from the ground, and bushes and branches were blushing shades of green or brown or white or fuschia. 

The motion of the wagon, combined with the clodding, rhythmic clip of the shoe-hooved horses, threatened to pull William back into sleep. But the March-like gusts, in concert with the jerking of the wagon navigating the ruts in the road, made any thought of a nap fleeting. 

So instead, William focused on the immediate need: warmth. He pulled the collar of his woolen suit jacket up and the brim of his chocolate brown, soft-felt fedora down, covering his eyes. William tilted his head towards his chest and watched his exhales hang in the air and make shifting, vaporous shapes. He crossed his arms and tucked his hands under the armpits of his jacket as the wagon slowly approached the confines of the shady farmyard, guarded by its five large pines.

The wagon jerked again and William realized they were now free from its shady expanse. The sun’s warmth grew in him slowly, the way the coal stove’s warmth grew in the kitchen on winter mornings. He relaxed and his eyes wandered down his lanky legs to survey his spit-polished black shoes. He recalled the hole in the sole of the one on the right, which he had carefully insulated with newspaper. William made a mental tick to watch how he exited the wagon; as they got closer to the church, he wouldn’t want others to notice. His eyes then took in his trouser legs. The fabric was becoming so worn that the creases barely held at the knees. There wasn’t much he could do about the shoes or the weariness of his brown woolen suit, though. New shoes, new suit – those were only wishes for now. 

Those wishes turned William’s thoughts to the local men’s clothing store and he felt the stirrings of a chilling mental wind. What sense did it make for any black man to select an item of clothing and watch a white man try it on, only imagining how it would look on himself? In 1917?  I would rather pay to ride the train to St. Louis and spend my cash where at least I’ll be treated like a man, thought William.

A man. The internal winds increased, circling those two words. The winds picked up questions, directing and driving them. Was he really a man? If so, what kind of man was he? What was he doing here? What was next for him? How could he be 25 and educated and have made so little progress towards his future? Who would have thought that he would be a cook recently, a position he was hardly disappointed to leave when Mrs. Madison said she didn’t have enough customers to keep him on at the diner?

William sighed. He knew there were few jobs for Negro men in Columbia at all.  This was true even though he read in the local newspaper of the growing demand for exports from America for the Great War. Even some of Missouri’s own industries were prospering. The state was contributing mules and munitions, among other goods, to fulfill military contracts. But here he was, with all of his education and potential, full of the strength of youth, fighting furiously against a cold, numbing winter season of life. 

William tried to shake himself free from his frosty mental gusts. He tilted his head and peered to his right, taking in the image of his two younger brothers. They were grown men now too – Charles and John. Although they were both employed – Charles at the barber’s and John at the auto repair shop – their suits were only slightly better than his own. But they had steady work. Through his still half-open lids William surveyed their faces and tried not to think that his situation was in any way tied to color. Either of them, with their wavy-straight brown hair and fair skin, could pass for white. William’s own dark complexion and coarse, brown-black locks made him the fly in their home’s buttermilk.

Poppa’s clicking sound, a signal to the horses, brought William back to the present. The wagon slowed to a stop and he hopped down from the back of the wagon, remembering the hole in the sole of his shoe and avoiding revealing it as he exited.  Meanwhile, Poppa, in his black suit with starched white shirt and black tie, was already helping Momma from the buckboard and onto the walkway. 

Here they were, at St. Paul A.M.E. William looked up at the large, Gothic and Romanesque two-story red brick edifice, a testament to the commitment of the local colored people to plan for, gather resources, and execute the construction of their own church. And now they had properly maintained it for more than 50 years of life! To William and those in the community, it represented accomplishment and provided security. 

Standing before it, the five adjusted themselves gently before joining the others who were entering. Momma checked for her sons behind her, then proudly took Poppa’s extended arm and smiled as she climbed the stairs to the large, heavy oak doors. She reminded William of a mother hen with her chicks, and he could not help but give a slight smile himself as he watched her nearly float up the concrete steps in her patent black opera pumps. Her deep blue woolen suit fit attractively her just-ample frame (both her weight and the suit an assurance to everyone that her husband was a good provider). A lacy, white jabot graced her neck, highlighting the buttercream color of her mulatto skin. Her dark brown hair was pulled back into a bun; tendrils curled near her full face; and her white teardrop hat, with its milk-colored silk flowers, feathers, and netting, was tilted perfectly. White gloves, which fit snugly on her plump hands, completed the outfit. She was stunningly elegant; for a woman whose mother was a slave, she had made out all right. 

William followed the rest of “Momma’s men,” as she liked to lovingly refer to them, through the doors. As they entered, William spied Mrs. Harrison. Petite, wafer-thin, chocolate-colored, and in her mid-40s, William noticed how smart she looked in her tan suit. She nodded at the family, then invited them to enter the sanctuary with her white-gloved left hand. 

As they did, William was overwhelmed with a dizzying floral scent. “Hydrangeas,” mother whispered, nodding towards the plants on the windowsills as they took their usual pew near the middle of the sanctuary. Her comment made William smile again: not only did Momma pride herself on having a flower garden that was the envy of the town’s people whether black or white, but she thrived in flurry and busyness. Her current focus had been leading the decorating committee, but Momma was most often the lead whatever she was involved in, whether at church or in the community.

The organist played “The Old Rugged Cross” softly as the pews continued to fill. William glanced around and gave a head nod to some of his former classmates. Several were married now, some to a woman or two he had serious affections for himself in the past. No sooner did his thoughts rest there, though, than the mental winds returned. He braced himself against what he knew would now be his mind’s gale-force blast. William longed to be married and on his way in life. Although as handsome and smart as any, he was convinced he had nothing to offer. That thought caused a numbing cold to accompany the winds. His friends were on their way in life. And I’m nowhere, thought William.

But maybe, just maybe. After all, there was the Good Friday announcement made by President Wilson: the US would formally enter the war. William’s mental winds changed direction: was it insanity to think of war as a way out? Like the rest of the country, William read the sobering and terrifying stories of the battles and unimaginable losses of life. He had to admit that he was apprehensive, but his longing for change and the prospect of adventure overshadowed it. He was weary of this space he occupied – tired of the aimlessness and not feeling like a man. The thought of danger ignited something in him and gave him a place to focus and spend his energy, and his fear, and his longings. 

Danger and the war had certainly been the topics at the barbershop the day before. The crowd of pre-Easter patrons debated whether President Wilson would invite Negroes to contribute to the war effort at all. The mix of men, from every station in life, agreed that once “separate but equal” became the law some 20 years earlier it had continued to eat through the hopes of the Negro for true equality – hopes ignited by the fires of the Civil War and the promise of Reconstruction.  

Mr. Harvey, the shop’s owner, reminded the customers how hopeful they all had been when former President Taft took office. Yet Taft said that enforcing Jim Crow laws was an acceptable way to ensure that only the black males up to the task could vote. “And I told ya’ll President Wilson wasn’t goin’ to be no different,” he said slowly and loudly, peering over his glasses at the men in the shop and pausing for effect between clips. They agreed. President Wilson, in spite of all of his talk, made sure that Negroes remained second-class citizens by requiring segregation in federal facilities at work and lunch to “keep down friction between the races,” and “allow for a smoother functioning government,” William read in news reports.

The topic of whether Negroes would be enlisted had spilled into conversation in the farmhouse that morning, too.  “Ain’t that somethin’,” Poppa had complained as the family consumed Momma’s Easter Sunday morning breakfast of biscuits, eggs, and bacon. “In spite of all of the contributions of Negro soldiers to this country!” he exclaimed. Respect, that was what the country owed them, he continued between sips of black coffee. 

The four knew Poppa’s contention was tied to his Virginia-born grandfather, Fredrick, who served the Union forces with the permission of his Missouri slave mistress. A forward-thinking woman, she allowed her former charges to earn land in exchange for labor when the war ended, which was how Poppa, a mulatto like his mother, came to own their farmstead.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” continued Momma. “President Wilson goin’ along with those white folks who won’t treat Negro men like men. He should be ashamed!” Poppa nodded his head, agreeing with her comment.  

“Him and those scoundrels who demonize black men, like those promotin’ that Birth of a Nation!Poppa exclaimed. “Shameful!”

William roused himself from these remembrances to find himself the object of his mother’s stare. Embarrassed, he forced a smile at her and, in order not to worry her further, willed himself fully out of his mental squall and gave Reverend Johnson his full attention. Tall, dark, and in his mid-40s with salt and pepper hair, Reverend Johnson’s mannerisms were intentional and measured for impact. White-robed in honor of Easter, he was now behind the pulpit, motioning to the congregation to stand and join the choir in singing the final chorus. William stood and joined in:

“So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross…

‘til my trophies at last I lay down.

I will cling to the old rugged cross…

and exchange it someday for a crown.”

The church organ’s reverberations faded, and the harmony of voices evaporated. Reverend Johnson’s deep, melodic voice then rose and filled the space. “Now, it’s time for the Apostle’s Creed,” he announced, and they began to repeat in unison:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord ….

William glanced around the congregation; the church was full now. Consistent with the expectations of an Easter Sunday in a Protestant church, every pew was packed and people were dressed in their best. Men wore crisp, clean shirts and suspendered pants or suits; women were in starched blouses and skirts, or dresses, or suits as well. And there were hats.  Men removed them at the door, but both men and women had straw hats; some men also sported fedoras. A few women were in ornate feathered, netted and beaded chapeaus. 

William responded “amen” with the congregation and took his seat. As the service continued, his mind relaxed. He was grateful to have the outer world, and his own thoughts, closed to him for now. After all, how could anyone’s mind wander when there were the children? Singing now, their cherub-like voices floated in the air. Most were squirrely and visibly uncomfortable in crisp clothes and too-big shoes, but a few treated the attention like a spring shower and blossomed. 

It was the singing of the adult choir, though, that moved the congregation; by the time they finished their selections, the Spirit was high. The pew row of deacons declared resounding “amen”s. Church mothers (the more elder women) and deaconesses, who were seated just behind the deacons and dressed in all white, were now deployed around the church, fanning various women who were moaning and crying in response to the Spirit’s moving. William even heard Mrs. Johnson, the Reverend’s wife, shouting “Praise Jesus!”

When Reverend Johnson returned to the wooden pulpit, he belted out “Oh, glory!” as the church continued its boisterous responses. Then the organist guided them, slowing the tempo and the volume until emotions ebbed.  

With the church quiet now except for the occasional sound of a baby, Reverend Johnson began. “Today our Scripture text is I Corinthians 15, verses 1-5. Please stand,” he said, and began to read:

“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; By which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.  For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures.”

“Amen,” called Reverend Johnson. “Amen,” responded the congregation as they took their seat.

Reverend Johnson continued. “From this text I take the subject, ‘It Isn’t Over.’”

William heard a few more “amen”s from around the church as the Reverend continued. “The story of the last week of Jesus’ time on earth, and His perfect fulfillment of God’s calling on His life with His resurrection from the dead for our sins, is a tale that never grows old, wouldn’t you agree? We begin with such texts as Matthew Chapter 21 and Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. And while in Jerusalem, Christ makes himself about His Father’s work,” he continued. “Jesus casts out the vile money changers from the temple. He continues to teach and answer the questions of the Pharisees. He performs more miracles of healing and makes more pronouncements of forgiveness. But then come false accusers, a meeting with Pilate, a crucifixion, and a Good Friday death.”

Reverend Johnson paused; William gratefully hung on every word. 

“Now, I want to tarry here for a moment and ask us to consider the Resurrection story and its application to our current condition, the condition of the Negro, at this time in our history,” he said. “My children, I do not commit the blasphemy of suggesting that the Negro race replace that of Christ in this story, but I rather propose that we can find hope as we consider His story in light of our predicament in America.

“Because here is our Lord, perfect in every way, yet He is constantly examined for the purpose of finding fault,” said Reverend Johnson. “My brothers and sisters, is this not the case with our race as well? Although we are not perfect – no people are – during the one-half century we have been out of the cotton fields we have accomplished much. 

“We have learned to write and read though often forbidden,” he continued. “Why even in our own Missouri it became illegal for even free blacks to receive an education. Yet we have produced accomplished authors and poets, doctors and lawyers. 

“Sadder yet, we were even forbidden to preach God’s word in some places! But praise God, we now boldly proclaim His mysteries across our great state!” said Johnson. At that, “amen”s rolled and hands clapped throughout the sanctuary. Reverend Johnson paused until these subsided, then continued. “And make no mistake about it, we have also proven ourselves on the battlefield. We fought alongside the Father of our country, helped secure our own freedom in the Civil War, and we continue to excel in military conflicts.

“’Yes,’ you will say, ‘but to what avail?’” said the Reverend, wiping his mouth with his white handkerchief and peering at his written text. “Do not many white men continue to treat us like second-class citizens? Even as our President announced a mere two days ago, on Good Friday, our country’s commitment to entering the Great War and defending democracy, wasn’t a disparaging shadow cast upon the Black race because no clear inclusion of his ability to contribute was pronounced?” 

Reverend Johnson’s voice rose, “I know my brothers and sisters – we fear that even after all we have accomplished in this foreign land to which we were brought, that we are still considered incapable in almost every arena. As a result, daily we suffer a type of death.

“But take heart my little flock,” he continued, lowering his voice dramatically. “Let’s return to our text. We know that Christ’s story doesn’t end with the conflict and abuse, or even His death.” 

Reverend Johnson retold the story of the plot against Christ instigated by those who wanted to maintain power, “in the same way that many in power in our country want to kill both the body and spirit of our race,” he said. “Some would bury us, the way that they buried Christ! But we know what happened next!”

At this, the swell of “amen”s, “yes”es and “hallelujah”s filled the church. 

“On that Resurrection Sunday, He got up!” exclaimed Reverend Johnson. “And brothers and sisters, we must get up too!” Shouts from the congregation grew louder.

“We know our God is with the lowly, and with the His help, we will have the victory!” Reverend Johnson proclaimed. At that, members of the congregation jumped to their feet and the sanctuary erupted again in praise. Although William didn’t move, he noticed that his cold, mental winds were not just forgotten, but gone. Strength was returning to his tired, wind-tossed mind and soul. And in his spirit he felt – he knew – the Good Friday announcement by the President, and a war, were the key to the end of his winter. 

The organist began playing again, and William rose with the congregation and joined in the chorus of the closing hymn with renewed hope:

Up from the grave He arose
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes
He arose a Victor from the dark domain
And He lives forever with His saints to reign
He arose! (He arose)
He arose! (He arose)
Hallelujah! Christ arose!


Rollins has been a professional communications, science, and research writer. She has also been a freelance newspaper and magazine feature writer and has authored two children’s books under a modified pen name. Rollins is exploring the early part of the 20th century to understand her family’s roots.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on April’s Winds

Independence Day, 1921

It was a quiet Florida morning.  We had been putting up bunting the day before and talking about the Dunedin Fourth of July Parade that was this morning and suddenly the letter came and there I was thinking about Dr. Rivers and Craiglockhart.  It was like that when I got the telegram about my father.  I was in England in 1915 and we had been working on improving the mount for the Lewis gun on the Coastal Motor Boat. It was a normal day when we were planning to go out to the pub later and then the private came with the telegram that said my father had died and my mother asking me to come home.  That was seven years ago and I get things mixed up.  Not the facts, but something like Rivers dying would come along and then I would think of my father, then of the salient, then I would wonder how long I had been sitting there.  Much better now than it used to be when I would lose an hour before I knew I’d lost it and the feeling would stay for a day or two or three.  Now it had to be something big, like Rivers dying and I know to ride it out. Still I was thinking about Dad and the soldiers at the salient and how Rivers had helped me to get hold of that.

I thought of it this morning as I rode in the open car wearing my Royal Naval Air Service uniform and the DSC and Croix de Guerre that Rivers convinced me to accept.  Then some ass leaned towards the car and asked why I wasn’t wearing an American uniform & Sheriff Young pushed him back and I wished Dr. Rivers were there for me to talk to after, but he wouldn’t be there anymore.

I don’t think I would have done the damn parade if not for Sheriff Young asking.  They had some soldiers from the Army (from St. Petersburg and Clearwater and all around) and behind them a few Telephone Girls in their uniforms holding a banner to say who they were.  Somewhere further behind us, ten or fifteen Negro soldiers marched in the parade and the Negroes from Clearwater would cheer when they passed.  The white soldiers wore their uniforms and marched on foot in front of us except for the young guy who sat next to me who’d lost half of his face at Belleau Wood or so they said.  Seemed like every American soldier fought at Belleau Wood but mostly those were Marines but it didn’t matter where you got it or if you made it through without getting it.  I tried to talk with him but he had to turn his head to see me and hear me and I would have just moved to his other side but they wanted his good side towards the parade people and the side with the fake face towards me.  I should have walked but I knew I’d make maybe a mile and my hip and knee would hurt and I’d have to sit down or ask for help and this way I could ride and take care of the corporal who kept calling me Lieutenant Wilson, which sounded odd because all the Brits called me Leftenant and that’s how I got used to the word.  I asked him about what they said about Belleau Wood and he said

“Hell, no.  I got clobbered coming up to the line somewhere near Fontenoy . . . “

 “—south of Arras, isn’t it?”

“I think so.  South of Amiens, St. Quentin. Near Soissons.  They took me to hospital in Amiens.  We’d come through there earlier.”

“I flew mostly north of there in early seventeen,” I said.

“I was there in July eighteen.  That’s where I got it.”  He pointed to his face.  If you didn’t look carefully at it, you couldn’t tell it was fake.  “You?”  he pointed to my cane.

“Oh, over Plouvain, best as I can figure it.  We’d had a patrol behind the lines near Arras and a DIII jumped me.”  He looked at me quizzically with his good eye and tilted his head.  “An Albatros,” I said.  “The DIII was new then and I didn’t expect him.”

“Ah,” he said.

“What did you do?”

“I was a machine gunner with a bunch of Italians from New York. It took me two months to understand what they were saying but they were nice enough fellows once you got used to how they ‘tawked.’”  He was trying to scratch up and under the fake face.

“It itches?”

“Yeah. Especially when I sweat.”

“Where’d you get it?  I saw some of the Brits and the Poilu with stuff like that.”  He looked at me with his good eye for a second, the glass eye staring at me from behind the glasses that held the whole contraption on.

“They had me in an American hospital over there but a French doctor and a woman came one day and fitted it.  She came every day for a couple of weeks.  She was the one who made sure it fit and then painted it to match my skin and chose the glass eye so the color matched my good one.  See?”  He faced me and pointed to each eye and they were a good match.  Ahead, the high school band played a marching arrangement of “Over There.”  The corporal and I looked at each other.  He smiled with his half a face.  I smiled because he was the only one there who had an idea what I had gone through.  In spite of missing half his face, though, he seemed ready to smile, to joke.  He seemed to have completely avoided the wind-up.  To look at me, though, you’d think I had come through unscathed.  I wore my cap, uniform with the pilot’s wings and my two medals.  I had received two proposals from local girls during the times I had to wear the uniform.  At 29, I seemed a good catch, or at least looked like something they wanted to believe about the world.  The corporal was probably a much more balanced fellow and was only twenty or so.   But they turned their faces from him when they saw us together.  Wouldn’t even talk with him when he addressed them directly in his slightly slurred voice, but I heard them say once they’d got out of earshot “oh, that poor, poor boy.  Can you imagine living with such a, a,  . . . deformity!”  And yet they talked to me as if I were the one who came home whole.

At the end of the parade, we were escorted out of the car and into the church event room.  They served coffee and lemonade.  When the Negro soldiers tried to come in, someone escorted them around to the back where a table was set for them.  The mayor and the old men came around and shook our hands.  Two of them were from the War Between the States.  One wore a grey kepi and a grey uniform shirt.

“Love’s 4th Cav.,” he said from behind a broad grey mustache.  “We were at Little Round Top.  Welcome home, young man.” 

“Thank you, Sir.”  The corporal saluted him and the old man saluted back. 

“No need for that, young man.  I’m a soldier like you,” he said and I knew he was hinting at my wings and my rank.  I nodded at him and the other old man and they walked off, the Confederate soldier leaning on his cane to support a stiff right leg.  His friend stared at the flag for a moment until the Confederate pulled his sleeve and they moved on.  We must have been at that reception for another four hours.  I hoped that the Telephone Girls would come in but they must have gone on after the parade.  We ate lemon bars and drank iced tea.  We had barbeque.  The newspaper boy took pictures of us in front of the flag with the old men.  The mayor shook our hands.  The two girls we saw in the parade came around again.  One was a tall blonde in a floating sundress and pretty blue eyes.  The other, a brunette, was shorter and brown-eyed and wore a floral dress.

“So,” said the blonde, running her hand up and down my lapel, “how many Germans did you shoot down, Lieutenant Wilson?”  She was looking at the name tag on my chest.  I’ll bet you’re a hero—what do they call it, Alice?—an ace?”

“You know, I don’t remember,” I said.  “Corporal, the young lady wants to know how many Huns I’ve killed.”  The corporal just smiled with half his face.  “I’ll bet you have some stories to tell, corporal.”  He half-smiled again.

“I can tell you about seeing the Champs-Elysees and the Eiffel Tower, and how it is to be strolling through Paris as the sun goes down over the Seine and the cafes come alive with couples drinking wine and people playing music.”  He was half-slurring many of his words, but the man was a poet, a romantic, and the women began to shift their gazes to him.  “I spent hours with the Cezannes and Monets.  One night, on leave, I danced with three different French girls.  I was a sight in my American uniform!”

“This uniform right here?” the brunette said and rested her hand on his sleeve.

“No, they had to replace it after I was wounded.  Anyway—the four of us spent the rest of the night in the clubs and cafes, me not speaking any French and them speaking barely any English!  We greeted the morning with a bottle of wine on the banks of the Seine.  Later that day, I got shipped to the front.”

“Oh, to be in Paris!” the blonde said. “Clubs and cafes and dancing all night!”

“And the Eiffel Tower and all the lights!” the brunette said.  “What did you say you did in the war, honey?”

“I was a machine gunner,” the corporal said. 

“Not in the cavalry on horses?”

“We didn’t do that sort of thing much.  A Hotchkiss will make a mess of a cavalryman!”  He said that mostly to me. I gave a small grin.  I thought of what my Vickers had done to German infantry.  The French soldiers I saved likely had a Hotchkiss.  The brunette, Alice, said under her breath, “kiss!” and nudged the blonde, who giggled.  Someone on the piano began to play “Pretty Baby” and the blonde took my cane and leaned it against the wall and pulled me to the area they’d cleared for dancing. 

“I have a bad leg, you know.”

“You leave that to me, honey,” she said.  “I took a class in high school so I could be a nurse assistant.  You just lean on me.” We swayed gently on the floor.  Alice stood awkwardly next to the corporal until he led her to the floor.  They danced close, his good cheek next to hers, then he began to move her gracefully, his feet light, his hands holding hers up.

“You’re quite the dancer, corporal!” I called as they came near. 

“When I get the chance!” he called as he spun by me and the blonde.  She leaned in close to my ear.

“We should go to a place I know.  Up in Sutherland.  You game?”

I nodded and soon the four of us were knocking on the door of a big house in Sutherland and the blonde told the person at the door “hummingbird” and they let us in.  Inside, a big radio was playing and people were drinking beer and whiskey.

“Wouldn’t you heroes prefer a drink while we dance?”

I gave the bartender some money and the corporal and I had a beer.  The girls were already drinking gin like they had done this a dozen times before.  We danced, we drank.  Sometime after midnight, the four of us ventured out onto a patio behind the house under a full moon.  The blonde snuggled herself under my arm.  She kissed me and I kissed her back, drew her to me by putting my hand on the narrow part of her waist.  Over her shoulder, I could see the corporal slow dancing with the brunette to a Paul Whiteman tune.  “Stairway to Paradise,” I think.  The song was bouncing along and they were moving half as fast, as if they were hearing a different song.

Then, everything went bad.  He leaned in to kiss her.  She closed her eyes and her hand went up to his face, only to find the fake side of his face.  The prosthesis came off, hanging by the glasses that held it on.  Beneath was the collapsed eye socket, the scarred place that used to be a cheekbone before the shell had struck him.  At first, four glasses of gin and tonic gone, the brunette seemed to recoil more from embarrassment than anything, but then she saw the scars and the hollowed-out crater of his face and her own face twisted into disgust.

“Oh!” she cried out.

“It’s okay,” the corporal said, trying to calm her.

“Oh, you’re—“ she struggled to put what she was seeing into words, “you’re a, a—“  he put the prosthesis back and she reached out to touch it, then recoiled as if she’d touched a poisonous snake.  “Just monstrous!” she said, and staggered back.  She put her hands over her face and cried and pointed—“Monster!”  Perhaps she wouldn’t have said that if she were sober.  Maybe I wouldn’t have said anything if I had been sober, but I disentangled myself from the blonde and was between them before I knew what I was doing.  I pushed her down into a wicker chaise lounge.

“Heartless fucking bitch!” I said. Then the blonde was pulling at me and hitting me on the back and brunette was crying and soon the corporal and I were escorted out the back door of the house by two large men wearing automatics and an older man told them “we don’t want to be seen roughing up veterans on the 4th of July, but make sure they don’t come back.”  One of the big men handed me my cane and I thought for a moment of hitting him with it.  But I was just feeling tired.

The corporal and I walked south towards Dunedin.

“You can stay with me tonight and head back to St. Petersburg in the morning.  Fucking bitches.”  The guy gets his face blown off, then dances like Arthur Murray crossed with Bojangles Robinson and this bitch calls him a monster.  Fuck them.  “Fuck them,” I said.  “Fuck them.”

“Your leg okay?” the corporal asked.  I was limping.

“Yeah.  I’m just tired.  We’ll rest in a little while.  I’m sorry about those bitches.  Sorry about all of that.  We shouldn’t have gone out.  We shouldn’t have expected anyone to understand anything.”  Poor guy all busted up and they have to treat him like a freak.  Like they treated me when they found out what Craiglockhart was. Fuckers.  Patriotic assholes.

“You can’t let it bother you,” the corporal said.


“You can’t, Rusty.  They don’t know shit and they’re scared.  Not of my face or your leg, but of what they get a hint of from seeing missing legs and arms and minds.  They want to believe in the heroes and aces and uniforms and medals, but they don’t want to believe there’s a world that can do this.”  He pointed to his face, now without the prosthetic.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess you’re right. But it’s hard to live around them every day when they act like Fanny Bryce is the only thing that means anything.”

“Me,” the corporal said, “I feel sorry for them.”  He scratched the face that had been blown away.  “For them, they worry about ‘what if the world was to be evil? What if people could really be that bad?’  But we know how things are so we can enjoy a drink, a fine moon, a walk home with a friend.”

“You’re pretty goddamned smart for a corporal,” I said.  He laughed a little.  We sat on a big stone that overlooked St. Joseph Sound.  I stretched out my bad leg. 


A Fulbright fellow (Albania, 2011) and Pushcart nominee, Gregory Byrd’s poetry and prose have appeared widely, recently in Baltimore Review, Apalachee Review, and Puerto del Sol. “Independence Day, 1921” is from the World War I novel manuscript Where Shadow Meets Water, about a pilot from Florida. A second novel from the same period, Long Train Home to Scarborough, concerns a young woman reporter. Greg’s recent poetry chapbook, The Name of the God Who Speaks, won the Robert Phillips Prize from Texas Review Press. Greg teaches writing and humanities at St. Petersburg College in Clearwater. Visit Gregory online at

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Independence Day, 1921

Yardley Doyle McKee, Widower

He was born in Texas, rode a horse at four, went on a drive at 10, was married at 17, became a father at 18 and a widower at 19.

Anger and cause never left Yardley Doyle McKee, not for a minute.

The one day he stayed later than a promised return to home, his wife was killed by an intruder. He found her sprawled atop her infant son, who was alive, barely, and rolled her off their son to rush him to the town doctor. He remembered the state of his wife’s clothing as he rolled her over, and the cuts and bruises that were evident. They haunted him from that first exposure.

Not a trace of the killer could be found. Not a single track. Stalkers said only that there had been no other horse on the property that day and that the killer was afoot. But even a sniffing dog, brought over by the sheriff’s pal, was diverted by something left right at the door of the cabin. It could have been pepper ground to smithereens, or some other substance that would mess up a dog’s sense of smell. And the day of the murder was beset by a steady and strong wind out of the northwest for the better part of the day. The single dog was at a stiff disadvantage and brought nothing to light, brought nothing to ground, sort of defined by the substance left by the door and the big winds that blew all odors away, all the traceable elements of a man on the run.

To McKee, it all pointed to a killer with imagination and smarts.

A planner? A local? Someone he knew?  Someone who knew his wife before he did?

The night he danced with her the first time came back to him, and he tried to remember all those who had cut into the dancing in Mallory’s barn. Practically any man with good sense wanted to dance with her. Not all of them came back to him in his attempt at recall.

Things went askew for McKee that all Quipilanta could see.

The rampage started shortly after the murder was discovered, in any local or nearby saloon where a word or statement, misinterpreted, not clearly heard, said under breath with venom of a curse, lit anew the fuse in McKee. With his infant son soon thinking his grandmother was his mother, Yardley Doyle McKee went to work as a wrangler, as a drinker when not in the saddle and time allowed, as a man with a huge chip on his shoulder, as a sure-fisted barroom brawler, as a gunsmith with a hand fast enough to forego many duels, and fast enough to win all the ones that were not dissuaded for one reason or another.

His reputation, of course, was bigger than he was, but it served its purpose, for in McKee’s mind sat one idea, one image, one dream coming down the road sure as prairie flowers came with rain … that his wife’s killer, because of pride, because of envy, because of curiosity, because of base stupidity, would appear one day, make a mistake, be noted for that mistake, stand in front of him as the murderer.

Judgment would come.

In Quipilanta, at the Blind Horse Saloon, came the most recent confrontation; muttered words, half aloud at one end of the bar, snapped the whole length of the bar where McKee came straight up, like an arrow in a quiver, his head turning, the speaker selected because two men with him stepped aside as the words left the man’s mouth, aware of what would ensue; “A cowpoke can’t track his wife’s killer couldn’t find a lost dogie on open grass.”

From the middle of the room burst McKee, bent on annihilation of the half-drunk drover who had condemned him.

Some folks tried to step in his way, and some dared not, for McKee could pull his gun as quick as anybody around. And the dare was in place.

He knocked one man back into his seat, brushed another aside with a forearm shiver, and stood in front of the rag mouth, holding him by the shirt, shoving him against the bar.

“Don’t sneak it out, Crowell, spit it out. Be a man about it. If you got something to say to me, say it straight out. Now say it again.”

Crowell said, “If my wife was killed, I’d sure as hell track him to ground.”

“Where were you that day? Why didn’t you help? I don’t remember you there. Most folks in this room right now, were there, trying to catch him. Why not you?”

“I was on the drive with Dewey Chancellor. We was in Rio Palata finishing up, 100 miles away. Didn’t get back until near a week later. Else I would have helped, so help me. I would have tried real hard.”

“You don’t think these gents tried hard? You don’t think I tried hard? Is that it?”

“Nah. I guess I just shot off my mouth. I didn’t mean it the way it come out. That’s all.”

Another minor chapter closed down in McKee’s constant turmoil.

Dozens of like escapades and encounters came his way, or he found easy excuses to combat minor comments, odd looks, or even the disdainfully shifted look in a man’s eyes. More than once, in such encounters, a man would stand his ground, go for his gun, and bring McKee into action. Luckily, there were no fatalities, and all witnesses would swear that McKee never drew first. Most everybody knew him, of course, or came to know him in a short time as the stories spread, as they built on one another, as eye witnesses joined, involuntarily, in the promotion of McKee’s set routine of search, of investigation.

Miles Henry, the sheriff of Quipilanta, new on the job, only heard the story of Mrs. McKee’s death, and heard of the escapades that McKee set off, jumped into, or brazened out of silence by exerting innuendo, query, or  explaining to anybody who’d listen what a coward was like who killed a woman in the presence of her baby son.

But Henry was a very bright fellow who had been in the Texas Rangers and learned much from the head of the Texas Rangers Frontier Battalion, John. B. Jones. Jones was a solid administrator, a superior strategist and proved heroic in combat. Henry fought under Jones against Lone Wolf’s band of renegades from three tribes at Lost Valley back in the summer of 1874, and carried away with him much of what he had learned from the Battalion commander.

A good many times, hearing of McKee’s adventures, as he called them, he sat back and pondered the whole attitude and complexity of McKee. He envisioned various possibilities and outcomes, now and then chuckling at one of them, or getting downright sad about the whole case. He entertained a sense of pity and a sense of pride in and for the young man, though he was not really sure of what pushed the pride sensation.

He was in the middle of this very position when one of his deputies came into the office and said, “McKee’s back from that trip down to Ensolata. He’s over the Horse right now and it’s a sure bet he gets going again tonight ‘cause he’s lit up like a barn fire, his eyes rolling in his head, banging on the bar or a tabletop to make a point. The night might get a bit interesting and we might even have us some company before it’s over.”

The two law officers meandered, one at a time, to the Blind Horse Saloon and managed to slip into the end of the room where a waitress brought them a pitcher of beer. They sat but 20 feet from McKee and each lawman smiled their thank you message and kept their eyes on McKee, noisy, cantankerous, as usual, at the near end of the bar, in the company of three men, all drinking beer and all being noisy.

“We’re with you a 100 percent, Yardley, that there ain’t nothin’ lower than a man shoots a lady, less’n she’s pickin’ his pockets at the time.” The speaker was the smallest cowpoke in the room in Henry’s eyes, and he knew him as Dash Walters. A reign of laughter followed the remark, and it swept the room, stayed on the upswing until McKee was back into his old mood.

All the while the laughter reigned in the room, it was apparent to Henry that one man, at a nearby table, was upset at the noise, and at the words being thrown around by McKee, the way a man throws a complaint, an accusation, or a dare against another man. And more so, at the resounding laughter rolling through the throng like a small storm caught between mountain walls.

Several times Henry thought the man was going to stand up and give everybody a piece of his mind, but especially McKee. Then it seemed apparent to Henry that the man at the nearby table, a long-known womanizer of sorts, Rob Ben Tarpy, often called Birdy, was in a one-on-one situation with McKee … and McKee was reading it the same way Henry was.

As if the target had been selected beforehand.

The old Texas Ranger, in a singular moment of clarity, found sane reasoning in his own impressions.

At the bar, getting louder each minute, as if he was on a metronome measure being accelerated, McKee vented a renewed and blistering attack on his coward’s theme. “Like I said before, cowards shoot women, plain all out cowards who don’t have half a pound of guts in their bodies. You all sure must agree with me on that count, all you folks in the room here. Cowards don’t have any guts. They’re sissies. They’re wimps. They’re bottom washers. They’re the last end of this world. Any man that would shoot a lady like my wife was shot is nothing more than the biggest, sourest, smelliest cow flap out on the grass. His clothes probably smell like cow flap right now no matter where he is. A coward smells like a coward forever, especially when the crunch comes down on him, when the end is coming near, when His Maker sits on the edge of the grass waiting on him, or on a rock on the trail in the mountains, lightning and thunder and hallelujahs all over the place like they’re all being spent at the same time, like Hell’s meeting Heaven on the same trail.”

He raised his hands over his head, straight up in a universal signal. “The good Lord sits there awaiting on the coward He knows is coming His way.”

Henry saw it develop, that slow burn coming alive, that trickle of blood in a man’s veins reacting to an assault on his person. Birdy Tarpy, standing beside his table, raised his glass and said, “Yardley, ain’t we bound to say something nice about your wife, a hero in all that, protectin’ her baby. Ain’t we cutting off somethin’ due her in all this, a brave mother, a brave woman without a doubt.” He looked around the room in a salute as he lifted his glass, and many responded in the same salute.

Henry was also standing at his table, and all he had ever known about the murder of McKee’s wife went through his mind in a flash. He saw everything he had heard, which wasn’t much. But out of it, he heard his own mother saying, across the long years, “The table’s set. You hear me? The table’s set.”

It was the sign of signs.

He wanted to move but he couldn’t. This was about to play out, he was sure, and he did not want to miss a single word, a single expression, a single move. But his deputy, watching him, knew he himself was in on something far beyond his own imagination. His hand sat on the handle of his pistol.

Henry stared at McKee, not at Birdy Tarpy. Admiration for the long-tormented young man rolled through him. He was positive it was all coming down.

McKee, in a change of key, in a softer voice, said, “You’re right, Birdy. All women, all mothers, are heroes when it comes needed. Mothers are like that. All mothers.”

It was as though he was shutting off Tarpy’s salute. The air stung with it, with the short-change reply from the dead woman’s husband, of all people.”

Tarpy stepped right into the full swing of the situation. “We can’t let it go simple as that,” he said while looking around the saloon, at all the faces. “When a woman jumps on her baby to save his life, she’s a real hero, don’t you think?”

His glass was in the air in another salute. But McKee’s pistol was right smack in his eyes. Sheriff Henry’s gun was in his hand. His deputy, now standing, had also drawn his weapon.

Before the whole saloon, Yardley Doyle McKee, not a single waver in his gun hand, said slow and easy, “Say again what you just said, Birdy. Say it slow and sure.”

Tarpy was steady, it appeared, as he said, “All I said was we should salute a woman who jumps on her baby to save his life. My own mother would have done that. Your own mother. Everybody’s mother. That’s all I said. Nothin’ wrong with that,”

Sheriff Henry, now fully aware, knowing McKee was almost home from his long crusade, and hoping it wouldn’t get messed up, just stood by, hoping for the best, his other hand holding back his tempestuous deputy who must have seen some light himself.

“How’d you know she did that, Birdy? Tell us all here how you knew that.”

“Hell,” Tarpy said, “everybody hereabouts knowed she did that. Jumped on the baby to save him. Plain and simple it is.” He looked around the room and saw Henry looking at him with his mouth open. And a grain of intelligence began to throb on its own in the back of his head, arriving the way a subtle threat arrives, on the air, invisible, but known.

“Anybody here ever hear that my wife jumped on the baby to save him?” He looked around. “Anybody ever hear that?”

The only movement in the Blind Horse Saloon was a universal shaking of heads, down to a little man in a far corner drinking by himself.

McKee shoved the gun against one of Tarpy’s eyes. “You’re blind stupid, Birdy. Nobody in the whole town ever knew that. My folks didn’t know it. Her folks didn’t know it. I’ve been setting on it all this time. Even none of the sheriffs knew that. Miles Henry didn’t know that. I never told a single person in the whole world how I found her on top of the boy and pulled her off before anybody came after I took the boy to the doctor.”

McKee stopped, looked at Miles Henry, and said, “He’s yours for the hanging, Sheriff. We ought to hold the trial right here and now.”

The little man in the far corner, sitting alone, said, “Guilty.”


Tom Sheehan, in his 94th year, has published 53 books; Fables, Fairy Stories, Folk Lore and Fantasies, Poems Off the Kitchen Table and Ruby’s File, and Sheehan’s Views and Angles of Stories by the Bunch, three of his latest. He has work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings (Ireland-100), Copperfield Review, Literally Stories (UK,150), Rope and Wire Western Magazine (over 400 pieces), among others. He served in Korea 1950-52 in the 31st Infantry Regiment before entering Boston College, class of 1956, and retired from Raytheon Company in 1992 as Manager of Policies and Procedures, a one-man band.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Yardley Doyle McKee, Widower

Boots, Bonnets & Bayonets

The pile of boots grew higher. Dusty. Worn. Crusted with blood. A boot-hungry group of men rooted through the pile, desperately looking for something that fit their swollen, sorry feet. An adjacent pile grew apace. Amputated limbs, some legs severed at the knee; some mid-thigh. All belonging to young soldiers who may or may not have left this place alive. An army of flies swarmed the gory mound, staking their claim to the discarded appendages. The flies droned so loudly they could have summoned buzzards.

“This ‘uns mine,” one soldier snarled, grabbing a boot from a smaller man. Joshua Barnett, company surgeon, shook his head as he watched, reminded of stray dogs he had seen growling and snarling over a bone in a Boston alley. “Well, those boys in there won’t need them anymore,” he muttered to himself.

Wiping bloody hands on a rag, Joshua had stepped outside the hospital tent for some air. He scratched at his thick red beard, shedding flecks of dried skin and blood onto his apron. After yesterday’s battle, he had worked all night. Even when the cannon roar stopped, the screams inside the tent continued. He, along with the two surgeons and three nurses under his command, created that mountain of extremities.

Every battle ended the same. Feet blown off. Knees shattered. Arms missing. And those were just the ones that stood a chance. It was easier when a boy came to him unconscious. Awake and screaming, none chose a limb over life. You cannot explain gangrene to a hysterical boy. Amputation was often the only chance he could give them.

Today, fighting began late afternoon and thundered well into the evening. Though surrounded by pretty countryside, Joshua hated this Pennsylvania burg. Not sure what I expected when I signed up as a surgeon for this godawful war, he mused. The Union matters, but surely these boys’ lives matter more.

“That’s my leg and I want it!” he heard Sickle yelling at a nurse inside. Joshua sympathized with the man, but General Daniel Sickle had made a nuisance of himself since they brought him in.

Joshua wearily returned to the tent. “Give him his damn leg,” he ordered his staff. “He can keep it as a souvenir if he wants it.”

Inside the brown canvas tent, wounded soldiers lay side by side on long rows of army regulation cots. Joshua closed the tent flap after him to keep the flies from laying claim to what was left of these boys.

Teams of soldiers rushed more and more wounded in from the field on litters. Today’s batch suffered worse than blasted limbs.

“Corporal?” Joshua looked questioningly at an older man as he helped move a soldier to his table. Blood poured from a large gash in the boy’s abdomen.

“Those southern boys charged the hill with bayonets out, sir. Chopped down our whole first line before we shot ‘em.”

Joshua leaned over the table. “This boy can’t be more than fifteen and I doubt even that.”

“Young Joe,” the corporal nodded toward his fallen comrade, “we know’d he weren’t the sixteen he claimed. Good ‘nuf soldier, even for one so small. Did his part, Joe did.”

“Well, he’s not dead yet, so let’s see if we can give him a sixteenth birthday.” Joshua touched the corporal’s bleeding arm. “Get that looked at, soldier.”

Drawing aside the wounded boy’s jacket, Joshua saw that the wound penetrated the bowel. “Sarah,” he called to his head nurse. Sarah Hawes hurried over and quickly cut away the boy’s clothes to give Joshua room to work.

“Oh!” she exclaimed. Joshua looked up at her stunned face. “Our patient is a girl,” she whispered. Joshua’s mouth dropped open in surprise, but he kept working.

“I’m sewing up what I can,” he complained. “But I don’t know if it’ll hold.”

Leaving his nurse to close the wound, Joshua turned to the next boy and the next. Boys came in, speaking of battlegrounds soon to be sacred: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill. The pile of boots grew higher.

Dawn broke on the third day; the air, foggy, damp, and smelling of rain. Rain would be a relief, Joshua thought, but another scorcher was on its way. Sarah brought him some coffee. Gratefully, he drank away the heavy pull of sleep.

“Sir… sir,” a low voice called to him. Young Joe, or whoever this lass was, had awakened. Joshua knelt beside her. “Lie quietly. You’ve been through a rough one.” He answered the soldier’s questioning look, “Yes, we know your secret.”

“I had to, sir.” Tears spilled across her downy cheeks.

When she tried to sit up, Joshua pushed her gently back on the cot. “Too soon. You need to rest.”

“My brother died ‘cause of me,” she said in a faint voice.

“Shush. Just rest.”

“He signed up, but died before his company left.” Unable to quiet the child, Joshua

listened. “Was taking milk from our farm to town. I wanted to drive the team.” A spike of pain silenced her momentarily. “Matt told me to slow down. Fallen rocks on the road. Horses stumbled. Wagon spilled over.” Sobbing softly, “Threw Matt. Pinned him ‘neath the cart.”

Joshua took her hand, “What’s your name soldier?” “Josephine Deming,” she whispered.
“Where you from Josephine? Where do your folks live?”

Wincing, she replied in a weak voice, “Granville, Massachusetts, sir. Father owns a dairy farm.”

“Does your father know you’re here?”

“No, sir, Father wouldn’t approve. Please don’t tell him.”

Noting the bright flush on her face and neck, Joshua feared a fever rising in the small, tortured body.

“He sent me to my aunt up in Maine. Said I shouldn’t be so hard on myself after I killed Matt.”

“Sounds like an accident to me, Jo,” Joshua gently patted her hand. “I’m sure your father knows that, too.”

A glint of light sparked in her eyes as she squeezed Joshua’s hand. “Had to take Matt’s place, sir. Fight for the Union. Father says we’re fighting for our country’s soul.” She looked intently at Joshua’s face. “Sir, some things… Some things worth dying for.”

Joshua smiled at her, “Of course, soldier. I understand. I have to tend the others now, Jo, but I’ll be back.” He stood up on unsteady feet. Yes, the nation’s soul. At the cost of how many souls?

Artillery fire started again. Within a short time, litter bearers carried in the wounded. Faces blurred. Joshua saw only bloody gashes, shredded limbs. By late afternoon, he could barely stand. A sea of boys in blue jackets streaked with blood lay just outside the tent. He continued on and on…

“Joshua!” Sarah shook him. “You can stop now.” A boy lay dead on his table. “You’ve done what you could. Let God hold him now.”

Twilight eased the heat and softened the light. The flood of wounded boys had subsided. Joshua sat down beside Sarah and drank the coffee she offered him. I must have tended over a thousand soldiers in these last three days.

“How’s our lass?” he asked Sarah.

“I’m sorry, Joshua. She passed on not long ago.”

Sobs silently shook his body. He had hoped… he had let himself hope.

Sarah handed him a tintype. “I took this from her jacket.” Chipped, smeared with dirt, the photograph showed three people — a somber man and two adolescents. Instead of the usual stoic faces staring ahead, the boy was smiling and the girl, Josephine, wore a pretty bonnet and gazed adoringly up at her brother. Joshua placed the photograph in his pocket and wished Sarah a good night.

Day four, the artillery remained quiet. Soldiers left for the battlefield early in the morning, yet silence reigned. Within the hospital tent, most of the boys slept in fits and starts. Their moans melded into a low continuous chorus, punctuated by outbursts of agony.

“Lee’s turned back!” a young soldier shouted as he passed the tent. Chattering voices, even laughter, filled the air as soldiers straggled back to camp.

Joshua, though grateful for a respite, sadly began a letter addressed to Mr. Deming, Granville, Massachusetts.

Dear Mr. Deming,
I’m sorry to inform you that your loving daughter, Josephine, died yesterday. She

served with honor as a nurse in the Army of the Potomac, 20th Regiment, Maine Volunteers. I, as Company Surgeon, along with the staff at this field hospital, will miss her greatly.

The battle drew too close to our hospital tent. While she worked fearlessly and tirelessly to aid our patients, she succumbed to the devastations of war.

I am enclosing a photograph that she always held dear and know you surely would want as a token of her love for her family.
Yours respectfully,
Major Joshua Barnett.”

Surely God would forgive him this small lie to ease a father’s grief. He gravely doubted God would forgive the senseless carnage he had witnessed these first three days of July 1863.


For over 25 years, Clay Gish worked as an exhibit designer, developing the vision, educational goals, and scripts for museums around the world. As a historian and educator, she taught American history and government and published several scholarly articles about child labor during the industrial revolution. Since retirement, Clay has written the award-winning travel blog, This Thursday’s Child ( Recently, she turned her hand to fiction with an emphasis on historical narrative.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Boots, Bonnets & Bayonets

Marilyn and the Bears

Snapshot I: Banff, July 1953

“Marilyn! Give us a big smile!”

She turns towards the photographer’s voice. She wiggles her bum, juts out her breasts, and smiles. She poses near the edge of a swimming pool at Banff Springs Hotel wearing a black two-piece.

Click. Flash. Click.

She widens her mouth and runs her tongue over her teeth. She had Whitey come to her room this morning to do her hair and make-up. It takes more than an hour to transform into Marilyn. He’s covered the inside of her lips in a thin layer of Vaseline, an old pin-up girl trick, to ensure her lipstick doesn’t stick to her teeth. Whitey has said more than once, “You are my greatest canvas.”

At least ten photogs circling the edge of the pool: she called the press herself and told them she would be available today. She stands on one foot, in a black kitten heel, and leans on silver crutches from the local hospital. She kicks her wrapped injured ankle out behind her, making a ninety-degree angle of her legs. In the background, the Rocky Mountains jut into the sky in all their ambivalent hubris.

She is here in the Rockies filming a movie called River of No Return and it is beginning to feel like a mistake.

“Marilyn – how’s the ankle?” a journalist armed with a notepad asks.

“Oh, much better, thank you!” She makes her voice sound honey sweet.  “I’ll be back on set in no time.” She is doing damage control.

A few days ago, she stood in the Bow River alongside her co-star Robert Mitchum. The director Otto made them do take after take in the teeth-chattering current, holding the wet edges of a poplar log raft, screaming dialogue at each other. Robert is a drinker and couldn’t remember his lines. She doesn’t recall why or how this scene fits into the film’s story,but she remembers her waders filling up with water. A rapid pulled her. The water is so clear she could see all the way to the stony bottom. Once she was under the surface, she was so cold she almost felt warm.

Someone pulled her out and slapped her back like a doctor slaps a newborn.  That is when she twisted her ankle on the slippery rocks. She coughed and gasped as Robert held her up under her armpits. “Jesus Christ Marilyn. We thought we’d lost you!” he yelled. Snot ran down her face, bark stuck out from under her fingernails, and her ankle throbbed hot and sharp.  She is the dumb blonde who needs a big strong man to rescue her. She is tired of this story.

“Marilyn, Marilyn! Over here please!”

She obliges. She tilts her head towards her left shoulder so the sun is not in her eyes. She imagines how the photos will look in black-and-white: the dark swimsuit highlighting her curves, her platinum hair luminescent in the sun, the black shoe contrasting with the bandage on her injured foot. She wears fake eyelashes to make her eyes look bigger and red lipstick so her lips contrast with the paleness of her skin (Whitey has over twenty shades of red and he mixes them like a painter using a palette). They are shooting the movie in Technicolor which feels garish.

“When exactly will you be back on set Marilyn? We hear your director is getting anxious.”

“Soon!” she assures them.

Otto has not sent flowers or come to her room to ask how she is feeling. All he said as the doctor checked her over was, “Thank God you didn’t bang up your face.” She knows he thinks she is exaggerating her injury to get out of filming. Even so, she doesn’t understand why he’s so angry at her. The press interest in her injury, in her, is worth thousands of dollars of promotion.

She thought this movie would be different, away from the Hollywood studio system, retreating into the wilds of Canada. But the system came along with the cameras and the wardrobes and the director Otto who, despite trying all her charms to endear him to her, made up his mind about her before they even met and certainly before she hurt her ankle. 

She is not sure why she let go of the raft.

Her acting coach Natasha tells the photographers, “That is all for today. Marilyn needs to rest.” Natasha offers her a white terry cloth robe which seems silly. She stands under a beam of the summer sun shining through the cool mountain air.  She stands on her heel, in her bikini, for a few more minutes signing autographs and 8x10s for the journalist’s buddies, girlfriends, dads (when really she knows the signature, the moment, is for them).

Natasha takes her arm and leads her back to her cabin. “The mosquitos and the chill in the air remind me of the Black Forest. I worry you will catch a cold.”

“I’ll be fine Natasha. As long as I stay off my foot, it doesn’t hurt too much.”

“The foot is only part of my worries. It was cruel of Otto to make you spend all day in freezing water. You are his star. He is a little man. A little dictator,” Natasha says this in her German accent and with life experience.

Natasha is the bossy mother bear she never had; her real mother Gladys barely knew where Norma Jeane was at any given time. She has blurry memories of being taken to visit Gladys in various institutions. In a few brief attempts, she and Gladys lived together but those times always ended in disaster. Gladys was not able to be a mother, so Norma Jeane grew up being shuttled from foster home to foster home. A few of the women who looked after her were kind (and strict) but many were also indifferent (especially if their men paid too much attention to pretty little Norma Jeane). That is all behind her now.  She can choose her own family.

Natasha commands, “Rest. Don’t stay up all night on the phone.” The drama coach kisses her on the cheek and leaves the room.  She nods like an obedient child.

She orders two bottles of champagne and a grilled cheese sandwich from room service. She has problems sleeping at the best of times (which this is not) and hopes a few glasses of champagne will relax and warm her. She has pills too but they make it hard to wake up in the morning and she has already literally gotten off on the wrong foot with the director. While she waits for room service, she telephones friends in Los Angeles. No one is home. Joe is on his way to Canada. In the next few days, the set is moving north to a different resort town called Jasper and he will meet her there. She thinks she could be in love with Joe.

Joe’s a famous baseball player. Well, he’s an American hero: they call him “the Yankee Clipper.” He’s actually from San Francisco but has lived in New York for most of his adult life. Joe is famous enough that he says he’s had enough of that life and he wants her to marry him.  She has been a wife before and is not sure she wants to be one again. He does make her feel safe though and that is a rare thing.

She spends the evening drinking her champagne and quietly practicing a sad song for a scene where her dumb blonde character sings in a dingy bar.  Around 10pm, she decides to sit outside to watch the sun set. She puts on a cardigan, refills her glass of bubbly, and limps without her crutches to sit in a red wooden chair outside her hotel room.

As the sun wanes over the mountain tops, she pushes brittle pine needles with her toes poking out of her wrapped foot. She outlines hearts in the dirt. She is going to talk to a doctor and insist on a cast. Everything will be better when Joe gets here.

Snapshot II: Jasper, Summer 1953

She sinks into a shallow bath full of bubbles in her cabin at Becker’s Bungalows in Jasper. She sticks her exposed big toe in the silver faucet, careful not to get her casted foot wet. It is early evening and she’s had a long day back on set. Every morning at 7:30am, the crew boards a train called the “Devona Special” that takes them to location out in the woods. Today, Robert was still drunk from the night before, the mosquitos were bad, and Otto barely used her at all. She doesn’t know if she was even on film. She thinks Otto made her come out just to show her he is the boss.

Jasper is different than Banff. In Banff the mountains are majestic, like castles or cathedrals. In Jasper they seem older somehow, narrower, more rugged. Jasper feels more remote, quieter than Banff. It is further north and is a smaller town. Of course, there is attention wherever she goes, and frankly wherever Joe goes too, but people also respect them and ask before taking their photo. One night she and Joe had dinner at a restaurant called Spero’s where they were warmly welcomed and hardly interrupted. As they were leaving, the owner tried to treat them to their dinner (Joe refused and paid him handsomely). She thanked Mr. Spero with a kiss on the cheek. One of the crew told her that people in town said the old Greek man put clear tape over the lipstick mark and proudly told the story for the whole next day until his wife made him wash his face.

She thought Joe coming up to Canada would make things better. In some ways it has. But after an initial flurry of sex and promises upon his arrival, they’ve spent most of their time together fighting. Joe says he wants her to give up Hollywood and settle down with him, but she knows that he would get bored so quickly. She does not want to spend her days fetching his slippers and a whiskey while a tomato sauce bubbles red on a stove. She will never be as good a cook as his Sicilian mama. In the times she was able to live with her mother when she was a child, Gladys worked in the cutting rooms of studios. Gladys always told Norma Jeane, “You are pretty enough to be a movie star. If you play nice, you could live up to your name, become the next Jean Harlow.” Now that dream is coming true. She has spent too much time on the casting couch and is too close to real fame to give it all up now for something quiet and small. Why can’t Joe understand that? He has fame.

Love always leads her down the wrong path.

The cabin door creaks open.

“Marilyn!” She hears Joe’s voice. “I have some very special fans who want to say ‘hello’.”

“Just a minute,” she says making her voice cheerful.

She is surprised Joe didn’t tell the autograph seekers to come back later. He fiercely guards the little privacy they have.  He will sign baseballs and 8x10s and autograph books and be courteous but when he is done, he is done. She still feels like fans are doing her a favour by asking.  She knows she has a long way to go as an actress, Natasha says she could be great if she just works hard enough, and she also knows that being a fan favorite makes the studio nicer. He should understand why she doesn’t want to give it up when she is on the edge of something truly great.

She carefully steps out of the tub, wipes bubbles away from the edge of the plaster below her knee, and wraps herself in a fluffy white robe. She opens the bathroom door a smidge and calls out, “Joe, Honey, can you come here for a moment?”

She hears him say, “Wait here a minute Fellas.” She hears his footsteps on the wooden floorboards as he makes his short way from the cabin’s front door through the kitchen and living area and toward the small bedroom adjoining the bathroom. She sits on the bed. He opens the bedroom door slowly. He is tall and carries himself with an athlete’s muscled confidence. She thinks he is one of the most handsome men she has been with.

“Joe,” she whispers, “Is it press?”

“Baby, it’s three kids. Maybe ten, twelve. They walked all the way from town. They just want to get a look at you. Maybe an autograph.”

She doesn’t know whether to think of this as sweet or strange so she chooses to think it is sweet.

“I started to wash my make-up off and I don’t know if Whitey is even here right now …”

“Sweetheart, they don’t care about that. Must have taken them more than an hour to get here. They just want to say they met you.”

“Alright. Pass me my checkered trousers on the bed and that blouse on the hanger.”

Joe nods.

 She waits for him to lecture her about being messy but he doesn’t say anything. She forgoes underwear and puts on the clothes. She swipes on a bit of red lipstick to make an effort. She leaves her hair pinned up. She looks at her reflection in a full-length mirror and runs her hands over her breasts and torso to make sure the blouse is smooth against her body. She rolls her shoulders back, takes a deep breath, and smiles to the mirror. She becomes Marilyn.

She walks out of the bedroom and greets the three boys with a breathy whisper, “Well, hello! I hear you walked all the way here just to meet me.”

“Yes Miss Monroe,” the tallest boy says. The three kids stand at the open doorway.

“Well, come in, come in,” she says.

The boys jostle and fidget as they step into the cabin.

“What are your names?” she asks.

“I’m Robert, that’s Jim and this here is James,” Robert pushes a smaller blonder boy forward.

“Well, it is very nice to meet you all. How wonderful to have such nice friends. How do you all know each other?”

“We go the same school Miss,” Robert answers for the three of them.

“There is only one school!” Jim chimes in.

She smiles. “Are you hungry? Would you like a snack? Joe – do we have milk and cookies?”

Joe shakes his head.

“We’re fine Miss. We are hoping to get a photo with you. Jim has his dad’s camera,” Robert says.

“I would love to take a photo with you. Joe – should we go outside where the light is better?”

“Sure,” Joe says, unaccustomed to being someone who takes the photo.

She ushers the boys back outside and stands between Jim and Robert, putting her an arm around each of them. The boys come up to her shoulders. The all have shaggy summer hair bleached by the sun. She imagines their moms will take them to a barber for a trim before school starts again.

“This will sure give me something to say when Miss Emes makes us write about summer vacation,” Jim says.

She leans forward and gives a big wide smile.

Click. Click. Click.

Joe takes a few photos.

She leads them back inside the cabin and signs a stock 8×10 for each of them: From your girl, Marilyn.

“Would you boys like to see a real-live movie set? We are making a picture called River of No Return. You should come out and see it.”

“We’ll have to ask my mom. We might get in trouble when she finds out we came out here today,” James says.

“Your mother is very welcome to come too. We all take the train out to the set in the morning. We will be here for another week or two.”

The boys all nod. “I guess we better be going,” Jim says. “Thanks so much Miss Marilyn.”

“You are very welcome. I am always happy to meet my biggest fans.” She adds, “You should be careful out there on the road,” she says. “Someone on the film crew said they saw a bear yesterday.”

“There are always bears around here Miss. They’re mostly looking for berries this time of year. We aren’t scared of bears,” the youngest boy says with a sincere bravado.

“Just in case, maybe Joe can drive you back to town.”

“That would be nice Miss. Jim here is sweating through his Sunday shirt. Between that and him taking the camera, his mom might get out her wooden spoon,” Robert teases.

Jim shoves him.

“Well, we don’t want that!” She exclaims. “Joe, Honey, can you give these boys a lift home? Maybe you can tell them a baseball story.”

“Sure thing,” Joe says. “I’ve always wanted to be a chauffeur.” He says it jokingly but she worries he will bring this up later. He has a hot-head Italian temper and she sometimes gets the brunt of it.

She gives each boy a kiss on the cheek and watches them pile into Joe’s rented car. The drive to town will only take fifteen minutes each way but that is half an hour she can have to herself before she hears about what she should have done differently.

She pops a cork, pours herself a glass of champagne, and gets back into the tub. She doesn’t even care that the water is cold.

Snapshot III:  Jasper, August 1953

“Do you think those bears are in the movie?”

She sits in a canvas chair outside as Whitey applies foundation to her face. About a hundred yards away, two black bears the size of big dogs rummage through garbage they have strewn on the ground after turning over two of three tall metal cans. They are having a noisy feast.

Whitey pauses from applying contour lines and looks over at the bears. “No – the trainers would not let them roam around eating refuse. The poor film animals have collars and are chained up: those two bears are wild.”

“Of course. You know I like to document our creations. I have also taken some gorgeous snaps of the mountains. The light here is gorgeous in the morning.”

“I suppose that is one good thing about having to get to set so early.”

“The train is fun,” Whitey says. “Like travelling back in time.”

“Sure,” she says. “Whitey, I want you to take my picture with the bears.”


“Yes. I just want a photo with them. I’ve been hoping to see lots of animals here and so far all I’ve seen are elk.” She starts unbuttoning her smock that keeps her blouse free of powder and errant colour. Then she changes her mind, “I’ll keep the smock on. This photo is just for us. I will wear sunglasses since you haven’t done my eyes yet.”

She grips the handles of her canvas chair and puts her weight on her good foot before gingerly putting weight on her bad ankle. Otto insisted she removed the cast, but her ankle is still tender and sore. She has some good painkillers from the onset physician. High heels are still a torture though so, unless she is filming, she wears brown leather moccasins she was given as a gift from one of the extras on set who is an actual local Native Chief. People in Jasper have been very kind to her.

Whitey touches her arm, “Do you think it is a good idea to get so close to them?”

“I’ll stand to the side. Miss Golden Dreams and the two bears,” she laughs at her own joke about her infamous nude calendar photo.

“More like Cinderella with your lame foot”

“Silly, Cinderella only lost her shoe, she didn’t hurt her foot.”

“In all seriousness, don’t get too close Marilyn. They are just young cubs, probably born this spring. Their mother is likely close by. She’ll make herself known if she thinks you are a threat. I know we always joke that I’ll do your make-up until you are cold and gray, but I am not ready for that just yet.”

“How do you know so much about bears Whitey?”

He takes his hand from her arm and waves his hand in the air, “I have lots of time to read on set my darling.”

“Did you know they eat berries?” She shares one of the boys’ comments.

“I did,” Whitey says. “I heard someone say they especially like blueberries. And those little purple berries up here called saskatoons.”

She smiles. Whitey is probably her best friend. It is nice to be so close to a man who doesn’t want what most other men want from her (even if they say they want more). She senses that Whitey does not approve of Joe.

She approaches the bears slowly. They root through the garbage like piglets she once helped look after on a foster family’s farm. She loves animals. Maybe if she marries Joe they can get a pet. She’s always wanted a little wiener dog. Or a poodle. At least a cat.

She thinks about the mama watching from the trees. Her mother Gladys was never close by and she never protected her. When Gladys wasn’t in the hospital, her mind whirred with her own obsessions, failed dreams, and future schemes. Gladys wasn’t able to be a mother to Norma Jeane. She wonders if Gladys reads the letters and clippings she sends to the institution. Her life is a dream, a fairytale, and maybe Joe is as close to Prince Charming as she will find. Is this her happy ending? The hero coming to her in an enchanted forest in the mountains and rescuing her from the big bad director? No, she does not want to play the little girl lost. She is a star on the edge of bursting brighter than anyone could have imagined. She wants to shine on her own.

“Ready?” Whitey asks.

“Yes,” she lowers her sunglasses from the top of her head to cover her eyes. She puts her left hand in the pocket of the smock.

“Smile Goldilocks,” Whitey teases.  


The bears do not seem to notice her.

Diana Davidson lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her historical fiction novel Pilgrimage was shortlisted for the Alberta Readers Choice Awards in 2014. Her current project is a novel called Liberations that opens on May 8, 1945 as Canadian troops end Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. She has been fascinated by Marilyn since she was thirteen.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Marilyn and the Bears

A Search For Hope

It was the year 1938. I was 25 years old, happily married with a promising future filled with big dreams. My husband, David, and I lived in a small town in Poland.  Our little home was barely even on the map, and it was just what we had always dreamed of having.  Both of us grew up in the growing political climate of Germany, and decided that we wanted to escape and explore the world together. Poland was to be just the beginning of our traveling adventures. We were well on our way, but then we found we were with child. Our traveling adventures were put on hold, and instead we began a new journey together in parenthood.

David was a beautiful man.  He stood at an impressive height, well built, with ebony curly locks of hair.  I had fallen in love with him instantly.  His handsome looks were only surpassed by the beauty of his heart.  As a Jewish officer, he would come home and tell me all the news about what was happening back home in Germany.  The stories of the Nazi party attacking innocent people seemed to be too horrific to believe.  How could anyone be that evil? Little did we know that our entire world would soon learn how true that evil could be.

A year had passed, and it was now March of 1939. Germany continued to invade town after town with its evil Nazi regime.  News finally reached us that soldiers had entered Poland territory. Due to our living by the border, we were the next city on the list. As invasion began, David, our young daughter, and I constantly stayed on the move. “It looks like our adventure won’t end here, darling,” I remember David saying to me. I simply replied with a worried smile and a heart filled with fear.  It seemed as if we were living on borrowed time, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that something horrific was about to occur.

In early April, we learned the gastapo was not too far behind us. We didn’t stop for anything, we couldn’t stop for anything. Our goal was to reach the sanctuary of the Soviet Union.  We knew we would be safe there due to the treaty Germany had made, which promised neither country would attack the other country during this World War. We were soon to learn that some promises were made just to be broken. Evil doesn’t care about keeping its word.

David and I had made a little home near the border of the Soviet Union and Poland. It was a beautiful spring, sunny day.  David was out on patrol and I was home with our little girl, Annaliese. I can still remember the sound of the Nazi soldiers knocking on my door. When I didn’t answer promptly enough for their tastes, they forced themselves inside and began barking questions. They asked me my name, my age, my birthplace, my ethnicity. Like bullet fire, the questions came one after another in constant repetition. Even in my fear, I was finally frustrated with their intrusion and demanded to know why they were there. How I would soon wish I had just kept my mouth closed.  Apparently, my indignation angered the soldiers. The last thing I remembered was one of them raising a fist, then everything became dark. The darkness would never leave me after that day. When I woke, I instantly looked for Annaliese. I found her in the corner in my husband’s arms.  “When did he get home?” I wondered to myself. Then the panic set in and I remembered the intrusion, the soldiers, and all the questions. I also realized we weren’t home, but in a freight train filled with other people. Most were neighbors in the tiny village near our home.  A home we were to never see again.

After a long journey, we arrived at a camp with a large gate and a sign that read “Work sets you free.” I looked at David and worriedly asked him what that meant. He responded with his usual positivity and smiled his beautiful smile. Annaliese wiggled in his arms.  He kissed her gently and then pulled me close. “Don’t worry my beautiful girl. We are together, and as long as we are together, everything will be okay.” It would be the last words I would ever hear him say.

“Men to the left, women to the right.” The Nazi’s order barked through the last sliver of hope I had. We were sorted like cattle and forced to separate.

“No sir, please. You don’t understand. We must stay togeth-” My request was met with the back of a soldier’s hand. 

David kissed me and silently begged me to obey. He cried as he held Annaliese. I think he somehow knew it would be the last time we would ever be together.  Annaliese was suddenly grabbed out of David’s arms and shoved in my direction. The Nazi that had slapped me pushed David to the left and forever out of my sight. I could only move to the right with the other poor souls as Annaliese softly whimpered in my arms, distraught after being abruptly pulled from her father’s protective embrace. Our journey to the right led to a wooden barracks with built-in wooden slabs for a bed. Annaliese and I found an empty “bed” and sleep overcame us.

The next day dawned, and it was time to begin the work. At that time, I still hoped to be reunited with David.  The thought of a possible reunion was what kept me pushing forward. The Nazi soldiers told us we would be rewarded with a shower after our work was completed. I worked without complaint, thankful that Annaliese was still with me.  Many of the other mothers looked at her longingly, and I could only shudder to think what had happened to their children. It was difficult to work and care for Annaliese. She would whimper, and I would quietly nurse her under my filthy gown, or hum softly to her. My instincts told me I had to survive. I had to push through for our little girl.

Finally, the end of the day came. Our work was completed, and the promise of a shower was ahead.  More trains had arrived with more soldiers and people. I assumed that my fellow prisoners and I would be allowed to rest, while the new arrivals would work as we did. I was so naive. Annaliese and I were in line waiting for our turn to shower when I smelled it. Gas. The air was permeated with the stench of gas and vomit.  Then the silence was shattered by the screams.  

Chaos erupted and everyone began to force their way out of the line.  The Nazis had put their youngest soldiers on post that day because they had no knowledge of how to control the mob.  I took advantage of their inexperience, clutched Annaliese tightly to my chest, and ran.  I remembered a small ditch near the outskirts of the camp.  A fence was just beyond, so I hastily made my way to it.  I quickly found my destination, glanced over my shoulder to see how many soldiers had followed, and tripped.  Down Annaliese and I rolled until we came to a stop on a pile of….something. I raised my head and realized what we had landed upon.  Bodies. Countless bodies.  All victims of bullets, the gas chamber, or the Nazi’s physical brutality.  Those that arrived weak or old had apparently been murdered instantly.  Those that were strong had been made to work until it was their turn for the promised “shower.” I couldn’t dwell on the poor souls that lay beneath me, their final resting place nothing more than mud, blood, and filth.  I had to escape.  I had to find David.  I had to protect Annaliese.  I had to survive.  I slowly began to crawl over the bodies, a silent prayer uttered for their souls.  Their sacrifice became my salvation.  Each time I would hear a soldier approach, I would lie down in the filth and stench of death, and wait for them to pass.  To this day, I do not know how Annaliese remained quiet the entire time.  One by one, we crawled over the bodies as I made my way to the fence and our freedom.  We were nearly there when I saw him.  My David.  His eyes wide with horror and his mouth forever in a scream.  I put my hand over my mouth to keep from crying out and screaming. I looked down at the child pillowed against my breast. I looked back at David and touched the side of his face. 

In those few precious moments, I quietly wept for my David, for the future we would never have, the adventures we would never take, and the daughter he would never know.  My grief almost overwhelmed me enough to give up.  I wanted to stay there with him and give myself over to the darkness that enveloped me.  It was at that moment that Annaliese chose to stir, and her soft whimpering broke me out of the abyss.  I closed my eyes and allowed the tears to fall from my face and onto David’s, covering him quietly with my final goodbye.  The rest is a blur.  I continued my crawl and somehow managed to make my escape through the fence.  My feet were covered in bloody blisters.  My clothes stained with blood, vomit, and the stench of death.  My hair was matted and my skin covered in dirt and mud.  But I was alive. For the sake of our daughter, I was alive.

I walked for two days, nursing Annaliese with the last bit of strength I had left.  I had to survive. I will survive.  Please God, let me live.  

He must have heard my pleas, for moments later I was rescued.  Polish officers saw my frightful state and took me to a nearby camp.  It was over.  I was showered, clothed, fed and allowed to sleep. Annaliese never left my side.  A day or two later, we were on a train, and then a boat. I stayed in the little cabin we had been given, alone with Annaliese and my grief, and mourning my precious David.  

After several days of travel, we reached our destination.  My first sight was of a lady, her arm outstretched to the sky with a torch in her hand.  It was Lady Liberty welcoming me to take rest and seek refuge.  A kind gentleman escorted Annaleise and I off the boat.  He had papers with him that had to be completed in order for me to be placed in a boarding home in New York City.

“My dear,” his kind voice penetrated my thoughts, “May I please have your name?’

“It’s Hope,” I replied. “My name is Hope.”  


Lauren Hudson is a 17-year-old girl living in Alabama. Lauren has a deep love and appreciation for history. She hopes that by reading her work, others will grow to share that same love with her. Lauren plans to continue writing historical fiction in an attempt to bring more attention to important events that shaped our world’s history.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on A Search For Hope