God’s Own Country

Toka, Yorkshire, Spring 1069

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli leaps to his feet.

* * * * *

Osbert, Yorkshire, May 1069

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli finishes speaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli lifts an eyebrow.

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

The girl starts, turns to her brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take the girl to my new estate.

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

All I need now is an heir.

Toka

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Raven withdraws, his gentle eyes pained.

I weep.

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

***

I feel the stirring of Osbert’s spawn.

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

I am a dead soul, my body stolen.

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

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

The sea is unsullied.

A wave runs over my feet.  Clean.  Refreshing.

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

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

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

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

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

I walk.

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Henry V, Act II: Deleted Scene

Stunned, I look about me where I stand sentry; but whoever it was that placed this unsettling note in my hand has melted in the crowd that fills the royal audience hall. Moving shapes are everywhere: commoners, nobles, merchants, soldiers, men and women. It is no use to look for the messenger. Again I stare at the words of warning: Courtiers plot the King’s death. Grey is of their number. Black ink, somewhat blurred, yet perfectly legible on this shred of silk in my unsteady hands. This is not possible. It cannot be.

Yet it is. Why, ye heavens? And wherefore did I accept this cursed honour, to be captain of the royal guard, charged with guarding the King’s sacred person?  What am I to do? He is yonder, young King Harry, on his simple, austere throne; and simply he smiles at the woman who seeks some surely unimportant grace. Beside him his uncle, brothers, cousins, other men. Courtiers all. Great God! Any one of them might be ready to deal, the next instant, the fatal blow! Yet no, this is a hasty fancy. Those are his kinsmen and love him, surely, as I do. Yet Grey — there is but one of that name — who would have suspected him a traitor? And who else sides with him, and why? That I cannot as yet know. What must I do? Certainly not fill this vast hall with shouts of “Treason, treason, to the King!”. Better discreetly to approach his uncle the duke, and show him this note. But can we trust the message upon this piece of lady’s silk? What if it were a jest? Yet no; none would dare jest on such a matter.

I must speak to the duke and acquaint him with this note; that much is certain. But, now? The peasant woman, all curtsies, is departing, and the duke is in earnest conference with the King. Do I interrupt or wait? Every commoner in this hall may be a traitor in disguise, and each second precious. But would they truly attempt his life in this very public place? It is unlikely. Still, I hasten towards the King. God forbid any harm should come to him now, when newly crowned, he readies himself for wars abroad, and the whole kingdom hangs on the scale. God forbid any harm should come to him ever, this young man that but a while ago came often to practice the sword with me; this gold-hearted lad that in his hour of glory has not forgotten a faithful friend. And I, captain of his guard!

But stay. That servant who bears wine cups! What if in every one of them were some poison that would instantly stop the king’s heart in his chest?

“Halt there, fellow! Away with these cups; the King shall not drink from them. Away, I tell you!” He is gone, amazement on his face. But, heavens above! Where is the King?

The throne is empty. Empty, yet all his kinsmen here still.

“Where, in God’s name, is his Grace? Gone for awhile? Alone?”

I pass amongst them and, sword in hand, rush along the passage behind the throne.

“My King!” It cannot be, oh, it cannot be myself here, in this moment. But it is indeed my voice, my cries, that echo on the passage walls.

“My King!” He is but a youth, untrained, unready for this office, unaccustomed to this burden of continuous vigilance and suspicion. All the way to the end, then two side doors. I glance quickly into two empty rooms. Up this flight of steps, or down that one? God, help me. He may be anywhere, alone, a traitor’s hand muffling his cries and a traitor’s sword running through his body.

Footfalls resound, and a servant descends.

“Is the King gone that way?” my voice sounds, followed by: “No, captain.” I plunge down the flight of steps. Yet maybe it was not wise to believe the man; what if he were in the pay of the conspirators? Fool that I am, why did I not pause for a second longer before leaving the audience hall, and warn the nobles, and bring others with me? Yet careful now; my feet so rush over the steps they almost stumble and send me flying down.

The large, dimly lit hall is empty. Countless doors lead out of it, and behind every one of them I see that royal lad poisoned, throttled, stabbed. Where is he gone? In that corner, the sentinel!

“What way did he go?”, I pant. He eyes my naked sword and is speechless. “Quick, man! There is treason afoot! Which way?” He points, I speed down another flight of steps, and storm into a chamber. There is more light here. I stop dead.

Against the far wall, the lad leans pensively. Alive, unharmed! Heavenly powers be thanked. It is clear now. I did know — but in my fear I clean forgot — he is wont to come hither after the audiences, and rest his mind in solitude. Yet he turns to me and he is no lad, but the King; and displeasure at being disturbed in his retreat is clearly shown in his countenance and his voice.

“What is this, captain? Why the sword?”

Why? Because you, my lord, have vanished from your hall in a most imprudent hour, with no word of warning to your guard, who has countless times begged you not to do that. No, not this answer. Above all, he must not perceive how discomposed I am. He must not; he will not. I sheathe the sword and endeavor to steady this racing heart, these thoughts, this voice.

“I — Forgive me, my lord. I do beg your pardon for this intrusion. I received but now word of a plot against your life.”

“A plot!” His features change to alertness.

“Yes, my lord.”

“Who plots? From whom had you word of it?”

“I do not know as yet, your Grace.” Be steady, my outreached hand. “This note was given to me in the great hall, but I did not see the messenger.”

He looks intently at me and sees a man as composed as himself. Then taking the message, he studies it. Now his jaw is clenched; but the hand is like to a statue’s. He did not mark my agitation, I’m certain. What fool I was to give way to it. No traitor, bold though he were, would dare attempt the king’s life here, where he is surrounded by faithful men: to do so would be certain death. Yet I did not think of it; and had the King seen me rush distraught through halls and passages, he might have repented making me captain of his guard.

“Sir Thomas Grey,” he murmurs. “I fear I may know who the others are. It is beyond belief.”

Men’s feet clatter into the hall. The King’s uncle and his other kinsmen.

“My liege! How is your Grace? Why does the captain seek you in such haste?”

“He has brought us a most serious accusation. Here, uncle, read this.” His voice is determined. “We must look into it with no delay; yet must we give no sign of knowing it, lest these traitors should see it and escape us.”

He turns to me, looking me straight in the eye. “This has perturbed you, captain.” So, I was deceived. My discomposure has not escaped him. I return his look, though my cheeks burn.

“It was something — unexpected, my lord.”

“Trained limbs and sharp steel, captain, avail but little without a ready mind to direct them.” There is reproach in his looks and voice. I must needs make an answer to that.

“My lord, it was but this once I let my feelings take mastery; and once is not always. Yet if your Grace regrets bestowing my office on me, know I will no longer wish to hold it.”

It is too proudly and unwisely said, perhaps. But I cannot unsay it. In his silence, my last words seem to resound: ‘I no longer wish to hold it’. My heart races again like a hare fleeing the hounds. The King but looks on me steadily, his face a mask: he weighs me in his judgment.

“No, captain,” says he at last. He speaks with gentle irony, but kindly. “I take your perturbation as sign of your great care for our royal person, and little else. I know your worthiness.” I bow, and breath deep.

Now the King confers with his brothers and his uncle, and I look on. How can a man be so coldly observant, reason so clearly, when he has learned a moment ago of a treacherous plot against his life? My mind is in disarray since setting eyes on that note; yet he, whose life is in peril — he holds with a marble hand the scales on which he weighs men and actions; and the plates go neither above nor below the right measure. What manner of man is this?

It is but when the hour strikes that one can know how prepared he is; and the hour has struck, finding myself ill-prepared — but not him. I do not know if kings are made of other stuff than common men. Yet of this I’m certain now: that whatever comes to pass, Harry the Fifth is ready. For indeed, his mind is so.

______________________________________________________________________________

B. Becker is a creative writer (and escapee from Public Management) based in Southeast Brazil. Seed Heart, Becker’s first short story, was featured in the digital journal Carpe Bloom.

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1348

He arrived on Sunday, after a winter of sleep and snow. A jester with clear blue eyes, pale lithe hands and white flowers in them. He smiled and said, I come in peace. I ply my trade with buffooneries and riddles, and the joking tambourine accompanies my laughter. Enjoy my gifts, you beautiful city, and the good time I bring. He bowed in reverence, with the beauty of an angel. And it was Sunday.

On Monday Florence woke up at the song of hundred birds, colourful plumes of fast-winged spirits. Sun bathed the city roofs and its rays made the Cathedral’s spires shine and glow. Here it comes an unforgettable season, people rejoiced. For the jester had promised.

On Tuesday boys chased girls in the streets, calling them funny names like the jester had told them. Naked shoulders in the sunshine heat, naked feet on the humid lawn, great expectations and longing hearts. They laughed and laughed, they played and played again. And they were happy.

On Wednesday the artist began his most amazing painting, of a pale young man with white flowers in his hands. He gave him the beauty of an angel, blue starlight in his eyes. Which flowers are they, jester – but the model stood up and walked. Wait, the artist said, I haven’t finished yet. You won’t, replied the jester.

On Thursday the lords in their high palaces wanted to declare the war to end all wars, for a never-ending peace. Money to buy armies to buy weapons to buy yet more power. To earn yet more money for the richest city of Christianity. But the smiling jester told them to wait, for war was no longer needed. And so they waited.

On Friday he invited the people of Florence to celebrate and party. He went down to the streets, taking their hands and dancing around, drinking red wine and eating warm bread. They made rhymes and ballades together, singing the praise of loving souls, of kindred spirits, believing in eternity, sizing the fleeting day. Like yesterday never was, like tomorrow would never come.

In peace I came, he said, and kissed people of all ages, sex and races, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, filthy and elegant, nobles and peasants. He caressed Lady Beatrice’s soft cheek, and brushed children’s head with his delicate fingers.

It was late at night when his Lady came to him. So scared she had been, the week spent burning in secret, yet hesitant on her steps. Are you wise enough to befriend a fool? Are you foolish enough to believe what he says? But not that night – that night she believed, and her feet followed him under an immaculate moonlight. His skin was whiter than the moon itself, and his touch as gentle as butterfly’s wings, bestowing pleasure and divine wisdom. What’s your name, my Lord, she whispered in awe. One you don’t want to hear.

When Florence rose from slumber on Saturday afternoon there were no songs, no flowers, and all birds were gone. A hot sticky rain was dripping on their faces and insects crawled on their wet skin. Sunlight had disappeared under a blanket of fog and clouds masked the Cathedral’s spires. In thousands they were dying, without mourning of the living, abandoned in fear, desperate beyond despair.

As a ghost in the darkness, a cart with its sinister bell sound came over, slowly parading in the streets. The jester strolled along, clear blue eyes shining in compassion, and face covered by a beak-like mask, white as his hands. Soothing sick people, whispering words to their moribund ears, caressing their gaping buboes.

He visited taverns, churches and houses, a silent shadow of doom. And on the red linens of their beds he threw the asphodels of the Black Death, his voice crystalline and sweet, the touch suave of an Angel of Plague.

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Russell Hemmell is a French-Italian transplant in Scotland, passionate about astrophysics, history, and speculative fiction. Recent work has appeared in in Aurealis, Argot Magazine, The Grievous Angel, and others. Find them online at their blog earthianhivemind.net and on Twitter @SPBianchini. “1348” originally appeared in Strangelet, 1.4, November 2015.

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Savior and the Thief

I saw her in glimpses, seraphim in the blinking lantern light. In a way she resembled all that London was in that year 1860 and all that it still is to this day; a beauty revealing itself in flashes, leaving one incredulous when it appears in the most unsuspected places and moments. The third year I called London home she acted the savior. Ironic that the grand capitol that swept a Dorset boy like me in its embrace, that instilled awe and welcoming within his bosom, would also become the stage for the worst pain to ever seize him.

Covent Garden hummed with yuletide commerce. Patrons of every ilk bundled and bundled some more, as if the frigid morning air were a habitual gadfly perpetually shooed away. Mothers and daughters wore two shawls, pinching them with one hand while the other grasped and prodded wares of confectionary, linens, flora, and baubles. Fathers in greatcoats and gloves conversed idly with costermongers, while using canes to shepherd wayward sons, toddlers and young boys wobbling in their mischief, excited with sundry activity the season brought.

Being a bachelor with no wee ones of my own, and a barrister’s clerk with but a little money to spend, I tended to make better progress through the seller’s stalls than those of more familial tethering. A couple items caught my eye which I thought of gifting to my mother, but nothing sold me.

“You there, how’s about a nice shawl for a lady in your life? Pretty as a picture in the Strand!”

“Young sir, a bouquet can go a long way, if you don’t mind me sayin’.”

“These chestnuts with a bottle of our vintage—ambrosia to the kings of Thessaly.”

I smiled at these offerings, but truth was, the best stock tended to be in the middle of the marketplace. Just the way I liked it. I cherished days like these in London, where I could leave Barrister Bloathewaite’s offices with recent wages and inhale the city in all its glory, its sights, sounds, smells, touch, and the occasional taste via seller sampler.

But the pain hit that day. Worse than ever.

That morning I had contemplated sending a missive, that I would be in with the doctor. But the pain below my navel subsided, and I soldiered on.

But here in the middle of holiday cheer it hit me, sharp as ever.

I grabbed my waistline as if to prevent me being guillotined in two. I stumbled, jostled passerby, and collided with the snow-strewn cobbles. Odd that once the pain hits a certain point it tends to numb right before fainting.

The faint lasted mere minutes and I felt myself floating. It dawned on me in my stupor, an angel had been sent to fetch me. Her face flashed as my consciousness undulated, a tide gleaming sunrise. The lanterns of the stalls revealed her soft face in the early eve. Chalky and fragile, small wisps of breath meeting the phantom of cold. Her lips and nose small but set in line like a sea vessel, her eyes the steadfast sails, watering in the momentum with which she transported me in the barrow.

As in and out as I was, I grasped that I did not cross the Channel bound for the continent. When the shilling hanging from above read “Physician” I knew I had remained landlocked. I knew that much before passing out again.

Mr. Roberts was a man who knew his craft, for the ailment I had, which he called “stones”, were to pass, albeit painfully, with the help of his regimen of elixirs and mixed powders and a certain prescribed diet. I was happy the bill had left me with a bit left to pay my rent and still get my mother a small gift to bring home for the season’s visit back to Dorset.

The following week I endeavored to purchase my mother’s gift and track down the barrow seller, the angel, who had conveyed myself to relief.

It must have not been my month, as it were, for as I traversed the crowds of Drury Lane I felt the pickpocket’s hand pull my billfold. I guess I was lucky in that regard, for many is the victim who never realizes they are being robbed.

I chased the lad toward Covent Garden, not enough time to notice if any constables patrolled nearby. Fortunately my daily walk to Barrister Bloathewait’s kept me in robust condition, and it took but a quarter of an hour to maneuver to an alley where my absconder could go no further.

“Hand me what is mine, and be gone with you,” I said, wanting to go about my day without further delay. I had a pity for those who took to these ways. Even though it was wrong, I knew starving families were often the motivation behind such acts.

The rascal wore a thick woolen cap and looked about as does a cornered animal wising for some escape to manifest.

“There’s nowhere to go. Give it here.”

With a rather high-pitched grunt, the culprit sprinted in an effort to throw me off balance and get past me. I felt myself stepping in the way and grabbing hold of this thief. The momentum took us both to the cobbles. What I thought was a boy squirmed in my grasp.

“Please don’t turn me in. Please,” a young woman’s voice pleaded.

It was then I met her eyes. She flinched as I removed the cap which unrolled the billow of wheat-brown locks.

“You?” My brows clenched as it dawned on me that this was the benefactor from the week prior. Up this close, she looked more a denizen of the heavens.

A look of vague recognition twinkled in her eyes, and was gone, a sparrow gliding through an arcade.

“Sir, here, take it.” She handed me the billfold. I do not remember putting it in my coat pocket, so muddled was my mind. “It was for my mother. She is sick. No one wants to help. Please, sir, don’t turn me in.”

We were both still on the cold ground, sitting in the dank alleyway. I helped her to her feet.

“Don’t you have money from selling your barrow-wares?” I asked, perplexed. “Surely this is not the way. What good would it do your mother if you were sent to jail?”

Her hands went to her face, and rivulets flowed.

“No, no. I didn’t mean that.” I said in soft tones. “I’m not going to report this. After all you did for me, bringing me to the doctor.”

“Thank you, sir. It’s just that what little money I make, most of it goes to the stall owner. And he pays me little.”

“Let me see if I can help you and your mother.”

Her eyes showed another gleam of hope, merely a flutter, but it was there.

She nodded, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It is said London is the epicenter of all Britain, from which all things stem. And that is true for me as well, for Angelia, the woman who saved me in Covent Garden that one day and then pickpocketed my heart, became the center of my universe, and eventually we wed. She had been abused by men who only wished to use and discard her. I had been a struggling clerk, shunned by a handful of maidens who thought me, admittedly true, not yet ready to financially support them in the way their fathers thought appropriate. Yet, our roads intersected at exactly the right time.

With some of my funds, and with appeals to certain charities with whom our law firm had business ties, Angelia’s mother survived her illness, and many is the night the three of us enjoyed dinner hearthside.

When I visited Dorset, my family was quite happy to see me, and though I had no gift for my mother, when she heard where those funds went and that I had met someone special, she said that was all the gift she needed.

______________________________________________________________________________

Nolan has been published in Foliate Oak, Aphelion, Blood Moon Rising, Points in Case, and Defenestration Magazine. He’s worked with executive editors from TOR/Forge; Random House; Folio Literary; and Dijkstra Agency. Under a pen name, he self-published an Epic Fantasy novel, full of kingdoms and conflicts. He’s also taught creative writing and has his own curriculum. All this writing came after his childhood acting days in Baywatch, Disney’s Geppetto, and Pizza Hut and HBO commercials, one of which was featured in USA Today.

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Ghost in the Bathroom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dead man danced limply in her head.

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Saskia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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The Emperor’s Cloak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your great haste?”

He dismounts and lowers his voice.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is your mother, young man?”

“Countess Elzbieta Lubienskaya.”

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

***

Chana reflects meanwhile upon the joys and sorrows of matrimony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Anton explains his mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the future foreordained? Can it ever be altered?

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

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

Anton repeats this in French.

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

“What is it you see?” he demands.

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

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

“The heavens are weeping.”

The emperor snorts. He barks out orders.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might the cloak somehow comfort the countess?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eleanor Marx: A Life

Written by Rachel Holmes
Published by Bloomsbury Paperbacks; Reprint edition (November 15, 2016)

Review by Bonnie Stanard

I stayed up until after 2:00 AM finishing Rachel Holmes’ well-documented biography of Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl Marx. I couldn’t go to sleep once I got into the dirty dealings of the nefarious Edward Aveling. The last two chapters lay the groundwork for another book that addresses the dichotomy of Eleanor’s way of life versus her way of death.

Here’s my take on the book:

It provides a sweeping picture of socialist movements of latter 19th Century England, touching on France and Germany. This is a character study of Eleanor Marx only in so much as it relates to her career. She was an indefatigable person of enviable intellect in promoting her father’s principles. Her life was given to travel, organizing labor, writing and promoting the rights of workers.

In advocating an eight-hour day, age limits for employing children, and more humane treatment of women, she met a swell of opposition and wasn’t one to falter. With youthful boldness she faced ridicule and rejection from colleagues and powerful businessmen.

For many years she lived hand to mouth, moved from one shabby place to another, and persisted with enthusiasm to promote a socialist agenda. This won her many friends and admirers, especially among people working in sweatshops.

Holmes has given Eleanor the character of a person who faced obstacles with determination, energy, and sagacity. That she was the unlikeliest of persons to commit suicide is not the focus of this book. Eleanor’s devotion was first and foremost to her father’s social philosophy. That she gave up this cause and took her life when faced with her lover’s betrayal is covered in one short chapter at the end of the book. Worse yet, the lover-cum-conman who betrayed her inherited her estate.

The book’s concluding scenario is reason enough for another biography. This is not meant as a criticism of Holmes’ book, which is a fine introduction to the socialist scene at the time Eleanor Marx lived. 

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Bonnie Stanard draws on her rural upbringing and an interest in history to write novels, short stories, and poems with credits in publications such as The American Journal of Poetry, Wisconsin Review, Harpur Palate, The South Carolina Review, and The Museum of Americana. She has published six historical fiction novels and a children’s book. She lives in South Carolina. 

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Last Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ann Wachter

    A feather when viewed separately may seem like only a feather, but
  when seen through the eyes of truth it is a sacred instrument that lifts
  birds in flight.            ~Molly Friedenfeld


Spring
swing gently back, sway
briskly forward into gravity’s free fall
bend elbows v’d, thrust 
my legs out, feel myself arcing
the curve; pull 
my arms — long and taut — hold tight,  
secure inside this sturdy, pedestaled embrace
breaking free, toes pointing
up 
toward the sky


where I swing in parallel 
accord


feeling the glee of a tickle,
the wisp of the air      filling
my nostrils,


the thrill of life
beckoning me to hold
firmly to my chains,
to steady


harpsichord’s notes  
in time with violin’s strokes  
Martha Wales Skelton Jefferson 


Four Seasons (continued)


II. Summer


travel new pathways — winding,
chirping, trickling toward 
forest blue where 
still end meets cheer hollowing 
in the distant wind


tata tata tata ta
dada dada dada da


my aerie sweeps, climbs
upward.  What height
dare I push before plummeting down, 
down — stumbling feebly 
upon abandoned quay,


giggling, stomping my feet firmly
on good ground,


I upend her harpsichord, 
his violin,’twining 
‘tween Iliad’s lines


III.  Autumn


Children bound gracefully 
about their winding trails, through Monticello’s grove,
as though Martha’s wits and reason 
have

tale


Once upon a knoll,
we swung alongside vines,
tethers of sweet berries
linked one
by one
by one
then we ate the berries
singing a made-up tune
dubbed  ‘Once Upon a Swing’


solitude’s bells, chime rhythmically —
ting a ling, a ling 
ting a ling, a ling  


Her strings unwind; gentle,
sweet, undone 
diminuendo; I linger in the silence 
of her harpsichord 

IV.  Winter


gifting staggering sway to quill a peaceful 
world where God’s heart 
occupies Thomas' hearth


placing sturdy combinations
of lavender and lilies next 
Martha’s grave —
sensing breathless aroma


skidding down Independence Grove —
shady umbrellas open, keeping 
life subdued


offshoots pellet fertile ground
taking root
pound for pound


Thomas reaches back, holds 
his stroke, pressing
the fingers of my harpsichord

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Ann Wachter is an ever-maturing writer of poetry who completed her Bachelor of Arts with John Carroll University, University Heights, Ohio, 1982.  She hones her craft by attending writing workshops including Iowa Summer Writing Workshops, UW-Madison Writer’s Institute and University of Chicago Writer’s Studio as she plans her MFA journey.  Her publications include Catharsis, copyright 2011; 9-11 Dream from a Steel Beam, circa 2015, Highland Park Poetry Muses Gallery; The Guest, June 2018, The Copperfield Review.

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