I wanted to read this book, researching for my writing project. It helped me to understand better not only how U-boats operated and why during the war they became the Allies’ worst nightmare, but also gave me great insights into the life of a crew onboard German U-boat.
Written by a survivor of the U-boat fleet, the book is a fictionalised memoir of Lieutenant Werner (Lothar-Günther Buchheim) who was assigned as a war correspondent to U-96 during her last patrol in the North Atlantic. The U-boat fleet experienced the heaviest human losses: of 40,000 men who served on submarines, 30,000 failed to return.
This book is more than just a historical drama. The author takes his reader through all circles of hell–from an endless storm in the Atlantic and pointless “frigging around” which almost destroyed the crew’s spirit to the two attacks and the crazily dangerous voyage through Gibraltar which almost smashed the U-boat.
Some readers can find the book a bit too long and monotonous, with the author’s endless descriptions of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean weather (the stormy sea, the calm sea, the sea at dawn, etc.) and wordy explanations on how the different compartments of the vessel operate, etc. However, it creates a certain atmosphere. A reader can actually feel the dripping of condensation from the ceiling of the boat, the smell of machine oil in the engine room, and hear explosions of depth charges during attacks.
The author doesn’t give names to most of the crew. We know the men only by their ranks or nicknames: The Old Man/Herr Kaleun (Herr Kapitänleutnant), the Chief, the First Watch Officer, Number One, etc. It doesn’t prevent a reader from connecting to all of them.
Although during the war we were on opposite sides of the barricade, the book made me feel compassionate towards these young men (the Old Man was actually in his mid 30s, the rest of the crew–in their late teens, early 20s) who went through all the horrors of the war, but didn’t lose their honour, bravery, kindness, and ability to help others. Clearly, these men were not evil, brainwashed Nazis. They were just men who were pushed to fight. All they wanted is just to survive and finish the war.
Despite the lack of female characters in the book, can a girl like me relate to the main characters? “Jawohl, Herr Kaleun!” Absolutely.
Valeriya Salt is a multi-genre author from the United Kingdom. Born in Belarus, she lived for many years in the Ukraine and Russia before settling down in the north of England. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages. She’s the author of a few published thriller/science fiction novellas and novels. Her short stories have appeared in numerous anthologies as well as magazines, both online and in print. Apart from creative writing, she has a passion for travelling, arts, history, and foreign languages.
New Year’s Eve of 1888 brought to London a sense of anticipation, calm, and beauty combined. Anticipation existed in that the city was hopeful the year 1889 would bring new advances in our rapidly changing world, and that I was eager for new cases to occupy the indefatigable mind of my friend. Secondly, an eerie calm paradoxically layered over the rooftops, stretching from our lodgings at 221B Baker Street to the vestibule of St. James and to the spires of Westminster. Looking out our window, I cracked it a smidgen to inhale the cold night air, its constant companions the fog and chimney smoke of thousands of grates spreading over the horizon and the quietness that pervaded the city at the late hour. This view constituted my last point of the evening; it was a beautiful night.
Holmes and I had hosted a small party of guests for the occasion in our chambers. The idea was a combination of Mrs. Hudson’s and mine. My roommate, at first, was against the idea, saying he needed rest upon the completion of his most recent case; one that involved the stolen emeralds of the Duke of York’s wife and the apprehension of the kleptomaniacal son of a member of the House of Lords.
“Surely, Holmes, you can do with a little celebration after your recent accomplishment,” I said, attempting to staunch his misgivings. “After all, it is the new year, and Mrs. Hudson’s daughter and her new husband will be visiting.”
Here, Holmes shot a glance at me from his armchair near the mantelpiece. The fire cast a gleam in his eye, which he hid well, for it was gone in a split second. But I caught it in that flash. Holmes had been a bit unpleasant to our poor landlady in the weeks leading up to the Duke of York’s case. It was his habit to be pouty and rude to both myself and even more so to Mrs. Hudson when there was no work or puzzle to occupy his brilliant, investigatory brain, or when there was difficulty in the solving of one.
During this period of doldrums, Holmes had been restless in his study of the native tribesmen of the Southern Americas as well as New Guinea. He even went so far to, on more than one occasion, emulate the same dress as these indigenous peoples, and had terrified the tolerant woman more than once. One particular instance occurred after I had gone to bed as Holmes started up his violin playing (I was used to his antics and learned to sleep through his spasmodic rehearsing). Well, it had turned out Holmes had played far past his usual late hour, only to incite the wrath of Mrs. Hudson. Imagine our landlady’s surprise as she trounced up the stairs at three in the morning and upon flinging open our anteroom door, witnessed her pale half-naked tenant dressed as an Amazonian huntsman playing the violin, using a dart blowgun as the bow. Needless to say, if the scream hadn’t already woken me up, it would have been the shouting match that ensued.
In my blurry state, I managed to calm down lessor and renter, saying that it would be a miracle already if Lestrade hadn’t been dispatched with his constables to our residence. Both parties, to my great relief, went to bed. But it occurred to me that Holmes had acted rather rudely towards Mrs. Hudson, and I never did witness an apology.
I believe this had inhabited the peripheries of Holmes’s thoughts for he replied in a conciliatory tone to my New Year’s plans. “Perhaps you are right, Watson,” he said, steepling his fingers, elbows on the arms of his chair. “I fear I have rather taxed Mrs. Hudson recently and owe it to her to remedy my misbehavior.”
“So you are for our little celebration, Holmes?” I asked, eyebrows raised.
“As much as social gatherings vex me, I think it wise to throw a small soiree in our quarters.”
“Very good, Holmes. Mrs. Hudson and I would be delighted.”
And so here we were on the second floor in our meeting room enjoying companionship and cheer for the new year. I had invited friends of mine, a Dr. Michael Huddleston and his wife Lucy, a charming woman who knew much of London’s goings on. Michael’s practice was adjacent to mine on Harley Street and the two of us got on well with our common occupations and shared views on many a matter, both political and social. Also in attendance were Daniel Ives and his new wife, Mrs. Hudson’s kind and enthusiastic daughter, Amelia. Both had made their way to London from Devonshire, and Mrs. Hudson was beaming, blissfully content to see her daughter happily married to such an agreeable young man in the textile trade. Holmes, I could tell, had been more sociable than usual to our landlady, and I gathered that his acquiescence and demeanor had mended the rift between them.
The seven of us made a fine party, and all were in good disposition. Mrs. Hudson had brought up cakes and pastries, some of which were made by Amelia in the kitchen downstairs. Lucy made an exquisite fish pie, of which I had more than my normal portion. And even Holmes had provided punch and chocolates. After our piecemeal dishes were served, we sat around in discussion, keeping our eye to the hour. The clock on the mantle neared midnight, and I stifled a yawn and could tell that others were fighting off somnolency. The evening meal and many helpings of punch were taking effect. If it wasn’t for the intriguing conversation between my two friends, I fear I would have dozed.
“It is amazing, still, you must admit Mr. Holmes,” Michael stated. “This new telephone system improves with each passing day. In fact, I wonder if you yourself owned such a contraption could you be able to wish the Queen herself at the tolling of the hour a “happy new year” and could you hear her reply.”
“The technology is getting there, Dr. Huddleston,” Holmes said, “but I fear even if I was to get through to her majesty, she would not hear me, for surely the fireworks over the Thames at the Royal New Years Jubilee would drown out my frail voice.”
The room chuckled, and my heart warmed at seeing such a happy young couple along with the mirth of their matriarch. My small revelry was interrupted by a cry from Lucy, who grabbed her husband’s arm and shook it from the settee. “Look, Michael,” she said. “Look, everyone. The hour approaches!” She pointed at the clock, and sure enough, we were within thirty seconds of January 1st.
At ten seconds till, we counted down the time, and I noticed Holmes roll his eyes as he saw me look his way. Yet even he mimed the tradition, if not for Mrs. Hudson’s sake. Midnight struck, toasts were made, the two groups of lovers kissed, and Michael and I broke out into song. Upon finishing our jolly Auld Lang Song, there was a knock on our apartment door.
“Who could that be at this hour?” I said. I approached the door, cracking it to find a darkly-clad man bundled in his greatcoat and holding an envelope. Holmes had walked up beside me, and I opened the door wider. “A happy new year to you,” I said by rote. “Can I help you?”
“Yes sir,” he said. “I’ve a letter for a Mr. Sherlock Holmes and a Dr. John H. Watson. Might that be you, gentlemen?”
“Indeed,” I said, taking the letter, eyeing Holmes dubiously.
Holmes looked past me. “Don’t open it, Watson. I want this man to know that I already know exactly the contents of this letter.”
“You do?” I asked, nonplussed.
“Furthermore,” Holmes continued, “the real intent of this letter is to distract you and I.”
As soon as Holmes said this, the man at the door reached into his coat pocket.
“You can try to conjure imaginative bullets, sir,” Holmes said with his palms upward in a gesture of futility, “but I fear they will not serve your role as the Ripper’s agent.”
The assailant levelled up his pulled pistol, hesitant. I instinctively froze as Holmes held up a hand for me to do so.
“What are you getting at?” the assailant said.
There were noises of gasps and questioning from our guests, who by this time took notice of our ill-intentioned visitor.
“There is no need to fret,” Holmes said loudly, in a commandingly calm tenor.
“Oh, but there is,” said the assailant with a grim smile, “Say goodnight.”
“You fool,” Holmes glared at him, “I had your firearm replaced this very afternoon.”
The assailant fired. Click, click, click. There was no gunshot. I was utterly baffled as I flinched at each sound.
The man immediately about-faced, running down our stairs. I made to chase, but Holmes grabbed my arm. “No need, Watson. You hear that scuffle below? That’ll be Lestrade and his constables apprehending our offender on our porchway.”
“What do you mean, Holmes? What is this all about?”
My questioning was reinforced by the urgings of our guests who stood pale faced despite the glow of the waning flames in our fireplace.
“Please, all of you relax,” Holmes said. “I can assure you all is well. See there below, Lestrade is just now escorting our would-be assassin via locked carriage to one of the Yard’s gaols.”
He spun around and motioned us to all sit in our previous seats. I was quite irritated with him but also so confused I blankly walked behind the couch. My nerves were so rattled, I opted to stand behind the sofa.
“You may know,” Holmes began, “that the Yard’s struggles to discover the killer behind the Ripper murders has led them to enlist my help. I had been investigating the case long before they asked me, but once my official role became known in certain spheres, I knew the killer would try and address it. This so-called Ripper, despite his utter barbarism, is a cunning individual, someone who does, must, not want to be caught. As such, I knew he would make a move to take me out.”
“But Holmes,” I said, “the letter that you are holding is addressed to both of us.”
“Quite right, Watson. Our killer hired this agent to kill only me. He wanted you to bear witness to my demise, close up, in the hope you would write about your experience, or at the very least be reluctant to involve yourself in further investigations.”
“How did you know this man was not the Ripper himself?” I said.
“Our foe does not work that way. This is far too exposed. He works only in the shadows and will continue to spread the wings of his darkness therein.”
“Will he strike again?” Mrs. Hudson asked, shakily.
“He may try,” Holmes said, “but I have on my side a few allies that would make him think twice. You see, when I first discovered our assailant was following me about the city, I enlisted my young minions. You may call them dirty boys and mischievous girls, street urchins, but to me they are my irregulars—loyal soldiers who can slip into most places undetected, uncover secrets, and execute strategies. Once they discovered where this agent lived, it was easy to have young Mickey slip in here and there, discover the exact model of pistol, and replace it with one that held blanks.”
“Another ally is my brother Mycroft. As you know, he is quite up there in his work in matters of government. He provides the occasional spy her majesty can spare, and I am quite certain their skills supersede those of our talented yet lacking Lestrade.”
Here, Holmes paused, looking at the letter in his hand, then continued. “This letter has nothing written on it, unlike the cryptic notes our foe leaves around his slayings, which I hope to end once and for all in this new year.”
“Here, here,” Michael said, raising his glass. Our guests and myself also voiced agreement, but I could tell there was a troubled split-second movement in Holmes’s face as he said it. Was that a flash of doubt? Hesitancy in solving the case of the century? As with most of Holmes’s mystic persona, I could not fathom the reason.
“Now, if you are all agreeable,” Holmes said grabbing an empty glass, “let us have a nightcap to settle our nerves and end the night in an accustomed manner of cheer without fear. Lestrade has been generous in leaving two constables as sentries on our nook of the street. So drink up.”
As punch was served and conversations resumed, Holmes spoke to me quietly. “I am rather glad you threw this gathering, Watson. Please know, I agreed to it in the full knowledge that no harm would come to any of you.”
“As you say, Holmes, I know your methods, though they still leave me in the dark. May I ask a candid question?”
“Certainly, my friend.”
“Could it be that your eccentric behavior of late toward Mrs. Hudson has to do with the difficulty in this case, which has dragged longer than most? You made quick work of unmasking the emerald thief—did you take that to distract yourself from the Ripper?”
“Here, you see through me, Watson.” Holmes smiled. “Though the emerald case was more of a distraction for the Ripper than for myself. He knows I will not stop until he stops, yet I wanted to see what he would do. You may be perplexed by my studies of the Amazonian or New Guinea hunters. But I ask you, how do you catch an evasive prey?”
“You learn from the best hunters,” I ventured.
“Precisely. So what appeared to you as me not working, was actually me working.”
“Ah,” I said, sipping the last of my punch.
“I really must keep myself in check, Watson. This case, as you see, brings me to bleak moods, and I do not like mistreating you or Mrs. Hudson.”
“We all act out when under great stress, Holmes.”
“Indeed, Watson. And for one of the first times in my life, I must learn to cope. I hope my year’s resolutions bring progress, for I fear with this new foe, I have met my match.”
Nolan has been published in Foliate Oak, Aphelion, Points in Case, The Copperfield Review, and others. He’s worked with 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. An avid reader, he has recently been devouring fiction set in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Posted inUncategorized|Comments Off on The Case of the Midnight Assassin
My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health, and I pray, remember my love unto my sister, Catherine.
Today marks a month since we landed in the New World and a fortnight since Governor White departed Roanoke for England, but I already imagine him bringing my letters to you.
Never more have I missed the greenness of home. There has been scant rain since we arrived, and our crops are withering in hardened fields. God be praised, Manteo’s tribe, the Croatans, have showed us how to properly farm and trap fish.
Our dwindling supplies has forced Mr. White home to secure more goods. He was reluctant to leave his new grandchild, but the Council of Elders insisted. I cannot make sense of their logic. Surely, Mr. White is a better artist than governor but besides Chief Manteo, he is the most familiar with this strange land. Part of me yearned to return home, but ’tis mad to think Sir Raleigh would listen to a girl of only eighteen.
Sadly, the bloody flux has overtaken many. Papa, I am grateful for the time helping you with your patients as I have become the settlement’s nurse. Often, there is nothing more than a cool rag and soft words to offer as they pass into God’s hands.
I would not survive without my friend Jane, who has taken me under her wing since our days on the Lion. She spooned soup in my mouth when I was laid low by the stormy waves of the ocean and ever since has lent her faith in my darkest hours.
The entire colony has come to rely on her. She fills her day with whatever needs to be done whether it’s chopping wood or fashioning roofs. Yet she is never too tired to teach the children their letters. I suspect our shipmate Henry has taken a fancy to her and that she returns his interest.
’Tis the thought of Mr. White returning across the mighty Atlantic with your letters that brings me hope. I promise to write often, though it may be a long time before another ship will pass our way.
As always, I remain a servant to God and pray for the strength to spread his word to these heathen lands.
Your humble and obedient daughter,
19 September 1587
Dearest Mother and Father,
My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health .
The drought is over! After days of dry rumblings and lightning in the sky, God has blessed us with a much-needed downpour. ’Tis the first since our anchoring and a sure sign of the Almighty’s love. I danced in the fields, my skirts soon caked with mud. There is nothing sweeter than the smell of newly fallen rain.
The burning fever that had taken so many has finally receded. More would be dead if it were not for the advice of Achak, the Croatan healer. And I believe Achak has cured our colonists of scurvy as well! Papa, you taught me to watch for signs of the affliction whilst at sea, but did you know it can occur on land as well? (Mama, allow Father to read this part alone as ’tis not suitable for such a fine lady.)
Papa, at first, many came to me complaining of aches that seemed a natural consequence of hard work. But soon their gums swelled, bled black blood, and turned putrid. Spots of red and purple appeared on their bloated arms and legs and burst. The wails of mothers who had lost their children haunted my dreams. I was desperate and turned to Achak, and asking nothing in return, he agreed to help. Papa, how can such a man be called a savage?
He boiled the needles of an evergreen and had the afflicted drink the tea. As I bear witness unto God, the pain resolved within three days, and all were better in a week. I have enclosed some of the needles as I don’t know the tree’s name. Perhaps you will inform the seafaring folk of this remedy?
(Mama, you may safely read again.)
Alas, we fear the death of Henry. He was last seen going into the woods to hunt by Elder John, who blames his disappearance on the savages. We continue to pray for Henry’s return.
My palms are as rough as tree bark, my skirt hems tattered, but fret not. I embrace these hardships that make me stronger in my faith and our mission.
Your humble and obedient daughter,
31 October 1587
My Dearest Catherine
If you be in good spirits, I am glad. Thanks to be given to God, I am in good bodily health. Yet, sister, I am quite unwell in mind. I try to live in this day and not in my worries, but much has transpired that leaves me unsettled.
’Tis been near two months since Mr. White departed. I pray for his safe passage and speedy return as our supplies dwindle. In his absence, Elder John has appointed himself governor. I pray that God grants him the wisdom to lead sensibly, but I fear his temperament and love of money. All he speaks of is raiding the native’s village for secret stores of food and gold they don’t have. By God’s grace, my urgings, and a shortage of munitions, his plans have been thwarted. As the larders grow barer and men’s hearts darker, I fear reason may no longer prevail. Truth be told, much of the savagery attributed to the natives rests in us. Please pray that God will give us the strength to conquer our worst enemies of famine and faithlessness.
Since Henry’s disappearance, Jane has become a ghost of herself. She refuses all but bites of food and sleeps fitfully. At dinner tonight, she filled Mr. John’s plate with her doubts, saying, “My Henry never would venture past the gates alone. Something’s amiss.”
The governor banged his fist on the table and told her that she was stirring up deadly distrust when our survival depends on unity. How can he be right? Jane is worth more than ten governors.
Our troubles continue to multiply. Chief Manteo is missing as well. He was never the same after our men mistakenly slaughtered his mother, the Croatan chief. Yet, he still managed to broker peaceful relations with the many of the surrounding tribes. As it was always the intention to move the settlement inland, the council decided Manteo should travel northward as a scout. He promised to return before the new moon, but it has been more than two months since he left. The governor refuses to send out a search party.
Manteo’s absence has emboldened several elders in their encounters with the unmarried women and girls. ’Tis a matter too salacious for young ears but rest assured, we women never work alone.
I thank you sister. Putting these overwrought fears into words reminds me that these doubts are Satan’s distraction from the work of our heavenly Father. I must place my faith in his plan, even one that I do not understand. I leave you to the protection of Almighty God.
Your loving sister,
P.S. Please don’t share this with Mama and Papa. They need not fret over a daughter’s silly musings.
3 November 1587
Dearest Mother and Father,
My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.
Only writing can steady my tremors. Dearest Jane has disappeared. In the days before she vanished, she had become unusually despondent, even cross. I thought her only overworked and mourning Henry. The last I saw her, she was standing on the beach, staring at the twilight sky. She looked like an angel as the evening breeze fluttered her cape behind her, held in place by her mother’s brooch. She assured me she would soon retire. If only I had stayed with her.
The governor believes she was kidnapped by Indians and may be alive, albeit a slave. He remembers cries for help that night but by the time he reached the beach, she was gone, and the sand marked by many footprints. I will continue to pray for her. Please add the good Jane to your nightly petitions.
As always, I remain a servant to God and true to my mission.
Your humble and obedient daughter,
11 November 1587
Dearest Mother and Father,
My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.
Much has transpired since I last wrote. In truth, I tried to spare you some of the more unpleasant circumstances, but this dishonesty weighs heavily.
Today, we number less than thirty women and children and the seven Elders. Weakened by the lack of food and brackish water, we are bereft of hope. Ragged clothes cannot hide skin that sags on the hard corners of our bones.
However, Nature is not responsible for all our misfortunes. ’Tis the dearth of water that has laid bare our own turpitudes. The elders care nothing of God’s work or our survival, only the search for gold. As provisions decline, they have cut rations to scraps. How is it that they can silence the pain of constant hunger?
This assault of death and despair has hardened my soul. By the grace of God, I am not the only one unsettled. A time ago, Goodwife Agnes and I were washing up after supper, and oft, she would sigh loudly. She claimed that the nursing babies would not survive the winter, and that the elders had ordered the gruel even thinner for the nearly dead. I greeted each pronouncement with a shrug. Then she told me that the governor had declared the widowed as the property of the elders—with marital privileges. I could no longer contain my anger for this abomination against God. It seems ’twas the only encouragement needed to secure Agnes’s faith in me. She whispered that the women wanted to join the Croatans in their winter migration and asked me to approach them. I agreed at once.
I sought the council’s approval to meet with the natives under the guise of fostering better relations. The elders accused me of being a turncoat, but their concerns run shallow. I convinced them that I could trick the Indians into revealing their secret stash of gold.
I tell you of my encounter with the supposed savages to temper your anger at my decisions. God be thanked, they welcomed me to their assembly, a place where all were allowed to speak. We sat on the ground and not a voice was raised. When they disagreed, they went back and forth, each time one gave a little whilst another took, and a middle ground was coaxed from small concessions and gains so by the end, everyone was at least partly pleased.
When it was my turn, Achak introduced me. He did not hide the destruction our settlement had brought upon them. But he spoke kindly of my ministering to the sick and my efforts to learn their language. I greeted them using their own words and asked for forgiveness and permission for our people to join them.
’Twas a lively debate, and all seemed lost when they asked if I would try to convert them. As if guided by their example, I conceded I would only speak of Christianity if asked. At last, they agreed to take us inland.
Our plan is simple. We will leave under the cover of night with no more than prayers and the clothes on our back. Although we have found refuge in the kindness of the natives, to this I promise, my salvation will belong unto God alone.
Alas, ’tis unlikely these words will ever reach you, but ’tis a salve on my heart to write them. Though we may not meet again until we are in the Kingdom of Heaven, know that God’s love will keep me safe in this earthly home. ’Tis this love that girds my resolve. I will protect those who have put their faith in me as I put my faith in God.
Good Father and Mother, pray for me,
23 November 1587
Dearest Mother and Father,
Sometimes the lowliest of pursuits can lead to the most perplexing of discoveries. ’Twas laundering day, and a pile of clothes awaited. Something sharp stabbed my hand whilst scrubbing pants. From the pocket, I fished out Jane’s unlatched brooch. How could this be? Anyone who found the brooch surely would have informed the settlement, as it could be a clue to her whereabouts. Confronting the elders would only lead to false denials so I slipped the pin back into the pants and hung them to dry, waiting to see who would claim them.
I did not wait long. Elder William soon appeared and grabbed the pants. I kept busy with my work so as to seem unaware of his distress. He had to be connected to Jane’s disappearance, but I knew not how. Fear made me cautious. I told no one.
I maintained a cheery countenance during dinner though Mr. William’s glances felt like hands tightening around my neck. When the other women retired after evening prayers, I ventured out to spy on the nightly council meeting.
The elders built the usual fire on the beach, a beacon for passing ships. ’Twas not long before the governor arrived and made straight for Mr. William. He drew a knife from his belt and stabbed Mr. William in the chest over and over until the man collapsed. The governor fell upon him, thrusting his knife into the still body until the others pulled him off. What happened next— ’twas clear that the men knew exactly what to do.
They flayed Mr. William from stem to stern and gathered the stripped muscle and innards into a pile and tossed skin and bones into the fire. I gagged on the acrid smell but dared not move.
The flames sputtered to crackling embers. The governor shoved his knife into the pile of remains and pulled out a piece. He crouched by the fire, held the piece over the coals, and rotated the knife. The other men soon joined, for what purpose I refused to believe.
After a time, the men sat back and gnawed at the charred bits hanging from their knives. Soon the woods were filled with the barbarians’ laughter. My body went cold then hot, and I felt the bitter taste of disgust in my throat. I could stay no longer, no matter the cost, and fled.
Do you see how these times might wreck a person’s soul? Just the thought of the lot of Jane, Henry, Manteo, so many others who had mysteriously disappeared. I could not turn the other cheek, even if it meant I must turn my back on God.
I raced to the swamps on the other side of the fort. There I would find the cowbane that Achak had showed me. I stayed up all night, harvesting the roots and seeds, careful to keep my hands covered with a rag.
The next morning, I ground my doubts and cowbane into a paste and sent a message to Achak that we were ready to depart that very night.
I cooked my disgust into the evening’s soup. With ladle in hand, I waited. Like every night, the elders pushed to the front of the line and picked up the bowls I had carefully prepared. The brutes would never notice the dried paste at the bottom.
We had nearly finished tidying up after supper when the slightest of the seven men began to stumble and drool, to the delight of the other elders. But their laughter was brief. Another soon doubled over and screamed in pain; a third vomited, and the other two started to twitch. The men grunted and convulsed, their eyes turned black, their skin burned red, as the devil they courted came to claim their souls. They writhed for what seemed hours but finally each one’s breathing slowed, then stopped. I felt no remorse and made sure my face was the last the governor saw as he crossed over.
Finally, the moans were replaced by an even deadlier silence. I had but only a moment to regain the other women’s trust. I searched the pockets of Governor John. Fortunately, he had kept the proof of his treachery. The remaining women gasped when I showed them Jane’s brooch.
’Twas not difficult to convince them of the men’s utter corruption. They were eager to leave. We surrendered the bodies to a watery grave and not a tear was shed or a prayer offered for the true heathens.
There are only moments before Achak will take the rest to a better place but without me. I cannot burden their new life with the weight of my transgressions.
Please forgive me this last missive. ’Tis my confession unto God and a final account of the Roanoke colonists’ fate for whomsoever finds this. I daren’t dishonor God by justifying my actions. I accept that my evil deeds are not absolved by good intentions. As for this and the other letters I have never sent, I will put them in a sturdy jug and entrust them to the heart of a nearby cave so that the stain of the council and my own sins will not dishonor those we hold most dear. I trust in God to allow their discovery when the time is proper.
As for me, I care little. I will strike out for the woods to await Nature’s justice. But first, I must carve a message on the large oak so Mr. White will know where to find the survivors.
Fran Nadel is a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an emerging writer. She graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults in July 2020.
The history of all pioneers of new truths is relatively the same. I showed them a beautiful truth; in their ignorance, bigotry, and blindness, they called me fraud. Barnum called me fraud, a “humbug.” When last was a man cleared by a court so vilified?
I insert the plate into the camera, my channel through which the spirit host shines. “Through a glass darkly,” St Paul writes, “but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.” The glass plate brings the truth to our face. The camera brings the truth, and that is why she comes and why they will mock me no longer.
The boards creak as I pace to the door. For the fourth time and then the fifth, I peer down dim stairs though I know it is early. I sit in the one chair I can afford, now, the one in front of the camera, and then I stand again and pace to the window, door, window. Things had been different in New York, before the trial.
I check the camera again, ensuring I have inserted the right glass plate. If I am wrong about “Mrs. Lindall” I will have to switch it, but I am not wrong. And I can help her.
Slow footsteps echo in the stairwell. I can help her, I think again as the black veil enters. The mourning dress is elegant; the newspapers always said she spared no expense. She passes by me without a word and enters the studio, proceeding directly to the photograph on the table. It shows Bronson Murray with his head bowed. The spirit stands behind him, one hand on his shoulder, the other passing through the hairs on his cheek. She holds him. It is Ella Bonner; her husband, Robert, knew her immediately when he came in response to a letter, and he wept to see his deceased wife. They often weep; they give thanks as they pay me. I have taken many spirit photographs, but that one is among the finest. I wonder what the widow thinks as she examines it. I say nothing out of respect for what she’s endured, for her grief. For who she is. But at last, I must say something, and I must make sure I am right.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln.”
“I knew you would know.” She does not turn, but she lifts the veil to get a better look at Mr. Murray and Mrs. Bonner. I wait for some moments. “How did you first connect to the spirit realm, Mr. Mumler?”
I have learned it is best to be open. “It began as an accident, as a jest,” I say. “I was experimenting with my camera, developed a self-portrait, and saw it. The form. I assumed I erred somehow. One day a gentleman visited me who I knew was a Spiritualist. I was not at that time… inclined much to the spiritual belief. I concluded to have a little fun. My exact words were, ‘this picture was taken by myself when there was no visible person present but myself.’”
“And did you have a fine laugh, sir?” She faces me now with the veil again drawn. Her aspect and her voice are death-ridden.
I nearly falter, but I have told this tale many times. “The jest was on me. That man told others what he had seen, and in about a week from that time, I received a paper from New York called the Herald of Progress reporting on my ‘great proof.’”
“And were you exhilarated?” my inquisitor interjects. “Fearful?”
“I was mortified, ma’am. My name in public print… At that time, you see, I thought the photograph to be a kind of misrepresentation…”
“When did you learn otherwise? When did you believe, Mr. Mumler?” I gaze at her obscured face. She has come all this way for my gift, but she still needs me to confirm it.
“When I went to the gallery where my photographs were displayed. A crowd of people waited, and one of them was a scientist from Cambridge, thoroughly acquainted with photography. I told him what another man had told me, that I had not cleaned the glass sufficiently and that the spirit was merely an image from a previous exposure. The scientist said no. He said that might be possible, and even probable, in daguerrotyping, but not in my photograph. Not on glass.”
“And you believed then?”
“How much then?”
Her questions are nothing if not efficient. “I ask ten dollars for a sitting, ma’am.”
“A pretty penny for a picture, but not beyond the means of a widow Congress finally saw fit to grant a pension. Are there… guarantees?”
“I cannot control the spirits, Mrs. Lincoln. I know only after it is developed.”
The black lace thinks. Whether hesitating or hoping, I know not.
“Good,” she says. “Am I to sit in this chair?”
I take a step to help her as a gentleman should, but she seats herself and, to my relief, lifts the veil. Hers is a hard, suffering face.
“Just a few moments while I prepare, Mrs. Lincoln.” She nods.
I open the camera and examine the plate yet again, confirming I have placed the correct one. I look through the camera. It is her. It must be perfect. I visualize where the spirit might be. Everything depends on its perfection. The great truth. The future of spirit photography. My return to grace.
“Do you consider yourself a great man, Mr. Mumler?”
She has surprised me, but I bow my head with appropriate reverence. “I am an instrument.”
“As are we all, Mr. Mumler.” She looks to the window; I curse myself for not having scrubbed the grime, then remove the slide cover. Nearly ready. I examine the shot through the camera again. She still looks away to the window.
“My husband was a great man. But you know that.”
“He was, ma’am.”
“You all know that. You think you know…” Her hand moves to draw down the safety of the veil, but she glances at the camera and catches herself. “He was destined for it. It was God’s will he be taken in his country’s cause. Do you know, when he was elected, what he said? ‘Molly, Molly, we are elected.’ We are elected, he said. For my life was predestined, too. In Illinois Stephen Douglas, that small man, courted me before Abe did. Did you know that?”
I realize she has asked me, and I shake my head. I cannot fathom calling this woman Molly. The scale of her life presses in upon me.
“When I refused Douglas, I told him, ‘I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.’ Oh, I knew, Mr. Mumler. And I knew when I saw him. People would never believe it now, but my husband danced. Quite appallingly, but he danced. Dear old James Conkling said he looked like old Father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what’s going on. Abe approached me, bowed, and said he wanted to dance with me in the worst way. I told him he did dance in the worst way.”
She laughs, so briefly I wonder if my ears have deceived me. I would not have known she could still laugh.
“He was a good man. He worried his income would disappoint me, coming from the family I did and living the life I did. But Abe was worth more than all the houses and all the gold. He was a man of mind with a hope and bright prospects, and a head for power. He could never manage to wear socks that matched, but he had a nobleness of heart. You have heard of my troubles, Mr. Mumler.”
The abrupt turn jars me. I feel my jaw hanging as she fixes her gaze on my wordless face.
“Do not dissemble, sir. You have… everyone has. Everyone with an ounce of education and the sense to find a newspaper has read of my impropriety.” She has mercy—she releases me and looks back to my unclean window. “It has been my hourly prayer that I might soon be removed from a world so filled with woe and bitterness. God has willed it otherwise.”
My jaw still hangs uselessly. Those in grief have sought me. For more than ten years I have given them comfort with my camera, and I have learned to comfort with my words. But they were men and women, and now I stand in reach of something beyond them. She is vast. Implacable.
“I saw what they did to him, Mr. Mumler. That angel of light. I was there when he forgot to eat dinner, and when he stooped with exhaustion, when the war sapped him. I knew what weighed on him. I read the Bible to legless men in Washington’s hospitals and held their hands as they died, and I could see their souls in my Abe’s eyes. And through it all, when the newspapers slandered me and his cabinet scorned me and our Willie left this world, that husband, in his great love and tenderness, would not allow the wind of Heaven to visit me too roughly. That, sir, is the man my husband was. Do you know what is inscribed on this wedding band?”
She points at the ring on her finger, and her ferocity demands an answer, but I can say nothing.
“’Love is eternal.’ He is here, I know he is here, because love is eternal. Now, you may take your picture, Mr. Mumler.”
I realize my hand still rests on the camera; I see my studio again and remember where we are. I take a final look through the camera; having been photographed many times, she is still, and I need give her no reminders before uncovering the lens to admit light.
She will have a spirit photograph worthy of her pain. I prepared this plate more carefully than any in my career. The subject was carefully chosen for height, nose and beard, and I exposed three different plates to ensure I had the best possible likeness and in case I spoiled one by cleaning too much. But after twelve years, I know just how much and how little to clean that first exposure from the glass.
They call me fraud because they do not understand. I do not fully understand, not after the trial. I thought I did.
When I ran to that gallery twelve years ago, mortified at the publicity my jest had received, my Emma was there. We had never met before that day, but I heard her cry in her pretty voice, “Why, there is Mr. Mumler!” She would be my wife; I sensed it. I confessed the secret to that Cambridge scientist because I could not deny them all. He gave me the explanation, and the assembled crowd gave me conviction; Emma gave me conviction. They called me an instrument, a divine instrument of the spiritual host. Could an error and a jest move these people so? I knew what I had done. I also believed. For in the end, what is truth? We Spiritualists believe the unknown can be known, that we can reach the other side. Spirits inhabit Emma. I have seen it.
Barnum called me humbug. He exhibits nothing that does not give a man his money’s worth, he claimed. Is ten dollars so much? They would not believe less.
A fearful man asks, “Is this all of life? Is there a hereafter?” And as the years roll on, bringing him nearer to the solution of this great problem, the question becomes, to him, one of great moment. The anchor to which he has been clinging for safety begins to drag; the advance of science demonstrates that the world was not made in a brief period, but has existed for innumerable ages, and where is he drifting? Spiritualism comes to him like a beacon-light to the mariner. And if he doubts this beautiful truth, he can turn to the photographs of William Mumler, for proof that there is more. Truth, manifest. Am I a fraud if it is real? I used to know…
“Are you quite finished, Mr. Mumler?”
I realize she is right, and she has sat still long after I had covered the lens.
“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln.”
She eagerly pulls the veil over her face. “When will it be ready?”
“You may pick it up in three days’ time.”
She whispers, “Was he here?”
“As I said earlier, I cannot—” The black lace arrests my voice. I know what eyes it hides. I cannot separate the plea and the demand in her whisper. I cannot face that veil. I turn my attention to the camera and mumble, “There may have been something at your left shoulder.”
Movement pulls my eyes upward. She holds that shoulder with both hands, tilts her head to it. A minute or so later she stands and turns. I might hear “Abe” once, but with her back to me, her words remain a murmured mystery. I feel I am lurking over a prayer. What prayer does one offer an idol whose children one has borne? She continues murmuring over a quarter of an hour, shaking sometimes; I assume she weeps. I feel him too. He is with her. He must be with her. I dare not move lest I disturb them. When I notice her turning I pretend to work with the camera. “I will return in three days, Mr. Mumler.” Her footsteps descend slowly. The stairs labor her.
I pull the drape closed. I place the plate in distilled water and prepare the bath of developing fluid. The spirits need tending.
Other portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably the Stephen Douglas refusal and the discussion of Lincoln’s dancing) adapted from “The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln” by Kimberly J. Largent at eHistory, available on the Ohio State University website here: https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-mary-todd-lincoln
Ryan Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University. He and his wife live in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs. He has yet to see any of William Mumler’s photographs in person but has plans of seeing the Fox sisters’ séance table someday soon in nearby Rochester.
These children I love because they are children I love them. This girl, this boy, a safe haven in a cottage in New Amsterdam in the year of our Lord, 1650, thirteen of us together under a thatched roof. We came by sloop along the coast and then down the South River, a five day journey, setting out in the dead of a cold October night, frost settled on our shoulders, huddled in the bow for warmth, our small bundles stashed under the malodorous pelts. A few undergarments, knitted socks, shawls, dried fruit, some wampum. At anchor every night we did not venture ashore. We had no bibles. I attempted a prayer as we embarked but had forgotten the words. As promised, the pilot had not demanded payment other than a kiss from each of the children, in the Dutch manner. I knew of the New Netherlanders’ warmth and I was grateful. There was no force as we faltered onto the boat or a child cried with cold, only comfort and kindness. I was stooped with wounds and could not sit upright on the wooden bench. A knotted whipping rope had cut my flesh and put me to suffering. My servant had prepared a poultice which I wore strapped to my chest and back. Much had I learned from her those years in Plymouth colony.
That night of my escape, the owls cooed, then sunrise. I looked up and there it was: the blue canopy of Heaven.
In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end, Elizabeth had told me. It was the name I had given her the day she was baptized. We had traded tongues and she spoke English with ease. I studied her alphabet but could not construct her language adeptly. Still, I understood most of what she said to me. She loved the children as much as I, but could not travel with us to the land beyond the Fresh River, she said. Her own band would welcome her return after our departure. She led the way and then we parted.
One night, in the plotting time, she had led me into the dismal swamp beyond the palisades to meet the sachem. Thankfully, he remembered me well. He understood my plight and blessed me with a deep- throated song. We smoked a pipe. He knew a pilot, he said, a former privateer. Dutch in origin, he traded goods and guns for fur with all the tribes and then sold them to the whites—French, English, Dutch. His allegiance was to himself alone and to peace among our peoples.
We were on the ship crossing the vast and furious ocean—saints, sinners, strangers, adventurers, pilgrims. Subdued by hunger and illness, storms, the shift in seasons, spring to summer. Even our holy men became demented.
I said to my parents, Where is my gift? They had missed my tenth birthday. My beloved mother’s wound had not healed. There was a physician on board, but no leeches. Rotting flesh stenched the cabin. Our hammocks groaned.
We had boarded a smaller ship in Leiden where I was born. There were no good-byes or celebrations. Our community traveled as one whenever possible. Only the old and frail remained.
I had never seen the land of my ancestors until we approached the white cliffs where a larger ship was waiting for us. At anchor, broadside, we shifted from one to the other, never laying feet on our English mother’s soil. We set sail in the morning at high tide.
But let us talk no more of old things, my parents had always said. Let us dis-remember the harsh crossing, they might have said, the expectations, soon disappointed, of wondrous landfall in the new world, the sailors’ landfall cry, like a gull’s, watery graves, the joyous spouting whales as fermented bodies slipped gently out of their linen wraps onto the slanted plank and into the deep beyond.
The land was wooded to the brink of the sea. Strange creatures with painted faces and feathers in their hair, their upper bodies slick with grease, rode toward us in a fleet of narrow boats. In the stern of each vessel were men in floppy hats. Their once-pale skins were weather-worn and brown. Their clothes were dusty. Sticks held their vests in place instead of buttons.
Do not be alarmed, someone shouted from below.
They came aboard. They smelled like bear or deer.
So, child, Constance said, my first night in the colony. I was not the only orphan—there were five of us arrived that day—but she addressed us all as child, individually, standing us in a line in the middle of the log cabin.
You will stay here in this long house. This is your bed. This is your hook. Here is a bible to keepsake under your pillow. Say your prayers morning and night. The water buckets are there. Lucy will show you the outhouse and how to use it. The earth floor is damp, keep your boots on at all times. If you awake itching, let us know, and we will sweat the lice. I am your orphan mistress.
In Leiden my room had wooden floors, large windows, curtains. The voyage had obliterated all such comforts. Now there were twenty beds side by side with only a stretch of arm between them, no windows, a hole in the rounded roof to vent the fire’s smoke. It was to become my task to stoke it as I was one of the larger orphans.
Did I feel sad? Was I reflective? Did I comprehend where I was? What had befallen me? Was God, as I understood Him, protecting me, guiding me, as the holy men always promised? I had no answer to these questions. And, in that moment, I missed my parents and siblings, all dead. Without a likeness of them in my satchel, I could not conjure their image. I was not alone, there were many others, but I felt alone. Children, once so sweet, once so loved and loving, we had arrived lost and miserable, and only had each other.
I was not accustomed to constant prayer. My parents were observant but not devout. This they had hidden from the elders and from me else they would not have been selected for the journey; they would have been cast out. So it was a surprise to me that so many in the colony were absorbed in prayer and injunctions. They had odd ideas about child rearing as a consequence. We were schooled in the mornings by Constance and Lucy, orphans themselves, and then set to work tidying our cabin, the outhouse and the grounds. Before supper, we went to the chapel to pray. Hunger gnawed at us as we were force-fed the scriptures. I resisted the commentaries; they made no sense to me. As for play, it was forbidden unless the game strengthened our bodies or our minds, and those only for a limited time every day. I had carried my collection of marbles with me and offered them to the other children, but they were soon confiscated. I was chastised for being frivolous. Indeed, chastisement was common currency in the colony.
That man I loved because he was a good man of sweet and pleasant countenance I loved him. His skin was the color of brass and he was comely to behold, very graceful and well formed with long black hair and well mannered. Others in the colony described him as tall, straight, muscular and well-proportioned, all this was true. He was not obese, neither was he deformed in any way. His cheekbones were high and prominent, the amber eyes widely separated, his white teeth gleaming and none were missing. His skin was shiny with fish oil or eagle fat, the odor at times disturbing. The bright red markings on his high forehead, temples and cheeks were meticulously rendered. I could not take my eyes away and plotted an encounter whenever possible. And then, one day, I met him in the strawberry field at dusk. We filled baskets and spoke in our hybrid tongue, English and Wampanoag words commingled. We had much else in common. He was always alone and so was I, the basket beside him his only companion. We lay down together in the furrow between the plants. Night fell over us.
Constance said, “What have you done, child?”
And I replied: “Ours is a most strict and sacred bond.”
And she said: “That is the way we speak of God. Gabrielle, I beseech you, look up to Heaven to quiet your spirit.”
That night I prayed. I had heard a profound sermon and prayed the sermon, prayed that it would sanctify me and guide me: We are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners, most properly, having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle; our dwelling is but a wandering and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens.
Make no mistake, dear reader, no transgression in Plymouth colony was ever really set right. Far away now, I see the colony in my mind’s eye. Most of the original houses are wrecked and overgrown with grass and weeds. There is hardly any light except the shadowy, softly moving glow of departing sloops across the Inland Sound. How did this land appear to English sailors’ eyes, to the first pale-faced settlers? Its stolen trees, the trees that had made way for our houses and crops, had once answered only to others. And these others had become our friends and then, predictably, our enemies. I contemplated this fate and rejected it. In the vast obscurity of the receding woodland, a different future rolled out before me.
Reason rarely prevails in love, war, or religious revelation. There was an enterprise laid plain by the imperial nations, the rape of virgin continents. The priests were as brutal and greedy as the investors; once they arrived, the land became their greatest temptation. There was no respite from the violent ambience of those times, not even for a young orphan who spent her days in the garden or the nursery tending and nurturing. To my knowledge, only Catholic nuns led a secure, peaceful, contemplative life sequestered in their nunneries. But the history of that church also sickened me.
Vines everywhere, cherry trees, plum trees, and many others which we knew not on the other side of the world; many kinds of herbs, we found in winter, strawberries innumerable, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brook-lime liver-wort, water-cresses, mint, great store of leeks, and onions, the best water that ever we drunk ( beer abandoned as daily liquid) and the brooks full of fish. Such bounty softens the soul. My lover encouraged me to bathe in all seasons, running water or frozen stream. In many ways, he cleansed me. Return to the putrid settlement was a shock, more so in the confines of the chapel where garments were stiffened with mud, urine and excrement. The dirt floor was dusted with cow’s blood and sawdust to absorb the release of human waste underfoot. I devised an antidote: small bouquets of herbs and flowers the Great Queen, twenty years gone, referred to as a nosegay. I considered my contribution useful. I sowed and planted, made bouquets beyond my own use and distributed them to others. I became so expert in their creation that others in the colony dubbed me “Queen Tusse,” and the bouquets “ tussie mussies.” Unfortunately, I was not indifferent to this recognition; I flaunted it.
He was of the snipe clan and resembled that marsh bird in its entirety—long limbed, fleet, alert, industrious and helpful to his own people and to mine. And it is strange to possess those in the colony in that way, to voice “mine.” Apart from the children in my care I had no sense of belonging. My lover. That is correct. My lover. After a harsh winter and many deaths, he was sent to us as an emissary of good fortune and good will. At first, we called to him by his nickname, Bird, a translation of his native name, too difficult to pronounce. His attention to our well-being never faltered. If a house was felled in a storm, he righted it, or built a stronger shelter nearby. He dug the fields and harvested crops. He fed the swine and kept the coops clean. He never expected recompense and when wampum was left on the transom of his house, he returned it. Was he a saint? Was he an angel? That was the extent of our biblical mythology to explain his seemingly selfless actions.
And so he was intertwined in our daily lives from the time he was twelve moons or so. This was how he described his age, in lunar years, as signified by the markings on a turtle’s back.
We had set sail in a prosperous wind. The sloop moved hastily and we were not pursued. A good store of turkeys on shore and dried fruit and fish on board provided sustenance. We had casks of fresh water. The captain remained constant in his kindness yet I was shy of him, distracted by my sorrow. As the children were sleeping, mine eyes were weeping.
My lover’s English name was William. It was I who named him after the great bard as his speech was equally poetical. And he called me Of the Sea in his language because of my green eyes and the manner in which I had surfaced into his world.
For as the sun is daily new and old
He is my love still telling what is told.
Sonnet 76, dear reader.
“This is a love crush,” Constance said. “End it before you are discovered.”
Once I took him to our chapel to pray his own prayers between the whitewashed walls. Devoid of any ornament, their very austerity was threatening, and he left before the sermon was over. He had nothing to say about the Englishman’s chapel when next we met, or ever after, but I saw it most clearly through his eyes for the first time: the hard battle-ready pews, the naked dirt floors, the stern pulpit and our preacher in his somber black robe. “These heathens among us,” he began. There were perhaps ten natives in the congregation that day seated in the back pews. In truth, they had never been among us and never would be in Plymouth Colony.
“We are the chosen people divinely anointed,” Constance told me that day.
“Why then are we deprived of all pleasure?” I asked.
Outside the lush landscape beckoned to me. This land I loved because of its fecundity, I loved it.
“Where do you keep?” I asked William one day. But he did not understand the word “keep.” I was curious to witness his dwelling. Where did he reside when he left our fields to return to the forest?
For many moons he refused to take me there. His reluctance referred to my safety alone and the integrity of the treaty between our tribes. My defiance worried him greatly as his foresight and wisdom were larger than my own. But after much badgering, he led me to his weetu beyond the first swamp. It was one of several of varying sizes, a small village. Each house had a vegetable patch in front or back or to the side, capturing the sun’s angle. His own was not very large as he shared it only with his widowed mother. It was extremely clean and tidy. We sat cross legged on the matted floor and ate and spoke. My stomach swelled, I knew I was with child.
Perhaps my life would have been different if I had remained in William’s weetu that day. I wanted to stay, most assuredly, but William insisted otherwise.
Soon enough, I was called to account in front of the elders. They demanded full disclosure of my sinning, where it had transpired and with whom. Their accusations against me were predictable. Had I been raped by one of the recently arrived lustful young strangers? Or been tempted by him? If I had been raped against my will, I need only point to the perpetrator and I would be saved.
“There is no perpetrator,” I said.
It was Constance who betrayed me. The ferocity of the elders’ interrogations was too great for her fragility. “No doubt William is a spy,” she said, “and Gabrielle complicit in his deception.”
The next morning, my lover’s head was on a pike outside the palisade.
My punishment was shunning. No one was permitted to speak to me or of me. Only Elizabeth remained steadfast and courageous on my behalf.
And so I left Plymouth Colony behind. I knew that the Dutch colony—its houses, taverns, and shops—would in some respects resemble Leiden. I knew the language ; it had always doubled with the English tongue. We would be welcome in a safe haven as our families had been so many years ago when they fled from England to The Netherlands. We would not be shunned or punished.
We were taken at once to the Beverwijck Orphanage, the orphanmaster, Johan, in attendance. The house was far from the landing, north into the growing fields overlooking the river. We traveled by horse and cart over Beaver’s Path, a rough road carved out of forest and fields. Children ran freely everywhere and the streets and hillocks echoed with their laughter and play. I was reminded of my own happy childhood in Leiden and collapsed into a contentment I had not known in many months. Even the elders of the Dutch Church were amiable in a gruff, wry way. I was with child out of wedlock and therefore required guidance and protection, they said. And what did they mean by this? That though I was no longer young, I was still in many ways innocent. I had little education beyond the scriptures and there was more, so much more, for a woman to learn. Had I read Spinoza? Had I read Descartes, committed the verse of Shakespeare to memory? No, I had not.
And so the schoolhouse became my cathedral.
My son and my daughter were born in November under clear, cool skies. The stars were propitious, Venus ascendant. My waters broke at dawn as I was sweeping the flagstone porch. I was calm. I woke Johan and he sent for the midwife. Soon all the orphans were up and about, drawing water, preparing the birthing chair and the bed with fresh linens for lying-in, holding my hand, walking me in the garden as distraction from the labor. And what an apt word that is for woman’s work. It took twelve hours to release my children into the world.
Non anse, a sucking child. Muckquachuckquemese, a little boy. Squasese, a little girl. Tackqiuwock, twins. Dear William, please forgive me. I will, for convenience, give our children English names: John after Johan, the gentle orphanmaster here, and Ariel for our spritely little girl.
The children required a new teacher. I was unschooled and had argued this often. I reiterated what the church elders had said to me. I did not know enough to educate others. But my master did not heed my argument. I became a teacher.
In New Netherland, the weather was hotter in August and September than in Plymouth colony and fevers more prevalent. Its influence upon all of us, animal and vegetable, are worthy of notice as I write. Moschetoes abounded, as always in sickly seasons; grasshoppers covered the ground, worse when the weather cooled and then heated again in late autumn. Death turned every corner, day and night, and took the youngest children away most quickly. The appearance of a white frost as the leaves began to turn was most welcome. Its effects upon the fever were obvious and general. It declined, in every part of the colony.
And so the next ten years passed peacefully without molestation for my transgressions or that of others. Only scoundrels and thieves were punished in New Amsterdam. Those that survived the epidemics grew old together. I was not coerced in my religion. The children were schooled properly. The wars with the tribes subsided; soldiers and Lenape entered the colony again with their families, their skills, their herbs and corn, their hand-crafted baskets and clothes, their wisdom. The markets expanded to include more traders and the slavers multiplied. And though the colony became rougher because of them, and the taverns bawdier, this did not affect the contentedness of our daily lives. Representatives from New England met with representatives from New Amsterdam and there was peace between our colonies. Ships arrived from Brazil with refugees from the Inquisition. There were now Jews in the colony, Germans, Swedes, and many other nationalities, all living together, working together and marrying one another. It was not a life I could have foreseen in my youth in Plymouth colony with its cold, constricted opinions of right and wrong, its unbendingness.
When the English took over the colony they assured everyone we would not be molested, that we could work and live together as one. Their prognostication was well-meaning, but also conditional. Everything was dependent on our will which, long ago, I had learned was both wavering and corrupt. A man’s greed is like a mirror that swallows its own tongue.
Carol Bergman’s articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Salon.com. Her essay, “Objects of Desire,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize; her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines. She is the author of biographies of Mae West and Sidney Poitier, a memoir, Searching for Fritzi, and two books of novellas, Sitting for Klimt and Water Baby, two novels, Say Nothing and What Returns to Us and The Nomads Trilogy, a collection of flash fiction. She compiled and edited Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, nominated for Columbia University’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She lives in New Paltz, NY and teaches writing at New York University.
This is a black land. The caked earth is black from the blood spilled for suppression and spite. The trees are black for no birds sing, deafened as they are by the cries of pain. The sky is black as winter approaches and all hope seems lost. The smell of death pervades our lives.
Before I was born the Romans invaded our land and my father, as king of our tribe, the Iceni, surrendered with other tribal kings to the Emperor Claudius. Father was always a peacemaker, my mother says. To secure our independence, he swore loyalty to the oppressors. In return for the taxes we pay to Rome, they allow us to live on our own land.
My mother tells me she remembers my father whispering to her, “I have thought of a way to protect you from Roman rule, if anything should happen to me.”
“How,” she asks him.
“I will make a will and leave half my estates to the new Emperor, Nero, and the other half to you and our girls. Nero will allow you to continue to reign and manage the land so the three of you will be safeguarded.”
My sister, Latis, myself and my mother Boudicea, make sure my father remains healthy because we are not as sure as he is that any Roman is honourable. The local tax collectors are dishonest. My father, King Prasutagas, knows because even though the money leaves here paid in full, it is he who must make good the frequents shortfalls. He just pays again. He chooses not to see the violence carried out by legionnaires who run amok in our land. Beatings, killings, and rapes. The governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, cannot control his own troops. The Romans blood lust, dishonesty and ineffectual governing strengthen my resolve to resist these conquerors. They, however, continue to try and impose their will by military strength.
I am Minerva, daughter of King Prasutagas and Queen Boudicea, and at this time I am maddened with rage. My mother says all thirteen-year olds are angry. However, she acknowledges I have a right to be furious today for she is too. The Romans have killed my father, you see.
* * * * *
Despite our father’s allegiance to Rome and his will leaving half our estates to Nero, the Romans seize all our land now he is gone. They plunder the house and take all they can carry. Gone are our coins, our silverware, our pottery. Gone is our winter store, our land and our people who work on it. They do more. They do worse. My mother confronts the Roman overlords for stealing our property and they seize the opportunity to humiliate and dishonour us. For her protestations they strip and publicly flog her. I watch and my heart cries for her. I feel her pain and her shame. I do not let her see my pity. She is a proud woman. How dare they flog the Queen of the Iceni, I shout in my head. My only response is to remain stoic. So, I stand superior and strong and face the enemy. I will not give them the pleasure of seeing my distress.
Latis and I are beaten and raped over and over, by Roman slaves. As if we are less than slaves. I am in agony but I do not make a sound. I hear Latis as she whimpers. I would have thought that Roman slaves would have some pity for our plight, mistreated as they are by their masters. They do not. They know nothing but cruelty so they deal the same to us. It is rare they are allowed to mete out any punishment and they revel in this opportunity to debase princesses of the Royal House. Our attendants carry us home for we cannot walk.
Our mother’s skin is torn and raw and her women attend to her wounds with tears of compassion and regret rolling down their cheeks. Her back hurts and, unable to find rest, she winces with every sting and stab. The passion to settle scores keeps me going. Some day it will boil over.
“You are just children and are ruined,” she murmurs. Yes, it’s true and our ongoing worry is they have ruined our wombs or maybe left Roman babies there. I won’t consider douching as I am still healing, but I ask for a potion. Latis says she will cope, come what may.
“We will heal,” Latis says and reaches for mother’s hand.
Because we are vulnerable Latis thinks we should flee, but she does not say this. Because we are violated, I think, we should fight but I do not say that either. Not in so many words.
“The physical injury will heal,” I tell her. “But, if you can, give us some hope to relieve the heartache.” My mother looks at me and smiles. I think she recognises the strength she passed on to me.
“I promise you,” she says through clenched teeth, “I will avenge the betrayal and infamy brought on our family. The reason we are spared is to fight another day.”
“We stand by you, mother, and together we will face what must be done.” I tell her, yearning to fight.
“My girls, you give me spirit,” she declares. “We are on our own now your father is dead, but we have support. The Iceni tribe have the courage of ten Roman legions.”
“Yes, as soon as we are healed we will strike back,” I say and mother seethes, “For my daughters honour I must have redress. For my daughters future, I will rise up. For the death of my husband and their brutality to us, I will repay the Romans. I will not rest until the Romans are crushed.” She reaches for a large hard apple on the table and with dark eyes that burn into our souls, she squeezes it until it squashes through her fingers.
We three need the winter months to recover before we attempt revenge. In the meantime, our mother, Queen Boudicea, starts to plan.
* * * * *
My mother’s most faithful attendant whispers, “They have taken much, my Queen, but I buried your jewellery. They have not taken that. I have it for you.”
“Branigian, you are a dear friend,” she says and softens her usually strident voice. “The only one who would have thought of it. Bring it and let me see.”
The attendant offers the box. Her hair adornments lie on top. She passes over the bone and wood combs and selects one with white stones that glisten in the shaft of spring sunlight shining through the window. She hands it to Branigian who curls her hair off her face and holds it in place with the comb.
Beneath the combs is our mother’s torque, made by Sumerian artisans, and given to her by King Prasutagas as a betrothal gift. “This I hold very close to my heart,” she sighs and hugs it to her chest before placing it around her neck. “And this,” she declares holding aloft the large fibula our father bought for us to give to her, “was always my favourite.” We know well the big clasp, our gift to her at the celebration of her birth month in her thirtieth summer. It is large and shiny yellow, the metal they call gold, with intricate lacing around the edges and a green central stone. It is very striking and she wears it often to fasten her cloak. She finds the rings she commissioned from Egypt and places some on her fingers, and shows us.
“Now I feel like the Queen of the Iceni,” she says, happier than I have seen her since the death of my father.
“You are a striking woman, my Queen,” says Branigian and we smile. Branigan has found the words drifting around our minds.
Mother reaches into the box and selects a silver wristlet with small blue shimmering stones. “This is the one you favour, Branigian,” she says, “but it is too small for my large wrist. I’d like you to have it.”
Branigian does like this piece. When the Queen asks her to select jewellery, Branigian is sure to include it. However, stunned by value of the gift and unsure whether to accept it, she searches for the correct words. My mother laughs. “If you say no, I shall be displeased. If you take it and wear it, I shall be pleased.”
The attendants leave and she turns to us. My beautiful sister, Latis, is fourteen years of age, one year older than me. Her jet-black piercing eyes, like mother’s, make her look defiant but it is a mask. She has father’s calm qualities. Her pride is her lustrous hair that falls to her waist. Our mother hands her two pearl clustered combs that will look stunning in her dark locks.
“These pieces were fashioned in Wessex,” mother tells her. “Wear them with pride because you were conceived when the king and I visited Cerdic of Wessex to discuss alliances.” Latis bows her head in gratitude.
I am named for a Roman Goddess, Minerva. I dislike the name because of its association with the Romans. My father, however, saw my name as another way to demonstrate assimilation into Roman culture. Unlike Latis, I am a warrior. I am tall like mother and my hair is the same colour as hers: the shade of the big copper beech in autumn. She hands me a silver necklace with greenish-blueish beads.
“This will compliment your colouring and your hair,” she says. “It comes from Persia where they mine it in the Alimersai Mountains.”
“Thank you, mother,” I say, “but why give away your jewellery now?”
She is direct with us. “We head into battle and do not know if we will defeat the enemy or die on the field. I would ask that you wear the jewellery because if we perish I want the victors to know we are the rulers of this land. I want a proper burial. They may afford us that small tribute.”
* * * * *
We rise early. No one can sleep. A mix of edginess, excitement, and elation fills the air. The horses are restless as our people make ready to leave. The women who fight alongside the menfolk, paint blue stripes across their cheeks and blacken their eyes. Mother is quiet. Latis is sick.
We dress with care. Our mother adorns herself with her betrothal torque, a gold armband and her copper crown. She ties a red belt around the waist of her dark blue woollen tunic. Her cloak of pale blue, with red and yellow flashes, is swept high to one side and fastened with the large gold fibula we gifted to her. Her reddish hair falls, thick and wavy, down her back below her hips. Latis and I take similar care. She dresses in shades of grey and I am in green. We wear our jewellery as instructed.
Boudicea stands tall in her war-chariot, fitted with scythe blades on both wheels to disable enemy chariots as we pass. The chariot is pulled by two palomino horses and as impatient as Boudicea to be off, they shake their blonds manes, snort, stomp and try to rear up. We take our places slightly behind the Queen, I on her right holding a dagger and on her left is Latis, looking fearful. She has a right to be fearful. She rides into battle with a baby in her belly.
Mist hovers over the camp when, just as dawn breaks, Boudicea takes her javelin in her right hand and steers her chariot between our fighting men and women.
“She is a fierce, wild woman,” I hear someone say.
“No, I am a wild woman,” answers a woman. “She is a warrior queen.”
They listen to Boudicea’s shrill voice as she tells them they have been enslaved long enough; that they do this for their daughters, their sons; that this is a fight for deliverance from our enemies.
“These Romans do not know to fear us,” she shrieks. “Today we will show them their error. Today they will see our strength and solidarity. Today we will trample on their pride and arrogance.”
When a rooster announces daybreak, they roar. Everyone recognises the sign of good luck.
“Have fortitude, good women and men, for we shall win our freedom.”
They cheer more and their excitement is infectious. The Trinovantes, Iceni allies to the south, have joined the revolt and when hear the jubilation they call out their praise. All are pleased to pick up their weapons and follow Boudicea on the road to Colchester.
Now an established Roman outpost the former Trinovantian capital, Colchester, is detested because of its Temple to Claudius built with our money while our families scraped a living. Colchester defenses are poor and it is easy to kill and slaughter as many Romans as dwell here. They are mostly old; old enough to have injured and slaughtered our people and vandalised what we own. We have no pity. We mutilate the dead bodies, destroy the temple, behead a statue of Nero, and burn the city. The victory increases our optimism. After two days we are spent but still able to drink the Roman’s ale and good wine in celebration.
That evening, we three women go round the troops and rally them for the morrow. The ninth division, we hear, is heading this direction and we must prepare. Our fighters, boosted by success and the liquor, are ready to take on all of the Roman empire.
We meet the enemy on the road. The appearance of charging, shrieking tribal women terrifies the soldiers. They fall back and we defeat them without many losses. As we advance towards London, some on foot, some riding the horses we liberate, we welcome other oppressed tribes who join us along the way. All eager to have their day.
The Governor Suetonius hears of the rebellion and reaches London before us. Seeing it is impossible to defend with his limited troops he departs with his army. When we hear this news, we are joyful and energised. The Roman army is falling to the right and to the left without combat. We are unchallenged when we enter London and burn it to the ground. Boudicea is as bitter as any man and shows no mercy for the young, old, women or children.
“I am ashamed,” says Latis when she sees the bodies of children left on the ground for scavengers and those of high-born women impaled on stakes.
“All this desecration carried out in the name of revenge.”
“Shameful deeds necessitate revenge,” I counter.
“Shameful deeds try to justify revenge when forgiveness might be as effective.”
I will have the last word. “Well, we can forgive them now they are dead.”
* * * * *
Next morning, we meet with Boudicea to discuss the news that Suetonius has increased the number of his troops and is now heading this way. As we plan, a small bird flies into the tent and flutters around, looking for a way out. Silence descends.
“This is a bad omen,” Boudicea says.
I too know this superstition. “It’s only a bird that’s lost.” I tell my mother and sister but both look troubled.
“That’s just what the omen portends,” my sister answers. “It is telling us we are lost and must prepare for change, or death.”
As I sweep the bird out, I catch their fear. Boudicea tells us, “We have been lucky at Colchester, London and St Albans but I need to know what each of you will do if we are not so lucky in the next fight. Latis what will you do?”
“I will try to escape, Mother. I want to wed and make a good life for the child, I carry,” she answers and places a hand on her stomach.”
“I like that,” mother answers. “It’s good to know our blood line will continue. If you can, take Branigian and some others with you.” Latis nods. “And, what will you do Minerva? Are you of the same mind?”
“No. Either victorious or defeated, I will stay to the end. I will remain on the battlefield and fight to the death. It is what I must do to vindicate the death of father, punish them for what they did to you, and have atonement for the rubbish they forced into my body. Whether we live or die this battle will dignify our house and honour the Iceni tribe once more.”
“Your dedication does you justice, Minerva. Your father would be proud of you. I am proud of you.” I smile when I hear her say that for her praise is rare.
“What will you do, Mother?” Latis asks after a pause.
“I will fight with every ounce of my being, but if we are overpowered I must get away from the field. I cannot be taken alive because the Romans will use my downfall and subsequent torture to supress our tribes. I will try to return here to camp and get help. Should I not be successful in escaping I will take poison. My attendants have instructions to bury or burn my body.”
The sense of uncertainty hangs in the air. We planned for success and planned for defeat. We are ready. The three of us hold hands, then hug. We say our goodbyes, leave the tent and rally the tribal warriors. They are eager for further wins. Many have grown prosperous exploiting the spoils of war. Such stories as will be told in years to come.
Boudicea climbs into our war-chariot. Latis and I climb in behind and call to all around us, conveying camaraderie and expectation we do not feel. They wave back, believing in their certain success and cheer us as we ride out at great speed.
Boudicea’s hair lifts in the wind and flies behind her.
Vivien Hollis was born in N. Ireland and now lives in Canada. She visits England and Ireland each year for immersion in history and craic. Having retired as a professor at the University of Alberta she returned to her first passion, fiction writing. Vivien is a member of the Strathcona Writers Foundation. A number of her short stories are published. Speak up was published online in The Galway Review and selected for the printed edition, Galway Review 7. Hard Life was awarded an Honourable Mention and published in 2016 by Canadian Tales, Red Tuque, (IBSN 978-1-927049-05-1). See her website. Vivien Hollistorical short stories she is working on her first historical novel.
The winter breeze encouraged Michael’s body forward as he strolled down the pathway, his face determined. The dull thuds of his leather shoes echoed throughout the silent street, the dusty windows of the apartments watching every step. The tall brick giants towered over on either side of him, each separated by the dark lines of the alleys. The sky was like the shallow water of the coast, bright, with the afternoon sun gazing out in the horizon. The thirteen year old hugged his oversized jacket, the warmth of the sun, a mere candle. Michael smiled. His body tingled with thrill and excitement as his mind pictured the great scene. The huge mass of people, the shaking of hands, the empowering speech, the shouts of agreement and deafening applause. Mr King for President? Absolutely, amen, Michael thought dreamily. He glanced back to an empty street, only a crow perched on a nearby post-box. Everyone must be there already, Michael thought. He realised the approaching grey clouds behind him, urging him on.
“The speech will be at half past three at the capitol.”
When he had heard the news at the gathering, his passion for change burned fiercely. Yet his mother’s thoughts clashed with his.
“It’s too dangerous! Don’t you remember what happened to Emmett Till? Let the adults protest. They don’t need kids around.” his mother had explained back at the apartment.
Michael had dismissed his mother’s worries and snuck out unnoticed. Mr King was coming here, to Montgomery, with thousands of people from Selma marching with him! Mr King! The man he admired most. Michael also had a dream. He wanted equality in all areas, including education. He was sick of hearing white teenagers bullying him and his friends about how terrible his education was and making crude comments of his skin. Michael wanted to be a part of the thousands that supported Mr King and he wasn’t going to miss the speech. He quickened his pace down the path, readjusting his flat cap in the process. Suddenly, the faint sound of voices reached his ears and Micheal stopped in his tracks. He recognised the voices to be male and came from the apartments to his left. Maybe some latecomers, he thought. It would be great to have some company. As the voices became clearer, a flicker of doubt crossed his mind. What if it’s – His thoughts were interrupted as two white adults appeared out of an alley, fifty metres away. They instantly saw him and their mouths shut to form wicked grins on their pale faces.
His heart pounded against his chest as he heard the fast footsteps behind him, getting closer every second. Fear was running beside him when he took a right turn into one of the alleys desperate to find someone on the other side of the apartments. The narrow alley was unwelcoming as the filthy smell of decaying rubbish reached his nostrils and the nest of crows squawked, taking flight as he ran past. Michael heard the men behind him laughing as they chased after him effortlessly. Tear swelled in Michael’s eyes as he imagined the end result. But maybe he had a chance. Maybe there was a group of his own in the next street. Maybe there was hope.
He was wrong.
To his horror the end of the alley was blocked by a brick wall. He spun around facing his two pursuers just metres away. Michael desperately banged on the closest door near him screaming for help. There was no reply. Michael’s heart sank as his pursuers approached. Both looked to be their mid-twenties, casually dressed, slim and their ghostly skin haunted him. He didn’t want to be the next Emmett Till. He screamed for help. No one replied.
“Tried to run away did ya,” the first one said with a devilish grin.
“He’s probably going to that ridiculous speech,” the other scolded to Michael. “Well, not anymore.”
Suddenly, a man appeared at the entrance of the alley, noticing them. He was older than Michael and shared the same skin colour. A glimmer of hope shone into Michael’s soul.
“Help me, sir!” Michael screamed waving.
Michael caught a slight flicker of fear in the eyes of the two white men as they stopped advancing to Michael and quickly turned their heads to see the newcomer. But was already gone.
He left me.
The two white men burst out laughing, mocking the cowardly man as they regained their confidence. The last sparks of hope died inside of Michael. Fear had killed courage, despair replaced excitement and his will to live controlled him.
“I wasn’t going to the speech, I swear!” Michael cried as the white men refocused their attention to him.
“Is that so?” sarcasm poisoned his throat. “May I ask, have you ever heard of Emmett Till?”
The conversation ended.
Michael laid on the cold hard ground. He silently gasped for air, each time more painful than the last. He tried closing his red rimmed eyes hoping it would lessen the pain, but it was agonizing. The white men left, leaving Michael with bruises all over his body, a gash across his face and several broken ribs. He wanted to shout for help. He wanted to scream. He wanted to live. He didn’t want to die. I’m not ready. Please, Lord help me. Please. Crying, his tears watered his final resting place. He was cold, but the sun was covered by the dark clouds and the chilling breeze was unmerciful. The doors that stood closed continued to stay silent. He heard the wings of death flutter down and it’s claws landing lightly near him. I don’t want to die. Michael forgot about the speech, the protest and his dream. He breathed his last. He just wanted to live.
Timothy Xu is a high school student studying in Epping Boys High School in Sydney, Australia. Coming first in English out of his whole grade in 2019, this local Vegemite eater likes to read and write various genres of fiction in hope to hook and engage his readers with his short stories.
In my collection of poetry Occupied: Vienna is a Broken Man and Daughter of Hunger, I explore the time period in which my mother grew up in post-WW2 Austria. The book became an idea after I wrote “Hunger,” a poem based on her stories of that time period. My mother was declining with Alzheimer’s, and because she was losing her memory, I conceived a book based on the few stories I remembered and research. I focused on the children. The main sources I used were After the Reich by Gile MacDonagh, Wir Besatuzungskinder: Toechter und Soehne Allierten Soldaten ERzaehlen by Ute Baur Timmerbrink, interviews, and online sources.
From MacDonagh I learned about how the Allies responded to the victory of the war not as liberators but as conquerors. They put soldiers in prison camps and treated them similarly to the Jews. Rheinwiesenlager was one of them, where the prisoners were set in barracks, fed little, and forced to endure the cold out in the hail. They ate little out of their tin cans of food and slept on wooden bunks with no mattresses. Mock executions tortured them. America exercised its revenge and felt justified. The women during the war fended for themselves because most men were away on the battlefield, and food was scarce. The Russian soldiers often raped the women and some children were left homeless. The first section of my book explores the experience of people, mostly children, during these hungry postwar years.
The Austrians suffered more hunger than the Germans because Germany had more infrastructure and industry and was able to recover more quickly than Austria, which had an economy based more on agriculture. An entire bartering system started, where people traded their watches, shoes, cuckoo clocks, etc. for food. I perused antedotes and characters that MacDonagh wrote about to understand, for example, how many apricots were worth how many bottles of schnaps.
I also interviewed Helmut and Ingvild Birkhan and my uncle in Austria. Helmut grew up with a socialist father who never fought in the war. They stayed outside of Vienna in a village. He had to wear an old pair of his mother’s high heels to walk a mile to the school. They gathered nettle, berries, and mushrooms in the forest. When the Russian soldiers came during the occupation, they hid and built shelters out of brambles because the other women hiding in a shelter in order not to be raped wouldn’t let his family join them, since his family had a young baby who cried and made noise that would alert the Russian soldiers. Ingvild Birkhan told me stories of how she and her mother and siblings moved several times. When they left their first shelter, they buried half their belongings. They, too, gathered food from the forest and desperately tried to hide from the Russians.
Some women became pregnant and gave birth to Besatzungkinder, “Occupation children.” Some came from loving relationships, women who fell in love with Allied soldiers who took them out to see music, dance, and drink schnaps. Many of the Americans were African American, and the children born through these relationships grew up in a still racist country where they were frowned upon for being “Negerkinder.” Some were from Russian soldiers who were kind. Some were fathered by rapists. These children usually grew up fatherless, and the mothers were frowned upon.
My mother began declining from Alzheimer’s when she turned sixty. When she resided in a nursing home and lost all her memory, then her language, it was then that I wished I had asked for more stories. What I did know was that they lived in Russian-occupied Leoben, Austria, and my grandmother died of Lupus at thirty-five, leaving my nine-year-old mother and her three siblings to an abusive stepmother and years of hunger.
In the Midwest, where my mother immigrated with my mentally ill father, I grew up as an American. My mother labored all summer in the garden, and our fridge was always packed. The second half of my book explores my life growing up in a family with an immigrant mother and a mentally ill father, who in 2010 committed suicide by throwing himself out of a window in Vienna. The metaphorical broken man of Vienna became the literal broken body of my father.
We need to look at the period after the war as a warning. Immigrants are separated from their families on the border of the U.S. and right-wing countries are gaining traction throughout the world. If we do not address history and learn from it, everyone will suffer. If we project our shadows onto the very bodies we share as the human race, the cost could be tremendous, and we will all pay the consequences.
Kika Dorsey is a poet and fiction writer in Boulder, Colorado and lives with her two children, husband, and pets. Her books include a chapbook Beside Herself (Flutter Press, 2010) and two previous full-length collections, Rust and Coming Up for Air (Word Tech Editions, 2016, 2018). She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize four times. Currently, she is an instructor of English at Front Range Community College and works as a writing coach and ghostwriter. In her free time, she swims miles in pools and runs and hikes in the open space of Colorado’s mountains and plains.
May. The Moon When Ponies Shed Their Shaggy Hair.
Horsemen against a red western sky ride through White River Valley.
Warriors, women and children trail in the twilight dust, ghostlike,
pushing forward, reaching back to the bleeding horizon.
Buffalo gone. Freedom gone. The sacred circle broken. Huddled
by the fort at the foot of ancient cliffs, places of dreaming,
they chant the peace song. Dog soldiers and Indian scouts
surround the horsemen: Little Hawk, Big Road, He Dog, and their chief,
the man they call Strange One.
In silence he roams among them, noticing none but the children.
Solitary creature, like a hawk on the wing. Small and slim, a single feather
at the back of his head. Braids of brown fur-wrapped hair hanging long
over plain buckskin, a Winchester dangling at his knee. His power,
a boyhood vision of the world behind this one. Spirit home of all things living,
where he and his horse dance queer like shadows floating,
giving him the name Tashunka-Uitco, Crazy Horse.
Facing the Blue Coats, he stares down the darkness. Ferocious eyes,
face of blazing rage. The soldiers fear him above all others, fear his strong medicine,
his war club, his scalping knife. They have heard the stories. Or lived to tell their own.
How he chewed dried eagle heart and wild aster flowers for power and protection
from the guns and bayonets, the bullets like hail around him. How on the plains
and in the hills, charging into battle on a yellow pinto, eager and tireless
for the killing, he whipped them on the Powder, along the Yellowstone,
beside the Rosebud, at the Little Big Horn.
And after all that, this. The final insult. Bringing the Lakotas to the Soldier Town,
trading skin tepees for canvas tents, bounty for hunger. Surrendering weapons
and horses and vigor to the whites who swell like flood waters over the land,
following the smell of gold. Wishing for the evening wind waving
through tall grass, for the blazing fires of village centers where the people
dance and sing Hoka hey! Hoka hey! until night gives birth to morning sun
rising over the breaks of distant bluffs. Longing for the old days, the Indian ways.
Spotted eagle circling above me.
Plunging at my feet.
Under its wing, iron knife stuck deep.
Blood filling my moccasins.
Drum beating in my head like horse hooves
on hollow ground. Great Spirit, take me
to distant dark country where my anger can roam free,
far from white man’s chains and crooked tongues.
Our ways and theirs, different
as sun from moon. Hey-a-a-hey! Have courage my people.
Only the earth endures.
Behold! In the clouds, a thunder being smoking healing herbs
in the holy pipe. A rider with lightning limbs
on a white-faced bay facing east. Behold!
All tribes, one nation. Walking the black road home.
Hou! This day my heart is good.
It is a beautiful time to die.
III.Messenger comeswith slow feet of bad news:Betrayal and lies.Promises broken.Red steel, long knifeflashing in late sun.Brave warriordrops to the dustby the soldiers’ iron house,dark pools of bloodmirror sacred sky.
Ahh-h! Curly, my son.
Strong, good and wise man!
A father’s heart heavy with loss.
A mother’s tears like rain
spilling over smooth stones.
The people’s vision blinded,
their voice silenced,
stars turning toward midnight.
No killing, no taking of scalps
can bring you back
or make the darkness fade.
But your spirit will rise,
and your bones will sleep
under grass facing blue sky
along a creek beneath cottonwoods
crowded by plum and chokeberry thickets;
where as a boy
you liked to run
and hunt and dream,
the earth, rain and four winds
your only companions.
This holy place
your father and mother alone
will know, and we will die
holding the secret in our breasts
with eternal love for you,
our son, our Strange One.
“Still, when we take into consideration the Glory attached to a whaleman’s life, one perhaps ought to be happy.”—from Whale Hunt, by Nelson Cole Haley
Harpooner on the Charles W. Morgan, 1849-1853
Sometimes on the cuttin stage
to leviate the back break
of work I let my mind wander
to New Bedford, but it’s always autumn,
when those leaves were sun-baked
to the color of pumpkin pie,
and I remember that Eve
of All Hallows when I found
my daughter by the fireside
telling fortunes with her friends.
See, they was paring apples,
turnin the fruit over and over
in their hands, tryin to keep
the peel in one piece
to learn in the future if their husbands
will be rich or not.
Well, I hollered at them,
said they were no better’n them girls
from Salem, those villagers
callin folks witches,
while I threw the apple peels
in the fire. Now I stand
here in the hot sun
over beggar sharks as we strip
blubber from this whale,
rotate the beast until peeled
clean in one long piece,
longin to smell those burning
apple peels instead,
and I don’t need no crystal ball
or a clear sea to foretell
that those girls’ll marry whalers,
every last one of ‘em,
and there’s no use
in none of us wishin on
wealth from a paltry
lay of whale oil.
Joanie DiMartino has work published in many literary journals and anthologies, including Modern Haiku, Alimentum, Calyx, and Circe’s Lament: An Anthology of Wild Women. She is a past winner of the Betty Gabehart Award for Poetry. DiMartino is the author of two collections of poetry, Licking the Spoon and Strange Girls, and is completing her third manuscript, “Wood to Skin,” about the 19th-century whaling industry, for which she was a 38th Voyager on the Charles W. Morgan. Joanie also is a historian and museum professional; she currently serves as the curator and site superintendent of the Prudence Crandall Museum, a National Historic Landmark. Her poetry often addresses historical topics. Visit her website at www.joaniedimartino.com.