The Emperor’s Cloak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is your great haste?”

He dismounts and lowers his voice.

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

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

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

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

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

“Who is your mother, young man?”

“Countess Elzbieta Lubienskaya.”

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

***

Chana reflects meanwhile upon the joys and sorrows of matrimony.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Anton explains his mission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is the future foreordained? Can it ever be altered?

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

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

Anton repeats this in French.

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

“What is it you see?” he demands.

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

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

“The heavens are weeping.”

The emperor snorts. He barks out orders.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Might the cloak somehow comfort the countess?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Eleanor Marx: A Life

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

Review by Bonnie Stanard

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

Here’s my take on the book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Last Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ann Wachter

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


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


where I swing in parallel 
accord


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


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


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


Four Seasons (continued)


II. Summer


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


tata tata tata ta
dada dada dada da


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


giggling, stomping my feet firmly
on good ground,


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


III.  Autumn


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

tale


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


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


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

IV.  Winter


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


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


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


offshoots pellet fertile ground
taking root
pound for pound


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

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

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For the Love of Hawthorne

Written by Diana Rubino

Published by Taylor and Seale

Review by Meredith Allard

Nathaniel Hawthorne has long been one of my favorite American authors. I remember reading The House of the Seven Gables as an English major and I loved his writing. For the Love of Hawthorne is an intriguing look into Hawthorne’s relationship with Sophia Peabody, but it also deals with Hawthorne’s guilt over his ancestor John Hathorne, a merciless prosecutor of the accused “witches” during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692 (Hawthorne added the w to his last name in an attempt to add some distance between himself and his “hanging judge” ancestor).

In Diana Rubino’s book, I was drawn to the idea that love, patience, and perhaps some forgiveness can help us overcome that which haunts us most. I highly recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Salem Witch Trials, historical romance, or even Nathaniel Hawthorne himself.

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Meredith Allard is the Executive Editor of The Copperfield Review.

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Warlight


Written by Michael Ondaatje

Review by Cecily Blench

‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.

The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.

In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.

The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.

Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.

The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?

The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.

Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.

Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.

Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.

There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).

Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.

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Cecily Blench is a writer and editor based in London. She has a particular interest in historical fiction and travel writing and is working on her first (historical) novel. 

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September 1945

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kristine Rae Anderson

 Richard III (1452-85), King of England 1483-85
Anne Neville (1456-85), Queen of England 1483-85
Their son, Edward, Prince of Wales 1473-84
  
Forget what you’ve heard. Dismiss it all 
except that Richard could charm the blue from the sky
and wanted, yes, to be king.
Forget Shakespeare’s gift of limp and hump.
Richard stood right, finely formed. I ached
to touch him. I, no victim, chose him,
even as children together among potent green hills,
miles and miles, the undependable spring sun,
and old stone of Warwick Castle. Even then
I wanted him. Only the State—cold spinster—
had me as Edward’s wife, Henry’s daughter. 
But England needed Richard. I needed him—
his voice filling a room gently, his generous touch
the way a child explores a wondrous thing—
a son such insufficient proof of us.
Forget the myth of my murder. We two died a little
with our son: three hearts, then none.
At times Richard believed and at times he fought
and I came to know these as one and the same.
Forget the insults of history, what you’ve heard
about his body. His ambition. My frailty. 
I, his cousin, his wife. The woman
he made widow and orphan then queen. I know:
Put you in my woman’s skin and feed you on my woman’s blood
in the empty hallways of my seasons, in my hard, gray rooms,
in my deep blue nights of life and dreaming,
you too, with all your free will,
would give, would take
exactly this much.
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Kristine Rae Anderson’s poetry has appeared in Soundings East, ReedCrab Creek Review, and Copperfield Review, among other publications. An award-winning journalist (first place award in criticism from the Society of Professional Journalists, San Diego Chapter, and award for arts story from the San Diego Press Club) and award-winning poet (Tomales Bay Fellowship, Fishtrap Fellowship, and first place in Southern Indiana Review’s Mary C. Mohr Poetry Contest), she teaches English at Norco College in southern California.

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The Minoans Speak

We left that land

                           when ground shook

despite our prayers. We lined

             baskets of bread and grain,

jugs of oil, wheat sheaves

                                          on the stepped east altar,

set out small clay figures, arms raised

to assure good crops, rain.

                                          When still soil rose like dust,

we came to the peak, bore lambs for sacrifice.

When lambs did not appease,

we slaughtered a sacred bull

presented it to the goddess,

sure the wine of such blood,

flowing below frescoes

                                      through furrows

                                                                  and into bronze vessels

would placate wrath.

                                 But when no offering sufficed,

when roadbeds cracked, when

foundations of our homes heaved, collapsed,

                               we called upon the priest to intercede

and in the chamber between west and east,

a ring of silver and iron

                                      on his sinistral hand,

pitiless out of fear, he

                             plunged a dagger

into a young warrior’s throat

then

          laid a boar’s head lance across

the stilled chest.

                       The altar shuddered.

                                                   Amphorae shattered.

West of the village,

                                 when earth shook

bones of the dead

                            exploded against tomb walls.

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Susan Roney-O’Brien lives in Princeton, MA, works with international students and young writers, curates a monthly poetry venue, and is part of 4 X 4, a group of visual artists and poets. She is the Summer Writing Series Coordinator for The Stanley Kunitz Boyhood Home. Her poetry has been published widely and translated into Braille and Mandarin and been nominated for seven Pushcart Prizes. Publications include two chapbooks: Farmwife, the winner of the William and Kingman Page Poetry Book Award, and Earth published by Cat Rock Press. WordTech published Legacy of the Last World in 2016. Aldrich Press, an imprint of Kelsay Books, published Bone Circle in December 2018. Kelsay Books will publish Thira, a new collection based on ancient Minoan culture, in March 2020.

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Down the Rabbit Hole of Research

A few months into crafting the first few letters of my epistolary novel, “Imagining Violet”, loosely based on my grandmother’s life, I began to read what I could about violins and violinists. I was going to write about a young girl studying music at the Leipzig Conservatory in the 1890s, and I had never held a violin in my hands.

I read about the various schools of violin instruction over time and I watched some violin teaching videos, hoping to glean something of the basics of the instrument. But these explorations were superficial and did not generate the experience or knowledge needed to write with confidence and credibility.

As a 70th birthday challenge and to further my research, I decided to learn to play the violin. To begin, I rented a violin and tried a few tutorials on YouTube. That lasted about five minutes. I quickly realized that I needed to take real lessons. As I live on an island, population 10,000, my choices of teachers were limited. My neighbour Carolyn teaches kids, and she wouldn’t have me. I asked her how long it would take me to make a decent sound on the violin. Five years, she told me. I was seventy, I said, I didn’t have that long. A friend recommended Suzanne and my lessons began.

I knew I would be doing this for a while and decided to buy a beginner’s violin. I paid $100 for an outfit (violin, bow, case) from a local fellow, one he’d bought but never used. It seemed okay to me, but I knew nothing.

Six months into my lessons, Suzanne insisted that I upgrade to a better instrument. This I did, thanks to my neighbour Carolyn, the violin teacher who wouldn’t have me. Her luthier friend Ross comes regularly to our west coast island from his home in Calgary. Ross sold me a Romanian violin, almost new, for $700. That was as much as I could afford or was willing to invest.

After eighteen months of lessons, Suzanne tossed me out of the nest saying she’d taken me as far as she could. I come from a musical family, with musical genes on both sides. I sing in a community choir and I’ve played the piano since I was four years old. It’s fair to say that I’m musically literate. So some aspects of playing the violin came quickly. I’d always watched in awe as violinists found the right notes without any frets. I couldn’t imagine how they did it. But finding the right notes wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected and I seemed to be progressing well. I was stiff and tense and clenched my jaw when I practised, but I’d get over that.

Suzanne’s prompting coincided with the arrival on the island of the amazing violinist, Joan Blackman. Joan wanted to build a roster of students and to my astonishment, was willing to take on a geriatric beginner. Under her instruction, I moved quickly through Suzuki Book Two and Three. Joan concentrated on my bowing and constantly adjusted my bow hold. In the spring of 2016, she declared that I was ready to join Orchestra 101, an amateur group of string players led by ‘cellist Paula Kiffner, herself a superb player and highly regarded teacher. Throughout this period of about two years, I became more and more confident writing about my Violet’s progress at the Leipzig Conservatory. Now that I played with a group, I had a better understanding of the challenges that ensemble playing had presented to Violet back in the 1890s.

I could find the notes all right, more or less, but bowing was another matter. From the very beginning of my studies, Suzanne stressed that I needed more weight on the bow, I needed to relax, I needed to let my arm become heavy. I didn’t get it. Joan kept advising me to “play in the strings”. I didn’t get it. But it was fuel for my story: I opted to let Violet have the same problems.

Then something quite wonderful happened. I found out that one of my numerous first cousins had inherited our grandmother Violet’s violin. This was stunning news indeed. The cousin had kept it forever, thinking he’d return to his string studies once he retired. Retirement had come, but the violin languished in its cupboard. With a little nudging, he agreed to pass on the instrument. And it came with our grandfather’s gorgeous Brazilian rosewood case.

My daughter undertook to ship Violet’s violin from Toronto to my home on the west coast. It arrived via FedEx in a box that was over five feet high, full of packing peanuts which protected an inner box, which was itself enveloped in bubble wrap. Inside the second box was the violin case, also encased in bubble wrap. My generous daughter wouldn’t admit to the cost of this, but she did say she’d spent an hour and a half at the FedEx office while they packed it up.

Luthier Ross was on the island a month later and agreed to refurbish Violet’s violin. He told me it had been factory built in Germany around 1870 and was a good quality advanced student instrument. He thought he’d need it for about three months, but I was not surprised when it took six. It was glorious to have Violet’s actual violin and to play it. It has a lovely tone and it deepened my sense of connection with its original owner.

For my rather extravagant Christmas present, my dear husband arranged for a marvellous local woodworker to refurbish the beautiful old case. The veneer on the ends of the case was splitting off. Iltydd just happened to have some Brazilian rosewood veneer in his workshop and completely restored the case, which he then advised me to use only on very special occasions.

By early 2017, Joan had become too busy with teaching commitments off-island and touring with her string ensemble to give me lessons. All agreed that I should continue studying and so with fear and trembling, I went back to Carolyn and asked if she’d take me on, now. To my delight, she said “yes”. I didn’t remind her that she’d turned me down four years earlier.

Carolyn took me back to basics. She’s a born teacher and has all manner of tricks and techniques. It’s two years later, and I’m once again working in Suzuki Book Two. And I still play with Orchestra 101, rechristened the Salt String Ensemble to honour our development. The Salt Strings played at the book launch for “Imagining Violet” in November 2018, and we played another concert in April of this year.

Rehearsing with Salt Strings is the highlight of my week. There are eleven of us now, with a wide range of ages, skills, talents, musical experience, professions. Our double bass is a local GP. One of the first violinists is a former judge. Another is a carpenter. To no one’s surprise, there are at least three cyber-techies amongst us plus one graphic designer and one organic farmer, a woman who successfully grows tropical fruit on the west coast of Canada.

You never know where research will take you. “Imagining Violet” is finished and published but I’m a long way from being finished with Violet’s violin.

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Born and educated in Toronto, Mary Elizabeth Hughes has called BC’s Salt Spring Island home since 2002. The author of two volumes of nonfiction, Frank Welsman, Canadian Conductor and The Life and Times of the Floathouse “Zastrozzi,” she published more than 90 feature articles in Canadian trade magazines. Additional publications in 2018 and 2019 include stories in The Muskokan, Cottage Life, More of Our Canada, Bunbury Magazine, The Peacock Journal, and Page&Spine. Her first novel, Imagining Violet, historical fiction and epistolary in format, was published in November of 2018.

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