Rosalind Adam

All Grandmas spoke Yiddish
when I was five. I now understand
she came from far away
bringing her feather bed
for winter night snuggling
and her candlesticks
for Friday evening prayers.
 
She never spoke of the journey,
of being third class cargo
forced to disembark at Tilbury,
down-wind of discerning Londoners,
scrutinised by Health Inspectors,
defleed, deloused,
dehumanised.
 
She never spoke of the warnings
from Government officials,
from Times letter writers,
even from London Rabbis;
no room, no jobs, don’t come.
She came anyway.
There was no choice.
 
She sought work
sweat-shop-stitching,
cutting, machining,
becoming part of an East End shtetl
with Jewish neighbours, kosher shops,
a Synagogue on every other corner.
She almost forgot to be afraid.

______________________________________________________________________

Rosalind Adam lives in Leicester, UK. She is the author of several children’s history booksincluding The Children’s Book of Richard III. Her poetry has been published in anthologies and online sites. In 2018, she won the G. S. Fraser poetry prize and was awarded a distinction for her Masters in Creative Writing at The University of Leicester.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Rosalind Adam

Beatriz F. Fernandez

Father Abelard, they call me—father, 
who shall never be one again.
Even this reminder cannot break me,
though my love for you was torn
from my breast as violently
as my manhood from my flesh.

When I met you, you were but a girl,
yet in your mind what worlds burned!
Your eyes—my incandescent girl, your eyes
glowed with mysteries I could not fathom—
even now you remain opaque
to me, who knew you best of all men.
As your teacher, I fanned those flames
into a bonfire—as your lover,
I was consumed by it.

Together, you and I, we defied them—
we survived. Summer dragonflies
bereft of wings, we will not fly again—
the tidal waves that stormed between us
seem but surface swells to me now.

The dry husk my soul represents
consoles itself with the promise
of redemption in another realm.
I entreat you, Heloise, to embrace
likewise this redoubled peace,
though in your words I read a spirit
unresigned to this new life.

Never doubt that I remember you—never—
you rule forever an enclosed parcel
of my mind, as a queen
over a once fertile land
that now lies fallow.

________________________________________________________________________

Beatriz F. Fernandez is the author of The Ocean Between Us (Backbone Press, 2017) and Shining from a Different Firmament (Finishing Line Press, 2015) which she presented at the Miami Book Fair International. She has read her poetry on WLRN, South Florida’s NPR news station and was the grand prize winner of the 2nd annual Writer’s Digest Poetry Award. Her poems have appeared in Boston Literary Magazine, Falling Star Magazine, Label Me Latina/o, Thirty West Publishing House, Words Dance, and Writer’s Digest, among others. Beatriz has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes as well as Best of the Net.  Twitter: @nebula61.  

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Beatriz F. Fernandez

Avra Margariti

Stuttgart, 1942
 
The baker, the butcher, the florist—
they all call him my brother.
But no common blood
runs between our veins.
We didn’t grow up together,
Ansel and I.
We just wish to grow old side by side.
Old as bristlecone pines.
Old as monoliths.
But with war spreading septic through the world
and more and more people carted off to the camps,
that’s beginning to look like a pipe dream.
 
#
 
Entire generations of Ansel’s family
have owned Schwarz & Sohns,
the funeral parlor situated under our apartment.
Business has never been better,
and I guess we have this war to thank,
this father that eats his children.
Ansel builds the coffins,
no longer glossy, silk-lined hardwood caskets,
but rough, bare boxes made of planks of wood
nailed haphazardly together.
It’s better than being tossed into mass graves
or left to rot in the street, he says.
I let him handle the black-clad mourners,
the hollow-eyed orphans thin as stick insects,
the wailing, thrashing widows.
I’m better with bodies than I am with people.
I set their features, embalm, groom, dress them,
good as new.
I’m better with quiet.
Sometimes I think how Ansel’s father
prepared my mother’s body,
back when Ansel and I were unlucky thirteen.
How my boy, his father’s apprentice,
built her a final bed to rest.
And it’s a good thing my mother is dead
because the war,
it would have broken her heart.
 
#
 
“Good morning,” I tell Ansel
when I enter the parlor’s kitchenette.
He hands me a cup of coffee and leans in for a kiss,
forgetting the screws and nails peeking out of his mouth
like rays from a sun.
The dark circles around his eyes are the colors of dusk.
“Busy day?” I ask, sipping the precious coffee, tar-black—
cream and sugar elusive birds.
“Several bodies came in today. A suicide pact, I think.
I’ll be in my workshop if you need me.”
He returns to his frantic coffin-making,
and I to the embalming room
where the bodies await,
the smell of formalin and decomposition clinging to me,
a second skin.
I look out the window as I work,
a new nervous tic,
always waiting to hear the tell-tale stomping
of heavy boots on cracked cobblestone,
inhale the stink of hate.
I search for signs the Gestapo is here to take us away,
stuff us into striped uniforms with inverted triangle badges,
pink as the insides of the bodies
laid out on my embalming carts.
 
#
 
Sometimes, when I can no longer stand
to look out the window and brace myself for the worst,
I wander through the rows of makeshift coffins
in Ansel’s workshop.
I see the holes in the coffins,
though I turn a blind eye:
little pinpricks studded through, only visible
to me, who knows Ansel’s handiwork,
the workings of his brain.
I see the people entering the funeral parlor,
how Ansel rushes them all the way back to his workshop,
to talk in clandestine whispers for hours on end.
He’s putting us in danger,
and we’re already under a lot of scrutiny,
being two lads and all, two unwed
so-called brothers who look nothing alike,
living under the same roof.
I thank heavens every day
we haven’t been conscripted and sent to battle
(yet, a little slithery voice inside me hisses),
but now a new danger looms,
and my heart feels tight as a kite string.
“You know you can tell me anything,”
I tell Ansel in bed at night.
Just when I think he’s asleep, I hear him cry,
soft wheezes like the wind through the cracks in the woodwork.
I hold him, as I did after my mother’s funeral,
back when she was buried in the casket he made for her.
Oh, how we cried together in the deserted cemetery afterward,
the stone angels our only witnesses.
Ansel whispers, “I couldn’t bear it anymore.
Doing nothing. Being afraid. I’ve been helping
some Jewish and Romani folks escape, hiding them
in the coffins long enough to be transferred to a safe house.
You can hate me for my secrets, Gilbert,
but I tried to keep you safe.”
I kiss his tears away, ignore the fear coiled in my gut, and tell him,
“I’ve never loved you more than I do now.”
 
#
 
Love is no shield.
I don’t know why I keep forgetting that.
I’m still in my mortician clothes
when Ansel bursts into my domain.
“The police,” he says, paler than the cadavers around us,
“they know.”
“How?” I stammer, breath thick through my respirator.
Ansel claws at his scalp. “Someone turned me in.
My people don’t know who, exactly.”
I think about the baker, the butcher, the florist—
all those in the street who did nothing when our neighbors
were taken away.
I did nothing, too, playing it safe,
playing pretend with myself.
Not anymore.
Ansel keeps talking, frantic words strangling each other.
“They only know about me—my coffins.
My family business, Gil. I can keep them away from you if I—”
“No,” I utter with vehemence. “You’re not sacrificing yourself.”
“Then what do you propose?”
He leans weary against my silver tool table.
Deflated.
Defeated.
Right now, I’m not thinking about
the barbed wire noose wrapped around my heart,
or how I’m more comfortable around bodies than people,
or even how I might never see my mother’s grave again.
My voice is as steady as my hand is with a scalpel when I say,
“Bring me in contact with your people. I have a plan.”
 
#
 
The coach lumbers down uneven roads.
It rattles, a relic, branches slapping its sides,
the horses neighing, agitated.
And I—in the back of the windowless wagon,
surrounded by coffins—pray to childhood angel statues.
I don’t believe we’re in Stuttgart anymore.
Ansel’s people thought it best I don’t know where we’re going.
Where their safe house is.
I have my mortician’s license at hand in case someone stops us,
my fingers crossed the way my mother taught me
to call luck to our side.
My hand drifts toward the closest coffin,
rubbing against the gritty wood.
I close my eyes and picture Ansel’s fingers
on the other side, pressed against mine,
flowers turned toward the far-off sun.
My breathing turns shallow in response,
as if I’m the one trapped inside the cramped space,
dark as a womb.
Hold on, I think. Just a little while longer.
The coach comes to a screeching halt.
The driver opens the wagon doors, a halo of light blinding me.
His chin juts toward me.
“You’re on foot from here on. Your man,
he knows the way to the safe house.”
I rush to Ansel’s coffin,
grabbing the hammer from my pack,
bloodying my fingers in my haste to get the coffin open.
I pull the lid back and draw Ansel up
by the lapel of his coat.
I kiss him on the lips as if I’m waking Sleeping Beauty.
He kisses me back, taking greedy gulps of air and
freedom.

________________________________________________________________________

Avra Margariti is a queer Social Work undergrad from Greece. She enjoys storytelling in all its forms and writes about diverse identities and experiences. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, The Forge Literary, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Argot Magazine, The Arcanist, and other venues. Avra won the 2019 Bacopa Literary Review prize for fiction. You can find her on twitter @avramargariti.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Avra Margariti

Aurora M. Lewis

I had my own ways, spirts and chants to see me through
 
Until them girls, both named Sarah wanted to learn what I do
 
I showed ‘em how to dance by the light of the moon, my conjuring

and hexing, watched them bloom, folks said I was beguiling
 
the Sarahs and other girls, a slave, bringing Satan to their
 
Christian world, their Bible say they shall not suffer a witch
 
to live, our lives we would surly have to give
 
 
The Sarahs and me was put on trial, accusing others to save
 
my hide, told of black dogs, birds, hogs, even a broom stick

I’d ride, said one of them Sarahs had a demon creature
 
of her own, head of a woman, two legs and wings, turning
 
folks to stone, all this I said not to seal my fate and be hung
 
 
I told them it was the Sarahs who made me do evil things
 
Seeing as I was a slave with no power of my own that it brings
 
They hung the Sarahs, sent me to jail, then one day let me out
 
sold to another cause my master wouldn’t pay my jailhouse fee
 
I died a slave and the witch was me

____________________________________________________________________

Aurora M. Lewis s a woman of color in  late sixties, retired from the Banking Industry.  In her fifties, she received a Certificate in Creative Writing General Studies with Honors from UCLA.  Her poems, short stories, and nonfiction have been accepted by Gemini Magazine, The Literary Hatchet, Jerry Jazz Musician, Persimmon Tree Magazine, The Copperfield Review, Lucent Dreams, The Blue Nib, Trembling in Fear, and others.  Aurora has been nominate for two Pushcart Prizes and The Best of the Web.  

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Aurora M. Lewis

Dorothy Baird

Arrival
          (William, aboard the Transport,
           departed London, July 4, 1635)
 
At dawn our ship tacks into the James River,
heads northwest toward James Towne,
toward land promised me.
 
The Transport rocks under my feet,
the only sound, a steady swoosh
as prow pierces sun-glazed ripples.
 
The fertile scent of foliage lining both shores
revives me after weeks spent below deck
breathing the ship’s stench.
 
A feast of August green feeds my hunger
for color after six weeks of blues—
sky, sea, night.
 
The King demands gold from these lands.
I shall find it on my grant,
whether I dig for it or grow it:
 
Maize, its colors hidden in silks and husks,
will rise from tilled soil, provide
grain for bread, fodder for animals.
 
Grape vines trellised on trees,
draped with clusters of purple-tinged amber,
will fill hogsheads with claret and port.
 
Tobacco’s emerald fans will turn tan,
age to mahogany, deposit gold in my pocket,
before leaves disappear in curls of smoke.
 
I yearn for life as a landowner, no longer toiling
to fill another’s purse. By sunset, God willing,
I’ll feel my land beneath my feet.

__________________________________________________________________________

Dorothy Baird’s poetry has appeared in journals, anthologies and her chapbook Indelible Ripples (Kelsey Books, 1917). She taught at Western Connecticut University and was Managing Editor of Heat Treating, a journal serving the steel industry. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Dorothy Baird

In Love Rebound

Grand Oak Plantation, Northeastern Maryland Colony: 1665

Deep in a dream, Stephen laid his winning cards on the table in a London alehouse. As the cards left his hand, the table tipped; the cards slid onto the floor and into an engulfing sea. As he opened his eyes, his head was still swimming in a dream of seawater, and his knee ached. He hoped it wasn’t a bad sign for his last day as an indentured servant. 

He rolled over and looked toward the window. The shutters were closed, but pewter-colored light was leaking through the cracks. More rain, he thought glumly, watching the thin stream of water trickle from a bottom corner of the window to the floor. No matter how many times he’d tried to chink the corner with mud and straw, the window leaked every time it rained. There were only a few thin, rotting pieces of board beneath his corn husk mattress–not enough to defend his bed from a soaking when there was a hard rain. One night, awakened by thunder and lightning, he had dug a narrow trench to divert the water around his bed. He noticed with a little satisfaction that the rainwater was flowing in its channel toward the door, at least for now. 

Once awake, he could never lie still for long. He pulled on his trousers and the discarded coat that Susannah, the girl he had pledged to marry, had got from the laundry. He closed his eyes against the dizziness for a second or two, then planted his good leg onto the floor first to assist his bad knee. He’d gone along as a militia man to fight the Indians several years ago. He got a hatchet wound in his knee, but he had also been promised a small plot of land at the end of his indenture to reward his service. Dipping his fingers into the stream of water, he flicked some icy drops into his friend Thomas’s sun-browned face. 

“You wouldn’t want to be late,” he said grinning as Thomas jumped.

His grin faded as he ducked through the doorway, slapping a wool cap onto his wavy dark hair against the rain. He was remembering how Susie had left him last night, flushed red and shaking with desire, and run away back to the house. 

“You mustn’t try me so, Stephen,” she whispered, leaking tears onto his cheek before she slipped out of his arms.

Stephen would be free tomorrow, but she was still bound for two more years. They were desperate to marry–almost afraid to touch for fear he would get her with child. Her father Matthias, who was working off his own indenture as a carpenter, had asked permission for her to marry. Nothing had come of that request in six months.

Odd that he should dream of London, Stephen considered, just as he was to become a yeoman farmer, bound to his own land, here, and probably never to go back. The rolling sea of his dissolving dream now divided him from his family and friends forever. Better for all, then, he shrugged. In England, owning two hundred acres would have been impossible for such as him. His family was well-satisfied with his success, which the impossible distance enabled him to embellish a little in his letters.

Still, he had no particular love of farming, and with no tools of his own, he would depend on the favors of his overseer George Cresswell and the plantation owner, Master Tomlinsen, just as before. Although Stephen’s assigned plot had looked like paradise when Stephen and Susannah gazed at it together through their dreams, he had learned enough about farming to know it was a poor piece of property. He did not confess this to Susannah.

He forced his stiff knee into a brisk dash across the open paddock and slipped under the eaves of the livestock barn, casting a longing look into the warmth and lantern light there. The streaming rain reminded him of how boggy his acres were on the creekside. It would flood again in the spring. 

With a quick look around, he circled to the haypile in back of the barn and thrust his toe just under the pile until he felt the solid iron of the kettle he had found sitting empty by the spring and hidden to take to his homestead later. Satisfied, he moved on, adjusting his trousers as if he’d been relieving himself when two other workers came in sight.

He was to go straight to the tobacco barn this morning, but he didn’t, even though it was already near dawn. Everyone looked the other way as usual when he stopped by the laundry for a quick kiss and an exchange of the day’s luck with Susannah. 

“Look under the haypile in back of the barn,” he whispered into the muslin cap covering her honey-colored hair.

“I’m sorry about last night,” she whispered back.

“No fault of yours, sweet. Have you seen your father, yet?”

“They had me hauling linens down at first light. He was feeling poorly yesterday.”

They dared not linger and risk annoying their accomplices in the laundry. But he could detour by the carpentry shed to see her father Matthias, he decided. 

One of the other laundry girls passed by with a knowing smirk. 

“You have a merry smile. It becomes you well,” Stephen said to her, hoping his insincere flattery seemed genuine so she might feel kindly disposed to Susannah if they needed a favor.

The newest bondsman was coming towards him, straining under a load of wet, blackened wood. Stephen leaned in confidentially.

“There’s a pile of dry split wood under the porch steps if you’re short on what you need,” Stephen murmured. “I’ll help you replace it tonight.” 

And I might have to miss my supper to do it, he thought. My last as a bondsman. But Susannah is still bound. We depend on the goodwill of these fellows.

He was headed towards the carpentry shed to check on Matthias when another  servant, his friend Charles, went by with an axe and a mallet, looking fierce enough to use them on somebody.

“That madman Cresswell has us out mending fence in this!” he said indignantly. “And you’d best be quick over to the tobacco barn, or you’ll be celebrating your last day in the mudbath with the rest of us.”

 Since Stephen would be growing his own crop next year, Cresswell had agreed to show him how to check the curing tobacco for mold and choose which plants were ready to be laid carefully over the floor of the tobacco barn for further aging.  He was hoping Cresswell would send him off with the gift of a tobacco knife of his own. He’d only been allowed to work in the fields before, but he needed to know what to do with the stuff if he did manage to grow it. And he might need Cresswell’s help to get his crop sold and shipped. 

In the barn, he tried to concentrate on the difference between variations in the mottled greens and browns of the curing leaf and splotches of developing mold. The mold was supposed to be darker, but everything was nearly colorless in the dim light of the barn. He thought of Charles and his mates trying to grip slippery wet mallet handles in ankle deep mud, and willed his attention back to the less odious job of improving some English gentleman’s tobacco. 

At noonday dinner, ravenous after missing his breakfast porridge, Stephen gulped glasses of milk with his meat and bread, thankful that the shed workers were better fed than field hands. He folded a piece of pork into a slice of bread and put it in his pocket with a couple of  apples for Susannah’s father and walked over to the carpentry shed. He hadn’t yet kept his promise to check on the old man.

“Can’t stay but a minute,” he said to Matthias, who presented a gaunt gray face, almost the color of the wood dust that covered his clothes.  “Got to get back to work before Cresswell figures out I’m not just taking a piss.”

He held out the bread and meat. “Susie said you were feeling poorly.”

“I am. I’m right sick to my stomach, and I’ll tell ye why. Cresswell says he talked to the master himself, and Tomlinsen said no.”

“Even if Susannah’s not free, we can still marry,” Stephen said hastily, tamping down his dismay. 

“He said no to the marriage, too.”

“He can do that?” Stephen didn’t have to wait for the answer. He couldn’t enter into any contract himself without permission while he was bound, and neither could Susie. He knew that. But why did Tomlinson refuse?

“You didn’t tell Susie yet, did you?” Stephen was sure Matthias would put off telling such hard news. “Don’t fret about it. I’ll tell her tonight.”

As he turned to leave, Matthias reached for his arm. “Stephen?” The old man’s voice quavered. “Back of that pile of scrap iron by the forge? There’s a right passable axe-head. A little cracked, but it’ll stand sharpening and hold for a year or two. Fish it out and bring it to me like you’re havin’ it fixed for Cresswell, and I’ll put it to a handle and keep it close ‘til you can take it out to your place.” 

“I’ll need to chop a lot of firewood to warm my cold bed for two more years, Father,” Stephen answered without humor. “But thank you.” He was already moving toward the door, pulling up the collar of his coat against the rain.

He entered the tobacco barn pulsing with frustration and disappointment, but was soon attending to his tobacco lessons more closely than before, just to keep his mind off their dismal situation. As the afternoon shadows deepened and everyone got cross with hunger, Cresswell strode through the barn impatiently, barking orders to lay down piles of tobacco. First he would urge haste, and then, when they hastened, he cursed them for carelessness. 

Stephen’s eyes were burning with the strain. His arms and back ached with the effort of controlling his movements to lay bulky piles of tobacco leaf down as gently as babies into their cradles. He was too exhausted to think about his own future, about the consequences if his strength failed or he judged poorly. He wasn’t ready. 

Cresswell, eyes active in an idle body, leaned against the wall across from him. Stephen kept his hands busy and thought of Matthias’s well-intentioned gift of an axehead. He thought of the iron kettle and pot hook he had hidden in the haystack to help Susie feed them when they claimed their home together. We haven’t enough of our own yet, he thought, and now we can’t even have each other. I’ve nothing to bargain with but my labor, and no tools but those I can find here at Grand Oak. 

When it was definitely dark and time to leave off, he approached Cresswell and spoke to him in a carefully managed tone of deference. “This isn’t work a man can learn in a day or two,” he said, wondering if Cresswell even remembered that he was not bound to return to the barn tomorrow. His shoulders slumped and his eyes filled as he faced what must happen. It didn’t make him proud or happy, but he wasn’t prepared to walk four miles southeast to his homestead alone tomorrow and fend for himself with a makeshift axe. He looked around at the sturdy walls and racks of the drying shed he had helped build along with five other indentured men last winter. Cresswell stared at him and waited.

“You seem to need more helpers, Sir,” he said to Cresswell as respectfully as he could manage after being cursed and mocked all afternoon. He felt his face go red with embarrassment, but he soldiered on. 

“Maybe Master Tomlinsen would agree to renew my contract for another year. With more time, I could be of more use to you, Sir . . .”

Cresswell saw where he was going and stole the advantage. 

“You’d never be able to bring in a crop on your own, and you know it,” he crowed. “Come to the barn early tomorrow if you want your breakfast. I’ll speak to Tomlinson soon as I see him.” He turned abruptly and pointed. “These leaves you just laid down here are spoiled by the damp,” he added. “I’m surprised you didn’t see it.” 

___________________________________________________________________________

Shiela Pardee is a retired English instructor living in Oregon and dreaming her way back toward her family’s deep roots in the Delmarva Peninsula. She is working on a novel about settlers in the mid-Atlantic colonies.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on In Love Rebound

John W. Steele

War Elephant —after Akbar Viewing a Wild Elephant Captured near Malwa in 1564

Hind legs bound and tied to tree, you stand
there poised, ears back, trunk coiled. Captive,
yet you stand with such fierce dignity,
stamping the earth with your tremendous foot.
You tower high above the emperor, 
seated there upon his prancing horse,
spear held aloft, as if to fend you off.
A horde of captors stands there holding spears. 
How dare they do this to you, noble beast?
You gaze at them with such deep, steady eyes. 
Do they not know you mean no harm?   
Two other elephants walk by, subdued,
content to let mahouts ride on their backs.

Descendant of the ten-tusked Airavata, 
who sucks up water from the underworld, 
sprays it into clouds, and rides upon
the skies with Thunderous-Indra on his back,
you will lead the charge of Akbar’s troops 
with iron-spiked tusks, ears splayed wide, 
whip-like trunk adorned with chains and balls.

Remember Alexander’s soldiers trembling 
at the sight of Persian elephants? They saw 
a war machine like none they’d seen before.
They didn’t know how gentle and compassionate 
you can be. Their solemn sacrifice 
before the God of Fear the night before 
the battle may have helped them win, but your 
outstanding show of force led Alexander 
to enlist you in his army. Remember 
when the Nanda Empire deployed six thousand
of your kind? That’s why Alexander
halted his advance to India, and stationed 
hundreds of elephants to guard his palace. 
Remember how you helped King Pyrrhus rout
the Romans, then helped the Romans conquer Britain? 
How many of your kind died crossing the Alps 
with Hannibal? When he got you drunk
and whipped you to a frenzy, remember those
iron-clad Roman soldiers, how they fled? 

When Yemeni Christian soldiers marched on Mecca, 
is it true the noble elephant, Mahmud, 
who led the team of elephants, refused 
to enter the city, thus saving the holy Ka’bah?

When you face extinction at the hands
of those you died for, will you not fight back?
Why not call on Lightning-Wielding Indra 
to descend on Ten-Tusked Airavata’s back,
thunderbolt the poachers’ helicopters 
and bring them crashing blood-stained to the ground?

__________________________________________________________________________

John W. Steele is a psychologist, yoga teacher, assistant editor of Think: A Journal of Poetry, Fiction and Essays, and graduate of the MFA Poetry Program at Western Colorado University, where he studied with Julie Kane, Ernest Hilbert and David Rothman. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Amethyst Review, Boulder Weekly, Blue Unicorn, IthacaLit, The Lyric, Mountains Talking, The Orchards, Society of Classical Poets, Urthona Journal of Buddhism and the Arts, and Verse-Virtual. He was nominated for a 2017 Pushcart prize, won The Lyric’s 2017 Fall Quarterly Award, and was awarded Special Recognition in the 2019 Helen Schaible International Sonnet Contest. His book reviews have appeared in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, and Raintown Review.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , | Comments Off on John W. Steele

bg Thurston

The Lost Boy—

            Winfield Scott Weeks (1847-1856)

watches from the front window,
murmurs as he strokes the ears
of his smooth collie, who thumps
her long tail, hoping for a walk.

The rooms are empty, the hearth
cold and quiet, but he remembers
his mother singing as she stirred
the iron kettle and kneaded bread.

He had held his father’s last hope
along with his mother’s heart.
But when he died, his family
took their grief and moved away.

He never met his younger brother,
Frederick, orphaned at five years,
who grew to work in the wool trade
then started his own shoddy mill.

His sisters assumed other names,
married, had their own children.
Now they lie next to husbands
in graves far from this old farm.

Across the road, the sky glows
reddish orange as the sun sets
past the hayfield where Jersey cows
are lined up at the milk barn gate.

He hears his mother’s distant calls
but he is not ready to join her.
Some souls stay tethered to a place—
for him, this home is heaven enough.

______________________________________________________________________________

After a career in high-tech, bg Thurston now lives on a sheep farm in Warwick, Massachusetts. In 2002, she received an MFA in Poetry from Vermont College. She has taught poetry at Lasalle College, online at Vermont College, and currently teaches poetry workshops.

Her first book, Saving the Lamb, by Finishing Line Press was a Massachusetts Book Awards highly recommended reading choice. Her second book, Nightwalking, was released in 2011 by Haleys. This year, she has finished the manuscript for her third book about the history of her 1770’s farmhouse titled From Cathouse Farm.

Posted in Poetry | Tagged , , | Comments Off on bg Thurston

The Plain Man’s Portrait


It was a Saturday morning in late Autumn. Pale sunshine was burning off the last of the mist from the Thames, revealing the faint outlines of horses towing barges down river to London.

Closer by, a heron perched, neck craned, on the banks of the Long Water. It was being admired from a distance by his wife and daughters, who were out for a stroll in the palace grounds.

From the front courtyard he could hear a clatter of hooves and the voices of stewards shouting orders to deliverymen. Ambassadors from Vilnius would be visiting that evening. There would be a banquet and a pageant. They would be asking the Commonwealth to help in their war against Poland. The government had no intention to lend them its army or navy. Instead, it would send them off with warm words of encouragement.

Bulstrode Whitelock would see to all that – the man who had established himself as the regime’s master of diplomacy, etiquette and protocol.

And here was Whitelock now, asking him kindly to turn his eyes from the window to the artist, who was waiting behind his easel. He commanded one servant to adjust a sash across the sitter’s shoulder, and another to adjust the belt which held his sword and scabbard.

“These things are important,” Whitelock murmured, with a smile. “Even if a country has no king, it still must have a head of state. You should look the part.”

But what would be so wrong, the sitter thought, if England’s head of state were to dress in a plain, black suit? He still kept the one he had bought in 1640 for his first appearance in parliament.

“Made by an ill country tailor,” a fellow MP had said. But a black suit was right for any sober, honest man going about his daily business – more practical than scepters and cloaks of velvet. And the business of his office was to uphold the laws – as plain as that. Discard the fallacies of divine right and God’s anointed. In the new Commonwealth and Free State of Britain, government should be – for want of a better word – ordinary.

Plain clothes. Plain rule. Plain sustenance.

Whitelock had asked: should the Lord Protector’s wife be using the vast kitchens of Hampton Court to cook him up country food like fried eggs and black pudding? Surely, both the kitchens and the nation’s ruler deserved something finer?

He had eaten Whitelock’s idea of fine fare at state banquets. It was haute cuisine, the cookery drenched in wines and cream which was making a conquest of the courts and palaces of Europe. It was food the rich may eat but the poor may not. Plain food, on the other hand, unites us all. 

Looking back, things had been simpler for the regime – less compromised – in the year or two after Parliament had executed Charles Stuart. The newly-created Commonwealth had been the most hated country in Europe. Its ambassadors had been expelled. English goods had been impounded in foreign ports. Open season had been declared on English ships on the high seas.

Then, he had not had to submit himself to pomp and ceremony. His mind was occupied by one question only: where to take this revolution, which God had put into his hands?

A free church in a free state: that had been his answer. Whether you were a Baptist, a Presbytarian or a Fifth Monarchy Man, there was space for you in England’s new, broad church.

It was a church freed and cleansed of idolatry. Everyone could now take communion in pure and unadorned churches. Their stained-glass windows and ornaments had been smashed in acts of righteous vandalism by his troops, whenever they had moved into new, conquered territory.

But where had folk turned, given this freedom? Hundreds of thousands had joined the Quakers – George Fox’s Society of Friends – fascinated by his crazed visions, and how his followers talked in tongues when the felt the presence of the Lord.

It seemed that given the choice between plain truth and confusing, dizzying mystery, people preferred mystery every time.

Before the civil wars, he had heard labourers on his estate in East Anglia talk about the splendours of the former king – of how he was the richest ruler in Christendom, rode the mightiest chargers and lived in palaces of gold. It didn’t matter that they had never seen this splendour. The notion of it alone excited them.

They wanted their monarch to be magnificent, more than they wanted him to be just.

And as for him, now: how was he so very different, sitting for his portrait in flamboyant robes of state in Hampton Court, as monarchs had done before him?

He had an almost-royal seal for issuing decrees and an almost-royal title: “His Highness, the Lord Protector” – all outwards signs and symbols created by his lieutenants so that the Commonwealth could match the monarchy in dignity and, by extension, in legitimacy.

Now Whitelock was lingering at the door, a satisfied smile on his face. He told His Highness his carriage would be ready at midday for his usual ride around Shepherd’s Bush.

The sitter was left alone with the painter, who was holding his brush at arms-length to measure his features. How many times had this man knocked out portraits of other men of power? He would have known what he was meant to produce. No one was interested in how the man himself looked. What they wanted to see was power personified; power made flesh.

But surely this would be the final act of compromise – to sit complicit as his face was given the polished, cold hauteur of the kings who had preceded him? Generations to come would view his portrait, compare it with the line of tyrants he had overthrown, and see no difference between the two.

“A king in all but name.”

He slipped the robe of state from off his shoulders so that it fell to the floor, revealing the plain, russet coat he had worn as a cavalryman in the wars.

“I bid you,” he told the artist, “to paint me as I am – warts and all. Otherwise, I will never pay you a farthing for it.”

 He would explain it all to Whitelock when the ambassadors had left.

____________________________________________________________________________

Jeremy Howell is a British journalist working for the BBC in London. He lives in the historical village of Old Basing in Hampshire and is a member of the Westminster Writer’s Group.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , | Comments Off on The Plain Man’s Portrait

Miss Lucy: An Excerpt

October, 1878   

But who hath seen her wave her hand?

Or at the casement seen her stand?

Tennyson

1.

The first time he saw the ghost, Bram Stoker was hiding behind the safety curtain that hung neatly out of sight by the wooden proscenium, and which he himself had insisted be installed, at some expense, only a fortnight earlier—conscious, as any Acting Manager had to be, of the ever-present possibility of fire. Such catastrophic events swept across the London theatre world with distressing frequency, owing in most cases to the presence of filmy costume material left hanging near candles, the use of cheap, highly combustible greasepaint, and the current popularity for ever greater and more elaborate pyrotechnics than had been witnessed the season before. He himself had seen—only last month, at the Theatre Royal on Drury Lane—an entire parade of African slaves smeared head to foot in blacking, every mother’s son of them sporting lit torches as they cavorted beneath a slew of drapery meant to suggest palm trees. He had been nearly unable to remain in his box that night, eyes flicking over and again to the Drury’s exit while his brain pictured the sudden brightness that would no doubt appear as the paperboard sets began to catch. Next would come the shock of the players, some of them still delivering their lines; the well-dressed audience, uncertain at first whether this blazing spectacle, too, was only the latest in stage craft . . . then the stampede would begin . . .

In the end, he had managed to maintain his seat for the Drury show, but had accompanied his wife Florence into the damp evening afterward with a decided sense of having escaped a calamity whose outline they had already witnessed in full—with the exception, merely, of when it would unfold. And he had turned his steps, the next morning, toward the Lyceum with a renewed determination to leave nothing to chance.

Bram Stoker at thirty-one was a physical, redheaded presence on the London scene, broad in the chest, with a slow, sonorous voice, the precise opposite of what early life would have predicted. The childhood paralysis, never explained, lasted for years. So too did the great hunger that ravaged the island of his birth: before it was finished, over one million corpses littered the muddy fields, with an equal number emigrated to anywhere that would have them: to Boston, to Brisbane, to far-off Argentina. In New York, the Irish formed the bulk of the new poor, trading one species of suffering for another. Bram still remembered the brittle autumn when families first started appearing outside his sickroom window, shadow people that had fled the worst parts of the country on foot. In streams they gathered around the docking wall, foul rags begging food, begging passage on the ships.

Where are they going? he had askedMrs. Kirwan, the Catholic domestic who cared for him during that time. She herself lived through the worst part of the blight in Eaksey, where along with two of her sisters she had survived by creeping onto a landlord’s estate after dark, using a gentleman’s razor to cut the haunches of cattle and sucking the hot, vitamin-rich blood, a truth she will never tell. All those people?

            Whitechapel, most like.

            Why?

            An who can stay here, with the devil himself up and walking about?

Bram felt deep distress over the starving crowd and their suffering faces. The walkways of Clontarf were cobbled with stones that had been pulled from the fields to allow planting, and in the evenings the emigrants wandered them up and down. Some begged food, or blankets; some merely drifted, like leaves. The twilight road was haunted by their numbers.

Aren’t they afraid?

Hunger, child, Mrs. Kirwan had grimaced, closing up the blind. Hunger will make you do anything.

Most painful to him from that time of horrors, though, had been the total loss of his father’s affection; the goodnight kiss had never returned. But infirmity, once lifted from his shoulder, had been banished forever. One afternoon—had he been seven? eight?—he could abruptly feel three toes on his left foot. By season’s end, the paralysis had leached back out of his flesh as inexplicably as it appeared, and a young man took his first, wobbling steps on yellowed soles. In his teenage years he developed an athletic streak, as if in repudiation of all weakness. His limbs grew thick, his body massy. He began sporting a copious crimson beard. At Trinity, he took medals in hurdles, vaulting, long-distance walking, swim-meets, returning from the rugby field with blanched shins and heroically bleeding nostrils. Yet it was as if he had been rendered permanently invisible by the disease. Try as he might, the old man never stopped regarding him as something already dead.

It was only a year ago now (was it so little? yes, barely more than a year) that the second great miracle had occurred in Bram’s life, a miracle that, like the recovery of his ability to stand, had altered his prospects with the swiftness of a summer storm. Twelve months ago, he had been living in Ireland still, working as a civil servant at Dublin Castle, both his personal and professional life for the next three decades as predictable as the setting on a table. Tonight, instead, he found himself here, at the noble Lyceum Theatre—found himself at the opening performance of Hamlet—found himself (was it even possible?) Acting Manager to the most powerful Shakespearean in a generation.

From his position behind the baize curtain, Bram could see the actor waiting, as the saying went, in the wings, head tilted low as if at prayer, so that his swept-back hair shone in silvery tints above the absolute blackness of his cloak. The man had his long librarian’s arms draped behind himself, fingers interlaced, listening to each line that preceded his own appearance onstage with the intensity of a chemist trying a metal for imperfections. It had been made quite clear in rehearsals that nothing would be permitted, this evening, short of excellence.

What, hath this thing appear’d again tonight?

I have seen . . . nothing!

Cautiously Bram eased himself another half-foot into the narrow gap between fire curtain and house, struck by the notion that he had seen something odd. It was an uncomfortable feeling. The demand that no element be amiss during Hamlet applied just as sharply to him as to any of the crew, and likely even more so, as he was an outsider both to the island and the profession, and it was in every sense incumbent upon him to prove himself.

Only a few yards away, their hush audible in the manner of full theatres, sat a capacity crowd of well-dressed Londoners. His searching eye could just make out the ground floor orchestra, the first dozen rows illuminated by stage lamps, with here and there a playgoer’s visage thrown into a garish relief. Above the ground, a wedge of the dress circle, likewise filled, and a small section of the mural that ran from the back wall to the head of the western stair. The Lyceum was old and of grand construction, yet hardly what purists might call a “concise” structure. There were little peculiarities in the way this theatre had been built, quirks that a casual eye would overlook, but that lent it a feeling of never quite being at right angles. Stairways came to abrupt conclusions, before the foot expected them; sounds could be heard emanating from unusual directions, or no direction at all. One of three major windows—Bram had discovered on examining the immense structure that had, almost overnight, become his responsibility—was a good eleven inches lower than its companions, a defect he had covered with a banner.

Owing to one of these awkwardnesses, at the top of the western staircase, between two rows of audience members but concealed from them, was formed a little containment called the “Nook of the Stair”: simple wasted space, like an abortive hallway, too stunted to serve any purpose. He remembered having fretted over it in the first weeks after arrival, finally deciding that it would not be possible (due to an unexpected curve in one side of the plastered wall, but not the other) to hang even a candelabra in the Nook. And it was in that confoundingly disordered space, not visible from any position but his own, that his eye stopped. For a moment, he was quite certain someone was standing there.

The figure was just past the point where deep shadows fell. It appeared to be a female, slight of build, and vaguely outlined in something white. Even from a distance, this person gave off a peculiar feeling of stillness, as if she had kept watch in this unwitnessed spot for a century already, and could do so for another, but at the same time there was an equally strong sense of activity—the motionless species one sometimes perceived in persons intently engaged in addressing some vexing, inward problem. The arms, shrouded to the wrists in that same white material, hung loosely at her sides. Bram could see an oval face, with its gleam of forehead surrounded by dark, unruly hair, and underneath it, catching lamplight, two eyes that were—he realized with a jump—looking in his direction. Then there was nothing.

It was only later, after the relief and celebrations of opening night were concluded, after red beefsteak and wine at the Plough and Harrow, after his employer had gone on for almost an hour over precise alterations to be made before tomorrow night’s performance (everything from costume details to a change in Fortinbras’ blocking), only after all that, in the quiet of his bedroom with Florence once more, the last minutes of October silent save for the cross-town carriages rattling through the fog, that Bram remembered the definite impression of someone—a woman, he had thought, in the grip of strong emotion?—standing, quite impossibly, in the shadow of the Nook; and, remembering his mother’s frightful stories on Hallowe’en night, wondered whether there were, in this world God had created, such actual things as ghosts.

And if there were, what any such creature should want of him.

____________________________________________________________________

William Orem’s first collection of stories, Zombi, You My Love, won the GLCA New Writers Award, formerly given to Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Richard Ford and Alice Munro. His second collection, Across the River, won the Texas Review Novella Prize. His first novel, Killer of Crying Deer, won the Eric Hoffer Award for Excellence in the Small Presses, and has been optioned for film. His second novel, Miss Lucy, won the Gival Press Novel Award. His first collection of poems, Our Purpose in Speaking, won the Wheelbarrow Books Poetry Prize and was published by MSU Press, and he has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize in poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. 

Meanwhile, his short plays have been performed around the country, winning both the Critics’ Prize and Audience Favorite Award at Durango Theatre Fest, and thrice being nominated for the prestigious Heideman Award at Actors Theatre of Louisville.

Currently he is a Senior Writer-in-Residence at Emerson College. Details at williamorem.com.

Miss Lucy Copyright (c) 2019 by William Orem. By permission of Gival Press.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Miss Lucy: An Excerpt