The Fall of Kiev

Turrets atop the Kiev-Pasazhyrskyi railway station were smoldering in the winter air. Engines of biplanes ripped overhead. A sick feeling that her movements are being tracked by artillery fire. The early fighting has left the steel of the bombarded rails in shreds like coiled zippers. The few armored vehicles like tattered dinosaur carcasses struck by ferocious, antediluvian lightning.

“Government reports are calling us ‘heroes,’” says her brother in English, their preferred language since a childhood of English governesses, and before their father, prominent member of the Directorate, was killed by an assassin’s bullet.

She surveys in the hall the hungry Ukrainian People’s Army volunteer soldiers coughing and wheezing, their mad eyes black without sleep. January freeze on their spines too numb to fear. Lenin had sent the Red Army across the border to back the insurgents, vowing not to pardon any captured volunteer. “They’re saying they’ll never let anyone take our land,” she says.

Every surface not pulverized had been pierced by bullets and shrapnel, every pane of glass blown out. Those without multiple wounds from the first attack on the station had ignored the ultimatum issued by the Bolsheviks to withdraw. There was optimism after a government counterattack had driven the invaders to the far side of the outer tracks. But on the second day of fighting, huddled up against concrete walls, they lost a large portion of the new terminal building.

Her brother lost count of the times he had run supplies and ammunition throughout the tunnel network connecting the rail yard and outbuildings to the new terminal. So accustomed to the constant gunfire ringing in the corridors, he hadn’t perceived its planned absence or his suddenly-audible footfalls. Fewer than twenty of the volunteers had remained holed up in the hall on the first floor when the second floor seemed to evaporate in the silence of their deaf ears. The ceiling came crushing down on them, the unheard sound of their bones crunching like someone biting down on huge ice cubes.

He darted back. Below the surging mass of smoke, little blue flames curled around splintered joists and cinder blocks. Muscle and bone there. Tendons and limbs. He began to dig in the rubble at the spot where bones of a wrist and fingers poked out, shattered and spiked like a broken umbrella. Its chest collapsed, a volunteer’s body emerged. Dead. Yet life there must be: the debris emitted buried, clarion wails. He was nearly deaf.

By luck, or by the extrasensory connection binding families, he unearthed his sister, the excavated lump’s left arm flopping down from her shoulder like a smashed wing. He carried her across a service road to a ditch. Lying there her skin and uniform blended with the dirty snow, and the blood trail from her ears was too small to give her away to the biplanes. When her eyes met her brother’s, she nodded, and in the space of a breath he was gone again.

Enemy cries and orders must have echoed in the corridor. A sudden commotion of shots pocked the buckling floor. He ran on. In the hall, human entrails seemed to bubble up from the rubble in the chaotic heat. Smell of burnt hair and charred skin among the chemical odor of construction materials in this satanic demolition. He dug maniacally, not feeling the skin tear away from his fingers or the nails crack off. He tossed aside armfuls of the muss. Cast off chunks of concrete revealed a torso, then a neck, then a head. Something not right with it.

He dug on in a lunatic’s rage, routing out a fairly whole human. No expression on its face to tell how long it had suffered. The deeper he reached, the hotter the inside of the mound became. As soon as he dug enough to clear an air passage for one, he went on searching for another. Afterwards, he heaved them out and willed them under gunfire to the ditch.

Ignoring the approaching attacker’s shots, he had made no association between jeopardizing his life and saving theirs. The last two he had dredged up and carried died. He went back again. Another body was laid alongside his sister, next to the others. The following one coughed up blood, went fish-gray, and expired halfway to safety. His sister watched as he, panting, set down the last volunteer twice before he made it back. Little hatchet heads of shrapnel buried in this last soldier’s chest. He was dead when the little brother eased him down to his rescued comrades.

A flurry of shells was flattening what remained of the new terminal building. An artillery unit and two armored personnel carriers were moving in. When he had risen to go back into the flying bullets, his sister rolled forward on her good side and wrapped herself around one of his bootlegs. For nearly five meters, he dragged the gnarled barnacle, until he was stayed by the only voice besides his mother’s that could have penetrated him: “Oleksander.”

“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, lifting his gaze to the station.

“Oleksander,” she rasped through a grating cough.

“Yes, Kateryna?” he asked, without straining his ears at all.

“Brother, let it be,” she whispered, looking into his eyes, suddenly lacquered by tears.

Many of the volunteers Oleksander had dug up lived out their last hours in hellish pain. Some lasted years maimed, a few survived harmed. None forgot.

At dawn, Stalin, his cowcatcher mustache bristling with pride, hoisted a Russian SFSR flag above the wreckage. It flapped before a cold, colorless sun, greeting the fall of Kiev.

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Jeffrey Brodsky’s writing has appeared in magazines and newspapers in the U.S. and Europe, including El Pais and Barcelona Metropolitan. He has an M.A. from the University of Amsterdam and lives in Barcelona. This is Jeffrey’s debut fiction publication. His brand-new Twitter account: @JeffreyBrodsky5

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Yusuf Tahir

The armies of the Great Khan,
swiftly as hawks,
surrounded the ancient city of Bamyan.
Destruction blackened the brow of the Khan
because the city was slow to fall,
and he was impatient for glory in lands far.
 
But the way was found to the City,
through the heart of the fair princess of Bamyan,
who fell for a bold Tartar
when she saw him.
And she told the secret way to the city,
which was beneath the mountains, over the streams.
So, in the blind heat of her love
she did betray, unknowingly,
the well-guarded secret
of countless generations gone by,
and the lover pressed her to his breast,
promising to make her queen over vast domains.
 
The strong city fell through treachery;
The enraged conqueror spilled blood freely.
Then he ordered the deaths of many,
including the Princess; she betrayed her fathers!
The arm that had embraced her so tenderly,
was raised to kill her, with a single sharp blow!
Thus ended her young, un-bloomed love,
under the hoofs of conquering horses.

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Yusuf Tahir has written numerous poems on diverse topics, his favorites being nature, the human condition, destiny, and desires. His poetry collection was published in 2003 by Pearls Book’em Publishers Atlanta under the title Just like a blooming rose

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The Best American Short Stories 2019

The Best American Short Stories 2019 With an Introduction by Anthony Doerr 

Published by Mariner Books/ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review by Daniel Picker  

The latest edition of the venerable series: The Best American Short Stories, 2019 edition, burns brightly with stories that use colloquial language to illuminate contemporary issues.  Ten of these stories shine as the constellation that appears as The Best American Short Stories 2019.

Anthony Doerr’s essay steps off from his youthful searching through Rust Hill’s Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular.  Doerr, with both humor and seriousness, notes that Hills, the former fiction editor at Esquire, presents rules worth breaking at least some of the time.  Both Doerr and Pitlor also discuss their lives as writers and parents of growing children.

Both Pitlor and Doerr extol the virtues of reading, and Pitlor notes that today it seems increasingly difficult to find the time to read an actual short story or book, with the ubiquity of competition from “YouTube”, “streaming,” “TV shows and video games,” all of which draw the attention of her twin 12–year–old sons.  Pitlor notes the important role short stories may play in forcing Americans to slow down.  Doerr sees the short stories of today as mirrors of the political turmoil in society, and notes that he selected his 20 Best while enduring “the Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh” and “finished these stories as the president’s former lawyer Michael Cohen testified before the House Oversight Committee.”  Doerr peppers one paragraph with contemporary issues: “white privilege” and “xenophobia racism and the wealth gap.”

The 20 stories here include at least ten as the bright stars of the constellation that makes up The Best American Short Stories 2019.  A handful of the stories capture youthful passion in vibrant contemporary language.  Jamel Brinkley’s “No More Than a Bubble” describes a post-college party where two young men pursue two young women at a party in Brooklyn;  the story’s passionate pursuit appears: “A neat ladylike Afro bloomed from her head, and she was a lighter shade of brown than her friend with the buzzcut, a thick snack of a girl whose shape made you work your jaws.”  This matches the backstory of the narrator’s father, who referred to his wife as “cioccolata, agrodulce.”  Other stories in this collection burn with the vibrant dialogue and colloquial language of American youths.  Jenn Alandy Trahan’s “They Told Us Not to Say This” begins with “THE FEW WHITE BOYS in our town could ball.”  Trahan’s story, among the shortest in the book, packs power and life.  Ella Martinsen Gorham’s “Protozoa” describes the life of a teen girl who observes an “eyesore McMansion” and endures a classmate’s slam poetry and nicknames.  The story reveals the power posted videos hold in the lives of teenagers.

Wendell Berry’s story, also among the briefest, has the longest title: “The Great Interruption: The Story of a Famous Story of Old Port William and How It Ceased to be Told (1935–1978)” burns with the embers of another era.  Berry’s story masterfully recreates an earlier period in 20th century America.  Berry’s story within a story, ignores Rust Hills’ advice, while drawing attention to a youthful witness.  Berry eloquence evokes not only a different time but also revives the importance of stories: “Port William was by then losing its own stories, which were being replaced by the entertainment industry, and so it was coming to know itself only as a ‘no place’ adrift with every place in a country dismemoried and without landmarks.” The story of Port William, with its tinge of scandal and fun, draws from another age, before “the coming of the machines.”  The important larger story surrounds the lives of this country place and surrounds the lives of Americans: “That was the defining story then, of Port William and thousands of places like it.  It was the story of the young people, changed by the change of the times, who by the war’s end or the midcentury had found their way to city jobs and salaries or high wages, and who returned after that only to visit a bedside in a nursing home, at a loss for something to say, or to bury the dead.”

Veteran science fiction master Ursula LeGuin contributed a period piece, “Pity and Shame” which also masterfully depicts 19th century America.  Her story recalls the fire of a passion from long ago: “She’d loved making love with Petey, back when they ran off together, the wanting and the fulfilling. . .  What she and Pete had had was like a bonfire that went up in a blaze.”  She compares that with nursing a broken man: “This was like a lamp that let you see what was there.”

Manuel Munoz, with his story “Anyone Can Do It” burns with a different sort of passion, one for survival.  The lives of migrant workers on the roadside of society in the Central Valley of California contemporize the realm of John Steinbeck. Munoz’s tale of the 1980’s sheds light on the immigration issue and seems contemporary in revealing the lives of itinerant workers of Mexican heritage as it quietly moves toward its conclusion without letting on their impending losses.

Jim Shepard’s “Our Day of Grace” recreates 19th – century lives of those who struggle to survive a precarious existence amid loss.  Shepard, recreated the letters of those suffering through America’s Civil War, brings to life those who fought and lived during the conflagration of America’s devastating Civil War, which redefined American values.  Shepard has brought to life the lives of those soldiers and their families involved in America’s Civil War, which concluded in 1865.  The issues of that war continue to plague America.

Said Sayrafiezadeh’s “Audition” describes two young men who after working construction, watch NBA basketball on TV, and slide into cocaine abuse.  This story, among the four which originally appeared in The New Yorker, where Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Bronze” also first appeared.   “Bronze” contains a panache for remarkable rhetoric.  Much of the story takes place on an Amtrak train in the late 1970’s.  As the story travels from New York City to Providence, Rhode Island, the conflicted protagonist attempts to comprehend his college life.  Eugenides, in comments near the back of the book, discusses his difficulties in revising his story.  All the contributors lend insight in the Contributors’ Notes.  The compilation also includes the list of “Other Distinguished Stories” and notes publications publishing short stories in 2019.

The two finest stories in the collection touch on Berry’s themes within his “story of Port William.”  Doerr, in his introduction, notes that Alexis Schaitkin’s “Natural Disasters” deals with the lack of “authenticity” so prevalent in American society.  Within the penultimate section of Schaitkin’s story she includes the important details leading to the story’s conclusion.  In the face of an impending natural disaster from a tornado, the main characters find a shelter for survival, yet post near obliteration, news of a brother’s backstory adds the story’s last devasting blow.

The bright star or Venus of this collection, “Hellion” burns with sassy sarcasm; it appears as a Southern, rhetorical masterpiece akin to the work of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty.  With its brilliant evocation of a swamp in the Southeast, the story brings to life a beloved, yet snappy pet alligator, a drunken father, and a hard – working, and mostly absent mother.  Julia Elliot’s narrator, a vibrant12–year–old girl describes the scene: “When I cut my motor cicadas blared like summer’s engine.  We scrambled from the cart, hunkered down by Dragon’s hole, dug deep by my daddy back in April when I’d found the baby gator moping motherless in the swamp.” This story shines, as it describes the dangerous gator, and it presents the girl’s new friend, a young “city” boy who endures the taunts of local, rural redneck boys. Julia Elliot’s “Hellion” captures, with humor and pathos, all that makes reading American short stories still important and worthwhile in this 21st century. 

________________________________________________________________________

Daniel Picker studied at Harvard and Oxford and completed an MA in English from Middlebury College in Vermont. His book reviews and personal essays have appeared in Harvard ReviewThe Sewanee ReviewThe Philadelphia InquirerMiddlebury MagazineThe Oxonian Review, Rain Taxi Review of Books, and The Irish Journal of American Studies. Daniel Picker was awarded The Dudley Review Poetry Prize at Harvard and he received a fellowship from The Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  He is the author of a book of poems, Steep Stony Road (Viral Cat Press of San Francisco 2012). Fiction by Daniel Picker appears in The Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Kelsey Review, The 67th Street Scribe, and The Abington Review.  Daniel Picker studied fiction writing with Southern author and native Virginian, David Huddle, and studied poetry writing with Irish poet and Nobel winner, Seamus Heaney. Daniel Picker has reviewed books by John Banville, David Updike, William Corbett, Jim Lynch, Adam Begley on John Updike, W.S. Di Piero, John Berryman, Doug Holder, John Elder, Rick Hillis, and several others.  

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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

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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.  

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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.

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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.” 

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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.

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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?

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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.

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