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A Foolish Son

By Stephen Lewis

“A foolish son is a grief to his father….” (Proverbs 17:25.3)

The boy on the witness stand eyes Mr. Wilkie Burton, the prosecuting attorney, a short and round faced man with sideburns that reach his chin and a mustache that covers his upper lip before curling onto his cheek.  Sweat drips from his bald head and moistens his facial hair.   Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees Sam Logan, his father, staring  at him from the defense table where he sits next to his lawyer.  The boy’s glance continues until it lands on his mother in the front row of the spectators.  She nods encouragement.

He turns back to Barton who forms his face into an encouraging expression, such as you would use with a recalcitrant child who holds the key to your strongbox in a hand, sticky with molasses, over a yawning crack in the floor.

“Now, George,” the prosecutor says, “I know this is difficult for you.”  This last is said with a sidelong glance at Logan.  “We have heard your father say that on the afternoon of June 15th, 18 and 95,  you and he were clearing brush for a new road.  Is that right?”

“Yes,” George says.  He remembers how he lay on his bed the last few nights, listening for his father’s snores coming through the wall, but hearing only the rattle of the window frames in the breeze off the bay.  He looks again past his father’s tense face to his mother, her expression set in the same vacant stare it has worn since the sheriff came to take his father away.  All spring, he heard the birds singing in the morning, but at night his parents’ muffled and angry words.  Then their bed creaked beneath their grunts and moans.   He did not understand what this peek into the adult world offered him, and so as was his custom he did not try.  Burton has his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his trousers, and George remembers how his father sometimes whips him with his belt.  The prosecutor wears no belt, but George does not trust him.  He sees the prosecutor’s  jaw quiver, and then George adds, “That is what he said.”

“I see.  You were to help your father, isn’t that so?”

“Yes.”

“Of course.  You are a dutiful son, are you not?”

“I am that,” George answers, although he is not exactly sure what “dutiful” means.  He ponders, then seizes on the first syllable.   “I do what he asks.  Mostly.”

“Non-responsive,” Burton snaps with a glance at Judge Samuel Hightower..

“Son, can you be clearer in your answer?”  Hightower’s tone is both weary and warm.

“No, sir,” George says with a smile.

“We will recess for an hour,” the judge declares, “so everyone can cool down, and the witness can search his memory for better answers.”

George stays on the witness stand as the courtroom empties.   Finally, only the court officer remains with him.

“You can step down,” the officer says.

“I have no place to go,” George replies.

“Suit yourself,” the officer answers, and sprawls on a chair.  “But I have orders that where you go, I go.”

“I always do,” George replies, “suit myself that is. Mostly, anyway.”

The officer leans back and shuts his eyes.  His right hand, though, rests on the heavy butt of the revolver at his side.

George remembers the dew on the grass between his toes that morning, and how the orioles had been whistling in the trees.  George boy, George boy, come here, they sang.  The whistling would stop later in the afternoon, and his feet would be squeezed into boots too small.  He reaches down, now, to massage his toes through his own shoes and he can still feel where the skin on his little toe had been rubbed raw.

His father left to clear the new road.  He was to follow when he found the ax he had mislaid the day before.  His mother watched from the rocker on the front porch while George stood staring at the grooves on the chopping stump, scratching his head in wonderment that the ax head was not buried in the wood, and that he could not reach out his hand and grasp the handle.   After a while he let his mind drift to the rhythm of his mother’s rocker, which itself seemed to mimic the creak of the blades on the windmill over the well.  And then there was the song of the birds calling to him, and his feet burrowed into the cool grass.

The rocking stopped, replaced by the clomp of the heavy men’s shoes his mother wore to work in the vegetable garden behind the house.  The heels of her shoes resounded off the three steps leading down from the porch, and then softened in the dirt.

“Go on, now, your father’s waiting for you,” his mother called.

She had on the wide brimmed straw hat she wore to protect her face from the sun.  The exposed skin of her neck and hands was darkened by a summer spent outdoors. She stared at his bare feet.  In her hands, she held a pair of his father’s boots.

“You had best put these on, if you are going to cross Old Trail Road,” she said.

He took the boots from her, laced them together and threw them over his shoulders.

“I like to feel the grass between my toes,” he said.

She frowned.

“You will remember to put them on when you reach the road, though, won’t you?”

“Yes’m.  I always do.  Most of the time.”

“Did you find that ax?”

“No.”

“Go on then.”

He walked onto the grass between the ruts carved in the soil by his father’s wagon on the track from their cherry orchard to Old Trail Road, which led to the town at the base of the peninsula.   Lying in one of the ruts was the ax where he had dropped it yesterday.  He picked it up as though he knew that this was where he would find it.  Old Trail Road was dirt flattened smooth by the passage of innumerable wagons and heavy soled boots. He almost stepped into a steaming pile of manure left by a pair of horses pulling a load of lumber toward town, and then he felt the boots banging against his shoulder blades.  Hearing his mother’s instruction in the chatter of the birds, he knelt on the edge of the road to squeeze his feet into boots a size or two too small, and then he strode onto the road.  It followed the crest of a long, narrow hill rising above the meadows on either side.  He gazed at the bright blue waters of the bay sparkling in the morning sun, and then he trotted over the road into the field on the other side.  He left the field and entered the wood, his ears now listening for the sound of his father’s ax.  He had not taken more than a few steps before his toes began to cramp hard inside the boots.  He wondered for just a moment why his mother had been so insistent, but he was not in the habit of puzzling over things he did not understand, and so he walked on.

He was drawn to the song of the orioles.  Its lilt lifted his spirit.  Then the song stopped, and it was replaced by the loud cawing of a small flock of crows circling something in a small clearing up ahead.  He hastened, and then he saw her lying still on the ground.  The crows flew off a short distance, and there was silence.
Highsmith strides into the filled courtroom,  jurors and spectators, on their feet expectant and perspiring in the late afternoon heat.   From the distances comes the roll of thunder that promises relief.

George has been staring at the door awaiting the entrance of the judge.  His muscles ache, and there is a dull, throb pressing down on his forehead.  He hears the thunder and remembers only the silence above the dead girl after the cawing crows took flight.  He looks towards his mother.  Her eyes, which had been red rimmed before today, are now clear and cold.  He sees her offer a barely perceptible nod, and he recalls what she said this morning, “Just tell them, “ she said, “and don’t be afraid.”

“I am not going to ask you the questions you could not answer before,” Burton says..  George focuses on the man’s teeth as he talks.  They are stained yellow, and saliva pools in a space where a lower front tooth is missing.   He recalls how red Sarah’s lips were and how white her teeth.  He smiles at Burton.

“Let us try another approach.” Burton leans close enough for George to smell his breath.  It is not sweet like he imagines hers would have been if she had been still breathing when he found her. “Tell us what you saw when you arrived at the murder scene.”

“The birds were not singing anymore,” he answers.  He is there in the clearing between the trees, the ax over one shoulder.  He grimaces as he feels again how the boots force his big toe to overlap its neighbor.

Burton steps back, his face a picture of exasperation.

“Yes, but what did you…” he pauses.  “Let me be direct.  Did you see your father there?”

“No.”

Burton smiles.

“Did you see him that day between when he left to clear the road and when you found the body?”

George sighs.  He is suddenly very tired, and he is finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.  Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his father staring hard at him.

“Yes,” he replies.

Burton’s jaw drops.

“Did you not tell the sheriff that you never got to the place where your father was clearing the road?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

George closes his eyes, and opens them to focus on the prosecuting attorney’s nose.  He sees the hairs poking out of the nostrils.

“Well what, Mr. Burton?”

“Which is it.  Did you help your father clear the road, or did you not?”

“No. I was on my way to help him,” he starts.

“Yes, and….” Burton prods.

“I saw her lying there.”

Burton’s sigh is audible throughout the courtroom.

“Before you could help your father, you saw the victim lying dead in that clearing,” the prosecuting attorney says.

George nods.

“She was so peaceful beneath that tree, and the birds in it stopped singing.”

Burton waits and then turns to Highsmith.

“No further questions,” he says.  “I think I have gotten what I can from the lad.”  He glances toward Logan, pulls a sweat stained handkerchief from his pocket, and daubs at the perspiration on his forehead.

Defense attorney Frederick Lowe’s thin, blond hair is parted down the middle and lies flat on his head, setting off his prominent nose and ears that protrude a bit more than normal.  He wears spectacles that leave an angry welt on the bridge of his nose.

Lowe steps ever so slowly toward George, his spectacles in one hand, the other rubbing the welt.  He stops and replaces his spectacles.

“Did you see your father anywhere near where you found Sarah’s body?”

“No,” George replies.

“ I see.  But you told Mr. Burton you saw him that day.”

“Later, I saw him later.  Back home.”

Lowe strokes his chin, adjusts his spectacles, but then turns on his heel.

“You may step down,” Highsmith says to George.  The boy is leaning over to rub his foot and seems not to hear for a moment or two, but then he rises and starts to walk towards his mother.

“You may be called again,” the judge says.  “

George lets himself be led out of the courtroom.  His step is firm.

“What was your plan on the morning of June 15th last?” Lowe asks Sam Logan.

“To clear a road to the harbor.”

“Were you going to work alone?”

“No.  I had young Phil Watson with me.”

“My hired hand.  Folks know him.  His father’s from the South.”

“Yes.”

“Was your son to help you as well?”

“Yes.”

“Did he?”

“No.  He never arrived.  I expect he had trouble finding his ax.”

“Was that unusual?”

“Not at all. He often is forgetful. But he is a good boy.”

Lowe pauses for just a moment.

“When he didn’t show up, what did you do?”

Logan turns his head slightly toward the jury and then back to Lowe.

“Why, I sent Watson to fetch him.”

“Did he?”

Logan shrugs.

“I do not know.  He never came back.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“No.”

“What do you suppose happened to him?”

Lowe looks over his shoulder as Burton rises to object, but Logan is too quick.

“I guess he found Sarah instead of George.”

Burton walks to the evidence table and picks up a pair of muddy boots.  He shows them first to the jury, and then to Logan.

“Are these your boots?”

“Used to be.  I haven’t worn them in years.”

“You did hear several witnesses, including the sheriff, testify that impressions left in the ground near the body match these boots, did you not?”

“I did.  But if my boots made those impressions, my feet weren’t in them.”

“Were you and Sarah Henshaw lovers?” he asks.

“We were friends,” Logan replies.

“You knew she was carrying your child, did you not?”

“No.  The last time I saw her she was upset and asked me for laudanum for her nerves.  I told her I didn’t have any.  She must have gotten some from somebody else.”

Burton attempts to show his shocked disbelief, but he is not a very good actor.  When he pulls back his lips, his mustache hides the gesture and his pudgy face looks more amused than distressed.

“You say you sent young Watson to fetch your son?”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“And you did not see Sarah Henshaw that day?”

“No.”

“You did not drug her with laudanum and then squeeze the life out of…”

Lowe’s complaint is drowned by Highsmith’s gavel.

“I will rephrase,” Burton says when quiet is restored.  “Is it your testimony that you did not know Sarah Henshaw was pregnant with your child, that you did not see her on the day she was killed, that you know nothing about the bottle of laudanum found next to her, and you believe that Philip Watson killed her in that field while he was on an errand to find your son, and that is why he has fled, and that your own son’s confusing testimony is his feeble attempt to protect you?  You want us to believe that those boot prints in the field next to that young girl’s body were not made by you?  Is that what you want this jury to believe?”  Burton gestures grandly toward the jury box, and this time his face manages an approximation of incredulity.

“The truth,” Logan says softly, “I want them to see only the truth.”

“I think they have,” Burton concludes.

“Did I do right?” George asks his mother as they walk toward their house.

“Yes,” she replies.

“And he won’t beat me no more, or mock me, when he comes home?”

“He’s not coming home.”

“But poor Sarah…” he begins.

“Hush,” she replies.  “She is better off in heaven than giving birth to your father’s bastard.”   She points to George’s ax, now driven into the chopping stump.  “There is work for you to do.”

George smiles and pulls the ax out.  He places a log on the stump and brings the ax down hard.  The log jumps apart.  He stacks it neatly and picks up another.

Phillip Watson stands on the porch, a cardboard suitcase between his feet.  He holds out his hand, and she places a small wad of bills in it.  He stuffs the money into his pocket.

The ax rings out again, and Phillip picks up his suitcase.  He walks fast and then begins to trot.  He disappears over the hill.  George puts down his ax and watches.

“Will he be alright?” he asks.

“Yes,” his mother replies.

She pauses and looks down at her hands.

“It is only unfortunate that Sarah did not drink enough of the sedative, that she had to die hard.”

George picks up his and ax looks at his mother, a question in his eyes.

“Yes,” she says, “you did the right thing.”

“And so did I,” she says under her breath, but she wonders when again she will be able to wash her hands without feeling the young woman’s warm flesh between her fingers.


After having published seven novels in traditional print form, Stephen Lewis dips his toe into the new digital world with the historical mystery A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first e-book.  His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangolin Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Jewish Currents.  Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, and “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review.  Although born and raised in Brooklyn, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres.

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The Fall of Burhan

Liam Fani was born in the year of 572, under a dark, starry night in the middle of the rolling plains of the Arabian desert. His ancestors, like those of the Jews and the Babylonians, had been desert folks, knowing every inch of the sand dunes and the canyons of their land. They’d lived in the desert for many years, among trackless hills, but they knew how to track anything that moved and how to trace the lineage of the noble blood.

Rumors had it, as old folks had often retold, that immediately after Fani opened his eyes, he looked towards the sky, extending his hands as far as he could, as if to reach the stars. The hot, scourging desert sun had roughed his skin, but softened his heart. He used to be starving for days and would finally go hunting for gazelles, but he’d cry by his own kill. At times, he’d decide to just herd them into a corral he’d built, but their wild nature, tickling the soft part of his heart, would urge him to set them free. He’d rather choose to exchange cattle milk with some dates to eat, from the villagers nearby.

Occasionally, he’d go trotting freely on his white horse, foreseeing the scary, unknown orchards, far beyond the desert he had known. He’d be happy to meet those villagers, but the concentration of the green palm trees, dancing in the fires of heaven, always blinded his eyesight, hindering him from seeing as far as he could. And he hated it. The villagers’ land didn’t feel so open, relentlessly inviting as the barren land of the desert — a feeling that had often strangled him, suffocating his brotherly words towards those ancient villagers.

His four decades of desert life had been peacefully the same, until Burhan, the Persian, and his companions came along.

Fani had once deserted his woman for failing to bury their differences, but to turn his back again on another helpless creature, leaving her completely vulnerable to the pricking pickles of the desert, with no justifiable reasons, was a foul act, painfully chastised under his own, personal rules of the desert.

* * * * *

When Burhan gained power, he proclaimed himself to be a prophet, and built a fortress, hidden between the mounds of sands, in the middle of the desolate desert. The fortress he erected was built with the blood of the locals, whom he convinced to rule the region. They fell for his presumed truthfulness and kindness. His eloquent tongue made them kneel at his feet, furnishing before their eyes, a virtually-created heaven, full of virgins, wine and hashish.

The motto, he propagated and in which every fighter believed, was all heathens were wrong and however you do with them was justified.

His blind fighters willingly fought, sacrificing their lives, for achieving their reckoned paradise, where they’d satisfy their lust with the nymphs of heaven. Their foolish credulousness, coupled with their passion for the sheer and mere lustful desires, had helped him acquire his power over them — they were his living daggers. He manipulated those naive fighters, who were certain that obedience to him, was the key to the gate of paradise.

One day, Burhan along with his fighters set out their ruthless plan to conquer an oasis, lying in the middle of the village nearby.

* * * * *

In the village of the oasis, Merav had once had a dream of fire, burning between her legs. Her household collapsed, tumbling to the ground. She saw herself alone and no one around she knew to be found, but a group of strangers trooped around, surrounding her. She woke up petrified. Upon examining the lines of fate on her palm, she wondered about her unknown destiny.

Her frightening dream came true. On the sand dunes of the desert, she stood woe-stricken and heart-broken. She was a captive of war, stranded, not knowing where to go and what was going to happen of her. She grieved not only her brutally murdered father, but also her darling husband. They barbarously killed her kins, wiping out her community entirely. She looked back at her demolished, burning village, with tears falling down her cheeks, her mascara smudged across her smooth, white, and creamy face.

Though dismayed and devastated, she continued to spark like an elusive sea pearl, misplaced by the hands of God in the middle of the desolate desert, attracting her enemies. Her ancient beauty killed, it sent them hankering after her. They savagely argued, fighting over her. Each and every one wanted to claim her as his own. Her formerly prestigious and royal status rendered her free from them, but not from Burhan.

* * * * *

In the thirsty plains of the desert, they began betting on her, as a precious piece of land, as a deep well, full of an endless source of water.

“I found her first and she’s mine,” shouted a long bearded, wretched soldier, riding on a dark-brown horse. “So, you all stay away from her,” he went on.

“I’d get her from you for ten heads of sheep,” shouted another slim, ragamuffin soldier.

“By God’s will, I won’t give her away for fifty heads of camels,” shouted the one who found her first. “Look at her beautiful hips and hair. Her beauty surmises all I’ve seen in fifty years.”

“Kill her!” A call echoed from a wimpy soldier in the back.

“I’d give you a hundred of them if allowed for a nightstand,” said a fat soldier in the front line, with a sword embroidered with gold, in his hand.

“God forbid. She’s already christened for me. So, you stay out of it, too.”

They fought and bled, killing one another for her. They all wagered on her, save for Fani who approached her cautiously, asking about her name and that of her kins.

“I am Merav, the daughter of the assassinated sheik of the village and the wife of his assassinated deputy.” She asserted while her head was still held up high.

Upon hearing this revelation, Fani rushed to his leader, to inform him of the turmoil, preoccupying his entire army. He told him of her angelic appearance and of her royal lineage.

Fani, the only fighter questioning the truthful identity of Burhan, kept nagging his comrades with questions, “What if there were no nymphs in Heaven? What if this man weren’t the truthful, Godly-sent prophet? What if he was lying? Will you drop your weapons, abandoning the idea of going to paradise? Or will you continue to shed the blood you crave?” He wasn’t convinced nor was he lecherous enough so much as his colleagues were for the nymphs of heaven. Nevertheless, he was faithful, not to Burhan, but to the word he gave to him.

“Let me consult God on that,” Burhan said as he walked into his tent. God was made to be ready at his own discretion.

A few moments later, Burhan crawled out of his tent, wreathed in smiles. He instructed Fani to bring her to him, putting an end to the misery that engulfed his prominent army members.

* * * * *

A slim, hopeless figure, with hands bound behind her back, stood before him. Her black hair was straight, but wavy across her forehead. Her wide eyes flushed with tears, welling across the corners of her eyes. Once Burhan took a glimpse of her graceful beauty, he whispered to himself, by God, some people were born lucky; some strove to achieve luck, while others had had luck thrust upon them.

“Would you like your freedom granted?” He asked as he reiterated inquiring about her name and that of her kins. “Loss kills every pleasure in life. Only black suits me,” she said, choking with tears.

Eros danced above the clouds of his thoughts. A daffodil, waiting to bloom, stretched in the horizon of his mind. The worm in his brain began to crawl. With a brittle smile on his face, he blurted out, “I’d grant you happiness and freedom if you marry me.” “Shame on you. Between winning hearts and mending them lies a thin line called manner. Don’t you know you and your vagabonds just killed my father and my husband?” Burhan blushed as she uttered those words, totally unaware of her eloquence and potency.

But as mesmerizingly charming as she was, he couldn’t resist claiming her as his own. He flatly told his soldiers he’d marry her that same night. “Her dowry would be her granted freedom from enslavement,” he asserted. “Try applying it to your daughter before nailing it into the heart of others.” She said.

Burhan’s reality was hard to grasp. He unconsciously wished it were a dream. His comrades stood perplexed as she kept berating him, unleashing tongues of criminal prisoners behind the teeth, who if released when angry, would throw one in a cell of remorse, where one would only be freed, under the mercy of conscience.

Her circumstances were hard, but there was always hope as stars shone brighter on darker nights. She never experienced such an authoritarian desert prick in her life. She continued castigating him, till she unbridled a falcon, soaring high into the sky. She was stronger because of what she’d gone through. She was smarter because of his silly mistake. When she looked at her palm, terrified by her nightmare, she’d prayed, imploring she’d be happier, knowing the horror she’d experience. She was sure should she be free, she’d be wiser because she’d learned.

* * * * *

“My Lord, you can’t marry her tonight, for her father and husband just died,” Fani protested.

“That may not apply to captives of war, especially to those of heathen!” He snapped a justification for himself.

Aeolus enraged and furious, inside the cavernous interior of his cave, blew heavy winds, stirring a scourging hot, dusty storm that eclipsed a soaring hawk, circling the eye of the sky. Hard rocks eroded, boulders broke, harnesses pulled while horses reared and neighed. Swords swung and clanged, pounding with the howling storm. Fani whipped out his sword, thrusting it into the heart of his leader, whom he once followed, under the night disguise. He crushed his brain whose twin tumors were impossible to eradicate, one of which was the blood, manifested in the abode of mortals, while the other was the lechery for the nymphs of the abode of the just. Burhan tumbled down a cold corpse, underneath Fani’s feet. He had climbed the desert plains with many, but came down with none. Fani thought to himself who didn’t drink from the sea of knowledge would die thirsty in the desert of life. Life was a lesson taught by experience.

As Fani wiped his sword clean with a white cloth, bright clouds danced softly, blowing Zephyr’s winds. A white dove flew above Merav’s head.

_____________________________________________________________________________

Abdullah Aljumah is bilingual and bicultural. He received his Master’s degree in Linguistics from Eastern Michigan University sponsored by the Fulbright program. Some of his short stories are published by various literary reviews and journals. He writes short stories and poems revolving around hypocrisy, religion conflicts, and forced or arranged marriages.

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Tamara and Natiao

This is the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.

~Christopher Columbus, Bariay, Cuba, November 27, 1492

The beats of the magueye drums increased their pace and the maracas rattled with a steady rhythm, drowning the sounds of the early summer night.  Everyone had gathered in the batey, the open area surrounded by the bohíos where the population of the nameless Taíno village resided. They crouched, forming an irregular circle around Uncle. He sat on the bare ground snorting a ground tobacco drug that brought him, with each inhalation, into a deeper trance. Taking one final puff, he closed his eyes and turned his head towards his niece, who held the squirming baby in her arms with difficulty. Uncle cleared his throat of the lingering vapors of the weed and intoned the words of the ritual:

“O sacred Nonum, who circles the heavens and sees all, the past, the present, and the future that lies hidden to us!  We present to you this child – grant us a glimpse of his future, whether he will grow to work the fields with strength, and fish the rivers with skill, and hunt and trap with cunning, and father many children that will increase our numbers and make us rich and powerful.”

No sooner had the words left the seer’s mouth than a dark cloud began blotting the sky where the moon had stood a moment ago. Darkness swallowed the village. Yet, before the full horror of the omen could be felt, the cloud shifted slightly, allowing a sliver of moonlight to struggle its way out, casting a dim light on the batey

Uncle shook his head with regret. “The goddess has spoken” – he declared. “This boy’s life will be brief and end in sorrow, but some good will come out of it. Welcome, Natiao. You shall be loved by us for as long as you are in this world.”

2

It was the same batey, the same clearing in the forest, the same full moon casting light and shadows on the faces of the villagers. It was colder, though, late in the year, at the end of the huracan season. Uncle again sat in a trance, his half-closed eyes directed at the baby, as she rested quietly in her bibi’s arms. He recited the words of the ritual and everyone turned their eyes towards the moon, which sat huge in the heavens. Nothing happened for a while. Then, as Uncle was getting ready to announce that the goddess did not deign to speak, a small hawk darted out of the forest and circled slowly three times over the assembled crowd, all the while uttering its piercing challenge, and coming near to where the baby was being held. Then it gave out one last shriek and was gone.

Uncle got to his feet, came over to the mother, and said gravely: “This child will see many moons, and will know many cycles of pain and misfortune. But at the end she is to prevail, for she is strong and her will shall conquer adversity. Welcome, brave one, I name you Tamara and, as the butterfly whose name you bear, you will soar above the evil and good that life shall offer you.”

3

Between the time of Natiao’s birth and that of his sister Tamara, the world had gone through a catastrophic change, but in the Taíno village nobody knew of it. One day late in Natio’s first year, fair skinned men sailing in floating houses came ashore at a place not far from the village. Leading them was an auburn-haired giant called Cristóbal Colón who later became known as the “Guamikeni” (Lord of Land and Water) by the Taínos. Colón soon sailed away and never came back.

Later, Taínos began arriving from distant villages, some coming from as far as the island of Haytí. Some traveled overland across the steep mountains, others arrived by water in canoes, but all brought disquieting tales about those pallid men. According to their stories, the Guamikeni and his men came ashore and established their own villages, not unlike the Taíno yukayekes. Soon thereafter, though, they sought to master the land, forcing the local inhabitants to become their servants and making all males, young and old, pan the rivers in search of gold nuggets. Those that resisted were whipped or had flesh-tearing dogs unleashed on them.

At first the villagers gave no credence to these tales, and viewed them as excuses by people wishing to leave their impoverished lands for a better place to call home. But then a larger group of Taínos appeared in the village. They arrived in piraguas, war canoes, all the way from Haytí.  They were led by a crazy-eyed old man who called himself Hatuey and said he was a Taíno chief. They had escaped from the hands of the Spaniards and wanted to warn all people about what to expect when the white men came.

Tamara was fourteen and had had her first blood, but was not yet paired with any of the young men in the village. She listened to Hatuey in horror as he addressed the village and exhibited a large basket full of small gold ornaments like jeweled yaris and taguaguas. “Here is the God the Spaniards worship,” he said, “for all they want is gold, and will kill us for it.” He went on to say: “We must make a common front to resist them, and throw them back into the sea from which they came!!”  

The Taínos could not believe the apocalyptic message brought by Hatuey, and only a few joined him. Then Diego Velázquez, at the head of a conquering Spanish expedition, landed with about three hundred armed men and set to subdue the native population.

Hatuey led the Taíno resistance against Velázquez. His strategy was to attack, guerilla fashion, and then disperse to the hills, where the Indians would regroup for the next attack. For three months Hatuey’s tactics kept the Spaniards on the defensive, afraid to leave their fort.

4

With the help of a traitor, Velázquez was finally able to surround and capture Hatuey. Hatuey was tied to a stake at the Spanish camp and was burned alive. Just before lighting the fire, a priest offered him spiritual comfort, showing him the cross and asking him to accept Jesus so he could go to heaven. “Are there people like you in heaven?” he asked. “There are many like me in heaven,” answered the priest. Hatuey answered: “I want nothing to do with a God that welcomes people who inflict such cruel deeds on others.”

Natiao’s village had been at the core of Hatuey’s resistance. After his execution, the villagers sought to appease the Spaniards by holding a feast in their honor. Once the feast was over, however, the conquistadores set upon the Indians, slashing, disemboweling and slaughtering the males until their blood ran like a river. Except for those that managed to flee into the hills, the only Taíno males left alive were the old, the sick and the very young.

Natiao and three other youth escaped the massacre and hid in one of the caves on the mountains that surrounded Baracoa. They kept harassing the conquistadores, destroying their crops, killing their work animals, setting fire to their huts, and on one occasion slaying two white men who they found unarmed in the fields.

Then their luck ran out. Hunting dogs traced them to their cave and led a full armed force to their hideaway. As the barks of the dogs alerted them to their peril, Natiao told his friends: “Run to the other side of the hill, behind the waterfall, and maybe they will lose track of you. I will distract them in the meantime.”  His friends resisted his command, but he shoved them out: “If you die, all resistance is lost. Live and carry on with the fight.”

The others had barely disappeared into the woods when the party of Spaniards appeared on top of the ridge:  five men armed with arcabuces and three vicious black dogs that sprung at Natiao ahead of the humans.

Natiao brandished a macana, a long thick club with sharpened edges, and dispatched two of the dogs in quick succession; the third turned tail and joined the Spaniards, who raised their arcabuces and shot at Natiao.

Three of the shots fired by the arcabuces missed Natiao and he thrust a lance at one of the soldiers, impaling him against the trunk of a tree. He ran rapidly at the others, screaming Hatuey’s war cry:  “Aji Aya Bombe” (“Better Dead than a Slave”), and clubbed another soldier, dropping him dead. He was reaching for a third soldier when the two remaining arcabuces were discharged at him simultaneously.

Natiao’s body was flung backwards from the impacts, and the youth fell to the ground shaking convulsively. Soon he was dead.

One of Natiao’s friends witnessed Natiao’s death and told the story to his companions and to every Taíno they met. Natiao became a hero but his fame was short-lived, for the Spaniards ultimately annihilated all the indigenous population of the island.

5

Tamara did not learn of her brother’s death until much later. The day of the feast, she and three other women were herded into a bohío where half a dozen drunken Spaniards gathered around them.

Like all young Taíno women, Tamara was bare breasted and wore only a thin cotton skirt that ran to mid-calf. She was bronze-colored and had black, flowing hair, and large and slightly oblique dark eyes. Her young body was beautiful and exciting to the eyes of the soldiers, who began lining up for a gang rape. The first of them, a stinking mountain of a man with a disfiguring mole on his cheek, roughly tore away Tamara’s skirt, threw her on the floor and mounted her.

Tamara shrieked and pummeled the man’s chest and scratched him, but was no match for her attacker. The violation was about to be consummated when the Spaniard was forcibly yanked away from the prostate girl.

“Leave the Indian alone!” was a peremptory shout from someone that Tamara could not see. The soldier swung back behind him in an attempt to hit the interrupter and was struck in the face with the pommel of a sword.

“Get out of here before I hit you with the front end and not the back” warned the intruder. The soldier got up slowly, muttering something incomprehensible, and tottered away.

Tamara could now get a full view of her savior. He was tall, bearded and dark, and fairly young. He wore a shirt, a doublet, breeches and leather boots and gloves; nothing that signified a high rank or position. He was handsome, in a rough sort of way.

The man picked Tamara off the ground without effort and, carrying her over his shoulder, took her to another bohío. There, he ran his hand slowly over her face and said: “Child, you are pretty. I will have you, but in a more dignified manner.”  

Tamara did not understand the man’s words, but his tone was soothing and the sensations she was experiencing as he caressed her were pleasurable. He went on: “My name is Iñigo Valdés, although everyone calls me Nacho.”

Nacho laid Tamara down on a straw mat on the dirt floor and began kissing her insistently. Tamara squirmed and tried to fight him off, but not as fiercely as she had a few minutes earlier.  Finally, as Nacho fondled her secret place, the one that only her bibi had touched when she was a baby, Tamara sighed and her resistance ceased.

6

Cuba’s conquest from the unresisting Indians was completed in 1515, the same year of the foundation of Villa de La Habana on the southern coast of the island. Nacho and Tamara were among the first settlers of the village. Tamara gave birth to a pretty girl that Nacho had baptized as Juana, in honor of the reigning Queen of Castilla. Tamara called her Guaní, humming bird, a name that presaged a restless life ahead.

By that point, Tamara had learned enough Spanish to be able to hold rudimentary conversations with her master. She mostly applied her new skills to upbraid Nacho for his failure to defend the Indians from the abuses by the Spaniards. Velázquez had instituted in Cuba the encomienda system developed in Spain upon the Christian conquest of Muslim territories. Under it, a Spaniard was issued control over several native families. The encomenderos were allowed to require labor from the Indians in exchange for their “christianization.”  While the Indians were considered free subjects of the empire, the encomenderos used their Indians as slaves, and their brutal treatment caused the Indians to begin to die from forced labor, disease and suicide.

Nacho had been granted an encomienda that placed two Taíno families under his control. These became virtual slaves that performed all the work in Nacho’s holding, except cooking that was Tamara’s domain. As Nacho’s concubine, Tamara ruled the house as a Spanish wife would have.

“You should not hit them” she complained, when Nacho whipped the encomendados for some infraction.

“Shut up, wench, unless you want me to hit you too!”  he replied gruffly.

“I not afraid. I Taíno. We people, not animals. You better not hit us.”

“Shut up or I will give you to my captain,” he said half-jokingly.

“I scratch his eyes out” she promised, with a hatred that lent credence to her threat.

Nacho burst into laughing and that was the end of the discussion.

Two years later, it became obvious that La Habana’s southern location was unsuitable and an alternate site was chosen for the city in the north coast. A trip to the proposed new location convinced Nacho that he could do better there.  He figured that in a year he would be able to establish himself more comfortably in a suitable place.

The work in erecting his new house would be performed by the Taínos in his encomienda. On morning in early 1517 Nacho gathered the two families under his ward in front of his bohío and said that two weeks hence he would lead them to the new location he had chosen for his house in the northern coast and leave them there to work clearing the property and laying the foundations for the new home.

The news was received with consternation by the Indians. They lived in deplorable conditions; nonetheless, they were appalled at being forced to move north to start building their master’s home while at the same time finding a way to make a living.

Tamara confronted Nacho and chided him for his heartlessness. “How you treat people like animals?  Taínos not cows or pigs, you no can move them around!”

Nacho gave her a hard slap on the face that sent her reeling. “They are my property, and I do with them as I damn please. I don’t give a hoot if they live or die. So, watch out, or I will send you along with them to build my house!”

Tamara had a bleeding split lip and a terrible headache from her repressed anger. She cooked dinner to avenge herself.

She made an ajiaco, a savory stew that included bits of pumpkin, sweet yuca (cassava), corn, okra, and salted pork. In this particular ajiaco, she used yuca brava instead of sweet yuca. Yuca brava, when cooked, releases nailboa, a poisonous juice that could kill a man if ingested in sufficient quantities.

Nacho had a hearty appetite and downed three bowls of ajiaco, accompanied by cups of rough wine. In no time he dropped in his hamaca and fell, groaning, into a stupor.

Tamara considered slaying the man, but he was the father of her daughter and not too terrible a person, for a Spaniard. She hoped that the nailboa would not kill but only sicken him, but that was in the hands of the gods. All she wanted was to get away.

She picked up Guaní and, with the baby in her arms, ran to a bohío and slammed her fist twice against the door. The family was already asleep but woke up with the commotion. “No time to explain” she told them. “Gather what you can carry and meet me at the batey.”  She proceeded to the other bohíos and made the same demand.

Soon, the entire population of Nacho’s encomienda was gathered around Tamara. “I have put Guaoxeri Nacho to sleep, maybe for a long time. He insists on your going north to build his house. If you don’t, he’ll have you killed. Your choice is simple:  Either flee or obey his demands.”

“Flee?  Where?” demanded someone.

“Not far east of here is the big Southern Swamp, where the Spaniards do not go for fear of poisonous snakes, caimanes and other perils. We must settle there, at least for a few months.”

“But how is that better than going to build Guaoxeri Nacho’s new home?”

“You will have to decide that” replied Tamara curtly. It’s your choice. But you must act quickly, or miss the chance.”

There was a brief discussion, and one of the men spoke to Tamara in a voice that trembled with emotion: “Sister Tamara, better in a swamp, fighting the caimanes and the jubos, than on the hands of the Spaniards. We’ll go.” 

Tamara pressed Guaní against her body and turned to the congregation. “I may be a foolish girl by doing this to my daughter. But we have little choice. Guaní will grow to be a slave. I do not wish such a life upon her.” 

One of the women walked with Tamara as the group began moving eastward. “Are you sure the white caimanes won’t get us?”  Tamara quickly retorted: “Our Zemís don’t make war, like the God of the Spaniards. But they have always protected me and will ensure that I make it through this, and more. And with their help I shall.”

______________________________________________________________________________

Matias F. Travieso-Diaz is a Cuban-American engineer and attorney, retired after half a century of professional practice.  Following retirement, Travieso-Diaz has taken up creative writing and authored many short stories of various lengths and genres. Travieso-Diaz’ stories have appeared or are scheduled to appear in two dozen paying magazines, including New Reader Magazine; Dual Coast Magazine; Lite Lit One Journal; Theme of Absence Magazine; Night to Dawn Magazine; Jerry Jazz Magazine; Dream of Shadows Magazine; Jitter Press; Bethlehem Writers Roundtable; Emerging Worlds; The Patchwork Raven; Czykmate Productions – How HORROR-able Anthology; Four Star Stories, and Aurelia Leo.

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God’s Own Country

Toka, Yorkshire, Spring 1069

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli leaps to his feet.

* * * * *

Osbert, Yorkshire, May 1069

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli finishes speaking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karli lifts an eyebrow.

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

The girl starts, turns to her brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I take the girl to my new estate.

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

All I need now is an heir.

Toka

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

Raven withdraws, his gentle eyes pained.

I weep.

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

***

I feel the stirring of Osbert’s spawn.

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

I am a dead soul, my body stolen.

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

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

The sea is unsullied.

A wave runs over my feet.  Clean.  Refreshing.

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

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

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

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

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

I walk.

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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1348

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

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Little Tiger

 208 B.C.

Eastern China

“They’re coming! The soldiers are here,” the child yelled, banging a stick against the doors as he passed. “Gather your payments.”

Lin leaned out the window of his little workshop. “Don’t play tricks, boy. Serious people have no time for your foolishness.”

“No trick, Old Uncle. The watchman at the gate said so. The Emperor’s men came early.”

A kernel of fear bloomed in Lin’s chest. The soldiers are early! He stared as the child galloped away, bellowing his warning and whacking shutters with his ratty stick. Other craftsmen peered out their windows, grousing at the boy, or, more likely, cursing the approaching soldiers. A harsh clang from a neighbor’s dropped pan snapped Lin out of his stupor. He ducked back into the shop.

His teenage son sat at the work table, sanding a small piece of bamboo. Of course, the boy seemed to be lost, daydreaming, as usual. Lin sighed. He cherished his little tiger, his Xiao Hu, but sometimes he despaired for the boy’s future.

“Xiao Hu, did you not hear? The tax collectors are coming. Go, tell your mother, take the children to the cellar. Hurry!”

Eyes wide, Hu dropped his work. “Yes, Baba,” he said as he bolted toward the back door. “But why are they early?”

Lin shrugged. Perhaps the whispers of rebellion had grown louder. Emperor Qin demanded many arrows as his tax payment. Hard as it was to meet the demand, it still was better than seeing his children conscripted to the army, or forced to toil at the Emperor’s new wall. It didn’t matter why they were early; Lin would pay, regardless.

He scurried to the storeroom to count his stock. As expected, most of the month’s payment was bundled and ready to go. Lin nodded. His status as a favored craftsman carried weight with the tax collectors. They probably would be reasonable about the small shortfall.

Still, the anxiety gripping his heart did not ease until he heard the hushed commotion of his wife and younger children bustling into the hidden cellar. Safe.

Back in the main room, he surveyed the supplies heaped around the table. Several of the prepared feathers were too large, so Lin slid into his son’s abandoned seat, sweeping the defective feathers away. He frowned at the boy’s impatience. Just last night, Lin had explained yet again the importance of precision in their work.

“This is how we maintain our rank, our family position,” he’d intoned, “with arrows that fly true.”

Lin had demonstrated, placing a freshly-cut goose feather on the scale, and nodded as it balanced. The next feather was too heavy, so Lin carved away a bit of the mottled quill and weighed it again. Perfect. “This is my legacy to you.”

Hu had rolled his eyes. “No one else bothers to weigh everything.”

Lin grimaced at the memory. There was no hope for the boy.

A cacophony of clattering hooves and squeaking cart wheels signaled the soldiers’ arrival. Lin lurched to his feet, made clumsy by a fresh burst of adrenaline.Little Tiger

            “Your tax ready?” the soldier demanded as he shoved the door open. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating nonetheless, with his padded shirt and stiff leather shoes. He smelled of sweat.

“Yes, yes. The arrows are bundled, as required.”

“All of them?”

“Almost all. Forgive me, but, I thought they were not due for another week.”

The tax collector grunted. He scowled, scrutinizing the workroom, just as Hu burst back in. The boy froze at the sight of the soldier.

“Not now,” Lin hissed, silently cursing his son’s rash behavior. “Go!”

“Wait,” the soldier interrupted. “Today we collect workers for the wall, as well as taxes. This young man would make up for your incomplete payment.”

“No.” Lin stepped in front of his son. Voice quivering, he continued, “This boy can serve the Emperor better here, making the finest arrows for his army.”

“I thought you were the arrow maker, old man.”

“My son also knows the way of the arrow. He will benefit the empire well, long after I have passed.”

The soldier studied Hu. “Prove it, boy.”

Lin’s breath caught, but his little tiger nodded and stepped up to the work table. Hu’s hands trembled only slightly as he chose a feather from the pile and placed it on the scale. He explained how the weight of the feather had to interact precisely with the heft of the arrowhead. He reached for the piece of wood he’d been toying with earlier, showing the soldier how the bamboo shaft must be dried and sanded, just so, to provide strength, yet retain flexibility. Finally, he demonstrated the placement of the feathers, to minimize drag while promoting spin.

“This is why our arrows fly faster and bite more deeply into our enemies,” Hu said as he notched the final quill into the shaft.

Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.

The soldier inspected the completed arrow, and then grunted, apparently satisfied. He took the remaining bundles from the storeroom, nodding toward Hu as he left the shop.

Lin stared after the departing tax collector for a heartbeat and then collapsed onto his bench. He released a tremulous breath, contemplating his son, who now was twirling a feather between his fingers and grinning. Lin could only shake his head.

______________________________________________________________________________

Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Daily Science FictionDead Housekeeping, and Akashic Books’ short fiction series. Read more at mynachang.com.  

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The Milliner of Klausenburg

A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.

~Goethe

Lotte peered at herself, turning her head from side to side, trying to get the best view of herself in the triple mirror.  She was proud of her creation, copied from a Viennese ladies journal: in gold velvet trimmed with brown lace, the hat sat forward on her forehead, its point emphasising the slant of her eyebrows, echoing her wistful chin.  A veil of bronze organza fell from the back; she pulled this round, relishing its effect against her chestnut hair.  ‘I’ll take it home this evening and try it on again after my bath,’ she thought.  ‘Frau Wolff will never know.  Yes, this hat, and the little buttoned boots.

* * * * *

The woman entered Langhuber’s Café, her head darting sideways, as alert as a bird of prey, an effect enhanced by the mass of nodding feathers on her hat.  She scowled at the portrait of Franz Josef hanging above the hatstand: he returned the scowl.  Magda was irritated.  Her niece had written to her asking for this meeting, so where was the silly woman?

‘You are looking for Frau Wolff, ma’am?’ murmured a waiter.

‘As a matter of fact I am!’

‘If you would please follow me,’ and he wound his way expertly around the scattered, polished tables, the chatter of people and the waxy potted plants to a semi-enclosed booth at the far end of the room.  Impeded by her bustle, Magda’s journey was rather less fluent.  She eased herself into the seat opposite her niece with all the majesty of a four-masted barque edging into a narrow berth.  From here she could look up at the tilted mirror hanging on the wall above their snug – this gave them privacy from the other customers, who could see only the tops of their heads, but she could summon a waiter just by lifting a hand.

‘Lise!  What are you doing in the séparée?’

‘I don’t want anyone to see me, Aunt Magda.’

‘Not like you.  What’s the matter, something wrong with your hat this time?

‘It’s not that – though darling Lotte has promised me another.  It’s Hans.  He has another woman.’

Hans!’

‘He’s not so unattractive as all that, Aunt,’ said Lise.

‘What makes you suspect him, dear?  A letter?  A trace of scent?’

‘Oh no!  It’s because he’s being nice to me.  More than he has been in years.  Solicitous, you know.  Bringing me a cushion. Treating me the way he did when I was expecting Martin.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do for me then!  And there’s another thing but…oh dear, I don’t know that I can find the right words – no decent woman should have to.’

Magda glanced up at the mirror.  The waiters were all busy at smaller tables some distance away.

‘You can tell me,’ said Magda, patting her niece’s gloved hand.

‘In the first two years of our marriage, when Hans was still getting established and was fretful about money, he said we’d have to wait to start a family…’

‘I see…’ said Magda, considering the options.

‘I was mortified…the bedlinen…’

‘Ah!  He provided more work for your laundress, you mean?’

Ilse Wolff’s eyes widened.  ‘Do other husbands do this?’

‘You are not the first wife to tell me this.  It’s next to onanism, of course.  An ungodly and unnatural practice.’

‘Well, the other night he did it again.  It was as if he forgot himself, forgot that we are too old – that am too old for there to be more children…and…and out he came!  It was dark.  He can only have been thinking of someone else!’  Lise whimpered, and fumbled for her handkerchief.

‘My dear, do recollect yourself.  You might be sheltered here, but you are still in a public place.  At least pull down your veil.’ Magda raised a finger to the mirror, and a waiter glided over, as smoothly as though he ran on castors.  Her aunt ordered for them both.

‘Father didn’t want me to marry him,’ said Lise, ‘he said an apothecary was merely a tradesman masquerading as a doctor. But he was the best student of his year.’

‘I remember.  But you did marry him, and successfully it would seem, up to now.  Men are unpredictable, though.  Your uncle Albert was nearly sixty when he lost his head to that dancer.  We women have to put up with much foolishness.  So who is Hans’s woman?’

‘I have no idea.  But I have no doubt that she exists.’

‘Be sensible, Lise, and do not confront him.  Not until you have stronger evidence.’

* * * * *

Discretion was the watchword of the establishment on Szappany Street.  So screams were definitely frowned upon – especially when enmeshed in them was a man’s name.  The doors to the other chambers remained resolutely closed, but the servant recognised the one that crashed open on the third floor, followed by the slap of bare feet on varnished boards.  She tore up the narrow stairs. 

‘Maria!’ shrieked the girl.  ‘Hans is turning blue!  He can’t breathe!’

‘Go back to him!  I’ll send the boy for Dr. Goldschmidt.  Otto!

‘But – the scandal!’

‘There won’t be one.  Goldschmidt’s a client too.’

* * * * *

Mendel Goldschmidt drank down the strong coffee Maria had made for him, and said: ‘He burst a blood vessel in his brain, I believe.  I’ve tried to reassure the poor girl that it wasn’t her fault, but she won’t be comforted.  She’s a sweet thing, even with her face all blotchy like that – obviously adores little Wolff.’

‘Will he live?’

‘Hard to say – and if he does, harder still to know now what lasting damage there  might be.  A terrible shock for her, of course, but if he never does come round, well, there are worse ways to go.  Shouldn’t say any of that of course – he’s still breathing.’

‘What are we to say?  About his being here, I mean.’

‘I shall say he collapsed in the street, on his way to see me about a patient.  You came out on an errand at just the right moment, and had him brought inside.’

‘Where did you take him?’

‘To the Hungarian Sisters.  He’s as good as in gaol there, for they’ll let no-one see him except myself and the specialist I’ve sent for from Kronstadt.  And his wife, of course.’

‘Not her, then.’

‘No chance of that, though she’d be the most devoted of nurses.’

* * * * *

The nun sitting at the head of the bed rustled to her feet on Lise’s entrance, leaving the folded handkerchief with which she had been dabbing Wolff’s face on the marble-topped cabinet, next to a spittoon and a crucifix.

‘I must urge you not to tire your husband, Frau Wolff.  Any undue pressure could be fatal,’ she murmured.

Lise looked down at the slack-jawed face, the matted, grey, untidy moustache; the blacking he used every morning had been sponged out of it.  Drool was gathering at the right side of his mouth; she picked up the handkerchief, but finding it repulsively damp, dropped it.  Hans Wolff stared up at his wife, trying to focus.

‘Poor Hans,’ she said, sitting down.  She touched his right hand where it lay inert on the bedcover; it was cold and unresponsive.  ‘I know, you know.’

Hans gurgled.

‘Don’t fret.  I can hardly fight a duel over you, can I?  I don’t suppose you ever would have for me – not that I have ever given you cause.’

A tear seeped from his left eye.

‘Is that regret, Hans?  For us, or because you won’t ever have her again?  You shan’t, you know, even if you do get better.  I shall find out who she is, and then Aunt Magda will speak to her husband’s cousin – you know, in the Postenkommando – and she will be made to leave town.’

Wolff moaned, an inarticulate, bovine sound.  One side of his mouth twitched; saliva dribbled out the other.

‘Meanwhile, I must struggle on, and find comfort in small things, and in the esteem a respectable woman is held by her neighbours.  In fact, I shall face them today.  I shall go shopping,’ she said, stroking her gloves.  ‘Lotte has sent word that my new hat is ready, bless her.’

The man in the bed groaned, trying to rise, but he jerked uselessly like a puppet on only one string.  The door clicked and the nun billowed in.  Wolff continued to moan and twitch.

‘Frau Wolff, whilst I am sure your presence comforts him, your husband mustn’t be overtaxed.  Depending on what the doctor says, you should be able to see him again tomorrow.’

Lise rose.  ‘Good’bye, Hans.  I do love you, you know.’

* * * * *

Lise peered at her expression in the mirror in the hospital wash-room.  ‘I look too angry,’ she said to herself.  ‘I need to look anxious, devoted – people must look at me and see the strain but tell themselves that I am bearing up wonderfully.’  She experimented, grimacing at her reflection, then when she was satisfied she had found the look she needed, she pulled on her gloves, fitting each finger carefully, and let down her veil.

* * * * *

At the milliner’s, she was disappointed that Lotte was unavailable – indisposed, apparently.  The other girl didn’t have Lotte’s delicate touch, and Lise was sure that she had come close to stabbing her with a hatpin from sheer nerves, but – oh!  The hat was magnificent!  Now she felt ready for her coming task.

* * * * *

The desk intimidated Lise Wolff.  It was an absurdly showy thing, all glossy rosewood and gilt and as incongruous in that plain back-shop as a Steinmüller organ in a country oratory.  Though it could profitably have been sold, when he’d inherited it aged twenty-one Hans Wolff had still nursed dreams of a glittering medical career: receiving illustrious patients in his clinic, dispensing cures seated at this very same piece of furniture.  Instead he was an apothecary, catering mainly to the respectable German-speaking merchant class, and his wife was rummaging for evidence of adultery.

Frau Wolff took her time.  As long as Hans was under the care of the nuns, that woman, whoever she was, couldn’t reach him. ‘So unfortunate that he had to keel over right in front that place…a house of assignation!…’, she thought, ‘but if that servant hadn’t come out at that precise moment and shown such presence of mind he might be dead by now…but how on earth am I to thank such a person?  Fraulein Nicolescu – a Wallachian to boot…  Oh dear, I must make sure everything gets put back just as it was or he’s sure to notice.’  Then she remembered the warning the doctor had given her; even if he lived, Hans might never enter this room again.

For some customers the receipts went back years.  ‘He could have been a good doctor,’ thought Lise, ‘such conscientiousness.’  She schooled herself not to look at names as she untied bundles of correspondence.  Mendel Goldschmidt’s confident, sloping hand occurred regularly.  Her hands trembled when the word ‘mercury’ swam across her vision.  ‘Do keep calm,’ she told herself.  ‘No-one ever got the maladie française from reading about it.’

Three hours later she found the envelope, wrapped in an advertisement in Hungarian for bismuth powders.  The photographer’s name was scrolled across the bottom of each stiff little piece of card; Lise Wolff did not recognise his name but she knew the street name by repute – not good repute.  There were five images in all, of the same naked girl, her hair piled high on her head, yet topped always by an elaborate hat.  She was posed awkwardly, looking at herself in a cheval glass, so that the spectator saw her both front and rear, but frustratingly her face was either obscured by the hat or by her hands.  In one photograph her weight was on her right leg, whilst the left was held awkwardly behind her, on tiptoe.  In another she wore buttoned boots: Lise thought this the most obscene of them all; she noticed too that though the photographs looked new, the edges of this card were not quite as crisp as the others, suggesting that it had been picked up more often.

‘A rather common little body,’ thought Lise, ‘plump legs, too short, the back too long.’

She splayed the photographs across the blotting pad.  In a row they looked like a child’s zoetrope, except that here there was no swinging monkey or flying bird.  ‘I suppose anyone can buy these things,’ thought Lise, ‘some little trollop down on her luck, so half the husbands in Klausenburg get to gawp at her.’ In one of the photographs the girl’s chin and coyly smiling mouth were reflected in the glass, and in another her fingers were latticed over her face, her eyes peeking through and glittering in the mirror – but none of these disparate features amounted to a recognisable person.  ‘At least she had enough sense of shame to hide her face,’ thought Lise.  The anonymity of the photographs gave her the courage to look more closely, though her heart thumped as though she feared discovery, despite the locked door.  The breasts were small, lifted up by the raised elbows, revealing dark smudged armpits, the nipples as dark as Kreuzer coins.  ‘Mine aren’t like that,’ thought Lise.  ‘I wonder – ugh! – do they rouge them?  No letters, then – just some dirty pictures.  I expect he forgot he even had them.’

Lise pushed the photographs together as though stacking a pack of cards.  Then just as she was about to fold them back into the advertisement paper, she noticed something about the hat the girl wore in the uppermost image, and looked more closely. ‘You have to have style to carry off a hat like that,’ she told herself complacently.  ‘It would have looked a lot better on me.’ The hat came forward to a point on the girl’s forehead, and was trimmed with dark lace.  And at the back of her head, a veil shadowed the rounded white shoulders.  Lise dropped the photograph as though it burned her and ran to the little mirror Hans used to refresh the pomade on the tips of his moustaches.

‘Oh my poor hat, my lovely hat!’ she cried, and seizing the veil, began to shred the fine organza.

______________________________________________________________________________

Katherine Mezzacappa is an Irish writer living in Tuscany. She has been published by Erotic Review magazine, Ireland’s Own, Henshaw Press and Severance Publications. Her favoured genre is historical fiction, but she also publishes short romances under the pseudonym Kate Zarrelli (with eXtasy Books). Katherine is represented by Annette Green Authors’ Agency. Her full-length historical novel Merripen is currently out on submission; this novel was longlisted (last 14) for the Historical Novel Society’s New Novel award 2018. As of October 2018 Katherine is a reviewer for Historical Novel Review.

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The Diary

By Lynn B. Connor

Time worn pages written so long ago—the thoughts of a twelve-year-old girl lost in the shadowy corners of my mind. Where have the years gone?

I am so lonely. Living here far beyond the end of the East Country Road, we are so isolated. My mother and older sister fill the days remembering when we lived in Heian-kyo, the imperial capital. They talk about the emperor and life at court and retell romantic tales. My favorite ones are those of Genji, the Shining Prince, and his romances. I want to read The Tale of Genji myself from beginning to end, not just hear scattered stories.

“Be patient,” they tell me. “Romantic tales are copied by hand. Printing is for important books such as the Buddhist sutras.” I am twelve and should be learning the sutras. We have those. But I can only think of Genji not of learning the way of Buddha. I remember every word of the stories of Prince Genji I have heard, but not the words of the sutras.

* * * * *

I’m not patient. Today I had a life-size image of Buddha made and prayed, “Buddha, please grant that we move to the capital soon, very soon, so I can get all of Genji. My request to Buddha is not reasonable. Father is governor of this faraway place. We cannot move to the capital. I pray and hope that someone will send us Genji.

My prayers are different now, and I know the sutras. I can separate my mind from frivolous things.

* * * * *

A messenger from the capital arrived today. I thought my prayers were answered. I was so disappointed. No books. Then this evening Father gave us the good news. He is being transferred back to the capital. I am so excited – the home of Genji and books! I am nervous, too. We have been away so many years. Will people think that I am a country girl?

All those dreams of court life, little did I know that life in the capital and the glamour of the court could be lonely, too. I served at court occasionally, but I was more like a guest. What would my life have been like if I had been more devoted to court service? If my father was not sent to the East Country again and then my husband sent to the East Country while I remained in the capital?

* * * * *

Sadness has crept in with the fog. It covers the house. Everything is dismantled and scattered about as we prepare to return to the capital. I must leave behind my life-sized Buddha. I burst into tears.

Outside more confusion. Our servants are gathering our luggage, our household goods, and everything we will need for our journey through the wilderness. There are so many of us – not just our servants and carriers, but also foot soldiers and horsemen armed with bows to protect us from robbers.

* * * * *

Yesterday morning our journey began. Mother, my sister and I got into our palanquins. Father rode ahead on his horse. We are staying for a few days in a temporary, thatched hut on a low bluff. We hung curtains and put up bamboo screens so we can look out and not be seen by the men. I can see a wide plain to the south. On the east and west the sea creeps close. What an interesting place. The morning fog is charming. I am glad we are resting here for a few days.

* * * * *

All yesterday we traveled in a heavy, dark rain. We spent the night in a little hut almost submerged by the rain. I was so afraid I could not sleep. Today the rain has stopped and we are drying our dripping clothes. There is nothing to see – only three lone trees on a little hill.

* * * * *

What a change from the rain. Last night, we stayed at a place called Kuroda Beach. On one side of us, hills and thick groves of pine made a wide band. The moon shone on the white sand stretching into the distance. We listened to the wind and wrote poems. Mine was:

I will not sleep a wink!

If not this evening, then when

could I ever see this —

Kuroda Beach beneath

the moon of an autumn night.*

* * * * *

I will never forget Kuroda Beach in the moon light. Now, here on the Musashi Plain there is nothing of interest. The sand of the beaches is like mud and the purple grass of poems is only various kinds of towering reeds. I do not agree with the old poem

A single stock

of purple on

the Musashi Plain

makes me love

all the wild grasses.**

We cannot see what is ahead, not even see the tips of the bows of our horsemen as we go through the reeds. There is nothing to love about these wild grasses.

* * * * *

We are going through an area called the Chinese Plain. A few pink summer flowers called Japanese Pinks remain. Everyone laughs – Japanese Pinks on the Chinese Plain.

* * * * *

Last night we reached the foot of the Ashigara Mountains, all covered with a wild, thick woods. We only had glimpses of the moonless sky. I felt swallowed up by the darkness. Then out of the darkness, three singers emerged. We invited them to sit under a large paper umbrella, and my servant lit a fire. They had long hair and their faces were so white and clean they looked like maids from a nobleman’s home. Their clear, sweet singing seemed to reach the heavens and charmed us. When they left, tears came into our eyes as we watched them go back into the darkness.

I was reminded of that night years later when we stopped at Nogami. Female entertainers came and sang to us through the night filling me with longing. And reminded again of that night by Mt. Ashigara, when traveling by boat we anchored for the night. The singing of women entertainers came out of the darkness. Their voices moved me as before. 

At dawn we began our climb of the mountain. As we climbed, the dense forest changed to a few scattered trees. Clouds swirled around our feet. I was so afraid.

* * * * *

Mt. Fuji! How surprised I am. When we saw it from our home, it was just a small gray peak. Seeing it so close, it is like nothing else in the world. The slopes look like they are painted indigo blue. The snow on top makes it look like someone wearing a short white jacket over a gown. Smoke rises from its flat top. Last night flames leapt into the air.

* * * * *

When we left our home, the leaves were still green. Now as we pass Mt. Miyaji red leaves cling to the trees. I thought:

The furious storms

do not blow

on Mt. Miyaji

the red maple leaves

are still unscattered.

* * * * *

I no longer care about looking at beautiful places and writing. We stopped for several days because I was so sick. Winter winds blew so fiercely, it was difficult to bear. Snow came, and in the storm we passed through another barrier station, and went over Mount Atsumi. At the foot of Mitsusaka Mountain light rain fell night and day mixed with hail. It was so melancholy that we did not stay. Nothing leaves any impressions. The places are only names, nothing more. Maybe we are just tired and anxious for our journey to end.

* * * * *

Tonight we have stopped by Lake Biwa. I’m so excited. I’m not sure I can sleep. Tomorrow we reach the capital, the home of Prince Genji and our new home. Now I can read all of Genji. I am nervous, too. What will people think of me, a girl from the country?

* * * * *

Yesterday we went through the last barrier station where they check the coming and of people before the capital, I remembered an old poem

This is the barrier

where people come and go,

meeting and parting

both friends and strangers

the Afusaka Barrier***

When I passed through this barrier station so long ago. It was winter then, too.

The voice of the Afusaka

Barrier wind blowing now

through the station,

is no different from the one

I heard long.

Before only a roughly hewn face of the Buddha could be seen. Now there is a splendid temple.

Genji came and went through here. And at last we entered the capital. I had forgotten how wide the streets are. Red Bird Avenue is three hundred feet wide and lined with willow trees. Their bare branches swayed in the wind as we passed. Huge, wild-looking trees surround our house. It is hard to believe we are in the capital and not back deep in the mountains.

* * * * *

Everyone is busy unpacking and arranging the house. No one has time to think about me and stories. Will I ever get to read all of The Tale of Genji? Today I could wait no longer. I pestered Mother, “Please, please find me stories to read,” until she stopped working and sent a letter to a relative asking if she had any books. Now we wait.

* * * * *

Today a box filled with beautiful booklets of stories arrived. I started reading them immediately. There are none about Genji.

* * * * *

I cry and cry. I don’t even feel like reading tales. My childhood nurse has died. Mother is so worried about me she found another Genji tale. Genji is charmed by ten year-old Murasaki. When she becomes an orphan, he takes her to his palace. I want to know what happens next. I pray, “Please grant that I may get to read all of Genji from beginning to end.”

* * * * *

Last month I went with Mother and Father on a retreat to Uzumasa Temple. My only prayers were for a copy of Genji. I was sure my prayers would be answered. I am so disappointed.

How vexed I was that my parents seldom took me on their pilgrimages. Years later I returned to Uzumasa and have gone on other pilgrimages. My prayers concentrated on raising my children with great care and seeing them grow up as I hoped. And I prayed my husband would find happiness in his career.

* * * * *

Today my parents sent me to visit an aunt. We liked each other and talked of many things. When I was ready to leave, she smiled and said, “I would like to give you a present, something special.” How did she know? She gave me all of Genji. I could hardly wait to get home and start reading.

* * * * *

I have done nothing but read Genji all day and until I fall asleep late at night. Things that confused me when I heard or read only parts of it now are clear. I never could memorize a Buddhist sutra, but already I know by heart the names of all the people in the story. There are over fifty. I would not stop reading even if I had a chance to become the empress.

I want to be beautiful and have long silky hair that almost touches the ground just like Genji’s love Yugao. I daydream about being like Lady Ukifune hidden away in a mountain village. Watching the blossoms, the crimson leaves, the snow and the moon. Waiting for letters from my shining prince. This is all I wish for.

The stories fill my mind all day, and I dream of them at night.

* * * * *

The things I hoped for. The things I had wished for. Could they really happen? How crazy I was. How foolish I feel.*

* * * * *

Author’s Notes: This story is based on Sarashina Nikki, a diary of a court lady in eleventh-century Japan. She is simply known as Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, Sugawara no Takasue’s daughter (1009-1059). I have adapted the sections of the Sarashina Nikki that tell of her childhood passion for romantic tales, especially The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), and then interwoven her reflections and events from later in life. My goal has been to maintain the spirit of the Sarashina Nikki. Additional information (such as the function of barrier stations, the description of Heian-kyo, present-day Kyoto, and poems which were well known at the time) regarding ancient Japan is woven into the text.

There are several translations of Sarashina Nikki. Where there is a direct quote from the diary, it is from The Sarashina Diary, A Woman’s Life in Eleventh-Century Japan, Sugawara no Takasue no Musume, translated, with an introduction, by Sonja Arntzen and Ito Moriyuki. These are indicated with an *. If there is no asterisk after the poem, the translation is by mine. In addition, ** and *** indicate that the poems are not in the diary.: ** from the Kokin Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in the tenth century and *** from the Gosen Shu, a poetry collection, compiled in 951. The poems were well known at the time.

The Tale of Genji: When Genji (Genji Monogatari) was written a thousand years ago, it was just a Japanese tale of romance, court life and politics — a time before samurai, haiku, sushi, ninja and Hello Kitty. It was a time of peace and tranquility. The capital of Japan (present-day Kyoto) was called Heian-kyo – peace and tranquility capital. Tokyo, the present-day capital, would not be built for five hundred years.

Genji is often considered the world’s first novel and still read today. It became more than a romantic tale. It is an integral part of Japanese culture—art, poetry, card games, video games, plays, movies and manga. It is even pictured on money. The book has been considered a good influence, a bad influence, and even banned. Google Genji and you will get three quarter million hits in English alone.

______________________________________________________________

With undergraduate and graduate degrees in East Asian history, Lynn B. Connor planned to be an academic. That idea was short lived. She realized that sharing stories of other times and places with children (and grownups, too) is what she enjoyed. Living in Japan for two years and then being a guide (and training guides) at the Chinese and Japanese gardens in Portland, Oregon, increased her understanding of how stories can provide windows on other cultures.  Her translations of T’ang dynasty poems were published by Poet Lore, and LanSu Chinese Garden in Portland published her first book, The Stones and the Poet. Her stories have appeared in several literary journals, and “The Tea Master” was posted on Stone Bridge Press’ Cafe.

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Manassas

By Bruce Bullen

A young man dressed in a butternut uniform and carrying a rifle is looking out my window, waiting for Yankees. He was standing in my bedroom when they brought me up. There were others like him at the windows on the first floor. I guess they thought we had left for good and wouldn’t be coming back. I know that John and Ellen meant well. They wanted to move me out of harm’s way, so when the shooting quieted down a bit they carried me downstairs with Lucy Griffith’s help and took me to the spring house. I was holding on to the sides of the mattress trying to keep from rolling off the whole way. When we got there I told them I couldn’t bear to leave my house after so many years. The sound of the guns and the smell of smoke were as bad at the spring house as they were up here. I begged and begged until they took me back home.

I’m just an old woman, frail and sickly. I live in Henry House on Henry Hill. Their real names are Spring Hill Farm and Spring Hill. We never say Henry House or Henry Hill, but that’s what people around here like to say. I’ve lived on the farm for close to forty years, and there isn’t a more beautiful piece of property in the Commonwealth to my way of thinking. The farm itself has been fallow for years, cedar and pine are taking over, but the pastures dip as gracefully as always, the catbirds mew, and the scents are fresh, or at least they were until the shooting started.

It’s hot today, it has been for days, and the noise is enough to make you deaf. I’ve been bedridden so long I don’t remember the farm in summer. I’ve lost track of everything but the sounds. I hear the birds, the wind, and Ellen’s voice when she’s outside tending to things. Now, the familiar sounds are gone.

We heard guns in the distance at 5:30 this morning. I was dreaming of my Althea flowers, my pride. Some call them Rose of Sharon. The guns startled me and I woke up. Every so often a hunter comes by, but these guns weren’t hunting guns. The din was like nothing I ever heard before, and it kept up all morning. I could see that John and Ellen were upset. They kept running back and forth to my bedroom from the first floor asking if I was all right, talking to each other about what to do, thinking that I couldn’t hear them. What is it, I said? What is it? Yankees, they said.

I don’t fear the Yankees. My husband, Isaac, was a Yankee, and I’ve always been comfortable up north. It’s been a long time since Isaac died, 1829, not long after we moved here. We didn’t get to enjoy it together long. After Isaac died, I tried keeping up the farm, raised the children, and tended the garden, but it wasn’t the same without him.  My daughter, Ellen, lives with me now and has been such a help. My son, Hugh, is here when he isn’t at school. My son John happens to be visiting, while Hugh is away. I hired Lucy, a neighbor’s slave, to help Ellen with the chores, since I’m such a burden. Everyone is so worried and anxious, pacing about and wringing their hands. The soldiers tell me that I should leave because it’s too dangerous, but I’m not leaving again. I’m staying put no matter what happens. I worry about John and Ellen though, and of course Lucy.

The railroad junction is why they’re fighting. The RF&P line runs from Richmond to the Potomac –  the link between North and South, some say. That “link” meant something different a few months ago. Ellen has been telling me for weeks that Confederate soldiers were gathering at Manassas, but I didn’t believe her. The fight is about controlling the station, otherwise why come to Manassas? The Yankees want an easy run to Richmond, and the Confederates want to stop them. It’s very odd, having two Capitals so close together. It’s enough to make a person dizzy. I hope the fighting moves to Manassas, where it ought to be.

I don’t get many headaches, but my head has been pounding like the dickens all morning. It must be the guns. They sound closer. Ellen has been so kind, asking if I want anything like the good child she is, but when she tries to bring me water or tea her hands shake so much she has trouble holding the cups. Ellen, I say to her, it’s going to be all right. She doesn’t want to believe me. Lucy does her best to act brave, but I can see in her eyes that she is terrified. John tells them both to calm down, but he’s beside himself. I guess I’m not worried as much as they are. Who would harm a bedridden old woman and her family in such a beautiful place? Hugh sent Ellen a letter a while back, when rumors about Manassas first started. He said that our helplessness would make us safe if the troops ever passed through. I think he’s right. This war is nothing but a dispute between people who don’t see eye to eye on a few things. We’ve had trouble like it before, from the beginning in fact. When both sides see how determined the other is, they’ll sit down and work things out like gentlemen. I do wish this pounding in my head would stop. It hurts like the devil.

I often think about Isaac. He was a surgeon on the Constellation under Commodore Truxton, one of the first US Navy Captains commissioned by George Washington himself. Isaac was born and raised in Philadelphia, but he went all over the world, or so it seemed, serving his country on the Constellation. He was a good man who always did his duty, and he was a loving husband and father. We met after the country had fought to be free and were so proud to be on our own, thanks to the courage of great men from different states (colonies, I guess they were then) – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton – half of them Virginians, I’m proud to say. Isaac and I felt lucky to be alive at such a time. I wonder what he would think if he were here today?

I’m 84, older than the country itself. I’ve had a full life. A few weeks back was the anniversary of the Declaration, but not too many noticed. If they did it was to claim the Declaration for themselves, depending which side they’re on. Times have surely changed. Who would have thought Virginia would leave the country it worked so hard to shape? But I’m a Carter. Virginia is my state, and if we can’t be part of the Union then I guess we’ll have to be on our own like we were before. It’s too bad, and awfully confusing.

I’m tired and nod off occasionally, even though the sound of gunfire shakes the bedroom. I dream about old Virginia. My great-grandfather Robert “King” Carter was one of the great men around here in the early days. He had the biggest tobacco plantation and more slaves than anyone else. My grandfather Landon wrote a famous journal about life before the Revolution called The Diary of Colonel Landon Carter and lived just long enough to see the country win its freedom. My father Landon Jr. built Pittsylvania. It’s a grand place, but he had a hard time keeping it up. He used to say there was nothing those British wouldn’t try to tax and no price they wouldn’t try to squeeze. Was he ever glad to be rid of them! I had eight brothers and sisters. Daddy was a great family man, a real gentleman. He liked everybody, and everybody liked him.

The young man with the rifle is shooting out my window, and I can hear more shooting downstairs. John is shouting at him to stop, but he says he’s got his orders. If they shoot at Yankees from the house, won’t the Yankees shoot back? I’m sure they have respect for private property and must know that we Henry’s are peace-loving civilians, but if there are shots coming from the house won’t they be confused? I can hear shouting, gunfire, and tramping outside, as if it were in my backyard. The smoke is so heavy you’d think the day had clouded over.

I worry about the Robinsons and how they are faring through all the noise and commotion. I hope they’re safe. Gentleman Jim is hard-working and resourceful, so I suspect they will be. Ellen told me he moved the whole household to the Van Pelt’s and came back to secure his house. That would be like him. I hope he doesn’t get caught up in this turmoil. Jim and I are like family. We care deeply about each other and our families. Both of us were born at Pittsylvania. I feel bad for him, having two sons sold down south like they were, but it didn’t stop him from working extra hard to care for his family. Ellen says the roadhouse is doing better and better every month.

Jim’s mother was a free woman – she was a slave of my Daddy’s, but I guess he decided to make her free. At any rate, Jim was born free. We had the same tutor at Pittsylvania, so I know he’s an educated man. Being born free also meant that he was automatically landed, and he was able to buy the house near Bull Run in the 1840’s. He raised eight children in it and owns even more acreage now. When he married Sukey, she wasn’t free, and he had to find a way to buy her freedom and freedom for as many of their children as he could afford. He nearly succeeded, but for Alfred and James. He just couldn’t buy their freedom fast enough. Jim is a determined man, everything he touches seems to pay – his farm, his businesses. He’s a regular tycoon. People say he’s one of the richest freedmen in Virginia. Jim was a special favorite of my Daddy’s, and he treated Jim and his mother with great respect. To me, Jim is like a little brother. I’m proud of him. I wouldn’t want this war or anything else to keep him from being able to make a good life for himself.

John keeps running back and forth, up and down the stairs. He says the armies are getting closer to Spring Hill. Why don’t the Confederates make their stand at Manassas, I ask him?  It’s what they’re fighting over after all. He says they tried to stop the Yankees at Bull Run and now it looks like they decided to stop running and are making a stand. The shooting outside is growing steadier, and John says that reinforcements are being brought up. He says we should have left when we had the chance. Why would they want to fight over Spring Hill, I ask? What use could it be to them? John says he doesn’t know, it’s just where they want to fight. The aching in my head is getting worse. It’s like everything I ever took for granted is breaking into pieces. I’ll lie here quietly and try to put them back together again when the fighting’s over.

It’s madness that a country would pull itself apart over a few disagreements. Especially when it had such a hard time coming together in the first place. We were more tolerant of each other in the early days. There were differences of opinion, of course, but we knew we had a job to do and had a long struggle ahead of us. People set aside their differences and realized they had to make sacrifices. I hated that Isaac was away on the Constellation for as long as he was, but I knew it was necessary for the good of the country. I can’t believe that in a few short years, in my lifetime, people could have forgotten what happened back then and what makes our country so great. Too many of us let our differences get in the way. The people of Virginia are struggling, I know, and they aren’t happy with the way things have been going. The plantations aren’t what they used to be, and the slave question never gets settled, but there are people like Gentleman Jim who know how to make their way. We should give them a chance. They could show us something, help get us back on our feet. But the Yankees are stubborn. They won’t recognize that we’re Virginians first, that we have a proud history and our own way of life. They forget that we had the idea of bringing all the states together in the first place. I’m sure both sides will see the danger before it’s too late. I’m too old and too loyal to Isaac to think any other way. If they were here now, I know both Isaac and Daddy would tell me not to worry, to have faith.

John is back upstairs. He says that a Yankee soldier entered the hallway downstairs and that one of the snipers shot him dead. Ellen was standing there when it happened and is hysterical with fear. Poor Ellen. She needs to pull herself together. John says he wants to move me someplace safer, but he doesn’t know where and thinks it’s too late anyway. I tell him not to worry, I’ll be fine where I am. Poor Lucy Griffith looks like she’s about ready to faint.

John went downstairs and came back again, anxious and at loose ends, saying that both armies are bringing up cannon and preparing for some kind of confrontation. The gunfire outside just doesn’t stop. I tell John and Lucy to let me be and turn my face to the wall, wondering if the precious innocence of our country could actually die here at Spring Hill. I can’t believe it will be so.

We’re a peaceful, law-abiding family living in our own house, a patriotic family. The land the house sits on is abundant and undisturbed. The house and the farm are known to everyone in Virginia. I’m an old woman, a Carter, the wife of Isaac Henry, lying bedridden on the second floor, hoping the country will come to its senses. If Spring Hill turns out to be the place where the two armies meet, I know in my bones that all of us will be fine. Common sense is going to win out, and they’ll let us be. They cannot be intending to destroy our traditions and beliefs. I’ll just lie here and hope. I believe it’s my duty. Both sides need to remember the promises our fathers and forefathers made.

The big guns are booming, and the house is shaking. Smoke and fire are visible outside my windows. Ellen comes running upstairs with her hands over her ears. John is holding my hand, trying to comfort me, but his head is hanging down and he’s not doing a good job of it. John, I say to him, be proud, everything will be all right. I look into his eyes and see a fear that I’ve never seen before.

I wish Isaac were here. He would know how to take charge of things, how to deal with the Yankees and the children’s fears. He was never one to be afraid of a little pressure. But he’s not here, and I need to be strong for Ellen, for John, for Lucy and myself. We’ve worked too hard to let fear get the better of us. Isaac used to tell me about the many dangers he faced while serving on the Constellation. I couldn’t understand how he endured them. Now, it’s my turn to be strong. I’m not leaving this house, ever again. I won’t show that I’m afraid. I trust in our people and our traditions. The armies can fight over the railway junction at Manassas all they want, but I’m sure there are plenty of good young men on both sides who will have the decency to honor the sanctity of our farm and family. I may be a bedridden old woman, but I know when to stand up for what’s right.

The shooting is louder and faster now. I can hear the rumble of cannons. A ball struck the side of the house. It must be an errant shot. Who would intentionally shoot at our house? The jolt from the impact upset John tremendously, and he has gone downstairs to to tell both sides, if he has to, that there are civilians inside. I hope he’ll be all right and won’t do anything foolish. Ellen looks paralyzed with fear. She doesn’t know what to do and keeps leaping back and forth, unsure whether she should try to help me or cower in the fireplace. Another ball strikes the side of house, this time higher up. Ellen, I say, stay put in the fireplace. Lucy is running from one corner of the room to another, startled  by the booming of the cannons. It’s enough to make one lightheaded. Lucy, I say, get under the bed, if you’re scared. Under the bed.

The noise outside is deafening, but I’m at peace. The worst is underway. We need only brave it, endure it, outlast it, and we will save ourselves. Isaac and Daddy would be proud. I’m Judith Carter Henry, and I won’t be banished or exiled. This is my land, my country, my family. Everything will survive. It must. But my poor hedge… my bushes… my red and white Althea flowers….

______________________________________________________________

Bruce Bullen is a retired health care executive. He is unpublished and recently returned to writing fiction full-time. An avid reader of American history, particularly the period between the Revolution and the Civil War, he found the link between the two periods and the paradox inherent in the Judith Henry story both interesting and relevant. In addition to historical fiction, Bruce has produced several collections of short fiction, including fifteen fables and ten stories about the inner workings of government.

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Daphne’s Dilemma

By Ronda R. Cook

Athens, 403 B.C.

The city was steeped in pre-dawn shadow as a lone figure hurriedly made his way through the narrow streets of a modest northeast neighborhood. Most of the inhabitants here were metics, that is, resident foreigners. This is where Glauke, the metic doctor, had her home.

A female doctor was a rarity in Athens. But Glauke’s metic status gave her extra flexibility. She never considered not following in the footsteps of her father, a physician well-regarded by citizen and non-citizen alike. And the women of Athens were glad for it. Few of them felt comfortable consulting a male doctor when they had problems, even if their husbands permitted it.

The man stopped abruptly at Glauke’s door and pounded loudly. “Hurry, hurry,” he urged breathlessly. “Sostratos sent me. The baby is coming!”  Glauke dressed quickly in the semi-darkness, grabbed her ever-ready medical bag, and roused Sesthos, her burly Thracian slave who served as her bodyguard when she was out on call. On the way to Sostratos’ house she made a brief detour to collect her long-time friend Kallisto, a widow who lived nearby with her brother Nikos. Kallisto often assisted Glauke in difficult cases. Daphne, Sostratos’ wife, was such a case – a potentially difficult delivery, for two reasons: the expectant mother was just fifteen, and she was almost certainly carrying twins.

With Glauke in the lead, the trio took a southwesterly course, along streets of hard-packed earth and gravel that wound through rows of densely crowded houses, all presenting windowless facades to passers-by. At this hour the streets were almost deserted.

“It’s early, isn’t it?” asked Kallisto, yawning and struggling to match Glauke’s brisk pace. “Not the hour, the birth. Didn’t you tell me yesterday that Daphne still had a month to go?”

“Yes, I did. So she’s ahead of schedule – not unusual with twins.”

Sostratos was waiting for them at the door. This soon-to-be father, fifteen years Daphne’s senior, was normally a confident, take-charge type. But in this circumstance, he was clearly out of his element. He looked harried and anxious, obviously worried about both wife and child. “It’s too soon,” he said by way of greeting.

“Yes, it is a little early,” responded Glauke, adopting a no-nonsense, professional tone. “But I’m here now and I’ve brought along an experienced assistant.”

A little reassured, he led them through the central courtyard to the door of an inner chamber that had been converted into a birthing room. His mother, Krobyle, met them there, grateful for knowledgeable reinforcement.

“Sostratos, why don’t you go about your normal routine,” Glauke said dismissively. “There is nothing more you can do here. This is woman’s work. You’ll only be in the way.”

Sostratos had no recourse. He stood by helplessly as the three women went in.

Daphne, abdomen swollen and face flushed, sat gripping the arms of her chair, flanked by two solicitous maids. She was waiting, rigidly poised, for the next wave of pain. She relaxed just a little when she saw Glauke. “It’s too soon,” she said, echoing her husband.

“Perhaps.” Glauke waved the maids aside, introduced Kallisto, and began her examination. “Babies have their own schedules. They decide when it’s time to battle their way into the world. Plus, twins are often born a little early; there just isn’t room enough inside you for them to reach full size.”

“Do you really think I’m carrying two babies?” Daphne asked anxiously.

“I think it’s a good bet.”

Daphne looked distressed, a worried frown joining the beads of perspiration on her forehead. Her mother-in-law explained: “Sostratos has said that he will not raise more than one girl. Two boys would be fine. But two girls – no. If Daphne gives birth to two girls, one will have to be exposed.”

Sostratos, of course, had the absolute right to accept or reject any child born to his wife. Two girls, he had explained to Daphne, would necessitate two dowries when they married, which would be a considerable drain on his estate; and he still would not have an heir. After all, the main reasons for producing children were to have an heir to one’s estate, and provide care in one’s old age. Only a son could fulfill those needs. One daughter was tolerable, even useful for making alliances with other families. But a second daughter must be exposed – that is, abandoned, the customary method for disposing of an unwanted child. That didn’t mean she would die. Sostratos was not a hard-hearted man. The extra baby girl would be left in a public place in the city – not on a remote hillside, as was the practice in Sparta – and someone would come along and rescue her. He was sure of it. But he (and Daphne) knew, realistically, that it was probable the little girl would be raised as a slave, perhaps end up in a brothel. Even so, his decision was firm.

“I couldn’t bear to give up my baby,” moaned Daphne, as she clamped down on the chair arms, her knuckles white from the strain.

“Let’s not worry about that now,” Krobyle soothingly advised.

“Right,” agreed Kallisto. “Let’s deal with the problem at hand. How close is she?” This last was directed to Glauke, who had completed her examination.

“Not close.” Glauke took the towel offered by one of the maids and wiped the perspiration from the young woman’s face. “Try to relax. This is going to take a while.”

Time passed slowly. The pains became more regular and more frequent, but still no baby. There was little to do but wait.

As the hours dragged on and Daphne grew visibly weaker, Kallisto did what little she could to comfort her. How many times, over the years, have I watched this struggle, she pondered, this struggle to create life. How ironic it is that Sostratos – or any man – should be the one to decide the fate of the newborn child. The man’s role in the process is so brief and would be of absolutely no consequence without the much longer and more onerous role of the woman. She takes the tiny possibility of life and, by nurturing it with her own body, turns it into real life. She does not do this without peril to herself, both during the long confining months of pregnancy and finally during the painful birthing. And all too often her efforts come to naught. A long and difficult labor, like Daphne’s, may yield a heart-breaking result – a dead baby or a sickly one soon to be dead.  And there is always the possibility of the saddest outcome of all – the woman herself may not survive the ordeal, thus giving her own life in the act of creating life. “No,” muttered Kallisto, “it cannot be just that Sostratos alone has the right to accept or reject the new life being created with such difficulty by his wife. She should at least have a voice.” Today, as always when helping at a birthing, Kallisto was reminded of the words of Medea:

What [men] say of us is that we have a peaceful time

                        Living at home, while they do the fighting in war.

                        How wrong they are! I would very much rather stand

        Three times in the front of battle than bear one child. 

Finally Glauke announced, “I think it’s time.” A weakened Daphne rallied as best she could, all the while moaning in pain. Tugging slowly, gently, Glauke eased out a head and, mercifully, the rest of the body quickly followed. She placed the newborn in a square of soft cloth and handed it to Kallisto, then turned back to the mother. She was certain another baby was coming.

“It’s a girl,” reported Kallisto. She deftly tied the cord, cut it cleanly, and squeezed out the excess blood. Then she gently scrubbed the little body and inspected it carefully. “She is small, but looks perfect,” she declared, as the baby let out a loud cry. Kallisto handed the tearful infant to the waiting maids and turned back to Glauke, who was already helping baby number two emerge.

Kallisto took the second tiny form and proceeded with an encore of her duties. “Another girl. An exact image of the first.”

Daphne, who had bravely endured the long labor and delivery, now broke down and sobbed uncontrollably. “He’ll take one away. He’ll take one of my babies away,” she wailed, tears streaming down her face.

Krobyle and the maids comforted her as best they could, as they nestled the two little girls, now in soft swaddling, in her arms, one on each side. Daphne couldn’t help but smile at them through her tears. “Aren’t they beautiful?” she murmured.

Meanwhile Glauke and Kallisto busied themselves with cleaning up and plotting. “The babies, although they seem healthy, are quite small,” observed Glauke. “There is no guarantee that they will survive. The next few days are critical.”

“Sostratos would be foolish to expose one of these babies before he can be reasonably certain the other one will live,” Kallisto said thoughtfully.

“Which gives us time to devise a plan.”

“Exactly.”

Sostratos, who had ignored Glauke’s dismissive advice, was still waiting anxiously in the courtyard. He was none too happy when his mother informed him that he was now the father of two baby girls. But, at the same time, he was enormously relieved that his wife’s long ordeal was over. He was really quite fond of her.

Glauke explained to him the babies’ delicate condition and advised that he take no action for at least a few days. “Let’s first make sure they will both survive.”

This seemed a common sense approach to Sostratos, so the extra baby had a reprieve – for now.

“I have an idea,” Kallisto announced, as she and Glauke made their way back through the city streets. “The twins are identical. The only way to tell them apart is by the red and yellow ribbons we pinned on their swaddling blankets. So, if Sostratos always sees a yellow ribbon on the blanket of a baby, he will think he is seeing the same baby.”

Glauke nodded. “But how does that help us?”

“Sostratos won’t expose the baby himself. He’ll send a maid out to do that. She can report back to him that she placed the baby on a busy street corner and saw a woman pick it up and carry it off.  But instead of exposing the baby, the maid will secretly return with it to the house. Whenever Sostratos is around, Daphne can make sure that only one baby is with her. With both babies wearing a yellow ribbon Sostratos will be none the wiser. In other words, he will be unaware that he is actually seeing two babies, not one.”

“But what happens if the hidden baby cries when Sostratos is around?”

“There are ways of keeping a baby quiet – like putting a little honeycomb in its mouth.”

“Yes, that would work. There is, of course, one small problem with your plan – eventually Sostratos will have to be told the truth.”

“Yes, I know,” Kallisto conceded soberly. “I’m still working on that part of the plan.”

 

The following afternoon Glauke stopped by to give Kallisto an update on the newborns.

“Mother and daughters are doing quite well. Daphne isn’t showing any signs of postpartum sickness – perhaps because of her lavish offerings to Artemis – and the babies look much better than I expected, considering their early birth. They really are identical – like two peas in a pod. Daphne claims she can tell them apart, but I don’t believe it. If someone exchanged the red and yellow ribbons, she would be none the wiser. Nor would her husband, which is more to the point. Krobyle has found a wet nurse to supplement Daphne’s milk. So all is going well.”

“That is such good news! But what about our plan to deceive Sostratos and prevent the exposure? Did you discuss it with Daphne and Krobyle?”

“Absolutely! And they thought it a terrific idea. By the time I left, all the servants had come on board. They’re delighted to be playing a part in the conspiracy.”

“Good! Sostratos doesn’t stand a chance against such a united front. I am concerned, though, about the Naming Day ceremony – when Sostratos officially accepts one child, only one, as his own and receives her into the family. It’s always ten days from birth. So, that’s our deadline. By then we must come up with a scheme – somehow we must persuade him to accept both babies.”

“Definitely a challenge. But surely our creative minds will be able to come up with something.”

A few days later, Xanthus, Nikos’ doorkeeper, appeared at Glauke’s door with a message from Kallisto – an unwelcome message. Kallisto, he said, had gone to the country with Nikos to tend to several of his farmhands who had been badly burned when their hut caught on fire. Xanthus paused, then delivered the last part of Kallisto’s message in her exact words: “The fate of Baby Two is in your hands.”

“Oh great!” sputtered Glauke. “What a time to leave me in the lurch – only six more days till the naming ceremony. And it’s not as if I don’t have other obligations. There are people who need me! Sick people!”

Glauke did her best, treating her patients and puzzling over Daphne’s dilemma – without success. On the morning of the Naming Day she arrived at Sostratos’ door still devoid of ideas. Her only hope was that she would be struck by a sudden inspiration once she was in the setting. That didn’t happen. But, as it turned out, it didn’t matter.

 

Shortly after the Naming Day Xanthus again showed up at Glauke’s door. His mistress had returned from the country, he reported, and asked that she come visit as soon as possible.

“I’ll be there this afternoon.”

When Glauke arrived she found Kallisto anxiously awaiting her. “What news do you bring?”

Glauke was in a cheerful mood, almost gleeful. “Well, as you know,” she began, “we merely bought ourselves a little time with the ribbon-switching ruse and the faked exposure – which, by the way, went off without a hitch. Sostratos never suspected a thing. But, of course, the moment of truth was the naming ceremony.”

“Yes, it’s usually such a joyous occasion. I’m sure Sostratos did it up in style, inviting relatives and friends and providing a sumptuous feast. So, were you there? Do you know what  happened?”

“Oh, I was there all right – at Daphne’s insistence. I guess I must be truthful and admit that I never did come up with a plan. But I didn’t need to. Daphne already had one all worked out.” Glauke paused.

“What was the plan? Tell me!”

“First, let me recreate the scene. Usually things would proceed something like this: Sostratos performs the traditional ritual. He makes the sacrifice to the gods, then presents the child to the assembled guests. But, tell me, what happens if a mistake is made during the ceremony, or an inappropriate word is spoken, or some ill omen occurs?”

“The whole ceremony would have to be repeated, naturally, word for word. Oh! I see where you’re headed. How ingenious!”

“Yes, ingenious. It was all pre-planned by Daphne. Immediately after the completion of the ceremony, one of her maids rushed up to Sostratos, full of apologies. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘I sneezed during the sacrifice. I couldn’t help it. Does that mean the offering is no good and everything must be done over?’ Well, of course, that was exactly what it meant. Sostratos had no choice. Such a bad omen wiped out the efficacy of the sacrifice. So the preparations were begun for a repeat offering. Daphne took the baby – the one who had just gone through the ceremony and been given the name Chairippe – into the house and handed her over to the other maid. She then returned to the courtyard with baby number two. Sostratos was clueless. He had no idea that a switch had been made. Daphne joined him at the altar and said, ‘I’ve changed my mind about the baby’s name. I want to use your grandmother’s name instead.’ Sostratos was not likely to object to that. So, the ceremony was repeated, at the end of which Sostratos presented his daughter, Myrrhe, to his guests.”

“But, he still thinks there is only one baby. Doesn’t he have to be told there are two at this point?”

“Yes. And Daphne did tell him, now that the deed was done. She told him that there had been no sneeze, no ill omen, and that he had, in fact, accepted two baby girls – Chairippe and Myrrhe – into the family.”

“What was Sostratos’ reaction?”

“He got angry, stomped around and railed at her, as she expected he would. But she stood her ground and eventually pleaded with him to forgive her and accept both his daughters. Well, what could he do? How could he un-accept what he had just accepted – before the gods and his guests? So, he fussed and grumbled, but finally acquiesced. When I left Sostratos was holding both babies on his lap, making cooing noises. What a delightful sight.”

“What a happy outcome! Daphne was very clever to have concocted this scheme. But I suspect that the reason it worked is because Sostratos isn’t as hard-hearted as he appears, and he really is fond of his wife.”

“You’re probably right,” Glauke replied agreeably. “But let us give credit where credit is due. Without your original delaying tactic, one of the babies would have been exposed before the naming ceremony took place, and that would have been the end of it. It took two clever women – you and Daphne – to pull this off.”

“Three. You, after all, safely delivered those two baby girls.”

“True.” Glauke leaned back in her chair, a satisfied smile on her face. “What marvelous women we are!”

______________________________________________________________

Ronda R. Cook (a.k.a. Ronda R. Simms) earned her Ph.D. in Ancient History at the University of Virginia and subsequently enjoyed a peripatetic teaching career at various institutions, including the U.S. Naval Academy, West Chester University, and Moravian College. She studied in Athens during two separate summers and traveled widely throughout Greece. Her research interests are centered on Classical Athens, particularly in the areas of religion and women. Her publications include both scholarly articles and reviews, and more accessible op-ed pieces which compare ancient and modern practices. Now retired, she lives in Bethlehem, PA, with her husband and two Westies.

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