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The Visitation

Plymouth, Massachusetts

1650

Mambi, years dead, came to Chloe in the night and told her that Mr. Henry was a wooden paddle and Mistress Abitha was a wooden post. Having been beaten to a limp by Mr. Henry weeks before for eating the last of the root-cellared potatoes, Mistress Abitha standing by, Chloe had no reason to argue with her mother. Mambi rarely visited, so Chloe didn’t want to waste time on the evident. She would rather hear of Mambi’s roamings—her flight here to Plymouth, back to Barbados, back to Africa, and back again, a Black-winged Kite circling carrion, smelling of Caribbean sugar fields, fish rot, and blood.

For reasons, Mambi had killed Master Green’s overseer with a hoe to the neck. Master Green hung her from a Cassia tree for it. Chloe was only four years old, but she remembered her mother twitching and then dangling from the end of the noose, her head nestled in the flowering boughs of the tree, a limp queen with a festooned crown. Chloe remembered how Master Green cut Mambi down and then set her on fire. Keeping Mambi alive, barefoot, and bound to the sugar fields would have answered Mambi’s deed many-fold. Killing her increased her rage and gave her flight.

Killing her gave her schemes and she would fly to Chloe betimes to share them. Even though Chloe liked hearing Mambi’s plans to avenge herself, Chloe couldn’t say she approved of her mother’s murdering hands. God commanded slaves to obey their masters and roared, “Thou shalt not kill!” Many a Lord’s Day, Miss Abitha read those words aloud out of The Book. If Mr. Henry was a paddle and Miss Abitha was a post, Mambi was a closed fist—always fighting—and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft! Miss Abitha read that out of The Book, too. Chloe believed witchery was the truth of Mambi, and she scorned her dead mother for it, even as Mambi sat in the dark corner of Chloe’s sleeping nook, the whites of her eyes piercing the dark like a cornered possum’s. For Mambi’s sins, Master Green, as good as God himself, erased her from the material world. Fair enough. Chloe knew that she, herself, wasn’t a fighter nor a murderer like Mambi. She was weepy, needy, and now lame, which was fair enough, too—she should not have taken the last of the potatoes.

Still, Mambi’s fighting spirit lit embers in Chloe’s stomach. Warmed her. But, the guilt of this sympathy cooled her a bit. Miss Abitha wouldn’t approve of Mambi’s incorporeal comings and goings, let alone her talk of revenge which was God’s property, just as sure as Mambi was Master Green’s and Chloe was Mr. Henry’s.

“I make him sick wit’ what he done,” Mambi rasped, the whites of her eyes and toothy smile glimmering. “I take it—me red rage—ball it up, send it to him, and he come down sick. Slow but sure, I lay him in de grave. Soon. And him send you here to this paddle and post after I gone? Nah suh! I put him low.”

Chloe turned her face away from Mambi, the leg Mr. Henry hobbled throbbing under the gingham. “Leave me,” she whispered.

“He beat you! And she watch!” Mambi threw up her hands. Her fingers looked like bony feathers.

“He meant it not. And she is sorry for it.”

Chloe kept her low tones. Mr. and Mistress were sleeping in the next room while she slept on a paletted hay mattress behind a makeshift curtain in the pantry. Making it up to the attic was nearly impossible after Mr. Henry’s pummeling work on the lower part of her leg. The pantry was not a likely place for a food thief, so Mr. Henry must have had faith in his power to apply proper and effective correction.

“You power ‘dem, gal. Lay ‘dem low.” Mambi’s eyes glittered in the dark, slim shafts of glow from the full moon striping her black face from between the slats in the wooden slab that covered one of the only windows in the house.

While Mambi rasped on, Chloe closed her eyes and called on the only Power. She recited the Lord’s prayer, over and over again, eventually drifting to sleep on Mambi’s smell of boiling sugar, on Mambi’s pain and its intangible power to waste, on the prayer’s promise of forgiveness and deliverance from evil.

The next morning, Mr. Henry, foot shod and clad with his field hat, glared at Chloe’s’ leg from the kitchen board. Mistress Abitha sat opposite him as she folded three cloth napkins lengthwise.

“Make haste, girl. I must to the fields.”

Mr. Henry, with his marvel of auburn curls peaking from under his hat and the matching wiry hair on his chin and cheeks would not look Chloe in the eyes as she limped to the table with the morning bread and cheese. But, Mistress Abitha looked at her kindly which heartened Chloe a bit. Miss Abitha laid two of the napkins on the table for Mr. Henry and Chloe, adjusting her white cap over the blonde hair that Chloe had braided into two long ropes a few days since.

“You mustn’t stand today, Chloe,” she said.

“She will stand, Abitha. It is her custom to stand and it is her place to stand.”

Mr. Henry stared at the table, his chin propped with elbows and folded hands, the unyielding stance looking oddly like the act of prayer. “There’s nothing wrong with her. She be play-acting.”

A root of hurt budded in Chloe’s abdomen as her leg throbbed. It sent a prickly tendril up through her throat and behind her eyes. She swallowed and blinked to smother it. She grit her teeth to kill it, red washing her vision. As she stood between Mr. Henry and Miss Abitha nibbling on a crust of bread as they ate, a boiling sweetness crept into the air, even after the breakfast prayer. She wondered if they could smell it, too. She wondered if they could sense the warmth blooming in her stomach as she listened for the rustling of black wings. Mambi could wither with her pain. Of a sudden, Chloe wondered if she could do the same with hers.

______________________________________________________________________________

Jade McGowan is a writer living in Bradenton, Florida. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the literary journal Scribble. She is also an editor for 805 Literary and Art Journal. 

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Women’s March on Versailles

‘Cécile, Cécile!’ Victoire’s voice sounded more like a whisper instead of a shout. The roars of the women who had gathered on the market place reigned over the usual tones that governed Paris. Vendors muttered into each other’s ears rather than yelling the latest prices of cabbages and onions. The clicking of horses’ hoofs on the cobbles was buried underneath the clanging bells of the nearby Sainte-Marguerite church.

‘Cécile!’ Victoire shouted again while the woman next to her yelled that they must march to the city hall before going to Versailles. The king would listen if they had weapons.

Victoire tried to remember when she had last felt her sister’s soft hand holding her own dry, cracked skin. The child had been standing next to her when she had accused the baker’s wife of hoarding grain to drive up the prices. Twelve sous! For bread that was blackened, hard enough to hammer every nail back into the crumbled walls of the Bastille. Then Cécile had been playing with a worn-out doll on the pavement while Victoire manoeuvred underneath the red parasols of a café, gulping down someone else’s wine. She could still taste the watered-down flavour of red grapes and cherries on the tip of her tongue. Victoire remembered going back to the baker’s shop, Cécile holding Victoire’s hand, hiding behind a group of outraged water-carriers, waiting until the baker’s wife would make a mistake. Cécile had wanted to say something, but Victoire had shushed her, and when the well-fed woman was about to blunder, Cécile was gone.

‘Have you seen a girl?’ Victoire asked a thin woman carrying a bundle of firewood on her back. ‘She’s nine, grey skirt, ginger-brown hair, missing all her front teeth except one.’ The woman shook her head.

The newly formed national guard whistled and clapped when the market women began their march towards the Place de Grève. Vendors started to load their wares into wagons.

Victoire looked inside an abandoned carriage, behind a heap of empty barrels, underneath a market stall, and behind piled up cages holding chickens captive. She even had the courage to step over a dead cat and peer into a small alleyway.

Victoire placed her hands on her hips. She took a deep breath. She had wanted to leave her sister at home, but she had not forgotten yesterday, and neither had Cécile. Glass shattering on the ground, a faint fragrance of jasmine filling the room, the only bottle of perfume Victoire had ever owned. Wasted. Broken. She had slammed her fists on the wobbly kitchen table, pulled at her sister’s hair and locked her out of the mice-infested chambers Victoire rented in a five-storey building. Victoire had yelled at her sister, telling her that she was a plague, while Cécile sobbed in the hallway. This morning when Cécile had asked to come, she had wanted to say no, but couldn’t.

Victoire ran to the other side of the square. Tripping over a raised cobblestone, she fell into a stream that flowed into the marketplace from under the gates of the butcher’s inner courtyard, its red colour gluing itself to her plain blue dress.

‘I can scrub that off for you, only two sous.’

Victoire shuddered. She recognised that croaky voice. She was skilled in avoiding the bony figure and grey sunken eyes that accompanied it. Victoire and Cécile called her Mme Macabre, Cécile being convinced that she must be at least two hundred years old and had crawled out of one of Paris’s overcrowded graveyards. Mme Macabre lived in the same building. She always sat in a chair, blocking the doorway with a woven laundry basket resting in her lap. The same one she was carrying now.

‘I’ve lost my sister, have you seen her?’

‘Escaped, has she? I would have run away sooner.’

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

‘If my sister fell into the Seine, and drowned, or was hit by a carriage, or trampled upon by the mob, or I don’t know what, it’s your fault.’

Mais non, she was eating cheese and went that way.’

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

‘Very well.’ Mme Macabre walked away and sat down on a taboret. Victoire sighed. She gave Mme Macabre her arm without looking at her, while the laundry basket was pushed into Victoire’s other arm.

Mme Macabre led Victoire to the Place de Bastille, her sour-smelling hair blowing into Victoire’s face every time there was a gust of wind. Her long nails piercing through Victoire’s cotton sleeves.

Victoire felt as angry as the men who had fired at the fortress some weeks ago. She remembered the smoke, the heat, the sound of cannon balls flattening the walls. She had heard every command Stanislas Maillard had been yelling at his fellow citizens. She had seen his every movement, his nonchalant way of loading his musket, throwing his liberty cap into the air when the Bastille was taken and the tired scowl on his face when only seven prisoners could be found within its damp walls. She had wanted to embrace him, kiss him, tell him that he was a hero. Instead she had gone home, answering her sister’s silly questions while Victoire chased a mouse with a broom.

Mme Macabre pointed to the Rue St Antoine. The usual stench of fishbones and rotting lettuce mingled with sewage made Victoire wish she had no sense of smell at all. This street went to the Place de Grève. Cécile must have followed the market women to the city hall.

‘You can manage on your own,’ Victoire said as she put the laundry basket on the ground and walked away as quickly as she could. She had already passed the now barricaded drapery shop when she heard that croaky voice call her back.

‘I’m acquainted with those aristocrats you play housemaid for. And you’re a little thief, aren’t you? Stealing rouge from Mademoiselle’s boudoir to hide those filthy smallpox marks on your face.’

Victoire clenched her fists. Five years had passed, she still went to the Notre-Dame every day to light a candle for her parents. She stamped her foot on the ground and returned. Mme Macabre flinched when Victoire grabbed her arm.

‘You’re French. Not a savage,’ Mme Macabre said while she stroked her arm as if Victoire had inflicted her with a mortal wound.

‘I don’t like spies.’

‘I’m not a spy. You’re just not very good at keeping secrets.’

Mme Macabre looked behind her after every five steps, scrutinising every alleyway as if she expected masked men to rob her at any moment.

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

Victoire untied her stained shawl and wrapped it around Mme Macabre’s shoulders.

‘Look, there’s a bench, wouldn’t you like to wait, while I get my sister?’

‘I lost my husband sixteen years ago, never found him.’

‘Oh, is that why you always sit in the doorway? Waiting for your valiant musketeer to return? Better hope he brings something to eat.’

‘Here, have this.’ Mme Macabre gave Victoire a small slice of bread. Splitting the bread in two, Victoire put one half in her pouch, the other in her mouth. She almost choked when she swallowed the thick crust. She felt as if she had forgotten how to chew, forgotten that bread was supposed to be soft, tasting of salt and butter, not leathery or dry.

Something shiny sticking out of Mme Macabre’s laundry basket caught Victoire’s attention. She took it out.

‘Some deranged plan to kill Madame Deficit?’ Victoire asked holding a large breadknife in her hand.

Mais non. We’re not English, we don’t kill queens.’

‘I would be honoured to take you to the asylum at Charenton, I’m sure they’ve got clean water, and nice soft sheets.’

Non, It’s for him.’

‘Your husband? Poor you! Whatever did he do?’

‘He exists.’

Victoire put the breadknife back into the basket while Mme Macabre covered it up with a foul-smelling petticoat that had been half-eaten by moths.

Mme Macabre told Victoire all about her arranged marriage, how her husband used to gobble when he ate, how he used to snort and puff in his sleep, how he used to strangle all of the air out of the room, and how she lost him at a market stall selling apples. Apples! Something else Victoire didn’t remember the taste of.

‘I wouldn’t worry about him ever coming back,’ Victoire said as their footsteps echoed in the empty archway of a church. She tried to quicken her pace when the cheers and drums of the crowd came closer, but every time she did so Mme Macabre fastened her nails even deeper into Victoire’s flesh.

The crowd on the Place de Grève was larger than Victoire had expected. A group of women were hauling a cannon out of the city hall, while others ran around with muskets and sabres. She told Mme Macabre to wait next to some bourgeoisie-dressed ladies who were debating what should be done with the quartermaster who had tried to stop them from taking gunpowder.

‘I will not be left alone,’ Mme Macabre tried to grab Victoire’s sleeve but Victoire was too fast. Seeing her sister nowhere on the square, she ran into the city hall. The many wooden clogs stomping on the floor made the candles hanging in webs of colourless crystal tremble. A statue had fallen on the ground; its head had rolled into an open broom cupboard.

She had to squirm her way into the next room where a strong smell of burning paper made her take out her handkerchief and cover her nose and mouth. No Cécile. She went upstairs. A group of women were running down, pushing Victoire against the bannister while throwing papers into the air and ripping them to shreds.

Victoire pulled at her bodice to get some air. White dots were dancing before her eyes, obscuring the heaven scene depicted on the painting opposite her. She sat down on the marble steps, wanting to cry out when someone stepped on her hand, leaving a red boot print on her pale skin, but no sound would leave her lips. She was aware of cloudy voices muttering in the distance, of being lifted, of feeling too hot, of feeling too cold, of having something forced down her throat, of drizzle falling softly on her cheeks.

The dots ceased dancing. She was leaning against the rugged bricks of the city hall. Something with a bitter, yeasty taste was stuck between her front teeth, she moved her tongue to remove it. A small hand was holding hers.

‘You looked like a ghost, and a man carried you outside, and I gave him my cheese, and he gave it to you, and he said you would get better, and you are better now, aren’t you?’

Cécile’s eyes were red and swollen. Victoire pulled her closer. Holding her as tight as she could, she kissed her on the forehead, only letting go when Cécile started to wriggle.

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

‘I did not. I was waiting for you, like she said I should, and I did, and you didn’t come.’

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

Cécile stared at the ground, rubbing the hem of Victoire’s dress between her palms.

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

‘We’re going home.’ Victoire swayed when she stood up. She saw Mme Macabre’s bony figure speaking to a group of women. They laughed, shook their heads and walked away. Mme Macabre tried to grab someone’s sleeve and was rewarded with a raised fist, after which, she attempted to climb on one of the carts, changing her mind when the owner’s black dog bared its teeth.

Victoire sighed. She tried to figure out if she should pity or despise Mme Macabre. She gave Cécile the piece of bread she had saved earlier, while the crowd shouted, ‘to Versailles,’ and raised their pitchforks and pikes into the air.

The crowd started to leave the square in a long procession just when large raindrops began to fill the grooves between the cobblestones. They looked just as disciplined as the king’s royal army.

Victoire descended the steps of the city hall. Attentively listening to the sound of Cécile’s clogs clacking behind her, she tapped Mme Macabre on the shoulder.

‘Don’t you ever leave me alone again,’ Mme Macabre said.

‘Who do you think I am? Your wet nurse?’

Mais non. No harm done, but we must not dally. We must follow. Quickly.’

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

‘Versailles is farther away than the next street corner, you know that, don’t you?’

Bien sûr, and I know where the royals store their bread.’

‘By the time you are there, there won’t be anything left to ransack.’

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

‘Please,’ Cécile said while she was licking bread crumbs from her fingers, ‘I want to go too.’

‘No, you don’t,’ Victoire dragged Cécile away from Mme Macabre, ignoring the old woman’s threats about those aristocrats she worked for, and the stealing and the rouge.

‘That’s him! He gave you my cheese,’ Cécile pointed to a man with an untrimmed beard, his hair partly hidden away underneath a hat, the red-white-blue cockade of the revolution pinned on his dark brown coat. Maillard.

Victoire moved closer. This time she would have the courage to speak to him, thank him, perhaps even kiss him on the cheeks. She stopped when she overheard him complaining to another revolutionist about this miserable army that he was forced to lead. Victoire had to suppress the urge to slap him. Whispering instructions into Cécile’s ear, she gave her sister the last four sous she had. Cécile disappeared.

The raindrops had changed into a rainstorm. Victoire smiled. Only last week she remembered running inside a shoemaker’s shop, pretending to buy something until they chased her out. Now she wiped the rouge she had so carefully applied this morning from her cheeks. It didn’t matter anymore.

Cécile came back with a cart, pulled by two women. Victoire went to Mme Macabre who was watching the marchers leaving the square.

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

Mme Macabre revealed her yellowish-brown teeth, thanking Victoire three times while she loaded her laundry basket on the wagon. Victoire seized Mme Macabre’s wrist. She had wanted to pinch her, but the widening of Mme Macabre’s grey eyes and her trembling body deterred Victoire from doing so.

‘Use my sister against me again, and I’ll find a use for that breadknife of yours,’ Victoire whispered in Mme Macabre’s ear.

‘You wouldn’t have come if I had asked,’ Mme Macabre said in a weak voice.

‘You don’t know that,’ Victoire paused. No, if Mme Macabre had knocked on her door this morning she wouldn’t have opened it, but now she wasn’t so sure, ‘you’ve succeeded in making me feel responsible for you.’

Victoire helped Mme Macabre climb into the cart. Cécile crawled beside Mme Macabre who took the child’s hand and lay it in her lap.

‘I was a cook at Versailles once,’ Mme Macabre said, ‘no need to let those wretched children starve, I thought, the king didn’t think so. I slept in the dungeons for giving his surpluses away.’

‘Men may have stormed the Bastille,’ Victoire said, ‘women will do more than storming Versailles, we’ll eat the king’s bread and take him back to Paris, where he belongs.’

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

Signe Maene is from Belgium where she lives in Ghent. She studies English literature at the Open University UK. Her first language is Flemish.

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The Triumph

By  Nickolas Urpí 

 “Memento mori…”

Whispers slave whispers throngs bells jangling like the inconsistent shouts of the masses of people shouting “io triumphe io triumphe” purple purple purple burning of torches choking on smoke flooding nostrils incendiary

I had consented to let the soldiers burn the huts as they looted the thatched homes in the city as was customary of the time everyone always burns as is their right the right of the conquered is it not so?

“Of course it is so” I had said to myself with the slopping of boots across the muddied ground the same shouting bursting in my ears “There is no other way”

“Imperator! Imperator!” Calvinus the procession like a long snake winding its way up through the Forum heading directly to the Capitoline choking the streets the throngs of people shouting shouts shouts shouts repeat repeat repeat the hard cobblestones swallowing the noise the soldiers red glimmering bronze beaming like ten thousand suns painful to the eyes “To the Gauls came the torch, from the steps of his porch, the enemy was sprawled, by our general who’s bald!” reach for the top of my head, feel the empty spaces and the laurel wreath crinkling beneath my hot fingers in the sun the golden cloak at my feet and the studded sandals the laurel wreath adorning the son of Jupiter the red paint of Mars clinging to my face the red clay the statues of the heroes lining the procession, gilded and adorned with luscious paints brilliant colors dancing in the sun’s cascading lights—

“Memento mori…”

The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—

“Your father triumphed twice in his lifetime,” they had said. “Your grandfather fought alongside Quintus Fabius Maximus in repelling Hannibal. He died in Zama. Of course you will go to war and defeat numerous enemies,” they had said this, encircling me in the atrium of my own house, my bulla my childhood medallion that had felt so light I had never truly felt it feeling so weighty as it was removed from me the wax faces of my ancestors peering out at me from around the room “Of course you will”

“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”

The light from atop the Capitoline the sun’s fingers clinging to the Temple of Jupiter the greatest and best the greatest and best the shouts from the adoring crowd having earned their approbation and love and respect the way the ancestors had always done it the way of the ancestors the way of our fathers lining the streets watching the procession from atop their marble columns the fingers of their ambition poking the clouds Clavinus finding his name etched in stone across the way from his father my father the great Clavinus who took eight hundred prisoners had slain fifty thousand in battle brought back three million sesterces to the public coffers the great Calvinus who weareth the laurels of Jupiter atop his four horse chariot white as the day and pure as the light

“Memento mori…”

Fifty thousand slain the prisoners bound by hemp to the carriage which pulls them thus to their imminent death or saledeath their eyes shadow cast and downfallen beneath the banners “Here are the captured prisoners of war from Britain” prisoners of war war war war

They had lost. Our glinting steel dulled and bloodied—dried up in the hot sun and cold wind the panoramic vista of a fresh lake with the reeking of severed limbs and drowning corpses in the evening glare. The golden sunset had faded into the crimson settling of the glare lingering beyond the horizon’s threshold.

“The town lies just beyond the ridge. They would have evacuated by now. Shall I give the order to burn the houses?” he repeated to me. It seemed as though my tongue had been pinned to the roof of my mouth the way the spear had been driven into that man’s head and split his skull.

“That is what is always done,” I had replied to him. The smoke from the burning huts beyond that thin invisible veil that separates what is seen from what is unseen.

The smoke rose up and filled my nostrils again the procession winding its way around the city like the curdling of milk the prisoners watching their precious metals piled atop each other like their comrades’ burnt corpses the savoring taste of defeat’s bitter dust lingering on their tongues are they not men too? The reds and the purples washing the sea of crowds shouting and shouting How could I not have said “That is what is always done” for it was always done it was the way of the ancestors

the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and

the cheering and the shouting

Shouting “Calvinus!” my name the men marching onwards with their glimmering helmets the colossal monoliths of the ancestors peering down and gravely sending their approbation between the dying light of day and the ascension of the Capitoline rising before the heads of the four horses the smell of cypress trees congratula—

“Memento mori…”

the cypress boughs

“Your father would be proud if he could see you today,” they said as the dirt began to pile atop him beneath the marble slab which listed his achievements which I did not care to read as I had memorized them long ago against the death written on his face when he became a wax mask to hang next to grandfather. “You will of course be consul and follow in his footsteps and slay many foes.”

“Must I?” I had said.

“Of course you must,” they had replied in unison.

I must have then no choice in the matter it was expected it was the way of the ancestors then the smoke ripping and tearing the water from the ducts in my eyes running down the cheek and mingling with the redness of my painted faces Mars’ and mine faces the shouting and cheering mixed with the cries of anguish and death and the smell of burning burning burning

“Is that not what the old generals had done?” he had asked, his armor spattered with the boiling blood of a Gaul.

“Then I must,” I had said. Though perhaps I could—

No perhaps only way the ancestors had done the cheering throngs of crowd singing as the ancestors fell behind in the procession but continued to glare casting their shadow over the crowd and I musn’t the son of Jupiter the face of Mars the mighty conqueror of the barbaric west laid waste the enemies of the people of Rome Calvinus the magnif—

“Memento mori…”

I must I must I must the way of the ancestors there is no shame no shame no shame no shame the lingering redness of Mars across the battlefield night is falling hold onto the horses tighter the reins the army marching in red the crimson son the rock falling upwards cannot go upwards can it? No it cannot

“A wise man once said the rock can never be trained to move upwards, no matter how many times it has been thrown,” they had said to me when I still had my bulla.

“Why not?” I had asked.

“That is simply the way it is done,” they had said to me.

“But what if it wants to go up?” I had asked them.

“It does not matter what it wants—it cannot choose when everything tells it to fall down,” they had said to me. “Besides… a rock cannot want.”

“Let them have their pillage. I cannot stop them. I must let them do what is… as expected,” I said to him whilst my knees soaked in the freshly strewn lake lingering in the dying sun with fifty thousand lives extinguished before the second began to be counted.

“A marvelous victory.”

A marvelous victory resounding with the name Calvinus and the thoughts of shimmering gold armor adorning the triumphal column with his immortal visage atop it—

“Memento mori…”

The sheep was led up to the altars the knife in my hand gleaming like the sword of Mars hanging above us all perhaps there is no expectation

But their faces are looking at me, looking at me with the grave approval of the ancestors to place this knife into the neck of this beast perhaps there is a—but no—there is only the way of the ancestors I must I could not have

I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands

“There are fifty thousand dead and eight hundred prisoners still alive mostly women and children.” The camp sat upon the hill looking over the field, the rancid and pungent grotesqueness of death sifting through the night breezes.

“The men forgot to place a barricade around the camp,” I had said.

“But there are no more enem—… yes, imperator I will see to it that it is done,” he had said. “The town was burned to the ground, as you wanted, imperator.”

“As I wanted?” I had said. “But, of course, that is always done. I could not more avoid it than a lion change his roar.”

The night was drifting away again, the moonlight pale and condescending

Of course there was no alternative the choice was not mine the choice was not mine to make not mine no choice the way of the ancestors compel compel push push force force like a blacksmith’s hammer to anvil the rock must fall the rock must fall yes it always falls

“Memento mori…”

men are not rocks

______________________________________________________________

Nickolas Urpí is the author of the literary war fantasy novel The Legend of Borach and has been published in HCE Review literary journal, Soft Cartel magazine, Ripples in Space magazine, and The Fall Line magazine. His writings fuse his studies of ancient history, literature, and philosophy with his crafted prose to immerse the reader in the world of his fiction through vivid settings and characters. An alumnus of the University of Virginia, he resides in Charlottesville, Virginia.

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Mont Gisard

By David Hourani

Southern Palestine, 1177

Sweat and dust caked the young man’s hair and cropped beard as he rode the road north from Ascalon.

Youssef ibn Bakhus was the son of the Muqaddam of Ehden, the Maronite lord of the town. His father was a vassal of the Count of Tripoli, and as such, was a rear-vassal to the king of Jerusalem.

When the crusaders came to the Levant, they were surprised to find thriving Christian settlements in the mountains of Lebanon. The Maronites saw the benefit in having much needed allies in their fellow Christians from Europe, and homage was a small price to pay for security. The Crusaders recognized the asset having indigenous guides and translators would be.

Youssef and his men were trained with the bow, lance, and sword from a young age. Unlike the Franks, they fought in light armor, composed of quilted silk and hardened leather, with interlinked mail across the chest and torso. The horses they rode were slightly smaller, but were faster and had more stamina than the large European destriers their counterparts rode.

He had known the king since they were children. When offered the chance to join the king’s household two years prior, he had taken it, bringing with him thirty men from Ehden and the surrounding villages, but leaving his younger brother behind. The transition had been difficult initially. He had been looked upon with some suspicion by several of the nobles at court upon his arrival; however, over time he had earned their grudging respect, and the friendship of several.

As he rode, his mind wandered to what had led to this point.

Baldwin, the King of Jerusalem, suffered from leprosy and, as such, could not produce any heirs and the most likely candidate to inherit the kingdom would be a child of his sister Sybilla, who was recently widowed and pregnant.

Philip of Alsace, the Count of Flanders, and one of the most powerful nobles in Europe had come to the Levant on Crusade. On his arrival, he had demanded that Sybilla marry one of his vassals. Baldwin had not outright refused this as he could not afford to anger such a powerful lord. Instead, he simply did not answer and sought to form an alliance with the Greek Empire in Constantinople with the goal of striking at Egypt, hoping to threaten the base of the power and wealth of Salah al-Din, the Sultan of Syria and Egypt. When Salah al-Din learned of this, he began strengthening the defenses of Egypt and calling his levies.

Philip of Alsace had other plans. He did not want to share the wealth or crown of Egypt with the Greeks. He decided instead to move to attack northern Syria with several knights of the kingdom and the lords of Tripoli and Antioch.

With the Kingdom of Jerusalem weakened with many of its warriors in the north, Salah al-Din decided to invade from Egypt with the thirty thousand man army he had gathered for its defense. Baldwin had less than six thousand men with which to defend his kingdom.

The Frankish army had moved south to meet the Muslim threat, but as its numbers became known, they realized that a pitched battle would be futile and retreated inside the defenses of Ascalon, remaining there as Salah al-Din had moved north raiding Ramla and the surrounding villages.

Youssef now rode with three men, and they had seen no sign of Salah al-Din’s forces other than the occasional charred field or house. One of his men pointed in the distance at two riders approaching swiftly. He recognized two of his men he had sent forward with strict instructions to find Salah al-Din’s rear screen line and then return.

“Speak, Samir.”

“Lord, we came within sight of the rear-guard and baggage train.

“Were you seen,” Youssef questioned quickly.

“No, lord. There is no screen line.”

Quickly realizing the importance of this information he turned his steed back toward Ascalon. En route, he came upon more of his scouts with similar information, as well as others with information that the road south to Gaza  was clear of the Muslim army as well.

 * * * * *

When he arrived in the great hall in the Citadel of Ascalon, he found King Baldwin in quiet discussion with Joscelin of Edessa, his uncle, and Reynald de Chatillon, the lord of Transjordan and the newly appointed regent of the realm.

The lord of Transjordan looked more like a common soldier than one of the most powerful vassals of the kingdom, more comfortable in a camp than a great hall. A tall man with auburn colored hair and beard, and skin turned dark tan by years in the sun of Outremer, he had a scar ran down the under his right eye, giving him an almost sinister appearance. The younger son of a Burgundian nobleman, he had come to the Holy Land twenty years prior seeking his fortune during the Second Crusade. He found it,  becoming Prince of Antioch through marriage to the then heir, Constance of Antioch. He ruled the Principality for the next eight years and developed a reputation as a man of prowess, ruthlessness and brutality on the battlefield. Captured by Nur ad-Din in 1161, he was held in captivity for fifteen years during which his wife had died. His stepson, Bohemond had become Prince of Antioch during his imprisonment, and so upon his release, he was again landless. He traveled south to the Kingdom of Jerusalem and offered his services to the young king. King Baldwin consented to and arranged to his marriage of one of the great heiresses of the kingdom, Stephany of Milly, who was heir of the Transjordan. Reynald had returned the king’s favor with undivided loyalty.

Youssef made his obeisance before the king, but the king quickly motioned him to his feet, recognizing the urgency in his expression and step.

“Speak, Lord Youssef.”

“Salah al-Din has split his forces. His vanguard has burned Ramla and is marching on Lydda, while a portion of his army has been sent to burn the hill villages,” he paused for breath, before continuing. “He has left no screen of scouts between Ascalon and the army. The road to Gaza remains clear as well.”

All three men were quick to understand the implications of the report. The other lords in the hall turned their attention as Baldwin quickly stood to his feet, waving aside the assistance from his servants.

“Send a messenger to Gaza, instruct the Grand Master to meet us on the coastal road south of Ibelin. Call the men to arms, call out the city levies as well,” the king ordered.

“Sire, even with only part of his army, Salah al-Din will still have more than twice our numbers,” Joscelin of Edessa reminded him, “victory is in no ways assured.”

Although always one for action, the lord of Transjordan looked unsure as well, as did several of the other lords; however, the king had no doubts.

The king’s face, scarred from his leprosy, was resolute as he stared coldly at his uncle.

“I would rather face try the dubious chance of battle with the enemy than suffer my people be exposed to rape, fire and massacre, while I remain safe behind tall walls. The kingdom is my charge and I will safeguard it.”

Before the king’s uncle could argue further, Reynald de Chatillon shouted, “To arms!”

With that, the discussion was ended and the hall sprang to life. Youssef quickly gathered the rest of his men who had not been scouting with him. He saw the stepsons of the count of Tripoli, Hugh de St Omer and his brother William gathering their household knights. The summoners were riding through the streets calling the feudal levies that had gathered to arms.

Youssef was surprised by how quickly Reynald had been able to organize their forces. They numbered around five thousand men in total, with six hundred mounted knights. They left late in the afternoon and headed north along the coastal road toward Ibelin and Jaffa.

Youssef had to bridle his impatience, the speed of their march limited by their footsoldiers. Despite having their left flank covered by the sea, they were still incredibly vulnerable on the march.

It was not long before an alarmed scout road up reporting mounted men approaching the rear of the column. Most likely it was the Templars from Gaza, but Reynald dispatched Hugh de St. Omer and Balian d’Ibelin with their household knights to the rear just to be safe. Because time was of the essence, the march would not be halted.

It was not long before a messenger arrived at the head of the column reporting the arrival of the Templars, shortly followed by Odo, Hugh and Balian at the head of their knights.

The Grand Master had brought eighty knights. He joined Baldwin and Reynald at the head of the column. As they neared Azotus, a rider approached where Youssef and Hugh de St Omer were riding with their men in the column. As the rider drew closer, Youssef was surprised to see it was the lord of Transjordan.

“Lord Youssef, I want you to take your men and scout ahead east of Ibelin.”

“Yes, my lord,” he responded, spurring his Arab courser toward where his men rode in the column, he called them from the formation.

They quickly rode out along the coast before turning inland to pass east of Ibelin. They were all armed in a similar fashion to Youssef. A hardened leather vest interweaved with quilted silk and steel plates guarded their torsos. They all had quivers strapped across their backs. When they had rode out from the column, they had all strung their bows which were now secured to their saddles. They were all armed with either a sword or axe as well.

After an hour they could see Ibelin to the northwest. All around them they could see the devastation that Salah al-Din’s army had wreaked. The burned fields in the countryside surrounding Ibelin, with smoke rising in the distance from the village of Ramla itself. Night was beginning to fall and the distant campfires could be seen to the east.

They had yet to come across any significant Saracen force. It seemed as if the majority of Salah al-Din’s cavalry was north, raiding near Lydda and Arsuf.

* * * * *

When they reached the head of the Frankish column it was already dark. Youssef reported to Baldwin and Reynald what he had seen. He had left scouts out in the field and continued to get frequent reports as their host continued on through the night, driven by the will of their ailing king. Baldwin had acquiesced to riding in a litter, but only after much insistence by his seneschal and regent.

Their night was free of attack and by morning, their scouts reported they were within five miles of Salah al-Din’s camp. They had been heading inland for several hours, using the low lying hills to screen their movements as much as possible. The Bishop of Bethlehem had accompanied them with the True Cross. His face dripping with sweat even though the autumn air was cool and the sun was far less unforgiving.

One of Youssef’s men rode in out of breath about midmorning.

“Lord Youssef! Salah al-Din’s baggage train has become mired  in the mud. His rear-guard has not been able to keep contact with the main column!”

Without bothering to respond, Youssef spurred his mount to the head of the cavalry column motioning his man to follow him. Once to the king and Reynald, he motioned for his man to repeat his report. The effect was what Youssef had anticipated.

“Heavy cavalry to the center, have the infantry in the vanguard form the left wing, my lord seneschal, the command is yours,” the lord of Transjordan ordered, “my lords Baudouin and Balian,” he said, addressing the brothers Ibelin, “The command of the right wing is yours. Once the center charges, attempt to cut off their retreat south.”

The changes took place as they still moved forward. In the center a force of almost a thousand cavalry was the main thrust of the attack. The heavy Frankish knights in their full body mail, carrying heavy lances, and on their large steeds. Youssef and his men rode with the king.

They could see dust and smoke rising in the distance as they neared Ibelin and Tell Jazaar, or Montgisard, as the Franks called it. After rounding a turn, the Muslim baggage train came into view, mired in the mud of a wadi. The Frankish forces urged their horses to a high speed, leaving their foot soldiers behind. Salah al-Din’s rear guard realized too late their peril as they scrambled to form battle lines.

“Deus le volt!”

The battle cry of the kingdom rang out down the line of mailed warriors. The heavy cavalry charge crashed over the Muslim rear guard like waves against sand, killing hundreds in an instant. Horses on both sides broke their necks in the crash. Knights thrown from their mounts were quickly trampled; however, the majority of the Frankish cavalry continued on, as the Frankish infantry followed into the broken lines, killing what remained of the shocked Muslim troops.

Following the few fleeing survivors of the rear guard, they soon came into sight of part of Salah al-Din’s main body. Like the rear guard, however, the alarm was too late. As the Franks moved their horses to a hard gallop, Youssef glanced towards their center at the king who had insisted on riding into battle. Flanked by Reynald de Chatillon and his household knights, his illness seemed a thing of the past.

Looking back up, Youssef saw the yellow and green standard of Salah al Din, marking the Sultan’s presence in the field. The Frankish knights yelled their battle cry once more and pushed deep into the hastily assembled Muslim lines.

Youssef impaled a rider with his lance and unsheathed his sword. He pushed his horse towards another opponent, making quick work of him. He was in the vanguard, with the King, Reynald de Chatillon, Hugh de St Omer, and several other knights. Before he realized it, they had pushed to the center of the Muslim host, facing the elite Mamluk bodyguard of Salah al-Din.

The Mamluks were Eastern European, Slavic, and Turkish, soldiers, who had been taken from their families as young boys and sold as slaves into Muslim houses. Raised from a very young age in the art of war, they were the backbone of the Muslim army.

The fighting had slowed as the fleeing Muslims beginning to rally; however, the Franks knew that if the Sultan was to fall, the battle would be won. With this thought they threw themselves at Salah al-Din’s Mamluks.

Youssef found himself fighting a giant of a man, armed with a long curved sword called a shamshir and a shield. He pushed his mount towards the man and at the last moment threw himself at the giant. Both ended up on the ground, but only a moment before they were back on their feet. Youssef gave the man no time to regain his bearings and immediately charged, parrying a strike with his sword, before bringing his fist into contact with the man’s throat. The shock was enough for Youssef to drive home the killing strike.

The king’s men pushed forward, giving no quarter. Youssef parried a spear thrust, closing with the wielder and killing him a fluid motion. The ground became slippery with blood as the killing continued, but Youssef could feel the wave of battle pushing them forward.

Thirty paces away, Youssef saw one of Hugh de St Omer’s household knights lunge at the Sultan, whose horse reared, taking the blow in the neck. As the knight was killed instantly by one of the Mamluks, Salah al-Din deftly rolled off the falling horse.

Another adversary occupied Youssef for another moment, before he was quickly killed by the now surging Frankish forces.

Cheering caught his attention, and he looked in time to see Salah al-Din fleeing on camelback, only a handful of his bodyguards behind him. His colors, left behind, lay in the dirt surrounded by the Sultan’s dead Mamluks.

Reynald was urging on them on, and Youssef knew he was right. A commander as skilled as Salah al-Din could still rally his troops if given time. Remounted, they pushed on, but found no formed battle lines, only fleeing soldiers, leaving behind weapons, armor, and other spoils of war. Those that surrendered were taken prisoner, others were quickly dispatched. As they came to a halt, Reynald sent out lieutenants to continue the rout of the Muslim army, pushing them back towards Egypt.

Their losses had been heavy.They would find later they had suffered almost two thousand casualties, with over a thousand dead. The eight hundred wounded Franks were evacuated to the Hospital of St. John in Jerusalem.

Despite this, their mood was euphoric, for their losses were nothing compared to the decimation they had dealt to Salah al-Din. The rout continued for the next ten days, as more of the Muslim soldiers were taken prisoner and killed. Salah al-Din evaded capture, eventually making it back to Egypt; however, only ten percent of his army had survived.

* * * * *

A great feast was held in Jerusalem, celebrating the victory and the king that had lead them. Youssef watched the revelries with pride in his king, whose determination and courage had done so much to bring them the victory; however, he could not help but feel a melancholy at the same time. It would only be a matter of time before the combination of the king’s failing health and the might of Salah al-Din’s empire would place them in jeopardy once again. He looked out on the laughing, smiling faces, wondering which would be missing in a year. He forced himself out of his mood. Worries for another time. Today, they would drink.

______________________________________________________________

Dr. David Hourani is a medical doctor and student of Middle Eastern and Crusader history.

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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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Pale Bird Woman

By Dennis Humphrey

Wehnd’kehto of the Fisted Foot scanned the foaming edge where the Great Water beat against the stony land. The gray wet of the sky spirits spread out upon the dark stones as well, falling from their home in the mists above, not heavy, as in the warm moons long ago, but in small, stinging drops, driven by the wind that touches frost. White birds turned and laughed their shrill derision above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” Wehnd’kehto  paid them little attention as he limped along on his gnarled foot. He knew their cries were meant to distract him. Sometimes, gifts waited at the water’s edge, placed by the Great Water himself, and the jealous birds wanted them for themselves. Other times flippered beasts dragged themselves from the water to bellow, and he could pierce one with his spear for meat and furs. This day, he did not know what to think of what he found.

He had been alone on his tiny, water-circled land for more round moons than he had fingers, since the day his people set him here upon these same stones. They drove him from the raft of logs at the stone points of their spears. They spoke no words. None were needed, and words were not to be used lightly. Not then. He cast a last look that asked if there were another way. He knew there was not. Since the raft had gone beyond seeing into the mists, he had seen no other people. He looked at his feet, one straight, one crooked. There, in the sodden earth between them was a track that was not his own. He tightened his grip around the shaft of the simple spear he had cut from a green sapling with the edge of a broken stone. His small, water-circled land had none of the stone that was good for chipping into spear points. His spear was tipped with a tooth from some beast of the sea, one of the gifts left by the Great Water at the foaming edge. It was as large and as sharp as any stone point. He breathed out, and his breath showed white as the wind bore it away, a small part of Wehnd’kehto’s spirit given to the wind and sky. For luck. He followed the tracks, leaning on spear as he would a walking staff as he limped toward a group of great stones that stood near the water.

As he neared, he heard a soft cry. He felt his hairs stand up off his skin beneath the furs he wore. Between the stones, out of the wind, he saw a woman, face down on the sand. He hobbled to her, rolled her over. Dark water plants tangled all around her. Her skin was as pale as a fish belly, her hair like the setting sun. He shuddered to touch them. She opened her eyes, and made as if to speak, but her words, barely a sigh, were as the talk of the white birds riding the air above, “Kay-ah, kay-ah!

“Pale woman!” he said in the sacred tongue of his people. “Why do you cry with the tongue of the birds?” These few words were an extravagance, and in the dark recesses of his mind, his shadow self cowered, expecting reprisal from the wind spirits. But it had been long since he had last spoke any words at all. So long.

The woman brought one hand to his bearded face. “Kay-ah, kay-ah!” she sighed again. Though her tongue spoke only to the birds, her eyes bade him help her. He draped the furs from his own shaggy shoulders over the woman and carried her by the worn path to his dwelling. There, in a hollow of the mountain, he had kept alive the fire he had found after a storm, fed it dry wood day and night. He regarded it as a beast he had found, barely alive, that he had nursed back to health and domesticated. Now they lived together, sole companions, he feeding it to keep it alive, it giving him warmth, roasting his meat to make the fat drip and flesh brown. Wehnd’kehto placed the pale woman by the fire’s warmth, covered her with more furs, and with a vessel carved from the bones of the flippered beast, he fed her those rich drippings that run from meat placed before the fire to brown. Soon, she fell into a deep sleep.

When she awoke, the sun had gone to its long sleep. Wehnd’kehto sat on the far side of the fire from her. She looked quickly about, much as the small furry beasts that dart among the rocks when the cry of the taloned bird pierces the air.

“Pale bird woman,” he said, daring to use words again. “You can stay with me.”

She looked like she did not understand, but she calmed, though still remaining wary. She looked him over, but then saw the gnarled foot, and stood. “Kay-ah-ah-ah!” she cried, and darted out into the dark. The sky flashed, rumbled, and he lost sight of her in the dark wind and rain. Wehnd’kehto’s shadow self taunted him then. He tottered over to a small cache of dried leaves he kept in the dry of dwelling, but out of reach of the fire’s hungry tongue. He cast a handful into the flames, which eagerly devoured them and breathed out the sweet smoke. Wehnd’kehto hoped the wind spirits would forgive him.

As the sun’s first light spread across the sky, Wehnd’kehto set out to look for the pale woman again. The wind spirits’ rage and sky fire had calmed, and a quiet breeze was all that remained to remind him the wind spirits were still watching. Weakened as the pale woman was when she had run from his home, he did not need to look for long. He found her again at the water’s edge, soaked, cold, but alive. Though weak as the softest breeze, the living wind still flowed into and out of her. Perhaps the wind did forgive him. He puffed out a white cloud of breath in a long, warbled cry in the cool morning air to express his thanks, but he dared not speak words and risk angering the wind again.

He lifted her head from the cold sand. She sought to pull away, but was too weak. He took her pale hand, and placed it against the brown skin of his arm. She saw the pale against the dark that was the common color of the people, and her gaze fell to the sand. He stroked the pale skin of her hand gently, and she raised her eyes again. Then he placed her pale hand on his twisted foot. He moved her hand so it stroked the gnarled foot. Her eyes met his, a light in them now. “Koo-oh,” she cooed, as the plump, soft-gray birds do in the first light of dawn. Wehnd’kehto thought about her bird speak, and thought about those creatures, so favored by the winds that they were permitted to ride high upon them, above all other creatures. The birds were permitted to sing. Perhaps she spoke as the birds because the winds loved to hear them.

“Koo-ooh,” he cooed back to the Pale Bird Woman, and he lifted her from the wet sand. She stroked his beard with her pale hand and cooed and cooed to him in a long soothing song as he hobbled back up the worn path toward the warm fire.

______________________________________________________________

Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska. He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his fiction has appeared in storySouth, Prick of the Spindle, BloodLotus, SN Review, Toad Suck Review, and Collateral.

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The Trail

By Katie Frankel

By the time we even reached the jumping-off place in Missouri, we had been traveling for what I naïvely thought was quite some time. Though my sisters – even Sarah, who had dreaded leaving Tennessee almost as much as I – had slowly yet steadily let the sadness of leaving fade away, I myself felt I could not. I was silent, speaking nearly not a word the entire way to the jumping-off place in Missouri, my heart feeling heavy in my chest. None of my family members could lure me away from my broken heart and sullen mood, and they eventually stopped trying.

I knew hardly a thing about the Oregon Trail, only that it led to both Oregon and California where land was free despite the Indians who surrounded it. Though he wouldn’t admit it, I did not think that Jack knew very much about the trail either, only what his friend knew and had told them. My brother had warned us all that, at times, the journey would prove challenging, but our trouble would be well worth it to reap the reward that would await us.

There were very many other wagons already in Missouri, far more than I had imagined. So many families awaited their departure that we could not even leave right away, instead having to wait for several days before finally being able to start out on the official trail. Even with waiting, our wagon train was long, wagons following ours as far as I could see.

Jack told me that for the first part of our journey we would be traveling on land that was long and yellow, allowing the river to guide us until we finally reached the mountain region. It was May now and the weather was mostly warm and pleasant, save for some slightly cooler nights. There was always a lot going on during our time on the Oregon Trail, both while traveling and while resting at night. Even after a long day of travel, Jack and Carissa both had things they had to tend to, with Carissa leaving two-year-old Joshua in my care during the time. There was always seemingly endless amounts of work to be done while traveling both in the wagon and out, from changing and oiling the wheel axels to taking care of the oxen and horses, and then finally, taking care of the people.

I was surprised to see that Carissa by no means was the only woman traveling with a young child; there were actually quite a few expectant mothers and mothers with children much younger than Joshua. Depending on how long each family decided to travel, I knew that some mothers would be giving birth on the trail and, recalling Carissa’s difficult birth, I was very grateful that she was not due to have another child.

Despite the large number of children traveling on the Oregon Trail, Jack had forbidden my sisters and me from wandering off with them; though I did not have desire to do so, I knew that my other sisters did. My brother warned us that children could get lost for days among the long wagon train and we witnessed this first hand only about ten days into our journey. A family traveling just two wagons up from ours became frantic one evening during rest when they could not find their five-year-old son. The mother was inconsolable, and although Carissa would not admit it, I knew that the other mother’s grief struck fear in her. The boy was not found for two days later when he finally reappeared, dirty and hungry. I knew it could have been much worse.

Many of the other families on the trail had oxen to pull their wagons but no horses, and although I feared Jack would consider them a burden, I was grateful that we had our three horses. I felt that Scout was a part of Connor always with me, though I continued to mourn for him every day. Just like three years prior when we had first moved to the Smiths’ farm, I rode Scout bareback on the trail often, and he seemed happy to oblige as he walked forward proudly. Each time I sat on the Paint’s back I felt a mixture of comfort and sorrow, my longing for Connor so overwhelming sitting aboard the horse who was so dear to him.

Sarah was friends with a family of seven children from age three to fifteen, and the older ones filled my head with countless terrors of horrible things that could happen to anyone on the Trail; we could be attacked by Indians, drown while crossing water, freeze to death or die of thirst, and an abundance of other terrible fates. Despite these warnings, Jack still seemed confident and I trusted his judgment completely, sure he wouldn’t knowingly put any of us in danger.

We were roughly halfway between our jumping-off place and Fort Laramie when something horrible happened.

We had been traveling for many miles and the sun had grown extremely hot at times during the day, but the weather was unpredictable. At times, we were pelted with hail bigger than the hoof of a horse, or had to wait out rainstorms that seemed to be never ending. However, the challenging weather was nothing compared to what happened to Annie.

She was nine, and her family drove the wagon that was usually in front of us. All of us children, even me, had become comfortable and accustomed to traveling and admittedly a bit careless. All of the older children frequently got off and on the wagons even while they were in motion to walk, meet up with other kids, or ride horses if they had any.

Jack used to allow Sarah and me to jump off the wagon at any point, but Hanna and Gracie were still too small. One day when Sarah jumped off, she landed hard and badly twisted her ankle, unable to walk for two days. After that Jack, forbid us from jumping off while the wagon was in motion, but Annie’s parents didn’t mind so much and allowed her to continue to do so.

I’m not sure what Annie planned to do when she jumped off that day, but in the end, it didn’t matter. As Jack stared ahead while driving, Annie jumped off the wagon as she usually did, but this time, the skirt of her dress became snagged on part of the wagon as she did so. The fabric did not rip but instead, drug Annie underneath.

“Stop! Stop!” Jack screamed at the top of his lungs, startling me so badly I leapt up from my seat in the wagon. Annie’s father immediately pulled back the oxen, but by the time he was able to fully bring them to a halt, it was too late; the wheels of the wagon had already completely crushed Annie’s body, the sound of her bones crunching sickly recognizable.

She didn’t die right away. The screams were atrocious, bloodcurdling; not only from Annie, but from her mother and father and siblings. The noise was deafening and brutal and the rest of us wept inside the wagon, even Carissa. By the end of the day, Annie was dead but the nightmare was far from over.

Because we were traveling in the middle of nowhere, the men had no choice but to dig Annie a shallow grave right on the side of the trail. There was not time to dig it extremely deep, and I knew now from what other children had told me that scavengers were attracted to fresh graves, whether they were animals looking for flesh or humans trying to steal the very clothes off of the deceased’s body. The thought made me so sick that I vomited over the side of the wagon.

Annie was not my first experience with death, yet her death was so extremely different from my mother’s and unlike anything I would have ever been able to imagine. Jack and Carissa were among some of the people who desperately tried to console Annie’s mother and father, and over the next weeks Annie’s mother’s grief was so brutal and crushing that I truly wondered if someone could die from a broken heart.

Everyone in my family dramatically changed after Annie’s death. Jack no longer spoke of traveling to Oregon with excitement and enthusiasm but became solemn, neither he nor Carissa speaking much at all. My sisters and I had lost the desire to explore with the other children, and we oftentimes felt we did not even want to leave the safety of the wagon, packed with supplies as it was. Additionally, I knew that the land we traveled on now was mostly flat and consisted of just tall grasses and streams; up ahead was the mountain region and places that not only put us at higher risk from Indian attacks, but had much more challenging terrain than what we had navigated so far. I suddenly was terrified of continuing to travel on the Oregon Trail, feeling sick the further we traveled and wanting to beg Jack to turn around. Some families did, with Annie’s death by no means being the only tragic occurrence that had happened in our wagon train so far.

 

We travelled for weeks longer. The Platte River was brown and full of silt, yet when there was no other source of water, we had to make due by collecting water from the river, letting it sit for an hour, and mixing in cornmeal to try and sink the silt to the bottom. Even so, the water tasted horrible and because of this, everyone in our wagon train preferred to set up camp near some of the fresh water streams that drained into the Platte River. Although the water tasted better, it held deadly, unknown dangers.

Sometimes after drinking the water, a man, woman, or child would become severely ill with no explanation and die within a day. No one, including my own family, connected the sickness with the water.

We continued to drink the water because it looked so much fresher than the brackish water of the Platte, and it tasted better. We drank this water for weeks as we continued traveling until one day, Carissa, Sarah, and Hanna all become horribly ill. The symptoms were exactly the same as the cases of sickness we had been seeing; the sickness that seemed to kill nearly half of those infected. Though it was morning, we could not continue traveling because they were so ill, quickly becoming extremely dehydrated, their faces and bodies slick with sweat.

“It’s the water,” Annie’s father told us gravely, pursing his lips and shaking his head.

Jack was panicked. “But they’ve hardly drank any of the muddy water. They—”

“Not the Platte water,” the man interrupted impatiently. “The clear water, from the streams. It looks good but it has disease in it. I know it does.”

He didn’t elaborate, but Jack didn’t care; half of our family was dying. Gracie and Joshua clung to me, crying and afraid as my brother desperately tried to keep his wife and our two sisters alive. Despite the fact that they wanted nothing to do with it, he brought them the muddy water to drink, forcing the three of them to continue to drink it because he said their bodies had become so dried up from the inside.

We stayed camped at that one spot for days, the wagon train moving on without us. Jack forbid us to continue to drink from the streams, and the fresh water was no longer so tempting. Once when I went to check on my sisters and Carissa, I thought they were dead, lying pale, sweaty, and motionless in the dirt.

After what seemed like months but was really only about a week, the three began to slowly recover. The process was difficult, with all of them having lost a great deal of weight and strength in the one week they had been sick, barely able to move much at all at first. Finally, though, one by one they did recover, and a few days later, we joined another much smaller wagon train that had come by to resume our journey; only now, Jack no longer wished to.

The challenges of the Oregon Trail had proven torturous and fatal so far, with Jack claiming it was only by God’s grace that all three had survived the sickness. the journey all the way to Oregon was supposed to take only four months, yet we had not even reached Fort Laramie and had been traveling for two months already. Despite the great difficulties that presented themselves ahead, Jack was afraid to turn back. Too late into our journey, Jack decided that bringing us onto the Oregon Trail had been a horrible mistake.

______________________________________________________________

Katie Frankel is a senior at Texas Wesleyan University majoring in English with a writing concentration. She enjoys writing and reading pieces of historical fiction, browsing antique stores, and riding her horse. She currently lives in Fort Worth and hopes to write professionally.

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A Grave Mistake

By Carrie Martin

Night grips London with a cold and unholy darkness. A sad, sliver of a moon hangs in the smog and drizzle that engulf the terraces and lonely streets. Flames flicker behind curtains drawn to the evil that lurks outside. Barely a light to see by as I hobble and weave round the mounds of sodden rubbish and horse crap. The stink from the cesspools is unbearable. My eyes are raw with it. The puddled cobbles have seeped inside my shoes, through the newspaper and into my socks. Fingerless mitts are useless on a night like this. I stuff my hands into my jacket pockets.

The doors of an alehouse fling open, wafting pipe smoke and sweet malt. Four disheveled lads pour out, drunk as emperors. A British soldier struts after them, immaculately dressed in his red coat and black hat. He jingles a pouch of coins, and pats one of the lads on the back.

“Evenin’,” I say with a nod and a tip of my flat-cap, keeping my head down, out of the dim light of the alehouse doors.

They mumble a greeting as they stumble after the soldier like rats with the Pied Piper. Off to the next alehouse to get yet more blathered and sign their lives away.

I’d kill for a tankard myself, but I can’t stop tonight.

I duck into an alleyway — a shortcut to the edge of the city — hands fisted inside my pockets, arming myself against scrappers or thieves. Or worse.

A rat scuttles past my feet, black eyes glistening, tail slithering. And then something shuffles up ahead. Something bigger than a rat, coming from the deepest, darkest shadows of the alleyway. I jump to a standstill and brace for a fight, my poor heart racing. But it’s a girl who steps out before me: dampened, frizzy locks erupting from her bonnet, her face gaunt and mottled with scars.

I exhale loudly and relax some. My imagination is running riot — and is it any wonder at this late hour, with the ghastly work I have agreed to?

“Fancy some fun, Mister?” says the waif of a girl, thrusting out her bony chest. Her smile is a grimace of wrecked teeth.

It sickens my heart to see such a sorry creature. She can’t be much older than my own son.

“Here, lass,” I say, handing her two pennies from my pocket. “Grab yourself a bed for the night, somewhere safe.”

She stares at those pennies in her hand and her eyes well with tears. “Thank you, Sir.” Then she scurries away, skirt flapping, back into the heart of this soulless city.

I’d better hope tonight pays off or the wife will have my guts for garters for giving money away when the rent is past due. But if Caleb is right — what he said in the Coal Hole tavern where I met him, drowning my sorrows — I’ll have a guinea by the morrow, enough to survive for a month.

I continue on, out the alleyway and over the empty road. The drizzle is letting up but it’s dark as death now the city is behind me, sweeping fields ahead. Skeleton trees line the road, shivering in the wind. And here, the church and cemetery, surrounded by a great stone wall. Tucked between the wall and wrought iron gate is a smart-suited figure with shoulder-length hair and a cocked hat. Right where he said he’d be.

“Aye, Owen. I thought you’d gotten cold feet,” says Caleb, springing up to shake my hand with a glove that is smooth as skin and cuffed with fur.

“Sorry Caleb. Took a bit for the wife to drop off.” I can’t have Edna knowing about this. I told her I’d sort it, and I will. I’ll just have to get creative with the truth, is all.

Caleb jangles the lock on the gate, and soon there is a flame growing bigger and brighter, the swish of a black cloak as the groundskeeper appears before us like a ghost. Scraggly hair pokes out of his knitted cap. His beady eyes and crooked nose glow wickedly behind the burning rag he holds on a stick. He inserts his key into the lock and creaks open the gate, just enough to let us squeeze through to the church grounds.

“Alright, Russell,” says Caleb.

Russell grunts in response as he locks up again, entirely ignoring my presence. There are no introductions, which suits me fine. I hope I never see Russell again.

“Let’s get this over with, shall we,” says Russell in a voice as gruff as his manner.

Caleb gives me a raised eyebrow, an amused smile, as Russell swooshes around and starts up the path, lighting the way for us to follow. It seems to take forever with his slow, bowlegged gait. It gives me too much time to think, to worry, to see the gravestones of crosses and angels looming in the darkness. I can almost hear the dead whispering their disapproval, restless beneath them.

We wrap round the church entrance and tower, and stop at a small wooden extension. Russell opens the door and illuminates the inside of a tool shed with his burning rag.

“Grab that wheelbarrow,” Caleb tells me.

I tip the heavy thing upright, onto its legs and front wheel. Caleb sets to work filling it with various bits of equipment: shovel, rope, canvas sack and sheet. Then he takes a second shovel and a metal rake, and we head back outside into the freezing night.

The gravestones are plainer down this grassy side, and squished together in rows like teeth. Crows caw unhappily in the trees above us, shaking the branches as they flap furiously away into the surrounding fields.

“Here he is,” says Caleb, stabbing his shovel into a rectangle of soil — the cemetery’s most recent burial.

My legs go weak. My breath catches. I lower the wheelbarrow and read the headstone.

 

In Memory of

Bartholomew Augustus Riseborough

Died April 1st 1795

Aged 33 years

 

I’m not a churchgoer, not really, but I sign the cross now, Lord help me. I picture my wife and son, in this grave instead of Mr. Riseborough. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I must do this. What choice do I have?

Caleb must sense my reluctance for he whips out a flask and tucks it in my hand. “Get some of this down you.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“Never mind what is it, just drink it,” he says.

Russell watches with his beady eyes, silent behind his flickering glow.

I swig back at least half the flask, ignoring the sickly sweet, bitterly strong taste. It burns down my esophagus and into my belly, warms and numbs me from head to toe. “Gorblimey, that’s harsh.”

I offer the flask to Russell but he shakes his head, so I return it to Caleb who happily downs the whole lot.

“Bourbon whiskey that. The good stuff,” says Caleb, wiping his lips. Then he lays the sheet at the head of the grave, and shows me where to dig with the spade of his shovel. “You just want to uncover the top half, stick it on the sheet. Then we can snap the lid open and hoist the body out.”

I grab the other shovel and set to work, scooping up the wet soil and tossing it onto the sheet.

“That’s it,” says Caleb approvingly as he matches me shovel for shovel. Then, with a smile, “Hell of a mouthful, his name. Fancy being called that all your life.”

“I had an uncle Bartholomew once, if you don’t mind,” says Russell, his thick wiry eyebrows dipped in an angry V.

“And were his other names long-winded and pompous too?” says Caleb.

Russell’s eyes get even beadier, if such a thing is possible.

I’m full of boozy adrenaline, sick to my stomach with what I’m about to do, but I cannot help but laugh. “It’s certainly the sort of name you’d associate with a man of means. Though you’d expect more of a headstone than this, if that were so.”

“Oh, he had money, all right,” says Russell. “He was a merchant banker. A banker who didn’t get round to writing his own bloody will. Can you believe that? It was his missus that chose this for him. Didn’t shed a single tear at his funeral, either. Didn’t even look that distraught, though I saw her dab her eyes a time or two.”

“I’d be doing a jig on his grave if I was inheriting what she is,” says Caleb, leaning on his shovel handle and catching his breath. “Might have to try bumping into her sometime. Aye, wouldn’t that be something.” He smirks and starts digging again.

“You’ve got the looks and the clothes to impress a lady, I’ll give you that.” I’d be stomping on dough in that damp, drafty cellar for weeks to afford an outfit so grand — when there was flour to be had. There’s only so much chalk and alum you can add to a loaf, and the boss had to let me go. “How come you’re all dandied-up for digging, anyway?”

“Because it’s risky enough carting a body around at night, but nobody thinks twice when you’re dressed all important, like. Aye, I’m not just a pretty face, me. And what a body we’ve got here… A man, young enough, no visible diseases, practically handed to us on a platter. Doesn’t get any better than this.”

I wonder what sort of cut Caleb is paying Russell to risk his job and squeeze out the competition for us on a find like this. But it’s impolite to ask, so I just keep shoveling.

“You won’t have to dig far,” says Russell. “The dead are piling up in this city, what with this rotten winter and all the pox. We’re having to bury them on top of each other.”

Now I really do feel sick. He has a way with words, our Russell.

“Remember what I said yesterday,” says Caleb, taking another break to address me. “It’s just a body, a shell, and there’s no point it going to waste, feeding the maggots. So long as we take nothing they owned — no jewelry, no clothes, no shoes — it’s not even illegal. You can’t own a corpse, see. And they just can’t get enough of them, these anatomy students. Even with all the hangings in the gallows of late.”

“It’s a mad world is this,” I say, shaking my head as I scoop another shovelful. “Men hanged for pinching bread but not for this. Makes no sense to me.”

Caleb points his shovel at me. “Exactly!” he says, and resumes his shoveling with gusto. “It’s all right for them, sitting pretty at the top, making laws to suit them as they go. Using us up and spitting us out, then killing us off when we’re knackered and desperate. It’s never them that hang, is it? Well, they’ll not get the better of me. I’ll not break my back to make another man rich, and I won’t end up in the gallows!”

Maybe he’s right, and morality is nothing more than words on paper, made not of heart but of mind. Then guilt and shame are self-inflicted, pointless things, and who is to say what is right? Do the rich sleep soundly in their beds while the necks of poor folk choke in their noose, simply because they have written it so?

We work for a while in silence, to the mesmerizing beat of slice-thump-slice-slice-thump-thump. Wind whips wetness at us from the church roof and trees, sending shadows dancing and darting beneath Russell’s ever-shrinking flame. Soil piles higher and higher upon the sheet as we get lower and lower into the grave. We dig till I’m sweating beneath my clothes, my breath puffing out in great clouds. My bad knee is seizing up, my back aching, when finally I strike something flat and hard with my shovel.

“I think I’ve hit the—”

I’m interrupted by a muffled but roaring moan, coming from the casket. The three of us freeze in horror — me, bent over the casket. An icy chill creeps up my spine. My heart pounds wildly. The dead man has risen to wreak vengeance upon us for disturbing his grave!

An almighty fit of bashing and banging ensues. I grip my shovel for dear life.

“Heeelp! Get me out of here!” roars the dead man.

“My God, he’s alive,” says Russell, the first to come to his senses. And oh, but I am a fool.

“Quickly, clear the muck off and snap the wood,” says Caleb.

We scrape and fling the remaining soil every which way, revealing the shiny wood beneath. Caleb jams his shovel under the lid of the casket. I get beside him, do the same, and we push down with all our weight to wedge it open. The top half of the casket cracks apart, and there’s Mr. Riseborough, wriggling and struggling with the shroud he’s been wrapped in. Only his face is visible under that white sheet, and he’s staring up at us with bulging round eyes, his mouth absurdly agape.

All at once his face retracts into an expression of mere confusion, his gentlemanly composure restored. In his posh accent he says, “What the bloody hell… Who are you?”

“Your saviours. That’s who we are,” says Caleb, and swings the rope down to him.

Mr. Riseborough frees his arms from the shroud, and we hoist him out of that muddy hole, grunting and cursing, until he’s on the ground. Then we unravel the rest of him, uncovering his three-piece suit and buckled shoes, and pull him to his feet. He thanks us profusely as he straightens his wonky poodle-like wig and swats at the mud on his fancy suit.

Russell’s got the burning rag in Mr. Riseborough’s long-nosed face, and we’re gawking at him, wondering what the hell happens next. But Mr. Riseborough isn’t interested in us. He’s too busy frowning at his gravesite, squinting and leaning in to read the common-man’s headstone with his name on it. Russell moves his flame over the stone, highlighting the heartless engraving.

“I don’t understand,” says Mr. Riseborough. “I’m as fit as a fiddle. How is it that I was presumed dead and buried in such an undignified manner? How could my wife let this happen?”

“You should’ve got your will written then,” says Russell. “Spelt out exactly what you wanted.”

“I didn’t think it necessary, what with my good health, no children and only a wife to consider. I presumed she would take care of… Oh, I feel quite nauseous.”

Then Mr. Riseborough unleashes an almighty belch, the likes of which I’ve never heard from a gentleman. It stinks to high heaven of something vaguely familiar. He puts a hand to his chest. “I do beg my pardon.”

Russell jerks backward as if he’s been shot, while I subtly turn from the fumes. But Caleb — God knows what he’s up to — he leans in to get a good sniff.

“It’s no wonder you’re feeling sick, Bartholomew,” says Caleb. “You’ve a stink of almonds on your breath. That’s cyanide is that.”

“Cyanide? What?” Realization dawns on Mr. Riseborough’s face. “I thought that cup of tea tasted odd, but we had just hired a new maid, and so I didn’t think much about it. But who…” He glances back at the headstone, clenches his hands into fists. “My wife! But how did she get away with it?”

Russell smiles slyly, as if he knew the answer all along.

“The question is, what are you going to do about it now?” says Caleb.

Mr. Riseborough acknowledges this with a slight nod, then paces back-and-forth aside his grave, hands clasped behind his back, furrowing and un-furrowing his brow. He stops suddenly, throws his arm in the air, and says, “How would you like to earn yourselves ten guineas each?”

“It’s not illegal, is it?” I ask.

“Not at all.”

And then he explains…

* * * * *

It’s past midnight and I’m at the pillared entrance of a huge window-spotted brick house, yanking and ringing the bell. Caleb and Russell are with me, grinning like idiots. And there in the wheelbarrow, hidden in the sack, is the lumpy, curled-up shape of Mr. Riseborough.

Silently he lies in wait — a little surprise for his “loving” wife.

Perhaps Mrs. Riseborough will drop dead herself when she sees him.

______________________________________________________________

Carrie Martin is a graduate of the Institute of Children’s Literature and a writer of quirky and dark (she started writing for children but somehow grew older and darker). British and Canadian-bred, she lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and daughter. Her stories have appeared in several anthologies and ezines. Read more at carriemartin.ca

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The White Ship

By Richard Comerford

She was called la Blanche-Nef – The White Ship.

She was undoubtedly a fine vessel, but not intended to  carry so many passengers and crew. There were over three hundred on board when she set sail from Barfleur  in Normandy just before midnight . The sea was calm, but there was little moonlight, and as most aboard, passengers and crew, had consumed considerable quantities of wine the required standards of seamanship  fell by the minute. It was November-cold.

Thomas FitzStephen stood proudly in the stern, next to his helmsman, yet he was uneasy as he surveyed the chaos before him. The rowers bent their backs, but their rhythm was gone and sometimes their oars flailed at empty air, or merely raised weak  splashes.

He had offered the use of his ship to the King that day, pointing out his wish to serve as had his father, Stephen Fitz Airaid, served the King’s father William  54 years before. His ship  Mora had carried the Norman Duke across the Channel to invade England.

King Henry had thanked him, saying he was pleased with his own vessel, but he had entrusted Thomas with many of his entourage, including his sons William and Richard and his daughter Matilda. William the Atheling was an important charge, as he would be the next Duke of Normandy and would inherit Henry’s  crown.

And… he was the young nobleman who, swaying slightly from too much wine,had  ordered Thomas to chase and overtake the King’s ship which had left before them.

Thomas was not pleased, but knew he had to do as he was bidden, and he gave orders accordingly while he looked at the noisy, drunken young men and women making merry on his beautiful ship. Free from the stern eye of the King they were intent on making the most of their brief freedom. He had certainly not approved of the boorish manner in which they had driven off a group of pious priests who had merely wished to bless the ship and her voyage. The baffled  priests had retreated in the face of a storm of abuse and sneers.

Surely it is bad luck to turn away a priest – many priests – who come from God to bless your venture…?

He heard a loud voice – Prince Richard of Lincoln, one of the King’s sons, he thought –exhort the rowers to greater efforts.  “Come on, my lads, put your backs into  it! Don’t  you want more wine?”

“Yes, my lord!” replied one forward oarsman.

“Then row as you never rowed before!”

A loud belch from his helmsman was followed by the unhappy man vomiting over the side, momentarily surrendering the tiller. It swung wildly before Thomas could grab it and steady the ship.

Dear God, have we lost our course?  If only there were more moonlight…  Where is Quilleboeuf?

Quilleboeuf was a large rock, feared by all sailors in these waters, which appeared and vanished with the tides.

“Sorry, Captain,” muttered the helmsman. “Wine…”

“Are we clear of Quilleboeuf?”

The man’s vacant expression was alarming, but he attempted to appear in control of himself.  “ Yes, Captain, we must have cleared her by now.”

Please, dear God, be right….

Some of the passengers had started to sing, and oarsmen joined in, first tentatively – as befitted their stations – then lustily.

“Are you well enough to continue?” Thomas asked the tillerman desperately.

He looked wounded – wounded and drunk.  “Yes, Captain,” he said proudly. “This is my ship, and I will – “

Quilleboeuf had in fact been waiting off their port beam, and now she struck. The ship  tore alongside the rock, which ripped out and shattered two planks. The bank of portside oars  were sheared and snapped like kindling.

The ship listed to port immediately, as water poured in through the long, wide gash. Her superior construction and materials were no match for the icy sea which, moments before had been calm and benign.

The portside oarsmen were first to react, dropping their broken  blades, half-rising in their seats…….before the sharp lurch of the ship tossed them overboard to a man.

The starboard side rose up as the portside dipped, and the oars on that side thrashed at the air. Drunken revellers  slid in a human wave towards the sea which now boiled with turbulence.  The oarsmen tumbled from their posts and fell among the  panicking crowd.

Women screamed.

Men roared, and screamed.

Thomas stared in horror, hanging on grimly to the first thing his hands found, the tiller again. Of the tillerman there was no sign.

The King’s heir is in my charge……

The weight of bodies tumbling to one side, together with the  inrushing water, was too much for the proud ship.  Ninety seconds after striking the rock she capsized and all went into the water.  Some, those closest  to the port  beam, were dragged under the upturned vessel as she turned turtle and  were left to fight their way out. The lucky ones were thrown clear.

But few were lucky this night.

The sea was filled with struggling humanity, of whom hardly any could swim.

Thomas was carried, still clinging to the tiller, under the ship. His lungs burning, he felt his way along the tiller to the side of the ship and found blessed open water where he rose to the surface.  Two small lifeboats had broken free, but were now both hidden by dozens of terrified people clinging to them, trying to get on board. Those already in relative safety vigourously sought to dislodge the invaders in order to preserve the own positions.

Others threshed and screamed and sank around this ghastly scene.

Thomas bumped into a large piece of  spar, probably broken from the mainmast, and gratefully clung on to it. To his shame. he hoped no-one would seek to share his good fortune.

Dear Lord, I have never been so cold.

Horrified, he watched in the thin moonlight silhouettes of his fellow men fighting each other to stay alive.

The shouts… as of battle…

The awful, awful screams.

Is this hell….? What of my King’s children?  Will I die here?

He did not know how long he had been in the water, but knew he fell unconscious for a while. He was losing feeling in his extremities as the bitter cold ate its way towards his vitals. The screams were dwindling as the victims, weakened by their revelry, efforts to survive, and fear  gave up and succumbed to warm, watery sleep.

Then, a dreadful quiet.

“Does anyone live?” a voice called weakly from a few feet away.

Hope!  “I do. Thomas FItzStephen, Captain.”

“I am Geoffrey de l’Aigle”

“And I am Berold, the butcher,” said another voice. “I think we must be the only ones left alive?”

Stephen panicked. “What of the King’s heir, William?”

“I saw him, sir, in a small boat…” started Berold

“Thank God…”

“But he heard cries for help from the Lady Matilda, and turned back for her?”

“Please tell me he succeeded…”

“I am sorry, Captain. Too many tried to board him. I fear he is lost. We have not heard of him these many minutes. Now all is still.”

Thomas  could no longer fight the exhaustion and cold. He could not stand before his King and tell him he had lost his children, and the heir to England. Better to sleep……  He would answer to God.

“God forgive me,” h e mouthed, and let go of the  spar.

Without his lifeline, it was easy to slip under the cold, dark water to Oblivion.

And, with Henry’s heir drowned, England slipped into the Anarchy.

______________________________________________________________

Richard Comerford is a former lawyer, now happily retired, living with his Wife in a small village in middle England. Since leaving the Law, he has been engaged in writing a Novel, which is now complete, and has been looking out a Novel, Screenplay, and some Short Stories he wrote many years ago, prior to succumbing to raising a family and earning a living. He wrote “The White Ship” in answer to a challenge from his Wife. She gave him the brief description of the subject matter, and he wrote the Story. It should be clear that he wants, after all these years, to be a Writer.

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Climbing Boys

By Carly Brown

The Master Sweep

I find them young. Short-limbed boys with sleeves still dangling past their wrists and bodies narrow enough to fit up the flue. Six is a good age. If you get them at six, they won’t remember much of life before. Climbing will be in their bones, and they will always dream of sooty boots and narrow shafts. They won’t know any different.

I make the same promises every time: feed them, give them a second set of clothes and a proper bed, take them to church, clean them once a week. I promise not to send them up any chimneys that are on fire. That sort of thing. Then a Poor House worker or clergymen or their own mother shoves a handful of shillings into my waiting palm. And I take them away.

We don’t bathe them once a week. Anyone is a fool for believing that. Thrice a year, if they’re lucky.

They sleep in a pile on the floor like puppies, wriggling on the wood. The boys are covered in soot so sometimes they look like shadows come to life.

We do feed them though. There is gruel in tin bowls for breakfast and hard crackers for supper. Otherwise they won’t be strong enough to climb.

In the mornings, we press bristles into their backs to wake them and then out we go into London’s streets. Loose cobbled alleyways agitated with rats. As the sun begins to lighten the city, the climbing boys scatter and start to call out, as far as their little voices can go: ‘Sweep! Sweep!’

Today there is a lot of fog and my boys are shouting into it, their voices hoarse from yesterday’s ash. ‘Sweep! Sweep!’ A woman comes out of her house. She wears a nice blue dress with lace on the collar like baby teeth. I tip my top hat to her.

‘How do you do, madam? Do you know the dangerous of an un-swept chimney?’

My price agreed, we go to her house. My boots scuff the rug and she shudders at the sight of one of my boys. Then I fix a cloth over her fireplace and say that our work will be done in no time at all.

I nod to the boy. It’s time to go up.

The Mistress of the House

The only thing not covered in soot are the poor boy’s eyes, which are red. He takes off his battered boots and puts them in a neat row beside the fireplace. Then he takes off his jacket, covered in ashy handprints, and piles that up by the boots. His little vest next and I turn away, worried this urchin will shimmy up the chimney flue naked as Adam and Eve!

But he stops at the trousers and a rough cotton shirt, pulling his cap down lower over his face. Carrying a broom, he goes behind the flap that his master has hung on our fireplace. The hearth where last night a fire blazed as we played charades and cut into a soggy fruitcake, the windows fogging with our laughter. Hard to think it is the very same fireplace the little boy climbs up now in the empty gray of early morning.

The master tells me that the brush will dislodge any extra soot and the boy will scrape the chimney clean. ‘Clean chimneys are safe chimneys and all that,’ he says.

I suppose he is right. But I do wonder for the safety of that poor creature crawling through our flue, like the intestines of some enormous beast. I wince every time soot falls into the fireplace like dark snow.

The master pulls aside the cloth, lays down a handful of hay in the fireplace and begins to light it with a match. The hay curls in on itself, darkening. ‘For extra encouragement,’ he says to me and winks.

I leave the room, sick to my stomach.

The Climbing Boy

This is the first flue of the day and it won’t be the last. Four a day, says the master sweep. We have to toughen up that skin of yours, he says. I’m eight, but my skin is still soft as milk and he has me stand in front of the fireplace at night to make it rougher. Climbing boys can’t be soft, he says.

I have a name, but, if I told you, you wouldn’t remember it.

This house’s flue isn’t straight up, but they never are. They’ve got bends and you’ve got to crawl on your back to get through them. Brick against your back and brick against your nose and knees. Imagine you are a hair plucked from a little girl’s head. Imagine you are the string of a fiddle. Imagine you are anything narrow enough to make it out alive. Master says if you get caught with your knees stuck against your chin don’t struggle, that’ll only make the flue grip you tighter. Don’t panic when you see no light above or below. And if you feel heat, as I do now, it means that you’re taking too much time. Go faster.

I hit a clump of soot with my broom and it rains down across my face. Master says that’s how most climbing boys die, blanketed in soot so they can’t breathe.

But it trickles past me and I go higher. Suddenly the shaft is bright and I squint. I see a clear passage to the top of the chimney: a square of blue sky. Sometimes I want to climb up and out, but I don’t know anything about London rooftops. I don’t know what’s on top of houses, only what’s inside of them.

Someday I’ll get too big and I can stop climbing. I don’t know what I’ll do after that. Something else. But when I close my eyes and try to imagine what that thing would be – my mind is clouded with soot.

The master sweep screams at me to hurry and I snake down, away from the sun, fast as I can out of there and hope, by now, he’s put out the fire below.

The Master Sweep

After seven years work, we send the boys away. They can go where they like, after that. Journeymen to another master or stay on here. Soon they’ll be too big to fit inside the flues and they’ll start going into the parishes and orphanages, looking for boys small enough to take their place.

They give their old coats and hats to the little ones. Their faces are starting to smear together like years.

Often, I have the same dream. I dream of how my master sweep would send up another boy behind me to prick my bare feet with needles. So I would climb faster. How the chimneys shook with my crying and I thought all the bricks would collapse around me. I wake up shouting for a mother I can’t rightly remember.

When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and pile a few coals up behind the grate of my own fireplace. I light them. The coals glitter in their pile, the ones in the center glowing hottest of all. I watch the orange flames twist, sending smoke and embers up into the dark.

______________________________________________________________

Originally from Austin, Texas, Carly Brown is a writer, performer and PhD student based in Scotland. She is the author of a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews, and a poetry chapbook. In 2013, she was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry and 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel set during America’s Revolutionary War. Her website is: carlyjbrown.com

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