Tag Archives: historical fiction

The Fall of Burhan

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________________________

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

Posted in Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on The Fall of Burhan

Copperfield’s Anthology of Historical Fiction Submission Guidelines

The Copperfield Review seeks to publish the best in historical short fiction and historical poetry. We proudly announce our second anthology of historical fiction.

Anthology Submission dates: April 1, 2021 through August 31, 2021

Anthology submissions should be sent through Submittable. There is a $3 reading fee. The word Anthology should appear in the submission title.

submit

  • Fiction: Submit one short story of historical fiction of up to 4000 words. The story must be historical fiction, though it may also be a sub-genre such as historical romance, historical mystery, etc. We do not accept alternative history submissions.
  • Poetry: Submit up to 3 poems in one document. Poetry should be either historical fiction or based on a historical subject.

Publication Information

Copperfield’s second anthology of historical fiction is scheduled for publication in October 2021.

The anthology will be published in ebook and paperback formats. Authors whose works are chosen to appear in the anthology agree to have their stories or poems appear in marketing materials to promote sales of the anthology.

Payment

Authors will receive an honorarium as well as two contributor paperback copies and a copy of the ebook. The honorarium will be $25 USD.

Licensing

Authors who agree to appear in the anthology grant The Copperfield Review the right to publish their work in ebook and paperback formats in the anthology. Otherwise, authors retain all rights to their work and they are free to license or sell their work however they wish. Future publication of work that appears in the anthology should be noted as first appearing in The Copperfield Review’s anthology. Copyright of the anthology collection itself is owned by The Copperfield Review.

Posted in Contests, Historical Fiction, Historical Fiction Anthology, News, Poetry | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Strangling Angel

When I first felt sick, my parents hoped it was an ordinary sore throat and headache, but when I couldn’t swallow and the fever hit, they knew it was serious. Our country doctor was in Waupun, only 10 miles away, but my brother, Herman, had to ride there on our old horse, Buck, and it was a slow journey. As much as Herman tried to coax Buck to move faster, it took a long time to get to the doctor, and my breathing was becoming more and more labored.

I have no clear memory of what happened, but I do remember my body going from drenching sweats to relentless shivers, making my muscles ache and clouding my already frazzled mind. My breathing was raspy, and I was in serious pain. I saw the anxious look on my mother’s face, pale and terrified, fearing the outcome of whatever imminent danger awaited me. The rest of my family kept their distance, as my father would not let anyone close for fear of my unknown condition.

The year was 1879, and I was nine years old, the sixth of 11children of August and Louisa Gauger. We lived on a ten-acre farm near Brandon, Wisconsin, where we raised cows and chickens, along with a multitude of dogs, cats, and any other animal wandering onto our land. Recently, we had added more cows to our herd so we could produce and deliver milk to the nearby Hazen Factory, which had been built by Charles Hazen solely for the production of cheese. Prior to this, cheese-making was considered women’s work to be done at home, but now the factory was making Brick cheese, and it brought us extra needed money.

My life on the farm was enjoyable, in spite of the rigorous physical demands required to make a living off of the land. During harvest season, my dad would let me ride on the horse-drawn grain harvester he’d recently purchased in Beloit, Wisconsin, from the Deering Manufacturing Company. They invented a reaper to incorporate a twine binder and automate the operation of bailing hay. I was proud my father was always on top of the latest developments, which made us proficient at getting our crops to market. One day I would own the farm and follow in my father’s footsteps.

Our neighbors were a short distance away, and after my chores were complete, I would walk over to their farm to play with my best friend, Charlie. He also came from a big family, so to avoid the other kids, we would hide in the hayloft. We pretended the bales of hay were stonewalls when we played army; mountains when we played cowboys and Indians; and massive trees when we were explorers in an unknown world.

One afternoon, as I approached the farm, I could see Charlie’s parents building a bonfire by throwing toys and clothing into the flames. “What are they doing?” I asked. “Those toys can still be fun, and Charlie and I can still play with them.”

A shirt dropped from their pile of clothes and I picked it up and brought it to Charlie’s mom. “Get away from here and stay out of our house!” she screamed as she grabbed the shirt away from me and through it into the fire.

“But I want to see Charlie.” I was shocked by her outrage and couldn’t understand why she wanted me to leave. I thought she liked me.

Confused, I turned and ran away from the bonfire, through the fields of corn and soy and rushed into my house where I crumpled to the floor. My mother was preparing dinner and when I told her about the way Charlie’s mom yelled at me, a look of dread passed over her and she too started to yell. “Did you touch anything?” Tears formed in the corner of her eyes, turning them liquid and angry.

“No, I don’t understand why they are throwing away perfectly good things.”

“There is sickness in their house, and we must protect ourselves by staying away. I don’t want you playing with Charlie until this danger passes.”

“Why not?!” I said, challenging my mother. “Charlie is my best friend, and we’re building a fort in his hay loft. We need to finish it before the next harvest.”

My mother softened her gaze and relaxed, touching my shoulder. “Charlie’s little sister, Emma, just died of diphtheria. It is dangerous for anyone to be around her. We don’t know how she got sick, but it can strike anyone, especially young children. I don’t want you bringing it into our house. Stay away from Charlie and his family for now.”

My mother hugged me and started murmuring about being safe and keeping the evil winds away. I still didn’t understand, but thought I should reassure her that I was safe and would not play with Charlie until she said I could. I didn’t believe in evil winds and couldn’t imagine anything bad being at Charlie’s house, so I was sure I was alright.

“What is diphtheria?” I asked.

“It is an evil sickness that keeps you from breathing.”

Four days later, I became sick, and my mother could no longer protect me. It started with a sore throat and fever, but by the end of the day, my breathing was labored and painful. Our family doctor made a house call and prescribed whiskey to try to clear the membrane forming inside my windpipe. He said it would help keep the air passage clear, but he recommended a special doctor to treat the disease.

The following morning, I was worse. The special doctor was making rounds near us, and my parents brought him to our house to treat me. I tried to focus on what he was saying, but I was in pain and kept drifting in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t concentrate enough to listen to him, but I did hear things like “infection has progressed,” “little can be done,” and “experimental tracheotomy.” I heard my mother crying and begging him to try anything, and then I lost consciousness completely.

When I awoke, the doctor was still whispering in hushed tones with my parents. I stared at their grim faces and waves of hopeless sobs formed in my stomach and streamed through my body. When it reached my throat, I felt fire and tried to scream, but no sound emerged because the pain was too great.

I remained still and strained to listen to the doctor talking to my mother. “We are not out of the woods yet,” he said, his voice trembling. “There is a high risk of infection around the tracheotomy tube, and Henry must be kept isolated and away from his siblings. There are a lot of theories about how this disease is spread, but nobody knows for sure. Diphtheria tends to strike families, especially younger children. Keep him away from the others.”

My mother was barely able to speak, but she choked out a few words. “I will always hold you in my heart,” she said.

The following week was an uneasy pattern of wakefulness and deep sleep. I was hungry, but it was so painful to eat or drink that I avoided food and only ate when my mother forced me to swallow small amounts of liquid. Every day she cleaned and dressed the wound in my neck, and I wondered if I was going to have to spend the rest of my life with a tube sticking out of my neck. Talking was impossible, but I was able to breathe.

The progress was slow, but gradually I improved and became aware of what was going on around me. I hadn’t seen any of my siblings in over a week, and I had no idea what was happening on the farm. Did somebody do my chores for me? I bet they were really mad, especially my older brother, who always complained I never did enough work. The fort Charlie and I were building in his barn had probably been taken over by his brother, who always wanted to play with us.

My mother told me the special doctor was coming soon to see me and check on my progress. I really didn’t want to see him again, but my mother said it was necessary to remove the tube so I could get better.

I tried to speak as best as I could but it took so much effort to push the air out of my lungs and with the tube in the way, I couldn’t use my vocal cords. “What happened?” I managed to create some sound and pointed at my throat.

“Do you want to know about the surgery?” my mother asked.

I shook my head yes.

Slowly, my mother described the procedure with the precision of a trained nurse and a calmness I didn’t know she possessed. “The doctor started the surgery without anesthetic, since you were already unconscious. He used only a few tools from his pocket instrument case, a scalpel and a tracheostomy tube. He sterilized everything in boiling water and scrubbed them so they were free of germs. The only light we had available, besides that window over on the wall, was a kerosene lamp that your father held over the bed. I tried to assist wherever I could, but I was so scared I could not offer much help.”

“You had diphtheria,” my mother continued with the same measured calmness. “It’s serious because a membrane grows over your breathing tube and eventually stops you from breathing. The doctor made a cut in your throat where the infectious membrane was growing.” My mother pointed to her own throat as I felt the tube inserted in mine.

“That’s right,” she said now struggling to continue. “The doctor inserted the tube into the cut and, with his own mouth, sucked out the choking membrane. As soon as that happened, I could see your breathing was easier, and the pale, bluish complexion of your face almost returned to normal.”

The longer my mother talked, the more distraught she became. I was confused by her grief, because I thought I was getting better, and she should be happy. Yet, my mother seemed to be getting worse. When my stoic father walked into the room, I was relieved because he held her tight and she was able to relax.

A few days later, the special doctor came back to our farm. “Henry is my first success with this method of treatment. You did a good job keeping the wound clean, and no infection set in. Very few children ever recover from this illness.”

“Will he survive?” my mother asked.

“I think so. I have to remove the tube, and we will see if he can breathe on his own. At least this time I have an anesthetic with me.”

Focusing on the doctor, I tried to pay attention to the instructions he gave my mother, but they spoke in low, mumbled tones. I felt they were keeping secrets from me, maybe things I shouldn’t know or something that would scare me. The doctor poured a liquid into a cloth and approached me. He said something about being asleep, or maybe it was my sister Ida who was asleep, but I could sense something was wrong, and my body stiffened in anticipation.

The doctor moved the cloth towards me, and my hands flew to my face for protection. Without thinking, I yelled at my mother, not caring about the stabbing pain in my throat. I smelled something sweet, like paint remover, and thought of the afternoon my father and I had painted our barn door. That image quickly vanished, and I struggled to push the cloth away, but soon everything became black, and I sank into the void.

When I awoke, I was alone in the bedroom I shared with my older brother. My head hurt, my throat was on fire, but my breathing seemed almost normal. I tried to touch my throat, but it was covered with a large cloth, and when I searched for the tube, it was gone. Could I actually be breathing on my own? I swallowed and still felt pain, but I was able to breathe. Maybe I was going to live, after all.

I stayed motionless for a while, dozing periodically, until my mother came in to check on me. She didn’t look happy. Maybe I was wrong in thinking my breathing was normal, and this was only a brief reprieve before my body succumbed to the strangling angel. 

“How are you feeling?” my mother asked.

Struggling through the pain of talking, I pointed to my bandages and said, “My throat hurts.”

“You have been asleep for a long time, but the doctor said you are doing well.”

After another silence, my grief-stricken mother composed herself and said, “Ida is sick. This epidemic is stealing my children, and I don’t know what to do.” She began to shake, giving in to great waves of emotion that consumed her. “I think strong winds are spreading the disease, and I can’t do anything to stop them.”

“Yes you can, you did for me,” the grief I saw in my mother filled me with sorrow and I became determined to alleviate her pain in any way I could.

“The doctor did a tracheotomy on Ida,” she explained, calmer now. “Just like the one you had, but Ida is not as strong as you, and I’m not sure she will survive. I fear the younger children will also become sick.”

Guilt floods me. What did I do to give Ida my disease? We didn’t share the same bedroom and rarely played together. During my free time, I was always at Charlie’s. We had some of the same chores, but my jobs were primarily outside, while hers involved helping my mother with the household work. Ida and I didn’t even get along well, because she liked to do girl things, and I had no interest in her activities. I wanted to believe it was not my fault, but I had doubts.

As the days went by, I regained some of my strength, and my voice slowly returned. Both of my parents came to comfort me and tend to my needs, but the visits were short. The rest of my siblings stayed away. I had no idea what was going on with the farm or my family.

“Henry.” It was my father, coming to check on me. “How are you doing today?”

“All right,” I responded, but I sensed something was wrong. Fear bubbled up inside me; not the fear of danger, but the fear of not knowing what the danger was.

“Ida has been taken from us,” my father simply stated.

“What?” I shouted ignoring the searing pain in my throat.

“The tracheostomy tube caused an infection, and Ida was too weak to fight it,” my father said. “You were strong enough to survive, but Ida was not.” Pain brewed in my father’s sad blue eyes but outwardly, he remained calm.  

 “There will be no funeral,” he continued. “We’ll take her body to the graveyard next to our church. If you feel strong enough, you can ride along to say goodbye to your sister.”

I was devastated by my sister’s death. Why did my family keep me so isolated? A dark feeling started to invade my thoughts, and I wondered if my family blamed me for Ida’s death. I was the first one to get sick, after all. I was the one who became feverish. I was the one who brought the strong winds into the house, and I was the one who survived the doctor’s treatment only to spread the disease to my sister.

The following day, our entire family formed a procession to the Lutheran Cemetery. It was a sad sight to see my older brothers walking alongside the wagon, with the rest of us sitting next to the simple wooden coffin that was Ida’s final resting place. Mother held Baby Augie in the front, and Father spoke only to the horses, urging them to pull harder. There was no funeral service, and no one came to the internment. Families who knew of our situation were too frightened to attend, not knowing how long the epidemic would last, or who would be the next victim. Some families, already devastated by the disease, simply could not bear the grief.

It was the summer of 1879, and my family would have to go through this scene four more times before autumn set in: Ida, age 11; Emilie, age 8; Helene, age 6; Marie, age 4; Emma, age 3.

______________________________________________________________________________

Karen Shapiro is a retired school psychologist and teacher with a Master’s degree in Educational Psychology. She has a strong interest in Genealogy and bases her stories on actual events discovered while researching her family tree. She is a life-long student of continuing/online education, with an associate degree in web design and workshops in travel and fiction writing.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Beneath the Yellow Aspen Trees

We are excited to share our first audio short story “Beneath the Yellow Aspen Trees” written by Chad Lester. The story is a well-written piece of historical fiction, and the narrator, stage actor Jeffrey Machado, does a great job bringing the story to life. We loved listening to it, and we think you will too.

____________________________________________________________________________

Chad Lester has a degree in Writing Studies from the University of Washington. His short story ‘The Lounge’ was a finalist in the 88th Annual Writers Digest Competition. He’s currently working on a novel which he hopes to traditionally publish.

Posted in Audio, Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Makes a Witch?

Susan North stood, shaking, in the Common House of Salem Village.  She shook so hard her clothes quivered.  Her life was at stake, and if she were not careful it could also be the life of her husband and child.  So, Susan shook with cold even while sweat stained her unadorned, brown, wool dress. 

It was hot in the room. 

The packed Common House had two stories with a door and two windows centered on all four sides of the split board, saltbox building.  It was overly warm from the summer heat and press of bodies but that did not keep cold fear from centering in the very core of Susan and those accused with her.  She had already seen Bridget Bishop hung and her dear friend, Rev. George Burroughs, die as well, even while reciting the Lord’s Prayer. 

William Stoughton sat in the center of the panel of judges and looked down at Susan with the pinched, disapproving look of a man who sees all women as vessels of the unclean.  He addressed no questions to the accused; it was assumed that whatever she said would be a lie.  His questions were instead addressed to the cluster of teen-age girls sitting in the front row of the meetinghouse—a place usually reserved for the most important and respected members of the village. 

The girls appeared more bored than engaged.  They would stir themselves soon, one or the other would begin a histrionic vision and the rest would join to a greater or lesser degree.  But for now, Ann Putnam picked at a fingernail, Abigail Warren was braiding the hair of Bette Parris and Deliverance Hobbs appeared to be staring out the window, but could have been nodding off as the warm sun hit her full in the face.  Mercy Warren was the only one paying attention to the judicial row.  This was to be her morning for questions, providing evidence against one more woman from her unhappy past, and it was she, if she so chose, who would provide the pre-arranged cue to the other girls to begin thrashing in spectral anguish.  All Mercy needed to do was say the words, “None of us want to see the vision of that great, black dog ever again.” and her friends would fall into screams, moans, and contortions. 

It is so simple, Mercy thought, to convince these silly, stupid adults that a witch was in their midst.  Mercy and her friends, bored, ignored, given little education and less respect, now controlled the life and death of every person in the village.  Such power was intoxicating.  And no one loved the heady feel of it more than Mercy Lewis, the orphan.

“You say you were afflicted, girl.  By whom?  Under what circumstances?  Who tempted you and how?”  Magistrate Stoughton was always harsh when addressing her and Mercy knew why.  She was a servant girl, living only at the pleasure and command of her distant kinsman, Thomas Putnam.  It was not lost on Mercy that the tone of the judge was more moderate and respectful when questioning Ann Putnam, Betty Parris or Mary Walcott.  Those girls had fathers with position and power.  They were called “child” in a warm and encouraging voice, not the cold, abrupt “girl.”

“Speak up, girl!”  Mercy flinched to hide her anger.

“I was afflicted, sir.  I hesitate only because I fear to see the same demon again.”  She hesitated, looking warily at her hands, which were clearly trembling.  Then she raised her head, in perfectly timed defiance of her fears.  “But I say it now, Sir, frightened though I am.  I was afflicted, tormented, and tempted by the Devil himself, and those that serve him.”
A rustle of concern moved across the crowded common room. 

“What form did these tormentors take?”

“It was last Lord’s Day, sir.  I was walking to this very House, to worship.  I was late, as I sometimes am, because of my household duties.”  She paused, but did not look at her employer, Thomas Putnam.

“We do not care about the reasons for your tardiness, girl.  Continue.”

“I am sorry, sir.  As I hurried to my worship, I saw a sky filled with birds, but there were other animals as well, dogs and pigs, and cats that seemed to be ordering the other animals in their flight.  The beasts told me to come away with them.  They barred my way to the Common House, so I could scarcely move forward.”

More murmuring. 

“I tried to cry out, but a man appeared, waved his hand across my throat and I could make not a sound.  But I saw the man well, and I know his name.”

“Name him, then.”

“George Burroughs.”

“The same Burroughs who was executed last week?”

“Yes.”

“You are sure.”

“I know him well, sir.  I worked in his house in the months after my parents were killed in the Wabanaki attacks.”

The story of Mercy Lewis’s orphaned state was well known by the whole community.  Mercy, the daughter of Phillip Lewis was born in Falmouth, Maine in 1675, at a time of constant unrest and violent conflict between the colonialists and the Wabanaki nation.  At three years of age her parents, along with Rev. Burroughs and many of the people of Falmouth fled to the islands in Casco Bay as the Wabanaki slaughtered those left behind, including Mercy’s grandparents, cousins and neighbors. 

At age 16 the Wabanaki mounted yet another offensive and killed both of Mercy’s parents.  It was then that she took temporary refuge with Rev. Burroughs, himself having lived and ministered briefly in Salem.  As soon as arrangements could be made, Mercy moved to the home of her married sister, who lived in Salem Village.  An orphan with no family or fortune behind her, the future she faced was outlined in full when she became a servant in the home of Thomas Putnam.  She would spend her youth, middle years and old age as a menial servant, bowing to all, and regarded by none.

“We already know of the evil works of Burroughs.  Were there any with him that still walk unknown in the Village?”

“There were, sir, they grabbed at my clothes and scratched my arms and snatched at my hair and bonnet as I ran into the Common for services.”
Stoughton briefly conferred with those present and they did indeed affirm that Mercy was present, though late and disheveled at worship the past week, though one of the men did comment dourly that she frequently appeared under similar circumstances.

“Name these apparitions.”

“One was Captain Alden, the man who sold guns to the Wabanaki and slept with their squaws, making babies with heathens, though certainly that did not bother him in any way.” 

Captain Alden had been named by Mercy before and had, in fact, been jailed and well on his way to the gallows until he had mysteriously escaped the jail and run to New York.  Mercy resented his escape, since it had obviously been abetted by people who did not believe this gunrunner from Maine to be a wizard.  Mercy had had Alden in her sights from the beginning.  It was well known that he had sold arms to the Indians he loved so much.  These same Indians had then used those arms to destroy Mercy’s family and her hope for a life that did not include emptying the chamber pots of kin who should treat her like family instead of the hired help. 
“The other was a most fearful witch, standing in a circle inside a five-pointed star, all made of fire.  She stood there and directed the birds to attack me, pecking at me and screaming in my face.  She laughed at my misery and then turned to Alden and used a soft voice to tell him I would be turned to the Devil or suffer horribly for naming the Captain before this council.”

“Give us her name, girl!”

“Susan North—is was Susan North.”

A rumbled moved through the assembly.  Goody North was well-known.   A healer.  A midwife.  A friend and a devout worshiper.  Her husband was a respected miller and their baby a bouncing, pink, bundle of health.  Susan doted on the child.  Certainly, Goody North was smarter than a woman should be.  She could read and write and vowed that her children, even the girls, would know those arts as well.  But there were times when her knowledge had saved the life of a good man, a deserving woman, or an innocent child. 

You could almost hear the thoughts of the women in Common House.  Was knowing how to heal a gift from God?  Or a bargain with the Devil?  Surely Goody North had saved the life of the unworthy as easily as the worthy.  There was even talk that Susan had helped more than one unwed young girl who might come to her with child to leave without one.  The loss of a child in the womb was neither here nor there, it happened all the time, but the thought that the punishment so richly due any harlot should be skirted by eliminating the proof of her sin was repugnant.  Sin was supposed to be punished.  Fornication was a sin. 

And here was Mercy Lewis, a supposed strumpet, pointing her finger at Susan North, naming her as a witch and agent of the Devil. 

“She comes to me almost every night.  Tormenting me in my bed.”

It was at this moment, cold and frightened, shaking and almost deaf from the pain in her head that Susan North turned from the judges’ bench to Mercy Lewis.  A small flicker of anger had managed to warm Susan’s core.  It did not balance the fear, but it gave her enough strength to do something she was not allowed to do. 

Susan North spoke.

“Mercy…” it was almost a whisper, but those close to her heard it and stopped talking.

“Mercy” louder this time.  “It is not me that torments you in your bed.”

“The accused will stand silent!” Stoughton shouted.

Mercy Lewis, shocked into silence for the first time in these proceedings looked about, almost as if searching for a place of escape.  Then she saw the faces of the other girls, attentive now, frightened, looking to her for the leadership she had offered from the moment this game of blame, theater, life and death had begun.  It gave her a moment and she seized it.

Mercy’s finger jabbed fiercely toward Goody North. 

“She torments me even now, even here.”

“Mercy,” Susan’s voice carried across the hall, “I stand here as the woman who helped you in your time of need.  You begged me to assist you, putting on a face of fear and sadness and betrayal.  You have many faces Mercy.  I think it is that which torments you.”

“She has faces!  She has faces!”  Mercy screamed, starting to thrash about, biting at her own arms, drawing blood and tearing with her fingernails at her own face and hair.

“The accused will not speak…” 

Spit from Stoughton’s mouth sprayed Susan and those around him on the bench.  “Order!” he screamed, not sure at whom he was directing the imperative.  Then louder, “There will be silence!”

The room was broiling with activity.  In all this Susan North was the only one who now stood silent.  In the instant when all attention had turned to the girls she had panicked and wondered if she could run—making good an escape as Alden had.  She had moved away from the thrashing girls and turned toward the door, but too many angry, screaming faces stood between her and freedom.  At almost that same moment two men charged as bailiffs grasped both her arms and she gave in to them.  Her death sentence was sealed by the histrionics of the girls.  But she knew the truth and she knew she would avow her innocence to the end.  No one would accuse her without her protesting the claim.  But, oh, the fear of it.  The pain, the panic, and her child…

Susan North slumped to the floor, not in a feint, but powerless to hold the weight of what she saw ahead of her.  The hands still held her fast but let her collapse between them.  She could not think of her daughter, Hannah.  That would be a pain that would break her.  Instead she concentrated on the hate she suddenly felt toward Mercy Lewis and the spoiled, selfish girls who casually stole life and reputation from so many good people in Salem Village and beyond. 

Rough hands brought her back to her feet.  Her head lolled but was drawn to the one face that could give her strength.  Her husband, John, stood against the back wall.  She had begged him not to come, but he had and in his drawn face she saw a mirror of the impotent rage she herself felt.  The injustice of it all!  The futility of argument!  The rejection of reason.  Their eyes met and she mouthed one simple word. “Go.” 

Susan and John had discussed the worst that could happen, and their plan, to be acted on only in that extremity, was now to be executed.  There would be no more affirmations of love, whispered hopes for the best and prayers to a merciful God.  Now there was only action.

John left the Common House and sped to his house, stopping only to get Hannah from the aged neighbor who was watching the child.  He bundled his daughter in the wagon which was already packed with most of the sparse furnishings from their home.  All of Susan’s things were left behind, by choice.  There would never—must never—be a way to use her possessions to accuse him of witchcraft. 

The father and daughter left Salem Village immediately and were in Boston by nightfall.   

John had sought refuge in his brother’s house when he heard the worst of the news.  Magistrate Stoughton, sure that the obstinate North woman must be an extraordinary witch, and therefore worthy of extraordinary punishment, decreed that Susan should burn instead of being hanged as her predecessors had been.  Execution was only a night and a day away. 
 The night before her death Susan North received a whispered message through the low window of her cellar jail.  Four words only: it will be quick.  Dumb with fear she did not ask for more, or who the speaker was, but she held the words in her mind and repeated them silently over and over.  The words became her mantra and they did not fail her.  The wood, piled higher than the magistrates had remembered from the day before, was extremely dry.  When the torch was put to the brush it flashed instead of smoldering, sucking oxygen from the air. 

Susan seemed to take one huge, sobbing breath, but there was no oxygen left to be breathed.  Her head snapped back, seeking air, and then collapsed on her chin, unconscious of the almost immediate explosion.  A small keg of gunpowder exploded under her feet.  The messenger was true to his word.  It was quick.

Outraged beyond grief at the loss of his wife, John North filed a civil suit against Mercy Lewis, and her fellow accusers. It would be the first of dozen of such suits filed against the Salem Village accusers—and it would help bring the dreaded Court of Oyer and Terminor to an end.   

A decade after John fled to Boston with his child; a decade after he watched his wife die horribly but swiftly in the blast of gun powder that he had placed under her scaffold; a decade after he had vowed eternal retribution against Mercy Lewis and the rest of the “afflicted” girls, John North faced his moment of truth.  He saw Mercy walking down the streets of Boston. 
He knew Mercy had given birth to a child the year before and had then fled to Boston to marry a teamster from her hometown of Falmouth, Maine.  The ne’r-do-well and drunkard, Samuel Alder, now led Mercy down the middle of the street.  As they passed each other, North realized that Mercy Lewis Alder had neither noticed nor recognized him.  She was dirty and ragged, shuffling along behind her much older and clearly intoxicated husband.  Her child was held carelessly on her hip and she was muttering to herself.  North thought of calling out to her, castigating her as the slattern she was, but was stayed by his daughter’s tug on his arm. 

“They are a sad family, aren’t they, Father?” 

John North looked at his daughter.  Hannah was growing in every way her mother would have wanted, and now she was showing a charitable concern toward the woman who was the instrument of Susan’s death. 

“They are.”  He started to add, “God bless them” but the words stuck in his throat.  To all his other faults and failings, John was not going to add hypocrisy.  Instead he moved his daughter along the street and whispered, “God bless us.” 

Mercy Lewis, absorbed in her own unhappiness, never heard the benediction. 

_____________________________________________________________________________

Louise Butler is a writer of science, economics, and historical fiction.  She was examining ergot fungi as a cause for the “afflictions” of children thought to be possessed by demons or victims of witchcraft when she recognized the name of an accused witch that also appeared in her own ancestry.  The following is an excerpt from her third book: That Blaisdell Blood: a Novel.  Ms. Butler currently lives in the deep Rio Grande Valley of Texas. She enjoys good books, good friends, and good scotch. 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on What Makes a Witch?

Tamara and Natiao

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

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

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

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

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

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

2

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

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

3

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

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

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

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

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

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

4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Flee?  Where?” demanded someone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

______________________________________________________________________________

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

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Tamara and Natiao

Found Letters of Roanoke

1 September 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health, and I pray, remember my love unto my sister, Catherine.

Today marks a month since we landed in the New World and a fortnight since Governor White departed Roanoke for England, but I already imagine him bringing my letters to you.

Never more have I missed the greenness of home. There has been scant rain since we arrived, and our crops are withering in hardened fields. God be praised, Manteo’s tribe, the Croatans, have showed us how to properly farm and trap fish.

Our dwindling supplies has forced Mr. White home to secure more goods. He was reluctant to leave his new grandchild, but the Council of Elders insisted. I cannot make sense of their logic. Surely, Mr. White is a better artist than governor but besides Chief Manteo, he is the most familiar with this strange land. Part of me yearned to return home, but ’tis mad to think Sir Raleigh would listen to a girl of only eighteen.

Sadly, the bloody flux has overtaken many. Papa, I am grateful for the time helping you with your patients as I have become the settlement’s nurse. Often, there is nothing more than a cool rag and soft words to offer as they pass into God’s hands.

I would not survive without my friend Jane, who has taken me under her wing since our days on the Lion. She spooned soup in my mouth when I was laid low by the stormy waves of the ocean and ever since has lent her faith in my darkest hours.

The entire colony has come to rely on her. She fills her day with whatever needs to be done whether it’s chopping wood or fashioning roofs. Yet she is never too tired to teach the children their letters. I suspect our shipmate Henry has taken a fancy to her and that she returns his interest.

’Tis the thought of Mr. White returning across the mighty Atlantic with your letters that brings me hope. I promise to write often, though it may be a long time before another ship will pass our way.

As always, I remain a servant to God and pray for the strength to spread his word to these heathen lands.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

19 September 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health .

The drought is over! After days of dry rumblings and lightning in the sky, God has blessed us with a much-needed downpour. ’Tis the first since our anchoring and a sure sign of the Almighty’s love. I danced in the fields, my skirts soon caked with mud. There is nothing sweeter than the smell of newly fallen rain.

The burning fever that had taken so many has finally receded. More would be dead if it were not for the advice of Achak, the Croatan healer. And I believe Achak has cured our colonists of scurvy as well! Papa, you taught me to watch for signs of the affliction whilst at sea, but did you know it can occur on land as well? (Mama, allow Father to read this part alone as ’tis not suitable for such a fine lady.)

Papa, at first, many came to me complaining of aches that seemed a natural consequence of hard work. But soon their gums swelled, bled black blood, and turned putrid. Spots of red and purple appeared on their bloated arms and legs and burst. The wails of mothers who had lost their children haunted my dreams. I was desperate and turned to Achak, and asking nothing in return, he agreed to help. Papa, how can such a man be called a savage?

He boiled the needles of an evergreen and had the afflicted drink the tea. As I bear witness unto God, the pain resolved within three days, and all were better in a week. I have enclosed some of the needles as I don’t know the tree’s name. Perhaps you will inform the seafaring folk of this remedy?

(Mama, you may safely read again.)

Alas, we fear the death of Henry. He was last seen going into the woods to hunt by Elder John, who blames his disappearance on the savages. We continue to pray for Henry’s return.

My palms are as rough as tree bark, my skirt hems tattered, but fret not. I embrace these hardships that make me stronger in my faith and our mission.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

31 October 1587

My Dearest Catherine

If you be in good spirits, I am glad. Thanks to be given to God, I am in good bodily health. Yet, sister, I am quite unwell in mind. I try to live in this day and not in my worries, but much has transpired that leaves me unsettled.

’Tis been near two months since Mr. White departed. I pray for his safe passage and speedy return as our supplies dwindle. In his absence, Elder John has appointed himself governor. I pray that God grants him the wisdom to lead sensibly, but I fear his temperament and love of money. All he speaks of is raiding the native’s village for secret stores of food and gold they don’t have. By God’s grace, my urgings, and a shortage of munitions, his plans have been thwarted. As the larders grow barer and men’s hearts darker, I fear reason may no longer prevail. Truth be told, much of the savagery attributed to the natives rests in us. Please pray that God will give us the strength to conquer our worst enemies of famine and faithlessness.

Since Henry’s disappearance, Jane has become a ghost of herself. She refuses all but bites of food and sleeps fitfully. At dinner tonight, she filled Mr. John’s plate with her doubts, saying, “My Henry never would venture past the gates alone. Something’s amiss.”

The governor banged his fist on the table and told her that she was stirring up deadly distrust when our survival depends on unity. How can he be right? Jane is worth more than ten governors.

Our troubles continue to multiply. Chief Manteo is missing as well. He was never the same after our men mistakenly slaughtered his mother, the Croatan chief. Yet, he still managed to broker peaceful relations with the many of the surrounding tribes. As it was always the intention to move the settlement inland, the council decided Manteo should travel northward as a scout. He promised to return before the new moon, but it has been more than two months since he left. The governor refuses to send out a search party.

Manteo’s absence has emboldened several elders in their encounters with the unmarried women and girls. ’Tis a matter too salacious for young ears but rest assured, we women never work alone.

I thank you sister. Putting these overwrought fears into words reminds me that these doubts are Satan’s distraction from the work of our heavenly Father. I must place my faith in his plan, even one that I do not understand. I leave you to the protection of Almighty God.

Your loving sister,

Rose

P.S. Please don’t share this with Mama and Papa. They need not fret over a daughter’s silly musings.

3 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.

Only writing can steady my tremors. Dearest Jane has disappeared. In the days before she vanished, she had become unusually despondent, even cross. I thought her only overworked and mourning Henry. The last I saw her, she was standing on the beach, staring at the twilight sky. She looked like an angel as the evening breeze fluttered her cape behind her, held in place by her mother’s brooch. She assured me she would soon retire. If only I had stayed with her.

The governor believes she was kidnapped by Indians and may be alive, albeit a slave. He remembers cries for help that night but by the time he reached the beach, she was gone, and the sand marked by many footprints. I will continue to pray for her. Please add the good Jane to your nightly petitions.

As always, I remain a servant to God and true to my mission.

Your humble and obedient daughter,

Rose

11 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

My humble duty remembered unto you, trusting in God you are in good health.

Much has transpired since I last wrote. In truth, I tried to spare you some of the more unpleasant circumstances, but this dishonesty weighs heavily.

Today, we number less than thirty women and children and the seven Elders. Weakened by the lack of food and brackish water, we are bereft of hope. Ragged clothes cannot hide skin that sags on the hard corners of our bones.

However, Nature is not responsible for all our misfortunes. ’Tis the dearth of water that has laid bare our own turpitudes. The elders care nothing of God’s work or our survival, only the search for gold. As provisions decline, they have cut rations to scraps. How is it that they can silence the pain of constant hunger?

This assault of death and despair has hardened my soul. By the grace of God, I am not the only one unsettled. A time ago, Goodwife Agnes and I were washing up after supper, and oft, she would sigh loudly. She claimed that the nursing babies would not survive the winter, and that the elders had ordered the gruel even thinner for the nearly dead. I greeted each pronouncement with a shrug. Then she told me that the governor had declared the widowed as the property of the elders—with marital privileges. I could no longer contain my anger for this abomination against God. It seems ’twas the only encouragement needed to secure Agnes’s faith in me. She whispered that the women wanted to join the Croatans in their winter migration and asked me to approach them. I agreed at once.

I sought the council’s approval to meet with the natives under the guise of fostering better relations. The elders accused me of being a turncoat, but their concerns run shallow. I convinced them that I could trick the Indians into revealing their secret stash of gold.

I tell you of my encounter with the supposed savages to temper your anger at my decisions. God be thanked, they welcomed me to their assembly, a place where all were allowed to speak. We sat on the ground and not a voice was raised. When they disagreed, they went back and forth, each time one gave a little whilst another took, and a middle ground was coaxed from small concessions and gains so by the end, everyone was at least partly pleased.

When it was my turn, Achak introduced me. He did not hide the destruction our settlement had brought upon them. But he spoke kindly of my ministering to the sick and my efforts to learn their language. I greeted them using their own words and asked for forgiveness and permission for our people to join them.

’Twas a lively debate, and all seemed lost when they asked if I would try to convert them. As if guided by their example, I conceded I would only speak of Christianity if asked. At last, they agreed to take us inland.

Our plan is simple. We will leave under the cover of night with no more than prayers and the clothes on our back. Although we have found refuge in the kindness of the natives, to this I promise, my salvation will belong unto God alone.

Alas, ’tis unlikely these words will ever reach you, but ’tis a salve on my heart to write them. Though we may not meet again until we are in the Kingdom of Heaven, know that God’s love will keep me safe in this earthly home. ’Tis this love that girds my resolve. I will protect those who have put their faith in me as I put my faith in God.

Good Father and Mother, pray for me,

Rose

23 November 1587

Dearest Mother and Father,

Sometimes the lowliest of pursuits can lead to the most perplexing of discoveries. ’Twas laundering day, and a pile of clothes awaited. Something sharp stabbed my hand whilst scrubbing pants. From the pocket, I fished out Jane’s unlatched brooch. How could this be? Anyone who found the brooch surely would have informed the settlement, as it could be a clue to her whereabouts. Confronting the elders would only lead to false denials so I slipped the pin back into the pants and hung them to dry, waiting to see who would claim them.

I did not wait long. Elder William soon appeared and grabbed the pants. I kept busy with my work so as to seem unaware of his distress. He had to be connected to Jane’s disappearance, but I knew not how. Fear made me cautious. I told no one.

I maintained a cheery countenance during dinner though Mr. William’s glances felt like hands tightening around my neck. When the other women retired after evening prayers, I ventured out to spy on the nightly council meeting.

The elders built the usual fire on the beach, a beacon for passing ships. ’Twas not long before the governor arrived and made straight for Mr. William. He drew a knife from his belt and stabbed Mr. William in the chest over and over until the man collapsed. The governor fell upon him, thrusting his knife into the still body until the others pulled him off. What happened next— ’twas clear that the men knew exactly what to do.

They flayed Mr. William from stem to stern and gathered the stripped muscle and innards into a pile and tossed skin and bones into the fire. I gagged on the acrid smell but dared not move.

The flames sputtered to crackling embers. The governor shoved his knife into the pile of remains and pulled out a piece. He crouched by the fire, held the piece over the coals, and rotated the knife. The other men soon joined, for what purpose I refused to believe.

After a time, the men sat back and gnawed at the charred bits hanging from their knives. Soon the woods were filled with the barbarians’ laughter. My body went cold then hot, and I felt the bitter taste of disgust in my throat. I could stay no longer, no matter the cost, and fled.

Do you see how these times might wreck a person’s soul? Just the thought of the lot of Jane, Henry, Manteo, so many others who had mysteriously disappeared. I could not turn the other cheek, even if it meant I must turn my back on God.

I raced to the swamps on the other side of the fort. There I would find the cowbane that Achak had showed me. I stayed up all night, harvesting the roots and seeds, careful to keep my hands covered with a rag.

The next morning, I ground my doubts and cowbane into a paste and sent a message to Achak that we were ready to depart that very night.

I cooked my disgust into the evening’s soup. With ladle in hand, I waited. Like every night, the elders pushed to the front of the line and picked up the bowls I had carefully prepared. The brutes would never notice the dried paste at the bottom.

We had nearly finished tidying up after supper when the slightest of the seven men began to stumble and drool, to the delight of the other elders. But their laughter was brief. Another soon doubled over and screamed in pain; a third vomited, and the other two started to twitch. The men grunted and convulsed, their eyes turned black, their skin burned red, as the devil they courted came to claim their souls. They writhed for what seemed hours but finally each one’s breathing slowed, then stopped. I felt no remorse and made sure my face was the last the governor saw as he crossed over.

Finally, the moans were replaced by an even deadlier silence. I had but only a moment to regain the other women’s trust. I searched the pockets of Governor John. Fortunately, he had kept the proof of his treachery. The remaining women gasped when I showed them Jane’s brooch.

’Twas not difficult to convince them of the men’s utter corruption. They were eager to leave. We surrendered the bodies to a watery grave and not a tear was shed or a prayer offered for the true heathens.

There are only moments before Achak will take the rest to a better place but without me. I cannot burden their new life with the weight of my transgressions.

Please forgive me this last missive. ’Tis my confession unto God and a final account of the Roanoke colonists’ fate for whomsoever finds this. I daren’t dishonor God by justifying my actions. I accept that my evil deeds are not absolved by good intentions. As for this and the other letters I have never sent, I will put them in a sturdy jug and entrust them to the heart of a nearby cave so that the stain of the council and my own sins will not dishonor those we hold most dear. I trust in God to allow their discovery when the time is proper.

As for me, I care little. I will strike out for the woods to await Nature’s justice. But first, I must carve a message on the large oak so Mr. White will know where to find the survivors.

Farewell,

Rose

______________________________________________________________________________

Fran Nadel is a pediatric emergency medicine doctor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and an emerging writer. She graduated from Vermont College of Fine Arts Writing for Children and Young Adults in July 2020. 

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Found Letters of Roanoke

Mumler and the Widow

The history of all pioneers of new truths is relatively the same.  I showed them a beautiful truth; in their ignorance, bigotry, and blindness, they called me fraud.  Barnum called me fraud, a “humbug.”  When last was a man cleared by a court so vilified?

I insert the plate into the camera, my channel through which the spirit host shines. “Through a glass darkly,” St Paul writes, “but then face to face; now I know in part, but then shall I know even as also I am known.”  The glass plate brings the truth to our face.  The camera brings the truth, and that is why she comes and why they will mock me no longer.

The boards creak as I pace to the door.  For the fourth time and then the fifth, I peer down dim stairs though I know it is early.  I sit in the one chair I can afford, now, the one in front of the camera, and then I stand again and pace to the window, door, window.  Things had been different in New York, before the trial.

I check the camera again, ensuring I have inserted the right glass plate.  If I am wrong about “Mrs. Lindall” I will have to switch it, but I am not wrong.  And I can help her.

Slow footsteps echo in the stairwell.  I can help her, I think again as the black veil enters. The mourning dress is elegant; the newspapers always said she spared no expense.  She passes by me without a word and enters the studio, proceeding directly to the photograph on the table.  It shows Bronson Murray with his head bowed.  The spirit stands behind him, one hand on his shoulder, the other passing through the hairs on his cheek.  She holds him.  It is Ella Bonner; her husband, Robert, knew her immediately when he came in response to a letter, and he wept to see his deceased wife.  They often weep; they give thanks as they pay me.  I have taken many spirit photographs, but that one is among the finest.  I wonder what the widow thinks as she examines it.  I say nothing out of respect for what she’s endured, for her grief.  For who she is.  But at last, I must say something, and I must make sure I am right.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln.”

“I knew you would know.”  She does not turn, but she lifts the veil to get a better look at Mr. Murray and Mrs. Bonner.  I wait for some moments.  “How did you first connect to the spirit realm, Mr. Mumler?”

I have learned it is best to be open.  “It began as an accident, as a jest,” I say. “I was experimenting with my camera, developed a self-portrait, and saw it.  The form.  I assumed I erred somehow.  One day a gentleman visited me who I knew was a Spiritualist.  I was not at that time… inclined much to the spiritual belief.  I concluded to have a little fun.  My exact words were, ‘this picture was taken by myself when there was no visible person present but myself.’”

“And did you have a fine laugh, sir?”  She faces me now with the veil again drawn.  Her aspect and her voice are death-ridden.

I nearly falter, but I have told this tale many times. “The jest was on me.  That man told others what he had seen, and in about a week from that time, I received a paper from New York called the Herald of Progress reporting on my ‘great proof.’”

“And were you exhilarated?” my inquisitor interjects.  “Fearful?”

“I was mortified, ma’am.  My name in public print… At that time, you see, I thought the photograph to be a kind of misrepresentation…”

“When did you learn otherwise?  When did you believe, Mr. Mumler?”
I gaze at her obscured face.  She has come all this way for my gift, but she still needs me to confirm it.

“When I went to the gallery where my photographs were displayed.  A crowd of people waited, and one of them was a scientist from Cambridge, thoroughly acquainted with photography.  I told him what another man had told me, that I had not cleaned the glass sufficiently and that the spirit was merely an image from a previous exposure.  The scientist said no.  He said that might be possible, and even probable, in daguerrotyping, but not in my photograph.  Not on glass.”

“And you believed then?”

“Yes.”

“And now?”

“Yes.”

“How much then?”

Her questions are nothing if not efficient. “I ask ten dollars for a sitting, ma’am.”

“A pretty penny for a picture, but not beyond the means of a widow Congress finally saw fit to grant a pension.  Are there… guarantees?”

“I cannot control the spirits, Mrs. Lincoln.  I know only after it is developed.”

The black lace thinks.  Whether hesitating or hoping, I know not.

“Good,” she says.  “Am I to sit in this chair?”

I take a step to help her as a gentleman should, but she seats herself and, to my relief, lifts the veil.  Hers is a hard, suffering face.

“Just a few moments while I prepare, Mrs. Lincoln.”  She nods.

I open the camera and examine the plate yet again, confirming I have placed the correct one.  I look through the camera.  It is her. It must be perfect.  I visualize where the spirit might be.  Everything depends on its perfection.  The great truth.  The future of spirit photography.  My return to grace.

“Do you consider yourself a great man, Mr. Mumler?”

She has surprised me, but I bow my head with appropriate reverence.  “I am an instrument.”

“As are we all, Mr. Mumler.”  She looks to the window; I curse myself for not having scrubbed the grime, then remove the slide cover.  Nearly ready.  I examine the shot through the camera again.  She still looks away to the window.

“My husband was a great man.  But you know that.”

“He was, ma’am.”

“You all know that.  You think you know…”  Her hand moves to draw down the safety of the veil, but she glances at the camera and catches herself.  “He was destined for it.  It was God’s will he be taken in his country’s cause.  Do you know, when he was elected, what he said?  ‘Molly, Molly, we are elected.’  We are elected, he said.  For my life was predestined, too.  In Illinois Stephen Douglas, that small man, courted me before Abe did.  Did you know that?”

I realize she has asked me, and I shake my head.  I cannot fathom calling this woman Molly.  The scale of her life presses in upon me.

“When I refused Douglas, I told him, ‘I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.’  Oh, I knew, Mr. Mumler.  And I knew when I saw him.  People would never believe it now, but my husband danced.  Quite appallingly, but he danced.  Dear old James Conkling said he looked like old Father Jupiter bending down from the clouds to see what’s going on.  Abe approached me, bowed, and said he wanted to dance with me in the worst way.  I told him he did dance in the worst way.”

She laughs, so briefly I wonder if my ears have deceived me.  I would not have known she could still laugh.

“He was a good man.  He worried his income would disappoint me, coming from the family I did and living the life I did.  But Abe was worth more than all the houses and all the gold.  He was a man of mind with a hope and bright prospects, and a head for power.  He could never manage to wear socks that matched, but he had a nobleness of heart.  You have heard of my troubles, Mr. Mumler.”

The abrupt turn jars me.  I feel my jaw hanging as she fixes her gaze on my wordless face.

“Do not dissemble, sir.  You have… everyone has.  Everyone with an ounce of education and the sense to find a newspaper has read of my impropriety.”  She has mercy—she releases me and looks back to my unclean window.  “It has been my hourly prayer that I might soon be removed from a world so filled with woe and bitterness. God has willed it otherwise.”

My jaw still hangs uselessly.  Those in grief have sought me.  For more than ten years I have given them comfort with my camera, and I have learned to comfort with my words.  But they were men and women, and now I stand in reach of something beyond them.  She is vast.  Implacable.

“I saw what they did to him, Mr. Mumler.  That angel of light.  I was there when he forgot to eat dinner, and when he stooped with exhaustion, when the war sapped him.  I knew what weighed on him.  I read the Bible to legless men in Washington’s hospitals and held their hands as they died, and I could see their souls in my Abe’s eyes.  And through it all, when the newspapers slandered me and his cabinet scorned me and our Willie left this world, that husband, in his great love and tenderness, would not allow the wind of Heaven to visit me too roughly. That, sir, is the man my husband was.  Do you know what is inscribed on this wedding band?”

She points at the ring on her finger, and her ferocity demands an answer, but I can say nothing.

“’Love is eternal.’  He is here, I know he is here, because love is eternal.  Now, you may take your picture, Mr. Mumler.”

I realize my hand still rests on the camera; I see my studio again and remember where we are.  I take a final look through the camera; having been photographed many times, she is still, and I need give her no reminders before uncovering the lens to admit light.

She will have a spirit photograph worthy of her pain. I prepared this plate more carefully than any in my career.  The subject was carefully chosen for height, nose and beard, and I exposed three different plates to ensure I had the best possible likeness and in case I spoiled one by cleaning too much.  But after twelve years, I know just how much and how little to clean that first exposure from the glass.

They call me fraud because they do not understand.  I do not fully understand, not after the trial.  I thought I did.

When I ran to that gallery twelve years ago, mortified at the publicity my jest had received, my Emma was there. We had never met before that day, but I heard her cry in her pretty voice, “Why, there is Mr. Mumler!” She would be my wife; I sensed it.  I confessed the secret to that Cambridge scientist because I could not deny them all.  He gave me the explanation, and the assembled crowd gave me conviction; Emma gave me conviction.  They called me an instrument, a divine instrument of the spiritual host. Could an error and a jest move these people so?  I knew what I had done. I also believed.  For in the end, what is truth?  We Spiritualists believe the unknown can be known, that we can reach the other side. Spirits inhabit Emma.  I have seen it.

Barnum called me humbug.  He exhibits nothing that does not give a man his money’s worth, he claimed.  Is ten dollars so much?  They would not believe less.

A fearful man asks, “Is this all of life?  Is there a hereafter?”  And as the years roll on, bringing him nearer to the solution of this great problem, the question becomes, to him, one of great moment.  The anchor to which he has been clinging for safety begins to drag; the advance of science demonstrates that the world was not made in a brief period, but has existed for innumerable ages, and where is he drifting?  Spiritualism comes to him like a beacon-light to the mariner.  And if he doubts this beautiful truth, he can turn to the photographs of William Mumler, for proof that there is more.  Truth, manifest.  Am I a fraud if it is real? I used to know…

“Are you quite finished, Mr. Mumler?”

I realize she is right, and she has sat still long after I had covered the lens. 

“Yes, Mrs. Lincoln.”

She eagerly pulls the veil over her face.  “When will it be ready?”

“You may pick it up in three days’ time.”

She whispers, “Was he here?”

“As I said earlier, I cannot—” The black lace arrests my voice.  I know what eyes it hides.  I cannot separate the plea and the demand in her whisper.  I cannot face that veil. I turn my attention to the camera and mumble, “There may have been something at your left shoulder.”

Movement pulls my eyes upward.  She holds that shoulder with both hands, tilts her head to it.  A minute or so later she stands and turns.  I might hear “Abe” once, but with her back to me, her words remain a murmured mystery. I feel I am lurking over a prayer. What prayer does one offer an idol whose children one has borne?  She continues murmuring over a quarter of an hour, shaking sometimes; I assume she weeps.  I feel him too.  He is with her.  He must be with her.  I dare not move lest I disturb them.
When I notice her turning I pretend to work with the camera.  “I will return in three days, Mr. Mumler.”  Her footsteps descend slowly.  The stairs labor her.

I pull the drape closed.  I place the plate in distilled water and prepare the bath of developing fluid.  The spirits need tending.

NOTES:
Mumler’s photograph of Mary Todd Lincoln with Lincoln’s “spirit”: http://contentdm.acpl.lib.in.us/digital/collection/p15155coll1/id/56

Mumler’s photograph of Bronson Murray and Ella Bonner: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/objects/95748/william-h-mumler-bronson-murray-american-1862-1875/

Portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably “the winds of Heaven” line) adapted from letters published in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association by Thomas F. Schwartz and Anne V. Shaughnessy in 1990, available at the University of Michigan website here: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/j/jala/2629860.0011.105/–unpublished-mary-lincoln-letters?rgn=main;view=fulltext

Other portions of Mrs. Lincoln dialogue (notably the Stephen Douglas refusal and the discussion of Lincoln’s dancing) adapted from “The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln” by Kimberly J. Largent at eHistory, available on the Ohio State University website here: https://ehistory.osu.edu/articles/life-mary-todd-lincoln

______________________________________________________________________________

Ryan Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University.  He and his wife live in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs.  He has yet to see any of William Mumler’s photographs in person but has plans of seeing the Fox sisters’ séance table someday soon in nearby Rochester.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Mumler and the Widow

Shunned

These children I love because they are children I love them.  This girl, this boy, a safe haven in a cottage in New Amsterdam in the year of our Lord, 1650, thirteen of us together under a thatched roof. We came by sloop along the coast and then down the South River, a five day journey, setting out in the dead of a cold October night, frost settled on our shoulders, huddled in the bow for warmth, our small bundles stashed under the malodorous pelts. A few undergarments, knitted socks, shawls, dried fruit, some wampum. At anchor every night we did not venture ashore. We had no bibles. I attempted a prayer as we embarked but had forgotten the words. As promised, the pilot had not demanded payment other than a kiss from each of the children, in the Dutch manner. I knew of the New Netherlanders’ warmth and I was grateful. There was no force as we faltered onto the boat or a child cried with cold, only comfort and kindness. I was stooped with wounds and could not sit upright on the wooden bench. A knotted whipping rope had cut my flesh and put me to suffering. My servant had prepared a poultice which I wore strapped to my chest and back. Much had I learned from her those years in Plymouth colony.

That night of my escape, the owls cooed, then sunrise. I looked up and there it was: the blue canopy of Heaven.

                                                         ***

In the end is the beginning and in the beginning is the end, Elizabeth had told me. It was the name I had given her the day she was baptized. We had traded tongues and she spoke English with ease. I studied her alphabet but could not construct her language adeptly. Still, I understood most of what she said to me. She loved the children as much as I, but could not travel with us to the land beyond the Fresh River, she said. Her own band would welcome her return after our departure. She led the way and then we parted.

One night, in the plotting time, she had led me into the dismal swamp beyond the palisades to meet the sachem. Thankfully, he remembered me well. He understood my plight and blessed me with a deep- throated song. We smoked a pipe. He knew a pilot, he said, a former privateer. Dutch in origin, he traded goods and guns for fur with all the tribes and then sold them to the whites—French, English, Dutch. His allegiance was to himself alone and to peace among our peoples.

                                               ***

 We were on the ship crossing the vast and furious ocean—saints, sinners, strangers, adventurers, pilgrims. Subdued by hunger and illness, storms, the shift in seasons, spring to summer. Even our holy men became demented.

I said to my parents, Where is my gift?  They had missed my tenth birthday. My beloved mother’s wound had not healed. There was a physician on board, but no leeches. Rotting flesh stenched the cabin. Our hammocks groaned.

We had boarded a smaller ship in Leiden where I was born. There were no good-byes or celebrations. Our community traveled as one whenever possible. Only the old and frail remained.

I had never seen the land of my ancestors until we approached the white cliffs where a larger ship was waiting for us. At anchor, broadside, we shifted from one to the other, never laying feet on our English mother’s soil. We set sail in the morning at high tide.

But let us talk no more of old things, my parents had  always said. Let us dis-remember the harsh crossing, they might have said, the expectations, soon disappointed, of wondrous landfall in the new world, the sailors’ landfall cry, like a gull’s, watery graves, the joyous spouting whales as fermented bodies slipped gently out of their linen wraps onto the slanted plank and into the deep beyond.

The land was wooded to the brink of the sea. Strange creatures with painted faces and feathers in their hair, their upper bodies slick with grease, rode toward us in a fleet of narrow boats. In the stern of each vessel were men in floppy hats. Their once-pale skins were weather-worn and brown. Their clothes were dusty. Sticks held their vests in place instead of buttons.

Do not be alarmed, someone shouted from below.

They came aboard. They smelled like bear or deer.

                                                  ***

So, child, Constance said, my first night in the colony. I was not the only orphan—there were five of us arrived that day—but she addressed us all as child, individually, standing us in a line in the middle of the log cabin.

You will stay here in this long house. This is your bed. This is your hook. Here is a bible to keepsake under your pillow. Say your prayers morning and night. The water buckets are there. Lucy will show you the outhouse and how to use it. The earth floor is damp, keep your boots on at all times. If you awake itching, let us know, and we will sweat the lice. I am your orphan mistress.

In Leiden my room had wooden floors, large windows, curtains. The voyage had obliterated all such comforts. Now there were twenty beds side by side with only a stretch of arm between them, no windows, a hole in the rounded roof to vent the fire’s smoke. It was to become my task to stoke it as I was one of the larger orphans.

Did I feel sad? Was I reflective? Did I comprehend where I was? What had befallen me? Was God, as I understood Him, protecting me, guiding me, as the holy men always promised? I had no answer to these questions. And, in that moment, I missed my parents and siblings, all dead. Without a likeness of them in my satchel, I could not conjure their image. I was not alone, there were many others, but I felt alone.  Children, once so sweet, once so loved and loving, we had arrived lost and miserable, and only had each other.

***

I was not accustomed to constant prayer. My parents were observant but not devout. This they had hidden from the elders and from me else they would not have been selected for the journey; they would have been cast out. So it was a surprise to me that so many in the colony were absorbed in prayer and injunctions. They had odd ideas about child rearing as a consequence. We were schooled in the mornings by Constance and Lucy, orphans themselves, and then set to work tidying our cabin, the outhouse and the grounds. Before supper, we went to the chapel to pray. Hunger gnawed at us as we were force-fed the scriptures. I resisted the commentaries; they made no sense to me. As for play, it was forbidden unless the game strengthened our bodies or our minds, and those only for a limited time every day. I had carried my collection of marbles with me and offered them to the other children, but they were soon confiscated. I was chastised for being frivolous. Indeed, chastisement was common currency in the colony.

                                                            ***

That man I loved because he was a good man of sweet and pleasant countenance I loved him. His skin was the color of brass and he was comely to behold, very graceful and well formed with long black hair and well mannered. Others in the colony described him as tall, straight, muscular and well-proportioned, all this was true. He was not obese, neither was he deformed in any way. His cheekbones were high and prominent, the amber eyes widely separated, his white teeth gleaming and none were missing. His skin was shiny with fish oil or eagle fat, the odor at times disturbing. The bright red markings on his high forehead, temples and cheeks were meticulously rendered. I could not take my eyes away and plotted an encounter whenever possible. And then, one day, I met him in the strawberry field at dusk. We filled baskets and spoke in our hybrid tongue, English and Wampanoag words commingled. We had much else in common. He was always alone and so was I, the basket beside him his only companion. We lay down together in the furrow between the plants. Night fell over us.

Constance said, “What have you done, child?”

And I replied: “Ours is a most strict and sacred bond.”

And she said:  “That is the way we speak of God. Gabrielle, I beseech you, look up to Heaven to quiet your spirit.”

That night I prayed. I had heard a profound sermon and prayed the sermon, prayed that it would sanctify me and guide me: We are all in all places strangers and pilgrims, travelers and sojourners, most properly, having no dwelling but in this earthen tabernacle; our dwelling is but a wandering and our abiding but as a fleeting, and in a word our home is nowhere, but in the heavens.

                                                ***.

Make no mistake, dear reader, no transgression in Plymouth colony was ever really set right. Far away now, I see the colony in my mind’s eye. Most of the original houses are wrecked and overgrown with grass and weeds. There is hardly any light except the shadowy, softly moving glow of departing sloops across the Inland Sound. How did this land appear to English sailors’ eyes, to the first pale-faced settlers? Its stolen trees, the trees that had made way for our houses and crops, had once answered only to others. And these others had become our friends and then, predictably, our enemies. I contemplated this fate and rejected it. In the vast obscurity of the receding woodland, a different future rolled out before me.

***

Reason rarely prevails in love, war, or religious revelation. There was an enterprise laid plain by the imperial nations, the rape of virgin continents. The priests were as brutal and greedy as the investors; once they arrived, the land became their greatest temptation. There was no respite from the violent ambience of those times, not even for a young orphan who spent her days in the garden or the nursery tending and nurturing. To my knowledge, only Catholic nuns led a secure, peaceful, contemplative life sequestered in their nunneries. But the history of that church also sickened me.        

Vines everywhere, cherry trees, plum trees, and many others which we knew not on the other side of the world; many kinds of herbs, we found in winter, strawberries innumerable, sorrel, yarrow, carvel, brook-lime liver-wort, water-cresses, mint, great store of leeks, and onions, the best water that ever we drunk ( beer abandoned as daily liquid) and the brooks full of fish. Such bounty softens the soul. My lover encouraged me to bathe in all seasons, running water or frozen stream. In many ways, he cleansed me. Return to the putrid settlement was a shock, more so in the confines of the chapel where garments were stiffened with mud, urine and excrement. The dirt floor was dusted with cow’s blood and sawdust to absorb the release of human waste underfoot. I devised an antidote: small bouquets of herbs and flowers the Great Queen, twenty years gone, referred to as a nosegay. I considered my contribution useful.  I sowed and planted, made bouquets beyond my own use and distributed them to others. I became so expert in their creation that others in the colony dubbed me “Queen Tusse,” and the bouquets “ tussie mussies.” Unfortunately, I was not indifferent to this recognition; I flaunted it.

                                                       ***

He was of the snipe clan and resembled that marsh bird in its entirety—long limbed, fleet, alert, industrious and helpful to his own people and to mine. And it is strange to possess those in the colony in that way, to voice “mine.” Apart from the children in my care I had no sense of  belonging. My lover. That is correct. My lover. After a harsh winter and many deaths, he was sent to us as an emissary of good fortune and good will. At first, we called to him by his nickname, Bird, a translation of his native name, too difficult to pronounce. His attention to our well-being never faltered. If a house was felled in a storm, he righted it, or built a stronger shelter nearby. He dug the fields and harvested crops. He fed the swine and kept the coops clean. He never expected recompense and when wampum was left on the transom of his house, he returned it. Was he a saint? Was he an angel? That was the extent of our biblical mythology to explain his seemingly selfless actions.

And so he was intertwined in our daily lives from the time he was twelve moons or so. This was how he described his age, in lunar years, as signified by the markings on a turtle’s back. 

***

We had set sail in a prosperous wind. The sloop moved hastily and we were not pursued. A good store of turkeys on shore and dried fruit and fish on board provided sustenance. We had casks of fresh water. The captain remained constant in his kindness yet I was shy of him, distracted by my sorrow. As the children were sleeping,  mine eyes were weeping.

***

My lover’s English name was William. It was I who named him after the great bard as his speech was equally poetical. And he called me Of the Sea in his language because of my green eyes and the manner in which I had surfaced into his world.

For as the sun is daily new and old

He is my love still telling what is told.                

Sonnet 76, dear reader.

                                                ***

“This is a love crush,”  Constance said. “End it before you are discovered.”

                                                ***

Once I took him to our chapel to pray his own prayers between the whitewashed walls. Devoid of any ornament, their very austerity was threatening, and he left before the sermon was over. He had nothing to say about the Englishman’s chapel when next we met, or ever after, but I saw it most clearly through his eyes for the first time: the hard battle-ready pews, the naked dirt floors, the stern pulpit and our preacher in his somber black robe. “These heathens among us,” he began. There were perhaps ten natives in the congregation that day seated in the back pews. In truth, they had never been among us and never would be in Plymouth Colony.

***

“We are the chosen people divinely anointed,” Constance told me that day.

“Why then are we deprived of all pleasure?” I asked.

Outside the lush landscape beckoned to me. This land I loved because of its fecundity, I loved it.

***

“Where do you keep?” I asked William one day. But he did not understand the word “keep.” I was curious to witness his dwelling. Where did he reside when he left our fields to return to the forest?

For many moons he refused to take me there. His reluctance referred to my safety alone and the integrity of the treaty between our tribes. My defiance worried him greatly as his foresight and wisdom were larger than my own. But after much badgering, he led me to his weetu beyond the first swamp. It was one of several of varying sizes, a small village. Each house had a vegetable patch in front or back or to the side, capturing the sun’s angle. His own was not very large as he shared it only with his widowed mother. It was extremely clean and tidy. We sat cross legged on the matted floor and ate and spoke.  My stomach swelled, I knew I was with child.

Perhaps my life would have been different if I had remained in William’s weetu that day. I wanted to stay, most assuredly, but William insisted otherwise.

                                                   ***

Soon enough, I was called to account in front of the elders. They demanded full disclosure of my sinning, where it had transpired and with whom. Their accusations against me were predictable. Had I been raped by one of the recently arrived lustful young strangers? Or been tempted by him? If I had been raped against my will, I need only point to the perpetrator and I would be saved.

“There is no perpetrator,” I said.

It was Constance who betrayed me. The ferocity of the elders’ interrogations was too great for her fragility. “No doubt William is a spy,” she said, “and Gabrielle complicit in his deception.”

The next morning, my lover’s head was on a pike outside the palisade.

                                                 ***

My punishment was shunning. No one was permitted to speak to me or of me.  Only Elizabeth remained steadfast and courageous on my behalf.

                                                ***

And so I left Plymouth Colony behind. I knew that the Dutch colony—its houses, taverns, and shops—would  in some respects resemble Leiden. I knew the language ; it had always doubled with the English tongue. We would be welcome in a safe haven as our families had been so many years ago when they fled from England to The Netherlands. We would not be shunned or punished.

We were taken at once to the  Beverwijck Orphanage, the orphanmaster, Johan, in attendance. The house was far from the landing, north into the growing fields overlooking the river. We traveled by horse and cart over Beaver’s Path, a rough road carved out of forest and fields. Children ran freely everywhere and the streets and hillocks echoed with their laughter and play. I was reminded of my own happy childhood in Leiden and collapsed into a contentment I had not known in many months. Even the elders of the Dutch Church were amiable in a gruff, wry way.  I was with child out of wedlock and therefore required guidance and protection, they said.  And what did they mean by this?  That though I was no longer young, I was still in many ways innocent. I had little education beyond the scriptures and there was more, so much more, for a woman to learn. Had I read Spinoza? Had I read Descartes, committed the verse of Shakespeare to memory? No, I had not.

And so the schoolhouse became my cathedral.

                                          ***

My son and my daughter were born in November under clear, cool skies. The stars were propitious, Venus ascendant.  My waters broke at dawn as I was sweeping the flagstone porch. I was calm. I woke Johan and he sent for the midwife. Soon all the orphans were up and about, drawing water, preparing the birthing chair and the bed with fresh linens for lying-in, holding my hand, walking me in the garden as distraction from the labor. And what an apt word that is for woman’s work. It took twelve hours to release my children into the world.

***

Non anse, a sucking child.  Muckquachuckquemese, a little boy. Squasese, a little girl.  Tackqiuwock, twins. Dear William, please forgive me. I will, for convenience, give our children English names: John after Johan, the gentle orphanmaster here, and Ariel for our spritely little girl.

                                                ***

The children required a new teacher. I was unschooled and had argued this often. I reiterated what the church elders had said to me. I did not know enough to educate others. But my master did not heed my argument. I became a teacher.

                                      ***

In New Netherland, the weather was hotter in August and September than in Plymouth colony and fevers more prevalent. Its influence upon all of us, animal and vegetable, are worthy of notice as I write. Moschetoes abounded, as always in sickly seasons; grasshoppers covered the ground, worse when the weather cooled and then heated again in late autumn. Death turned every corner, day and night, and took the youngest children away most quickly. The appearance of a white frost as the leaves began to turn was most welcome. Its effects upon the fever were obvious and general. It declined, in every part of the colony. 

***

And so the next ten years passed  peacefully without molestation for my transgressions or that of others. Only scoundrels and thieves were punished in New Amsterdam. Those that survived the epidemics grew old together. I was not coerced in my religion. The children were schooled properly. The wars with the tribes subsided; soldiers and Lenape entered the colony again with their families, their skills, their herbs and corn, their hand-crafted baskets and clothes, their wisdom. The markets expanded to include more traders and the slavers multiplied. And though the colony became rougher because of them, and the taverns bawdier, this did not affect the contentedness of our daily lives. Representatives from New England met with representatives from New Amsterdam and there was peace between our colonies. Ships arrived from Brazil with refugees from the Inquisition. There were now Jews in the colony, Germans, Swedes, and many other nationalities, all living together, working together and marrying one another. It was not a life I could have foreseen in my youth in Plymouth colony with its cold, constricted opinions of right and wrong, its  unbendingness.

When the English took over the colony they assured everyone we would not be molested, that we could work and live together as one. Their prognostication was well-meaning, but also conditional. Everything was dependent on our will which, long ago, I had learned was both wavering and corrupt. A man’s greed is like a mirror that swallows its own tongue.

______________________________________________________________________________

Carol Bergman’s articles, essays, and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, Cosmopolitan, and Salon.com. Her essay, “Objects of Desire,” was nominated for the Pushcart Prize; her short stories have appeared in many literary magazines. She is the author of biographies of Mae West and Sidney Poitier, a memoir, Searching for Fritzi,  and two books of novellas, Sitting for Klimt and Water Baby, two novels, Say Nothing and What Returns to Us and The Nomads Trilogy, a collection of flash fiction. She compiled and edited Another Day in Paradise; International Humanitarian Workers Tell Their Stories, nominated for Columbia University’s J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize. She lives in New Paltz, NY and teaches writing at New York University.

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Shunned

Iceni Queen

This is a black land. The caked earth is black from the blood spilled for suppression and spite. The trees are black for no birds sing, deafened as they are by the cries of pain. The sky is black as winter approaches and all hope seems lost. The smell of death pervades our lives.

Before I was born the Romans invaded our land and my father, as king of our tribe, the Iceni, surrendered with other tribal kings to the Emperor Claudius. Father was always a peacemaker, my mother says. To secure our independence, he swore loyalty to the oppressors. In return for the taxes we pay to Rome, they allow us to live on our own land.

My mother tells me she remembers my father whispering to her, “I have thought of a way to protect you from Roman rule, if anything should happen to me.”

“How,” she asks him.

“I will make a will and leave half my estates to the new Emperor, Nero, and the other half to you and our girls. Nero will allow you to continue to reign and manage the land so the three of you will be safeguarded.”

My sister, Latis, myself and my mother Boudicea, make sure my father remains healthy because we are not as sure as he is that any Roman is honourable. The local tax collectors are dishonest. My father, King Prasutagas, knows because even though the money leaves here paid in full, it is he who must make good the frequents shortfalls. He just pays again. He chooses not to see the violence carried out by legionnaires who run amok in our land. Beatings, killings, and rapes. The governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, cannot control his own troops. The Romans blood lust, dishonesty and ineffectual governing strengthen my resolve to resist these conquerors. They, however, continue to try and impose their will by military strength.

I am Minerva, daughter of King Prasutagas and Queen Boudicea, and at this time I am maddened with rage. My mother says all thirteen-year olds are angry. However, she acknowledges I have a right to be furious today for she is too. The Romans have killed my father, you see.

* * * * *

Despite our father’s allegiance to Rome and his will leaving half our estates to Nero, the Romans seize all our land now he is gone. They plunder the house and take all they can carry. Gone are our coins, our silverware, our pottery. Gone is our winter store, our land and our people who work on it. They do more. They do worse. My mother confronts the Roman overlords for stealing our property and they seize the opportunity to humiliate and dishonour us. For her protestations they strip and publicly flog her. I watch and my heart cries for her. I feel her pain and her shame. I do not let her see my pity. She is a proud woman. How dare they flog the Queen of the Iceni, I shout in my head. My only response is to remain stoic. So, I stand superior and strong and face the enemy. I will not give them the pleasure of seeing my distress.

Latis and I are beaten and raped over and over, by Roman slaves. As if we are less than slaves. I am in agony but I do not make a sound. I hear Latis as she whimpers. I would have thought that Roman slaves would have some pity for our plight, mistreated as they are by their masters. They do not. They know nothing but cruelty so they deal the same to us. It is rare they are allowed to mete out any punishment and they revel in this opportunity to debase princesses of the Royal House. Our attendants carry us home for we cannot walk.

Our mother’s skin is torn and raw and her women attend to her wounds with tears of compassion and regret rolling down their cheeks. Her back hurts and, unable to find rest, she winces with every sting and stab. The passion to settle scores keeps me going. Some day it will boil over.

“You are just children and are ruined,” she murmurs. Yes, it’s true and our ongoing worry is they have ruined our wombs or maybe left Roman babies there. I won’t consider douching as I am still healing, but I ask for a potion. Latis says she will cope, come what may.

“We will heal,” Latis says and reaches for mother’s hand.

Because we are vulnerable Latis thinks we should flee, but she does not say this. Because we are violated, I think, we should fight but I do not say that either. Not in so many words.

“The physical injury will heal,” I tell her. “But, if you can, give us some hope to relieve the heartache.” My mother looks at me and smiles. I think she recognises the strength she passed on to me.

“I promise you,” she says through clenched teeth, “I will avenge the betrayal and infamy brought on our family. The reason we are spared is to fight another day.”

“We stand by you, mother, and together we will face what must be done.” I tell her, yearning to fight.

“My girls, you give me spirit,” she declares. “We are on our own now your father is dead, but we have support. The Iceni tribe have the courage of ten Roman legions.”

“Yes, as soon as we are healed we will strike back,” I say and mother seethes, “For my daughters honour I must have redress. For my daughters future, I will rise up. For the death of my husband and their brutality to us, I will repay the Romans. I will not rest until the Romans are crushed.” She reaches for a large hard apple on the table and with dark eyes that burn into our souls, she squeezes it until it squashes through her fingers.

We three need the winter months to recover before we attempt revenge. In the meantime, our mother, Queen Boudicea, starts to plan.

* * * * *

My mother’s most faithful attendant whispers, “They have taken much, my Queen, but I buried your jewellery. They have not taken that. I have it for you.”

“Branigian, you are a dear friend,” she says and softens her usually strident voice. “The only one who would have thought of it. Bring it and let me see.”

The attendant offers the box. Her hair adornments lie on top. She passes over the bone and wood combs and selects one with white stones that glisten in the shaft of spring sunlight shining through the window. She hands it to Branigian who curls her hair off her face and holds it in place with the comb.

Beneath the combs is our mother’s torque, made by Sumerian artisans, and given to her by King Prasutagas as a betrothal gift. “This I hold very close to my heart,” she sighs and hugs it to her chest before placing it around her neck. “And this,” she declares holding aloft the large fibula our father bought for us to give to her, “was always my favourite.” We know well the big clasp, our gift to her at the celebration of her birth month in her thirtieth summer. It is large and shiny yellow, the metal they call gold, with intricate lacing around the edges and a green central stone. It is very striking and she wears it often to fasten her cloak. She finds the rings she commissioned from Egypt and places some on her fingers, and shows us.

“Now I feel like the Queen of the Iceni,” she says, happier than I have seen her since the death of my father.

“You are a striking woman, my Queen,” says Branigian and we smile. Branigan has found the words drifting around our minds.

Mother reaches into the box and selects a silver wristlet with small blue shimmering stones. “This is the one you favour, Branigian,” she says, “but it is too small for my large wrist. I’d like you to have it.”

Branigian does like this piece. When the Queen asks her to select jewellery, Branigian is sure to include it. However, stunned by value of the gift and unsure whether to accept it, she searches for the correct words. My mother laughs. “If you say no, I shall be displeased. If you take it and wear it, I shall be pleased.”

The attendants leave and she turns to us. My beautiful sister, Latis, is fourteen years of age, one year older than me. Her jet-black piercing eyes, like mother’s, make her look defiant but it is a mask. She has father’s calm qualities. Her pride is her lustrous hair that falls to her waist. Our mother hands her two pearl clustered combs that will look stunning in her dark locks.

“These pieces were fashioned in Wessex,” mother tells her. “Wear them with pride because you were conceived when the king and I visited Cerdic of Wessex to discuss alliances.” Latis bows her head in gratitude.

I am named for a Roman Goddess, Minerva. I dislike the name because of its association with the Romans. My father, however, saw my name as another way to demonstrate assimilation into Roman culture. Unlike Latis, I am a warrior. I am tall like mother and my hair is the same colour as hers: the shade of the big copper beech in autumn. She hands me a silver necklace with greenish-blueish beads.

“This will compliment your colouring and your hair,” she says. “It comes from Persia where they mine it in the Alimersai Mountains.”

“Thank you, mother,” I say, “but why give away your jewellery now?”

She is direct with us. “We head into battle and do not know if we will defeat the enemy or die on the field. I would ask that you wear the jewellery because if we perish I want the victors to know we are the rulers of this land. I want a proper burial. They may afford us that small tribute.”

* * * * *

We rise early. No one can sleep. A mix of edginess, excitement, and elation fills the air. The horses are restless as our people make ready to leave. The women who fight alongside the menfolk, paint blue stripes across their cheeks and blacken their eyes. Mother is quiet. Latis is sick.

We dress with care. Our mother adorns herself with her betrothal torque, a gold armband and her copper crown. She ties a red belt around the waist of her dark blue woollen tunic. Her cloak of pale blue, with red and yellow flashes, is swept high to one side and fastened with the large gold fibula we gifted to her. Her reddish hair falls, thick and wavy, down her back below her hips. Latis and I take similar care. She dresses in shades of grey and I am in green. We wear our jewellery as instructed.

Boudicea stands tall in her war-chariot, fitted with scythe blades on both wheels to disable enemy chariots as we pass. The chariot is pulled by two palomino horses and as impatient as Boudicea to be off, they shake their blonds manes, snort, stomp and try to rear up. We take our places slightly behind the Queen, I on her right holding a dagger and on her left is Latis, looking fearful. She has a right to be fearful. She rides into battle with a baby in her belly.

Mist hovers over the camp when, just as dawn breaks, Boudicea takes her javelin in her right hand and steers her chariot between our fighting men and women.

“She is a fierce, wild woman,” I hear someone say.

“No, I am a wild woman,” answers a woman. “She is a warrior queen.”

They listen to Boudicea’s shrill voice as she tells them they have been enslaved long enough; that they do this for their daughters, their sons; that this is a fight for deliverance from our enemies.

“These Romans do not know to fear us,” she shrieks. “Today we will show them their error. Today they will see our strength and solidarity. Today we will trample on their pride and arrogance.”

When a rooster announces daybreak, they roar. Everyone recognises the sign of good luck. 

“Have fortitude, good women and men, for we shall win our freedom.” 

They cheer more and their excitement is infectious. The Trinovantes, Iceni allies to the south, have joined the revolt and when hear the jubilation they call out their praise. All are pleased to pick up their weapons and follow Boudicea on the road to Colchester.

Now an established Roman outpost the former Trinovantian capital, Colchester, is detested because of its Temple to Claudius built with our money while our families scraped a living. Colchester defenses are poor and it is easy to kill and slaughter as many Romans as dwell here. They are mostly old; old enough to have injured and slaughtered our people and vandalised what we own. We have no pity. We mutilate the dead bodies, destroy the temple, behead a statue of Nero, and burn the city. The victory increases our optimism. After two days we are spent but still able to drink the Roman’s ale and good wine in celebration.

That evening, we three women go round the troops and rally them for the morrow. The ninth division, we hear, is heading this direction and we must prepare. Our fighters, boosted by success and the liquor, are ready to take on all of the Roman empire.

We meet the enemy on the road. The appearance of charging, shrieking tribal women terrifies the soldiers. They fall back and we defeat them without many losses. As we advance towards London, some on foot, some riding the horses we liberate, we welcome other oppressed tribes who join us along the way. All eager to have their day.

The Governor Suetonius hears of the rebellion and reaches London before us. Seeing it is impossible to defend with his limited troops he departs with his army. When we hear this news, we are joyful and energised. The Roman army is falling to the right and to the left without combat. We are unchallenged when we enter London and burn it to the ground. Boudicea is as bitter as any man and shows no mercy for the young, old, women or children.

“I am ashamed,” says Latis when she sees the bodies of children left on the ground for scavengers and those of high-born women impaled on stakes.

“All this desecration carried out in the name of revenge.”

“Shameful deeds necessitate revenge,” I counter.

“Shameful deeds try to justify revenge when forgiveness might be as effective.”

I will have the last word. “Well, we can forgive them now they are dead.”

* * * * *

Next morning, we meet with Boudicea to discuss the news that Suetonius has increased the number of his troops and is now heading this way. As we plan, a small bird flies into the tent and flutters around, looking for a way out. Silence descends.

“This is a bad omen,” Boudicea says.

I too know this superstition. “It’s only a bird that’s lost.” I tell my mother and sister but both look troubled.

“That’s just what the omen portends,” my sister answers. “It is telling us we are lost and must prepare for change, or death.”

As I sweep the bird out, I catch their fear. Boudicea tells us, “We have been lucky at Colchester, London and St Albans but I need to know what each of you will do if we are not so lucky in the next fight. Latis what will you do?”

“I will try to escape, Mother. I want to wed and make a good life for the child, I carry,” she answers and places a hand on her stomach.”

“I like that,” mother answers. “It’s good to know our blood line will continue. If you can, take Branigian and some others with you.” Latis nods. “And, what will you do Minerva? Are you of the same mind?”

“No. Either victorious or defeated, I will stay to the end. I will remain on the battlefield and fight to the death. It is what I must do to vindicate the death of father, punish them for what they did to you, and have atonement for the rubbish they forced into my body. Whether we live or die this battle will dignify our house and honour the Iceni tribe once more.”

“Your dedication does you justice, Minerva. Your father would be proud of you. I am proud of you.” I smile when I hear her say that for her praise is rare.

“What will you do, Mother?” Latis asks after a pause.

“I will fight with every ounce of my being, but if we are overpowered I must get away from the field. I cannot be taken alive because the Romans will use my downfall and subsequent torture to supress our tribes. I will try to return here to camp and get help. Should I not be successful in escaping I will take poison. My attendants have instructions to bury or burn my body.”

The sense of uncertainty hangs in the air. We planned for success and planned for defeat. We are ready. The three of us hold hands, then hug. We say our goodbyes, leave the tent and rally the tribal warriors. They are eager for further wins. Many have grown prosperous exploiting the spoils of war. Such stories as will be told in years to come.

Boudicea climbs into our war-chariot. Latis and I climb in behind and call to all around us, conveying camaraderie and expectation we do not feel. They wave back, believing in their certain success and cheer us as we ride out at great speed.

Boudicea’s hair lifts in the wind and flies behind her.

____________________________________________________________________________

Vivien Hollis was born in N. Ireland and now lives in Canada. She visits England and Ireland each year for immersion in history and craic. Having retired as a professor at the University of Alberta she returned to her first passion, fiction writing. Vivien is a member of the Strathcona Writers Foundation. A number of her short stories are published. Speak up was published online in The Galway Review and selected for the printed edition, Galway Review 7.  Hard Life was awarded an Honourable Mention and published in 2016 by Canadian Tales, Red Tuque, (IBSN 978-1-927049-05-1). See her website. Vivien Hollistorical short stories she is working on her first historical novel.

Posted in Historical Fiction | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Iceni Queen