Tag Archives: historical fiction

Ghost in the Bathroom

The little girl slipped out of the church when they brought forth the scrapwood coffin. Through the tawny windowlight, she watched as the long box of splintered planks clumsily jounced atop a garland of brown hands flayed raw by sand and sun. From the evening dark beyond the surrounding fence crowned with machine guns and sentry huts, the frantic yips of starving dessert wolves sounded from the belly of a gloomy arroyo, their whimpers high and sharp like a tribe of lost children. The little girl turned and ran between the wide empty firebreaks to her barrack, desperately trying not to think about the man who had fallen.

He had been the first to die in the camp. A young Nissei on a construction detail. An accident by all accounts. The little girl had seen a small crowd quickly gather near a pile of joists and studs at the base of the unfinished theater. She abandoned her game of jacks and wandered over to see what had happened, what absurdity lurked at the center of the serried throng able to diffuse the same solemn stare over all who looked upon it. By the time she pushed her way through, the stirred desert dust from the plummet had settled and the Issei hoarsely chanted in a sacred Japanese meant only for monks and poets. The dead man lay stiff and still, caked in a grainy red film. Above, frayed ropes hung from the broken scaffold and swayed like lazy spider legs in the hot wind. The body was bent in odd ways, a heaped and tangled mass of human angles. His hands were crammed beneath his chest, arms crushed and flaccid like the wings of a baby bird. His legs were spread and contorted, his right knee jerked high like a sprinters’ as though he were edging through a jagged finish line of loose nails and rusty scrubweed. The alderman for the dead man’s barrack block stepped forward and squat next to the body. He spat into dirt and shook his head and looked blankly beyond the fence. He decided the guard would have to be bribed for there to be a ceremony. That the mess hall would have to be consecrated. That another man’s help would be needed to move the corpse before the buzzards caught scent. Dorothy stepped back from the gathering and covered the beginning of a smile she could not stop from spreading. Against her will, she had thought the dead man looked as though he were dancing and hated herself for thinking such a thing. She pinched her arm hard and prayed for God’s forgiveness.

Curled under her tick-straw cot in the darkened barrack, Dorothy formed little piles of sand and told herself a tale about a young pharaoh and a magic horse who could gallop across the waters of the Nile. The story made her less afraid and gave new purpose to the powdery sand that always managed to get into her eyes and mouth and clothes despite how hard her mother tried to keep it outside. The front door exploded open with a heavy crash. Dorothy’s older brother stepped out of the blue night into the tiny greenpine chamber.

“Think you can run off huh? Think you can get away from having to sit through that funeral?”

“No Tom, no. I don’t want to see that man again. I don’t want to see him in that box, and I don’t care if I get in trouble. I don’t want to see that man again.”

Tom’s tie was loose, his collar wilted. He was almost fourteen and already taller than both of his parents. He was lanky, acned, and missed pitching for his junior high baseball team. His thin mustache was thickened by the dark of the room.

“You know,” said Tom, “I followed you out here to bring you back to the funeral. Mom and Dad’s orders. But as I was walking, I saw the ghost, like Obachan said. I saw his ghost, his y?rei in the bathroom.”

“No you didn’t!” Dorothy cried, “no you didn’t and you are just trying to scare me.”

“I saw him, sticking his broken arms and twisted neck out of the window. All that dust still on him.”

“Shut up!” Dorothy burrowed her head between her arms, tears dampening the frilled sleeves of her only church blouse, “Please go away, please!”

“Mom and Dad told me to bring you back. But I have a better idea. I’m gonna have you pay your respects to the ghost himself.” Tom grabbed both of Dorothy’s legs and dragged her from under the cot. She screamed and beat her hands against the floor. Tom let go of her ankles and covered her mouth. “Quiet,” he angrily hissed, “you stay quiet or I’ll throw you off that scaffold like him.” He hove Dorothy over his shoulder and stepped back out into the night.

The younger children had not gone into the bathrooms since the fall. None of them wanted to be the one cornered by the ghost while they were relieving themselves. In the days since, the oldest Issei claimed they had seen the y?rei in camp. Sometimes he was sitting on the benches around the gardens. Sometimes he walked along the fence passing his hand through the barbs in the wire. Sometimes he took the form of the snakes and scorpions that wriggled up through barrack floors when the days were hottest. But most times, it was agreed, most times he was in the bathroom.

The camp was quiet and solemn. The lights from the distant mess hall windows punched square holes into the dark while a cotton-eyed moon ogled from a vaulted cobalt sky. As they neared the bathroom, a tattered shroud of cirrus crept across the moon’s lambent glare and the remaining sprays of copper stars flickered weakly. 

Dorothy punched furiously. Her mouth was still covered and she bawled into the salty callouses of her brother’s hand. Tears streamed down her cheeks and pasted plaited locks of hair against her skin. Her shoes flew off as she kicked his back and slapped his cheeks but Tom only held her tighter.

Out of the dark, the bathroom materialized and its torn shreds of tarpaper lapped the desert wind like a long black tongue. The crooked door flew open and hit the side of the latrine with a slap.

Tom shoved his sister inside and held the knob. Dorothy frantically beat her fists against the wood, her weary brittle shouts rattling and crumbling inside her throat like dry autumn leaves. Through the pitch dark, a cold gust blew from the empty stalls. The slivered boards moaned in pain and between the low drumming of her balled fists, the dulled clink of dragged metal rung from behind like broken bells. Dorothy thrust her shoulder into the wood, driving with all her weight, but the door did not budge. She sunk to her knees and pushed her head against the planks. “Here he comes,” Tom whispered through the slats, “here he comes.” Dorothy closed her eyes and pressed them into the palm of her hands.

The dead man danced limply in her head.

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Christopher Berardino is a writer of Japanese-American descent from Orange County, CA. He received an MFA in Fiction from Cornell University in 2018. He has completed his first novel, Infamy, about the oft-forgotten Japanese Internment Camps. Selections from this novel won the Truman Capote Writer’s Award. Additionally, he has won Cornell’s Arthur Lynn Andrew’s Award for his short story “Dog Bait.” His work has previously appeared Connu Magazine, and Flash Fiction Magazine

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Rembrandt, Self-Portrait with Saskia

The old master studies the canvas for a long moment, then reaches out with shaking hands. He cuts away an excess of cobalt, his knife leaving a sharp shadow at the base of the tall cloud painted against the ultramarine sky. His student, used to such corrections, only nods his understanding, immediately applying his brush elsewhere.

The master’s own canvas is only half-finished, rough layers of oil over a charcoal sketch that he almost hadn’t needed to make. He’s painted this landscape before. He remembers silvered clouds in a butter-yellow sky. The windmill that dominates the scene was new, its sails full as it caught the wind. Today the structure is tired, its doorways seeming to list and sag, its sailcloth panels torn, exposing the latticework beneath. Even the tulips in the foreground, a river of red and white that undulates in the breeze off the canal, even they are not the tulips of thirty years ago. Those were so exquisite they could shatter a soul. More than one man had been broken by that blossom; today’s flowers seem barely to hold even the shadow memory of such beauty.

The serving woman wraps a cloak around his shoulders. The old master pulls it tight, hands too gnarled to be only sixty-two, he thinks. They can still hold a brush, still earn a living, and for that he’s grateful, but he remembers the hands of his youth, smooth and fine-boned, dexterous enough to paint all day without tiring. This April is mild, but his joints are sensitive to the smallest chill, and today they ache as though they were eighty.

The flapping of a tablecloth in his periphery catches his notice; the woman has set out the dinner of cold chicken and vegetables. His students, only two now – he stopped taking boys three years before – pause their work, eager for food and conversation after so many hours silently painting. The master stays by his easel, but takes a plate when offered. He eats the bread, only picking at the drumstick and asparagus. Food is not the joy it once was. But nothing is, really.

Once again he remembers that yellow sky and the girl who brought his meal then. Saskia. Only twenty-two, the cousin of a patron and so beautiful. “You are losing the light, sir,” she’d said to him that day, setting her basket on the ground. She’d knelt then, paying no heed to the damp grass on her pale green chintz. She studied his drawing. “Melancholic,” she said simply, gazing at his work. “Are you sad?”

Her voice was low, that scratch of laughter always there, even when speaking of melancholy. He admired the spill of red-gold hair from beneath her linen cap, her plump cheeks aglow from the cold spring air. “I cannot be sad, in such company,” he told her. It sounded cavalier, and he hoped she did not suspect him false.

“I’ve come with your supper,” she told him, “but I would stay to watch you work, if you allow it.” She tugged her fur-lined cloak close around her chin and settled onto the grass, fully expecting to stay.

He had known her but a fortnight, but it had been like this from the first, each seeking reasons to find the other, to linger thereafter. Over those weeks, they’d simultaneously exchanged insignificant conversation and meaningful glances, until he was certain that there was understanding between them, though no words to any such effect had been uttered. “I will not deny you,” he told her that day beside the windmill, “though you may wish I had. Sketching can be dull work.”

She smiled then, a radiant, impish grin, exposing a dimple and a flash of teeth. For long minutes they sat, he drawing, she watching, the supper forgotten. From the canals, the barge-men called, the mules brayed, and above them all, the sails of the windmill creaked.

“Are you not known for your portraits, sir?” she asked at long last, just as he lay a deep shadow beneath the bank of the canal. “Surely there is no living to be made in etchings of landscapes, lovely though they are?”

He looked at her fondly, so young and yet already so practical. “There is time enough to make money. This, I make for love.”

And here, here she looked up, her eyes wide and dark, her hair tossed by the wind. His heart staggered, for she had never looked more beautiful. “Are there not portraits,” she asked softly, “which are also made for love?”

For the first time, he was bold enough to take her hand. She did not flinch at the dark smudges of charcoal and chalk; she only looked into his eyes, waiting. “I would paint your face,” he told her.

Now, years later, the old master pulls paper from his bundle, his hands shaking as fingers search for chalk. He closes his eyes, remembering her face, just as it was in that moment. His pupils’ chatter fades, the feel of the sun on his face diminishes, and once more it’s a yellow, overcast day.

He draws the curve of her cheek, a bold crescent of red chalk that meets the sweeping line of her jaw. His fingers no longer tremble; the spring damp no longer seems to gnaw. More than twenty-five years have passed since he’d last drawn the planes and shadows of her face, but still his hands know them. In bold strokes and fine lines, she comes to life for him, her mouth laughing, her face framed in a fur-lined hood.

“Saskia.” His voice rumbles, low and ancient. There have been other women, each dear in her way, but now, as time weighs heavier upon him than mere years, it’s her voice he remembers, her face he would paint for love.

______________________________________________________________________________

Angela Teagardner is a bookseller for pay but a writer for passion. She lives with her little family in a little house in Columbus, Ohio.  

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The Emperor’s Cloak

Chana opens the front door to look up at the ancient elm, hoping the storks have returned, but the nest is empty. Instead she is alarmed to see a cloud of dust in the distance. She hears the clatter of hooves on cobblestones. Minutes later, a mounted soldier enters the narrow dirt road that leads from the market to their house and beyond to the cemetery along the river, where the storks must be feeding now. The horse pulls up abruptly in front of her, its flanks heaving. The man wears the light gray uniform of a Polish cavalry officer, his cocked hat adorned with a tricolor ribbon. He is young and earnest with an impressive mustachio.

“Is this the home of Rebbe Dovid Biderman the tzaddik?” he asks in heavily accented Yiddish.

“So it is, God be thanked,” she replies in Polish.

He smiles. “You are Pani Biderman, yes? I am Lieutenant Major Anton Lubienski. I require an audience with the esteemed Seer of Lelov.”

She hesitates. “I cannot disturb the evening prayers.”

“Please, it is a matter of great urgency.”

“No one may interrupt his discourse with the divine,” she says, frowning.

“Of course not, but may I see him as soon as possible?”

“What is your great haste?”

He dismounts and lowers his voice.

“I can only say that in a few hours he will be visited by a very high official. Anything else is for his ears alone.”

She nods. “He may grant you an audience after sundown, though I cannot guarantee it.”

“Where can I stable and feed my horse, meanwhile?”

She points down the street toward the river. “The large gray shed at the end.”

He turns to go, then stops and faces her again. “I have long wanted to meet the rebbe,” he says almost tenderly. “My mother told me his blessing is the reason I exist.”

“Who is your mother, young man?”

“Countess Elzbieta Lubienskaya.”

She regards him thoughtfully. “Stable your horse and come right back. You’ll need food and drink, yourself.”

***

Chana reflects meanwhile upon the joys and sorrows of matrimony.

Seven children still alive, two dead in infancy, alleva shalom. At least two dozen grandchildren, she’s lost count.

She is a pious woman married to a saint. Their marital bed is as close as she’ll ever come to understanding the ecstatic joy of the communal prayers she listens to through a closed door.

“You are the embodiment of the Shechinah, the bride of Elohim,” her husband still reminds her most nights, though they are older and feebler now. But carnal pleasure does not suffice. When he cries out in his sleep in a voice suffused with love and yearning she knows he longs for union with the Holy One.

When she was a young, naïve bride she wondered why a tzaddik’s wife would not be permitted to join in the mystical devotions of his followers. “Are we not all embodiments of Shechinah?” she asked him. “All the men and women and children, too? What about the trees and birds and cows and horses?”

He had instructed her gently. “What a pagan you are,” he’d teased.

She learned of the false messiah Sabbatai Levi and his alleged reincarnation Jakub Frank, in whose kabbalistic sect men and women worshipped together. Hounded and persecuted, Sabbati wound up converting to Islam and Frank, to Christianity. The goyim, too, viewed Frank with suspicion. He’d been imprisoned in the nearby monastery of Cz?stochowa for thirteen years.

“I want to fill our people with the joy of God, not with rage against their own,” he told her.

***

My husband gives any groszy that comes his way to people even poorer than we. He brims with love and compassion, especially for children and animals, and even for brutish transgressors. The first miracle was he’d not been swallowed up by the world and spit out in pieces. Other miracles followed, small and large.

Women who were barren bore children, blessed be Elohim. The countess was one such, bewigged and bejeweled, down on her knees with clasped hands in that small dark room. Only when women came into his study was I permitted to witness my husband’s connection with the divine, the devkurut. He thought it fitting then for me to partake and assist. When he gestured for the countess to get off the floor and sit in a chair, I helped her up. I brought her a cup of tea. She sipped it eagerly, as if it were a magic potion, and the hand that held the cup trembled.  Her face was pale white with a hectic flush in her cheeks.

She told me that if she could not produce a child, her marriage would be annulled.

I prayed alongside Dovid, focusing on the holy letters as he’d taught me. They glimmered, as always, in my mind’s eye, elusive as minnows in the river. The countess watched us both in wonderment. But I shouldn’t have noticed her watching. I should have been transported like Dovid to a higher realm, if I truly wanted to help her.

Some twenty years later here is her much desired son knocking at our door. I played a small role in his creation, did I not? I invite him into the kitchen to wait for the evening prayers to conclude.

I light a fresh candle and put it on the table next to a steaming cup of tea and our best, albeit cracked, china plate with two slices of dark buttered rye bread and a small piece of cheese.

His skin is pale like his mother’s, his hair flaxen. He wipes his forehead with the back of one hand and thanks me. I think he might be perspiring from every pore. He looks around the kitchen at our simple furniture, the walls bare of décor, and he anxiously studies the floor, which is hard-packed dirt covered with reed mats.

Now that we are not out on the street talking, he tells me who will be visiting and why. It is no wonder he is so nervous.

Thanks to his mother’s influence, Anton is aide-de-camp to Prince Józef Poniatowski, Commander of the Polish Vistula Legion under the French emperor. I can imagine his mother’s delight when she reads his letters describing the splendid banquets in Dresden. There he sat at a long table with their Imperial Majesties Napoleon and Marie Louise, along with a bevy of other royals subject to the imperial crown, in the palace of the King of Saxony.

“After the feasts, there were diplomatic negotiations every night until dawn,” he explains. The women left the banquet hall and the men drank cognac and smoked cigars. Though no one ever said so, it was clear to Anton that the emperor was uneasy. He’d rather negotiate with the Tsar than fight him. No one knew exactly what Napoleon planned to do next.

To lighten his master’s mood, Anton mentioned the Seer of Lublin and other mystical tzaddikem of les Juifs. Most westerly and closest to the emperor’s projected route was the very rebbe whose intercession Anton’s mother had sought.

“I told him I’m the living proof of the rebbe’s powers.” He exhales a long sigh. “Perhaps I had one cognac too many.”

Before he could grasp what was happening, Anton was dispatched on this mission to arrange an appointment with the Seer of Lelov, with the emperor’s abbreviated entourage only a few hours behind him.

Anton also told Napoleon the Lelover rebbe is renowned for telling the future.

“I don’t know why I said that. Can he really predict the future?”

“Some people think so,” I say, and yearn to offer more. Except for the blond hair, he is much like my youngest boy, eager and impulsive with a lively mind.

“But what if he can only predict the future of crops or the prosperity of offspring?” He looks downcast. “That is not what concerns the emperor.”

I don’t know how to comfort him, other than to pour another cup of tea.

From down the hall we hear the wails and moans of prayer crescendo. In a while, a door opens and several men bid Dovid good night. Wearing long black cloth garments and saucer-shaped fur hats, they file by the kitchen, eyes averted.

I excuse myself and go into the hall to wait for my husband and let him know we have a guest.

***

Rebbe Dovid strides into the kitchen beaming. He has a flowing white beard, a face creased with wrinkles. His eyes are kindly, welcoming.

The old woman bids them good evening and disappears into another part of the house.

Anton explains his mission.

“I hope this is no imposition, sir. I am myself under orders, but you are not obliged.” Anton stumbles. He hadn’t meant to make such fine distinctions, only to guarantee an audience with the emperor and notify his mother’s benefactor of impending peril.

“I should hope for a positive forecast,” he tells the rebbe guardedly. “His Highness is notoriously quick-tempered.”

The rebbe shrugs. “I am but a vessel for the Word.”

A new moon scarcely lights the town when a one-horse gig accompanied by two mounted soldiers clatter past the ruins of the old city wall toward the tzaddik’s home. The village is mostly dark by now, but candles appear in a few windows and curious neighbors peer out. In their nest high atop the old elm, the storks stretch and flutter their wings.

A passenger climbs down from the carriage and waddles into the rebbe’s house, belly prominent, the saber on his hip almost as tall as he is. He too is wearing a Polish cavalry uniform with a long, gray cloak over his shoulders and head.

Chana stands quietly to one side, wiping her hands on an apron and wondering if one serves tea to an emperor. Anton and the other soldier follow close behind.

The rebbe is seated at a small desk piled with books and manuscripts. He does not stand when the visitors enter the study.

Chana isn’t sure what to do next and looks to her husband for a signal. Should she stay or absent herself from this audience?

She is pleased when Dovid puts up a hand, meaning stay.

It is only for genuine mystical communion, his true passion, that he requires the energy of devoted male followers. The so-called miracles are of a lesser order, verging on mundane. It is his service to the visible world and thus hers as well.

An awkward silence is broken by Anton, who announces their guest as the Liberator of Poland and Emperor of the French.

“I am honored,” the rebbe says. “Please have a seat.”

The aide rushes up with a chair and the emperor sits on the edge of it, staring intently at the alleged prophet and miracle-worker. He speaks quickly and quietly in a staccato French that neither the rebbe nor his wife understand. The room is otherwise silent, everyone’s attention focused absolutely on the little dark-haired man who seems coiled like a spring.

Anton translates into Polish. “I hope you deserve your reputation as a prophet, since I have journeyed out of my way to seek your counsel. I will reward you handsomely.”

The rebbe demurs. “I do not require compensation.”

The emperor looks around the room, frowns. “Your home could be made more comfortable. It is not welcoming.”

Chana thinks this remark ill suits Napoleon’s station. In her limited experience with the gentry, she has not yet encountered rudeness. She notes Anton’s discomfort. He may be the sole hereditary noble in the room.

Now the emperor talks about an anticipated war and the eventual liberation of Poland from Russia. Rumors have reached even the women in this shtetl of a huge multi-pronged army forming to the north. She thinks it likely that only Anton still believes in the ideals of the Revolution, for which the Grand Armée will allegedly be battling.

War is never a good idea, Chana is certain. Dovid, a gentle, bookish man, cannot or will not intercede with the Holy One on behalf of military or political ventures. But intercession is not what is desired.

“Should I march on Moscow?” the emperor asks, point blank.

Is the future foreordained? Can it ever be altered?

She prays at length with her husband for guidance. Even before he opens his eyes, two dark grieving pools, she feels the weight of his sorrow. She senses rather than sees the shadow over Anton.

“Do not go to Moscow,” the tzaddik says at last.

Anton repeats this in French.

The emperor draws himself up to his full height and glares at them.

“What is it you see?” he demands.

But Dovid shakes his head. “Nothing, I see nothing.”

“On what then do you base your advice to me?”

“The heavens are weeping.”

The emperor snorts. He barks out orders.

“You’d best pray that you are wrong,” Anton murmurs. “His Highness is not pleased.”

The entourage leaves as quickly as it came. Afterward it seems like a dream. Chana is up most of the night, sleepless and bewildered, while her husband sleeps as if dead. He has exhausted his reserves, she fears, with whatever dread vision seized him, and which in the end will likely make no difference to the course of events. If he is right, as usually he is, what will befall them? What will happen to that army? To Anton?

With the light of dawn, she gets out of bed and opens the shutters in the kitchen. She watches the two storks soar upward together toward the sun. That huge nest has been in the tree since before she was a girl and continuously occupied. L’chaim, she prays silently, to life. May there always be storks in Poland.

***

Autumn storms, following a scorching hot summer, turn the fields and roads to muddy quagmires. The harvest is poor. When the first ragged and exhausted soldiers limp through Lelov, Chana’s forebodings are confirmed. These are the lucky ones, she learns. The Grand Armée has been decimated by hunger, disease, frost.

Deep into winter after the storks and their fledglings are long gone, an Imperial two-horse carriage appears outside their home, again after nightfall. The emperor remains seated, while an aide pounds on their door.

He is a gaunt, young Polish officer with haunted eyes, holding a deep-red, gold-embroidered cloak that he presents to Chana. Inside the carriage she sees the emperor, his ghost-white face in shadows, staring straight ahead, peering perhaps into his future.

The officer explains His Majesty wants the tzaddik to know he was right about Moscow. The cloak is a gift in lieu of the compensation he’d previously refused. In another minute, the carriage has vanished into the night.

She brings the ankle-length cloak to her husband’s study and waits, as he is immersed in Talmudic commentary. He looks up startled.

“What shall we do with it?” she asks. It is luxurious velvet, the color of blood. It is not appropriate for clothing or curtains. It can’t be ignored.

“An emperor’s cloak,” he murmurs. “The Holy One must have His reasons.”

“Perhaps to remind us of the evil of war,” she suggests. She is thinking about Countess Lubienskaya whose son succumbed to typhus on the march to Moscow. Chana, too, grieves this terrible loss, the beautiful young life snuffed out.

Might the cloak somehow comfort the countess?

As if reading her mind, her husband says “Our duty is to learn its purpose here in our home or shul.

She considers this. A bold idea occurs to her. She hesitates, plunges ahead.

“Its purpose could be a Torah mantel. The old cloth cover is wearing thin.”

He strokes his beard, considering. “Some might object to the cloak’s origins,” he says.

“Cloaks preserve us from harm,” she counters. She runs one hand over the fabric, inspired. “It could remind us of the radiance of Schechinah.”

“And the futility of pride,” he adds, thoughtfully.

“I will sew the most beautiful mantel ever,” she promises him, and when he nods approval, is seized abruptly by inexplicable joy.

____________________________________________________________________________

Jo-Anne Rosen’s fiction has appeared over two dozen literary journals (e.g., The Florida Review, The Summerset Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel). She is a book and web designer living in Petaluma, California. What They Don’t Know (2015) is her first fiction collection. She also publishes an online literary journal at www.echapbook.com  and is co-editor of the Sonoma County Literary Update. See www.joannerosen.us for more information.

“The Emperor’s Cloak” was inspired by a recent visit to Poland where she learned that her 4th great-grandfather was a Hasidic rabbi who, legend has it, was consulted by Napoleon.

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Last Words

A ray of light reaches through the bars on the window and illuminates a chink of your face. I will carry this piecemeal image – eye scrunched shut, a miniature version of your late father’s nose, pink lips suckling an imaginary breast – with me to my executioner’s hands.

Our moments together are numbered, little one. You can’t comprehend that any more than I can, I know. You’ve kept me alive longer than I should have been. Pregnancy counts for something in these warped times, as does mother’s milk. Yes, I’ve done my job fattening you up for the Reich. Your cheeks are rosy. Your limbs robust. But another baby for the Führer you are not. I’ve clasped you close, whispered words you’ll never remember into your tiny ears. Be more. Resist. In all shades of darkness and dampness, I’ve told you about those who are still out there. I’ve spoken in codes, reassured you in Russian. I’ve equipped you as if you were eighteen years old, a new recruit, and not a helpless infant about to be handed over to a life that extends well beyond me. 

I pace around the cell, rocking you gently. Sometimes I count the paces, singing each step into a makeshift lullaby you might remember by chance someday. Perhaps on a rainy Tuesday a window cleaner will pass, humming a note, and you’ll feel the walls close in around you, see how the light falls through the bars across the glass, smell my milky odour, hear my voice. Broken. Determined. Mutti. 

A rat scurries from one of the corners; it stops in the middle of our confined space and eyes me as if it were my landlady and I’m behind on the rent. I want to stamp my feet, to chase it from my sight, but I turn my back and focus on you. You whimper. I kiss your forehead. Once. Twice. Three times. On and on and on. A kiss for every birthday I’ll miss. A kiss for every bruised knee and skinned elbow I won’t soothe. A kiss for every question you’ll have that will hang unanswered over the dining table until the time’s right and your grandmother spills forth what she can. 

I shift you in my arms, move you so your head rests beneath my chin, your fists clench against my chest. I listen to your breath, deep and drowsy, enjoy the roughness of your cradle cap against my skin. Your grandmother will have a remedy for that. She will have a remedy for everything, but my absence. You will go to her arms, grow up to her shoulders, cry in her lap. 

I sway to the sounds of the prison: the cough of the inmate next door, the shuffle of dirty feet across cold floors, the thud of metal on metal, the demands of the women who’ve not yet come to terms with their sentences. I have come to terms with mine. I know pleading with a madman is futile. I could wail and bang my wrists against the bars, but that would mean putting you down and I will not do that until they prise you from me white knuckle by white knuckle. 

That moment won’t be long now. I can hear the crunch of heels on concrete, the gait of someone with a purpose. The eager jangle of keys slipping from a pocket. I wonder how you will remember me, or, rather, think of me, for you won’t remember me, but you will know I existed: every child has a mother – dead or living. I hope when you hear my story, our story, that you’re sat in a better time. I hope you bombard your grandmother with questions that go beyond the colour of my eyes and my favourite pair of shoes. She will tell you all that, but you must ask her why I’m not there and don’t accept that I died in childbirth or during a bombing raid. Don’t accept that I was caught up with the wrong people, that I went against the Führer and got what I deserved, that the leaflets I dropped spread lies. The world around you is a lie, little one and if, by the time you have grown up to your grandmother’s shoulders, this country is still red, white, and black, you must find your people, our people, and do what I have done. Be proud of the resistance thrumming through your bloodline. But take extra care of your life. Always look twice and then look twice again. Take detours. Cross busy streets. Never pause. 

I turn at the screech of metal upon metal. The woman standing at the threshold inclines her head and extends her arms. You will go first. I hold you so we’re face to face. Your eyelids droop, saliva bubbles crowd the corners of your mouth. God bless, I say. I press my lips to the crinkle between your brows. Your weight slips from my hands. 

You cry. Yes, I know. You will bawl your way out of this place into the daylight. Your grandmother will shush and reassure you on the walk to the U-Bahn, kiss your forehead on the train, sing a lullaby as she carries you up the stairs to her apartment. And then you will quieten and your life will go on, I hope.

I clench my fists in mid-air, close my eyes to your reddened cheeks, and turn away. The warden’s breath strains with the act of calming your flailing limbs. I smile despite the sudden loneliness I feel. I will remember you, in the time I have left between now and the noose, as rebellious. 

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Emma Venables’ short fiction has recently featured in The Cabinet of Heed, MIR OnlineBarren MagazineThe Nottingham Review and Mslexia. Her first novel will be published by Stirling Publishing in 2020. 

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Warlight


Written by Michael Ondaatje

Review by Cecily Blench

‘We order our lives with barely held stories,’ says the narrator of Warlight. This astonishing new book from Michael Ondaatje is made up of snapshots from a number of connected lives that come in and out of focus, intermittently shadowy and full of bright light.

The English Patient (1992), the novel which shot Ondaatje to fame, dealt with the aftershocks of war, its damaged characters struggling to find their way once the heat of battle is over. In Warlight he returns to this theme; London in 1945 is starting to recover from the war, but for the narrator Nathaniel, then a curious teenager, and his older sister Rachel, the losses have only just begun.

In those days it was not unusual for parents to leave their children for extended periods, but Nathaniel’s parents, who announce that they are going to Singapore for a year, seem peculiarly blasé about the safety of their offspring, leaving them in the nominal care of a man known to the children as The Moth.

The Moth introduces them to a world of small-time criminality, filling their sitting room with dubious but likable characters including The Darter, who smuggles racing greyhounds into London on a canal barge. There is a great deal of fascinating background detail in the book, not least the intimate portrayal of post-war London, grimy and dimly lit but bustling with energy. The characters who swirl in and out of Nathaniel and Rachel’s lives are similarly carefully drawn, including the glamorous ethnographer Olive Lawrence who ‘steps out’ with The Darter for a time before disappearing East.

Their parents gone, the two teenagers begin to discover the wide world that awaits them. Nathaniel, with the self-interest of all teenagers, is too busy losing his virginity to a girl known as Agnes and helping The Darter with his illegal schemes to worry very much about where his parents are. He also fails to notice Rachel drifting away from him, and her life becomes another of the book’s mysteries.

The discovery of their mother Rose’s steamer trunk, so carefully packed with clothes suitable for Singapore, hidden in the cellar, is a shock. Has she gone abroad at all? Where is she, if not in Singapore? And where is their father? Does it matter?

The scenes from their youth are interspersed with chapters that take place fifteen or so years later. Nathaniel, now working in the Foreign Office archives department, is tentatively beginning to unravel some of the mysteries that marked his teenage years, including the abrupt reappearance of his mother and a violent clash that led to Rachel’s permanent estrangement.

Shadowy figures weave in and out of the action – a market gardener, a Balkan assassin, and man called Marsh Felon, who knew Rose before and during the war, and who may hold the key to what she was doing in those years.

Along with Nathaniel we begin to realise how much he has lost, almost without noticing. The lusty teenage boy has become a quiet, watchful man who spends his days going through dusty papers and creaking recordings, finding his mother at last hidden in the archives, closer and more real than she ever was in person. But where is his father? His sister? The girl known as Agnes, The Moth and The Darter? They are all lost.

Memory is always fallible, and the gaps in Nathaniel’s memories are sometimes filled in with guesses, possibilities, wild ideas – it is sometimes impossible to know which are real. He admits to reconstructing stories ‘from a grain of sand’.

There is very little dialogue in the novel; brief exchanges are sandwiched between lengthy descriptions and reminiscences, and even scenes of dramatic action are skilfully presented as though we are at a distance from them, looking, perhaps, through a pane of misty glass. His prose is spare, careful, his descriptions as sharp as we have come to expect (loud music is described as ‘violent and chaotic, without courtesy’).

Ondaatje excels at leaving his readers with more questions than answers, portraying a few snapshots of a life and no more. Warlight has a powerful elegiac feel, suffused with regret and missed opportunities. As in The English Patient, we are left wondering what will become of the remaining characters when their war has ended, and what it truly means to survive.

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Cecily Blench is a writer and editor based in London. She has a particular interest in historical fiction and travel writing and is working on her first (historical) novel. 

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September 1945

We have boarded the cattle car headed for Pusan. It takes us past Seoul Grand Park and I can see the bear. Having outlasted the poisoning of her fellow beasts and the fleeing of the zookeepers, she remains seated in her cage. Alone. The wind blows through the bars, tousling her fur. I imagine that she is thinking of cubs she once nursed who have gone on. Our cattle car stops and the conductor demands money to take us further. I see my sister tear open the lining of her yukata and collect 15 yen.

The cattle car doesn’t start again, not for a while so I watch the bear and wonder when it will eat next. Then there are children upon her, lollipop sticks jutting out from their lips. There is unruly laughter and suddenly I see them throw their lollipops at her. The bear looks down to see the candy which is now stuck helter skelter to her fur. There is no anger. There is no fight. She remains seated, face out to the cackling bipedal mammals.

The train is now moving. My thoughts turn to the Japan that waits. We will live with my grandparents, whom I’ve never met.

Overall, I can’t help but feel like this side of my heritage – my father’s side – is not really mine. All that is mine, I think, is my sister – and the affection between us. I have always regarded Japan as some distant motherland but as I leave Korea, I realize I am leaving the only home I have known. To my mainland relatives, I can’t possibly belong. They probably don’t even know who I am. No, surely they don’t know of me.

Beside me sits a family traveling from Pyongyang. You can barely tell the girls from the boys because all of their hair is cut so short. My sister rolls her eyes when she informs me that this is to protect them from the men, as if it’s an obvious fact. Obvious facts. An abandoned bear. A cattle car. Today I am ten years old.

My brother and I sit back to back. Eventually I drift into sleep, dreaming of the bear. This time she and I are alone in a shower of sakura blooms that are gently tumbling around us. I am wielding a hammer and she watches me swing, swing, swing until one bar is bent outward. I methodically bend another bar creating a diamond shape. She exits the cage, headfirst, and shakes her body, like a dog who has just been let outside. Bowing her head, she beckons me to ride. I climb up and off we go.

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Stephanie Yoshiko Harper is a writer and an elementary school librarian. She holds an MA in English from California State University, Northridge. She lives with her partner, daughter, and three dogs in Ventura County, CA.

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Diana Rubino

Diana Rubino is the author of For the Love of Hawthorne, a biographical romance thriller about House of the Seven Gables author Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Meredith Allard: When and why did you begin writing, and did you always write historical fiction?

Diana Rubino: I started writing short stories when I was about 8 years old, and always enjoyed telling stories about people who overcame odds to achieve their dreams.

I love history and meeting people from the past and how they fit into major events in the past. Writing novels about real people puts me into the past, but keeps me grounded in reality.

M.A.: What is your latest novel about? How would you describe it to potential readers?

D.R.: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s courtship of Sophia Peabody lasted over three years because he insisted on keeping it secret. He had his reasons, none of which Sophia agreed with. But she knew they were destined for each other and he was worth the wait. When they married in 1842 “we became Adam and Eve alone in our Garden of Even” she wrote in her journal. But not all was paradise in their Eden—Nathaniel bore a burden that plagued his family since 1692. His ancestor Judge Hathorne condemned 19 innocent victims to death during the Salem witch trials. His heinous deeds brought shame and guilt upon the family through the centuries. In her last moments on earth, Sarah Good cursed the judge and his descendants from the hanging tree. Nathaniel’s belief in this curse haunted and tormented him until Sophia made it her quest to save him. I wanted to portray the lives of two kindred souls whose legacy endures through the ages.     

M.A.: What makes this book different?

D.R.: It covers their courtship, marriage and struggles they endured, but also explores Nathaniel’s battle with the demons that haunted him until Sophia rescued him. Then he was able to forgive his ancestor Judge Hathorne, and everything came full circle at the end.

M.A.: All authors have a different path as they seek publication. What was your journey to publication like?

D.R.: My ‘overnight success’ took 18 years. My first novel, largely autobiographical, as most first novels are, featured my heroine who made it to the top of a brokerage firm. It was continually rejected on the grounds that I had an ax to grind—and of course I did.

After three more novels, which I consider practice at honing my craft, I wrote my first historical, The Jewels of Warwick, centered around Henry VIII and two fictional heroines. Jewels took 2 years to research and write, with no internet. It came very close to publication with several romance houses, but missed the mark for containing too little romance. When I finished Jewels, I scoured the history books for another legendary figure to write about. While I browsed the Cambridge Library stacks, a book snagged my eye. Lying, not standing, on the wrong shelf was Crown of Roses by Valerie Anand. It drew me like a magnet. Richard III is a central character in the story, and the author thanked the Richard III Society for helping her. Already hooked on Richard, his tragic death at 32 and his reputation as a usurper and a murderer of his little nephews, I joined this Richard III Society. As everyone else who has a story about how they ‘met’ Richard, he fascinated me. I’d found the subject of my next novel! And it tied in perfectly as a prequel to The Jewels of Warwick. Titled Thy Name is Love, it made the same rounds of publishers, remaining homeless after several rewrites and seven years.

In 1999 with the Internet making my life so much easier, I queried the many E-publishers that had recently set up shop, and British publisher Domhan Books responded with an offer for my two historicals. Fortunately, Domhan also published print books. I then wrote a time travel and a family saga set in New York City. I switched gears with the urban fantasy Fakin’ It, which won a Romantic Times Top Picks award.

After several more historical and paranormal romances, I am now writing biographical novels with no fictional characters.

M.A.: What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?

D.R.: The joys are being transported through time to another era and meeting people who shaped history. The challenges are trying to stay as close as possible to the historical record, which at times is impossible, so I always put in that disclaimer ‘this is a work of fiction.’

M.A.: What is the research process like for you?

D.R.: After I’ve decided on my subject, I read as many biographies as possible about that person and those close to them, and books about that time period. I always try to find an expert or scholar who knows about the person—I was very lucky finding the Richard III Society, the Surratt Society (for my book about Lincoln) and the Aaron Burr Association. Many members of these groups are experts and are very happy to help out. I was also fortunate to have the help of Mary Thompson, the historian at Mount Vernon, who helped me with my book about Oney Judge, read the manuscript and made very useful suggestions.

M.A.: Do you travel for research? If so, what role does travel play in your writing process?

D.R.: I’ve been to all the locales of my stories. Especially visiting historical sites makes it easier to imagine how these places looked during the times of my stories, as some places, such as medieval towns in England, haven’t changed much over the centuries.

M.A.: Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

D.R.: When I was researching my first historical THE JEWELS OF WARWICK, set around Henry VIII’s court, I read THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF HENRY VIII by Margaret George. It’s one of my favorite books of all time. Philippa Gregory and Sharon Kay Penman are authors whose historicals come to vivid life.

M.A.: What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

D.R.: The advice my agent gave me: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a great story.” But I also believe historical authors should keep the facts correct, i.e., no cell phones in colonial times—don’t mention a song or a band that didn’t exist yet—things that really question credibility. Check to make sure when things were invented.

M.A.: What else would you like readers to know?

D.R.: I always enjoy connecting with readers and other authors, so please connect with me:

My Website

www.dianarubino.com

My Blog

Facebook

Twitter

Goodreads

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Meredith Allard is the executive editor of The Copperfield Review.

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The Sins of Jubal Cooper

Written by Mary Lingerfelt.

Published by Amazon Digital Services LLC.

Review by Harry Andrew Miller

The Sins of Jubal Cooper is a 2018 historical novella by Mary Lingerfelt, a Christian author. Sitting at around 40,000 words, the novella is set in rural Georgia, during the height of the Great Depression. It follows the misadventures of eight-year-old Will Henry as he commits a crime and is then forced to work off his debt to society by working for the infamous Judge Jubal Cooper, a man Will considers to be like the devil.

Speaking historically, The Sins of Jubal Cooper accurately captures the feelings and themes of Depression-era America. The text deals with families doing it tough, the division of class between the rich and the poor, the treatment of African-Americans, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

The story is told from the perspective of Will and, as such, it uses literary techniques that immerse the reader in the mind of an eight-year-old. Words like scared as purposefully misspelled as skeered or killed as kilt. These types of misspellings aren’t overbearing, and they do a fantastic job of adding to the immersion. As a poor eight-year-old in Depression-era Georgia, Will certainly doesn’t speak as ‘proper’ as Jubal Cooper, for instance, and the divide between Will’s language and Jubal’s language definitely helps to reinforce the theme of class division.

As Mary Lingerfelt is a Christian author, The Sins of Jubal Cooper also discusses the concept of faith, particularly Will’s as he tries to repent for his crime and his belief that Jubal Cooper isn’t a very moral man. Personally, I am not a religious person, but I still found this novella thoroughly captivating. The religious themes are visible enough to tie the story together; but, if you’re non-religious like myself, the themes definitely aren’t overbearing.

For me, the line that best represents The Sins of Jubal Cooper (and its themes of religion, repentance, and Depression-era loss) is found about halfway through the text. Will says, “I was ‘sposed to repent right away, and I knew that; but it was a Depression on, and everybody had to dicker with their conscience the best they could.” All in all, this is a book about Will trying to repent for his crime and navigate the unfamiliar and potentially dangerous life that Jubal Cooper leads.

I genuinely liked this novella. At 40,000 words it isn’t that daunting to pick up, for those of you who like reading shorter stories. I look forward to reading more from Mary Lingerfelt in the future, as I am definitely interested in her writing style, and the way she uses historical fiction to paint a picture of different historical eras.

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Harry Andrew Miller is a freelance history writer from Australia. He specializes in writing about the First World War, but his interests encapsulate all eras. Visit Harry online at www.harryandrewmiller.com.

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Pompeii

Before the sun rises, the earth itself heaves out a long, moaning shudder. Mother’s bronze goblet clatters to the table, sending crystal droplets of water spraying across the wooden surface.  The dented plates and tarnished silverware slide a few inches across the table, a few overturning and falling down to the floor. Stale bread crumbs scatter across the wooden planks. I feel my chair slide forward slightly, and I reach out and grab the edge of the table. For a fraction of a second, it trembles as well, but as quickly as the tremor comes, it disappears. I look down and see that my hands are clenched around the edge of the table, my knuckles white. I close my eyes and take a deep breath, then look around. Mother sits frozen at the table, her face pale and ghostly, her hands gripping the fabric of her skirt. Father stands in the corner, frowning, the palm of his hand pressed against the cold stone wall, his fist clenched by his side. I stare at him for a second. He senses me watching, and our eyes meet. His gaze softens.

“That’s the second one this week.”

Caecilia begins to wail from the corner. Mother rises from her seat and hurries over to the cradle, and just like that, life begins again.

I sit on the rough, worn wood of the circular stool and stare down at the lopsided pot before me. My eyes narrow in concentration and I bite my lip, reaching out and attempting to mold the clay into the right shape. The simple rounded structure of the vase collapses in on itself the second I touch it. I hear Father calling out my name.

“Julius.”

I look up from the wheel, relieved to get away from the pottery. He stands in the doorway to the shop, leaning against the frame of the door.

“I’ve got a chore for you.”

“What?” 

“Graffiti.”

Though most shops and buildings in Pompeii are covered in graffiti, my father insists on removing every bit of the writing that appears on our walls. Erasing the painted scribbles is the only task I hate more than making pots. I drag my feet over to the corner of the room and grab a rag and a bucket of water. Then, with one last glance at Father’s retreating back, I step outside. 

The sky is a clear blue, misted over with streaks of pale gray. The air is luke-warm, relaxed, and a faint breeze tickles the back of my neck. The sun hangs halfway between the horizon and its highest point, causing gentle shadows to flit in between buildings and under towering trees. It illuminates the hasty red scrawl spreading across the side of our shop, standing out against the rough stone. I walk over to the words and dunk the rag into the bucket. 

Before I can begin scrubbing, the earth shakes again. The bucket of water clatters onto its side, the spilling liquid quickly absorbed by the paved ground. I drop the rag and press my palm into the wall for stability, but the wall itself is shuddering. The earth seems to shift under my feet, and I swallow and squeeze my eyes shut. I can hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears. My breath comes out in short, sudden bursts. My eyes stay closed, my palm continues to press against the trembling wall. Then, after a few seconds, it is over. I hesitantly open my eyes and pick up the rag, turning the bucket right side up. I wet the rag with what little water remains and quickly wipe away the inscription, my heart still caught in my throat. When I am done, I turn around and race back into the shop, not caring that the faint pink traces linger on the stone.

It is midday and every street corner, every alleyway, should be filled with life and light.  There certainly shouldn’t be a dark mass of clouds reaching out with long fingers, spreading like galloping black horses across the horizon. The city should not be shrouded in darkness, the sun should not be a faint, almost invisible glow from behind the wall of black, the mountain should not be emitting streams of deep, dark smoke. There should not be a faint rumbling erupting from the earth itself, a deep, low growl like the first murmurs of thunder before a raging storm. And yet, there is.

I turn away from the window, swallowing. Mother stands behind me, her hand cupped around the flame of a flickering candle, the soft light illuminating the lines of worry on her face. She stares out of the window for a second longer, then turns to Father.

“We’re leaving the city for a while.”

“No!” Father shouts. “This has gone far enough, we’re not going anywhere!” 

Mother glares at him, and I feel dread building in my stomach. When they start arguing, they can go on for hours.

“The mountain is smoking. There were two tremors this morning. Two, in one day!  The sky is dark, like it’s night, but it’s only midday! The…”

Father bangs his fist on the table. “Enough! The gods do not punish those who have committed no crime. We have made the proper sacrifices, broken no laws.”

“I know.” Mother suddenly looks tired. “Believe me, I know, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is happening. If we don’t leave, all of Pompeii will fall, including us.” Mother is still calm. Her face in mostly expressionless, but I can see a trace of fear flickering in and out of her eyes with the light of the candle.

Father grits his teeth. “And leave the shop?  Our customers?”

Mother stares back at him. “Your customers are likely halfway out their doors by now.  We will be the only ones left in this city!”

Father glares at her. “No. We are not leaving.”

A tense silence fills the room.

Finally, after an eternity, Mother speaks.

“Julius.  Come.”  She carefully lifts Caecilia out of her cradle and moves toward the door. 

Avoiding Father’s gaze, I follow her.

Father takes a step forward.  “We’re not going anywhere-” 

Mother whirls around, her jaw set.  “No, you don’t have to leave, you don’t have to, but am going to make sure that my children survive this!” 

She meets Father’s eyes, and without another word, turns and steps out the door, into the darkness. I follow her without looking back, and as soon as the door closes, Caecilia bursts into tears.

It’s been a while since we left.  The sun should be well into the west by now, casting shimmering streaks of pale pink across the deep blue evening. Would be, if it weren’t for the huge wall of pure black that spans across the horizon, spreading out slowly, steadily, casting its looming shadow on the world. The crowd surges around us. As far as I can see stretch faces, people, some pushing ahead of others, some lagging behind. Blond hair, brown hair, white hair, dark eyes, it all blurs together until the faces stop being faces at all. Every so often I think I see someone that I recognize, but when I look again, they’ve turned away, vanished into the crowd, and I tell myself that it was just my imagination. 

I don’t remember when I offered to take Caecilia from Mother, or when it started feeling like I was holding a sack of bricks instead of a child. I pull my sister closer to me and continue to walk forward, trailing Mother’s dancing shadow, cast in the darkness by the vague flicker of a candle instead of the ever-burning sun. Mother glances at the sky, swallows, and increases her pace, pushing through the crowd. We keep walking.

I’ve stopped keeping track of the sun, the sky, the time, of anything but the mountain and the distance to the dock. The smell of smoke hangs in the air, seeming to get stronger and stronger with each second, each step I take. The crowd has lessened. Most people have gone south, to the larger dock, the one with more boats. Mother and I turned North, to the closer, smaller dock. 

My legs ache from the long walk, my arms feel like lead from carrying Caecilia. I want to stop, but I know we can’t. Mother pushes ahead, never seeming to tire, holding the candle out in front of her. Caecilia is asleep in my arms, soft and warm, breathing lightly. With each step I take, she feels ten times heavier. My joints seem to be made of stone, hard to move, more difficult to pick up with every step.  I don’t think I can keep it up much longer.

I stop to catch my breath and look over my shoulder. I can see the mountain looming in the distance, a huge dark mound of pure black rock, coated in a layer of ash. It spits out stream after stream of what looks like liquid flame, erupting out of the rock along with huge chunks of debris and hardened ash. More smoke rises up from the mountain, joining the swirling mass of dark clouds and scattered ash clustered around it, the mass that seems to spread out as far as the eye can see.  The surrounding countryside is shrouded in never-ending blackness, dark as night itself.  Then the first stream of liquid fire rolls onto the land, glowing with reds and oranges and yellows, and the ground is alight with crackling flames, golden, dancing in the night, spreading outward from the looming mountain. Something like a whimper escapes my throat.

Father,  I think.

Mother grips my arm and pulls me forward “Only a bit farther. Just under a mile to the dock.”

I try to reply, but as soon as I open my mouth, I begin to cough uncontrollably. My lungs seem to constrict inside of my chest, and I can’t bring myself to take another breath. I fall to my knees and Mother crouches down beside me, her eyes panicked. 

“Julius!” she shouts, but the sound seems to come from far away, blurry, faint, echoing in my ears. I’m vaguely aware of the crowd swerving around us, too, of a sharp, cold voice snapping at Mother to get off of the path, of her hissed response.

I feel her hands taking my sister from my arms, feel her fist pounding on my back, and finally air rushes into my lungs, smoke filled and dense, but air all the same.

I gasp, relieved, and we stay there for a few minutes until I regain my breath, Mother’s arms around me. When I’ve finally recovered, Mother glances up at the sky warily and stands up, the worry lines on her face more prominent than I’ve ever seen them before.

“Come on. We have to make it before the boats leave.” I swallow. We’ve lost precious minutes, and the wind seems stronger than ever. As I struggle to get up, our candle gutters out, plunging us into almost complete darkness. There is a moment of silence. Then Mother drops the unlit candle and takes my hand. 

“Come on. We have to go.” I nod and swallow.

We begin to walk again.

The sky is black when we reach the beach. Not the black of night, soft and dark as ink, bathed in dancing starlight. No, this black is closer to gray than the sky should be, rolling outward in a way the sky never does and never should. And it’s all coming from the mountain. The boats sit on the dock, almost invisible in the darkness, but not quite, some already halfway out to sea, a few lit candles bobbing up and down from each, shining beacons against the shadow of the clouds. 

The sand jitters under my feet, shifting with the rumbling of the earth. I take a step forward, carefully. The tangy scent of sea salt carried on the ocean breeze mingles with the acrid stench of thick, dark smoke, creating a pungent odor that fills my lungs and my mouth, making me want to gag. The ground shifts again and I lose my balance, falling into the sand. It cushions me, but when I scramble up, there are small grains plastered to my cheek, my elbows, and knees. The taste of wet sand fills my mouth, and I spit onto the ground trying to get rid of it. 

I feel a hand on my arm. Mother. Together, we make our way to the wood of the dock, closer and closer to the boats. Finally, we’re piled onto a craft, along with nine others. It’s a simple, wooden vessel called The Spirit. The boat barely seats all of us with two crammed into each seat meant for one. And as the oars begin to turn, as the boat gently kisses the rippling waterfront goodbye, the mountain towers over us, watching. And laughing.

The boat ride is long, seemingly endless, the water underneath the craft dark and devoid of any life, shimmering with the reflections of gentle, flickering candlelight. Mother and I huddle in the corner of the boat, Mother gripping Caecilia, the ever-present shadow of the mountain still hanging above us. Beside us, a girl, no older than seven, leans into her mother, who clutches her younger brother, not five years of age, to her chest. 

The oars reach into the inky water and sweep back out, over and over and over again. They lift up droplets, shimmering beads of saltwater that spray across us every few moments, showering down from above like drizzling rain, the mountain’s rumbling so much like distant thunder. 

Caecilia feels warm, soft, gentle in my arms. A bead of water lands on her forehead, and I wipe it away.  It’s strangely calm, almost peaceful, the only sounds the gentle dropping of the oars and the heavy breathing of the passengers.  The men who move the oars stare straight, straight ahead at the endless expanse of water before them, or at the smoldering mountain behind them.  The oars dip into the water and pull back out, over and over, forcing the boat forward.  The water laps lightly at the sides of the boat, the gentle slapping of water against wood becoming repetitive, persistent.  We’ve left the bay by now, the edge of the coast only a faint, thin line in the distance.  The craft cuts through the water cleanly.  The ocean is smooth and dark, like rippling folds of velvet.  And always, there’s that unrelenting tension hanging over us, threatening to strangle us all. 

And finally, listening to the oars, the breathing, the lapping water, I begin to cry.  I let the tears come, let them fall onto the wooden planks, and somehow, after they’ve been absorbed by the boat, I feel lighter.  Not better, not safer, but lighter.  Maybe this craft is called The Spirit for a reason.  I look up at the layer of dark clouds above us with my red-rimmed eyes, at the endless shadow it casts.  It spreads over Pompeii, over the dock, over us.  But there, near the horizon… 

A trace of light.   

A star.

Hope.

When The Spirit pulls into the harbor hours later, the sky is filled with shimmering stars, almost fading with the coming of day, crafted by the gods and placed in the sky to light up the night until the break of dawn.  I can see each one shining, bright and clear.  The sun hangs just under the horizon, setting the heavens on fire with woven clouds of rose and gold.  The sky shines through from underneath, the faded color of a nesting bluebird’s wing.  I can see the sun.  I can see the sky.  No veil of darkness flows in front of them.

But I can also see the mountain, no longer pouring liquid flames onto the distant land, but still emitting wisps of thick, gray smoke.  The cloud is no longer expanding but still hangs over the city.  That’s my city.  No, not just my city.  My world.  My father, my friends…the list is endless.  Are any of them still alive?       

I shudder, ropes of terror wrapping around my heart, spreading through my veins, each one stronger than the last.  They close in on me, squeezing my heart, tighter and tighter and tighter, until I can’t breathe.  I swallow and push down the feeling, and the ropes loosen, but they don’t disappear.  I step out of the craft, onto land.  The sand is firm and stable under my feet in comparison to the constant shaking of the boat.  I gulp in the fresh salty air, and something fills me, something that I haven’t felt in a long time. Relief.  Not full, overwhelming relief, but more like a muddled mixture of relief and guilt.  But I let it take over.  I know I shouldn’t feel it, and I know it’s wrong, but I do feel it, I do. I’m relieved that I’m out of Pompeii, away from the ash, the smoke, the mountain.

And so I run all the way to the edge of the beach, the wet sand clinging to the soles of my feet, run out onto the dry powder that the salt-tipped brush of the ocean has yet to paint, the fine, white grains spraying up to meet the air where my feet touch, coming to rest in the sandal-shaped indentations I leave in the ground. I turn around to Mother.  There is sorrow on her face, and for the smallest fraction of a second, I can’t figure out why. 

Then I remember, Father.

A bird pecks away at the sand behind me.  The birds belong here, and the sand and the sea and the boat and the fish, but I don’t.  I belong in Pompeii. But home does not exist anymore. 

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Prisha Mehta is a student at Millburn High School in New Jersey, and she is very passionate about her writing. She aspires to be a successful author one day, and she has won many writing awards. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in many places including Asymmetry, Ginosko, Blue Marble Review, Riggwelter, Gravel, Kairos, Five on Fifth, and Deracine. When she isn’t writing, she can often be found scrolling through psychology articles, sketching in her notebook, or, of course, reading.  You can find out more about her at prishamehta.com.

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Child of Barley

I carry my morning urine to the garden. Already, moisture hangs in the air, a portent of the oppressive heat that will grow as Ra reaches his zenith. Two bags of grain hide in the shade of our jasmine. I pour a portion of urine into each, as I have for the last five days, before checking for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma of waste makes me blink. Neither grain has sprouted from their foundation of sand and dates.

Too soon.

“Amsu,” my mother calls from inside. “You’ll be late for the festival unless you hurry.”

I bathe quickly and smooth lotus cream over my body, saving the strongest unguent to brush under my arms and on my thighs. Its minty fragrance fills the air and brings memories of the last festival and traveling the marshes with Adom.

“Amsu!”

I pack the memories in my shawl along with my best sheath dress, wig, and cosmetics. “Coming.”

Mother kisses me on the cheek. “I will petition Hathor for a favorable oracle.”

Hathor, the goddess of love and fertility. I have yet to tell my mother that the goddess has already blessed me with fertility. I return to Hathor’s festival today to confirm that she has blessed me with a love pairing as well.

With the Nile river on my left, I face into the warm breeze and begin my half day journey to the Temple of Mut, the location of Pharaoh Hatshepsut’s bi-annual Festival of Drunkenness. Already the twentieth day of Thoth, the Nile swells from the marshes, bringing fertility to Egypt, just as my stomach swells with new life. I wonder what Adom will say when I tell him. My heart urges me forward, despite the sweltering heat from Ra’s rays.

I reach the temple grounds and weave my way through the seven-hundred-and-sixty lion-headed statues—two for each day of the year—of Sakhmet, Hathor’s counterpart. A peace offering so the lion goddess won’t rampage against us once again.

Inside the temple, I dress with the other Mistresses of Drunkenness. The temple priests anoint us with myrrh oil and weave flowers into our hair: blue lotus, poppy, jasmine, mandrake, and daisies. They divide us into two groups and bid us wait on either side of the temple near the large cisterns of beer. If not for the bestowing of this honor, I would never have met Adom.

The festival goers, royalty and commoners alike, admire our beauty until Queen Hatshepsut arrives. She wears the traditional Nemes headdress, beard, and Shendyt of a Pharaoh even though she is female. Here is a woman who has taken destiny into her own hands and been blessed by the gods for it.

“Ra was unhappy with Egypt because of her rebelliousness,” she begins. “He commanded his daughter Hathor to punish mankind. In her true form she could not, so she became Sakhmet. As a lion, she terrorized the Nile, slicing and eating mankind.

“The council of gods beseeched Ra to stop Sakhmet before there were no people left. Ra commanded her to desist, but blood lust consumed her, so she could not hear him. In their wisdom, the council flooded the Nile valley with ochre-colored beer so that when Sakhmet came upon it, she believed it to be blood. She drank her fill, became inebriated, and fell asleep. When she awoke, she was the benevolent Hathor once again.

“This is why we celebrate the Festival of Drunkenness.” Hatshepsut raises her arms. “Drink to appease Sakhmet so she does not return to destroy us. Drink again to commune with Hathor, the goddess who brings fertility to Egypt and her people. Drink so the gods may grant your supplications.”

She concludes her invocation, and the priests light kyphi incense. The heady aroma, a mix of frankincense, myrrh, and pine resin, produces euphoria in the crowd as they wait for us to serve them beer. I submerge my serving faience, a lion-shaped container colored lotus blue, into the closest beer cistern until air bubbles rise and pop and rise no more.

As I meander through the temple and porch areas filling cups, I search for Adom. I’ve refilled my faience more than twenty times before I spy him. He sits in the corner of the patio among a group of young men. Dressed in the same wig, kilt, and roguish half-smile as last festival, he raises his cup with a wink when he sees me.

My cheeks heat with pleasure, and I ignore the cups shoved in my path as I wind my way toward him.

“Hello, beautiful,” he slurs.

I refill his cup and those of his friends. “Adom, I have news.”

He pulls me down onto his lap. His words caress my ear. “I’m anxious to hear anything you have to say.”

I swivel on his lap so I can peer into his date-colored eyes. I lean in to whisper, “Hathor blessed our travels through the marshes at the last festival. I’m pregnant.”

His gaze drops to my belly, where my sheath dress pulls tightly, and returns to my face. His eyes struggle to focus on me. Once he does, his brows furrow then smooth. “I remember you.”

My shoulders relax. Hopefully he will agree that Hathor has ordained us for one another.

“You’re… Anubis?”

“Amnu.”

His head wobbles on his neck as he nods. “More beer, Amnu.” His voice is gentle. “Then we can go someplace and discuss your… our situation.”

I return to the temple, where the sweet-spicy kyphi hangs thick in the air. Its aroma coils through me, churning my stomach. Before I can draw more beer from the cistern, my stomach expels its contents. Cursed kyphi!

I roll the contaminated cistern outside and dump it onto the bushes lining the porch. Hopefully the goddess will understand that I wasn’t trying to spoil her offering. It was she, after all, who blessed me with this condition.

I hold my breath as I re-enter the temple and hurry to fill the lion-shaped container before my stomach revolts again. Bodies of the revelers who have already succumbed to their cups litter the floor as I make my way back to Adom. When I return, his friends sleep, propped against one another with their backs to the temple wall. One snores loud enough to wake the gods, but not loudly enough to wake his companions. Adom is not among them. Neither is he anywhere on the porch or in the temple. I brave the bushes in case he’s gone to relieve himself, but there is no sign of him. I’m at a loss of where to search next when his voice carries to me on the wind.

I head into the breeze until I find him… travelling through the marshes with a different Mistress of Drunkenness. Her beflowered hair sways in time with their movements.

You were gone too long, my brain supplies. The beer caused him to forget. Or caused him to mistake her for you.Whatever the reason, I cannot stay here and watch them. I stumble backward and my movement catches his attention.

Adom smiles when he sees me. “Amnu,” he calls over his companion’s shoulder, “did you bring more beer?”

I can’t breathe. Can’t think. I’m frozen as completely as the seven-hundred-and-sixty statues of Sakhmet.

He knew. The thoughts come. He knew and he went with her anyway. Then my body is free. My feet carry me away from Adom and the girl he chose over me.

I’m almost to the temple when I find Pharaoh Hatshepsut gazing at the night sky from a bench in the gardens. She holds her ornate cup out to me, and I refill it.

“So many tears for such a pretty girl.” She takes a large swallow. “Have some beer; it will make you feel better.”

So, I do. I sit next to her on the bench and drink directly from the lion-shaped faience. I tell her of Adom and his treachery. When I finish, she is silent for so long that I don’t think she will comment. I’m not even sure whether she was listening to me.

“The waters of the Nile may bring fertility to the land,” she finally says, “but they also harbor danger. Some get swept away and drown. Others are devoured by the beasts who live within her. The Nile is like the two sides of our goddess: the gentle Hathor, goddess of love and fertility, and Sakhmet, Ra’s lion goddess of judgment.”

When she leaves, I stare at the heavens and contemplate my future. I ponder Hatshepsut, the queen who claimed her own destiny as Pharaoh. Perhaps the time has come for me to grasp my own destiny.

One by one, I pull the flowers from my hair. As I crush mandrake leaves and poppy seeds into the remaining beer, I beseech the goddess. Not Hathor, whose blessing Adom rejected. I call on Sakhmet.

Adom is groggy when I refill his cup. He tries to smile at me, but he’s too drunk. He drinks, but the beer dribbles down his chin and onto his naked chest. I wipe it away with his kilt, then I help him finish the rest of it. The naked girl draped across him doesn’t stir. When he passes out, I leave the faience with them and head for home.

The Nile flows on my right, the breeze pushes against my back, and the temple drums call the revelers to wake at sunrise. I wonder when Adom’s companion will realize he will never wake from his slumber. Will she understand that Sakhmet has judged him unworthy?

When I reach my home, I check the twin bags of grain curled under the jasmine. I have no urine to give them, but, as I have for the last six days, I check for growth. Barley on the left, emmer wheat on the right. I bend closer to search for any sign of life even though the pungent aroma makes my stomach recoil. Small green shoots greet me from the barley. My child will be a son.

I smile and pat my swelling belly. A child of barley. The main ingredient of beer, instrumental in both his conception and his father’s demise.

I will teach my son that, like the Nile and our goddess, everything has the propensity to nurture or destroy. He must learn to receive the blessings the gods send, as Hatshepsut did when she made herself Pharaoh, so that he does not bring destruction upon himself, lest he end up like his father.

______________________________________________________________________________

Lisa Godfrees is the Operations Manager and a daily editor at Havok Publishing. Prior to that, she worked over a decade in a crime lab as both a DNA analyst and manager. Tired of technical writing, she hung up her lab coat to pen speculative fiction. Author of several short works of fiction and co-author of Mind Writer: A Novel, she posts short stories on her blog at lisagodfrees.com.

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