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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 I 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
The disease interrupted a perfectly good war. A quarrel of kings had kept France and England in battle for over a decade, but then the plague ruined it. The plague ruined everything.
The disease started in the sea. Like a wave it slid a clear film over the shore, through the streets, and into the towns. It entered doors and flooded hearths. Then it began to eat. It wolfed down coastal towns until almost none were left alive. Ravenously, it ate parents. It ate children. It didn’t care. Nothing could satisfy its greed. Its sin was gluttony, and it craved towns. Cities, too. A tight wad of homes wrapped in a stonewall casing, with a castle as a topper…that was a special treat. After it picked a few towns and cities from its teeth, it developed a taste for countries. France. Spain. Portugal. England. It grew hungrier and ate Germany and Norway. It set its sights on Russia, and it ate and ate and ate. In Antioch people fled to the north but died on the road. No one could outrun its hunger.
In those days, a headache and a bit of nausea meant a person had two days left to live. Eight days, if God was feeling cruel. Egg-sized bulboes full of pus regularly protruded from groins, necks, and armpits. They oozed and they bled. Fingernails turned black and people tossed in bed, delirious with fever. Peasants and nobles alike were afraid of the air and kept their doors and windows closed tightly at night. They killed lepers and Jews. Nothing helped; dark spots covered skin, and bloody vomit splashed in the streets, in bowls, on floorboards. Even kings were sticky with it.
This hindered England’s war a great deal, nothing could stop them. They took Cadzand and Auberoche while nearby, weeping filled the streets. They took Calais and Crecy and Saint-Pol-de-Leon as doctors in bird-like masks stuffed herbs in their beaks to protect themselves from God’s wrath. They took La Roche-Derrien, Saintes, and Mauron after corpses had already become a part of everyday life. Loved ones were gently laid to rest in a pit on top of other loved ones. The bodies were so tangled that mothers couldn’t tell which arms belonged to which bodies, or whether the strands of hair lying across their daughters’ faces were theirs or someone else’s.
When it had reached every corner of the earth, the plague let out a large belch and it was gone. Its four-year feast was over. The table scraps it left behind was half of Europe.
Finally the city of Poitiers was lost and the British captured the king. France said stop, we beg of you. We’ll pay whatever you want. Twenty years of losing battles takes a heavy toll, but the toll of living with death is even heavier.
France returned from negotiations limping and tired, a shell of what it once was. That generation never recovered. Neither did the next. Even their grandchildren felt keenly the poverty and emptiness of France, the loss of so much land, so much money, and so many people. At least the British were gone.
But they would come back. This is one thing the plague and England had in common: they always came back.
Teralyn Pilgrim is an MFA candidate at Western New England University with a BA in English. She is currently querying Voodoo Queen, a novel of Marie Laveau. She lives in Mississippi with her husband and two girls.
Mambi, years dead, came to Chloe in the night and told her that Mr. Henry was a wooden paddle and Mistress Abitha was a wooden post. Having been beaten to a limp by Mr. Henry weeks before for eating the last of the root-cellared potatoes, Mistress Abitha standing by, Chloe had no reason to argue with her mother. Mambi rarely visited, so Chloe didn’t want to waste time on the evident. She would rather hear of Mambi’s roamings—her flight here to Plymouth, back to Barbados, back to Africa, and back again, a Black-winged Kite circling carrion, smelling of Caribbean sugar fields, fish rot, and blood.
For reasons, Mambi had killed Master Green’s overseer with a hoe to the neck. Master Green hung her from a Cassia tree for it. Chloe was only four years old, but she remembered her mother twitching and then dangling from the end of the noose, her head nestled in the flowering boughs of the tree, a limp queen with a festooned crown. Chloe remembered how Master Green cut Mambi down and then set her on fire. Keeping Mambi alive, barefoot, and bound to the sugar fields would have answered Mambi’s deed many-fold. Killing her increased her rage and gave her flight.
Killing her gave her schemes and she would fly to Chloe betimes to share them. Even though Chloe liked hearing Mambi’s plans to avenge herself, Chloe couldn’t say she approved of her mother’s murdering hands. God commanded slaves to obey their masters and roared, “Thou shalt not kill!” Many a Lord’s Day, Miss Abitha read those words aloud out of The Book. If Mr. Henry was a paddle and Miss Abitha was a post, Mambi was a closed fist—always fighting—and rebellion was as the sin of witchcraft! Miss Abitha read that out of The Book, too. Chloe believed witchery was the truth of Mambi, and she scorned her dead mother for it, even as Mambi sat in the dark corner of Chloe’s sleeping nook, the whites of her eyes piercing the dark like a cornered possum’s. For Mambi’s sins, Master Green, as good as God himself, erased her from the material world. Fair enough. Chloe knew that she, herself, wasn’t a fighter nor a murderer like Mambi. She was weepy, needy, and now lame, which was fair enough, too—she should not have taken the last of the potatoes.
Still, Mambi’s fighting spirit lit embers in Chloe’s stomach. Warmed her. But, the guilt of this sympathy cooled her a bit. Miss Abitha wouldn’t approve of Mambi’s incorporeal comings and goings, let alone her talk of revenge which was God’s property, just as sure as Mambi was Master Green’s and Chloe was Mr. Henry’s.
“I make him sick wit’ what he done,” Mambi rasped, the whites of her eyes and toothy smile glimmering. “I take it—me red rage—ball it up, send it to him, and he come down sick. Slow but sure, I lay him in de grave. Soon. And him send you here to this paddle and post after I gone? Nah suh! I put him low.”
Chloe turned her face away from Mambi, the leg Mr. Henry hobbled throbbing under the gingham. “Leave me,” she whispered.
“He beat you! And she watch!” Mambi threw up her hands. Her fingers looked like bony feathers.
“He meant it not. And she is sorry for it.”
Chloe kept her low tones. Mr. and Mistress were sleeping in the next room while she slept on a paletted hay mattress behind a makeshift curtain in the pantry. Making it up to the attic was nearly impossible after Mr. Henry’s pummeling work on the lower part of her leg. The pantry was not a likely place for a food thief, so Mr. Henry must have had faith in his power to apply proper and effective correction.
“You power ‘dem, gal. Lay ‘dem low.” Mambi’s eyes glittered in the dark, slim shafts of glow from the full moon striping her black face from between the slats in the wooden slab that covered one of the only windows in the house.
While Mambi rasped on, Chloe closed her eyes and called on the only Power. She recited the Lord’s prayer, over and over again, eventually drifting to sleep on Mambi’s smell of boiling sugar, on Mambi’s pain and its intangible power to waste, on the prayer’s promise of forgiveness and deliverance from evil.
The next morning, Mr. Henry, foot shod and clad with his field hat, glared at Chloe’s’ leg from the kitchen board. Mistress Abitha sat opposite him as she folded three cloth napkins lengthwise.
“Make haste, girl. I must to the fields.”
Mr. Henry, with his marvel of auburn curls peaking from under his hat and the matching wiry hair on his chin and cheeks would not look Chloe in the eyes as she limped to the table with the morning bread and cheese. But, Mistress Abitha looked at her kindly which heartened Chloe a bit. Miss Abitha laid two of the napkins on the table for Mr. Henry and Chloe, adjusting her white cap over the blonde hair that Chloe had braided into two long ropes a few days since.
“You mustn’t stand today, Chloe,” she said.
“She will stand, Abitha. It is her custom to stand and it is her place to stand.”
Mr. Henry stared at the table, his chin propped with elbows and folded hands, the unyielding stance looking oddly like the act of prayer. “There’s nothing wrong with her. She be play-acting.”
A root of hurt budded in Chloe’s abdomen as her leg throbbed. It sent a prickly tendril up through her throat and behind her eyes. She swallowed and blinked to smother it. She grit her teeth to kill it, red washing her vision. As she stood between Mr. Henry and Miss Abitha nibbling on a crust of bread as they ate, a boiling sweetness crept into the air, even after the breakfast prayer. She wondered if they could smell it, too. She wondered if they could sense the warmth blooming in her stomach as she listened for the rustling of black wings. Mambi could wither with her pain. Of a sudden, Chloe wondered if she could do the same with hers.
Auntie Win never says anything nice to me. It’s always “Joyce, take your elbows off the table.” “Joyce, don’t talk with your mouth full.” I don’t want to go and live with her in Brimley, but I suppose I must.
“You’re so lucky to have an aunt living in Essex,” my mother says, as we’re travelling up on the train. “You might’ve been evacuated.”
When she opens the door to us, Auntie Win’s wearing her bright blue district nurse’s uniform, ‘sensible’, black, lace-up shoes and wrinkled flesh-coloured stockings on her thick legs. “Expected you half an hour ago. I have to go out. One of my patients has had a fall. I’ve made you tea.” She waves her hand at a brown pot with minute white chips on its spout.
Moments later she’s swinging her leg over her bicycle and jingling her bell at a dog in the road, leaving us in the ill lit kitchen, me counting the faded black and white quarry tiles on the floor and trying to ignore the stale cabbage smell seeping up my nostrils. My mother smooths her silk dress and brushes the wicker seat of her chair before she sits down. I expect her to make her usual Auntie Win comments, about droopy skirts and outside lavatories, but, over the past few months, as war with Germany became more likely every hour, my parents have stopped saying this sort of thing.
We’re unpacking my suitcase in the little room where I am to sleep when we become aware of the hum of conversation and revving of engines in the street below. I step over to the window. “Buses,” I cry. “Red London buses.” I pull my mother, shaking her head, to the tiny casement. “Honestly. Look. It says ‘London Transport’ on them.” I want to add, “Aren’t they splendid? Aren’t they spiffing?” but then I think that would be a funny thing to say about buses.
My mother peers over my shoulder and sniffs.
It takes me a moment realise that there’s something wrong about these ordinary red Route Masters, lined up behind each other as if in a queue. All the passengers are children. They’re tumbling off the landing platforms like ants, clutching gas masks in cardboard boxes and carrying brown paper parcels bundled up with string.
Turning away, my mother stoops down to examine her face in the looking-glass. “From the East End, I shouldn’t wonder.”
Proper evacuees, with brown luggage labels tied around their necks. Even though the sun has been shining down upon us all day, a reminder that summer is not yet over, and, earlier, my little bedroom seemed stiflingly hot, a shiver jolts down my spine. This war is really happening.
“Joyce, don’t stare.” My mother beckons me away from the window with a jerk of her head . “You be careful around those East Enders. Remember that you live in a nice house in Friern Barnet. And that your father’s the manager at the bank.”
“What’s the time?” My mother raises her wrist to her nose, and squints at her tiny silver-framed watch. She says that glasses don’t suit her. Picking up her handbag, she reaches over to kiss my cheek. “I’d better take the four thirty-two, darling. Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight. You’ll be all right until Auntie Win comes home, won’t you?”
I gulp in a short breath. I want to scream, “Please don’t,” and “Please, please, please… take me home,” but I’m twelve. I force a smile. Wartime spirit and all that.
After she’s left, I continue to watch the buses. I wonder if I could stow away under one of the seats and I carry on thinking about this long after they’ve revved up and driven off, around the corner and out of sight. For a moment, I still hear their clattering engines… then nothing, only the shopkeeper over the road retracting his blind. If only I were fourteen. Fourteen year olds are allowed to stay in my wonderful London. If only we had relatives in America, like my friend, Eileen. She’s sailing on the Queen Mary tomorrow. Lucky thing.
Daddy’s suggested I keep a diary.
* * * * *
6th September 1939
I’ve started at Brimley School for Girls. The buildings are old, with long corridors painted grass green and mustard yellow, hardly any playground, no tennis courts or hockey pitches, or anything like we had at my old school. There are so many of us in the form room that some pupils have to share a desk, or even kneel on the floor. The village girls have bagged all the places on one side of the room and the evacuees, all from Deptford, the other side. I sit at a single desk at the middle, in front of a pillar, beside me pipes which gurgle like someone being sick.
When Miss Clough asks us to introduce ourselves, I’m last. “Joyce Harper, Miss,” I say. “From Friern Barnet Ladies’ Academy.”
Someone behind me sniggers.
* * * * *
Everyone at school keeps calling me ‘Friern Barnet’. The Deptford girls started it. They say I talk posh and I’m stuck up. I don’t and I’m not.
I’ve just spoken to Mummy from the telephone box down the road. I asked her about coming home, just for a weekend, but she won’t let me. It’s not fair. The Germans haven’t dropped any bombs in London. I didn’t tell her anything about school, of course. She’s doing war work, knitting for the WRVS, and Daddy’s an air raid warden.
Auntie Win’s listening to ‘The News’ on the wireless when I get back, but then the announcer’s voice fades out and that horrid Lord Haw-Haw comes on. It’s disgusting the way he talks. Nobody knows who he is, or even if he’s one person or several. His accent’s British, though.
Afterwards, I feel cold inside, as if icy water is running through my veins. Auntie Win makes more cocoa. She makes very good cocoa. We don’t talk about Lord Haw-Haw. We don’t talk much at all. She reads the newspaper and I do my homework.
* * * * *
They’re calling me names again. They stopped for a few days and now they’ve started again. It’s my own fault, I suppose. I mentioned my old school again during algebra. I’m not a tell-tale, but I did speak to Miss Clough this morning and she was jolly decent. This afternoon, she’s sent me out of class with a message for the headmistress’s secretary, and, when I go back in, she’s saying, “We must just call her ‘Joyce’. That’s her name.”
* * * * *
Nothing goes right for me.
It’s all over the papers that Lord Haw-Haw’s name is ‘William Joyce’. The girls in my class are following me around, chanting, “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them all. The rotten thing is that, when Marjorie and Tilly come over at break this morning, I think they want to be friends and I smile at them, but immediately they start. “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”. I hate them. I hate them all so much.
I go back to Auntie Win’s and she’s moaning about clothes left on my bedroom floor. “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
I’ve had enough. I’ll tidy my bedroom, all right. I’ll tidy it so she won’t know I’ve ever been here.
* * * * *
31 October, later.
Auntie Win’s using the outside lavatory when I’m lugging my suitcase downstairs, bumping it over each step, one by one. So much noise and I can’t help it. I’m afraid of damaging the case, or the catch bursting open. I slip out the front door, but don’t slam it shut. I’ve 5s 2d in my purse. That’s going to be enough, surely. I trundle down the street, dragging my heavy suitcase. I never realised how uneven the Brimley pavement is, and the handles on my case are really hurting my hands. I have to keep swapping from left to right, but, like the poster says, I carry on. Into the station booking office at last. “Single to Liverpool Street, please.” Ah, the music of those words.
“Six shillings,” mutters the booking clerk, as I empty the contents of my purse on to the counter.
I push my coins towards him, shillings, sixpences, threepenny bits, pennies, halfpennies and farthings. I look up at him, studying the lines on his face and his sprouting eyebrows. He’s smiling. I’m sure he’s a nice man. He’s got to be a nice man. No, he’s not. He’s shaking his head. “But…” I plead.
“Six shillings, Miss.”
“Six shillings to you. Same as everybody else.” Calling “Yes?” over my head, to the soldier in uniform, he shoves my coins back across the wooden counter.
The Deptford girls – the real evacuees – would have argued the toss with a C’monnn Misterrrr.
I’m Joyce, from Friern Barnet. And still in Brimley.
I trudge back through the village, past the Co-op, the church, my school, and all the other horrible, dreary buildings. It’s autumn now. Dusk is falling and, with the blackout, it goes dark fast. Only the fish and chip shop gives out a faint glow. Mummy says, you can never get the smell of chip fat out of your clothes.
Ten minutes later, I’m staring at the leaded fanlight over Auntie Win’s porch, papered over in accordance with wartime regulations. I lift my hand to knock. I’ll do it. In a minute.
A piercing sound like splitting wood has me staggering backwards. The front door, swollen with October damp, rips open. My aunt, a yellow cardigan over her blue nurse’s dress, hovers in the doorway, her hand on the lintel. Her complexion, never beautiful like my mother’s, is drained of any colour, except for suddenly prominent freckles and pink broken veins.
“Joyce. Thank God.” Then she reaches out for my arm and pulls me inside, as if removing me from imminent danger.
“Your mother… What could I have said?” Her eyes light on my suitcase. She cannot tear them away.
“I’ll… I’ll take it upstairs.” I’m speaking so low I can hardly hear myself.
“I’ll make some cocoa.”
With my hurting hands, striped red and white, I drag my belongings back to my room. She calls up to me three times, even though I remain in my room only to remove my outdoor shoes – not allowed in her house. I sit at the kitchen table, once more counting the black and white quarry tiles, aware of her moving about and making cocoa, but not daring to look at her. “I’m afraid you do have to stay here, Joyce,” says Auntie Win, as she hands my cup to me.
I take a gulp of steaming chocolate froth. It scalds my throat. “I know.”
She sips her own, swallowing loudly. Usually, she’s a tea person. “Your bedroom… it wasn’t too untidy. I shouldn’t have said anything. I’m sorry.”
What did she just say? I shuffle in my seat.
“I’m a nurse. I’m afraid I expect everything to look like a hospital.”
“I’ll make all tidy when I put it everything back.” Grown-ups don’t apologise to children. It’s not the proper thing.
“Thank you.” She sits back in her chair, sliding forwards as if she’s lying on it. “Now, tell me. How are things at school?”
“Really? Unless things have changed a lot since my day, girls can be absolutely horrible.”
Her kind tone almost makes me cry, but I hold back, rushing upstairs again, then wishing I hadn’t because I want my cocoa. She follows me to my room, carrying my cup. When I do talk, she doesn’t put her arm around me and stroke my hair like Mummy would, just sits beside me on my bed. She already knew, of course. People talk in villages.
“Pity you mentioned the ‘Ladies Academy’ bit,” she says.
“It’s what my school’s called.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“I’m not stuck up.”
“I know, but think about how it sounds to other people.” She grabs her handbag. “With all this going on, I haven’t put tea on. Let’s buy fish and chips. We’ll sort out those girls. You see.”
* * * * *
31 October, still.
We’ve been waiting outside the chip shop for some time when Marjorie (from Brimley) and Tilly (from Deptford) join the queue. “Those two’re in my form,” I whisper to Auntie Win.
“Say hello then.”
“They’re waving to you.”
I shake my head.
“Come on, Joyce. Be friendly. Wave back.”
I don’t want to, but I do, because Auntie Win’s raising her eyebrows and looking at me.
I force my mouth into a tight sort of grin.
An icy wind, straight off the North Sea, whips through my Friern Barnet coat. Tilly says it’s cold because it blows from Germany. Tilly can be nice sometimes. When I get my meal, wrapped up in the Daily Sketch, I clasp it to my chest like a hot water bottle. “Mummy doesn’t let me eat in the street, but would it be all right if we had a few chips?”
Auntie Win is already unravelling her bundle of newsprint. “Mum,” she says. “Mum.”
I frown. “Mummy wouldn’t like being called Mum.”
“Call her what you like… in Friern Barnet… and don’t eat in the streets… of Friern Barnet. But this is Brimley and I’m Auntie Win.”
“You and she don’t get along, do you?”
“Of course we do,” my aunt says almost before I’ve got my words out. She bites off a large piece of fish and chews it slowly. She nudges me as we’re about to pass Marjorie and Tilly. “Offer them some chips.”
My arm locks by my side.
I thrust my bag in front of them. “Er… would you like a chip.”
Tilly looks at Marjorie, at Auntie Win, at me, at Auntie Win again. “Watcha,” she giggles, grabbing two.
Rosemary is returning to short story writing after spending time writing a historical novel. She was inspired to write this short story after seeing photographs of red London buses bringing evacuees to a town near to where she lives in Essex, England. She has articles published in Christian Writer and Together. In real life, Rosemary lives with her husband and cat and teaches IT and maths. She blogs about writing and everyday life at Write On.
“They’re coming! The soldiers are here,” the child yelled, banging a stick against the doors as he passed. “Gather your payments.”
Lin leaned out the window of his little workshop. “Don’t play tricks, boy. Serious people have no time for your foolishness.”
“No trick, Old Uncle. The watchman at the gate said so. The Emperor’s men came early.”
A kernel of fear bloomed in Lin’s chest. The soldiers are early! He stared as the child galloped away, bellowing his warning and whacking shutters with his ratty stick. Other craftsmen peered out their windows, grousing at the boy, or, more likely, cursing the approaching soldiers. A harsh clang from a neighbor’s dropped pan snapped Lin out of his stupor. He ducked back into the shop.
His teenage son sat at the work table, sanding a small piece of bamboo. Of course, the boy seemed to be lost, daydreaming, as usual. Lin sighed. He cherished his little tiger, his Xiao Hu, but sometimes he despaired for the boy’s future.
“Xiao Hu, did you not hear? The tax collectors are coming. Go, tell your mother, take the children to the cellar. Hurry!”
Eyes wide, Hu dropped his work. “Yes, Baba,” he said as he bolted toward the back door. “But why are they early?”
Lin shrugged. Perhaps the whispers of rebellion had grown louder. Emperor Qin demanded many arrows as his tax payment. Hard as it was to meet the demand, it still was better than seeing his children conscripted to the army, or forced to toil at the Emperor’s new wall. It didn’t matter why they were early; Lin would pay, regardless.
He scurried to the storeroom to count his stock. As expected, most of the month’s payment was bundled and ready to go. Lin nodded. His status as a favored craftsman carried weight with the tax collectors. They probably would be reasonable about the small shortfall.
Still, the anxiety gripping his heart did not ease until he heard the hushed commotion of his wife and younger children bustling into the hidden cellar. Safe.
Back in the main room, he surveyed the supplies heaped around the table. Several of the prepared feathers were too large, so Lin slid into his son’s abandoned seat, sweeping the defective feathers away. He frowned at the boy’s impatience. Just last night, Lin had explained yet again the importance of precision in their work.
“This is how we maintain our rank, our family position,” he’d intoned, “with arrows that fly true.”
Lin had demonstrated, placing a freshly-cut goose feather on the scale, and nodded as it balanced. The next feather was too heavy, so Lin carved away a bit of the mottled quill and weighed it again. Perfect. “This is my legacy to you.”
Hu had rolled his eyes. “No one else bothers to weigh everything.”
Lin grimaced at the memory. There was no hope for the boy.
A cacophony of clattering hooves and squeaking cart wheels signaled the soldiers’ arrival. Lin lurched to his feet, made clumsy by a fresh burst of adrenaline.Little Tiger
“Your tax ready?” the soldier demanded as he shoved the door open. He was not a large man, but he was intimidating nonetheless, with his padded shirt and stiff leather shoes. He smelled of sweat.
“Yes, yes. The arrows are bundled, as required.”
“All of them?”
“Almost all. Forgive me, but, I thought they were not due for another week.”
The tax collector grunted. He scowled, scrutinizing the workroom, just as Hu burst back in. The boy froze at the sight of the soldier.
“Not now,” Lin hissed, silently cursing his son’s rash behavior. “Go!”
“Wait,” the soldier interrupted. “Today we collect workers for the wall, as well as taxes. This young man would make up for your incomplete payment.”
“No.” Lin stepped in front of his son. Voice quivering, he continued, “This boy can serve the Emperor better here, making the finest arrows for his army.”
“I thought you were the arrow maker, old man.”
“My son also knows the way of the arrow. He will benefit the empire well, long after I have passed.”
The soldier studied Hu. “Prove it, boy.”
Lin’s breath caught, but his little tiger nodded and stepped up to the work table. Hu’s hands trembled only slightly as he chose a feather from the pile and placed it on the scale. He explained how the weight of the feather had to interact precisely with the heft of the arrowhead. He reached for the piece of wood he’d been toying with earlier, showing the soldier how the bamboo shaft must be dried and sanded, just so, to provide strength, yet retain flexibility. Finally, he demonstrated the placement of the feathers, to minimize drag while promoting spin.
“This is why our arrows fly faster and bite more deeply into our enemies,” Hu said as he notched the final quill into the shaft.
Lin struggled to keep his mouth from gaping in surprise.
The soldier inspected the completed arrow, and then grunted, apparently satisfied. He took the remaining bundles from the storeroom, nodding toward Hu as he left the shop.
Lin stared after the departing tax collector for a heartbeat and then collapsed onto his bench. He released a tremulous breath, contemplating his son, who now was twirling a feather between his fingers and grinning. Lin could only shake his head.
Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured or is upcoming in Daily Science Fiction, Dead Housekeeping, and Akashic Books’ short fiction series. Read more at mynachang.com.
She held her hand up until it was lit by the moonlight coming through the crack to the side of the curtain and clutched her blanket up under her chin with her other hand. She stared at her hand, turning it in the light. It was the full moon, but that meant nothing now. The people of the sun slept when the sun slept, and Cuzco was silent.
Achiyaku dropped her hand at the whisper.
“Can’t you sleep? Is it too bright?”
Alliyma had a good heart, but Achiyaku could have laughed at the misunderstanding.
“No, go back to sleep. It was a long day.”
Alliyma mumbled something sleepily in reply, but Achiyaku didn’t hear. Her younger sister was soon asleep.
It had been a long day, but she felt awake. It was the first ploughing, and they had been brewing chicha beer for weeks to prepare. They had left the acllawasifor the occasion, and she had hidden the unease she always felt upon leaving, upon seeing that she was surrounded by lower Cuzco, by the inner mountains that had once seemed so far. Not that Cuzco wasn’t a marvel—its gold blinding in the sun, its Inca nobles walking the paved streets in their rich robes and jewellery, its grand plazas and palaces things to be gawked at—but to Achiyaku the splendour only made her feel emptier. It was far too easy to look beyond the small city toward the foreign houses nestled above on the hill and below on the plain, to the mountain peaks stretching into the distance beyond the terraced hillsides. It was far too easy to look, and be reminded that she couldn’t see far enough to see the ocean.
It had been two years. It was a lifetime and more, and yet sometimes the past still haunted her, an ache that held her back from being the same as her sisters. The others had all arrived earlier, around ten years old, and they had all come from cities long claimed by the Inca’s empire. At fourteen, Achiyaku was the age of some of the younger priestesses, and soon everything could change all over again. Would her weaving skills, the best in her acllawasi, make her a priestess? Or would she be married away?
“Maybe a warrior will take you away and marry you as a second wife! …If he isn’t picky, that is,” Ninasisa had taunted, throwing her head back with a laugh. She was beautiful—they all were, really, it was part of how they were chosen—but Ninasisa’s beauty was like that of the sun: dazzling and glaring. Fittingly, “Ninasisa” meant “fire flower”, a name she had been born to. Achiyaku, as an outsider, had been renamed when she had arrived. It had seemed cruel, when she had learned enough of Quechua to understand that “Achiyaku” meant “clear water”, that she had been named for water by the very people who had taken her from it.
Ninasisa, as a noblewoman of Cuzco and thus one of the Inca ethnic group, would be married strategically to some other noble, but Achiyaku worried about her own fate. She had had enough of change for one lifetime, had only just become comfortable in the routines of this House of the Sun. She knew what life was like here: day in and day out they stayed in the compound, leaving only for ceremonies, and did weaving, spinning, brewing, worshipping, and cleaning. Sometimes she even felt that she loved it, but on other days she felt like she was suffocating, disappearing along with her memories into the confines of this house. If she married she would be free of this place, but at what cost? What if she married one of the very warriors who had taken down her kingdom, her home, once the last great rival of the Inca’s empire?
Achiyaku turned her head to look at the doorway and focussed on taking slow, steady breaths even as her heart flew. She could see the stone of the small, interior courtyard beneath the curtain, white in the moonlight. She had been taught by the Inca to worship the sun, and she could understood why they revered it in the same way that she could understand why Ninasisa drew everyone’s eye while Achiyaku was overlooked. But she understood other things too. That there was always another side than the bright one, as shown in the symmetry of the great Staff God’s very form: one staff to compliment the other, just as there is night to every day, the sky for the earth, the ebb for the flow of the great ocean’s tide. Her people of the Chimor Empire had always worshipped the moon, for unlike the sun it could be seen in both the day and the night and could pull at the very ocean itself. The adobe walls of the compounds and ciudedelas of her old home, the capital of Chan Chan, had been decorated with pictures of the waves and the creatures of the sea, but here people only looked up. Up to the mountains around them, and higher, to the skies above.
Achiyaku tried to clear her thoughts, to forget as she had so many times before. Normally everything that happened in the House of the Chosen Women was enough to keep her too busy to think—the friends and enemies, the priestesses and newcomers, the work—but perhaps it was the influence of the full moon.
“When the moon is full,” her mother had told her once, long ago, as they had been weaving together, “we are in the hands of the Goddess. On those nights we become like the sea, pushed and pulled by Her tide.”
Was she still pushed and pulled by that tide? Did the Goddess still see her? Did she think she had abandoned her? Achiyaku pressed a hand to her chest. She had not wanted to. The Sun and his children had given her a life of luxury and honour, she who had once been a commoner, who had never even laid eyes on food as rich as what she now cooked, who had never hoped to own textiles as intricate as were now her normal garb, but they had taken her from her people. She was no longer one of the Chimù, her ayllu group was not her own. On the day she had left Chan Chan and journeyed up into the highlands and then south, so far south along the royal road to Cuzco, she had lost everything she had once been, and become something she still didn’t understand.
Achiyaku had been one of the only commoners they had taken—one of the only ones they thought pretty enough—and she had not known the nobles she had made the trek with. Some of them had been sent to other acllawasi—most were far more secluded than hers—but she and some others had been sent to Cuzco itself, to more fully tie the newly defeated Chimor empire to the Inca empire, and to make her an example for her people. But, she wondered, would her people even recognise her now, or she them?
Achiyaku closed her eyes and remembered what were now fading images. She forgot the stonework and saw cane and mud brick walls again. She forgot the channelled rivers and saw the great wells, remembered walking down their ramps to fetch water. She remembered the smell of salt on the wind, the deep river valleys and the dry desert plains. She remembered how the city stretched on and on in every direction, farther than she could ever have walked, and the cramped rooms of her neighbourhood. She remembered her father and brothers working with metals, her mother’s lessons, her mother’s smile. She heard the noise of the streets busy with tens of thousands of people, saw the labyrinth of the walls and their motifs of the sea reminding her always of the ocean, so near. She remembered a name, a different name, spoken by those she had loved. She remembered belonging.
In a small stone room in Cuzco, an aclla lay among her sisters, a shaft of moonlight slanting across her sleeping form.
Frances Koziar is a Middle American archaeologist specializing in Aztec human sacrifice and ontology. She has non-academic publications in 10+ literary magazines and is seeking an agent for a diverse NA/YA fantasy novel. She lives in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Author website: https://franceskoziar.wixsite.com/author
Octavia Randolph is the author of the Circle of Ceridwen Saga set in 9th century England and Scandinavia. The series, which currently includes seven books, follows the central character, Ceridwen, the orphaned daughter of a Saxon nobleman, through encounters with invading Danes and Saxon chieftains during this age of upheaval.
The first book, The Circle of Ceridwen, begins with the seven kingdoms of Angel-land before they were united into one England by Ælfred the Great. Books two and three, Ceridwen of Kilton and The Claiming, take place in England for the most part, while the fourth and fifth volumes, Hall of Tyr and Tindr, are set on the Baltic island of Gotland. Silver Hammer, Golden Cross, the sixth book in the series, moves between the two locations. Randolph’s latest book, Sidroc the Dane, is set mostly in Denmark and tells the story of the childhood of one of the main characters. Randolph has also written two novellas, Ride, a retelling of the Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka, from an Icelandic saga, and a biographical novel about the art and social critic John Ruskin called Light, Descending.
Maggie Fry: What was your inspiration to write a book set in ninth century England and Scandinavia? How did you start?
Octavia Randolph: The entire sags for me is a cultural autobiography. I am interested in what made England, and notice I make the distinction between Great Britain, the United Kingdom and England. We’re talking of England geographically and conceptually. What made these people rise to be the greatest world power? There’s Ælfred, just twenty-three years of age, who watches kingdom after kingdom topple until his is the only kingdom standing. This young man who thought himself destined for the church and not for warfare because he had four older brothers, suddenly found himself thrust into this situation and he must uphold what’s left of Englishness and did it extraordinarily well. It took a tremendous amount of silver. Ælfred and his brothers literally paid the Danes off with 24,000 actual pounds of silver to cease and desist, leave us alone. And it was never enough. The Danes were always forming and reforming; you could not make a deal with one chieftain that would be honored by the next. Because Ælfred was the tactician and the inspiring person that he was, he was able to craft a lasting peace with Guthrum to allow trade in both areas. It was a partitioned society, but there could be trade and the beginnings of what formed the final big, bloom of English culture until the catastrophe of 1066. So yes, it’s a fascinating story.
M.F.: Your books are meticulous in their historical accuracy and detailed descriptions. You have obviously done a lot of research.
O.R.: As a little girl, I loved looking at anything Anglo-Saxon. All the artifacts fascinated me. The Sutton Hoo treasure, those buckles with the garnets and the carnelians, the horse trappings. There was something about the physical artifacts of the era that made it so visceral to me. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skillfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes and learned to spin with a drop spindle. In 1999 on a huge research tour of all of Scandinavia, I found Gotland, my spiritual home, and that was why in The Claiming Sidroc and Ceridwen end up on Gotland. I’m so happy that, almost Twenty years later, I am finally able to move there myself and make it my permanent home.
I feel a responsibility to adhere to historical veracity because history is so little taught today. We rely on our novels, television shows, and films to an almost frightening extent to inform us about the past. And because I believe that fact is more fascinating and thrilling than fiction, I am happy to use a rigid historical framework. There are plenty of interstices to allow me to weave my characters within what has come down to us as received history.
M.F.: Did you get to England?
O.R.: Yes. Seeing things in books and early exposure to early English poetry was wonderful. The cadence of the language spoke to me. I love this and I want to get in there and there was so much scope for imagining. We are so lucky to have the written material that we do have. I deal with two extremely powerful cultures, the Norse and the Saxons, who had terrific oral poetry traditions. But we have so much more on the English side because the Norse only had runes, painstakingly carved into wood and stone with knives and chisels, whereas the Anglo-Saxons had scribes who could write in both Latin and Old English on parchment with readily made-up ink, and so, we have so much material.
M.F.: And what we do have written down about the Norse was recorded hundreds of years later.
O.R.: Yes, that’s right, Snorri Sturulson, and he died in 1241. We don’t even know the name of the Svear, the Swedish king, in the ninth century who made an agreement with Gotland. We know the day on which Ælfred died — October 27, 899 — because there were scribes to record things, but there are enormous gaps in Scandinavian history because there was no easy way to record anything. These two conflicting cultures were literally blood cousins, but the earlier Christianization of the English gave them the gift of literacy.
M.F.: You use some actual historical figures, for instance Ælfred, but many of your characters are created by you. Are they based on historical people?
O.R.: I would say that they are archetypes. First of all, every name I use is an attested name. I don’t ever create a name, whether it’s Norse or Angle or Saxon. I never use a name that I can’t point to and say, “Yes, there really was an individual named this way.” For instance, Ceridwen, who we know was a half Welsh and half Angle girl, raised by the Benedictines, was taught to read and write. That is a believable scenario because we know that some women, like Ælfred’s mother, were literate, and she was responsible for teaching her four sons to read. I look at certain archetypes I find in history and say, “Yes, it’s alright that my characters behave this way because I can find other examples in history that behave similarly.” There was a great jarl named Sidroc. That was fun because the moment I saw that name, many years ago, I loved it and thought, “What a tremendous name!” It had so much strength, such potency.
M.F.: Your books are self-published. Why did you make that decision and what have your experiences been?
O.R.: I never set out to self-publish because when I started writing Circle of Ceridwen Saga book one, it was 1991 and there was no such thing as self-publishing. There were traditional publishers and there were vanity presses. But I did go the traditional route, and when I completed that first manuscript, I was able to place it with an agent, who had no success whatsoever in placing it with a publishing house. That went on through a couple of years and a couple of agents. Finally, in 1998, when I first had an author website–I am very proud and happy that it is the twentieth anniversary of Octavia.net now because there are very few authors who had websites twenty years ago. One of the reasons I wanted a website is first because I wanted to share all of my research, and so I wrote scores of mini essays on Anglo-Saxon and Viking life, and medieval life in general. I used the website as a dissemination source for people who were interested in the era. Before the advent of Wikipedia I got a tremendous number of hits. There was not a lot of information out there.
The other thing I did in 1998 was to take a page out of Charles Dickens’s book and publish serially. So jointly with my then agent, we thought if you can show New York publishers that you’ve got a platform and followers now, that may sway their opinion.
M.B.: That’s what authors are often told.
O.R.: It actually does not matter at all to traditional publishers. There have been many instances of people with enormous platforms, yet traditional publishers will not look at them or only look at them in a specific way. For instance, [they will only consider] print only deals because they don’t want the bloom off of the rose. They want to mold something themselves. Anyway, nothing kept happening. Fortunately, I kept writing the saga and pretty much had given up the idea of ever being published. But I needed to continue the story for my own sake, so I completed the trilogy. By then the world of publishing was changing, and in 2008 Amazon introduced the Kindle. It revolutionized things because it made it easier for people to self-publish.
I did not put the trilogy on Amazon until 2012. When I did, I was fortunate enough to have a body of work — three initial novels — and that was an important leg up because people could move from one book to the next and reach an almost immediate audience. It proved to me that I did have an audience and potentially quite a large one.
Armed with the fact that the books were selling well, I felt confident to continue the saga. There are now seven books, all under my own imprint. When I look at the entire dramatic arc of the characters in history that I am covering, I foresee potentially ten books or more. I am happy that I persevered, I believed in my talent, I believed in my power to communicate a good story, but also I was able to do this because finally technology caught up to the point where I could, in fact, reach the audience and bypass the gatekeepers.
M.F.: When did you found Pyewacket Press?
O.R.: In 2012, when I first published on Kindle, I wanted an imprint name. After Kindle, I very quickly got on Nook, iBooks, which is now called Apple Books, Kobo, which is a Canadian retailer which sells e-books primarily in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Europe. Then print books followed and audio books. I have done all of that under the aegis of Pyewacket Press. I have used the name of my beloved little Bengal cat since 2012.
M.F.: One of the issues with self-publishing is that anybody can put anything out there. How do you distinguish yourself from others?
O.R.: The figure was just released that a million books were self-published in the last twelve months. A million! That’s astounding. Discoverability was always difficult, but it is more challenging than ever to differentiate yourself and to be discovered in such a crowded market. Yet there are people knowing tremendous success all the time, even in the most crowded markets, because if you are writing thrillers or romance, you are already writing to a huge existing market of voracious readers who are great consumers of books. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to be in a crowded market. You just really have to keep high standards because you are writing for readers who have a lot to compare you against. But I think any dedicated and talented writer can make their way today. It just takes tremendous perseverance.
M.F.: Do you think self-publishing is more fan-driven than traditional publishing?
O.R.: Absolutely! In traditional publishing you have to have an and an acquiring and a marketing and acquisitions staff who all love your work. They have to become your fans, but that’s a fairly small team. Whereas if you can release your books in multiple markets around the world, in whatever language you’re supporting, you can get a much broader base, and those are the people who actually buy your book. So, yes, it’s highly fan-driven but every writer needs to have fans. And those are people who endorse and are passionate about your work.
M.F.: What obstacles have you encountered during the self-publishing process?
O.R.: Technically it can be pretty daunting. The actual publishing itself is simple; Amazon has a downloadable free guide that walks you through the steps of formatting your Kindle book. It’s more technical to set up a print book on Create Space or Ingram, but it can be done. I think the supporting technical roles of managing the business side of advertising and promotion are very time-consuming and can be difficult. Be prepared to hire the best talent possible, whether it’s for your cover or your audio book. There’s always a way around technical or time limitations, but you need to be strategic with your resources and invest in yourself, to understand that the most important part of starting a career is to put out a quality book and then to promote it properly. I don’t care if you are eating beans; it’s worth it. Seeing those initial royalties roll in and realizing you are communicating with people, connecting with people who love your work, then it’s worth every sacrifice you’ve made.
M.F.: I would assume the good part of self-publishing is the ability to control the entire process.
O.R.: I have many friends who have been traditionally published and have been driven half mad by editors, book designers and others. Even though you are going it alone and you have full veto rights on things, that responsibility is an awesome one, and hopefully you are relying on the judgment of people you trust to guide you. Yes, you do have that control. You have the control over where your books are going to be, how they will be presented, how they will be marketed, and it could mean quite a bit of trial and error because you’re foregoing the expertise traditional publishers bring, but you are able to make one-on-one connections with independent bookstores and to make those marketing decisions as to how you are going to present your book to the public, and that’s enormous. It’s an enormous responsibility, but it is also an enormous freedom.
M.F.: Is there anything you’d like to add?
O.R.: I’m often asked to advise people who are starting out. I would say, obviously, write the best book that you can. That’s really the most important thing. Don’t rush to publication. Make sure it’s a book that you love and are proud of every word.
The second bit of advice that I give is that it is enormously helpful to have a body of work. If you have two or three books, it’s huge when you are publishing under your own imprint. If you offer book one at a low price because you want people to be introduced to it, or you’re offering it for free with a sign-up on your website, then you want to be able to give people something so when they love that book, they will be able to go on and buy books two and three at full price. If you have more than one book to begin with, that’s just marvelous. You don’t want to come out with a great book and have people say, “Oh, I love this author,” and then there’s nowhere to go. Obviously, I write series and it’s the same group of characters moving through time and space. That in itself is addictive for the reader and you want the story to continue, but even if you’re an author who’s writing maybe about an unconnected group of characters, but you form an audience in book one, they are going to want to see your next book. If you can have two or three books before you begin, that’s a wonderful advantage for you.
The third thing that I love to tell people, and I can’t say it often enough, is that, sadly, we have brought up a generation of readers who think books should be free. Free or cheap. It’s so important, and I say this over and over again, if you do not value your own talent, do not expect anyone else to do so. I’m always encouraging people to price their books appropriately within their genre. My books are expensive because people who read historical fiction will pay a bit more for the quality of the material, and I just feel that people who are going out with perma-free books are adding to the problem and not the solution. It’s alright to offer book one for free in exchange for something like building your email list, but I do feel very strongly that one must value one’s own talent and as quickly as possible build people up to paying full price. Look at an author in your genre whom you very much admire and whose work is similar to your own and price yourself accordingly. Hopefully, it is very close if not at what their Kindle book is selling for. Again, I feel we have to stop this. It should be a rare thing to have a free book. It should be a treat. We wouldn’t have the number of books out there clogging people’s Kindles if there was just more discernment from authors themselves. Much of it is desperation and driven by lack of self-worth. If you’ve written a good book, it is worthy and you are worthy of being well-paid for it.
Maggie Fry has spent the last thirty years on a small hobby farm in northwestern Pennsylvania, where she raised sheep, goats, pigs, chickens, rabbits and ducks, in addition to rescuing cats and dogs. When she wasn’t playing in the dirt, she wrote freelance articles for newspapers and magazines, as well as teaching courses in writing and public speaking at the university level. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College and currently teaches in the Communications Department at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pennsylvania.