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And Anathema

I always think fondly of my old master, Hubrecht of Ain, on cold clear evenings such as this. Evenings when the pall of smoke from a thousand cook stoves hangs pungent in the air and the black velvet sky with its endless spattering of stars seems not far off but mere inches above our heads. The old ones believed that the via Lactia, the Milky Way, was caused by droplets of milk spilled from the breasts of the goddess Hera. They had wondrous imaginations, those ancients.

I remember how Hubrecht’s deep voice rang in the Observatorium, that chilly stone cupola in the high Alps where we passed so many nights. There I sat in darkness as rich and black as the soot from a tallow candle and scratched numbers on waxed panels, using a sharp stylus tipped with the finger bone of a mouse. We could not rely on ink because it would freeze solid, so the ancient tabula rasa had to do. And he, Hubrecht, would stand still as death, his yellowed eye pressed unblinking against a bubble of glass at the small end of his far-seeing tube, as he muttered numbers and degrees to me, all the while ooohhing at each new marvel.

Today, Hubrecht seems like a figure from legend, a giant of a man from a more heroic age. It brings up my hot-blood to recall the ways those priests hurt him in the name of faith, humiliated him. He was not a mountebank or a necromancer but a man of science, a pillar of wisdom.

Above us in those Alpine latitudes was a sky exploding with stars, crisscrossed with bright streaks of meteors. Some nights I dreamed that I could travel to those stars, as one would take a mail boat to the next town. With unbelievable clarity, I saw a stout vessel, a colossal metal shaft rising on a column of fire, bound for the heavens. When I told my dreams to the master he drew back his hand to strike me. Then his wrinkled face cracked and, a miracle, he laughed and nodded. Instead of a blow, he patted me gently on the head. Perhaps he had dreamed of this too? We never spoke of it again.

Now, as I open his notebooks, some parts of them in my own hand, I am warmed by the old man’s wit, his scholarship and his crabby complaining. We shall miss him forever. On a page with a torn edge, he writes:

It is a structure of such heavenly magnificence that it eludes description. A Ring! Gigantic, incredible. Surrounding the planet Saturnus! Each night subtending a slightly different angle; its movement so small as to be unknowable without the finest markings on the quadrant.

If this ring truly exists, it will overturn a thousand years of false astronomy. The great crystalline spheres of the Ptolemaic sky will shatter like a drunkard’s jeroboam. And even better, won’t those whoreson Jesuits scream like they’ve been scalded—the rogues.

Here, at the perfect center of a 1000 cubit square, even one candle is forbidden because its glow will confound and dim our sight, much as octopodiae stain clear water with their ink.

Night after night I fix myself in place, gazing through this brazen tube, its greater glass and its lesser in perfect conjunction with mine own eye. Here I stand, seeing farther than any man who has ever lived, Popes included. Seeing into the very heavens, perhaps into the mind of great God himself.

After a lifetime of pondering the changes in the seasons, the puzzling rise and fall of the ocean’s tides, the slow aging of rocks, the alchemy of water as it thickens into ice, the flight of birds large and small, I have been given a gift beyond price, a treasure. Even the sharp needles in my knees and old elbows cannot dim my great joy. I must clench my fist to warm it and to keep from shaking the tube.

I was thought a fool as a boy. And I have been called a madman more than once. But they had to treat me differently after I taught the Duke of Parma how to aim his cannons. Now in my dotage, I shall have my triumph. No one shall gainsay my labors, deny my result, my Saturnus. My place, my glory….

Here he breaks off writing. And I know why—for I stood next to him. At that moment the mossy-cheeked ‘prentice, Guilliam, no more than twelve years old, ran into the dome of the observatorium, his eyes wide with horror, his clothes torn. Blood redder than Mars ran down his face from a deep cut in the forehead. When he saw our master, he stopped and screamed.

“Run my lord… the Inquisition!”

How I wept as they took Hubrecht. How I ached from the beating I received defending him. He shouted to me in coded Latin to save the tube, his precious far-seeing tube. Of course

I did. The next entry in his notebooks is almost three years later. And the hand which writes it shakes, badly. They tortured him, beat him. He did not speak a word, would not confess or recant his science until, cruelest of all, they arranged that he should not be able to see the night sky.

______________________________________________________________

Gregory Von Dare is a writer and dramatist specializing in forward-leaning theatre and fiction, often with a humorous or ironic twist. He attended Chicago City College and the University of Illinois. While living in Los Angeles, he worked for Universal Studios, Disney, Armed Forces Radio and Fox Sports. Recently, his fiction appeared on the Soft Cartel, Out of the Gutter, 50 Word Stories, Rejected Manuscripts, Silent Motorist, and Horror Tree websites. One of his mystery short stories will be published in print this fall by Flame Tree Press in England. Greg is an Affiliate Member of Mystery Writers of America. He now lives outside Chicago where certain people will never find him.

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Women’s March on Versailles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Have you seen her or not?’

‘I’m not an informant.’

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

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

‘Where’s “that way”?’

‘I’ll show you.’

‘I’ll be quicker on my own.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I don’t like spies.’

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

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

‘I’m cold,’ Mme Macabre said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Non, It’s for him.’

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

‘He exists.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What possessed you? Running off like that?’

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

‘Who told you that?’

‘Mme Macabre with the basket.’

‘Did she give you cheese?’

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

‘Please, don’t be angry,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m taking you home,’ Victoire said.

‘I’m going to Versailles.’

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

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

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

‘Not if they cannot find the royal stores.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You better get on,’ Victoire said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Are we there yet?’ Cécile asked.

______________________________________________________________

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

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Cassandra of Troy

Listen soldier. Your master may have told you rumours of my madness, or he may have told you nothing at all. Agathe here has been my handmaiden for many years now, she will vouch for my honesty when I ask of you what I am about to ask. The three of us here, locked together in this room, are the last hope of Troy.

Agathe, take this message from me and give it to – your name, soldier? Belos. A fine name. Give it to him. Read it soldier, please. I may be your prisoner but even prisoners have the right to be heard, no? Ah, they never taught you to read.

This is what the message says: that this offering of peace is not what it seems. The behemoth now standing inside our gates is no mere statue, no mere toy, but a vessel for a veritable army. In it, enemy soldiers lie in wait. They are listening to the people of Troy celebrate the end of the war. But when the jubilations end, when the people of this city put their heads down to sleep, these vipers will strike. They will cut with their steel, they will rend flesh from bone and our streets will to rivers of blood. All of Troy shall know the sound a soul makes as it slips it bonds.

I can see by the set of your brow that you do not believe me, Belos the soldier. No matter. I am not sure that I believe myself. All I know is that terror has possessed my heart, that I must speak while I have a throat and a mouth with which to speak. I must speak lest I scream. I ask this of you because of my fear for Troy and those who rejoice within its walls. I am its princess, Cassandra, daughter of King Priam and Queen Hecuba. You must believe that I have only the best interests of the people at heart. Mark my words: there is no safe place for you soldier, unless you do what I ask. You will die come the dawn when they strike. It will be you who is struck down when the great warrior Agamemnon comes to take me as his prize.

How do I know what will befall us all? Because I remember the future. This is my malady, my curse. You laugh. No matter. These pictures in my minds, they are like the memories of dreams, and they have the quality of a dream.

You refuse me. Who are you to refuse me? I may be your prisoner, for now, but I am still your Princess. And you must obey. You say that I am mad.

Agathe, is my madness known throughout the land? Don’t stay silent. Tell me. I know I must seem mad, given what I have just done. Agathe, you were not there so let me tell you. I went to the public square by our city’s grand gates, having heard the rumours of the Greeks’ great gift to our people, a token of their surrender. I had a fear on me, that something I had foreseen long ago had finally arrived. And when I saw it, a huge wooden horse, that fear gripped me so totally that I screamed. All in the square beheld their mad princess as she grabbed an axe from a nearby workman and ran for the behemoth, hoping to crack it open like a great egg, to reveal the soldiers within. I was grabbed, pulled at, arrested, my royal dignity taken from me. Doubt not – I am here in my rooms in the palace but I am a prisoner. I am your prisoner.

Belos, Agathe here was a mere chattel slave when my family rose her up. Now she is a slave-maiden of the palace, vassal to those of royal blood. And yet she – and yet you refuse to answer my question, ungrateful girl – ah, she speaks.

See, soldier, listen to the girl’s words. It is not my madness that is known, but my gift for prophecy.  Fine then, my claim to prophecy. Yes, some have come true.

Agathe, water.

What do you think of this fair maiden? Is she not a beauty. More, Agathe, there is a great thirst on me. More. Enough, sit.

Do you not think her beautiful? I can tell that you do by the way you looked at her when you locked us in. She is well-fed, fair. Young. All a brave soldier such as you should want as a reward for your sacrifices in the name of Troy, for your heroism. Do this last deed for me and you will be rewarded; I will allow you to take her in marriage. You will be given land and wealth, a title even if you desire it. Ah, now your hilarity has failed you. This is well within my power and you know it.

Agathe, stand for the soldier. Stand! Turn for him, let him see all of you. Yes, you do have to obey me as long as you stand within these walls. Disobey and suffer. How would you like it if I let the soldier Belos have you without having to marry you first? You would be disgraced and you know it. Soldier, she is a fine prize, certainly worth what I ask of you.

You will not go? But see her slender neck, her fine hands. See her hips; she will bear you many children if I command it of her.

From where do you come? A farm boy, I see. So it is not just Agathe who has been raised up by service to the crown. You too have benefited. Therefore, is it not your honour-bound duty to do as I ask?

Your lord’s commands do not outstrip mine! Your war-lords answer to the crown, they answer to me. They may hold me in this room, they may bar the door, they may run me with a sword but they must obey those who veins run with royal blood!

When those foreign hordes come there will be no commanders, no lord and ladies, no King or Queen. No Princess… no Agathe, leave me be. I am not tired, I am not desirous of sleep. My eyes are terribly open. Take my message, soldier. Time slips out grasp every moment you delay. Go. Go.

He will not. He will not.

What’s it to you if the stories of my madness are true or exaggerated? Surely you value your life. Then you should take all precautions to guard it. How can a corpse fulfil its duty? Go then, go with my message. If I am right you will be saved. If not, then all will be well.

Believe me now, I beg of you. If you do not believe my prophecy, because I fear that that is what it is, believe my terror is real. Let your charity guide you from your post, to your commander, to one who can help us. Let your soldier’s gallantry propel you with my message in hand. See, the stars outside are smouldering as they always have in my memories of this night.

* * * * *

I didn’t hear you, Agathe, say it again.

Oh, Belos doesn’t want to listen to a mad woman speak, does he?

I remember the future. They rise the way silt rises through water, when disturbed at the bottom of a pond – hazy, partial, yet distinct. I mentioned the temple. Yes, that is when it began. Myself and my brother, taken by that child’s sense of adventure, of freedom even though we were of the palace and therefore had no freedom. We ran past the guards, who clunked after us in their armour, giving good chase but not good enough. Down the winding streets we went, passing our subjects. Groups of children at play – I longed to join them but knew I could not. Those urchins had no choices, most would die soon, but in a strange way they were unburdened too, whereas we would inevitably have to return to the strictures of royal life.

At least I knew this. But Helenus ran like a wild goose among them, until his clothes were torn and dust-choked. He almost looked like one of them, except too well-fed to be poor. His eyes glinted with joy; there was no hint then of the stern warrior he would have to become.

Among the crowded stalls and tables we found a small white horse, finely carved out of wood. Look, my brother said, delighting in it. I loved it, wanted it. But we had no money with us, so we left it behind. I kept thinking about that horse and said to Helenus how much I had liked it. He vanished into the crowd, leaving me bewildered, abandoned and worried about how I would get by on my own. Then he reappeared: he’d stolen the horse for me.

Guiltily but glad of it, I buried it away in the folds of my robes and we ventured on, through the maze of streets. As afternoon became evening we knew that those in the palace would be fearing for us, that we must begin our journey back. Circling back, we saw the steeple of the temple of Apollo rising over the rooftops – let us go there, said Helenus, the adventurous one – and he ran ahead of me, shouting at me to race him there. I darted after him and by taking a side street overtook him, and I was the first to blunder, breathless, up the stone steps and to heave open the ancient doors into that hallowed hall of silence.

I feared the houses of the Gods. I may be a princess but I was conscious that I knew nothing of the world – so how could I know the deities’ obscure workings, the calculations they made about the weight of our small mortal lives? Looking back, Helenus had still not arrived. In the temple stood a statue of the god himself, standing proudly and gazing upwards lyre in hand, and at his feet a wreath of laurels and quiver of arrows, all hewn out of stone, their points blunted by the hands of many worshippers.

Helenus appeared behind me. What are you looking at? He asked. It’s just an old statue, they’re everywhere. I ignored him, a strange feeling had arrested me. It seemed that the statue had turned its eyes downward to regard me, and I swore I could hear the music of His granite lyre… then I was standing on my balcony, looking down on the streets of Troy – all were filled with defiled corpses. Everywhere the city was burning and filled with death – in the distance I perceived the proud head of a giant horse, like my toy grown into hideous gigantism, and the night was filled with the screams of the dying. I recognised some of those corpses as my brother and sisters, members of the court, of the upper classes, lying dead next to the peasants and the beggars, the merchants and the thieves, the landlords and the ladies, the travelling bards, all united finally by death.

Then, Helenus was kneeling over me, shaking me awake, fear in his eyes. I managed to stand, dazed, unsure even of where I was. I dropped my horse – when he tried to give it back to me I screamed, struck by a terrible fear, and a terrible knowledge.

When we finally left the temple to make our way back to the palace, I looked back at the god, but his eyes were turned away.

Helenus had called for guards. They got us home – but it was no more a home for me. Home stopped existing then, as I had seen its end. But at all times I was assailed by doubt – what had I seen? Was it a vision or just some sort of fever dream? I could still hear that music of the lyre, or imagined that I could. I imagined that it had wormed its way into my ears, opening them up to new sounds, new vibrations. I would hear things, see things, that no one else could.

Look. The night is no longer black, but grey. Dawn begins its approach. The revellers are going quiet. The city’s sleep begins.

Yes, fine Agathe. You may sleep too. I want for nothing now. You will not sleep, guard? Fine. That is your decision. Is there no convincing you? I doubt myself but that does not mean I do not want to take precautions. If there is any chance that the sleeper in our midst is a harbinger of the death I saw all those years ago – then I want to take it.

No. No, I see that you will not go.

There is no hope now. A darkness has come upon my heart, that same night of the soul that descended on me in the temple of Apollo. I have spent many nights in doubt, questioning myself and the truth of my memories. I wish I could ask the future whether I should keep trying, or whether I should leap now from the balcony and be done with it.

I don’t need to tell you that no one has believed me, in the same way that you don’t believe me now. Even when my memories of the future have been realised, become present realities, then retreated into past, I was doubted, questioned at every turn, my prophecies explained away as mere chance.

When I was recovering from that incident in the temple, my mother, the Queen Hecuba, came to see me. I tried to tell her what had happened, but she simply brushed my cheek with the back of her hand – warmly, but insistently. I imagine she was afraid of what I might say.

My child, she said. She called me the brightest, most imaginative of all her children, the one who ran to her in the morning with news of my dreams…

When spring came, it was decided, on whose decree I don’t know, that I was free to wander the castle again. But everywhere I was watched. I was not allowed to leave the halls of the palace. A girl from the kitchens who had been my friend, in spite of the distance put between us by our station, was glad of my return and eager to tell me everything that had been happening in the palace. But as soon as we embraced I remembered her death. I remembered that she would grow from an awkward, gangly child into a beautiful, elegant woman, an appealing target for marauding soldiers. I tried to tell her, to warn her, but she pulled away in horror – as if it was what I wanted to happen. As if I, by foretelling the terrors of the future, was awaiting them too.

And so I was tarred: the dreamer of dreams, the one whose mind had broken, the mad daughter of the kind and queen of Troy.

I remember what will happen to you soldier. I remember the glint of the blade, the panicked eyes of the Greek soldier that will kill you by the very door you now guard.

What? The message is on the floor there by Agathe, she dropped it in her sleep. Oh, now you will take it for me? Look, it is almost dawn. All of our chances have passed us by. It doesn’t matter. I remember what will happen to us: all must die. No future I have seen has not happened. Here is the rest of what I remember: the invaders will tear through our city’s tender flesh and render it to dust. Who would have thought that something as permanent as a city could be so frail? It is so hard to imagine – the end, death, destitution. It always happens to other people, and it seems so abstract, until it finally comes for you. I do not remember dying here – I must be taken as a concubine for the warrior Agamemnon as his reward for his bravery in battle, his military genius. And there, his wife, his vengeful wife will kill him, and kill me too in consequence. Did you hear the stories of what he has done? He sacrificed his own daughter to the Gods so they would grant his armies safe passages to our shore.

I have no foretelling of what death is like. That remains as much a black mystery for me as it does for all others. I only hope that I may meet Apollo finally and demand answers from him, demand to know why he has cursed me so.

Listen! Do you hear that? Agathe, awake! Do you hear? It sounds like – yes, it is the clash of swords. A scream! A cry for help! Look – they grey dawn is glowing red. The fires have begun. Oh, the yells of terror! It is happening, it has come. Oh, terrible dawn. Why did I have to be right? Why couldn’t I have been simply a mad girl!

Hear that – that is the palace door being torn down. That is the sound it makes as it crashes to the floor. The streets are filled with fleeing people – come to the window, look at what happens – there is no hope for any of us. No, leave me to my despair! I tried, my whole life I tried. I tried to save us but no one listened.

Agathe: fear not. Your death has not come for you. You will be among the saved but – listen, quieten down. There will be a price for your life. You will be wedded to a foreign invader and taken to a foreign land. Decide now whether this price for your life is worth paying. You will never see your loved ones again, everyone you know now will be dead or far from you. If you do not want to pay this price, leap now and take control. You have been a slave all your life. This is your only chance to control your fate. No? Fine, that is your choice. I choose to meet the end I have foreseen, that has always been laid out for me.

Hear the clash of steel, of armour outside? Your fellow troupe has all been killed. They are bashing down the door! The future has come for us all – well, I am here, standing, to meet it. I have my certainty now, and none may take it from me.

______________________________________________________________

Cathal Kehoe grew up in County Laois, Ireland. After studying English and Film in NUI Galway, he moved to Dublin where he currently lives. He works in Marketing and runs a regular group of like-minded writers who meet every two weeks in Dublin City Centre. In addition to the 9-5, his job on the evenings and weekends is to write short stories and work towards completing his first novel. He has previously had work published in Headstuff.org’s Fortnightly Fiction series. 

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The Magician

In early 1860s Virginia, Samuel was a rare thing, a free Negro. Rarer still, he was not a farmer, tradesman, or manual laborer. He was a magician in the tradition of Henry “Box” Brown and his talent came as natural to him as breathing.

Samuel hadn’t known his parents, Hezekiah and Hannah, but he owed his freedom to them. Both had been slaves on a plantation owned by Mr. Robert Carlisle. Determined to never see a child of his sold, Hezekiah had spilled his seed on the ground with regularity. Mr. Robert Carlisle, believing Hannah to be barren, had decided that Hezekiah and Hannah would be granted their freedom upon his death. That was how Hezekiah and Hannah came to be free people.

Shortly afterward, Hannah became pregnant with Samuel. But being pregnant at an advanced age and in poor health proved too much for her. She died in childbirth. Left a widower, Hezekiah resolved to raise their infant son on his own. But that was not to be. While working in a field with a new model plow he’d borrowed, he severed a chunk of flesh out of his left leg. The wound, which went without proper treatment, festered and turned gangrenous. As a result, his leg had to be amputated. But, the amputation took place too late. The infection had spread throughout his body and killed him.

A childless spinster negro school teacher took in the orphaned infant. The woman, Miss Rachel, lived alone in a house she’d inherited from her mother, Sara. Hailing from Louisiana, Sara had lived in the town for three years when Rachel was born.

She raised Rachel on her own and had a red schoolhouse built beside her home so Rachel could teach. Though Rachel never had many students, few negroes were allowed to attend school, she practiced her vocation with the zeal of a calling. When Sara died, the townspeople assumed the house would be sold, and the school torn down. Instead, to everyone’s surprise, Sara had owned both outright, leaving Rachel the legal owner of her mother’s property.

Though always courteous to the other townspeople, Miss Rachel was thought standoffish. She kept to herself and never displayed deference to the town’s white shopkeepers. Like a white woman, she told them what she wanted in proper English while looking them right in the eye. Some folks said she acted that way because of her high yellow complexion and wavy shoulder-length black hair. Others thought she put on airs due to her relationship with Mr. Bart, a wealthy white plantation owner.

Mr. Bart was the sole man who ever visited Miss Rachel. She was never seen with a suitor. Folks said you could set a pocket watch by his 7:00 pm Tuesday and Saturday evening appearances on her verandah. There was some speculation that theirs was a romantic relationship. But in truth, they’d only sit in her parlor talking, their behavior and mannerisms having more in common with siblings than lovers.

It was Mr. Bart who introduced Samuel to magic. After arriving at Miss Rachel’s, he’d always ask after Samuel. Once Samuel appeared, he’d pull a coin from behind his ear or do some other trick.

As he grew older, Samuel asked Mr. Bart to show him the secrets to his tricks. Impressed by Samuel’s burgeoning intellect, Mr. Bart began teaching him how to do magic. Samuel proved an excellent pupil. He practiced his technique until he mastered each trick. Mr. Bart then started buying special tricks from a shopkeeper in town to give to Samuel. Once Samuel could do a new trick perfectly, he’d perform it with Mr. Bart and Miss Rachel serving as his audience.

Though pleased with Samuel’s talent for magic, Miss Rachel focused on educating him and ensuring that he was well cared for. In the tiny one-room schoolhouse, she drilled him and her other few pupils on their numbers and letters. To teach him the value of work, she had him chop wood and stack it in the school’s cellar. When the weather turned cool, he owned tending the stove that kept the school warm. Upon reaching adulthood, Samuel began performing as a magician with Miss Rachel’s blessing. By then she’d gotten on in years, so he continued to live in her home where he could look after her.

To earn his living, Samuel traveled from town to town in Virginia on a sad-eyed donkey, named Toby. Advertising for his shows always took place three days before his Saturday performance. A wooly headed small barefoot negro boy called Jim would miraculously appear in a raggedy shirt and britches cinched at the waist with a rough hemp rope. He’d go door to door addressing the owners of the local business establishments as “Cap’n” or “Suh”, asking to tack up posters. They’d dismiss the sleepy-eyed looking dark-skinned boy with a protruding lower lip as slow in the head with hardly a glance. Once the posters were up, Jim would paper the town with flyers. He’d put them on the seats of horse-drawn carriages and tuck them beneath saddles to ensure word of the show got around the town. Once his tasks were complete, Jim would vanish.

At daybreak, on the day of a show, Samuel would ride down the town’s main street astride Toby. Wearing a rusty brown medium crown bowler, a yellowed cotton shirt, frayed braces, trousers, and scuffed brown shoes with empty eyelets, his head would swivel left and right, noting the town’s streets and alleys.

Tied to the back of his saddle was a bedroll and a pair of weathered saddlebags hung across Toby’s haunches. Samuel kept his performance clothes and freeman papers in the saddlebags. A second set of the papers lay neatly folded in the hollowed out heel of his left shoe.

As Toby and Samuel made their way into town, Samuel stopped for a moment in its center. After staring at the makeshift wooden scaffolding for hangings that would serve as the stage for his evening performance he continued on his way. When he reached the far end of town, he tied Toby to a hitching rail above a gray wooden watering trough. While Toby slurped water, Samuel unlashed the saddlebags’ strap. He reached inside it, lifted out his performance clothes, and laid them across the saddle. Then he removed his hat, stripped off his shirt and splashed the upper half of his body with some of the trough’s dark stagnant water. Next, he stepped to the far side of Toby, dropped his braces, slipped out of his trousers, and gave his lower half a quick dousing. After drying himself with the end of a scratchy blanket, he slid on his good black trousers. A dazzling white linen shirt, black waistcoat, and black frock coat followed. He slipped on his socks, then set about polishing his black dress shoes to a high sheen. Having finished dressing, he smeared Macassar Oils into his hair. Then he brushed his thick kinky hair backward until it lay as flat to his skull as it could.

With his toilet complete, Samuel started rehearsing. With the patter designed to disguise his feints and misdirection going through his mind, he started with close sleight-of-hand tricks, palming coins, making them appear and disappear. Then paper tricks. After crumpling paper in the palm of his hand, he blew into his fist and opened his hand, revealing an empty palm. He moved on to playing cards, making them leap through the air from one hand to the other. Rope tricks followed. Using his fingers as scissors, he cut a rope into three pieces of differing lengths. Then, holding the pieces in one hand, he jerked his wrist downward, and they reassembled into a single solid rope. The practicing continued until Samuel had successfully completed every trick intended to distract and confuse the audience, save two.

With the sun sinking in the sky, the crowd of white landowners and their progeny gathered. Samuel strode onto the scaffolding’s platform carrying a lumpy canvas bag. As he set down the bag a hush fell over the crowd at the sight of the negro magician. Expecting their reaction, Samuel leaped down into the crowd and pulled a coin from behind the ear of a child. With that single act, the crowd relaxed and settled down to watch the show.

Retaking the stage, Samuel did one trick after another, building suspense while allowing brief interludes for applause. Once all the standard tricks had been completed, it was time for the finale. To begin, Samuel selected four roughneck looking men in the audience and asked them to join him on stage. As they mounted the wooden stairs, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. This would be one of the two special tricks he never rehearsed.

With the crowd hooting, hollering, and laughing at the somewhat sheepishly looking men, Samuel knelt and removed chains and locks from the canvas bag. Handing them to the men, he instructed them to bind him well. Children balanced on the tips of their toes and strained their necks to see as a grave quiet fell over the crowd.

The men, happy to accommodate Samuel, wound the chains around him. They shackled his hands, feet, and body as tightly as they could, the chains digging into his wrists and ankles, cutting off his circulation. And when they were done with him, he asked the men to retake their places in the crowd. Turning his back to the crowd, Samuel counted to himself, wriggling his body, and on thirty, he spun around. As the chains fell to the stage, the crowd erupted in whistles, cheers, and thunderous applause. Samuel smiled, bowed and leaped down into the crowd. Hat extended, he accepted the coins they gave him, thanking each person “kindly” as the crowd dispersed.

When everyone was gone, Samuel rush to where he’d left Toby tethered. He climbed aboard him, and in the deepening darkness of the night, made his way to the appointed meeting spot. Near the rendezvous point, he dismounted and proceeded forward cautiously. As agreed, he signaled his approach by imitating the call of the Great Horned Owl. Jim, hearing Samuel’s call, returned it. All was safe.

As Samuel crept further into the night-black forest, he could barely see the runaway slaves Jim had led to the appointed spot. Drawing closer, he saw a mix of gratitude and terror in their eyes. Many had beads of sweat above their upper lips. Samuel hugged each runaway. Then he offered them a final chance to turn back. A few who regretted leaving behind loved ones or were unable to conquer their fear of the unknown relinquished hope to return to the life they knew. Others, having concluded that life without freedom was no life at all, chose to go onward.

With the decisions made, Samuel offered a pregnant woman a ride on Toby’s back. She declined, pointing to an old man whose toes had been severed from his foot in retribution for a prior attempt to escape. Samuel helped the old man onto Toby, then he and Jim began leading their charges toward freedom.

They moved under the cover of darkness in silence, knowing the escape would be discovered at morning’s light. Being stalwart Christians, the slave owners’ would only delay pursuing their property until Sunday morning church services had ended. Then the tracking hounds would be loosed. Noses to the ground, they’d scamper between the hooves of the horses bearing men with rifles and whips, determined to chase down the runaways and recover what they deemed rightfully theirs.

Despite hiding by day and traveling only at night, the runaways were almost caught many times. It was at those moments that Samuel steadied his breath and prepared to do the secret trick he held in reserve, the illusion of making himself and those around him invisible.

For days, Samuel and Jim led the runaways through dense forests, tall grass fields and swiftly flowing streams. Though the journeying was hard, none complained. Finally, on the brink of exhaustion, their throats parched with thirst and their stomachs gnawing on emptiness, they arrived at the safe haven.

Standing in the bedroom doorway, his body a silhouette in the darkness, Samuel looked at the figure in the bed. As he turned to walk away, a voice called to him.

“Samuel?”

“Ma’am?”

“Are you okay?”

“Yes. Ma’am.”

“Jim?”

“Yes. Ma’am. He’s fine.”

“Good.”

Samuel crossed the room to the bed and bent his head down. Miss Rachel cupped his face between her frail hands and kissed him on the forehead. Samuel helped her stand up, and holding her steady, led her from the house, and to the old abandoned schoolhouse. There, they gave the knock code and Jim opened the door. He received a kiss from Miss Rachel, then stepped aside, and closed the door behind them. With Samuel on one side and Jim on the other, Miss Rachel descended the rickety stairs into the cellar.

“Everyone,” said Samuel, “this is Miss Rachel.”

The group of runaways crowded around her. One by one they each took her small hand in theirs and thanked her for rescuing them. Tears trickled down the old woman’s face, the conductor, at their first stop on the Underground Railroad.

______________________________________________________________

J L Higgs’ short stories typically focus on life from the perspective of a black American. He has been published in over 20 magazines, including Indiana Voice Journal, Black Elephant, The Writing Disorder, Contrary Magazine, Literally Stories, The Remembered Arts Journal and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He resides outside of Boston.

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The Triumph

By  Nickolas Urpí 

 “Memento mori…”

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

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

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

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

“Memento mori…”

The statues in the golden beaming of the sun—

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

“Must I?” I had said. “Will I?”

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

“Memento mori…”

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

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

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

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

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

the ancestors’ watched atop the corpses of wasted quinqueremes and

the cheering and the shouting

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

“Memento mori…”

the cypress boughs

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

“Must I?” I had said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Memento mori…”

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

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

“Why not?” I had asked.

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

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

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

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

“A marvelous victory.”

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

“Memento mori…”

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

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

I could not have the blood is dripping on my hands

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Memento mori…”

men are not rocks

______________________________________________________________

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

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Everything I Never Told You

Written by Celeste Ng

Published by Penguin Books

Review by Meredith Allard

 

Some readers may argue against my classifying Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng as historical fiction. The story takes place in the not-so-distant past of the 1970s, but as someone who lived through those years reading the story did bring on a sense of nostalgia. In some ways, life seemed more simple then. There were no cell phones, no social media. You had actually use a rotary phone to contact people, and there were these things called typewriters, kids, where you needed ribbons and messy liquid paper to fix those pesky typos. We can have a discussion about how far in the past something has to be in order to qualify as historical fiction. We can also discuss whether or not nostalgia in itself is enough to qualify something as historical fiction. My rationale for including Everything I Never Told You as historical fiction is that, while the story about a family mourning the death of its teenage daughter is timeless, the story itself may have looked different if it took place in the 21st century.

Teenager Lydia is the favorite child of Marilyn and James Lee, but being the favorite child isn’t as wonderful for Lydia as you might think. She carries the weight of both of her parents unfulfilled dreams—her father’s insecurities being about Chinese and feeling as though he never fit in, and her mother’s unfulfillment at feeling destined to the life of a traditional housewife, thereby never meeting her true potential as a woman in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. When Lydia is found drowned, the carefully woven family fabric begins to unravel, and everyone in the family, including Lydia’s older brother and younger sister, is forced to confront what they knew, or what they thought they knew, about their family.

Everything I Never Told You is a family story about how often we don’t know the people we’re supposed to be closest to. Ng does a wonderful job sharing each character’s perspectives, and we understand James and Marilyn, or at least we understand why they acted as they did. Yes, it would have been nice if there were more self-reflection among the characters while Lydia was alive, but that’s not particularly realistic. Often, we don’t recognize where we could have done better until after the fact. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, we may even see some of our own family dynamics reflected in the story. There’s that old saying from Maya Angelou—when people do, they do the best they know how to do. That’s what James and Marilyn do in Everything I Never Told You—they did the best they knew how to do. And that’s all anyone can do in any given moment.

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Daughters of the Witching Hill

Written by Mary Sharratt

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review by Meredith Allard

 

I was drawn to Daughters of the Witching Hill because of my interest in witch hunts and witch trials, and Mary Sharratt did not disappoint. The story is based on historical details and transcripts from the real-life 1612 Pendle witch hunt.

The novel starts with an interesting premise. What if some of the people accused of witchcraft in the 1612 Pendle witch hunt actually practiced magic? Daughters of the Witching Hill begins with Bess Southerns, known as Mother Demdike, a poor woman living with her children in Pendle Forest. She discovers a familiar, delves into magic, and develops a reputation as a cunning woman, which is considered different than a witch because cunning women use their powers to heal and not hurt people. The magic works both for and against Bess and those she cares for most. Bess’ granddaughter Alizon, is afraid of the magic her grandmother possesses, but Bess’ best friend since girlhood embraces the dark side of magic. Bess is betrayed by her own family—some who testify against her willingly, and some who don’t. Bess, Alizon, and others are accused of witchcraft and may suffer the ultimate consequence because of one man determined to make his name as a witch finder.

The novel caught me from the first page through Bess’ narrative voice. When Alizon takes over the narrative later in the story, her voice is just as powerful. Mary Sharratt does what the best historical novelists do so well—she weaves facts of the time period, details about food, clothing, work—seamlessly into the plot. Through Bess, we see what life was like for poor people in late 16th and early 17th century England. Work was hard to find, and poor people had to travel from place to place asking if there was any work. There were times when Bess and her family went hungry. There were famines when many people died. Magic provided Bess and her family with an income as well as some respect—at least until Bess begins to age and lose some of her potency as a healer. As someone from the poor end of the socioeconomic spectrum, Bess and her family are vulnerable to the whims of those with higher status. Sharratt does a fine job showing the precarious nature of life for poor people like Bess and Alizon.

If you’re interested in witch hunts or witch trials, you will love Daughters of the Witching Hill. This is also a great read for those interested in 16th and 17th-century English life.

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The Monarchy Revolution

By Abbey Serena

Forty-four years before Prince Albert draws in his final breath and sends the entirety of England into a period of mourning that lasts for the remainder of the century, a curse is placed upon the monarchy. What this curse is, and why it has come, none of the royals know. It comes in the form of a magic man—perhaps remnants of the Romantics, whose eyes would have glazed lovingly at the sight of him, for all of their opium-induced theories would have been proven true. This man is not altogether a man—and, for the sake of history, he is truthfully not real at all, except in his ability to rot certain aspects of the royals’ lives. He brings with him misery in the form of death. Queen Victoria said in her diary, after her assassination attempt on June 10, 1840, “Just before the 2nd shot was fired… or rather more while he fired, dear Albert turned towards me, squeezing my hand, exclaiming ‘My God! Don’t be alarmed.’” Why not alarmed? Why not fear for the end of a reign so filled with peace that not a single war was started, that the people stopped breaking their bones over their work, and that the monarchy was stabilized and expanded by the nine children for whom Victoria laboriously expanded and contracted her body? Why not be alarmed at the threat of an end? Prince Albert never told us, the readers of his German diaries and the scholars of history, why he commanded his wife, the Queen, to not be alarmed by death contained in a bullet.

Here, I must depart from you, reader, and have you choose for yourself if the cursed man was at fault for all of the wrongdoings that will happen forthcoming, or if the figures that I will portray should have taken responsibility for their actions. The question that I have for you, and that I’m certain Prince Albert posed within his own mind, is if fate interfered in the decades-long span of time in which this story takes place.

 * * * * *

The year was 1817, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the Palladian mansion, Claremont, was snuffed out. The young Prince Leopold doubted that anyone in the entire English nation slept tonight. Seated in an upholstered chair that had been placed out of the way of all of the people who rushed back and forth like ants raiding a basket of food and swiftly dodging death, Leopold stared straight ahead of himself at a portrait of a naked woman by an artist whose name he couldn’t recall. It occurred to him then that the female body was a strange, ugly, powerful weapon. They weren’t built for war, but they could both harvest life and destroy it using only their wombs.

The woman in the portrait reminded him of his own wife, Charlotte. Her hair was the same reddish-brown hue, and every tendril appeared like a flashing ribbon that she had tied to her crown like decorative ornaments. This nameless figure, too, was built with broad shoulders and a square torso. Her breasts—misshapen, pink-tipped lumps—pointed sadly down to a fat belly that might have been caused by pregnancy or tarts.

Everyone abruptly stopped moving. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the door to the bedchamber where his wife was giving birth crack open. The figure that emerged was unsightly. He was a short man—no taller than the average woman—cloaked from head to toe in a wool coat. His back was slumped over and heavily knotted near his shoulder blades. A pomaded, white wig sat atop his head, the face of which nearly made Leopold cringe with its gruesome appearance. The man had two swollen flaps where his lips should have been, and his cheeks were furred with dark, coarse hair.

In the crook of the man’s arm was a swaddled bundle. Leaning on his cane, the man staggered over to Leopold and extended his arm without saying a word. Leopold dumbly held out his hands and the man placed his burden into them. Looking upward, Leopold examined the weathered, blackened skin and the silvery, damp eyes of the physician who had attended his wife during her labor. Looking at the bundle, he pushed back a swath of blanket and stared into the bluish, deathlike visage of his baby. Knowing from the silence that came from within the bedchamber that Charlotte hadn’t survived the birth, Leopold tilted his head back and gazed into the physician’s pale eyes. “What is to be done now?” Leopold, ever the strategist, whispered.

The good physician’s face flickered with interest, but still he remained mute. Seeing that he would receive no council from the man, he clutched his child against his breast and leaned his forehead into the heel of his hand. As water slid down Leopold’s cheeks, the physician turned and strode down the passageway. Between thumps of his cane, there came a steady tapping noise, as if he was wearing wooden shoes

* * * * *

In Belgium, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, sat with his mistress at their breakfast table. He puffed on a cigar while Julie had for herself a plate of meat, eggs, bread, and sweets. Glancing at his companion, Edward exhaled heavily and reclined in his chair. Julie was a fine Frenchwoman, if not a bit theatrical. She was a jealous viper; she would never be outdone by another woman. On this morning, her dark hair was coiled atop her head and she wore a cambric gown that scooped up her breasts and thrust them upward. He loved Julie because she frequently asked him about the time that he had spent serving in the military.

Just as Julie finished her breakfast, someone knocked on the door. One of the staff hastened to answer it, and then appeared in the threshold of the breakfasting room. “My lord, a man comes with the post. He requests an audience with you in the parlor.”

“He does?” Edward asked with a crooked tilt to his eyebrows. He slanted a sardonic smile at Julie before rising. “I’ll see him at once!” As he followed his housekeeper toward the parlor, he wondered whatever a man bringing his post could want with him. He entered the room and found, sitting on his couch, a dreadful creature who made a poor excuse for a human being. Instead of rising and bending himself over into a bow, the man remained where he was and lifted his silvery gaze to the duke. He had in his lap a sack of letters. Edward, who realized that he had been staring at the strange-looking, old man, came forward and greeted him, “Good friend! Rise and bow to me, and then we’ll talk of whatever matters you seek to discuss with me.”

Putting his cane forward, the man stood and held out the sack. Edward fathomed that the man must have been stupid with age and simply took the letters without pressing him to bow again. Then the man gestured for his other hand. He took from his coat what appeared to be The Morning Chronicle, and he placed it in Edward’s free hand. Edward glanced down at the paper and pushed his mouth to the side of his face when he saw, printed on the cover, a headline that spoke of Princess Charlotte’s untimely death.

Edward looked back at the man, who nodded his head and shuffled past, his cane leaving dents in the rococo pattern on the rug. The housekeeper assisted the man out of the house, and as soon as Edward heard the front door close, he sank onto the couch. Peering closer at the paper, Edward realized that his father’s other relations were swiftly reacting to the news of the poor princess’s death and starting a race for the next heir. Edward snorted at the thought of his relatives chasing after young women still in their time of breeding. All of them were obese and balding. Even to have a taste of the royal line, many women would not subject themselves to such a fate.

Stroking his chin, Edward contemplated his mistress. They had been together for a long time. But on the other hand, he was still in his prime. It would be simple for him to find another woman, and if he managed to produce an heir to the throne, he’d be financially set for the rest of his life. For such a long time, Edward had been existing in and out of various states of debt. Surely Julie would understand.

As if his thoughts about her had summoned her, Julie appeared in the doorway, an apprehensive expression drawn onto her face. “What was that about?” She asked, her French accent lilting every word in that sweet way that he enjoyed.

“Ah, my dear girl! There was only a death in the English royal family. There are at least two of those every year, as you know. It is nothing to be worried about just yet.” He motioned for her to come to him, and like the affectionate woman that she always was, she floated over to him and propped herself upon his knee. To remove all of the worry from her head, he kissed her mouth and burned her cheek with his stubble.

* * * * * 

“Wait here.” Edward made a staying motion to his wife, Victorie, who wriggled backward on her seat in the carriage and stared at the back of his head as he alighted. A notch worried the space between her eyebrows. Making a little, sighing noise out of her throat, she rested her hands in her lap and looked down at the curved mound that had become her belly. They had waited far too long. She told Edward that they should have left for Kensington at least two months ago, but her stubborn husband had struck forth on a project to renovate several of the houses in Coburg.

Suddenly, the carriage door swung open again. A gust of wind rushed in and nearly blew off her cap. Tightening the strings, Victorie gazed at the man who stood in the doorway. He was half-concealed in shadow, and the little sliver of his face that she could see was matted with hair so thick that it almost appeared like animal fur. She stiffened. Where had her husband gone?

“What would you, sir?” She asked softly, her voice tainted with her German accent.

He stretched his hand out, his gloved fingers curled around a bit of paper. She took the paper and looked down at it. It was heavily folded and creased, as if it had spent the majority of its existence inside of someone’s clothing. She could feel the warmth of someone’s skin radiating from it, and there was a stain of sweat, though just a small one, on the corner. Looking back up, she frowned when she realized that she was alone once more.

Opening the paper, she read,

Madame,

            My heart yearns for you. The baby is almost due, and yet I am still with you.

            Yours,

            Prince Edward, Duke of Kent

Victorie’s eyelashes twitched as she contemplated the words contained within the scrap. Her hand smoothed over the curve of her belly. The baby inside rolled back and forth, just like the choppy waters over which they were trying to cross.

Edward entered the carriage again, rocking it as he took a seat across from her. Knocking the rain from his coat, he said in his loud, commanding voice, “Strange fellow, our coachman! He is silent, but efficient.” Without another word, he tipped his head back, pushed his hat down so that it covered his eyes, and, she assumed, tried to fall asleep.

Frowning deeply, Victorie leaned against the window and shut her eyes. Had she made a mistake to marry an Englishman? It was too late to have those sorts of thoughts. She had fixed her bed, and now she must lie in it, or so she thought George Herbert said.

* * * * * 

When Drina—later to take on her German roots and go by the name of Victoria—was seven-months-old, she spent most of her days chasing light across the floor. This day was no different than any other, and she remembered it with a distaste, remembered how suddenly her father had passed after this particular day. The little princess had been set down by someone—she couldn’t remember whose pair of arms that she had just been cradled in—and, upon seeing a cat streak across the floor and hunt down a moving stream of yellow that came in through the cracked window, Drina frantically pawed her way across the floor and sat herself down on the light. The cat, whose prey had just been squashed beneath the bottom of the new princess, gave her a stiff look and slinked off.

Peering downward, Drina was surprised to find that the beam of light had not been caught, but had slithered its way out and was now draped across her lap! She swatted her own leg. When her toy didn’t even give a shudder, she made a grumpy noise and flipped back onto her hands and knees. She began to prowl around again. Everywhere around her, people chatted and chortled at themselves as they drank their afternoon tea.

She poked her nose up and gazed at the faces of people that she didn’t recognize, and then the warm, dignified expression on her mother’s countenance. An old man was seated in a chair next to the lit hearth. She remembered him, remembered when her mother had scooped her up and plopped her on the man’s knee. Drina had giggled, thinking that it looked like his face was melting. She liked that old man. Even though her mother had chastised her, the old man had merely chuckled, rubbed her head, and dropped a bit of spittle on the ruffled collar that he kept tucked beneath his coat.

Padding her way through the booted feet and making sure that she wasn’t kicked, Drina kept looking up. Little did she know that she would continue having to look up for the rest of her life. Upon seeing her daughter, Victorie let out a delighted, cooing noise that was very flattering to Drina’s ears. Spinning around, she hobbled over to her mother, who bent and picked up the child. Suddenly, Drina was accosted with kisses and tickles.

“Baroness Lehzen, why is the child out of her nursery?” said a dark, masculine voice from across the room. Turning her head, Drina looked at her father, whose withered, pale face shone starkly against the tan-skinned, round-faced Germans who had taken over Kensington.

Another figure that Drina hadn’t before noticed stood from his chair by the window. Twisting in that direction, she glowered at her uncle, the Duke of Sussex. He was a frightening man, though as of yet, he’d never given her any true reason to dislike him. It was his wig. As he came over, he hunched against his cane and lumbered across the floor as if it pained him to move. His head was covered in an unwashed, tattered wig that smelled like mothballs and human sweat.

Realizing what the uncle intended to do, Victorie gripped her child tighter and said airily, “Oh, that’s all right, my lord. Drina is being good. Please, sit down and don’t trouble yourself with removing her.”

The only reply that he offered the duchess were his short breaths of air as he approached and bent for Drina. Smelling his wig, she began to squirm as he lifted her, supported her with one arm, and clung to his cane with his other hand. The tail of his wig fell over his shoulder and brushed against her neck, sending chills racing up and down her spine. As he took her from the room, she beat her fists against his chest and wailed so loudly that the next estate could have heard her, and yet her uncle wasn’t deterred by her tantrum. She found herself drifting farther and farther away from her mother, who remained seated, looking rigid, bewildered, and nervous all in one flittering expression.

As Drina was swept from the room, she noticed her mother glimpse over at her husband, who was leaning heavily against a wall, taking in shallow breaths. Not long ago, her father had bustled into the house, shouting, “There is a fortune teller! Will no one come with me and see this voodoo?” And when no one went, for fear of the dark magic that permeated the devilish sibyls who concocted those fortunes, her father went alone; when he came back later, he was much more sullen, his mouth turned downward. Drina overheard him say, “The sorceress told me that ‘This year, two members of the royal family will die.’” Drina didn’t know what it meant to die, but her father’s face suggested that it was perhaps an unpleasant experience. She didn’t think about these things until many years had passed, but, in that moment, she still felt a change in the air as she drifted next to the man who was already decaying within his own skin.

* * * * *

When the young queen was twenty-one-years-old, her husband, Prince Albert, took her out in a carriage for a trip through Hyde Park. She and her companion sat aloft on an elevated seat; with this being an open-carriage, Victoria had a full view of the park and the people that meandered through it. Many of them waved at her, happy grins sprouting on their faces as she and the handsome prince passed by. Several children, twirling long ribbons around, let out screeching laughter and chased briefly after the carriage. Victoria extended her hand toward them.

“Hello!” She called in a bright, melodic voice. Turning back around, she glanced at her husband, who had his hand cupped over his eyebrows. In his usual way, he studied the movement of the carriage beneath him, the way that it swerved around trees, but never tipped. Laughing softly, she asked, “Would you stop studying everything and enjoy the day?”

He flicked his eyes up to her and pressed a crooked smile onto his lips, and then went back to studying. Shaking her head, Victoria looked out again and gazed at a few Arabian horses in the distance. They were beautiful, wild creatures, their backs twitching as they learned to barely tolerate the saddles that were placed upon them.

A gunshot rang out and bounded off of each of the trees. Spooked, the horses bucked their heads and let out shrill whinnies. Looking to the right, Victoria squinted at a man who was holding a gun. Suddenly, Albert grabbed her arm in a grip that nearly hurt and thrust her downward. “My God! Don’t be alarmed!” He shouted.

Her whalebone corset wasn’t made to be flexed, and so it dug into her stomach, which was four-months swollen with life. Gasping, Victoria struggled against him and heard a scuffle from what seemed to be all around. When he let her back up, she immediately looked toward the gun-holding man and saw that he was on the ground, writhing beneath the bodies of several other men.

Her gaze flew to Albert, who was staring at her with eyes as large as saucers. In a matter of seconds, she was trapped against his chest, his heartbeat ricocheting through her entire body. Even though people were looking, she flung her arms around him, her bonnet loosening from her head and falling away.

Peering over Albert’s shoulder at the man, she felt a quiver in her very bones as she had a moment of recognition. It was like she had seen him somewhere, at some other period in her life. There, on the ground, was a man garbed in a thick coat, though it was an usually warm summer and even her lightest, linen dresses drew perspiration to her skin. His head was topped with a dark, thick-brimmed hat. His face, mostly concealed from her, was turned slightly so that she could see his chin, and on his chin was hair so coarse that it might have been peeled off of an Alaskan fox and attached to his chin with sticky pomade.

* * * * *

Would there be no peace for her yet? On the second of December, in 1861, Victoria perched on the sofa in the Blue Room, clasping a copy of Sir Walter Scott’s Peveril of the Peak. Tucking a length of hair behind her ear, she read softly to her husband, who had lie in his bed for weeks. She trembled a little as she held the book, occasionally looking up at Albert, whose brow was wrinkled with agony and whose skin was soaked with sweat. “What I wouldn’t give to see you well,” she whispered.

She existed in and out of consciousness for the next few days. Albert’s face became thick and puffy as he wasted away at the hands of a disease that she was certain the doctors were incorrectly diagnosing. They called it typhoid. Had it been typhoid, Albert would have been gone months ago, when he first began to complain about the pain in his stomach. He was starting to look how he did when she first met him; a young, lanky boy with a little bit of dough in his cheeks. She had fallen in love with that version of him, but she wasn’t sure if she wanted him back.

Come the ninth of December, Dr. Jenner exclaimed, “He is getting on favorably, thank God!” When Victoria entered the room, her heart pumping hard, she heard her husband mumbling to himself in French about war. As she looked sharply at the man that she had enlisted to save her husband, he assured her, “This is to be expected.”

On the eleventh, the middle-aged queen was awoken by her servants, who said that the doctors were asking if the children could come see their father. And at this point, she took up life in another world entirely and followed people around with a shuffling, stooped gait, and sat herself down by Albert’s bedside, becoming a piece of cold architecture. When hours went by and his rough breathing didn’t change, she started to get up, but he suddenly reached out and said desperately in a French-German-English combination, “Please don’t leave.”

Tears came to her eyes and burned her with their salt. “Give me this respite. I can’t stand to see you this way. I will be back.” Years later, she would regret leaving him just then, but as it was, she fled from the room and retreated to her own private space, where she was free to deny that her beloved husband was dying.

When he stopped taking as much air in later that evening, Victoria seemed to sense it through the very walls that separated them. She hurried back to her husband, brushing by a new doctor who had been brought in—this one dressed in a heavy coat, with a hat tipped down over his face. He carried beneath his arm a valise, and she nearly knocked it loose as she raced past him.

Entering the Blue Room, Victoria flung herself down by Albert’s bed and clutched onto his hand. “Est ist das kleine Frauchen,” she begged, returning to her German language, not realizing that she had returned to it. Albert, though his eyes were sealed shut and he was as still as a boulder, trembled his lips, just slightly, as if wanting to respond to her plea for kisses.

Someone touched her shoulder.

Whirling around, Victoria released a vulgar sound at the sight of the coated doctor, whose face was concealed beneath the brim of his hat. She thought she might have moved—maybe burst out of the room—maybe stayed where she was—she thought she recalled one of her daughters calling her back over to the bed—placing her hand within Albert’s. “Oh, this is death,” she whispered, “I know it. I have seen this before.”

And in the next few minutes, Albert inhaled several breaths, before exhaling deeply. His head tilted to the side, pressing into the feather pillow, and then he was quiet.

Sinking to the ground, Victoria let out several loud sobs and kissed all over her husband’s forehead, before the new doctor flung a sheet over him. Someone took her away from Albert, lifted her, and brought her into the Red Room. Her children were near her. One of them was in her arms. She pushed him away. She believed that it was Alfred. He looked too much like his father. He had his stern brow.

The year was 1861, and the hour had grown so late that almost all of the light inside of the heath stone castle, Windsor, was snuffed out.

______________________________________________________________

Abbey Serena is a senior at Bowling Green State University, where she studies Creative Writing and Scientific & Technical Communication. She is an editor on the staff of Prairie Margins and Mid-American Review, two national literary magazines. She has an upcoming publication in Ofi Press. Copperfield Review is her second publication.

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An Interview With Kari Bovée

Kari Bovée is the author of Girl with a Gun – An Annie Oakley Mystery.

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

I started writing stories in the third grade. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. After college I took a job as a technical writer—which at the time I thought was soul-sucking—but, I actually learned a lot from the experience. I started writing novels when I was in my early thirties but then took a long hiatus from that to raise our children. During that time, I worked as a freelance writer from home for a couple of magazines and newsletters, etc. I just couldn’t get writing out of my system. I started writing novels again when my youngest was a junior in high school. I love historical fiction and historical mystery, but also like to write contemporary mysteries, too.

What is your latest novel? How would you describe it to potential readers?

My latest novel is Girl with a Gun – An Annie Oakley Mystery. It is what the title states, an historical mystery with Annie Oakley as an amateur sleuth. After watching a PBS American Experience special on Annie Oakley, I was impressed with the depth of her intelligence, her talent, and what she had to overcome in her early years. I love to write about empowered women in history, and Annie Oakley fit the bill. I thought she’d make a kick-ass amateur sleuth.

What makes this book different?

Instead of writing a biographical account of her life, I’ve put Annie Oakley—a famous and iconic person—into a situation she never encountered in real life. I think it’s fun to imagine how she would have reacted to being compelled to solve a murder. I took what we know of her through history and created a different reality for her.

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

I’ve spent a lot of time and years working on craft and learning about the business of writing and publication. I went the traditional route for a long time. I’ve had two different agents at different times in my writing journey, but with the advent of independent publishing, I realized that traditional publishing isn’t the only path. I wasn’t quite ready to go it all on my own, so I sought out a hybrid publisher – SheWrites Press/Spark Press. So far, I’ve been really happy with the working relationship I have with them. I can make my own decisions, but have someone to guide me and help me through the publishing process. I feel like I have a good deal of control, but I don’t have to do all the millions of tasks that are required to birth a book into the world!

What are the joys/challenges of writing historical fiction for you?

I love research. I’m an academic at heart, so I love to get lost in all the details of history. I like to research historical figures and the events which made them famous (or infamous) and then try to imagine how it affected them psychologically. What motivated them? Why did they make the decisions they made? What were they thinking about when they were making history? Did they realize they were making history? What would have happened if they were faced with x situation or y characters?

What is the research process like for you?

I try to learn as much as I can about a person or event that I am writing about. The internet is a great place to start, but it’s wise to cross-reference what you are researching. The “facts” can vary. That’s why I’d much prefer to write fiction than non-fiction. It gives you some license to play with history, which is also great fun for me. You have to be accurate enough to be believable, but since the work is fiction, you have some room to be creative. I also try to find books on my subject matter or characters or try to interview historical “experts” who might know about my time period, the setting, or a person I’m researching.

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

Instead of coming up with an idea for a story, and then traveling to the destination where the story will take place, it usually happens the other way around for me. I travel quite a lot, domestically and internationally, and I’m often inspired by the places I’ve seen or the people I’ve learned about. Then I come home and research further. Sometimes the story requires that I go to the destination again, but I always take lots of notes and photos when I travel, so I have some good information at my fingertips.

Which authors are your inspiration—in your writing life and/or your personal life?

Gosh. There are so many. I have a degree in English Literature and still love to read the classics. I have always been inspired by the 18th and 19th century greats like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Edgar Allan Poe, and Dickens. I’ve been influenced by Larry McMurtry, Anne Perry, Deanna Raybourn, Stephanie Barron, and Kerry Greenwood. Some of my recent favorites are C.W. Gortner, Cara Black, Hallie Ephron, Louise Penny, and Erika Robuck.

What advice do you have for those who want to write historical fiction?

Historical fiction has been one of the genres that go in and out of popularity. If you love history and want to write historical fiction, don’t worry about whether or not it is selling at the moment. It will always come back. Readers have a desire to know about the people and events that came before them. It helps us to understand our world today. Putting your characters, whether real or imagined, in a story that helps explain how our society has changed or not, gives people that reference. It can also provide an escape from what is currently going on in the world. History will never go out of fashion.

What else would you like readers to know?

I have three blogs where I write about my three passions in life; empowered women in history, empowered women writing, and empowered horsewomen of the world. (Go to www.Karibovee.com to access all three.) The first two are obvious, but I am also an avid horsewoman and have had horses in my life since I was 11. I’ve competed for years, and have been practicing natural horsemanship for the past decade. I consider my horses my “soul food.” They are such amazing creatures who have a depth of sensitivity and understanding that astounds me all the time. I cannot imagine my life without horses. They inspire me to be a better person and enrich my life in ways that I discover every day. They are magical!

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Last of the Minnesingers

By Andrew Stiggers

Diether swept the floor of the empty stage, bustling about with his broom in near darkness, the faint candlelight flickering from the side curtain as a draft played havoc offstage. It didn’t bother him – he was used to living in the shadows.

“Why are you sweeping?” a child’s voice called out.

He stopped and looked out to see a small boy sitting in the empty auditorium. The theatre doors should have been shut by now, he thought. “Why am I sweeping? Well, someone has to do the work.”

The boy nodded and smiled, his face lit up by the candles mounted along the walls towards the back of the auditorium.

“Listen, boy, tonight’s performance has finished. Why are you still here? Where are your parents?”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll leave soon and catch up with them.”

Diether had no time for children. He went back to his sweeping.

“Are you with the theatre troupe?” the boy called out again.

“No.” Diether brushed harder, facing the floor of the stage.

“What do you do?”

He stopped again and rested his hands on the top of his broom. Studying the smiling boy, Diether knew the lad couldn’t see him clearly on the darkly lit stage. “What do I do?”

Maybe he’s not so bad, Diether thought. Not like the others. He scanned around to make sure there was no one else in the auditorium. “Very well.” He placed the broom down on the stage, made a theatrical pose, his hands out in front of him, and took in a deep breath. “I am a minnesinger. I am –“

“What is a minnesinger?”

What is a minnesinger? I don’t believe it. What do they teach you at school nowadays?”

“Nothing about minnesingers.”

“Minnesingers were medieval singers – famous, noble poet-singers who played at all the German courts. They wrote and sang the most beautiful songs in this world.”

His family were descended from one of these minnesingers, and generation after generation had passed down the songs and taught each other how to sing them. It was the same for Diether – his father had shown him dozens of illustrated poems on ancient manuscripts and taught him the ancient way of singing. Diether learnt them quickly, even composing and singing his own lyrics. His father was astonished when he first heard him sing. You are truly a gifted minnesinger, my son. No one can take that away from you.

“So can you sing?” asked the boy.

“Of course – I am a minnesinger.”

“Will you sing a song for me?”

“Well…”

“Please?”

“All right, but just one song, and then afterwards you need to go home. What is your name?”

“Friedrich.”

“So, Friedrich, listen.”

Diether took his position centre stage – the flickering light still barely showing the outline of his figure – breathed in deeply… and sang. He chose a ballad in a melody created centuries ago, singing in High German with a rich, deep voice, slowly and in strict rhythm, rolling his tongue over each word, emphasising every hard consonant.

Fly high up and away, my sweet,

Through woods and hills and leas.

Fly with the nightingales,

Through all the kingdoms and the lands.

Fly to my soft, soft bed of grass,

And rest thine gentle head on me.

For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet.

There was passion, emotion in Diether’s voice. Tears welled up. With such a depth of heart and feeling it was as if he sang with the voices of his father and the many generations of minnesingers before him.

The boy stood up on his seat and clapped loudly. “Wonderful!”

Diether took a bow.

He was happy the boy appreciated the song. If only everyone else did. He thought about the vulgarity and base humour of the play performed this evening. Diether had watched the audience’s reaction from behind the side curtain. The townspeople all laughed coarsely as the dwarf in an oversized black hat tried to prod the female actors with his droopy sword, before swigging beer and throwing food about and dropping his baggy trousers in front of the audience.

The House of Comedy, the new Freiburg theatre was called. Sadly, this was what the public wanted these days – to gawk and laugh at the bizarre and grotesque on stage.

Well, Diether was no buffoon. No Pickelhering, Hanswurst or Harlekin clown, or whatever the latest fad was. As his father had pointed out, he was a talented minnesinger, the last of their kind, but Diether had discovered no one wanted to listen to old songs of love any more.

“Right, you should go home now, boy.” Diether stooped down to pick up his broom.

“Could I hear some more?”

“You promised to leave.”

“Please, sir.” The boy stubbornly sat back down in his seat.

Perhaps there is still an audience for the minnesingers after all. “Wait there. I have an idea.”

He went backstage and rummaged through the wardrobe room. Diether normally wasn’t allowed back here. “Move out of my way,” one of the actors once said as she rushed in to get a change of costume during a performance. “You shouldn’t be here,” another said. “Get back to sorting out the props.”

He regarded the clothes and masks. His parents had always told him that it was all right to be different. It doesn’t matter what others think. Just be yourself, Diether. He’d really wanted to believe them. When he was a boy he used to dress up in fancy costumes like the ones hanging here, and try to play with the other children, pretending to be a real minnesinger. He’d thought he could impress them with his singing but it hadn’t made any difference. They still teased him and threw stones at him.

Returning to the stage dressed in a knight’s uniform and wearing a half-visor helmet, Diether discovered that Friedrich had moved to the front row of the auditorium. The boy was swinging his legs beneath the seat in excitement.

Diether stood to attention as he addressed the auditorium and set the scene. “My noble lords, ladies … and Friedrich … I want you to cast your mind back to the past, to the Middle Ages, to a time when the great cathedrals were being built and the Crusades were being fought.”

The more Diether talked and gestured, the more he edged towards the front of the stage and further into the dim light of the auditorium, feeling confident behind his visor.

“I am Meister Diether von Freiburg, one of the world’s greatest minnesingers. Having returned from Jerusalem as part of the Emperor’s entourage, I have travelled from court to court through all the Teutonic lands, reciting myths and legends, telling of the glories of the German people and winning every singing contest thrown at me.”

Friedrich clapped again.

The knight dramatically slumped his shoulders and looked down at the stage floor. “But I am now sad.” He peered up at Friedrich through his visor, waiting for a prompt.

“Why so, Meister?”

“For I have not found my lady love, the woman of my dreams – my muse. It is my greatest hope one day to meet her, and woo her with my tales.” Diether gestured to the imaginary audience. “Do you wish to hear one of those tales?”

“Yes, Meister.” Friedrich’s legs swung wildly under his seat.

“Very well. Imagine the ancient lands of Franconia and Swabia –” Diether held out his hands “– and let us begin.”

* * * * *

There once was a knight who traversed the lands on horseback, travelling far and wide. One day he stopped at the side of a road, alongside a hedgerow full of flowers, and heard a voice.

“Are you lost, Sir Knight?”

He surveyed around but could not find where the voice came from.

“May I help, Sir Knight?”

He looked down at his feet and saw a badger at the entrance to a hole beneath the hedgerow. “No, I do not think a badger can help me.”

“Try me.”

“Very well. Every year I make my way to see a lady at her tower, hoping to profess my love to her. I see her on her balcony, combing her long, fair hair, but before I dare call out to her I become afraid and leave the tower. I then travel far and wide for a whole year until I have mustered enough courage to try again.”

“Why are you afraid, Sir Knight?”

“I am beneath her station. I am but a mere, lowly knight and I am fearful of her rejecting my advances.”

“But you do love her?”

“Yes, with all my heart.”

“Then do not be afraid. Love is within us all, regardless of our station, of who we are in this world. She may love you too. Talk to her, woo her and you shall find out.”

The knight knelt down and smiled at the badger. “You are right, badger. You have helped me.”

“Be brave, Sir Knight, and go. Go to your lady.”

* * * * *

Love is within us all.

Friedrich clapped again, standing on top of his chair.

Diether stared at the empty auditorium. He really did dream of finding his one true love – an impossible dream, he knew. He imagined her, red hair with rosy cheeks, adorned in a golden dress, sitting on a stone bench surrounded by flowers.

“Can I be a minnesinger, Meister?”

“Well …” Diether scratched the top of his helmet, pretending to think. “You must be of noble blood. Are you?” The boy eagerly nodded. “Yes, of course you are. Come and stand next to me.”

Friedrich clambered up onto the stage.

“You must first swear a pledge. You must pledge to bring joy and happiness to all. Do you so swear?”

“I swear.”

“Good. Remember: the minnesinger always sings about honour, duty, nature, but most of all – and this is very important – he sings about love.”

“Yes, Meister.”

“Next you need to learn how to stand and project your voice. Here, like me… That’s right. Now let’s hear you roar.”

“Roar?”

“Absolutely. Like this … Roar!”

The boy laughed and then he tried. “Roarrrr!”

“Excellent. You’re now ready to recite some poetry.”

“But I don’t know what to say.”

“Just use words such as bliss and happiness and fair maid. Go on, you’ll be fine.”

“I … You bring mesuch happinessmy fair maid.”

“Very good, but you have to put more of yourself into the words – be more expressive. Again.”

You bring me so much bliss and happiness, my fair, lovely maid.”

“That was wonderful. We will make a minnesinger out of you yet, young man.” Diether patted him on his back. “Now stand here at the front of the stage and face the audience. Good. Imagine a packed house with the whole audience all sitting on the edge of their seats, waiting on your every word, on every gesture you will make.” Diether smiled.

The boy stood with puffed up shoulders, legs apart.

“Apprentice, stand straight, stand proud, for you are the last of the minnesingers. You have sung well – for Germany and your one true love.”

A ray of light from the auditorium entrance shone directly through Diether’s visor and momentarily blinded him. “Now take your bow with me.”

The audience.

Diether could see them all. His fellow minnesingers – poet-musicians from across the German lands. They were there to congratulate him and cheer him on. His patron the Emperor, sitting on his throne, waving his hand. The King of Bohemia holding his trusted falcon. Herr Dietmar von Aist, together with his lady wife, clapping in the front row. The dukes of Anhalt and Brandenburg looking up at him as they played chess to one side of the auditorium. Walther von der Vogelweide smiling, a large white feather on his hat, a peacock in full fan up above him on the balcony. And Count Conrad von Kilchberg, gloriously adorned in golden antlers. All in their flowing robes with crowns and swords, some holding pipes or lutes or drums. Even Tannhäuser was there at the back of the auditorium in his white hooded robe, a black cross emblazoned on his chest, standing next to several horses tied to a post.

“Do you see them too, Friedrich?” Diether whispered as he stood straight and dignified before taking his final bow, the stage light madly flickering and then fading to black.

* * * * *

The candle lit up again.

“There you are, Friedrich. Your mother and I have been searching everywhere for you.” The boy’s father had returned to the theatre.

“The minnesinger was showing me how to sing.”

“What minnesinger?”

“Why, the man next to me on the stage.”

The boy turned round. The knight was gone.

* * * * *

After placing his broom away, Diether went to the wardrobe room where he hung up the costume. On his way out he passed a mirror and caught sight of his reflection. A disfigured face riddled with lumps and bumps, a grossly enlarged forehead, and one partially closed, swollen eyelid stared back at him.

He’d been a beautiful boy when he was first born, his mother had said, but then it all changed, getting worse year after year. I’m sorry, son. Fleeing from all the boys and girls who threw stones at him, hiding at home, finding work that nobody else wanted to touch – reduced to sweeping the darkly lit, empty stage in front of an empty audience, and always alone.

Before leaving the backstage of the theatre he sang quietly to himself, For you are mine, and I am yours, my sweet, and then blew the candle out.

______________________________________________________________

Andrew Stiggers is a short story writer. Born in Paris, France, he has lived overseas including in Hong Kong, Singapore and Cameroon. He studied English Language and Literature at the University of Reading in the UK. His short fiction has been published in a number of anthologies, and his achievements include being the Winner of the 2017 Global Ebook Awards (Short Stories/Essays category), Winner of the Trisha Ashley Award 2017 for best humorous story, a Finalist for the Tasmanian Writers’ Prize 2015 and an Honourable Mention for the Writer’s Digest Writing Competition 2016. He was also a recipient of a New Zealand Society of Authors Mentorship in 2015.

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