Tag Archives: short stories

Marilyn and the Bears

Snapshot I: Banff, July 1953

“Marilyn! Give us a big smile!”

She turns towards the photographer’s voice. She wiggles her bum, juts out her breasts, and smiles. She poses near the edge of a swimming pool at Banff Springs Hotel wearing a black two-piece.

Click. Flash. Click.

She widens her mouth and runs her tongue over her teeth. She had Whitey come to her room this morning to do her hair and make-up. It takes more than an hour to transform into Marilyn. He’s covered the inside of her lips in a thin layer of Vaseline, an old pin-up girl trick, to ensure her lipstick doesn’t stick to her teeth. Whitey has said more than once, “You are my greatest canvas.”

At least ten photogs circling the edge of the pool: she called the press herself and told them she would be available today. She stands on one foot, in a black kitten heel, and leans on silver crutches from the local hospital. She kicks her wrapped injured ankle out behind her, making a ninety-degree angle of her legs. In the background, the Rocky Mountains jut into the sky in all their ambivalent hubris.

She is here in the Rockies filming a movie called River of No Return and it is beginning to feel like a mistake.

“Marilyn – how’s the ankle?” a journalist armed with a notepad asks.

“Oh, much better, thank you!” She makes her voice sound honey sweet.  “I’ll be back on set in no time.” She is doing damage control.

A few days ago, she stood in the Bow River alongside her co-star Robert Mitchum. The director Otto made them do take after take in the teeth-chattering current, holding the wet edges of a poplar log raft, screaming dialogue at each other. Robert is a drinker and couldn’t remember his lines. She doesn’t recall why or how this scene fits into the film’s story,but she remembers her waders filling up with water. A rapid pulled her. The water is so clear she could see all the way to the stony bottom. Once she was under the surface, she was so cold she almost felt warm.

Someone pulled her out and slapped her back like a doctor slaps a newborn.  That is when she twisted her ankle on the slippery rocks. She coughed and gasped as Robert held her up under her armpits. “Jesus Christ Marilyn. We thought we’d lost you!” he yelled. Snot ran down her face, bark stuck out from under her fingernails, and her ankle throbbed hot and sharp.  She is the dumb blonde who needs a big strong man to rescue her. She is tired of this story.

“Marilyn, Marilyn! Over here please!”

She obliges. She tilts her head towards her left shoulder so the sun is not in her eyes. She imagines how the photos will look in black-and-white: the dark swimsuit highlighting her curves, her platinum hair luminescent in the sun, the black shoe contrasting with the bandage on her injured foot. She wears fake eyelashes to make her eyes look bigger and red lipstick so her lips contrast with the paleness of her skin (Whitey has over twenty shades of red and he mixes them like a painter using a palette). They are shooting the movie in Technicolor which feels garish.

“When exactly will you be back on set Marilyn? We hear your director is getting anxious.”

“Soon!” she assures them.

Otto has not sent flowers or come to her room to ask how she is feeling. All he said as the doctor checked her over was, “Thank God you didn’t bang up your face.” She knows he thinks she is exaggerating her injury to get out of filming. Even so, she doesn’t understand why he’s so angry at her. The press interest in her injury, in her, is worth thousands of dollars of promotion.

She thought this movie would be different, away from the Hollywood studio system, retreating into the wilds of Canada. But the system came along with the cameras and the wardrobes and the director Otto who, despite trying all her charms to endear him to her, made up his mind about her before they even met and certainly before she hurt her ankle. 

She is not sure why she let go of the raft.

Her acting coach Natasha tells the photographers, “That is all for today. Marilyn needs to rest.” Natasha offers her a white terry cloth robe which seems silly. She stands under a beam of the summer sun shining through the cool mountain air.  She stands on her heel, in her bikini, for a few more minutes signing autographs and 8x10s for the journalist’s buddies, girlfriends, dads (when really she knows the signature, the moment, is for them).

Natasha takes her arm and leads her back to her cabin. “The mosquitos and the chill in the air remind me of the Black Forest. I worry you will catch a cold.”

“I’ll be fine Natasha. As long as I stay off my foot, it doesn’t hurt too much.”

“The foot is only part of my worries. It was cruel of Otto to make you spend all day in freezing water. You are his star. He is a little man. A little dictator,” Natasha says this in her German accent and with life experience.

Natasha is the bossy mother bear she never had; her real mother Gladys barely knew where Norma Jeane was at any given time. She has blurry memories of being taken to visit Gladys in various institutions. In a few brief attempts, she and Gladys lived together but those times always ended in disaster. Gladys was not able to be a mother, so Norma Jeane grew up being shuttled from foster home to foster home. A few of the women who looked after her were kind (and strict) but many were also indifferent (especially if their men paid too much attention to pretty little Norma Jeane). That is all behind her now.  She can choose her own family.

Natasha commands, “Rest. Don’t stay up all night on the phone.” The drama coach kisses her on the cheek and leaves the room.  She nods like an obedient child.

She orders two bottles of champagne and a grilled cheese sandwich from room service. She has problems sleeping at the best of times (which this is not) and hopes a few glasses of champagne will relax and warm her. She has pills too but they make it hard to wake up in the morning and she has already literally gotten off on the wrong foot with the director. While she waits for room service, she telephones friends in Los Angeles. No one is home. Joe is on his way to Canada. In the next few days, the set is moving north to a different resort town called Jasper and he will meet her there. She thinks she could be in love with Joe.

Joe’s a famous baseball player. Well, he’s an American hero: they call him “the Yankee Clipper.” He’s actually from San Francisco but has lived in New York for most of his adult life. Joe is famous enough that he says he’s had enough of that life and he wants her to marry him.  She has been a wife before and is not sure she wants to be one again. He does make her feel safe though and that is a rare thing.

She spends the evening drinking her champagne and quietly practicing a sad song for a scene where her dumb blonde character sings in a dingy bar.  Around 10pm, she decides to sit outside to watch the sun set. She puts on a cardigan, refills her glass of bubbly, and limps without her crutches to sit in a red wooden chair outside her hotel room.

As the sun wanes over the mountain tops, she pushes brittle pine needles with her toes poking out of her wrapped foot. She outlines hearts in the dirt. She is going to talk to a doctor and insist on a cast. Everything will be better when Joe gets here.

Snapshot II: Jasper, Summer 1953

She sinks into a shallow bath full of bubbles in her cabin at Becker’s Bungalows in Jasper. She sticks her exposed big toe in the silver faucet, careful not to get her casted foot wet. It is early evening and she’s had a long day back on set. Every morning at 7:30am, the crew boards a train called the “Devona Special” that takes them to location out in the woods. Today, Robert was still drunk from the night before, the mosquitos were bad, and Otto barely used her at all. She doesn’t know if she was even on film. She thinks Otto made her come out just to show her he is the boss.

Jasper is different than Banff. In Banff the mountains are majestic, like castles or cathedrals. In Jasper they seem older somehow, narrower, more rugged. Jasper feels more remote, quieter than Banff. It is further north and is a smaller town. Of course, there is attention wherever she goes, and frankly wherever Joe goes too, but people also respect them and ask before taking their photo. One night she and Joe had dinner at a restaurant called Spero’s where they were warmly welcomed and hardly interrupted. As they were leaving, the owner tried to treat them to their dinner (Joe refused and paid him handsomely). She thanked Mr. Spero with a kiss on the cheek. One of the crew told her that people in town said the old Greek man put clear tape over the lipstick mark and proudly told the story for the whole next day until his wife made him wash his face.

She thought Joe coming up to Canada would make things better. In some ways it has. But after an initial flurry of sex and promises upon his arrival, they’ve spent most of their time together fighting. Joe says he wants her to give up Hollywood and settle down with him, but she knows that he would get bored so quickly. She does not want to spend her days fetching his slippers and a whiskey while a tomato sauce bubbles red on a stove. She will never be as good a cook as his Sicilian mama. In the times she was able to live with her mother when she was a child, Gladys worked in the cutting rooms of studios. Gladys always told Norma Jeane, “You are pretty enough to be a movie star. If you play nice, you could live up to your name, become the next Jean Harlow.” Now that dream is coming true. She has spent too much time on the casting couch and is too close to real fame to give it all up now for something quiet and small. Why can’t Joe understand that? He has fame.

Love always leads her down the wrong path.

The cabin door creaks open.

“Marilyn!” She hears Joe’s voice. “I have some very special fans who want to say ‘hello’.”

“Just a minute,” she says making her voice cheerful.

She is surprised Joe didn’t tell the autograph seekers to come back later. He fiercely guards the little privacy they have.  He will sign baseballs and 8x10s and autograph books and be courteous but when he is done, he is done. She still feels like fans are doing her a favour by asking.  She knows she has a long way to go as an actress, Natasha says she could be great if she just works hard enough, and she also knows that being a fan favorite makes the studio nicer. He should understand why she doesn’t want to give it up when she is on the edge of something truly great.

She carefully steps out of the tub, wipes bubbles away from the edge of the plaster below her knee, and wraps herself in a fluffy white robe. She opens the bathroom door a smidge and calls out, “Joe, Honey, can you come here for a moment?”

She hears him say, “Wait here a minute Fellas.” She hears his footsteps on the wooden floorboards as he makes his short way from the cabin’s front door through the kitchen and living area and toward the small bedroom adjoining the bathroom. She sits on the bed. He opens the bedroom door slowly. He is tall and carries himself with an athlete’s muscled confidence. She thinks he is one of the most handsome men she has been with.

“Joe,” she whispers, “Is it press?”

“Baby, it’s three kids. Maybe ten, twelve. They walked all the way from town. They just want to get a look at you. Maybe an autograph.”

She doesn’t know whether to think of this as sweet or strange so she chooses to think it is sweet.

“I started to wash my make-up off and I don’t know if Whitey is even here right now …”

“Sweetheart, they don’t care about that. Must have taken them more than an hour to get here. They just want to say they met you.”

“Alright. Pass me my checkered trousers on the bed and that blouse on the hanger.”

Joe nods.

 She waits for him to lecture her about being messy but he doesn’t say anything. She forgoes underwear and puts on the clothes. She swipes on a bit of red lipstick to make an effort. She leaves her hair pinned up. She looks at her reflection in a full-length mirror and runs her hands over her breasts and torso to make sure the blouse is smooth against her body. She rolls her shoulders back, takes a deep breath, and smiles to the mirror. She becomes Marilyn.

She walks out of the bedroom and greets the three boys with a breathy whisper, “Well, hello! I hear you walked all the way here just to meet me.”

“Yes Miss Monroe,” the tallest boy says. The three kids stand at the open doorway.

“Well, come in, come in,” she says.

The boys jostle and fidget as they step into the cabin.

“What are your names?” she asks.

“I’m Robert, that’s Jim and this here is James,” Robert pushes a smaller blonder boy forward.

“Well, it is very nice to meet you all. How wonderful to have such nice friends. How do you all know each other?”

“We go the same school Miss,” Robert answers for the three of them.

“There is only one school!” Jim chimes in.

She smiles. “Are you hungry? Would you like a snack? Joe – do we have milk and cookies?”

Joe shakes his head.

“We’re fine Miss. We are hoping to get a photo with you. Jim has his dad’s camera,” Robert says.

“I would love to take a photo with you. Joe – should we go outside where the light is better?”

“Sure,” Joe says, unaccustomed to being someone who takes the photo.

She ushers the boys back outside and stands between Jim and Robert, putting her an arm around each of them. The boys come up to her shoulders. The all have shaggy summer hair bleached by the sun. She imagines their moms will take them to a barber for a trim before school starts again.

“This will sure give me something to say when Miss Emes makes us write about summer vacation,” Jim says.

She leans forward and gives a big wide smile.

Click. Click. Click.

Joe takes a few photos.

She leads them back inside the cabin and signs a stock 8×10 for each of them: From your girl, Marilyn.

“Would you boys like to see a real-live movie set? We are making a picture called River of No Return. You should come out and see it.”

“We’ll have to ask my mom. We might get in trouble when she finds out we came out here today,” James says.

“Your mother is very welcome to come too. We all take the train out to the set in the morning. We will be here for another week or two.”

The boys all nod. “I guess we better be going,” Jim says. “Thanks so much Miss Marilyn.”

“You are very welcome. I am always happy to meet my biggest fans.” She adds, “You should be careful out there on the road,” she says. “Someone on the film crew said they saw a bear yesterday.”

“There are always bears around here Miss. They’re mostly looking for berries this time of year. We aren’t scared of bears,” the youngest boy says with a sincere bravado.

“Just in case, maybe Joe can drive you back to town.”

“That would be nice Miss. Jim here is sweating through his Sunday shirt. Between that and him taking the camera, his mom might get out her wooden spoon,” Robert teases.

Jim shoves him.

“Well, we don’t want that!” She exclaims. “Joe, Honey, can you give these boys a lift home? Maybe you can tell them a baseball story.”

“Sure thing,” Joe says. “I’ve always wanted to be a chauffeur.” He says it jokingly but she worries he will bring this up later. He has a hot-head Italian temper and she sometimes gets the brunt of it.

She gives each boy a kiss on the cheek and watches them pile into Joe’s rented car. The drive to town will only take fifteen minutes each way but that is half an hour she can have to herself before she hears about what she should have done differently.

She pops a cork, pours herself a glass of champagne, and gets back into the tub. She doesn’t even care that the water is cold.

Snapshot III:  Jasper, August 1953

“Do you think those bears are in the movie?”

She sits in a canvas chair outside as Whitey applies foundation to her face. About a hundred yards away, two black bears the size of big dogs rummage through garbage they have strewn on the ground after turning over two of three tall metal cans. They are having a noisy feast.

Whitey pauses from applying contour lines and looks over at the bears. “No – the trainers would not let them roam around eating refuse. The poor film animals have collars and are chained up: those two bears are wild.”

“Of course. You know I like to document our creations. I have also taken some gorgeous snaps of the mountains. The light here is gorgeous in the morning.”

“I suppose that is one good thing about having to get to set so early.”

“The train is fun,” Whitey says. “Like travelling back in time.”

“Sure,” she says. “Whitey, I want you to take my picture with the bears.”


“Yes. I just want a photo with them. I’ve been hoping to see lots of animals here and so far all I’ve seen are elk.” She starts unbuttoning her smock that keeps her blouse free of powder and errant colour. Then she changes her mind, “I’ll keep the smock on. This photo is just for us. I will wear sunglasses since you haven’t done my eyes yet.”

She grips the handles of her canvas chair and puts her weight on her good foot before gingerly putting weight on her bad ankle. Otto insisted she removed the cast, but her ankle is still tender and sore. She has some good painkillers from the onset physician. High heels are still a torture though so, unless she is filming, she wears brown leather moccasins she was given as a gift from one of the extras on set who is an actual local Native Chief. People in Jasper have been very kind to her.

Whitey touches her arm, “Do you think it is a good idea to get so close to them?”

“I’ll stand to the side. Miss Golden Dreams and the two bears,” she laughs at her own joke about her infamous nude calendar photo.

“More like Cinderella with your lame foot”

“Silly, Cinderella only lost her shoe, she didn’t hurt her foot.”

“In all seriousness, don’t get too close Marilyn. They are just young cubs, probably born this spring. Their mother is likely close by. She’ll make herself known if she thinks you are a threat. I know we always joke that I’ll do your make-up until you are cold and gray, but I am not ready for that just yet.”

“How do you know so much about bears Whitey?”

He takes his hand from her arm and waves his hand in the air, “I have lots of time to read on set my darling.”

“Did you know they eat berries?” She shares one of the boys’ comments.

“I did,” Whitey says. “I heard someone say they especially like blueberries. And those little purple berries up here called saskatoons.”

She smiles. Whitey is probably her best friend. It is nice to be so close to a man who doesn’t want what most other men want from her (even if they say they want more). She senses that Whitey does not approve of Joe.

She approaches the bears slowly. They root through the garbage like piglets she once helped look after on a foster family’s farm. She loves animals. Maybe if she marries Joe they can get a pet. She’s always wanted a little wiener dog. Or a poodle. At least a cat.

She thinks about the mama watching from the trees. Her mother Gladys was never close by and she never protected her. When Gladys wasn’t in the hospital, her mind whirred with her own obsessions, failed dreams, and future schemes. Gladys wasn’t able to be a mother to Norma Jeane. She wonders if Gladys reads the letters and clippings she sends to the institution. Her life is a dream, a fairytale, and maybe Joe is as close to Prince Charming as she will find. Is this her happy ending? The hero coming to her in an enchanted forest in the mountains and rescuing her from the big bad director? No, she does not want to play the little girl lost. She is a star on the edge of bursting brighter than anyone could have imagined. She wants to shine on her own.

“Ready?” Whitey asks.

“Yes,” she lowers her sunglasses from the top of her head to cover her eyes. She puts her left hand in the pocket of the smock.

“Smile Goldilocks,” Whitey teases.  


The bears do not seem to notice her.

Diana Davidson lives and writes in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Her historical fiction novel Pilgrimage was shortlisted for the Alberta Readers Choice Awards in 2014. Her current project is a novel called Liberations that opens on May 8, 1945 as Canadian troops end Nazi occupation in Amsterdam. She has been fascinated by Marilyn since she was thirteen.

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By Michelle Pretorius

And then, they crossed the line. Pop. A gunshot rang out. A girl screamed as the limp body of her 13-year old brother fell. School children froze, the stones that they had picked up to fling at the police still in their hands. The ones who had adhered to the directive of a “peaceful” march stood dazed, confusion marring their youthful faces. Pop. The second gunshot ignited a fervor, defying reason, ignoring fear. The children surged forward. Outnumbered, their fear augmented by the hate of thousands, the white men in their police fatigues let the dogs loose.

Placards proclaiming, “Down with Afrikaans,” and, “If we must do Afrikaans, Vorster must do Zulu,” fell to the ground. The bearers reached for bricks and trashcans, anything they could use to defend themselves against the beasts. An Alsatian’s growl turned to a yelp as the first stone hit its side, it’s body failing under the assault. The children’s frenetic rage converged on the dumb animal, bashing it to a bloody pulp. A boy of no more than ten lifted an empty Coke bottle above his head. Pop. The bottle fell from his hands, blood spreading where the bullet had ripped his chest. He looked disbelievingly at the dog, quietly falling next to it. His companions dispersed, their eyes wide with fear. This was not supposed to happen. This was not how this day was meant to end.

The law was passed two years before. No more Xhosa, no more Zulu. Instruction in black schools was to be given in Afrikaans and English only. Teachers showed up to class with Afrikaans dictionaries, trying to teach their subjects in a language they themselves could barely speak.

A Black man may be trained to work on a farm or in a factory,” the deputy minister of Bantu Education, Punt Janson, proclaimed. “He may work for an employer who is either English-speaking or Afrikaans-speaking. Why should we now start quarreling about the medium of instruction among the black people? No, I have not consulted them and I am not going to consult them. I have consulted the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa.”

Jacob had felt the mood change as the screws were tightened one more notch, his own resentment burning. They had rallied early that morning. As unsuspecting students showed up for school, they were told by the Student’s Representative Council Action Committee that today would be the day of protest, kept secret to catch the police unaware. They would march to other schools in the township, gain strength in numbers, make their voices heard. No, their parents didn’t know, but the older generation had become complacent, beaten down by so many years of oppression that they would not fight any more.

Once the march started, they had found their way blocked by the police. But peace held. The procession rerouted, taking, “Nkosi Sikilelel’ iAfrika,” as their anthem, a sense of elation as they sang it over and over, a mantra of hope, their number growing, joined by township gangsters and brave adults. “God bless Africa, let its horn be raised, listen to our prayers, Lord bless us, we are its family.”

But then the line was crossed. Automatic rifle shots rang like hail hitting the roofs of the shacks during spring storms. Government buildings and school buses burned, symbols of the oppressor that took their land, their dignity, their power. The violence only receded with nightfall as women searched the streets for their children, the day’s events punctuated by raw inconsolable wails.

Jacob felt nauseous as he looked at the rows of bodies on the ground, covered by newspapers because there weren’t enough sheets. He had not allowed himself to think or feel, only react, running for shelter from the tanks that roamed Soweto. Leaning against the wreckage of a car to catch his breath, he noticed the body of a white man. Around his neck hung a hastily-drawn board reading, “BEWARE AFRIKANERS.” Jacob stepped closer. He recognized the man, a social worker in the township, always good for a laugh or to bum a smoke. He stared into the man’s glassy blue eyes. It felt unreal to him, this thing that had happened. He never thought that they would be able to strike back. All his life he had believed that the white man was untouchable, yet here one of them lay. He reached out to touch the man’s cold cheek, make sure he wasn’t dreaming.

Pop. A hot pain seared through Jacob’s left side and he fell on top of the social worker. Pop. Dust rose up a few feet ahead of him. Pop. Jacob rolled off the body and sidled under the car, his instinct for survival trumping the pain. Pop. His leg felt warm and wet, but he waited, too frightened to move. Pop. Pop. Shots fired, not at him this time, but in the distance. The nearest building was a sink-plate outhouse. As soon as he was sure they had moved on he crawled over to it, thankful for the cover of rapidly descending darkness. Let it end, please God, he thought as he closed the flimsy door behind him and sank to the floor, the dank stench enveloping him. Just for tonight, let the slaughter stop.

Jacob didn’t know how long he lay on the outhouse floor before the two women found him. Too weak to stand on his own, they hoisted him between them and carried him to the hospital. A dry blood trail led from the emergency room entrance to the intake desk. A gurney wheeled past them, the face of its occupant covered. Jacob felt dizzy, clinging to the side of the desk. The confusion of bodies and doctors distorted in his fever dream, mashing into one being, an abstract monster, like the painting in his father’s study, red and undulating and unforgiving.

“I am Jacob Morgan,” he managed to tell the creature as it put its arms around him. “You give me muti, fix me good, okay?” The red thing’s lips moved, but he couldn’t hear what it was saying.

When Jacob opened his eyes again, he was in a hospital bed, his left side throbbing with a warm pain that extended all the way to his stomach. His mother’s careworn face floated in front of him. She wore a black beret and her good Sunday dress. He thought it funny that she had dressed up. The ward was filled with beds, identical to his, their occupants bandaged and beaten down, adults hovering at their sides, their expressions mirroring his mother’s.

“Jacob?” She was crying.

“He’s all right, Prudence.” His father put his hands on her shoulders.

“We scared those Dutchmen lekker.” Jacob forced the words through parched lips, ignoring the look in his father’s eyes. He had watched his dad deal with the apartheid government for years, defending activists, trying to remain civil, and for what? They, the youth of Soweto, did more to put a dent in the armor of the white man in one day, than his dad had done in a lifetime. They had shown them that they would fight back.

“What you did was stupid. You don’t think.” His dad pointed a finger up at the sky. “You hear that?” Jacob became aware of a constant drone. “The police are coming down on Soweto. The only thing you’ve accomplished was to give them an excuse to fire on us without asking questions.” His dad’s anger spilled into white-hot stupor. He turned his head, clinging to his mother as if she was the only thing keeping him standing.

“No more, Jacob. Please.” His mother reached for his father, an intimate gesture that made Jacob uncomfortable.

“We have to get you out of here.” His father wiped his eyes. “The police are taking names of everyone that was treated for bullet wounds.”

Jacob let his mother help him up, dress him, as if he was a little boy.

“I bought a train ticket.” His father stood by the door, hands restless in his pockets, eying everyone that walked into the ward. “Tessa will take you for a while.”

“I’m not going, Pa. People have to stand together. Not chaile like rabbits. We’ve had enough.”

“I’m not going to allow you to toyi-toyi and be target practice for those animals.”

“Please, Jacob.” His mom clutched his hands. “Don’t break your mamma’s heart.”

“If I’m in danger, so are you.”

“We’ll be all right.” His dad had the, “and that’s final,” look about him, a steel door lowering between them. Jacob knew arguing would be useless.

A nurse rushed into the ward and handed his dad paperwork. “We documented it as an abscess,” she said.

Ke a leboha.” His dad had a look of earnest gratitude on his face.

Jacob leaned on his mother, while his father led the way. Outside, the air was hazy and thick with smoke. Riot police manned the perimeter, rifles gripped in front of them, scowling at a crowd of retreating stone throwers, the smell of teargas lingering. Jacob’s packed suitcase perched on the back seat of the VW beetle and he sidled up next to it. His father navigated past the crowds, taking narrow back alleys between shacks and government housing. People spilled in and out of liquor stores and shops, running off with their loot before a bullet had the chance to stop them.

His father jerked the wheel as a stone bounced off the windshield. Jacob crouched behind the front seat. His mother reached for him across the divide and he clung to her hand, fear breaking through the fuzzy reality of the past day, his breath coming in shallow rasps, his pain forgotten. The stones became a horse’s hooves pounding in rhythm with his heart. His father screamed. The car skidded to a halt. His mother’s grip grew limp. Her body slouched forward.

A police officer flung the door open.“What you doing?” he shouted. “Get out of the car.”

His dad raised his hands, his face pale with terror. He addressed the young policeman in Afrikaans.

“My wife, Sir. She’s hurt. We have to get her to a hospital.”

“You stand over there. Move.”

His father got out and moved away from the car, his hands behind his head. The policeman leaned over the seat.

Jacob felt something explode in him as the man touched his mother. “No!” He reached over the seat to stop the man.

The policeman punched him in the face, a sharp blow that threw him back onto his suitcase. “Want to die today, kaffir?

“Please, Officer. Please. He’s my son. Only a boy,” his father pleaded form the sideline. Jacob had never seen him like that, scared, begging, raw fear forcing him to his knees. He addressed Jacob in Sotho, pleading with him to remain calm, to do what the police said. Jacob slowly opened the car door, hatred raging in his veins, his hands shaking behind his head, the stitches in his side painfully straining while the policeman trained the gun at his head.

“Please, Officer.” His father cupped his hands to the white man like a beggar. “My wife, she needs a doctor.”

The policeman sneered. “What she needs is a morgue. If your son’s not careful, he’ll join her.”

“Please, Baas. Please. We do not want trouble. We want to get away. Please, Baas.

Jacob looked at his father with his knees in the dirt, his pride gone, his dignity gone. It was too much. The pressure cooker inside Jacob forced a hole through his heart. Even as he told himself not to cry in front of these men, sobs of anger, and grief, and shame, convulsed his body.

The policeman focused his attention on a column of smoke in the distance. Through his tears, Jacob noticed the look of embarrassment on his face. So they had a conscience, these men. Perhaps they were even human.

“The coloured hospital in Eldorado Park is open,” the policeman said, his gun still trained on Jacob. “You go there.”

Soweto writhed in fire as they drove away. Jacob reached for his mother’s hand in the front seat. It was still warm, the faint line of death barely crossed. But from this, he knew, there would be no return.


Michelle was born and raised in South Africa where she received a B.A. in Theater Arts at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein. She has lived in London, New York and the Midwest and currently calls Chicago home, where she recently graduated with an MFA from Columbia College Chicago. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Fiction, Hypertext Magazine, The Copperfield Review, and others. http://www.michellepretorius.com


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The Fear of King Canute

By Alison Lock

I am weary of their clamorous chatter, their irksome babble. I slip between the boulders and crouch as if to mesh a moment into rock, and there I sigh within the privacy of my stone throne. Hearing the echoed cries of my advisors, I chuckle at their disarray, their panic, as they search the caves below the cliffs, while others, wade through the slush-sand towards the shallows. They are calling, calling.

I creep over the bladder-wrack rocks, my feet press popping sacs, I hunker for a while to watch the creatures in a rock pool: crabs, jelly fish, tiny sea urchins, dog whelks, winkles, limpets; all existing within the hierarchy of a private briny world. And yet, these men, so astute, so sagacious, these men of courage, brain and brawn; they know less than a barnacle on a rock. They believe I have the power to halt the tide.

I shudder. A cold wave lashes at my legs.I leap onto dry rock but before I can re-compose I am exposed, ousted from my hide-away as the last rays of sun send streaks of jewel studded gold into the bronzing light.

My Queen, my dearest Emma, will be sailing from the coast of Normandy. Her pilgrimage has been long, but her mission has been twofold. Not only has she sought to visit the shrine of Our Lady but with my urging, she has secured the lands of her inheritance. And now, on her return she must again face the crossing of the sea, face her deepest fear.

Later, I lay on my couch as the ghost mists of night descend. I pray and beg for deliverance from the task ahead as I wait for the silver daggers of dawn. My guards are silent. Elevated on this mound of dune, I watch the stars through a triangle of canvas. I can just see the spray at the shoreline, how it is refracted in the slip-shine of the moon; how each wave delivers an epiphany of plight. Like a breath held before the rumbling ebb; there is fear in my heart as each slap wave draws further on the silt, gnawing at the edge of my Kingdom.

Like every slight of hand, this request, this trick, is almost imperceptible.

How can my Kingship be tested in this way? What greater warrior do they need?

Now, my subjects wish to secure a place for me among the Gods, or perhaps, they simply seek to make a fool of me. But my God is in his heaven to where my soul one day will rise. I know that my power on earth goes by His grace alone. I am not ‘Almighty’ as some would have it. For that I must command the seas and I know too well the force of nature is not the territory of man, never has been and never will be, not for anyone, peasant nor King.

King. That is a mighty word. It is one that I own and will not easily relinquish. I am King Cnut, King of Denmark, Norway, England, some of Sweden too; an Emperor before the gates of Christendom. Nevertheless, I am a mortal king and this very knowledge is my strength: never have I believed that I can rule more than land itself; not the birds in the sky, nor the fish in the sea. But my subjects have no such humility and now they are bent on testing my powers, my majesty.

Bardric, my loyal and trusted friend, spoke first of this concern.

“They request that you command the tide,” says he.

I laugh.

“They have taken you for a fool, Bardric,” I reply.

“I am a fool, your Majesty, it’s true,” he says, “but a fool that listens with his heart.”

“Ha, I believe you have lingered too long in this country of green spirits, witchery, and fairy craft,” I reply. “Perhaps it is time we find you a mission before you are subsumed in pagan lore.”

“Your Majesty, they will not leave the subject alone,” he continues, “not until your greatness has been proven.”

“Surely you are not taken in by these foreign lords?” I cry. “This piffle is merely set to undermine me.”

“There is talk, your Majesty…” he continues.

“Talk? Talk is talk! Is my power over many lands not proof enough that I am fit to be their King?”

“As their King, only you can decide.”

He is shrewd, there is no flicker of humour around his mouth.

“So, they wish for me to halt the course of the tide? Reverse its natural flow?”

Bardric is silent.

“The sea is a force of nature tuned by the stars, the planets and the shifting winds,” I declare. “Far greater than a single man, even one who is a King.”

But now, it has come to this. This challenge must be quelled. If I am to keep my crown I must prove my worth without losing their loyalty, or indeed, I will lose face.

They say that at the point of lowest tide, when the waxing of the seasons has reached its vernal peak, it is the time of Equinox. And it is also said by the gossip-mongers, that at first light, I, King Cnut, shall pit his power against the vastness of the world to claim the ultimate crown; King of the Seas.

For three moons now, the bards have sung their fine-teased lyrics, the jesters have provoked. The maids have tittle-tattled, the cooks rumoured, even my knights and squires can speak of little else. The time has almost come to deal with their absurdity.

But still I do not know what must be done. Perhaps there is no other way but to play their scheming game. I will not have the history books say that I was the fool who thought he could reverse the tide. No.

I look to heaven but does heaven look on me?

I call for my sword; iron that can be drawn from the earth, smelted in the pits of fire, hammered into a warrior’s sword. My answer will surely lie in the blade that has saved me on countless times. My right hand is adept, used to the wielding of this implement, controlled by the deftness of my wrist.

I withdraw the crafted blade from its sheath and as I do a small item drops to the ground, and, for a moment, it is lost on the intricate woven carpet. My hand reaches out, feels for the floor around my feet.

I hold up the coin to the light. ‘CNUT REX ANGLORU,’ it reads.

One penny: a keepsake, the first coin cut by the minter in London, given to me for luck, a present from my beloved Emma. The only word we have is of the outward journey. As arduous as ever, the vessel unsafe, damned with the blight of disease. The Abbess, her life-long companion, fell ill and died, but my beloved Emma survived. This loss of her childhood friend to the sea will have caused her much distress. And my poor Emma, she suffers so greatly from the sickness, a malady that affects even the sturdiest of sailors.

I look through the opening of the tent and see our Royal Encampment, that portion of my Kingdom’s land within arm’s length: a dune that is enclosed, canopied, hemmed by a ring of fluttering pennants. The invader lies beyond, waiting to intrude with watery glee. I was never like my father. Sweyn Forkbeard held no fear of the sea. On my first expedition, I knew nothing of the power of the ocean, but felt safe within the orbit of my father’s eye. We were drawn into the rough seas around the Islands of Orkney in our narrow long-ship just as a storm began. In between the flashes of lightning a mountain of sea appeared, erupting before our eyes, its toppling edge tipping us onto our side as we clung on, bound ourselves with ropes strapped to the hull, the masts, or to each other. Several men fell overboard and were lost. I believed we were about to drown as we tilted into the maw of a deep whirlpool, but just as we circled the outer ring, the force lessened, and with the might of those on board, we broke free of the jaws that threatened to swallow us.

I would never forget that ordeal. When, later on, I assembled my own fleet, I insisted that only the best, the strongest, the fastest, should be employed. I declared my fleet invincible: 22 sturdy long ships with sails for greater speed, 10000 men equipped with armour, shields and oars, provisions to last a year at sea.

Nevertheless, despite all precautions since; the incident at Orkney haunts my darkest dreams. And now, at the cusp of night and day, I sweat as if with fever despite the stillness of the air. The haunting sounds of the sea enter my tent and the camp is suffused with the base light of dawn. All armour is ready polished; limbless breastplates, shields, helmets, glint in the first risings of the sun as if in readiness for the great King of the Sea.

I hear a beat, the drum of time. My heart, quickening and rising in my chest. My throat constricts. I will fail, fall ill, or fall from grace; just at the moment of my testing. Am I the one who dares demean His power? What right have I to pit myself against His grace?

The beat of my heart is soon replaced with the rhythm of hooves.

“Your Majesty, Queen Emma arrives from France.” My servant’s voice breaks the dawn, a fanfare coincides with the rising of the sun.

My prayers are answered. Who but my beloved Emma knows better of the tempests of the sea? Who suffers more than her, whose fear is greater? And she, my brave Queen, has sailed the Channel between England and her homeland on the Norman coast. Now is not the time to tempt providence? I hold the fine edge of my sword to the light; its sheen is silvered as if fresh-drawn from the forger’s fire.

“Set my chair above the line of the tide… turned to face inland.”


Alison Lock is a writer of short stories and poetry. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air, was published by Indigo Dreams Publishing (2011), and a collection of short stories, Above the Parapet (2013). She also works collaboratively with other artists, musicians, and visual artists. She has an MA in Literature Studies.

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A Question of Madness

By Shannon Selin

The white man on a roan horse did not, in his dusty appearance, differ from many who straggled into Nacogdoches on the trail from San Antonio de Béxar to Louisiana. American traders, vagabonds and adventurers were common in this corner of Texas, joining Spaniards, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Indians and a few free Negroes seeking to improve their fortunes. It was the man’s request that distinguished him.

“My good Sir, I deserve death and therefore desire that you should hang me.”

James Dill uncrumpled himself from the worn bench of his siesta and eyeballed the stranger. Nacogdoches was a place men came to escape the law, not to ask for it. Once a Spanish trading and smuggling center, the town had been gutted by royalist revenge during the Mexican revolution. Only now, with Mexican independence, were families trudging back to their tangled farms and sagging jacales. Some hundred souls, of the thousand who once lived there, scraped a living from the red-land valley. Dill’s slim hold as commandant and alcalde relied not on a garrison, but on his age, his standing as one of the first to return, and the grace of the Mexican friend who appointed him. And, of course, on Dill’s judgment, which in his mind had never failed him.

The man was young and slight. He had been riding hard; his breath was heavy. His eyes met Dill’s with a watery blue fever. Dill sniffed. There was no smell of whiskey.

“Why do you wish to be hung?”

“I have been into Mexico with my partner, trading. On our return, I murdered him, took his money and sunk his body in the Angelina River.”

“Did anybody see this murder?”

“Only God and all the saints and angels.”

“But no man witnessed the killing.”

“I saw it, though I no longer have claim to be a man.” He slumped as he said it.

“How did you kill him?”

“With my knife.”

There was no sign of injury on the man’s sunbaked skin, no stain of blood on his boots or loose clothing.

“Show me the knife.”

“It is in the river.”

“Show me the money.”

The man pulled out thirteen dollars and a handful of pesos, hardly worth the trouble of murder. The horse was an Indian one, marked with no brand. It wore a Spanish saddle. Dill checked the packs. They held pots and bedding, a rifle in a deerskin case, powder, shot and bundles of wool. There were no bars of silver, the usual trader’s haul.

“What is your name?”

“Such name as I had is lost.”

“What is the name of the man you say you killed?”

“He called himself Ben Lucky. I never knew his real name.”

“Where is his family?”

“He had none.”

“Where is your family?”

The man’s mouth twitched. “I have forsaken the ones who loved me.”

“Where are you going?”

The man blinked, as if the answer were obvious. “To hell.”

In making his way to Texas, Dill had wandered from Pennsylvania to New Orleans to Arkansas Post. He had been a frontier hunter, a farmer and a trader with the Nacono, Nasoni and Anadarko tribes. He had seen madness, both the kind a man is born with and the kind fate draws him into. This man had no hat. He would not be the first the sun had made crazy.

“Go away,” said Dill. “The heat has produced mischief in your brain. I will not listen to you.”

The man gripped Dill’s shoulders. “My mind feels an uncommon shock, but it has never had more equilibrium. I demand that justice be done to me, even as I did justice to poor Ben.”

He was shaking like the devil in a vessel of holy water. Dill twisted him off. “You have run mad. Do not trouble me.”

The man grabbed the rifle from the horse and pushed it toward Dill. “If you will not hang me, then shoot me. I do not wish to commit suicide, or yet to live.”

Dill waved him away. “You have suspended the operations of reason. Go from this place.” He went into his house and shut the door, leaving the man outside.

Helena was grinding corn, mashing it between the stones as expertly as any Mexican. She winced at her husband cutting off the breeze. By Fahrenheit’s thermometer the heat was over one hundred degrees. Poking a sweaty curl back under her kerchief, she opened the door a pinch and peered out. The man stood where Dill had left him, his back bent forward.

“What if he is a murderer?”

“Death comes soon enough. What sane man would hasten it? Providence has taken away his reason. He may recover it, or he may not. I cannot take the life of one who has confessed a crime of which there is no proof.”

“Well, if he did kill someone, Providence has given him the most clear reason in showing him what needs to be done.” Helena did not go to the creek for water until the man had left their door, and she kept her grandson James close by instead of letting him run with the other children in the pines.

The man plunked himself down in the town square, where he repeated his story to anyone who would listen. Juan Seguín heard the tale. He complained to José Mariano Sanches.

“I am very much afraid that this gentleman has murdered his companion. I do not believe it is just for him to evade the law.”

“Indeed,” said Sanches, “the culprit has made a confession and wishes to suffer for the breach. There should be no escape.”

“If he has committed murder, what picture is this for our alcalde, who screens him from the gallows and lets him loose to prey upon his fellow men? Is it not the law that murder should be punished by death?”

Sanches quoted words he had heard from a long ago priest. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

“He waves his rifle like a madman and asks men to shoot him. How is this safe for our families?”

“Madman or murderer, he is a danger to us all.”

“If I were alcalde and a man claiming to have killed someone came within my reach, I would apprehend the villain and lodge him in jail. The laws of our country would determine whether he was justified or not. If not, he would receive the punishment he merits.”

“That is what every man of honour ought to do.”

“But how can we expect justice to be done by a man who is slipped into an office which, by ignorance and lack of learning, he is unable to fill?” Seguín had only two horses and a house half the size of Dill’s, but he was proud of the education he had received in Béxar.

Sanches was a farmer from Laredo who, like Dill, did not know how to read or write. “It is character he lacks. He has the conceit of the Anglo-American.”

“I remember how he lied about being a Catholic, so the viceroy would let him stay. I was here in the spring of 1799, well before Dill came on the town.”

“Six months before,” said Sanches. “And I was here seven years before either of you.”

Joseph Durst, Dill’s son-in-law, was at the trading post, buying sugar and flour. When he collected James for the ride back to the farm, he said, “The townspeople do not feel safe with a murderer in the square.”

“A madman,” said Dill. “Who says that?”

“Juan Seguín.”

“Seguín is a jealous old fool. He will do me all the injury he can. I will not confine a man for being mad. Only if he wishes not to comply with the rules of government can I exempt him from the town.”

“They think he killed a man.”

“He is a lunatic. If he did what he says he did, with no one as witness, he could have got clear away to Natchitoches.”

“So you think he is guilty,” said Helena.

“I said no such thing.”

Two other Americans were fresh in town. William Dewees and Nicholas Dillard had got word that Moses Austin had received permission from the Mexican government to start a colony in Texas. They were heading back to Arkansas to make preparations to join him. Dill asked if they knew of a trader called Ben Lucky, or if they had heard of a murder on the Camino Real.

“Yes,” said Dewees, “we did hear of such a thing.”

“Where?” asked Dill, his excitement rising.

“From a man in the square.”

Dill went to the square as the sun’s orange tail swept the horizon. Indians packed up their hides and beans; a Spaniard tinkled his guitar; some Mexicans played monte. The man was laid out on the stoop of the church–long abandoned by priests–with a Caddo who liked to drink prodigious quantities of whiskey.

The man looked up in hope. “Sir, have you come to hang me?”

“I have not. You have caused a great deal of caviling and worry, and I want you to leave this town.”

The man struggled up. He could scarcely keep on his legs.

“I will leave, but on one condition.”


“If you still disbelieve me, send some men with me. I will show them where I sunk my comrade.”

The man wet the ground through his trousers.

“You are mad, and now you are drunk besides.”

As Dill turned to walk away, the man started hollering out his wish for execution. Women peeked out their doors and men appeared on the verandas of Y’Barbo’s old stone house.

Dill took the man by the arm and led him stumbling out of the square. “In the morning, if you have not returned to reason, I will grant your condition. Then, if you are telling the truth, you can get the justice you desire.”

Helena gasped to see the man again on her porch. “You are the one who is crazy,” she said to her husband. “Why not put him in jail? Why bring him here to rob and murder us?”

“If I locked men up for drunkenness, the better part of the population would be confined.” Dill patted her broad hip. “He will not harm us. I have taken his rifle. And he will be gone as soon as the sun is up.”

Helena offered the man coffee and tortillas. He would take only water. “I am burned with regret. I long for death, as life is the only obstacle separating me from my just fate. But I am a coward. I cannot do it myself.” He reached for her hand. “Please, will you help me?” Helena pulled away.

Dill gave the man clean trousers and set a moss-filled mattress under the long eaves of the house. The man refused to lie down. “I dare not sleep, for fear of my dreams. I will keep awake as long as I can hold my eyes open.”

Dill had barely put out the candle when the man began to howl. Helena’s blood froze. Dill went out and asked the cause of the clamour.

The man apologized. “Frightful afflictions pursue me. I thought I saw Ben Lucky walking on the road and beckon to me.”

The Dills had just settled in their bed when they were once more startled by the man’s cry.

Again the man apologized. “I thought blood was falling on my head.” He began to roam about the porch, muttering.

Helena did not sleep. By morning she agreed with her husband that the man was crazy.

The man was, at least, sober. “Sir, I will leave now, if you will hold up your end of the bargain.”

Dill rounded up five strong men to accompany his charge. They followed the Camino Real about twenty miles northwest, to where the trail met the Angelina River. The man then led them south, across dry river and creek-bottom land, to a point thick with walnut trees and poplars.

“It is here that I sunk Ben Lucky.”

“Are you sure?”

“How could I forget?”

The river, which had been an overflowing torrent in the spring, had shrunk to a lazy brown stream. Two of the men took off their clothes and entered the water. They found the swollen body within the hour, caught on a log. They slung it over a mule and returned to Nacogdoches.

Dill fixed a rope upon a tree behind the old stone house and drew up a bench underneath. He called a few persons together to witness the scene. More came without being invited. Some gave the condemned man commissions for the other world.

As the man beheld the noose, he smiled. “God guard you many years,” he said to Dill.

He mounted the bench and put his neck through the loop.

Dill kicked the bench.

As they walked back to the house, Helena said, “I must say that I have never seen a man so happy to be hung. It goes to show that even in the most unusual of circumstances the old proverb is right: murder will out.”

Dill said, “It goes to show that I was right. Even as a murderer, the man was mad.”


Shannon Selin lives in Vancouver, Canada. Her novel, Napoleon in America, imagines what might have happened if Napoleon Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena and wound up in the United States in 1821. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com, where you can also read more of her short stories.

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Reliable as the Stars

By Jasmine Evans

May rested on a hay-filled cot, her head touching the crown of her younger brother’s head, and her feet gently relaxing against the older brother’s shins. The hay poked through the gray material of the cot and pinched her legs in a way that was more annoying than painful. She heard one brother’s stomach growl and felt him roll over to try to quiet it. The rumble triggered a similar nose in the other boy’s stomach. Being the baby of the family, he didn’t wake from his sleep to quiet it.

She rolled on her back, tried to ignore the pinching hay, and looked out into the dark in the direction of the ceiling. In her mind’s eye, she saw the meat and produce her father kept locked away.

She could almost hear his voice, “This food is for making money, not for feeding greedy children.”

“Theo?” she whispered. Her voice was soft—or at least as soft as it could be in the face of rebellious, hungry thoughts.

“Yeah, May?” he didn’t bother whispering. Their small cabin was several yards away from the cabin where his parents slept. And Paul, the youngest, slept so hard a stampede of cows wouldn’t wake him.

“Were you awake?” May asked.


May sensed the anger that pushed its way from his abdomen, through his throat, and emerged in the form of a lie. She wanted to take his mind off of things.

“Why did they kill Clarence last night?”

May regretted her question as soon as Theo snorted.

“Because he’s black,” he spat out. “Why else?”

“I thought maybe…maybe he had done something to provoke them. I’m not saying he did anything wrong, actually wrong. But they usually have a reason—even if it doesn’t make any sense.”

“They don’t need a reason.”

May sighed before he got the full sentence out. Theo snorted again. Their reactive noises hung in the air. He rolled over and May could feel him searching for her eyes through the darkness. She couldn’t see her own toes but she knew just at the end of them, Theo was watching her. She tried to think of something honest and reassuring to say, but her mind was empty. What could she say about the neighbors and friends that swung high from the trees every few days? What could she say about the postcards that white men would send home with children standing in front of lynched bodies (‘look what I did in Mississippi, Ma’)? What could she say about the hunched shoulders and downcast eyes they had all adopted just to stay alive?

There was nothing she could say that he didn’t already know. This was, in some ways, more his reality than hers. For a moment, she hated the South. It was the only home she had ever known and in it, she communed with nature, found God, and learned survival. But it also threatened each day to claim her life—or worse, her brothers’.

“We have to leave,” she whispered.

“What?” Theo said for a moment. It was as if he was sure he couldn’t have heard her right.

“We have to leave. There’s no good in staying here.”

“Don’t be foolish. Where are we going to go?”

“North! Where else?”

“These aren’t slavery days, May. We can’t just follow a star and hope for the best.”

May shifted her legs, trying to get comfortable around the hay. “If we stay, we’ll never have the life we want.”

“And what life is that?” Theo raised up on one elbow and glared at her. “You have some fancy life in mind? Huh? You going to take your light-skinned self and find a white man up North to treat you nice?”

May told herself it was just the lack of food talking. He didn’t mean it.

Her stomach screamed, and Theo’s anger deflated.

“I didn’t mean it,” he whispered.

“I know.”

“We can do just fine here. People do just fine.”

She didn’t respond.

“It’s not a wonderland, May. It’s not some magical place where all our problems disappear. We hear some bad things too.”

“I know.”

“You can’t live where you want. They have rules about that, you know.”

“I know.”

“And it’s crowded. We could be stuffed into a tiny apartment with a bunch of other people that we don’t know. And—and—you couldn’t work outside anymore. You would have to work in a factory all day long with dangerous machines.”

“But you hear people say all the time that it was the best decision they ever made. They say it in the Defender all the time.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

“So many people come back and say it’s terrible. That the crowds and the smells are too much, that white people still won’t treat you right, that you can’t see the stars at night.”

“Doesn’t make it true.”

Theo balled up his fists and punched his cot. “We can’t just leave because you’re hungry.”

May ground her teeth. “Why not? What’s so wrong about wanting my body to feel right?”

“That place will destroy our souls.”

In the heavy silence, the crickets’ nighttime orchestra reached a crescendo. In the barn next door, the cows groaned as they shifted in their sleep, a couple of insomniac chickens clucked softly to each other, the dog’s snores mimicked what May imagined the train sounded like.

“If you stay here, they will kill you.”

“You don’t know that,” Theo whispered.

“I do know that. And I can’t be in any place that could steal you from me in a second.”

Theo opened his mouth, closed it, opened it again, and closed it again. He bit his lip, chewed on it, licked it roughly as he rolled May’s words around in his mind.

May listened to the soft grunts and slurps of saliva and smiled. She knew he was right. And in that moment, she knew he knew too.

“Papa’s not going to let us leave. I’m barely sixteen. You’re a child.”

It was her turn to snort. “I’m a woman. And since when does Papa tell you what to do?” She spat out each word, reached up and wiped the spittle away with the back of her hand.

She peered into the darkness and tried to see him. But her mind wandered to thoughts of slabs of beef, baskets of corn, and bins of fruit from other farms that they would help put into trucks to transport away in the morning. She thought of the hunger that clung to her like a thin dress after tripping into the creek.

The only time they had ever really felt full was on a special trip to an uncle’s house for Thanksgiving. The men hunted, shot, plucked, and cleaned a turkey the size of a small child. The women added greens, corn, biscuits, gravy, and potatoes to the table. May had never had so much fun—or smelled so much goodness—in a blazing hot kitchen.

Since then, the hunger reminded her that she was still alive. The act of forced deprivation felt more human, more true than the gluttony of the holidays. But maybe, just maybe, she thought, it was time for something else to make her feel alive.

“I bet they have good food in Philadelphia,” May said, giving some weight to her thoughts.

“What do you know about Philadelphia?” Theo responded, half-teasing.

May shrugged in the dark. Theo didn’t need to see her to know she was doing it. “I know we hear more about Chicago, but I think we should go to Philadelphia.”

Theo flopped onto his back and let out an “ahh” and a hiss as the hay poked into his rear. May turned on to her back as well, much more gracefully than her brother. They rested in silence—almost silence with Paul and the dog then competing for the loudest snore.

“We hear more about Chicago,” he repeated.

“I know.”

The sun began to peek through the slats of the cabin. Theo rose slowly and tried to shake off the discomfort of the cot.

“I bet they have better beds in Philadelphia,” May whispered.

Theo let out a breath, long and slow. “Let’s find out,” he said.

May sat straight up so quickly she saw flashes of light in front of her face. “Really?”

Theo didn’t respond. He just pulled a shirt over his head and searched for his shoes.

May changed out of her sleep clothes and into her best dress. Theo grabbed his pack, which had a knife, two dollars in coins, a pen, and a Bible. May reached under her cot for the piece of almost stale bread she had been saving for an emergency. The bread and the Word would have to sustain them during the long train ride.

They looked at Paul at the same time. Before Theo could ask what they were going to do, May leaned over her baby brother’s closed eyes and kissed his forehead. He didn’t move or skip a snore. Theo waved even though Paul could neither see nor wave back.

In the light of day, they could see each other’s gaunt cheekbones, frown lines, and protruding collarbones—signs of a lifetime of hunger. Theo wanted to see his sister get old and fat. And he knew that would never happen if they stayed.

Slowly creeping out of the cabin, they climbed up a small hill to the main road.

“Do we go back and say bye to Mama?” Theo asked.

“We keep going.”

“Where do we stop?”

“Don’t ask me about stopping before we even start.”

She glanced up at the sun. Thousands, if not millions, of people had made the exact same decision they had made overnight. It was a long walk to the train station, and after that, she would just have to follow her gut—only marginally more reliable than the stars—and hope for the best.


Jasmine Evans is a freelance writer and MFA student at Mills College. Her work has been published in Heater and Bread for God’s Children. She’s also a reader for Sucker Literary Magazine. When she’s not working on another story or article, she loves to browse thrift stores for “new” books.


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A Redcoat’s Revolution

By Matt Phillips

Charlestown Peninsula, Massachusetts

June 17, 1775

The knee-high grass on the hill almost concealed the remains of our comrades, mowed down by lead and fury the first two times we tried to oblige the rebels to quit the field. As we stepped over our brothers, their corpses reminded us why this third assault must be the last.

Few die well that die in a battle.

I mouthed Shakespeare’s words with a rueful smile. Little more than a year earlier, at Covent Garden, I played a soldier at Agincourt. Now, I led real soldiers, in a real assault on real works, where hundreds of very real men waited with their muskets, ready to shred us again.

From “Will Stansfield in Henry V, as Michael Williams, a soldier,” to Lieutenant William Stansfield, 5th Regiment of Foot, His Majesty’s Army.

From an actor to an officer. From my family’s shame to their red-coated pride.

I squinted in the afternoon sun and cringed at the air’s hot stench of blood and smoke. Sweat trickled from under my tall bearskin hat.

My company held formation, for now. “Steady, men, steady—”

The rebels loosed a thunderous volley. I flinched from the whistle of a ball inches from my ear.

I clenched my teeth, kept my eyes forward, even as men in my company fell screaming from the line, only footsteps from me.

On with it, then. Mustn’t embarrass Father. Mustn’t shirk my duty to His Majesty. Forward, now, forward. Here the drama reaches its climax. For death or …

Glory. I suppressed my smirk and shouted, “Very well, lads. The King’s sharp steel for these insolent bastards. Charge!”

We lowered our muskets and ran toward the rebels’ redoubt, whose five-foot earthen walls were surrounded by a shallow trench. My heart raged in rhythm with my pounding footsteps. Our bayonets gleamed like the fangs of metal beasts.

The rebels’ fire grew sporadic, like the popping of dying embers. If their ammunition ran out, we might finally prevail. But many threw rocks—One flew toward my head. I ducked just in time, but it knocked my hat off and skewed my powdered wig. The wig slid, then tumbled to the ground.

With a ragged growl, I leapt over the trench. Whilst gripping my musket in one hand, I grasped the wall with the other and clambered up and over.

The redoubt was spattered with guts and pooling blood. The rebels backed toward the far wall. Some climbed out. I pushed into the fray but stopped when a cloud of smoke and dust parted along the next wall. There a fat, bespectacled man with curly brown hair stood his ground, even as his fellows retreated.

I stared at him and fought my growing recognition. For my King—and my family—required me to kill all rebels in arms. No exceptions. Not even for the man I once cherished as my dearest friend. But how—

A loud crack from behind me—my friend’s face contorted. Harry dropped his musket and gripped his chest where a red spot flourished on his dirty linen shirt. He slid into the corner.

No—This must be a trick of the mind—the heat, the blood, the smell ….

But I shook my head, and Harry still lay there, drawing heaving breaths. I pushed through the struggling bodies, knelt before him, and placed my hand on his shoulder.

His eyes opened to narrow slits. A wavering smile stretched his stubbled cheeks. His lips moved, and I leaned in to hear him over the grunts and screams nearby.

“A strange meeting, this,” he said.

“Quiet now,” I said. His head slid onto a pile of stony dirt at the base of the wall. I removed my uniform coat, rolled it up, and cushioned his head. “You’re … here?”

“Not for long, mate. Never thought you’d see me turn martyr, eh?”

“I didn’t even know you’d come to America.”

His trembling right hand removed something from his coat pocket. I grasped it, dumbstruck, and he drew his fingers back, leaving a small gold locket in my hand.

“See that this returns to my wife … Worcester …”

Harry’s eyes bulged with a fit of coughing and wheezing. I tied the locket’s chain around my belt before reaching up to loosen Harry’s collar.

A shriek behind me froze my heart.

Before I could turn my head, a bayonet sliced through my right hand and pinned it just above Harry’s collarbone. Bolts of pain shot up my arm. Harry’s mouth opened and gurgled before his body went limp. I screamed and turned to face the soldier. He was a private from His Majesty’s 38th Regiment.

“Die, rebels!” he said with bared teeth and wild eyes. A tremor overtook me when I remembered: I no longer wore my red coat, wig, or bearskin hat. The rest of my uniform was covered in dirt. Amid this chaos, little distinguished me from the enemy in the eyes of this battle-mad private.

He pushed the bayonet forward and back, up and down. I quaked and lurched; I felt bones snap, tendons rip, nerves scrape on steel.

He withdrew the blade. When he raised his weapon again, several retreating rebels knocked him down and trampled him.

All sounds faded. My vision swirled and blurred into gray, then a darkness behind my eyes consumed all.

Some unknown span of time passed, as in a deep sleep, before the darkness lightened a bit. The light grew and formed the image of a small candle flame. Then a new light, a bigger one, appeared a few feet away. A roaring fire.

Men laughed and sang. The air was warm and stale, redolent of smoke. Not the battlefield’s hellish odor of gunpowder smoke, but tobacco’s earthy aroma.

“So, Will, what think you?”

A moment passed. The voice became real, not a memory’s echo.

Harry. Alive and well, sitting across from me at our favorite London public house, the Lamb and Flag.

I became aware of a piece of paper in my hand. I looked down, stared at the dull green woolen frock that had replaced my uniform coat.

“Be honest, now,” Harry said.

The candle guttered under Harry’s face as he leaned forward, his elbows on the table.

I examined the paper. Below the date of the 20th of March, 1774, an ink drawing of two men consumed most of the sheet. They stood face to face, scowling and pointing their fingers at each other. The man on the left was a portly, ruddy-faced man in a powdered wig and fine suit; the one on the right, a similarly attired but younger and thinner man. The fat one said, “You ungrateful whelps, we shall close your port!” His hand extended behind him, where a merchant representing the British East India Company put a coin his hand.

“How dare you threaten our coffers—I mean to say, our liberty!” the thin man said, with his hand stretched behind him to keep at bay a band of angry men. Labeled, “Boston warehousemen, ropewalk workers, etc.,” they cried, “Devil take our liberty, we want work!”

I covered my grin with one hand and handed the paper back to Harry with the other.

“A wicked commentary.” I sipped from a tankard of rum. “Think you’ll find a publisher for this one?”

“I shall help myself to my father’s purse and pay for the printing of pamphlets if I must.” Harry blew out a ring of smoke from his pipe. “I know where he secretes the money he saves for his whores.”

I pointed at the caricature on the left. “This is Lord North. Who’s the other gentleman?”

“A wealthy smuggler from Massachusetts called Hancock. A leading Whig over there.”

“Bloody hell, Harry, why insult both sides? If you’re going to risk a sedition charge by attacking the Tory government, at least befriend the Whigs, in case they care to defend you.”

He shook his head. “Someone must speak the truth. Show both sides for the frauds they are.”

“I’m about to put on a uniform for a fraud, then?”

“Am I wrong?”

I shrugged, sipped my rum.

“’Tisn’t too late to disappear, you know. Who better to take up such a venture than an actor? Take a false name, defy your father!”

I took another gulp and folded my hands. “It is too late. Would you believe this: When my father purchased my commission, he not only forced me to cancel the rest of my appearances in Henry V for the season, but he told me that he hired mercenaries—cutthroats!—to track me down should I fail to report.”

Harry leaned back and drew deep on his pipe. We stayed silent a moment.

“This is far too somber an affair. What say we find some women to send you off proper? Nothing says good luck in the army like a new case of the pox.”

I laughed and quaffed the rest of my rum before following Harry to the door.

“After you, soldier boy.”

When I pulled the door handle, a searing pain ripped through my hand and up my arm. The door opened to the purest, deepest black. The darkness swelled and blotted out everything—the door, the wall, Harry, the others in the tavern, and finally me—as if the scene were a drawing and the artist had spilled ink over it.

The pain burned hotter, throbbed, pounded, screamed—and I awoke.

I opened my eyes to find my right hand bandaged, but with four fingers missing. I tried to move it and groaned—‘twas as if dogs gnawed on phantom finger bones I still somehow felt.

But then I remembered. Harry. He was dead. But there was something he left behind. And something I had to do.

 * * * * *

 August 4, 1775

Worcester, Massachusetts

The old blacksmith pulled the reins, and the wagon ground to a halt. “There ‘tis, sir. The widow Salisbury’s house. Well, her father’s, truth be told.”

It was a modest two-story house, its clapboards unpainted. To the left, its kitchen garden nigh on burst with ripening vegetables. To the right, a verdant pasture sprawled behind a split-rail fence. I eased myself down and tipped my hat to the man.

“Happy to do any service for a friend of Harry’s, ‘specially one what bled with him at Bunker’s Hill. The redcoats paid dearly for that hill. A few more such victories might ruin ‘em.”

“Indeed, sir.” I flashed a grin. “Much obliged to you.”

I thanked the Lord for preserving my acting skill, even after more than a year away from the stage. After recovering from my wounds and receiving my discharge from the army for disability, I disposed of my uniform, donned a homespun frock, waistcoat, breeches, stockings, and wide-brimmed hat, and vacated my quarters in a Boston house. The rebels besieged Boston by land. But the Crown’s ships still traveled the waterways freely, and General Gage offered to ship civilians out of Boston to ease the strain on provisions in the city. My plain clothes allowed me to slip unrecognized onto a ferry to Chelsea. Thence I trudged along country roads to Worcester. And now I played a new part—a patriot militiaman, lately wounded and seeking to return a treasured heirloom to the family of a fallen brother in arms.

My story—and my attempt at a Massachusetts accent—passed muster with all I encountered, what with the locket and my maimed hand. But now the biggest test awaited.

A young woman opened the farmhouse door and glanced at my mud-spattered clothes before offering a tired smile.

“Good morrow, sir.”

“Ma’am.” I removed my hat. “I … I don’t mean to impose, but I seek Mrs. Henry Salisbury.”

“I am Mrs. Salisbury.”

I reached into my pocket and handed her Harry’s locket. “He charged me with returning it to you.”

Mrs. Salisbury brought her hand to her mouth. She opened the locket and smiled with a quick tremble in her lip before showing it to me. It held two tiny portraits, one of Harry and one of his wife.

“You fought alongside him?”

I took a deep breath and responded in my natural voice. “Not alongside him.”

Her brow crinkled over narrowing eyes.

“Forgive me, Mrs. Salisbury, for neglecting to introduce myself. William Stansfield, 5th Regiment of Foot … Well, lately discharged from His Majesty’s Army.” I pointed at my disfigured hand.

She leaned back, her eyes now like saucers. “Will. Harry’s friend from London! Please, do come in.”

Mrs. Salisbury summoned her niece and had her serve us cider in the parlor. There I recounted my reunion with her husband and my journey to fulfill his dying wish.

“You took a great risk going to him,” she said, “and you paid a dear price.”

“Not nearly so dear as the price he paid. My condolences to you, ma’am.”

“Harry would’ve wished for you to call me Hannah.”

“Never one for the finer graces of society, was he?”

She laughed and shook her head. “It lightens my heart that the Lord brought you to his side at the end. He spoke of you often, wondered if you were among the redcoats occupying Boston, but he thought any attempt to find you would raise too many suspicions.”

“What brought him here?”

Hannah told me Harry departed London in May of last year, not two months after I bade him farewell. His drawings had stirred up so much scandal that his father sent him to Massachusetts to work in a cousin’s mill near Worcester.

“Our courtship was brief,” Hannah said, her voice catching. “He said he never felt so alive as he did here, could scarce wait to proceed down this new path his life had taken.”

“I’m so grateful he found such joy here. If there’s one thing that could’ve turned Harry from a cynic to a devotee of a cause, it’s love.”

“No, no, no.” She waved her hand. “He didn’t take up arms because of me. I begged him not to get involved.”

“Then what changed? Forgive my candor, ma’am—Hannah—but Harry once called the Sons of Liberty a band of coin-hungry smugglers leading a self-important but mindless rabble. Immediately after denouncing Parliament as a gang of thieves and shirks, of course.”

She smiled. “That does sound like his style. And he did arrive here expecting to find mob rule and greed. But the truth was far different. Especially after Harry saw the effects of Parliament’s response to the dumping of the tea, when he saw them try to eliminate the colony’s self-governance, prohibit town meetings, install judges and sheriffs accountable not to the people’s elected representatives but to the royal governor alone.”

“What had all that to do with Harry?”

Hannah leaned forward. “Our neighbors who fought you at Lexington, at Concord, at Bunker’s Hill—they’re good men. Harry saw that straightaway. They own their land, and they’re pleased to work it with their own hands and provide for their families. They wish to govern themselves as free men, as they always have, for then their families’ livelihoods remain in their hands. This was all so new to Harry—this expectation men here have to chart their own path—and it excited him. He felt compelled to help stop Parliament from taking it away.”

A flood of light burst through a lifetime’s memories, as if I’d just noticed the midday sunbeams streaming through the parlor window. The embittered cynic I’d known my whole life in London was really just a role Harry played. In truth, he longed for something to rally to. The farmers of Massachusetts had something worth fighting for.

I held Hannah’s gaze. In a matter of minutes, this woman had opened the eyes of my mind and soul to understand my lifelong friend in a new way. It wasn’t that he became a new man here, but the best version of the man he already was.

“Thank you, Hannah. I believe I take your meaning well.”

She nodded and stood. I rose as well, but she waved me back into the chair. “Please, sit. You’ve had a long journey. I shall speak with my father. I’ve no doubt he’ll be pleased to provide a room for you here until you are ready to return to England. He loved Harry, too. And don’t fret—I’ll never breathe a word about your past as a redcoat.”

I parted my lips, about to tell her that a return to England, to my father’s scornful gaze, was the last thing I wished. But I could not admit to her that I had no firm prospects.

I strolled around the parlor as I awaited her return. A newspaper page was nailed to the wall amid sundry old portraits. It was from the Massachusetts Spy, dated the 22nd of September, 1774, and a picture dominated the page. I could tell it was Harry’s work. It showed judges in their flowing white wigs and black robes, labeled, “The Royal Governor’s Cronies.” They walked toward a courthouse, where farmers with mud-caked shoes awaited them with muskets ready to fire. A smashed ballot box lay at the judges’ feet. They held manacles toward the farmers and said, “Come now, these are for your own good.” With their jaws set grimly, the farmers said, “We cannot say likewise.”

I thanked Harry, wherever he might be, that he gave me a way to find a refuge here. For all I wished at that moment was a clean bed, a hot meal, and perhaps some good conversation with friendly folk. Beyond that, I could not say what might lie ahead. But somehow, this step into the unknown I had taken at Harry’s behest invigorated me. It seemed right. For if Harry could find a larger purpose and a new direction for his life on these shores, so might I.


Matt Phillips lives in Alexandria, Virginia, with his wife and son. He graduated from the University of Virginia with a bachelor’s degree in history and from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in national security studies. His love of historical fiction began when he read Johnny Tremain in elementary school. He is working on a novel inspired by his ancestors’ experiences fighting Tories and gathering intelligence on the Pennsylvania frontier during the Revolutionary War.

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The World’s Smallest Woman

By Samme Chittum

The Diary of Lucia Zarate (1864-1890)

January 12, 1890

My toes tingle, and I wonder, is it the cold, or the angel of death come to tickle me with her feathered wing tip? Fat clusters of snowflakes hurtle against the glass and slide downward, collecting on the outer sill, and I force myself to gaze outward at the unfolding storm. A gust of wind strikes the side of the train that shudders as it rolls across another yawning gorge. Beneath us, the wooden trestle sways like a drunken dancer. I spy my own reflection. My small brown face pinched and worried, eyes like black marbles. I feel the tug of gravity through the soles of my feet and pray to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Protect me, Virgin, protector of the powerless, and return me safely home.

January 13, 1890

The tracks have vanished, like a magician’s trick. Buried in snow drifts edged with blue. The engine has stopped, its stack still spewing clouds of steam that form crystals in the frozen air. My fellow passengers hum like bees whose hive has been disturbed, while the crew scurries about in a state of alarm. Various solutions are tried before everyone settles down to await a break in the weather that will allow the men to clear the tracks. Coal is being used to melt snow for drinking water. Most of the passengers have some food, but not much. I have a few stale empanadas, but I am not hungry. The dim light will soon give way to night and I can barely see to write. Good night as I await an uncertain dawn.

January 14, 1890

A few of the passengers gone beyond grumbling to cursing, but most are simply morose. I pass the time by writing, or singing to myself.  I try various positions, slipping my hands in my sleeves and tucking my feet under my legs, but it is no use. Sometimes I stand up to stamp my feet, but I if I were to walk down the aisle, it would cause a stir. As it is, everyone that walks by casts sideways glances at me. Yesterday a rude boy came to gape at me until his mother took him away. I am so cold. Colder than I have ever been. And I think it is quite possible that I may not live to see my 27th birthday. And so I am writing these entries as my last will and testament. My name is Lucia Garcia Zarate, also known as “The World’s Smallest Woman” and “The Marvelous Mexican Midget.” Today, fully grown, I weigh only five pounds. Not an ounce more! For the last fourteen years, people have paid to stare at me, and whisper about me – as if I cared what they had to say! Yet how many ever truly saw me? My gift is that I am able to see myself.

My house in Los Angeles I leave to Chun Hua so that she may live there with Pacheco. My hacienda in Sonora I leave to my family. It should be no problem to place my body in a leather valise, to be claimed by Barnum & Bailey. Next to me sits Maria, my attendant, who cannot read. If she thinks I am asleep, she steals away and drinks out of a small flask. Poor Maria. She does everything she has been instructed to do to help me survive in a world that is ridiculously larger than me.  Yet there is no warmth in her. Whatever fire once burned within has left no coals.

As for me, I am as always a strange case. My most loving companion is not human, but a Capuchin monkey named Pacheco. More than ever I am glad that he is safely at home in California, where he is looked after by Chun Hua, who pampers him like a child, feeding him bits of fruit and cooing to him in her native Mandarin. Pacheco was one of the monkeys trained by Jekes, the primate handler for P.T. Barnum. Every Saturday night he drank heavily and dosed Pacheco with homemade brew until he was wild. When Jekes teased him, Pacheco bit his hand.  A doctor was called. And before the last stitch was in, Jekes was bellowing and stumbling between the trailers, threatening to break Pacheco’s neck.

But it was too late. I had hidden my little black and white friend in a trunk. Then I refused to go on stage until I was allowed to keep him. He never again bit anyone, although he would bare his teeth and chatter if anyone raised their voice in my presence. All the men joked that he was my protector, but I gave them the evil eye and cursed them in two languages. Now, sitting here on the train alone while Maria plays cards with other passengers, I am very glad that Pacheco is not here, yet missing the way he sits next to me and clasps my hand in his while he makes a crooning sound that I can almost hear if I close my eyes.

January 15, 1590

For two days and nights, we have huddled in whatever coats and lap blankets we had.   Maria has wrapped me in her shawl, but it is not enough. How I wish my sisters were here to hold me. When I close my eyes, I find myself once again in my home village of San Carlos. In the distance, instead of the soaring Sierra Nevada, I see the familiar volcanic peaks that loom over the bay where the fishermen toss scraps to the pelicans who perch on the sides of the blue and white boats. Outside my mother is baking tortillas in a brick oven. But it strangely cold in the shade.

I give permission for my skeleton to be kept in the Barnum Bailey museum devoted to the lives of sideshow freaks. All I ask is that the version of my life recorded here be the one that is read by visitors. Perhaps the greatest mistake I made was to let others tell my story, which became the property of a handful of anonymous biographers assigned to fill an entry in an encyclopedia or book on sideshow freaks.

All recorded my vital statistics as an adult: weight 5 pounds; height 20 inches. Most then provided brief descriptions of my personality. In some versions I am intelligent, lively and animated; in others I am only capable of the most rudimentary conversation. All agree on this: I was billed as the “Mexican Lilliputian.” I traveled to Europe where royalty feted me. Museums drew record crowds when I was placed on display. On tour, I was paid $20 an hour and accumulated enough wealth to buy my own ranch in Sonora. All this is accurate. Yet why is it that no two biographers could agree on whether I was intelligent or an imbecile?

When I was born on a warm April day in 1864, I weighed eight ounces. A wooden ruler held next to me proved me to be seven inches long. Before she went into labor, my mother was singing La Paloma Negra, the Black Pigeon. She called me her Little Bird and liked to recite in hushed tones the events leading up to the marvel of my birth.  “No other mother in all of Mexico is as fortunate as I, to have a daughter so perfect, so marvelous,” she would remind me when I fretted about my size. “Everyone who sees you is struck with wonder.”

Like a kitten licked by a mother cat, I thrived and took my place as the third child in a family of six. My father, Juan Garcia Zarate, made for me tiny hand-carved wooden chair, with my name inscribed on the center slat. My father had sad eyes that turned down at the corners. He used to sit on a wooden crate in our dirt yard until the inverted bowl of the universe became an impenetrable backdrop for ponderous, dowager planets and ageless, sprite-like stars that quavered with a cold, insistent fire. The tip of his cigarettes glowed faintly when he inhaled. “A man should find consolation in his own company,” he once told me. He made all the furniture for our adobe house, which was simple and sparingly furnished. It served me and the rest of my family, the tallest of whom, my brother, Manual, was 5 feet 2 inches. I slept for many years alongside my mother before I moved to the bed of my older sister, Juanita, where I remained until I left home at age 12.

Dignitaries from other villages liked to call upon our family. We served them dark, sweet coffee, while they brought food and small gifts of cloth or candles. Before their visits, my mother sat me on her bed and to comb my hair and dress me in gaily-colored skirts and blouses she had embroidered. On these occasions, she removed from a place of safe-keeping the silver chain and cross that had been worn by my maternal grandmother and hang it upon my neck, where it fell past my waist.

Over time the novelty wore off, and I became simply Lucia. My sisters and brother protected me from the rough hands of thoughtless boys and the unwanted attention of curious girls. One who took a special interest in me was Sister Isabelle, a Carmelite nun, who traveled once a month in good weather to visit me. She recited the Catechism as I sat next to her, and taught me to read. “There is no such thing as a small mind,” she would say, “unless it is a mind that refuses to accept knowledge.” I became the only literate member of my family, an accomplishment that gave me great status.

When I was 10, my father died of a strange malady that left him weak and short of breath. He could no longer work making bricks in the hot sun and my older brothers and sisters found odd jobs that brought in money for food, but there was never quite enough. The nights, cooled by mountain air, were spent sleeping beside my sisters, listening to barking of dogs, breathing in time with the rising and falling drone of cicadas. We woke early, in that moment when the night holds its breath before day intrudes and sets in motion the ceaseless industry of man. My mother made tender corn tortillas, which baked in an open air brick oven. I waited nearby for her to select and cool a single tortilla for me pull apart and eat. I have no memory of ever being cold or alone.

It was my mother, Evangelina Garcia Zarate, who was 4 feet 4 inches tall, who taught me the importance of dignity. She would not allow people to put me in their lap without my permission. She taught me how to carry myself with a polite reserve. I was 12 when the men from the P.T. Barnum drove into San Carlos in two black and gold carriages with gold coins and papers to sign. The first photograph of me was taken by a newspaper photographer from Mexico City, who arrived carrying a heavy metal camera. A curious crowd gathered nearby to study the photographer, a bald man who wore a faded suit and string tie, who set about his task with great seriousness of purpose. Thus it was that this first photograph found me, formally dressed, unsmiling and standing on a chair between my parents, who are looking past the camera with a steady gaze, as if introducing themselves to unborn descendants.

I was called a ‘human curiosity,’ ‘perfect in both form and feature,’ and a ‘Mexican Pigmy.’ The plain truth makes it strange enough. You must see hear and feel, and even then you will leave wondering. This according to one of the first bills enticing people to pay to see this human oddity. That I will concede, yet to call me a pigmy was inaccurate. I am a primordial dwarf, as testified to by three doctors brought in to examine me. I was said to be ‘suffering’ from dwarfism, yet for me there was no pain until I was told that I was afflicted with a condition that set me apart from all others.

For many years, I traveled through Europe with my American friend Joseph Flynn, the famous ‘General Mite.’ When I was 20, and Joey was 21, we sailed the Atlantic on a great ship to tour London and see Queen Victoria. I was so excited. They dressed us in our very best outfits, he in a tux and I in a lace-trimmed silk dress, my hair done up in tight curls that hurt my heard. A carriage drawn by four white ponies took us clattering along cobblestone streets to Buckingham Palace to be meet the Queen and her family. We were made to stand upon an enormous table covered with a blue velvet cloth. Joey was instructed to bow and I to curtsey, a silly custom, but I thought I did it rather well.

As for the Queen, she gawped at us the same as any commoner. And was rude enough to whisper to a man standing next to her that I was “perfectly hideous” with “a dark face like an Azetc.” Someone should have given the Queen a hand mirror, for she was then rather fat and pale. I have not seen Joey for many years since he married Millie Edwards, and began touring with her as The Royal American Midgets. Millie was a dwarf also, and the less said of her, the better. They were thought a perfect match, since they were both white. I never saw him again, although I still have the postcard he sent me from Madrid. “Dearest Lucia, my brown pigeon, How are you? Gracias for teaching me a few words of Spanish. I miss you.”

If you read this, do not pity me. Yes, I was sold to the circus to be an exhibit, yet I never let go of the innermost me. I did not grow taller, as I hoped I would. Yet over time I became more whole, more at peace with myself. For it was not just the audience who was studying me, but I who was studying them. All of them were searching for what it means to be human. Their repulsion or attraction was merely the measure of what they felt about themselves. Those who saw me as aberrant sought refuge in the deception that they were themselves entirely normal, for which I cannot blame them.

There is not much more to tell, except to explain what you must be wondering about how I felt while so many people stared at me. Of course, it was clear from the moment I left home that my earnings would support my entire family. This comforted me. If I have a regret, it is this. Through it all, I was too passive. I let others describe my path through life. They told me where to sleep, what to wear, how to stand and whom to love. My only act of defiance was to save Pacheco. If you do not care for the ending in which I freeze to death on a train, write another that suits you. A happy one perhaps in which I marry Joey, who makes me laugh at the silly stories he conjures for my amusement. Or another in which I return to Sonora to live on my hacienda, surrounded by the children of my sisters and brothers. Or perhaps you would rather see me live long enough to retire a rich woman in Mexico City, where I revel in the seclusion of a Spanish-style courtyard with an ornamental fountain in the center. High stone walls exclude all but the tiny green hummingbirds who come to visit and sip nectar from red hibiscus flowers as I drink sweet dark coffee in porcelain cups from China.


Samme Chittum is currently writing a novel of historical fiction as a Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Albany and has published many articles while working as a newspaper journalist and freelance writer.

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Venus in the Eastern Sky

By Bree Smith

Napoleonic Venice


You must paint my daughter, Il Falco had written, for soon she will be wed. This fatherly request concluded a six-page rant about Napoleon’s coronation at the Duomo di Milano. I could picture the vein in Pietro Bianchi’s forehead throbbing as his quill flew across the page.

My old friend’s letter had arrived in Constantinople just as I was preparing to take my leave of the place. The envelope was sun-bleached and filthy from its journey across the Adriatic. I inhaled the stinking perfume of saltwater and fish guts soaked into the parchment. In truth, it made me sick with longing for that crumbling paradise I called home. For the past year, Venice had been beckoning me back with long, golden fingers.

I wrote to Il Falco and promised I would come for my goddaughter’s wedding. I accepted the portrait commission and agreed to walk the bride to the church as tradition required. It had been two decades since Pietro had married and produced the daughter whose soul I swore to guide and protect. I had not laid eyes on the child since I dangled her naked bottom above the font of holy water at her baptism. Three-week-old Clarissa Bianchi had squirmed and howled like a banshee, her face as furious and wrinkled as an old woman’s. Without a second glance, I handed her back to her mother.

Years later, Pietro’s wife was dead and my wife, Francesca, had taken up with a Neapolitan ship captain. I had tarried too long in Constantinople, wreathed in hookah smoke, devouring pomegranates and despoiling courtesans. These days my knees creaked and my fingers ached with the first rumblings of arthritis. Every time I looked in the mirror I remembered: I am an old man. Now gliding languidly along the canals of my birthplace, I realized I had never felt so weary or so lost.

It was many hours past midnight when I arrived at the Bianchis’ house. Bank-like with austere Roman columns, even the building was reminiscent of the family patriarch. Pietro was known throughout Venice as “Il Falco” because of his uncanny resemblance to a bird of prey. Hawk-nosed and thin-lipped with gristly limbs and raptorial eyes, Pietro’s unflinching glare had made him the richest and most hated lawyer in Venice. But to me he would always be the boy in short pants who chased me around the garden with a wooden sword.

“Alessandro, you old tomcat!” Despite the lateness of the hour, Pietro greeted me at the door with a firm handshake. “How was your journey? You look terrible.” His sharp eyes appraised my faded coat and haggard face. Pietro gestured impatiently for a troop of bleary-eyed servants to carry my bags.

“You haven’t changed a bit,” I replied as he ushered me into the house. By candlelight the marble floor was polished to a mirror-like sheen. The ceiling was encrusted with gilt angels romping about in nude abandon. The furniture sank into carpets cast in ruby and citron shadows. An unlit chandelier groaned under the weight of golden apples, crystal pears and jeweled grapes dripping from the vine.

“Supper is long past, dear friend,” Pietro said. “Will you take something cold from the kitchen? I’ll wake the cook.”

“I believe I’m too tired to eat,” I replied.

Pietro grinned ruefully. “We are old men now, eh? Always abed and no longer for pleasure. You can meet Clarissa in the morning.”

As I drifted off to sleep, I thought nothing of that screaming red-faced infant. My jostled old bones ached until I longed to shed them like a serpent’s skin. Nevertheless, I was grateful for Pietro’s commission. My last lira had been spent tipping the gondolier who carried me home.

* * * * *

Looking back, that night was like a precipice from which I was about to fall.

My commission began promptly after breakfast the next morning. Il Falco left me in the hands of his valet, who brought me to Clarissa’s private morning room. For the first time I felt a glimmer of curiosity for the young woman whose image I was to paint.

The room was a Francophilic jewel box; one could almost sense the looming shadow of the guillotine. Every stick of furniture was painted gold and embroidered with rosebuds. Diaphanous curtains swayed in the breeze. Limoges figures dallied rapturously along the mantlepiece. The girl’s perfume lingered on every surface: rose, almond and cream. So soon after the massacre of the Ancien Régime, the effectwas at once morbid and enchanting, like a fairytale princess with blood-spattered gloves.

“Good afternoon, Signor Gatti.” Signorina Bianchi’s sudden arrival made me drop the novel I had been inspecting. “Or should I call you godfather?”

I bowed, feeling clumsy. “It is an honor, signorina. The last time we met you were a child.”

Her lips curved into a smile. “I see you were examining my choice of literature.”

I replaced the gilt-edged volume on the table. “The Romance of the Forest by Mrs. Radcliffe,” I read aloud.

“I often hide it behind Augustine’s Confessions,” Clarissa replied impishly. “My father is none the wiser.”

“Il Falco is not known for his literary sensibilities,” I agreed.

“And what are you known for, signore?” she asked, arching a brow. “My father tells me you are a world traveler.”

I shrugged. However exotic, Constantinople was but a pinpoint on the globe.

“I have lived in the East these past twenty years.”

“How adventuresome.” Clarissa’s face brightened with interest. “I have often dreamed of the East.”

I shuffled around the chamber adjusting the easel and securing the drapes, trying to ignore how Clarissa’s eyes absorbed my appearance like the cursed eyes of Il Falco. How I must have seemed to her – my face scorched by the blazing Turkish sun, my hair streaked with silver. You are an old man, I reminded myself.

Clarissa perched lightly on a chair and spread out her skirts. This was my cue to take up my charcoal.

“Tilt your head to the left,” I instructed her. “Just . . . there.”

Clarissa tilted this way and that, fluttering her eyelashes and biting her lower lip. She folded and unfolded her hands. Light refracted like a kaleidoscope from her bejeweled wrists. Her skin was as delicate as gauze; pale blue veins throbbed in her temples. There was something fey about the structure of her face. When she turned to the left, she looked like a vision of Artemis. When she turned to the right, she could have been any Venetian shopgirl.

My charcoal-blackened fingers itched with frustration. I was struck with a truth that all painters must occasionally face: it might be impossible to capture Clarissa Bianchi’s likeness in brushstrokes.

 * * * * *

Nevertheless, I applied myself ceaselessly to the task. Over the next months, Clarissa’s image became engraved on my memory: the curve of her jaw, the slope of her long, straight nose, the curling tendrils at the nape of her neck. As I worked, she peppered me with questions about color mixing and chiaroscuro. She asked which paint smelled of pine trees and licorice. (It was turpentine.) She wondered whether I trained to become an artist or whether the gift had been thrust upon me by the Fates. Her father was adamant that she should never touch a paintbrush, though Clarissa still sought to win him over.

As we whiled away the hours, I entertained her with tales of Constantinople. She was captivated by my descriptions of the smoke-filled hookah cafés and cool, blue-tiled bathhouses. I showed her sketches of the chaotic, spice-scented bazaar, of cross-legged snake-charmers and caged canaries. Clarissa traced her finger over my drawings of women, admiring their kohl-lined eyes and clouds of blue-black hair. It sickened me to think that I had seduced them for a pittance.

“Will you teach me to draw?” Clarissa asked one day as I unrolled my toolkit.

“Take these,” I instructed, wrapping a few nubs of charcoal in linen. “Draw everything you see – the fountain in your father’s garden, your maid’s calloused hands. It’s the only way to learn.”

“Thank you, signore,” she whispered, as though my honorific were a hallowed thing.

“Please call me Alessandro,” I begged.

“I would sooner call my father by his Christian name,” Clarissa demurred, her cheek dimpling.

After that, she never came to our sittings without awful drawings of perfume bottles, lapdogs and books.

“These are very good for a beginner,” I lied, rifling through the sketches. “Very much improved.”

In this way, we grew close. We shared secrets that no godfather and goddaughter should share.

“When I was first betrothed, I used to kneel for hours before the Virgin in the Basilica,” she said one morning.

I was struggling to do justice to the tiny blue speckles in her irises. “Why?” I asked.

“The priests insist that we must confess our sins or risk immortal damnation,” Clarissa explained, a faraway look in her eyes. “They say the passions of the heart are most abominable in the eyes of God. I could not kindle any feeling in my heart for my betrothed; I had desires of my own.”

I imagined her, bathed in a shaft of moonlight, begging the Virgin for forgiveness on her bruising knees. The thought was titillating.

“But the Virgin took pity on me.” Clarissa’s eyes locked on mine. “She revealed that our passions are the heart’s truest confession.”

I looked away. The child knew nothing of desire or confession or the crushing burden of a lifetime of sin.

“Will you tell me about your wife?” she asked.

Taken off guard, I blurted the truth: “She left me.”

Clarissa moved closer to my easel, her skirts rustling in the mid-morning stillness. Her beauty was like a magnet pulling me out of myself; I was unable to staunch the tide of memories tumbling from my lips. I told her of the morning I woke to find Francesca and my two sons gone to live with my wife’s sister in Naples. There was a note on my easel begging me not to follow them.

“I had no intention of following them,” I admitted, ashamed. “Three days later I boarded up our house and headed east.” For all I knew, Francesca was married to her ship captain, having assumed I had perished in a foreign land. My sons might have become sailors or shipbuilders. I had not heard from them in years.

Clarissa said nothing. Instead, she began peeling her gloves off finger by finger, never raising her eyes to meet mine. A harsh pink flush stained her cheek, her neck, the gossamer skin of her décolletage. Cautiously, she placed her long, bare hand over mine. Her skin was as cool as a slice of ivory.

Looking at her smooth fingers over my paint-splotched paw, it struck me that I had lived Clarissa’s lifetime more than twice. She could not know my weariness or my bitterness or the depths of my boredom. And yet, my heart stirred each morning at the sight of her curious eyes, her fluttery hands, her tilted chin and parted lips. Her naked skin sent a shiver down my leg. For the space of a heartbeat, I forgot she was my goddaughter and Il Falco’s cosseted child. I ignored that loving her might damn both our souls. I knew I could not worship Clarissa as Dante worshiped Beatrice; I could not immortalize her as Petrarch did Laura. I was, in the end, only a weak and lustful man whose selfishness destroyed everyone he held dear.

Clarissa’s lips were inches from mine. With the slightest movement of my head, I could have them.

And then, her father’s shadow fell over the room like an eclipse.

“Alessandro! Clarissa!” Il Falco’s teeth were bared in a wolfish smile.

Clarissa’s hand snapped back into her lap. Her cheeks burned.

“Clarissa, dolcezza, your Aunt Agneta has come to call,” Il Falco said. “It’s a wonder you didn’t hear the bell.”

“Oh!” Clarissa leaped up, pulling her gloves on like Eve hiding her nakedness before God. “I must go. Please excuse me.” She curtsied dizzily and was gone.

Il Falco turned the full force of his glare on me. “I’m glad of the opportunity to speak with you alone, Alessandro. I was hoping to see the progress you’ve made on the portrait.”

“You know I never reveal a portrait before it’s complete.” Unnerved, I busied myself with my brushes.

“Of course. How silly of me.” Il Falco began pacing the room like a tiger on the prowl. “Nevertheless, I wish to unveil the portrait this Friday evening. My future son-in-law, Signor Di Santis, will be joining us for supper. He is returning from that impostor’s so-called coronation in Milan.”

“Consider it done,” I said.

“Di Santis has written to me about the event in painstaking detail,” Il Falco continued. “That beady-eyed Corsican danced about in the Iron Crown calling himself the King of Italy! You were not here, of course, when he ravished our beautiful city leaving nothing but destruction in his wake.”

“It was heartbreaking to read of it in your letters,” I murmured.

Il Falco wheeled on me. “What do you know of heartbreak? You abandoned our home and everything we held sacred long ago.”

“What could I have done to stop Napoleon’s army?” I demanded. “I am only a painter.”

“Only a painter, only a painter! Pah! You were always full of excuses.” Il Falco’s lips quivered with disgust. “You know, there have been whisperings below stairs. The servants gossip that you are in love with your own goddaughter.”

“What rubbish.” I swallowed hard and pretended to be absorbed in packing my supplies.

Il Falco sneered. “Imagine the scandal! An old man leering at an innocent girl under her father’s roof!”

“I think of Signorina Bianchi as my own child,” I lied.

“I would horsewhip you myself if I thought otherwise.” Il Falco paused, his flinty eyes probing mine. Finally, he let out a barking laugh. “Enough! The very idea is absurd! You know I’ve always had great faith in you as an artist, Alessandro. I don’t think Clarissa will need to sit for the rest of the portrait. She’s so much needed around the house now that her mother is gone. May God rest her soul.”

“I have only a few finishing touches to make,” I said, crossing myself alongside him.

Il Falco’s smile was like the grimace of a fleshless skull. He turned and left me with the dying afternoon sun and the ghost of his daughter’s perfume. I could still feel the imprint of Clarissa’s hand enfolding mine. In a fury, I picked up the portrait and broke it in half over my knee.

I knew I would never see Clarissa Bianchi again.

* * * * *

I rang for a servant and informed him that my plans had changed: I would be departing from Venice in the morning. Then I lit every candle I could find and sat down before a fresh canvas.

Images poured out of me like water gushing from a dam: Clarissa’s arched brows, Clarissa’s fanned-out lashes, the shocking sound of Clarissa’s laugh, tears shining in Clarissa’s eyes. I thought of how she blinked when she was surprised. I thought of the wisps of hair curling at her temples. I imagined her alone in the Basilica di San Marco, pleading with the Virgin to absolve her of desire. I pictured her as an old woman, reading her smutty romance novels before a fire and smiling to herself.

As the night deepened and the candles burned low, I painted ever more furiously. I forgot everything I ever learned about shadow or form or technique. My eyes grew bleary and red-rimmed; my throat itched with thirst. I ignored everything, my mind spinning. I was born too early; Clarissa was born too late. She was my best friend’s daughter; I was her guardian in the eyes of God. In another life we could have strolled arm-in-arm through the Piazza San Marco. We could have slipped along the canals, her fingertips trailing in the sea. We could have thrown candy almonds at our wedding guests and kissed while they cheered. We could have grown old at the same time, and maybe I could have held her hand as she drew her final breath.

Instead I imagined Clarissa in her bridal gown, fretting with the hems of her sleeves while she waited for Signor Di Santis. I imagined her bearing down in childbirth, curls plastered to her forehead and every muscle trembling. I imagined the months turning to years, and I hoped that Clarissa would think of me every so often in secret.

I remembered her as the shrieking infant I held over the baptismal font, and I remembered how she could not look me in the eye when she put her hand over mine.

Finally, I dropped my brush, my hand spasming. Stepping back from the canvas I suddenly saw Clarissa Bianchi — my Clarissa — in all her splendor. She was a Holy Roman Empress with ribbons trailing from her hair, a virgin with the eyes of a sphinx. A crown of orange blossoms rested on her head; a nautilus shell spiraled to infinity in her lap. She was like Venus rising in the eastern sky. But as Clarissa rose higher and higher, gathering light, I was falling deeper and deeper into decline.

Gathering my brushes, I placed a note carefully on the ledge of the easel. Amore mio, it said, I beg you not to follow me.


Bree Smith is an avid reader and writer of historical fiction. Her favorite stories are about complex psychologies and unconventional relationships. She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her family.

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Scene at Scott’s Mill

By Tom Sheehan

Old Scott’s Mill on the Saugus River, rebuilt in 1847 after a fire and a long-time employer of hard workers at wool and leather goods and lastly boot protection for soldiers in Viet Nam, had given off odd sounds since the day it closed down, a dozen years earlier in a new century. Now it gave off a sense of passage, spooky passage, which none of us three pals could measure or pinpoint its source.

All the way back to the last holiday we had saved a cache of fireworks, my pals, Sinagna, Injun Joe and Charlie B, each of us twelve years old within three days of each other. “Pals to the end,” we had said, squirreling away the fireworks in Sinagna’s Aunt Lil’s barn leaning from one century into another. Many times we were afraid those hidden prizes would explode in their secret hideaway, our want for noise and excitement so strong, at times like hunger tantrums. But we had saved them for a special occasion. “Promise made is promise kept,” Sinagna had said on Veterans’ Day, his voice hard as wire, though the tantrum pummelled in his gut.

So Sinagna and Injun Joe and Charlie B, and me coming late as usual, came together on the special night before the national holiday, and crept up on the backside of Scott’s Mill, closed tight as a fighter’s fist, sitting there beside the slow Saugus River. It was a mill as marked as time itself, whose existence seemed to transcend the town and its beginnings. Now and then it became a shell of nacre the way an early bronze moon could make it eerie and distant and out of this world. It was a piece of another time, another dimension, for none of us could begin to imagine how much workers’ sweat had seeped into the floors for parts of two centuries.

One box and two bags of choice explosives, stashed away for ninety slow-as-snails days, figured in our arms as something Fort Sumter or another historic battle site might have set free. Tonight there’d be a new war on the silence clasping the mill, on the eerie darkness that moonless nights allowed to cling to the mill, and on whatever lurked in it or around it.  We had no idea of what was in the mill.

Lighting our sticks of punk, we stood on the bank of the river and the smell coasted thickly in the night as if an old barn had been turned inside out. Once, earlier, Injun Joe had explained that his grandfather affirmed that punk was made from camel dung. Each of them inhaled the acrid and known and nostalgic smell as it fingered memories of past celebrations filled with “oohs,” and “ahs,” and “ohs.”

All our memories said time was eternal, spilled on a level coming to us and moving away from us, but tonight disruption was the game. Disruption and noise and affirmation of the minor manhood working its endless way down in our genes.

The Saugus River ran away at the foot of the huge red brick building, the calm waters swishing slowly against the cluttered rock dam site at the foot of the red brick building. Above us, ranging out of trees, darkness came plodding on, the near silence moving across our skins asking to be known. Sinagna’s Aunt Lil once had said, “Darkness comes on like a beggar man to close the end of day.”

“It’s only brick,” Sinagna said, his natural spirit bucking up his current assessment. His hand touched the side of the mill, its doors now closed for as long as we’d had been alive; a huge,  ghostly creature of a building, windows boarded up, doors frozen in place with huge spikes; eyes that could not see, mouths that could not speak. There was, however, something else in the touch of that stone, something mossy, something growing, something without a voice, but threatening us.

We had known forever that it was there.

Sinagna, as fearsome as any boy we knew, could feel the presence of something if only in the touch of the stone. Perhaps a creature, but not quite visible; it might not breathe, but it was there. Yet no one, none of our friends or neighbors had ever been hurt. It was what we had counted on, in our perilous argument.

“Yuh,” Charlie B said, feeling the fuzz on the back of his neck with a threat of electricity in it, “so how come they see a glow of flames every Fourth of July. At midnight. From the only window that’s not boarded up. The one way up in the peak out front. Tell me how that gets done. All the floors have been taken out. The whole place is nothing but a shell. So how come so many people have seen a red glow in that window way up there? Even my father said he saw it, expected the place was about to burn down.”

His twelve-year-old face was squeezed into his own questions, his mouth still pursed, his chin and that pursed mouth still asking for an explanation. The three of us were always blue-eyed; now, at this juncture, we were dark-eyed.

Sinagna bristled as only Sinagna could bristle, his jaw prominent, his eyes steely, his breath measured. “How should I know?” he said. “I ain’t been in there. I ain’t seen anybody go in or come out, ever. Maybe it’s like a locked-up Aurora Borealis, like it was caught in there the very first time it was caught. Something crazy, like that. Or a bum gets in there every year to play tricks on us. Like having his own routine. But we promised we’d light it up one way or another. And I’m all for getting inside somehow, anyhow. Maybe plopping off one of the plywood boards over the windows. We all promised.” He was standing tall, asserting some kind of authority that prior bravery had granted him.

“I didn’t say anything about not doing it. I’m not yellow!” Charlie B was breathing heavy as he spoke. And the darkness deepened and a small breath of a wind stirred in the near leafless trees and Charlie B froze straight up as he heard a soft moan come on the small breath of air. It rode over the thick smell of burning punk.

“We’re not alone,” he said, his hand gripping Sinagna’s arm so hard his fingernails dug into the camouflaged material of Sinagna’s fatigue jacket. He wore it in honor of a lost friend from the other end of the street, lost in Burma, in the war.

“It’s the wind, Charlie,” Sinagna said. “Nothing to it. Just the wind. It’s a midnight wind. Aunt Lil says every wind twisting around the mill has its own voice.”

And then, right then on that night, at or near the stroke of midnight, as if commanded by a presence, an omnipotence, the plywood cover over a peaked window high above our heads pulled away from the window frame with the shriek of nails being yanked. It fell and smashed on the rocks below.

We froze in place, our breaths caught in our throats. And the yearly and eerie light came at last from that high window, a red moving glow the way flames lick at campfire wood. Slow. Sultry. Expectant. Then it glowed a sudden blue, then a red and a green glow. And the moan came again, and faint and distant music trooped in with it as if drums and fifes were playing on the side of Vinegar Hill and were bouncing off the mill’s walls, and firelight swept against the high window like a new fire banked in a furnace. It was music and it was just a step up from silence, and it was so light, so distant, so feathery, so winged, it might not have been. “Now,” it said in an unspoken voice. We were not sure of anything.

Charlie B dropped his bag of fireworks, his in-taken breath merely a small echo riding his body. Right down to his new sneakers he shook. Injun Joe held his box as if it were his last bullet. Something was standing against us in the night and we’d have to protect ourselves. Sinagna, jawboned Sinagna, expeditionary leader, his nerves cut and frayed only a bit, from his glowing punk lit and heaved a long-wicked 2-inch salute at the nearest plywood window.

“There!” he said. “There!” The enemy to be accosted and surmounted.

The explosion ripped into the silence, and the sudden flare of light lit the hooded window and disappeared just as quickly as it had come. The overhead light leaped again, the window suddenly alive in red and blue and then an orange glow. Drums, old drums, beat somewhere, an aged tattoo of drums, a line of drums in a long forgotten parade, a rolling echo from a lost or glorious battle. At first we thought the drums came from Vinegar Hill, and then we realized that they came from inside the mill, off its walls. And fifes came slowly with the drums, and the flames glowed brighter in the high window. And a discipline, each of us noticed, seemed to come with the drums and the fifes, a unity, regulated though faint, all as if under orders, commanded.

And then, with a sudden and profound silence, the light went out. Darkness fell again, more than a beggar this time; a darkness full of time and lineal pursuits, a darkness of summonses and declarations from an insurmountable place, a darkness reaching out to touch us. We shivered in anticipation more than fear. We were present at something unknown but pronounceable, ghostly but real. From Vinegar Hill again it seemed to come, the faint and distant call of mystic notes riding on a wind, riding a thermal the eye never sees; intelligent notes, bugle notes, timeless notes.

Sinagna leaped from his kneeling position. “Listen!” he commanded, his voice stern, demanding, the barking voice of an infantry line sergeant. “Listen!”

Overhead the red glow came back in the high round window near the peak of the mill. And the notes sounded clear and distinct. And they came from inside the mill, not from outside, but from inside Scott’s Mill.

Those were timeless notes coming at us.

With messages in them.

Charlie B and Injun Joe reached for small recognition of the notes, but it was Sinagna who knew them. “That’s Assembly that’s playing. I heard it on Tim’s web site. That’s Assembly. I heard it on a web site. I downloaded a whole mess of them, but that’s Assembly.” In his voice was heard a definite change, as though he might have snapped to attention in the ranks.

Mesmerized, we heard more bugle calls, some Sinagna knew and some he didn’t. He was not flustered. “Call to Arms,” he said proudly, listening again, nodding his head, “and Boots and Saddles” a few moments later, and then, still distant notes coming to them, “First Call,” and “Call to Quarters,” and finally, the sounds now down inside us, touching at our souls, standing at attention in the dark, he said in that deepening voice, “To the Colors.”

Our blood froze. We were rapt and enraptured, transplanted but in place, something crying to get out of us, to have a voice of its own. Each of us felt it in his own way, yet somehow acknowledged the sharing.

The door of Scott’s Mill popped open right beside us, and the faint and still far-reaching notes came to them, and horse hooves tromping on hard ground and the clumping of hundreds and hundreds of boots on packed gravel. We looked inside, amazed, frightened, and a line of horse troops, grey and blue cavalry, passed in review, eyes-righting us, moving past us in formation. Others came clothed in a dozen or so different uniforms, Johnny Reb grey, Yankee blue, Army O.D., Airman’s blue and Sailor blue, dress Marine and fatigue Marine, war on top of endless war, time on top of immemorial time. They were illustrations of all wars, and all losses, and the ranks were thick and heavy and dense with the souls of innumerable warriors.

From a post in the ranks, well back in the ranks, a deep and resonant voice came to us. “We’re coming home, boys. We’re coming home and we don’t have to go off anywhere anymore. Not this night. Not ever. We’re all the ones who never came home, but we’ve been waiting for you. We’ve tried every Fourth of July for years. It’s only on the Fourth of July that we can come home.”

From a limitless distance, evoked and called at one side of the mill’s interior, they came, a long endless march of men, shoulders back, heads up, coming home after their own eternity; Gettysburg, Stone Mountain, San Juan, Chateau Thierry, Omaha Beach, Kwajalein, Chosin Reservoir, Heartbreak Ridge, Dak To, deserts and jungles too numerous to mention, all the odd points of the fiery Earth, and all the harsh graves of that eternity.

“Eyes right,” the deep voice said, commanding, and then, as if stating a memorial of their own kind, added, “We did it for the young un’s and for the old-timers, too.”

Sinagna stood as tall as he’d ever stand. He motioned us to attention as new notes came on the thin, cool air. “Retreat,” he whispered, the huskiness suddenly at home in his voice, arrived manhood in his voice, spine upright, nerves in place.


“That’s Retreat,” he said again, his voice still deeper, resonant. The sombre notes carried for long moments and the line of troops and horsemen stood at attention, just the way Sinagna and we stood our ground.

And then, more distant than any call ever heard before or ever afterward, spilling  first out of a summer darkness and then out of a resounding radiance hitting us straight one, the smell of burning punk as acrid as spent gunpowder crawling in the air, a lone and distant bugle’s notes came riding another feathery and light thermal from the very ends of time.

“You’ll not forget this night, will you, boys?” And the deep voice was gone and the troopers were gone and the horsemen were gone, and the lights drifted off to night again, and a single and momentary note from a still more distant bugle hung itself on the pinnacle of air as Taps ended the most memorable holiday of all time.


Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry, Korea 1951. Books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansCollection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  eBooks: Korean EchoesThe Westering, (nominated for National Book Award); from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum (NHL mystery)Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment,and An Accountable Death. Work in Rosebud, Linnet’s Wings, Copperfield ReviewCahoodaloodalingLiterary OrphansOcean Magazine, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine, Provo Canyon Review, 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look, Eastlit and Rope & Wire Magazine. He has 24 Pushcart nominations. In the Garden of Long Shadows published by Pocol Press, 2014, to be followed by The Nations, about Native Americans.

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A Multitude of Conviction

By Michelle McGill-Vargas 

She gasped when his fingers traced the outline of her spine down to the small of her back. His hands, rough from years of combat in Pharaoh’s army, scratched against the thin layer of hand-woven flax draping her body. He’d commented once, in the privacy of this domicile, how her ebony skin made the linen kalasaris gleam with even more purity. But that had been one of those rare times, when they weren’t wishing to hasten the other’s arrival to Osiris’ domain.

He whispered her name—Lesediright before the warm moisture of his lips met her neck. And just as unexpected as the water escaping her eyes when his hand had tightened around her windpipe, an involuntary moan broke from her. She wanted to resist enjoying the coolness of the mud-brick wall against her back, Amenemhat’s soft breathing in her ear, his sepia face haloed by the firelight. Overwhelmed, Lesedi uncovered his shoulder and kissed it, the saltiness of his day on her tongue. A concoction of ground cinnamon and dried raisins burning in the wall niche that housed a wooden god bit at her nostrils.Then she remembered the wrath to come.

Hands to his chest, Lesedi tried pushing him away, but he held firm.

“What?” Amenemhat whispered against her neck. “Is it Abel you desire?”

She turned her head and glanced down at the bloody hyssop branch at her feet. Amenemhat’s choking her a few moments before had been the culmination of yet another argument, this time over her painting the lintel and doorposts of the front entrance. “It is the freedom you refuse to give that I desire.”

He stood erect. One hand against the wall; the other still around her waist. “Have you been in a cave the last two months? I am not the one keeping you here.”

You brought me here.”

“You killed two of my soldiers. That is what brought you here. I saved your life. Or would you rather I’d left you with them?”

“You could have let me go.”

Amenemhat smiled and raised an eyebrow. “You could have left. After everything that has happened to this land, I doubt my commander will miss one Nubian captive now.”

Lesedi lifted her chin and stared into his eyes. “Then give me my freedom.”

“You do not want to be here?” Amenemhat pulled her closer. His large hand swept over her halo of tiny black curls, a remnant of the beaded locks shorn away the moment she landed on Egyptian soil. “You do not want to be…” he held her face, “…here?” He covered her mouth with his.

If only this had been the Amenemhat she’d known earlier. The gentle one. The one who, for the first time, perceived the pain he was inflicting on her and had ceased. Instead, he’d demeaned her with physical labor, as if that would drain the royal Nubian blood from her veins. As if she’d ever conform to Egyptian ways. Her hatred of him had only been a ruse. She welcomed the effort it took, for it blocked out possibilities she didn’t want to consider. With all Abel had taught her, Lesedi believed her freedom would finally come at midnight. But as she succumbed to Amenemhat’s touch, strangely, she felt free now.

Lesedi’s fingers skated around the waistband of his kilt. His hand crept under her thigh, raising it to his hip. He pressed his body against hers as if the wall could absorb them, memorializing this initial encounter into a permanent relief of art. Her hands slid up to his neck, guiding the robe about him down past his shoulders. The soft tickle of fabric moving away to expose her deepened the kiss.

Loud banging on the front door and the growing murmurs of a crowd disrupted their passion. The odor of burning wood seeping through wall cracks overtook the room’s incense. Amenemhat swore as he tapped his forehead twice against the wall behind her.

“Go upstairs. Wait until I come for you.”

“Amen, wait. I can help—”

“They are here for you because of the blood on the door!” He held Lesedi by the shoulders and shook her. “For once, do as I say!”

Trembling, from either his kiss or that familiar anger now coating his words, Lesedi exited the main room to the stairs near the back of the house. She ascended slowly, listening for the slightest hint of trouble. But there was only the screech of the front door closing and Amenemhat’s voice booming over the demand for her blood.

* * * * *

Amenemhat pulled his robe closed to conceal Lesedi’s effect on his body and reduce the urge to reach for the weapon at his side. A slight chill in the air, or maybe it was the anxiety over what had transpired over the last two months, raised a field of tiny bumps on his skin. They were all here: men and women, priests who should be tending to King Djedefre’s burial chamber, not here, demanding retribution for things beyond all their control. He knew this would happen when he returned that evening to find Lesedi painting the door. He’d wanted to remove the blood, convince her to reapply it later. But, as usual, she refused and another fight ensued.

“Leave this place!” Amenemhat ordered the torch-bearing crowd.

“What is this?” a priest asked, pointing at the door’s crimson markings. “We saw that Cushite girl you brought here slaughter a lamb with your Hebrew manservant and then slather the doorframe with its blood. She summons another calamity upon us. Give her over to us now so we can end this!”

“Not another Nubian woman from this house will be sacrificed over ridiculous supposition!”

“Supposition?” came another priest. “How else do you explain these plagues that have coincided with her arrival?”

Amenemhat folded his arms across his chest. “I hear the Hebrew God is angry. But this house has suffered no less. Blood has flowed from our clay vessels. Flies have bitten us. Boils have erupted on our skin—”

“But only your animals were spared from the hail!”

He’d almost forgotten about that one. So much had happened since he had Lesedi arrived that it was hard to keep track of curses that intensified with each passing day. But saving the livestock had been his doing, not Lesedi’s.

“Give her to us!” the crowd demanded, their raised torches a canopy of orange. A golden spray of cinders crackled and floated away into the night like fugitive fireflies. The mob pressed closer to the door, vowing to take Lesedi by force, but cowered once Amenemhat unsheathed his blade and lurched forward.

Be still, something within him commanded.

He tossed the weapon at the priests’ feet and instead, shrugged off his robe as if displeased with it. With the fabric in his hand, he wiped the door clean to the villagers’ satisfaction, keeping his back to them as they dispersed. After tonight, they’d all be a distant memory to him. His only regret was waiting until now to show Lesedi who he really was. But because his stubbornness rivaled hers, she gravitated to Abel, a simple household slave, and hung on prophetic words that now sealed their fate.

Amenemhat lumbered back inside, the stained robe now in a pile at the door. Can’t go back now. If only she had waited. Darkness would have concealed the marked portal and their lives could have started anew, maybe together, far away from Egypt.

* * * * *

Lesedi met Amenemhat on the stairs.

He beckoned her with an outstretched hand. “Stay with me tonight.” His eyes focused on the floor as he escorted her into the darkness of his bedchamber.

“Amen,” she said with a tug to his arm. “What have you done? Tell me what happened.”

Moonlight, the sole source of illumination in the room, streamed through windows cut high into the mud-brick walls. Amenemhat sank down onto the bed, holding his head like a child denied. Beneath him, the taut layer of reeds bound to a wooden frame held up by four elaborately carved posts sighed in response. Lesedi stood before him hoping that angry-Amenemhat had not returned from confronting the villagers. She hesitated, then sat beside him and stroked his shoulder.

Still hunched over, he lowered his folded hands. “They will not bother you again.”

“What did you do?”

“It has been resolved,” he said to the floor. “They, nor I, shall impede your departure tomorrow.”

“My departure?” She guided his face to her smile. “Then you do believe! Leave with me. With us.”

Amenemhat’s eyes traced her features as if memorizing their details. Then he shook his head. “I cannot.”

His words cut a frown across her face. “Even after everything that has happened, you hate me still?”

“It was never hate.”

Seldom-seen dimples appeared on his beautiful face, smooth and unblemished like a sunlit drop of honey. His thumb caressed her cheek. Amenemhat’s lips anointed Lesedi’s forehead, eyes, nose, and then lingered at her receptive mouth. Arrested desire emerged, intensifying with each pass of hand and tongue. But before they ventured to a place from which they could not return, he released her and collected himself.

“I do not want you to return to your people ashamed of anything you have done here.” He pointed near the entrance. “My weapons are there. You will need them more than I.” Before words could accompany her questioning look, Amenemhat continued: “Sleep, Princess. You have a great journey ahead of you.”

Like the interlocking strands of flax upon the loom, the two lay. Within moments, the rise and fall of his chest slowed to a steady rhythm. She joined him with the lullaby of his heart in her ear. Hours passed. Suddenly, Amenemhat sat up, knocking her away from him. His hands reached into the darkness, grasping at some phantom image only he could see. Then he settled back down on the cushioned headrest. His eyes remained wide and unblinking, searching whatever his mind perceived. Despite the moon’s dim rays, his pupils were reduced to pinpricks.

“Are you He?” Amenemhat asked the vision. Dimples reappeared. A hint of moisture formed at the edge of his eye. Then his body writhed as if to satisfy an itch on his back. He grimaced, panted three times, then fell silent.

“Amenemhat,” Lesedi whispered through the lump in her throat. She sat back for a moment, waiting for the convulsions to resume. As he lay perfectly still, she leaned over and peered into his open eyes. She shook him, called his name, slapped his cheek. Sniffing back heated anger rising to her face, her head descended upon his chest, listening for the lullaby. There was nothing.

Lesedi covered her mouth. Wailing came, though not from her.

* * * * *

Abel hurried down the dirt road, hands over his ears to drown out the crescendo of screams as he approached King Djedefre’s burial complex. He expected a sense of satisfaction once he left home. His entire life had been spent in captivity; the last two months in anticipation of this very moment. But he could not rejoice in this final blow to his captors. Not all Egyptians had been evil and cruel. Not all had rejected the warnings. As he entered the walled complex, screams laced with the names of the dead intensified. He expected to see one Egyptian, the one he loved like a brother, alive and well and ready to accompany him and Lesedi to freedom. That is, if the two hadn’t managed to kill each other in the interim.

He stopped at his destination, bewildered. He burst into the home, calling for its occupants, but instead found a blood-smeared robe on the floor next to the door.

What have they done to each other now?

“You lied!”

Abel looked up to see Lesedi marching toward him. Amenemhat’s precious composite bow and leather pouch of quivers were in her hands. He approached her, but instead, a slap to his face greeted him.

“I believed in everything you said, everything I witnessed!” she raged. “You told me the blood would save Amenemhat and it did not!”

Abel caught her arm posed for another slap. “Because there’s no blood on the door!”

“Impossible! You were there. I did as you said.”

“There’s nothing there. Just a few streaks as if—” He held up the bloody garment.

“What happened here last night?”

Lesedi snatched the ruined fabric from Abel and caressed it between her fingers.

“This is…The villagers came…He went out to calm them…” She inhaled the scent on the garment. “Amenemhat. You did not have to do this.”

Abel touched her elbow and whispered, “It has begun. We must hurry!”

* * * * *

Lesedi trailed the long line of slaves escaping on dry land through parted waters. Fire by night, then a daily fog separated them from their Egyptian pursuers. She’d been here before, racing through a Nubian savanna and praying to her gods that she wouldn’t be captured. They hadn’t answered her. But this God, this strange invisible force that Abel embraced and Amenemhat seemed to grudgingly acknowledge was different. He was…here.

She stopped just short of the shoreline. Towering walls of foaming water flanked the carpet of moist earth that stretched as far as the eye could see. Lesedi extricated her hand from Abel’s. He opened his mouth to protest, but she stopped him with a raised palm. She strained to shout over the thundering water. “How are my people to understand what has happened if I am not there to explain it?”

Abel, the Hebrews, and the mixed multitude that went with them, were clear across the sea now, freed by waters rejoined. The once-stained robe, made clean from those miraculous walls of water, billowed about Lesedi’s shoulders. Amenemhat was on her mind. Egypt to her back. Visions of a new Nubia blazed before her eyes.


Michelle McGill-Vargas is a writer of historical, flash and short fiction residing in Gary, Indiana. She’s published in the The Lutheran Witness and Splickety Magazine. She is also a contributing author at shortfictionbreak.com Until she makes it big, she pays the bills as a teacher of deaf and hard of hearing. http://www.michellemcgillvargas.wordpress.com

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