Tag Archives: Short Story

A Confederate Prayer

By Ireland Fuller

I could tell the moment I got in and dropped my bag that I wasn’t staying. I felt the days march deep in my bones and echoing in my belly. Even though my bag didn’t weigh much, I dropped it like a bale of hay. I carried ammunitions given to me by the supply officer, some hard biscuits and a piece of salt pork. I’d brought the pork from home; the final piece of meat from our last hog. I told Ma to keep it. They needed it too. She insisted I take it. Being a good Christian son, I obeyed my Ma. I have a pencil and some paper held together with a bit of string for practicing my letters. I took out the book of prayers given to us by the Chaplain.  I tucked it into my shirt pocket near my heart. I hoped God might hear them and I’d be less afraid. I have a tin of matches and a candle to use on the nights we can’t risk building a fire. There’s a pair of socks I took off a Billy back in Vicksburg. Is it a sin to steal from a dead man?

A blue gray fog and the smell of sulphur surrounds me. I have arrived in the heart of Hades.  Drunken soldiers fill the night with the haunting Rebel war cry. Any man that says he’s heard it and wasn’t afraid has not heard it or is lying.  The Federals answer with a cannon blast that shakes the ground beneath me.

I see no point in drinking. When I meet the Lord I want to be sober. I sit by the fire and take out my pencil and paper. An officer helps me write

Alfred Thomas Fuller

Vienna, Louisiana

12th La. Co E

and pin it inside my shirt collar. I write a note to Ma saying I’m sorry and to tell Melissa to forgive me for breaking my promise. I ask the Lord to save my soul.

Come sunrise I will march to the forward line. My Mississippi rifle, a Christmas present from Pa, will defend me against the weapons and endless gunpowder of the Federals. I have stood with men who fell. I have stood with men who ran. I will not run.

No.  I won’t be staying long.

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Ireland Fuller is a registered nurse who works at a Northern California hospital.  She grew up in Arkansas and Louisiana. She lives in the Monterey Bay area with her husband, daughter and two dogs.  “A Confederate Prayer” is her first publication.

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Knickers

By Tom Sheehan

I was fighting it all the way, wearing knickers, me, twelve going on thirty it felt some days, dreams about Ginnie Wilmot practically every night now, the morning dew being the vague remnants my father spoke about with a smile on his face, new hairs in my crotch, my mother wanting her boy to look neat, my father looking at the horizon almost saying this too will pass. It was his one-shoulder shrug that carried verb and noun in its arsenal. I had early discovered that he did not need a lot of words.

My mother was looking at her choice of two hats, checking them out in the mirror on her bureau. A dried flower was creased in cellophane in one corner of the mirror; I’d heard some reference about it but had declined interest. My father’s picture, him in a Marine uniform, was framed in a second corner, my sisters and me in another, in our Sunday best a year earlier. A palm frond from Palm Sunday twisted itself across the top of the mirror. I think the hats were as old as I was. I knew she would pick the purple one. Her eyes announced the decision prematurely; again, an article of speech. Much of the time we were a family of silence, where looks or shrugs or hand gestures or finger pointing said all that was needed. My cousin Phyllenda had given the hat to her. “You’ll look great in this one.” I could never tell my mother Phyllenda’s boyfriend had swiped it from a booth in Dougherty’s Pub in Malden Square where he’d go of an evening or two. I’d seen them talking an evening on the porch, Dermott’s hand up under Phyllenda’s dress and it not yet dark.

A May Sunday was a bit snappy this early with the sunrise. “There will be hundreds of people at Nahant Beach today.” Both the radio in the bedroom and the kitchen were on; her music almost mute in the background. She looked out the window across Cliftondale Square, across the green of the traffic circle and the new green of elms already leaping at full growth against the sky. On the third floor we lived, yet not as high as some of the elms. Gently a nod was spoken, an affirmation. “They are waiting for summer at the beach,” she added. “They go walking on the beach looking for it. It’s over the horizon a few weeks yet. We will go right from church. You will wear your new green suit.” At length it had become her trip-hammer approach, the hard music. In that voice I felt the agencies of iron and slag at a mix. “You don’t know how proud I am of you in your new suit. And two pair of pants, at that.” For sure, iron and slag in her words, the new and the dross. At her lighting up about the new suit, I cringed. Two pair of pants seemed eternal, would carry me into high school, into football, the mold of the locker room, pal-talk growing the way my older brother would nod, owning up to all I had heard. Hell, there’d be knickers, for God’s sake, for girls, lots of them prettier than Ginnie Wilmot who once sat across a log flashing her white underpants at me so that something happened in my throat, something so dark and dry and dreadful that I can taste it yet.

Simon Goldman it was who sprung the suit on my mother, little shrunken Simon with the poppy eyes and the red face, on Saturday morning collecting his due of pennies she yet owed on a parlor set. “It’s green herringbone tweed, my Helen,” he said, in that possessive delivery he must have developed early in his game. “It has two pair of pants. For you yet cheaper than anyone. Resplendent he will be in it. Resplendent. No boy in this whole town has a suit like it. And the famous golfers wear knickers, I’ve seen them in newsreels at the theater. Hogan and O’Brien and Downey, McDevitt and Fitzpatrick, McHenry and that Shaun whoever from Swampscott.” He was inventive, you had to admit. I’d have said a liar as well as a schemer. “Two pair of pants. Green. Herringbone. Think of the message.” His eyes almost fell out of his head, dropping Ireland almost at his feet, dropping it at her feet. I almost pushed him down the stairs, he was at it again, selling her, saying it was a bargain, saying you people are climbing the social ladder on my advice and merchandise. Truth is, she cautioned me once, only once, on how I should remember Simon. “I found him,” she had said, “he didn’t find me.”

The worst part of it all, putting on the suit, the knickers with knee length socks, was having to take off my sneakers. I thought they were welded to me. I thought I’d wear them forever. I belonged in sneakers, foul or fair, “But not in your new suit.” It was as if her whole foot had come down on the subject. My father lifted his chin, flicked his head aside, gave off a mere suggestion of a nod, shrugged his shoulders. This too shall pass. With a knife he could not have carved it deeper.

In my new greenery we headed for Nahant Beach, me in my green knickers, four sisters all dolled up in the back seat of the old Graham, the titters and snickers behind their hands, my unsworn vow becoming animate at the back of my mind, a prowler on the outskirts of a campground.

Up front, in her purple hat, a purple dress with a big collar, a black pocketbook with an over-scored but lustrous patina, my mother looked straight ahead, playing now and then with the knob on the radio, trying to catch La Scala or New York out for a morning stroll.

She stared at nothing she might wish to have. Beside her, between her and my father in a car borrowed from my uncle, was the second pair of green herringbone knickers. Not knowing why they were there, I nevertheless felt my father’s hand in it. I wondered if there had been an argument’s movement along with the package, or behind it. Arguments I had heard, about dozens of things, then quiet discussions. Once it had been about the radio one could hardly hear. “Music has shaped me,” my mother once said, “from the very first touch to the very first clench of fist..” That’s when I knew she loved the brass of a band or an orchestra, not just the oompa of it, but the cold clear energy of horns clearing their throats with melodies one could only dream of.

“Toot the horn,” my mother said. “Now there’s Dolly Donovan.” Her wave was thorough and friendly. No message hung on its signal. “She’ll be at the beach. Maurice will bring her.” I did not deflect a message in that pronouncement: it came anyway. Maurice bid and Maurice done. Some laws, it seemed to say, were carved in stone. It could have said Life is more than being made to wear greenknickers, but I wouldn’t let it.

In the rearview mirror I caught my father’s eye. “We might as well see what Forty Steps looks like today, and then come back to the beach.” The gears downshifted as he swung the corner down Boston Street in Lynn. We had come over the bridge spanning the Saugus River. In my nose the salt was alive, and pictures came with it. The gulls, by the hundreds, whipped a frenzy. Waves dashed on the rocks of Nahant, especially where Forty Steps climbed upward from the froth of water. The lobster boats, working yet, bobbed out on the Atlantic. Under sunlight majestic white sails of sloops and schooners and sailboats from Elysium, Islands of the Blessed and Marblehead darted like skaters before the wind. On that same wind brigantines and caravels and corsairs leaped from my reading, taking me away from green knickers and Nahant all the way back to Elysium and Ginnie Wilmot, the salt spray clean and sprightly and the dry vulture of taste yet in my throat from one glimpse of white underpants. Would that mystery, that sight, never go away?

The Graham, brush-painted green, lumpy for the tour of Nahant where Cabots and Rockerfellers and Lowells and Longfellow himself once sat their thrones, cruised along the Nahant Causeway. In the slight breeze you could feel the sun bleaching stones, sand, the inner harbor’s glistening rocks throwing off plates of light like the backs of hippopotami caught in a satin lacquer. People dressed for church and late dinners and nights on the town walked along the beach, their best clothes akin to badges of some sort.

“My, look at that white hat with the huge brim,” my mother said, pointing out a woman holding a man’s arm, three children at their heels. The girls were still giggling behind their hands, restrained while my father was driving, on their best behavior. Once on the beach they would become themselves. And I would set about de-suiting myself.

When we strolled over to the Forty Steps, the waves talking to us, the crowd of people on all approaches, I saw other boys in knickers, but no herringbone green tweed. No iron mother holding her whip and her pride in one hand. A few giggles and harrumps I heard, the way my grandfather could talk, making a point or two on his own. No question in my mind they were directed at my pants more than the whole suit. These people could also nod, shrug, gesture, make sense without words. I wondered what made me want to read in the first place, seeking all the adventure of new words, in this wide world of the body’s semaphore, so expressive, so legitimate.

I knew it wouldn’t take long, not at Nahant, not at the edge of the great ocean itself, not here where the Norsemen and Vikings and Irish sailors were flung to across the seas with Europe behind shoving them relentlessly. My parents, arm in arm, walked on pavement, the girls broke free with yells, I fled down to the rocks at the ocean’s edge. With an odd gesture, my mother lifted a hand to her face, as if surprise dwelt there to be touched, to be awakened, to be lifted for use. That’s when I knew she was the smartest person in the whole world. She had seen it all coming, had practically choreographed the whole thing, and my father thinking he was in control all that time. At last she had measured me against all other boys in knickers. And found something wanting.

Green is as green does, I could almost hear myself say as I slipped on the rocks heavy with seaweed still with salt, still with water, still with an unbecoming dye residing pimple-like, blister-like, pod-like, in its hairy masses. It was more like sitting down in puddled ink, that intentional trip, trying to be a loving son, finding it so difficult in green knickers, obeying more primal urges.

“What a mess you’ve made of yourself,” she said when she saw me, that hand still in surprise at her face. “Go up to the car and change your pants. I brought the other pair along,” so you could get rid of them also she seemed to say. My father had found the horizon to his liking, the thin line of boyhood and manhood merging out there on the edge of the world; no shrug of the shoulder, no sleight of hand, but a look outward that was as well a look backward. I saw it all.

I’m so damned lucky, I said to myself, loving them forever, and then some.

________________________________________________________________

Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea 1951 and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His books are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short SpansA Collection of FriendsFrom the Quickening.  He has 24 Pushcart nominations, and 365 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, 2011, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, 2012, nominated for a National Book AwardHis newest eBooks, from Danse Macabre/Lazarus/Anvil, are  Murder at the Forum, an NHL mystery novel, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. His work is in Rosebud (6 issues), The Linnet’s Wings, Ocean Magazine, Copperfield Review, Literary Orphans, Frontier TalesWestern Online Magazine and many internet global sites and print magazines/anthologies including 3 AM Magazine, Nazar Look and Eastlit. A new collection of short stories, In the Garden of Long Shadows, will be issued by Pocol Press this summer. 

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A Telegram

By Leighton Critchley

Lincolnshire, England. 1916

I wake early. Dolly is asleep next to me, her thumb in her mouth. She must have crept in, in the night. She prefers to sleep in with me than with Maggie. She complains Maggie kicks her, and she wakes with bruises. Once I move out she can have my bed. If I ever move out.

‘If it wasn’t for the war, you’d be married by now,’ Ma always says. If it wasn’t for the war lots of things would be different, I get sick of hearing it. Norman smiles at me from my bedside table. He got to have his picture taken in his uniform, before he went. He looked so smart in his uniform. Everyone said it.

I listen to the sound of Dolly’s deep breathing. The wind rattles at the window pane. It’s only just light, but it’s a cold winter morning. The day is dismal and grey. I get up. There’s a hole in my left sock. I’ll darn it tonight, under the oil lamp. No doubt there’ll be something to else to mend, there always is. Ma’s eye sight’s fading now, it’s easier for me to do it.

‘Do the mending will you Martha, your eyes are better than mine,’ she says, passing me the pile of clothes to be repaired.

I can’t remember the last time any of us had anything new. Not since the war started. I feel sorry for the little ones. Walter’s wearing that old sleep suit of Norman’s. I’ve had to patch up the feet on it twice. Must be nineteen years old now, that sleep suit. Worn by all of us.

I wrap my shawl around my shoulders and move over to the window. The fields are frosted. A rabbit runs along by the hedgerow that borders the field opposite the house. The rabbit disappears under the blackberry bushes. I hope we get a good lot of blackberries this summer. They’re Norman’s favourite. He used to eat as much as we’d pick. Blackberry and Apple pie, that’s his favourite. Perhaps he’ll get leave in the summer. Perhaps the war will be over by then.

There’s frost on the inside of the window frame. I can see my breath it’s so cold. Mum will have the fire on downstairs already. I’ll help get the others ready for school. She’ll walk them herself if she feels up to it. If not it’ll be down to me.

I listen for the wireless but I can’t hear it. That means Dad’s still out on his first round of milking. He’s up at five every day of the year. He helps out at Mr Peterson’s farm up the road. There’s not so much work this time of year, just the milking mostly. He’ll get more work at harvest time, and I’ll be able to help too. Lots of girls are doing all sorts of work now. Lily from Theddlethorpe, she’s gone to work in a factory in Birmingham. She’s not allowed to talk about what they make there. I’ve said to Dad I’ll help him with the cows but he won’t hear of it. ‘Help your mother with the little one’s Martha, that’s enough for now,’ he says, when I ask him. Most of the girls I used to know went into service before the war started. Times have changed now. Lily wrote to me and said she doesn’t know how her lady will cope without her. ‘She can’t wash a sock, let alone bake a loaf!’ That’s the thing about war, it affects everyone, in some way.

I thought I’d be good in service, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. ‘None of my girls are to be maids.’ He’s always been firm about that. We’re all to marry good and that’s the end of it.

He’s very good to us, Mr Peterson. He’ll give us a turkey for Christmas if there’s one spare. Mum’s already talking about making use of the bones for broth. She’s very good at making do, considering what little we have now, with the rationing. We’re out of sugar already this week, and eggs. There’s still a basket of potatoes in the larder though. Arthur said last night he was sick of potatoes. He got a  whack round the ear from Dad. ‘Be grateful,’ was all he said.

The window’s steaming up where I’ve been breathing. I wipe it with my sleeve. There’s a boy on a bicycle coming up the road. He better be careful, with this frost. He stops in front of the house. He’s got a postal bag on his shoulder. He’s not the normal post boy though. He leans his bike up against our gate. I wonder what he wants here. He must have the wrong address. There’s not another house for a mile on this road.

I run quickly down the stairs and put on my boots, or they might be Dolly’s boots.

I open the door just as he’s about to knock.

‘What do you want then?’ I ask him. He doesn’t look much older than Arthur but he’s wearing a smart uniform.

‘Telegram, Miss.’ He holds out the envelope. ‘For your Pa, Miss.’

‘You’ve got the wrong address.’

‘No, Miss. Jacques. Mill Lane, Saltfleetby.’ He hands me the envelope and looks down at his shoes.

‘Very well.’

‘Came as quick as I could, Miss.’

I nod and he looks up at me.

‘Be careful on the road, it’s slippery.’ I say.

I watch him hop on his bike and cycle, slowly this time, back down the road.

I shut the door and shiver at the cold.

‘Martha? Is that you?’ I hear Ma’s voice from the kitchen.

‘Yes Ma,’ I call back. She pokes her head round the door frame at the end of the passage.

‘What you doing by the door love? Are the little one’s up yet? There’s porridge on the stove.’

I quickly tuck the telegram into my pocket. ‘I’ll fetch them Ma.’

‘Good girl.’

I go back up to wake Dolly. Then I wake Arthur and Maggie. Once they’re dressed I dish out the porridge.

‘Can I have some sugar? Just a little?’ Arthur asks, when I slap the thick porridge in his bowl.

‘There’s none until next Tuesday.’ I say.

I switch on the wireless. There’s talk of a retreat by the Germans in France. Walter toddles a little too close to the fire and I have to put him on my lap whilst I eat. I have less than the others, but I don’t mind, they’re still growing. I’ve done all my growing, at nearly twenty.

Ma walks in and turns the wireless off. She doesn’t like it. Only Dad and I listen to the wireless. Ma says any good news is only to keep moral up. ‘We’ll know soon enough when it’s over,’ she says. I know it’s because she doesn’t like to think about Norman.

‘Shall I walk them Mum? It’s cold out.’

‘It’s alright love, I’ll go. It’ll do me good. Besides I want to talk to Mrs Gains. Dolly told me they’ve got parsnips in their pantry.’

‘They won’t want to swap parsnips for potatoes Ma. They can sweeten cake with parsnips.’

‘All the same, I think it’s worth a try.’

She sets off with the others in tow. It’s a five mile walk to the local school. I’ll keep the fire up for when she gets back. She leaves me just with Walter and the tabby cat that’s crept in again.

I can feel the telegram in my pocket as I bounce Walter on my lap.

I hear the front door open. Dad walks in. He’s cold and tired. He never complains but I can tell.

‘Morning Martha. A nippy one this morning.’

‘I know Dad,’

‘Best not to go out until the frost clears. Ma’s taken the little ones?’

‘Yes Dad.’ I watch him look wearily at the porridge in the saucepan. ‘A telegram’s come Dad.’

He turns slowly to face me and I fish it out of my dress, I stand up and hand it to him, balancing Walter on my hip. He takes the envelope and studies it carefully.

‘Thank you love,’ he says, but it’s barely a whisper. He clears his throat loudly and leaves the kitchen.

I remove the breakfast bowls from the table then place Walter in the playpen Uncle Ivor built for him.

I tiptoe quietly along the hallway. I stand outside the door of the front room. We don’t use the room much, it’s too cold, but I know Dad’s gone in there. I peek around the half open door.

Dad’s standing by the mantelpiece. He places the open telegram down next to the candle stick and rests his hand on his forehead. It takes me a few moments to realise he’s crying.

________________________________________________________________

Leighton Critchley is currently studying on the creative writing programme at London Metropolitan University. She’s writing her first novel and has also written for film and theatre. The themes and subjects that frequently emerge in her writing centre around the inherent flaws in our characters, those habits and desires which keep us trapped in certain situations, as well as the relationships we forge and the compromises made in order to sustain them. A few of her favourite writers include Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Sarah Waters, and Margaret Atwood.

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Shoreline Local

By Richard Klin 

In October 1956, residents of south Jersey awoke to an eye-opening story on the front page of the Atlantic City Morning Journal. A senior at Patcong High School, Donald “Dagwood” Cressman—so nicknamed because of a passionate devotion to large, overstuffed sandwiches—had secretly risen through the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. At the precocious age of seventeen, young Cressman was poised to become one of the youngest—if not the youngest—Klan leader in the nation.

The very idea that the Klan existed at all in south Jersey was a shock to many. But it shouldn’t have been. The region had been home to a small, vociferous Klan presence since the 1920s, meeting regularly at Bucky’s Tavern in Ocean Heights Township. Too paltry in numbers to inflict serious damage, they contented themselves with the occasional sub-literate, threatening missive to some of the area’s black ministers and harassment of the Jewish traveling salesmen who roamed throughout the Jersey shore during the 1930s.

Dagwood Cressman quickly dropped out of high school and the incident was forgotten. It did, though, underscore the separate entity that was south Jersey.

Excluding Atlantic City—the vacationland of tourists and nightclubs; its Jews, blacks, and Italians—south Jersey was overwhelmingly rural, its economic backbone farming, fishing, small-scale businesses. The region had its own distinctive accent, its own slang, its own folklore. (A little boy, lost in the wilds of the Pine Barrens, was forced to spend a chilly night by himself. He encountered the fearsome Jersey Devil, the legendary half-man, half-beast reputed to roam the untamed barrens. The boy, luckily, managed to frighten the creature off. In the morning, when the boy was rescued, his hair had turned entirely snowy white. This tale, with variations, was recounted for generations.)

Politically, south Jersey was a one-party domain, with near-total Republican control that rendered most elections a mere formality.  Rev. Kirby McAdoo, ensconced in his Church of the Redeemer near Cape May, broadcast throughout the day on his very own low-wattage radio station, inveighing—in his croaking bellow– against communism, moral laxity, creeping socialism, and sloth. Earlier in 1956, a group of ministers under McAdoo’s aegis initiated a public burning of rock ‘n roll records in the town of Leedsville, an event that attracted the attention of national wire services.

That year also saw a brief, bona fide secessionist movement that aimed, quite seriously, to split south Jersey off from the rest of the state. Even odder, the catalyst behind this movement, Harry Gerhardt, had no intention whatsoever of initiating it.

Harry Gerhardt was born in Philadelphia in 1900. His family moved to south Jersey in 1911, soon occupying a pleasant, comfortable domicile in Ocean City. Gerhardt served stateside during the First World War and then subsequently parlayed his consuming interest in stamp and coin collecting into a profitable business endeavor. In the late 1920s he moved his wife and young family to Leedsville, slightly north of Ocean City, still a place of farms and uncultivated marshland.

Gerhardt was the small-town burgher par excellence, from all accounts a genial, chipper presence and the embodiment of the region’s prevailing social and business mores: churchgoing family man, intelligent, provincial, a Dewey-Eisenhower Republican.  He was always eager– at elementary-school presentations, lodge meetings, and historical-society luncheons– to point out the many ancillary benefits of numismatics and philately: seriousness of purpose, a stick-to-itiveness, armchair lessons in history and geography.

At some point during the 1950s Gerhardt hatched the idea of a private, limited mail service confined to the roughly delineated borders of south Jersey. His eccentric brainchild called for a certain number of specially constructed mail boxes that would be placed in select locales. Cheaply sold, specially printed stamps would be dispensed at various local businesses. The mail delivery itself was to be handled by a small coterie of retirees, who would pick up the mail, hand cancel the stamps, and deliver them to their destinations. (Whether because of the intrinsically small-scale nature of this system or because of the era, the issue of potential fraud was never even considered.)

One could make the case that this scheme contained a strong element of enlightened self-interest. The proposal, after all, originated from a dealer in coins and stamps. In reality, though, the profit potential was almost nonexistent. The motivation, rather, appears to have been Gerhardt’s can-do boosterism and a sincere dose of regional pride. Ultimately, the idea of this private, south Jersey–only mail service was an enticing—albeit impractical—novelty that wouldn’t generate a huge amount of money.

Accordingly, utilitarian boxes of shiny metallic blue popped up throughout the area, their only ornamentation the dramatic visage of Josiah Sanders, south Jersey’s legendary hero of the Revolutionary War, who had fended off a full-scale British attack by taking his ragged band of patriots and melting into the marshlands, where they subsided on roots and bird eggs.

The stamps, which lacked any official imprimatur, were surprisingly beautiful and printed gratis by the Fratarcangeli  Brothers firm in Atlantic City: deep yellows, vibrant greens, and subtle blues that evoked the shore and its environs. They were, ultimately, what people remembered most.

Harry Gerhardt’s endeavor swept the region in a way, from today’s vantage point, is difficult to comprehend. It became the focal point of conversation and the colorful stamps were avidly traded and collected, which must have thrilled Harry Gerhardt. The system was immediately dubbed the sandagram and the shiny blue receptacles—not without some irony—christened as sandboxes. A local resident, away from the area for several weeks and entirely unaware of this new phenomenon, returned home, utterly nonplussed by the near-constant mention of “going to the sandbox.”

 

Gerhardt’s exercise in south Jersey boosterism might have remained basically a curio if not for some immediate, unintended consequences. For one, it was an inadvertent shot across the bow at the United States Postal Service. As sandagram fever swept through the region, residents were suddenly bombarded with a torrent of post-office propaganda. Full-page ads in bold, commanding typeface ran in the Morning Journal, the only real newspaper of record, which had chosen to utterly ignore the sandagrams to the point of an almost- total news blackout. Ads extolled the federal postal system and its many hardworking employees. The Morning Journal then commenced a series of articles profiling the area’s reliable, good-neighbor postmen, lavishing attention on Elmer Weining, a long-retired mailman and veteran of the Spanish-American War who still showed up on a purely volunteer basis during the Christmas season to help sort through mountains of letters and parcels.

Soon it was announced that children under twelve could come into most post offices and take home a free helium balloon in a variety of eye-catching colors. Saturday mornings, for a time, featured free saltwater taffy for the younger set, dispensed by post-office employees— Elmer Weining among them.

The irony was striking. Harry Gerhardt, the very epitome of solid citizen and good American, had engendered the wrath of officialdom.  And that benign regional pride that he had stirred up also began to be manifested in some very unexpected ways.

Kirby McAdoo had certainly taken immediate notice of this innovative, private mail system. Ever the opportunist, he quickly appropriated it for his own political agenda.

The firebrand minister had always conceived of south Jersey as a bulwark against the Sodom and Gomorrah of big cities and the dark, terra incognita of the rest of New Jersey, so covetous of south Jersey’s tax dollars and resources. And McAdoo certainly had no compunction whatsoever about going  head-to-head with the federal government—in fact, just the opposite. In his eyes, the federal government was a farce and a sham, utterly ineffectual in repulsing Moscow’s endless attempts at subversion and world domination.

It seemed a propitious time, he declared from the Church of the Redeemer’s pulpit, for south Jersey to become its own state. The Confederacy, after all, had created an entirely new nation in the midst of national crisis and war. And nobody was proposing that south Jersey split off from the United States—just from New Jersey.  Small as the region was, it certainly could handle its own affairs. Indeed, a postal system had been created without any input whatsoever from Trenton or Washington. Anything was possible.

As was his custom, McAdoo penned a letter to the Morning Journal and in his typical, overheated bathos composed a paean to the American values of decency and morality that could be found in south Jersey, showcase of small-town virtues and proud carrier of the torch of free enterprise.

Gerhardt, obviously horrified, took immediate pains to disassociate himself from McAdoo’s new crusade and theMorning Journal duly printed his rejoinder: The sandagrams were undergirded simply by regional pride. This proved to be, though, a tinny response compared to the thunder of Kirby McAdoo.

A week later, some mostly bemused spectators watched the reverend and a crowd of acolytes noisily parade down the main street of Haslams Landing. The marchers brandished homemade signs as well as portraits of Josiah Sanders in various heroic poses, sang hymns, and called for a new state.

The Morning Journal,  upholder of the status quo, rarely gave coverage to McAdoo’s stunts. This latest venture was no exception. Because of this, the historical record is almost nonexistent, essentially consisting of anecdotal evidence and wildly untrustworthy accounts in the Pilgrim, the Church of the Redeemer’s hyperbolic, badly written broadside.

Other, scattered demonstrations followed. Then, in an especially bold move, Kirby McAdoo called for a one-day general strike. Besides his congregants and overt sympathizers, the reverend had garnered some quiet, tacit support from around the region. A potential general strike that would bring the area to its knees was not entirely a flight of fancy.

For a very brief period it seemed as if south Jersey was on the cusp of a right-wing insurrection. Rumors circulated—never substantiated—that a cross had been burned near Vineland. In Trenton, Governor Meyner was quickly apprised of the situation. So was the FBI: Evidence strongly suggests that special field officers were secretly dispatched to the region.

 

The denouement, though, was thoroughly unspectacular. For one, McAdoo ultimately lacked the will  or interest to militate for a real secessionist effort. Nor did the creation of a new state represent anything close to prevailing political sentiment. There was no general strike. For all his fame and notoriety, Kirby McAdoo remained—always– confined to the fringes.

The novelty of the sandagram and sandbox remained just that: a novelty, a fad. Fads, by their nature, are transitory. No doubt to Harry Gerhardt’s enormous relief, the charms of this private mail service quickly wore off. Most of the sandboxes were removed, others abandoned to rust away.

The Gableton post office retained the custom of Saturday-morning saltwater taffy up until the early 1970s, the antecedents of the custom almost entirely forgotten. The entire series of events, in fact, completely faded away, the remaining sandboxes gradually lending themselves to the stuff of local apocrypha: The boxes had been used as weapons caches, as a storage for drug dealers.

Harry Gerhardt, interestingly enough, chanced upon an entire second career, this one as a purveyor of nostalgia. In the 1960s he began broadcasting, on a semi-regular basis, music of the big-band era. The unexpected popularity led to newfound prominence as a radio host that eventually encompassed Sunday-night broadcasts of radio chestnuts:  The Shadow, Dangerous Assignment.  His mellifluous voice ushered his aging audience into a brief, comforting world of Kay Kyser and Mr. Keen, Tracer of Lost Persons. Gerhardt’s retirement from the airwaves, in 1977, was a major event to a listenership almost entirely unaware of his pre-radio career.

Shortly after his departure, the first casino in Atlantic City opened. South Jersey began its slow, permanent transformation. The lumberyards, mom-and-pop eateries, and little country motels gradually became things of the past.

The increasingly infirm Gerhardt was moved to a nursing home in 1983 and died in 1989. His death warranted an obituary in the Morning Journal—which, true to form, omitted any mention of that strange little nugget of local history from the 1950s. But by 1989 the name Harry Gerhardt did not elicit much in the way of recognition.

 

Up until the early 1990s a puzzling, weather-beaten structure stood, slowly disintegrating, a block down from the bay in Leedsville. This part of town was called the Point, the poorer, honky-tonk section. The Point was also in the throes of its own transformation, the dive bars and inelegant houses making way for condos, dockside dining,  brunch specials.

This box, near collapse, bore an almost entirely obscured visage of some forgotten historical figure. Finally, the eyesore was carted away. It was the final, tangible piece of evidence from a long-ago chapter– a chapter in a south Jersey that has basically passed into memory.

________________________________________________________________

Richard Klin is a writer based in New York’s Hudson Valley. He is the author of Something to Say (Leapfrog Press, 2011), a series of profiles of various artists discussing the intersection of art and politics. His work has been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered and has appeared in the Brooklyn Rail, the Forward, online at January, and others.

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Memento Mori

By Anne McCrery

A young boy sits limply in a straight-backed chair, without fidgeting as a child of his age often would when made to sit still for a photograph. His cheeks are gaunt, slack and pale where they were once round and rosy, flushed with the vigor of youth. He is dressed neatly in formal clothes, as if prepared for a church service or a christening he will never attend. He is undeniably dead, a victim of the recent outbreak of fevers. My shutter clicks.

My profession is to photograph deceased children. One might call my profession morbid, but it is not so. Rather, it is beautiful in many respects. Before the invention of the daguerreotype, families would be left with only memories when an individual died, a fading vision of a visage. Perhaps they would be in possession of a pocket watch, a brooch, or other tangible item that reminded them of their loved ones, but those objects would slowly loose their significance when the families could no longer remember the appearance of the hands that wound that pocket watch, or the neck at which that brooch was fastened. Even a lock of hair could become simply a lock of hair once it was forgotten how it once lay upon the deceased’s head, or how it framed their lovely face.

The recent invention of the daguerreotype has altered this, however. Families can now peer into a loved ones’ eyes for eternity, and remember every quirk of their appearance, even after the memory of a voice or a smile fades. Since the commercial popularization of photography, many families have gone to studios to have their portraits made, to immortalize themselves and preserve their families forevermore. While this process has become quite popular, it still a rather new advancement and relatively expensive, thus not everyone’s image exists in photographs yet. And due to high infant mortality rates, often children will die having never been photographed, leaving their mother to mourn not only the loss of her child, but also the loss of his image, the inevitability that she will lose his face. That is the purpose of my job. I can give them one last image of their family as it once was, one last image of their child before they bury him in the damp, dark earth, never to lay eyes upon him again.

I did not originally intend to photograph the dead. I thought I would open a small photography studio simply for my own amusement. My father bought me a daguerreotype camera because he could see that the work of a woman was unfulfilling for me, as I found sewing and knitting to be dreadfully dull and often grew restless locked in the musty house. My dear father was always very kind to me and supported my ambitions, even if they were unfavorable for a young woman to possess. I could always tell it pained him that I never married, but alas, what man would want a shrew such as I? Aside from my ill-tempered, stubborn nature, I also possess an unfavorable appearance: not grotesquely so, but unfavorable nevertheless. My features are rather elongated, my complexion swarthy, and my waist somewhat broad. Worst of all, I am not ashamed of my nature, which is my greatest offense in the eyes of men.

Digressions aside, I had opened a photography studio. The trouble was few people wanted to go to a woman photographer. My ambition in itself was scandalous and caused much talk throughout the town. After weeks of wasted days spent waiting in the parlor to greet nonexistent prospective customers, I was nearing defeat. But one day I finally received my first customer.

About midday, a woman walked in. She was dressed for mourning in layers of black, her face masked beneath her dark veil. She clutched a bundle of white cloth to her chest, in which I assumed she held her sleeping infant.

“I heard you make photographs,” she said to me in a quiet, mouse-timid voice.

“Yes, ma’am, I do.” I responded, feeling proud.

“I came to you because you are a woman. I thought maybe you would understand. My daughter..” She sobbed silently for a moment, then carefully dabbed each eye with a handkerchief beneath the veil. “My daughter… she passed away yesterday. She was not yet a year old and her photograph… I never had it taken in life. I had hoped for more than a year with my angel before… before she was taken home. I was wondering if perhaps you would photograph her.” The woman remained composed, staring at me with teary eyes, weary and unwavering, glowing through her veil. I was shocked by her request and was unsure how to respond. I glanced at the bundle in her arms and realized it did not stir, which nauseated me briefly. Post-mortem photography was not unheard of, but it was certainly not something I had imagined myself doing. But when I looked into the shadow of the woman’s watering, tremulous eyes, I knew I could not turn her away.

She unwrapped the small bundle to reveal her deceased infant. Her eyes were slightly sunken and her complexion pale and waxy, but I could tell she had been a beautiful child in life, with golden curls and delicate features. We posed her as if she were sleeping, giving her an angelic appearance. The photograph turned out beautifully, her features clear, crisp, and perfect. Most photographs contain a slight blur about the subjects, even if they stood relatively still.

After my first photograph of a dead child, customers began pouring in, all women with deceased children. Their requests ranged from the customary portrayal of their offspring as tidily-composed, innocent things that they almost assuredly hadn’t been in life, to the occasional arrangement that seemed odd even to one in a profession like mine. Many would have me pose their dead children as though they were alive, often amongst living siblings or other family members. I posed a young girl with her dead brother, placing his cold arm around her shoulder. In another photograph, I placed the corpse of a young woman on a stand used for the living to lean on during lengthy portraits so that she could stand amongst her family members. In such portraits, I felt as though I were reanimating the dead, if only for a momentary image. It was a strange power, one I am not sure I felt comfortable with. I much preferred the portraits in which the child was posed as though they were sleeping, or placed in a coffin in admittance of their death. I preferred to capture death rather than undo it, for I have never seen the sense in denying what is, nor in ignoring the strange beauty that the absence of life will ofttimes impart to that which used to live.

Those who think of my profession as morbid have never seen the look in a mother’s eye when she receives the only existing image of her deceased child. I give these children one last breath of life before they go into the ground, never to be disturbed again, never to stand amongst their siblings, or even to sleep, but simply to rot into the earth, as we all do eventually.

________________________________________________________________

Anne McCrery is a student currently residing in Richmond, Virginia. She has previously been published in Quail Bell Magazine. She loves forgotten pieces of the past and reminisces about things she’s too young to remember.

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What Happened in There

By Mikaela Shea

Willie and Herman leaned against the fence, watching the horses whinny and swat flies away with their tails. The sun shone straight down, making the trees, the wildflower-sprinkled hills, the cornfields and even the dirt road appear a shade lighter than usual.

“Bet you can’t ride that crazy horse up yonder and back without your pa seeing you,” Herman said.

“Bet I can,” Willie said.

“Go on then.”

“I don’t much feel like riding right now,” Willie said, scratching his ear, which stuck our further than most. “Too hot.”

“You goop. You’re scared you’re gonna feel the crack of your pa’s whip.”

Willie shoved Herman, because even though he was a few inches shorter, his push was enough to make Herman fall on his rear end in the dirt. Before he could react, Willie hopped on the bareback horse, grabbing onto the reins for dear life as the horse bound into the meadow. He bounced high with every gallop, his black hair springing up and down to the beat of the horse’s hooves. Willie’s laughter echoed against the barn. His pa hardly ever let him ride Dolly. “She’s too wild and can’t be trusted,” he’d always say. If only you could see me riding now without whipping my hide, Pa! Willie thought.

The horse leapt over a divot in the ground and Willie nearly bounced right off. He gasped but held tight to the reins to center himself again. I’m gonna fall off. I’m gonna fall off. Willie laced his fingers and the reins in the horse’s brown mane, leaning his body against its neck and squeezing his legs against the muscles of the horse’s torso. When they finally returned to the stable, Willie hopped off, panting and sweating with wobbling legs.

“There…you bonehead. Told you I could…do it,” Willie said between breaths. “Now you gotta do something I tell you.”

“No. I ain’t gonna do nothing.”

“Fine. Then Lena Stillinger gets to be my girl.”

“Hell and high water! She’s mine!”

Lena Stillinger was twelve, a year older than the both of them, and just a little taller than Willie himself. He often wished to pull her braid, just to feel if her blond hair was as soft as it looked. During the summer, he really only saw Lena at church or at town picnics. The Stillingers lived just outside of Villisca, Iowa.

“She ain’t neither of ours yet, but if you don’t…hmmm…” Willie said, thinking. A wide grin spread slowly across his freckled face. “You gotta do one chore for me.”

“This is ratty. You got to ride a horse and now I have to do your chores?”

Willie started toward the front steps of his house. “Fine. See you Sunday when I ask Lena to be my girl. ‘Cause if you do, I’ll sock you in the gut.”

“O-okay, I’ll…I guess I’ll do it then. But then I’m gonna do more than ask Lena to be my girl. I’m gonna touch her bubbies.”

“The hell you are, you weisenheimer. You can either clean the floor of the horse stable or gather the eggs from the chicken coop.”

“That’s easy. I’ll get the eggs.”

Willie grabbed a basket from the porch and handed it to Herman, snickering as Herman disappeared inside the coop. Willie went inside the stable and began shoveling out the manure. He could hear the chickens clucking loudly as the stranger reached under them and snatched their eggs.

Herman was a little taller than Willie, but as scrawny as a pitchfork and Willie had an easy time getting Herman to do what he wanted him to do. All Willie had to do was intimidate him.

A few minutes later, Herman came into the stable with a basket full of brown eggs and a couple feathers in his hair. “Does your pa make you check the eggs?” Willie asked, resting his shovel against a wall.

“Katherine gets the eggs. It’s a girl chore. So, I don’t know nothing about checking eggs.”

“Well, my pa says to touch the egg to the back of your neck and if it’s cold, it ain’t no good. So turn around. I’ll show you.”

“Okay…” Herman spun around slowly. “It feels…pretty warm, I guess.” Willie raised the egg and smashed it over Herman’s head before dropping another into the seat of Herman’s trousers and pushing him down into the pile of horse manure.

Egg yolk dripped into Herman’s mouth, which hung open in shock. “Wh-why? Why would you go and do that?” The golden slime and shells slid off of his brown hair and onto his shirt.

Willie bent over, hands on his knees, and howled with laughter. “You’re swimming in shit!”

“Ah, what a humdinger!” Herman shouted. “My ma is gonna have me by the ear. My ear’s gonna be sticking out like yours by the time she’s done with me, you goddamn louse!” He stood up and shook his trousers until the other smashed egg plopped onto the stable floor. Manure stuck to his trousers and the back of his legs as he walked past Willie with a scowl on his gaunt face.

“God almighty, you stink like you ain’t had a bath in two moons!”

“Ah, lay off.”

Willie continued laughing as Herman walked toward the dirt road in the opposite direction of his house. “Where you going, smelly?”

“To the river. And don’t follow me.”

“Well, you better get dolled up for the Children’s Day program tomorrow. I bet Lena’ll be there and you have to make up for your scrawniness somehow.”

“And you better have your mama sew them big ears to your head or Lena ain’t gonna do nothing but laugh at you,” Herman called over his shoulder, egg yolk dangling from his hair.

The next day, Willie put on his Sunday best: black trouser shorts, a white button up shirt, and a matching black suit jacket. It was far too hot outside for long sleeves, but it was his only nice outfit, and the last time he complained, his ma had made him wear an apron and take over most of her daily chores, including making the beds, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. He felt like such a sissy! That certainly wouldn’t happen again if he could help it. He’d wear his Sunday best every day if he had to!

Herman’s mom, Sarah Moore, led the Children’s Day program every summer. Willie hated singing and reading the Bible in front of a crowd of smiling parents and smirking teenagers, but at least Lena would be there. She came every year. He was sure she liked him and not Herman; her cheeks always got red as apples when he talked to her and she hardly ever looked at him directly with her honey-brown eyes.

Willie walked with his parents and little sister to the church, which was just up the road. “I’m glad it’s not too hot out tonight.”

“Me too, son. We have a lot of work to do tomorrow.” His pa patted him on the shoulder. “You memorize your verse for tonight?”

“Yes, Pa.”

“Good boy. You gonna watch your big brother, May?” Willie’s little sister nodded, her fire-red hair gleaming in the setting sun.

When they arrived, the children had gathered in one part of the churchyard while the audience sat in the chairs and benches spread across the grass. Willie looked for Lena and saw that she was talking to Herman and giggling. Her yellow church dress was almost the same color as her hair, a blue ribbon laced into her braid. Willie hurried over to them.

“Evening, Lena,” he said. “You dolled up real nice today.”

Lena giggled and looked at the ground. “Thank you, Willie. You look—I think you look nice too.” Herman looked at Willie and scowled. Willie ignored him and looked at Lena again.

“Well, I’ve been practicing the songs all week.”

“I can’t remember them too good. Mind if I stand by you so I can follow your lead?” Lena nodded her head vigorously.

The kids stood in three lines on the grass while Mrs. Moore directed their songs. Sweat formed on Willie’s face when he saw the crowd. It seemed as if the entire town were staring back at him. When he found where his family sat, his ma smiled at him and May waved.

Willie couldn’t help but look over at Lena as they sang “Jesus Loves Me.” Her voice sounded to him like the way maple syrup tasted — sweet, smooth, and thick. Willie watched her pink lips opening and closing as she sang and wondered how much longer he’d have to wait to kiss them. Lena glanced over at him and they both looked away, and this time, he felt his own cheeks get hot—he realized he’d forgotten to sing.

After they finished singing, it was practically dark, so many lanterns were lit before Bible verses were recited. Willie went last. He cleared his throat. “Ephesians chapter six, verses 10 to 18.” He paused and looked out at the crowd, but all the faces were shadowed in the eerie glow of the lanterns. He couldn’t see his family anymore. In the place where they’d been sitting before, he saw some figures, but they could have been anybody.

The only person he could make out was Reverend Kelly, a traveling preacher from England. He sat by a lamp, which illuminated his sharp cheekbones and pointy nose, his sagging mouth formed into a smirk. And those beady eyes. Willie didn’t like the way he’d seen those eyes following Lena around earlier in the night.

Willie’s voice came out shaky. Locusts screeched in the trees as if they were laughing at him. “F-finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full a-armor of God so that…so that you can take your stand against – uh, against the d-devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against the…flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this d-dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in heavenly realms. Therefore…put on the full armor of God, that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” Willie forced a smile when he’d finished and wiped his sweaty palms on his shorts. Mrs. Moore walked over to him and patted him on the shoulder.

“Well, everybody. That concludes this year’s Children’s Day program. We hope you enjoyed yourselves. See you all next Sunday and good night.” Brief goodbyes were said and lanterns began disappearing as people walked and rode their horses home. The churchyard grew darker and darker.

Willie’s family walked home with the Moores, the adults in front talking about Mr. Moore’s John Deere business and the many children trailing behind them.

“Why are Lena and Ina walking home with us?” Willie asked Herman.

“They’re sleeping at our house tonight,” he said, wiggling his bushy eyebrows. Willie wanted to take the smile off of Herman’s face with a good slug, but he just clenched his teeth and took a deep breath in through his nose. “And guess what?” Herman whispered, “I’m gonna kiss Lena tonight when my ma and pa go to bed.”

“She ain’t gonna kiss you, wisenheimer. She likes me, I know it.”

“We’ll see. I’ll come outside tomorrow morning to brag to you about how soft Lena’s lips are.” Willie gave Herman a good shove before he stopped walking and waited for Lena to catch up. She was lagging behind everyone else, humming one of the hymns they’d sung at the program.

“Hi, Lena. You sung nice tonight.”

“Thanks, Willie. You too.”

“Why are you walking all alone?”

“I was just thinking and wishing I could see the stars. It’s so cloudy and dark tonight.”

“Yup,” Willie said, noticing the fog settling on the ground and shrouding the lantern his pa carried. “So…since you’re staying with the Moores tonight, maybe in the morning we can walk to the river or something.”

“Yeah, that would be real fun.”

Willie relaxed. There was no way Herman was getting a kiss from Lena. They walked in silence for a while, listening to Mrs. Moore talk about all the laundry she had to do in the morning.

When they reached their homes, Willie grabbed Lena’s hand and kissed her on the cheek before everyone began turning around to exchange goodbyes and goodnights. Lena’s eyes got big and a smile grew on her face. Her hand reached for her cheek and the  gold ring on her pointer finger reflected the Moores’ lamp.

Willie stood on the porch and watched as Lena disappeared inside the Moores’ house.

The slightest creaking noise drifted into Willie’s open window and startled him awake. He peered outside and could hardly see anything—it was still so cloudy. What time is it? Willie wondered. He sat watching for a minute and as the clouds parted across the moon like curtains, he saw a tall figure walking from the Moores’ shed and disappear behind the house. Looks like Mr. Moore forgot a chore againWillie thought before lying in bed and drifting into a dream about him and Lena running through piles of haystacks.

Willie awoke again to his little sister pinching his arm. He opened his eyes and saw the dim morning light coming through his window. “Cut it out, will ya, May?” he said, rubbing his arm.

“Ma says time to get up. Chore time.” May’s hair was knotted and frizzed out like a fireball.

Willie put on his overalls, leaving one strap undone, and walked through the kitchen to the side door. “No breakfast?” his ma asked.

“No, ma’am. Not hungry yet.”

His eyes were still half shut as he opened the chicken coop and they strutted out all at once as if they’d been cooped up for days instead of mere hours. Their clucks filled the unusually silent morning. Then Willie remembered he’d be seeing Lena soon and pumped the well, washing his face with cold water. After he’d gathered the eggs and fed the horses, Willie stood and stared at the Moores’ house. The sun was burning down on him now and they still weren’t moving. Any other day, Mr. Moore and Herman would be outside doing chores by now.

Willie went inside and his ma fixed him a plate for breakfast. “You’ve eaten enough for two grown men,” she said. Willie nodded. He’d eaten four slices of bacon, three eggs, fried potatoes, and drank two glasses of milk. Afterward, he let May chase him around the house for a while before he went back outside to see if the Moores had risen.

It was already almost a quarter past eight and the curtains hadn’t even been parted yet. Somethin’ ain’t right, Willie thought.

Mrs. Peckham, the older woman who lived next door to the Moores’, paced around the Moores’ yard. Willie saw that she’d let out their chickens. Suddenly, Mr. Moore’s brother, Ross, pulled up in his horse and buggy. Willie watched him try to look in various windows around the house, but they were all covered, so he started tapping, then pounding on the door. Willie had walked up to the edge of the road. Ross pulled out some keys and let himself inside. Willie relaxed a little.

They’re not home. Clearly they left early for some reason. Maybe they went on an errand. Maybe they took Lena and Ina home. Damn!

But then Ross came out less than two minutes later sobbing before he leaned over the porch and dry heaved. “Mrs. Peckham,” he gasped, “Call the sheriff.” Willie started shivering, despite the thick humidity and his heart sunk. What happened in there?

Mrs. Peckham hurried next door to her farmhouse and Ross walked to a spot in the grass and plopped down, holding his head and sobbing.

He didn’t notice when Willie ran across the road, right past him, and went through the open front door. The parlor, the first room of the house, was perfectly in order. Not a thing out of place. Not a table undusted. Not a pair of shoes left on the floor. Then Willie walked toward the bedroom where the Moores’ guests slept. As soon as he entered the room, he saw the sheets pulled up over two lumps. Are they sleeping?

“Lena?…”

But when Willie’s eyes adjusted to the darkness, he saw their faces were covered by the sheets and caked with blood. He tried to scream, but nothing came out. He couldn’t look away. The bigger body, on the right side of the mattress. It had to be Lena. An arm was hanging out from under the sheet, a gold ring on her pointer finger, just like Lena’s. It was becoming impossible to breathe. The house was so stuffy. The odor seeped in through his mouth every time he inhaled. He heard the flies buzzing.

I gotta be sure. I gotta be sure I’m not dreaming!

Willie’s legs crumbled beneath him and he crawled over to the bed and pulled the crusted sheet back. He covered his mouth. The musty, metallic, rotting smell reached his nose. The heads were so bloody and caved in, their brains and skulls were spread across their pillows, the headboard, the wall.

Where were the lips he’d wanted to kiss so badly? She was unrecognizable but he knew the one on the right was Lena.

And she was farther down in the bed, which meant she’d squirmed.

And her hands were bloody and mutilated, which meant she’d fought back.

And her nightgown was pulled up and her…her underwear were off, which meant… Is that what it meant?

And he didn’t want to see that part of her. Not like that!

Willie started retching, became blinded by his own tears as he ran out, almost tripping over the bloody axe that lay near the foot of the bed. He couldn’t see where he was going and bumped into a table, sending a vase crashing to the floor. He didn’t need to go upstairs where Herman slept. He already knew.

________________________________________________________________

Mikaela Shea is in her thesis hours of her MFA at Columbia College Chicago and is currently a writer-in-residence at Ragdale Foundation. She has published stories in Midwestern Gothic, Foliate Oak Literary Journal, Hypertext Magazine, Paragraph Planet, Columbia College’s annual Story Week Reader, as well as a children’s book at the State Historical Society of Iowa. Mikaela is currently writing a novel and is Editor-in-Chief of 3Elements Reviewwww.mikaelashea.com  

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A Foolish Son

By Stephen Lewis

“A foolish son is a grief to his father….” (Proverbs 17:25.3)

The boy on the witness stand eyes Mr. Wilkie Burton, the prosecuting attorney, a short and round faced man with sideburns that reach his chin and a mustache that covers his upper lip before curling onto his cheek.  Sweat drips from his bald head and moistens his facial hair.   Out of the corner of his eye, the boy sees Sam Logan, his father, staring  at him from the defense table where he sits next to his lawyer.  The boy’s glance continues until it lands on his mother in the front row of the spectators.  She nods encouragement.

He turns back to Barton who forms his face into an encouraging expression, such as you would use with a recalcitrant child who holds the key to your strongbox in a hand, sticky with molasses, over a yawning crack in the floor.

“Now, George,” the prosecutor says, “I know this is difficult for you.”  This last is said with a sidelong glance at Logan.  “We have heard your father say that on the afternoon of June 15th, 18 and 95,  you and he were clearing brush for a new road.  Is that right?”

“Yes,” George says.  He remembers how he lay on his bed the last few nights, listening for his father’s snores coming through the wall, but hearing only the rattle of the window frames in the breeze off the bay.  He looks again past his father’s tense face to his mother, her expression set in the same vacant stare it has worn since the sheriff came to take his father away.  All spring, he heard the birds singing in the morning, but at night his parents’ muffled and angry words.  Then their bed creaked beneath their grunts and moans.   He did not understand what this peek into the adult world offered him, and so as was his custom he did not try.  Burton has his thumbs hooked into the waistband of his trousers, and George remembers how his father sometimes whips him with his belt.  The prosecutor wears no belt, but George does not trust him.  He sees the prosecutor’s  jaw quiver, and then George adds, “That is what he said.”

“I see.  You were to help your father, isn’t that so?”

“Yes.”

“Of course.  You are a dutiful son, are you not?”

“I am that,” George answers, although he is not exactly sure what “dutiful” means.  He ponders, then seizes on the first syllable.   “I do what he asks.  Mostly.”

“Non-responsive,” Burton snaps with a glance at Judge Samuel Hightower..

“Son, can you be clearer in your answer?”  Hightower’s tone is both weary and warm.

“No, sir,” George says with a smile.

“We will recess for an hour,” the judge declares, “so everyone can cool down, and the witness can search his memory for better answers.”

George stays on the witness stand as the courtroom empties.   Finally, only the court officer remains with him.

“You can step down,” the officer says.

“I have no place to go,” George replies.

“Suit yourself,” the officer answers, and sprawls on a chair.  “But I have orders that where you go, I go.”

“I always do,” George replies, “suit myself that is. Mostly, anyway.”

The officer leans back and shuts his eyes.  His right hand, though, rests on the heavy butt of the revolver at his side.

George remembers the dew on the grass between his toes that morning, and how the orioles had been whistling in the trees.  George boy, George boy, come here, they sang.  The whistling would stop later in the afternoon, and his feet would be squeezed into boots too small.  He reaches down, now, to massage his toes through his own shoes and he can still feel where the skin on his little toe had been rubbed raw.

His father left to clear the new road.  He was to follow when he found the ax he had mislaid the day before.  His mother watched from the rocker on the front porch while George stood staring at the grooves on the chopping stump, scratching his head in wonderment that the ax head was not buried in the wood, and that he could not reach out his hand and grasp the handle.   After a while he let his mind drift to the rhythm of his mother’s rocker, which itself seemed to mimic the creak of the blades on the windmill over the well.  And then there was the song of the birds calling to him, and his feet burrowed into the cool grass.

The rocking stopped, replaced by the clomp of the heavy men’s shoes his mother wore to work in the vegetable garden behind the house.  The heels of her shoes resounded off the three steps leading down from the porch, and then softened in the dirt.

“Go on, now, your father’s waiting for you,” his mother called.

She had on the wide brimmed straw hat she wore to protect her face from the sun.  The exposed skin of her neck and hands was darkened by a summer spent outdoors. She stared at his bare feet.  In her hands, she held a pair of his father’s boots.

“You had best put these on, if you are going to cross Old Trail Road,” she said.

He took the boots from her, laced them together and threw them over his shoulders.

“I like to feel the grass between my toes,” he said.

She frowned.

“You will remember to put them on when you reach the road, though, won’t you?”

“Yes’m.  I always do.  Most of the time.”

“Did you find that ax?”

“No.”

“Go on then.”

He walked onto the grass between the ruts carved in the soil by his father’s wagon on the track from their cherry orchard to Old Trail Road, which led to the town at the base of the peninsula.   Lying in one of the ruts was the ax where he had dropped it yesterday.  He picked it up as though he knew that this was where he would find it.  Old Trail Road was dirt flattened smooth by the passage of innumerable wagons and heavy soled boots. He almost stepped into a steaming pile of manure left by a pair of horses pulling a load of lumber toward town, and then he felt the boots banging against his shoulder blades.  Hearing his mother’s instruction in the chatter of the birds, he knelt on the edge of the road to squeeze his feet into boots a size or two too small, and then he strode onto the road.  It followed the crest of a long, narrow hill rising above the meadows on either side.  He gazed at the bright blue waters of the bay sparkling in the morning sun, and then he trotted over the road into the field on the other side.  He left the field and entered the wood, his ears now listening for the sound of his father’s ax.  He had not taken more than a few steps before his toes began to cramp hard inside the boots.  He wondered for just a moment why his mother had been so insistent, but he was not in the habit of puzzling over things he did not understand, and so he walked on.

He was drawn to the song of the orioles.  Its lilt lifted his spirit.  Then the song stopped, and it was replaced by the loud cawing of a small flock of crows circling something in a small clearing up ahead.  He hastened, and then he saw her lying still on the ground.  The crows flew off a short distance, and there was silence.
Highsmith strides into the filled courtroom,  jurors and spectators, on their feet expectant and perspiring in the late afternoon heat.   From the distances comes the roll of thunder that promises relief.

George has been staring at the door awaiting the entrance of the judge.  His muscles ache, and there is a dull, throb pressing down on his forehead.  He hears the thunder and remembers only the silence above the dead girl after the cawing crows took flight.  He looks towards his mother.  Her eyes, which had been red rimmed before today, are now clear and cold.  He sees her offer a barely perceptible nod, and he recalls what she said this morning, “Just tell them, “ she said, “and don’t be afraid.”

“I am not going to ask you the questions you could not answer before,” Burton says..  George focuses on the man’s teeth as he talks.  They are stained yellow, and saliva pools in a space where a lower front tooth is missing.   He recalls how red Sarah’s lips were and how white her teeth.  He smiles at Burton.

“Let us try another approach.” Burton leans close enough for George to smell his breath.  It is not sweet like he imagines hers would have been if she had been still breathing when he found her. “Tell us what you saw when you arrived at the murder scene.”

“The birds were not singing anymore,” he answers.  He is there in the clearing between the trees, the ax over one shoulder.  He grimaces as he feels again how the boots force his big toe to overlap its neighbor.

Burton steps back, his face a picture of exasperation.

“Yes, but what did you…” he pauses.  “Let me be direct.  Did you see your father there?”

“No.”

Burton smiles.

“Did you see him that day between when he left to clear the road and when you found the body?”

George sighs.  He is suddenly very tired, and he is finding it more and more difficult to concentrate.  Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his father staring hard at him.

“Yes,” he replies.

Burton’s jaw drops.

“Did you not tell the sheriff that you never got to the place where your father was clearing the road?”

“Yes.”

“Well?”

George closes his eyes, and opens them to focus on the prosecuting attorney’s nose.  He sees the hairs poking out of the nostrils.

“Well what, Mr. Burton?”

“Which is it.  Did you help your father clear the road, or did you not?”

“No. I was on my way to help him,” he starts.

“Yes, and….” Burton prods.

“I saw her lying there.”

Burton’s sigh is audible throughout the courtroom.

“Before you could help your father, you saw the victim lying dead in that clearing,” the prosecuting attorney says.

George nods.

“She was so peaceful beneath that tree, and the birds in it stopped singing.”

Burton waits and then turns to Highsmith.

“No further questions,” he says.  “I think I have gotten what I can from the lad.”  He glances toward Logan, pulls a sweat stained handkerchief from his pocket, and daubs at the perspiration on his forehead.

Defense attorney Frederick Lowe’s thin, blond hair is parted down the middle and lies flat on his head, setting off his prominent nose and ears that protrude a bit more than normal.  He wears spectacles that leave an angry welt on the bridge of his nose.

Lowe steps ever so slowly toward George, his spectacles in one hand, the other rubbing the welt.  He stops and replaces his spectacles.

“Did you see your father anywhere near where you found Sarah’s body?”

“No,” George replies.

“ I see.  But you told Mr. Burton you saw him that day.”

“Later, I saw him later.  Back home.”

Lowe strokes his chin, adjusts his spectacles, but then turns on his heel.

“You may step down,” Highsmith says to George.  The boy is leaning over to rub his foot and seems not to hear for a moment or two, but then he rises and starts to walk towards his mother.

“You may be called again,” the judge says.  “

George lets himself be led out of the courtroom.  His step is firm.

“What was your plan on the morning of June 15th last?” Lowe asks Sam Logan.

“To clear a road to the harbor.”

“Were you going to work alone?”

“No.  I had young Phil Watson with me.”

“My hired hand.  Folks know him.  His father’s from the South.”

“Yes.”

“Was your son to help you as well?”

“Yes.”

“Did he?”

“No.  He never arrived.  I expect he had trouble finding his ax.”

“Was that unusual?”

“Not at all. He often is forgetful. But he is a good boy.”

Lowe pauses for just a moment.

“When he didn’t show up, what did you do?”

Logan turns his head slightly toward the jury and then back to Lowe.

“Why, I sent Watson to fetch him.”

“Did he?”

Logan shrugs.

“I do not know.  He never came back.”

“Have you seen him since?”

“No.”

“What do you suppose happened to him?”

Lowe looks over his shoulder as Burton rises to object, but Logan is too quick.

“I guess he found Sarah instead of George.”

Burton walks to the evidence table and picks up a pair of muddy boots.  He shows them first to the jury, and then to Logan.

“Are these your boots?”

“Used to be.  I haven’t worn them in years.”

“You did hear several witnesses, including the sheriff, testify that impressions left in the ground near the body match these boots, did you not?”

“I did.  But if my boots made those impressions, my feet weren’t in them.”

“Were you and Sarah Henshaw lovers?” he asks.

“We were friends,” Logan replies.

“You knew she was carrying your child, did you not?”

“No.  The last time I saw her she was upset and asked me for laudanum for her nerves.  I told her I didn’t have any.  She must have gotten some from somebody else.”

Burton attempts to show his shocked disbelief, but he is not a very good actor.  When he pulls back his lips, his mustache hides the gesture and his pudgy face looks more amused than distressed.

“You say you sent young Watson to fetch your son?”

“Why didn’t you go yourself?”

“And you did not see Sarah Henshaw that day?”

“No.”

“You did not drug her with laudanum and then squeeze the life out of…”

Lowe’s complaint is drowned by Highsmith’s gavel.

“I will rephrase,” Burton says when quiet is restored.  “Is it your testimony that you did not know Sarah Henshaw was pregnant with your child, that you did not see her on the day she was killed, that you know nothing about the bottle of laudanum found next to her, and you believe that Philip Watson killed her in that field while he was on an errand to find your son, and that is why he has fled, and that your own son’s confusing testimony is his feeble attempt to protect you?  You want us to believe that those boot prints in the field next to that young girl’s body were not made by you?  Is that what you want this jury to believe?”  Burton gestures grandly toward the jury box, and this time his face manages an approximation of incredulity.

“The truth,” Logan says softly, “I want them to see only the truth.”

“I think they have,” Burton concludes.

“Did I do right?” George asks his mother as they walk toward their house.

“Yes,” she replies.

“And he won’t beat me no more, or mock me, when he comes home?”

“He’s not coming home.”

“But poor Sarah…” he begins.

“Hush,” she replies.  “She is better off in heaven than giving birth to your father’s bastard.”   She points to George’s ax, now driven into the chopping stump.  “There is work for you to do.”

George smiles and pulls the ax out.  He places a log on the stump and brings the ax down hard.  The log jumps apart.  He stacks it neatly and picks up another.

Phillip Watson stands on the porch, a cardboard suitcase between his feet.  He holds out his hand, and she places a small wad of bills in it.  He stuffs the money into his pocket.

The ax rings out again, and Phillip picks up his suitcase.  He walks fast and then begins to trot.  He disappears over the hill.  George puts down his ax and watches.

“Will he be alright?” he asks.

“Yes,” his mother replies.

She pauses and looks down at her hands.

“It is only unfortunate that Sarah did not drink enough of the sedative, that she had to die hard.”

George picks up his and ax looks at his mother, a question in his eyes.

“Yes,” she says, “you did the right thing.”

“And so did I,” she says under her breath, but she wonders when again she will be able to wash her hands without feeling the young woman’s warm flesh between her fingers.


After having published seven novels in traditional print form, Stephen Lewis dips his toe into the new digital world with the historical mystery A Suspicion of Witchcraft, his first e-book.  His stories and poetry have appeared in various journals including Karamu, Convergence, Brooklyn College Review, Confrontation, Nebo, Pangolin Papers, Paumanok Review, Mysterious Anthology Magazine, and Jewish Currents.  Recent story publications include “The Visit,” in The Chariton Review, and “Eagles Rising” in the Palo Alto Review.  Although born and raised in Brooklyn, he is now incompletely acculturated to northern Michigan where he lives with his wife, an award winning short story writer, in a century old farmhouse on five acres.

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Milk and Honey

By Arthur Li

Yesterday, at Bitter Lake, Shiphrah had seemed sad, perched on the edge of our rock, looking at the lake. She was so silent. She sat next to me, holding my hand.

I recognized her sadness, the expression she had after the swarms of locusts had erased our wheat fields, and a plague had killed most of our livestock. The plagues had not come to Shiphrah’s family, or to any of her people. And yet she still mourned my family’s losses.

She also had worn that same look of sadness two month ago, when the seas and rivers turned red as the color of spilled blood. She loved the landscape of Egypt as much as I did, and she was heartbroken about the land’s devastation. Still, after Bitter Lake had turned from sapphire blue to bright crimson, we continued to return to it. As long as Shiphrah was next to me on our rock, I didn’t care about the color of the lake.

In the last month, there had been no new plagues. We replanted our crops, and found other sources of food. The people of Egypt had realized that even though we had lost so much, we had survived. We still had our families. Why was Shiphrah looking so somber now?

“I’ve loved these moments with you,” she said. “In fact, I’ve loved them more than anything else in the world.”

Her hair, brown like ripened dates, fell over her eyes and her back. Her knees were bent, and raised to her chest. Her plain linen garment, the color of dry earth, was bunched up around her ankles. Her legs were thin and wiry, like the rest of her small and lean 10 year old body.

“I have something that I cherish,” she said. “But it’s about to end.”

I was puzzled. I looked at her. The corners of her soft brown eyes were wet.

“This sadness I feel, with you sitting next to me,” she says. “Is the sadness worse now, or will it be greater after you’re gone?”

“Gone?” I said. “I’ve survived a lot, all these plagues.”

Sometimes, while praying to her god, Shiphrah had premonitions. She accepted these as signs, as truths. Perhaps she might have become convinced that we had been found out.

“No one in either of our families knows about us,” I said. “We have Bitter Lake to ourselves. For the past year, the sand around the lake has had nobody’s footprints but our own.”

Many days ago, when the lake was still blue, Shiphrah and I splashed around in the water. We had left our garments on the rock. We jumped into the lake, to test our buoyancy amidst the salty water. Because of extreme saltiness, the water would not allow a body to sink in it.

I pushed Shiphrah down beneath the water, and when I let go, she floated back up and emerged, wet, grinning and laughing.

When she pushed me down, I swam away a short distance, and I flapped my arms to keep myself under, holding my breath. When I finally surfaced, Shiphrah looked at me with desperate concern, her eyes trembling, brow bunched together, mouth agape.

“Aamon!” she yelled. “Thank the Lord you are not dead!”

She was frightened, but relieved.

I swam back to her, and faced her, our heads bobbing above the water. “I’m sorry for tricking you.”

“I forgive you,” she said. “But promise me you’ll never leave me like that again!”

She flipped over onto her back, and floated on the surface. Pearls of water glistened on her belly like dewdrops. Her belly was flat and smooth, golden brown under the sun. With one finger, I lightly stroked the smooth skin around her navel, and she giggled as I touched her.

I retrieved a small round pebble from the bottom of the lake, and placed it in the middle of her belly. I laid my head on top of her, pressing the side of my face into her soft and supple chest. I listened to the steady drumming sound underneath, thumping against my ear, as the pebble on her navel shuddered with each beat of her heart. She stared up at the sky, worshipping my god, the god of the sun.

Now that Bitter Lake had turned red, we no longer swam in it. But I was happy now just holding her hand at the edge of the lake.

“Why do you say that we’re going to be parted?” I asked.

She paused a moment.

“Don’t tell anyone what I say,” she said, “or else I could be stoned to death if anyone finds out I’ve told you.” She took a deep breath. “Last night, the Counsel of Elders met at my father’s house. I overheard the Elders talk.” She stopped again, trying to decide whether to continue. “The plagues, the locusts and frogs, the red water…they said my God might be the one causing them.”

I looked at her, not believing her. “Really?” I said. “But you told me your god is good. He protects you.”

She nodded. “I’m not sure of it,” she said. “But I’m scared. My father said last night that God can be vengeful and jealous. He said that God once caused water to cover the earth, and everything died, even innocent and good things.” She looked up at the sky. “But that is not my God.”

I put my hand on her knee. She looked down, and she entwined her fingers with mine.

“Sometimes I wonder how well God has protected us,” she said. “My people have been slaves for so many years. My father is in shackles under the hot sun everyday, laying bricks for Pharaoh.” She looked out at the vast expanse of sand beyond the lake, as the sun floated downward across the dunes. “The Elders say that they have had enough. They plan to leave Egypt. As the sun rises tomorrow, they will leave for freedom in the desert, to search for a land promised to them by God.”

“I am happy for them, as they deserve to be free,” I said.

Shiphrah put her hands on my shoulders. “There is something you don’t understand yet.” She looked deeply into my eyes. “I am going with them.” A tear fell from her face and darkened a spot on our rock. “Every one of my people, man and woman, young and old, is going with them. My mother didn’t even have time to leaven the bread to take with us. We leave tomorrow.”

She laid her head on my shoulder, and began to sob. But I didn’t believe her, not one word of it. Either she had only dreamt it, or the Elders were full of delusions. How could all of her people, hundreds of thousands of them, escape from Pharaoh and his army?

“And there’s something else,” she said, picking up a linen sack she had brought with her. “The Elders talked of another plague. But it might be different from the previous ones.” She handed the sack to me. “I heard whispering. I think your life is going to be in danger.”

The sack felt weighted on the bottom, and something knobby but compliant struck against my knees as I took the sack from her. I unloosened the drawstrings, and a putrid odor escaped, that of rotting flesh. I immediately turned my head to the side, and cinched the sac together again.

“This smells awful,” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s a lamb,” she said. “I killed it last night.”

“You…killed a lamb? You know how to do that? Are you allowed?”

“I saw my uncle kill one. I know where the knives are kept. I ran around the field to catch the lamb, a small and tender one year old. I pushed him into the ground, and sat astride his body to keep him down. I felt him struggle beneath me. I whispered to him to soothe him. I grabbed his fur, held his head up, and dragged the knife across his neck. I cried. I felt the warm blood pour onto my hands. He writhed a few more times before going limp.” Her lips quivered as she finished her story. “I did it for you.”

As she gazed at me, with delicate eyes, wide with concern for me, I saw that she cared about me, and this was as real as anything I’d ever seen. I wiped a tear from her cheek.

“You are so brave,” I said. “But why would you do this?”

“I heard them say the lamb’s blood will protect its owner,” she said. “I know your family’s lambs died during the plague on the livestock, so I am giving you one of ours. Now, you must do what I tell you.” She picked up the sac with the lamb and pretended to swing it. “Take the lamb and strike it upon the two side posts and upper door post of your house. Everyone in my tribe has already done so. Then you and your family must roast the lamb with bitter herbs, and eat it. When God sees the lamb’s blood on your door post, he will pass over your house.”

“I don’t believe in such dark magic,” I protested. “You know I don’t believe in your god.”

“I don’t know if these things are real, either,” she said. “But just in case. If my God is capable of anger and destruction, as my father says he is, then you could be in danger. You must listen to me.”

But I could not think of any god, nor of plagues or lamb’s blood. I worshipped no gods, not even the gods of Egypt. Shiphrah’s body was the only temple I knew. I lay my head in her lap. I stretched my arms under her robe, across her warm thighs, and around her waist. I clasped my hands behind the small of her back, and prayed to her. Don’t leave meI need you. Stay with me here, in Egypt. She put her hands on my head, and ran her fingers through my hair.

I watched the sun fall behind the sand dunes, as the orange glow seemed to set Bitter Lake on fire, brimstone igniting upon the blood.

When I got back to the house that evening, the sack containing the lamb had become infested with flies. The meat was fetid, and not fit for my family to eat. I cocked my arm back and hurled the rotten sack onto the refuse heap. I did not paint the front of the house with the lamb’s blood. After all, how sad would my mother be if, already ailing and covered in boils, she were to see streaks of blood on our doorposts?

________________________________________________________________

Arthur Li is a physician in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has previously published research studies in scientific journals and co-authored medical textbooks, but he finds that writing fiction is way more fun.

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