Historical Fiction

Chapter reveal: The Beekeeper’s Daughter, by Jane Jordan

cover-artTitle:  The Beekeeper’s Daughter

Genre: Thriller

Author: Jane Jordan

Website: janejordannovelist.com 

Publisher: Black Opal Books

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Beekeeper’s daughter Annabel Taylor grows up wild and carefree on the moors of England in the late 1860s. A child of nature and grace with an unusual ability to charm bees, Annabel follows in the footstep of her mother Lilith, a beautiful witch.  With her closest friend and soulmate Jevan Wenham by her side, Annabel’s life is a life filled with wonder and curiosity. But Jevan, the son of a blacksmith, lives his life on the verge of destruction, and his devotion to Annabel probes the boundaries between brutality and deep desire, passion and pleasure. When Jevan leaves Exmoor to pursue an education in London, Annabel’s world shatters.  Devastated without Jevan, Annabel is sure her life is ending. But everything changes when she crosses paths with Alexander Saltonstall. The heir to the Saltonstall legacy and son of Cerberus Saltonstall, the wealthy landowner of the foreboding Gothelstone Manor, Alex is arrogant and self-assured—and enamored of the outspoken Annabel.  Even though the two are socially worlds apart, that doesn’t stop Alex from asking, or rather demanding, Annabel’s hand in marriage.  But when Annabel refuses, she is forced into an impossible situation. To further complicate matters, Jevan is back—and so are those same desires, that same passion and intensity. But nothing is as it seems, and Annabel and Jevan are in grave danger.  At risk of being ensnared into the dark legacy of the Saltonstall family, Annabel faces the ultimate test.  Will her fledgling powers be enough to save those she loves most? Can she even save herself?

 

Chapter One – Gothelstone Village – 1698

                  The crowd surged forward, straining their necks to get a better view. Venomous whispers carried ominously through the air, and the words on their lips were full of condemnation.  Most of the villagers played their part in this madness. Only a few, saw through the falseness, they prayed silently and held back tears of sorrow. This small number hoped their presence might be of some comfort, they had not come to gloat or gain satisfaction at the spectacle. They came to witness the injustice.

Morning dew was still evident. With the earlier mist nearly gone, weak sunshine penetrated through low hanging cloud, throwing a subtle light across the young woman’s face. Her breath came in sobs, clearly audible to the people closest to her. She could not control the trembling of her body or the cold stark fear that caused sweat to run down her brow. Long dirty streaks, caused by earlier tears, marked her skin. Her hair, which was matted and long, obscured her face further.  Her eyes darted amongst the villagers as disbelief invaded her mind.

There was no justice in the world, and she could not leave on these terms. Lifting her head higher, she shook the hair out of her eyes and stared at the restless crowd in defiance. Reality was before her and fear numbed any more emotion.

From the back of the crowd, a figure pushed through to stand before her.

A coward. She thought, as his eyes refused to meet hers. After a few moments pause, a sudden hush came over the gathering. Then, her accuser’s voice filled the cold stagnant air with terrifying prose from the indictment.

Accusing murmurs mounted, and bile rose in her throat. She stared blindly into the mass, unable to believe they so easily succumbed to the lies. These people were neighbors and friends she had known them all her life, yet, even their betrayal paled into nothingness, compared to her mounting hatred for him.

His voice was booming in her head, drowning out any other noise or sensible thought, his intention to intimidate and threaten. It was incredible that he appeared to be a complete stranger to her now. No longer the man she once loved. As more lies spilled from his mouth, the gnawing sickness of moments before vanished. With his provocation enraging her further, something altered. Her mind let go of the fear, and replaced it with pure unbridled hatred.

In spontaneous effect, she pulled harder against the chains. They were unyielding just as before. In the mob, a few called upon their God to have mercy. It was an illusion; their pious cries did nothing to conceal the suspicion in their eyes.

Another man approached, his identity was of no consequence. Her gaze tore from her accuser and rested upon the fiery torch the other man held. He came closer. The breath caught in her throat, terror rendered her body rigid as he bent and lit the pile of faggots beneath her.

Blood coursed through her veins making her feel light-headed, and her heart pounded so heavily that it brought physical pain. Tears found renewed energy and streamed down her face. The heat seeped up, slowly at first. Then faster, surrounding her legs as the faggots smoldered for a few moments before catching alight.

A terrified gasp escaped her lips, as the first wisps of smoke invaded her nostrils. She twisted her body, fighting against the chains that bound her to the stake. The metal links were unrelenting, they cut deeper and deeper into her flesh.  The heat intensified, engulfing her torso and making her cough. The fire took hold quickly, and crackled ominously beneath her. Her tears, now a steady stream, clouded her vision. Then, she felt the first tiny shocks of pain, as the flames licked her soles.

“God save me!” she screamed, panic besetting her.  Frantically, she searched faces in the crowds, still believing someone would show compassion. Somebody would speak up and free her. As her eyes burned into theirs, she saw no reprieve, instead, the crowd grew quieter and settled down. They watched in morbid fascination as her flesh seared and pain surged through her.

Summoning courage, she tried to withstand the pain, but terror thwarted spirit.  The fire began to spew the sparks that caught hold of the hem of her ragged clothes, and an uncontrollable force made her shake violently. Smoke began to billow from the pyre forcing the congregation to move backwards. Only her accuser stood his ground.

“God will not save you!” he cried, “for thou shall not suffer a witch to live!”

A faint murmur of agreement rippled through the crowd. She was unable to look at them anymore. Terror had a firm hold on her psych as flames beat at her feet and lapped her legs.  She screamed again, a terrible sound that rang through the village square. The torture was unbearable. She could no longer stand it.  Blinking the oppressive breath of the fire out of her eyes, she prayed for the end.

Death was not far away. Suffocating slowly, and unable to scream anymore, she was slipping into unconsciousness from the agony. She managed to lift her head one final time and silently beg God for a merciful release. The smoke cleared for a few seconds in front of her face and quite by chance, she caught his eye. It took only a second to register that he was actually smiling.

Rage pulsed through her. She battled against the constriction of her throat and the creeping, burning agony that was melting her flesh. Her heart pounded so violently against her ribcage that it would surely burst from her chest. Then, on the verge of death, her unbroken spirit gave her the power to raise her voice once more.

It was surprising, shocking even, that her words rang so clearly across the gathering. The God fearing peasants clutched at each other, seeking reassurance. Afraid of her words and the unnatural power she appeared to possess. With her final scream echoing through their heads, they watched the hungry flames engulf her body. Some cried out in pity, others uneasily marked themselves with the sign of the cross. Only one looked on in satisfaction.

The witch was dead.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Chapter reveal: ‘The Last Wife of Attila the Hun’ by Joan Schweighardt

Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Five Directions Press

Purchase on Amazon

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second thread reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue.

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THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN

by Joan Schweighardt

Prologue

            When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 

1

I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun, by Joan Schweighardt

JS_TLWATH_cover_thumb-1Title: The Last Wife of Attila the Hun

Genre: Literary/Historical Fiction with a Legendary Component

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschwweighardt.com

Publisher: Booktrope Editions

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

Two threads are woven together in The Last Wife of Attila the Hun. In one, Gudrun, a Burgundian noblewoman, dares to enter the City of Attila to give its ruler what she hopes is a cursed sword; the second reveals the unimaginable events that have driven her to this mission. Based in part on the true history of the times and in part on the same Nordic legends that inspired Wagner’s Ring Cycle and other great works of art, The Last Wife of Attila the Hun offers readers a thrilling story of love, betrayal, passion and revenge, all set against an ancient backdrop itself gushing with intrigue. Lovers of history and fantasy alike will find realism and legend at work in this tale.

THE LAST WIFE OF ATTILA THE HUN 

by Joan Schweighardt

Prologue

When I was a young girl living at Worms, there was nothing I delighted in more than song. And of all those who lifted their voices in our great hall, there was none who did so as beautifully as my brother Gunner. Were he beside me now, he would rebuke me for the method that I have chosen to relate my story to you. He would insist, instead, on fashioning a melody for my words and singing them to you from beginning to end. He would begin modestly, singing, as he always did, that he had no talent for melodies, but entreating you, nevertheless, to remember his words. And, friend, as there is no bird, no summer breeze, no sweet stream lapping or soft rain falling that could compete with Gunner for one’s attention, have no doubt that you would have remembered them. He would have looked into your eyes while he sang and touched you in a deeper place than he ever touched a man or a woman when he went without his harp.

Though I can never hope to emulate his elegance, let me begin likewise, telling you first that I have no talent either. This thing, this process of setting down one word after the next on parchment, is new to me, and, as a friend once stated, tedious. And in spite of all the pains that I have taken to learn it, I find that I am apprehensive now because I cannot look into your eyes as my brother would have, because I cannot hope to touch you in that holy place where the hearts of all folk are joined together. Still, I would have you remember my words. 

The City of Attila 

1

I fell to my knees at the stream, so eager to drink that I did not think to offer a prayer until afterward, when I was satisfied and my flask was full. I was exhausted. My skin was parched and I was filthy; but according to the map my brothers had given me, I was very near my destination. I continued on foot, pulling my tired horse behind me.

I had not had a full night’s rest since the terrain had changed. The land was flat here. There were no caves or rocky ledges where I could shelter myself. The forests, so sacred to my people, had long since been replaced by endless grasslands. As I trudged through them, I felt that I had left more than my loved ones behind.

When the sky darkened, I used the single live coal I carried from the previous night’s fire to light my torch. I was sure that the light could be seen from some distance. I expected at every moment to hear the thunder of hooves beating on the arid earth. But on and on I walked, seeing no sight other than my own shadow in the gleam of the torch light and hearing no sound but that of my horse plodding along beside me.

When the sun began to rise, I saw that there was a sandy hill ahead, and hoping to see the City of Attila from its summit, I dragged myself on. But the hill was much farther away than it had seemed, and it took most of the day to reach it. And then it was much higher too, the highest ground that I had seen in days. My horse, who was content to graze on grassy clumps and to watch the marmots who dared to peek out of their holes, made it clear that he had no desire to climb. I had to coax him along, and myself as well, for now I was afraid that I would reach the summit and see nothing but more grass stretching out to the far horizon. I imagined myself wandering endlessly, seeing no one, coughing and sneezing in response to the invisible blowing dust, until my food ran out and my horse gave way.

I crawled to the top of the hill and looked down in amazement at the camp of make-shift tents below. In front of one of them a fire burned, and the carcass of an antelope was roasting over it. There were many men about, perhaps two hundred, all on horseback except for the few tending the fire.

It was not until I heard the war cry that I knew for certain that the scene was real and not some trick of my mind. I had been sighted. The entire company was suddenly galloping in my direction, a cloud of dust rising up around them. I forced myself to my feet and spread my arms to show that I carried no weapon. When I saw that the men were making their bows ready, I dropped my head and lifted my arms higher yet, to the heavens, where, I hoped, the gods were watching carefully.

Part of the company surrounded me. The others rode past, over the summit. When they were satisfied that no one was riding behind me, they joined the first group. Upon the command of one of them, they all lowered their bows. I began to breathe again. A murmur went up, and while I waited for it to subside, I studied their horses. Of the two that I could see without moving my head, one looked like the ones the Romans rode—a fine, tall, light-colored steed. The other looked like no animal I had ever seen before. Its legs were short and its head was large and somehow misshapen. Its matted mane hung down over its stout body. Its nose was snubbed and its eyes bulged like a fish’s. Its back was curved, as if by the weight of its rider. Yet its thick neck and large chest suggested great strength.

The murmur abated, and the Hun on the horse I’d been scrutinizing cried out a command in his harsh, foreign tongue. I looked up and noted that he resembled his horse. He was short and stout, large-chested, his head overly large, his neck short and thick, his nose snubbed. The only difference was that while the horse had a long mane and a bushy tail, the Hun’s hair was thin, and his beard, if one could call it that, was thinner yet. He seemed to be waiting for me to speak. I stared at the identical scars that ran down the sides of his face, wide, deep mutations that began beneath his deeply set eyes and ended at his mouth. “I’ve come to seek Attila,” I said.

The Hun, who appeared slightly amused, looked to his companions. A murmur went up again. While they debated, I took the opportunity to scan the other Hun faces, all hideous replicas of the one who had spoken to me. Of course, I had known the Huns were strange to look upon. Although I’d been hidden away during the siege, I’d had a description from those who had seen the Huns and survived to tell about them. In fact, there were some among my people who mutilated their own faces after the siege, believing this would make them as fierce as their attackers. Still, none of this had prepared me sufficiently to look upon them with my own eyes. Some wore tunics and breeches, not unlike the ones my own people wore. Others wore garments made entirely of marmot skins. With some on Roman horses and others on Hunnish ones, some dressed like Thuets and others in skins, they looked like no army I had ever seen before. Their confusion over how to respond to me only heightened the impression of disorder.

“Attila!” I cried. My brothers were sure I was mad, and when I heard my shout I thought they must be right.

The startled Huns stared for a moment, then they took up their debate again, their voices louder and more urgent than before. Finally the leader nodded, and the man whose argument he had come to agree with rode to my side and took my horse’s reins from my hand. While he started down the hill with the horse, another Hun poked me from behind with his riding whip to indicate that I should follow. Half of the men began the descent with me. The other half stayed on the summit, looking off in the direction from which I had come.

I was brought to the fire, where I reiterated my desire to see Attila. One of the Huns pointed beyond the tents. I followed his finger. There were a few dark clouds converging on the eastern horizon. “Can we ride?” I asked, pointing to my horse. The Hun gestured for me to sit. The meat had been removed from the fire and torn into pieces. The horseless Huns were distributing it among the riders. One of them brought a piece to me, and another brought me a flask of what smelled like Roman wine. I ate the meat—which was tough and bland—and kept my eyes fastened on my horse and the sack that hung from his side. I tasted the wine and, to the amusement of the Huns who were watching, quickly spat it out—for this is what I imagined a woman who had grown up alone in the forest would do.

After the meal, I stood and pointed east. “Take me to the City of Attila,” I demanded. Again, my words caused a stir.

Then one of the Huns said something which quieted the others. He gave a series of commands, and one of the listeners slid off his horse and reluctantly offered me the reins.

I hesitated, unsure what to do about the sack. Gathering courage, I led the Hunnish horse past my guards and over to my own horse. I reached for the sack, but a stout Hunnish arm cut me off. “For Attila,” I said. The man who had stopped me looked to his fellows. Again there was discussion, and after a moment, a decision. The arm withdrew. I swallowed and removed the sack from one beast and secured it onto the other. Then I mounted the Hunnish horse and settled myself as best I could on its hard wooden saddle. The Hun who was to be my escort came forward. Someone furnished him with a torch, and, also, what sounded like a lecture.

Riding at his side, I considered how easily it had gone. The Huns might have insisted that I stay the night in their camp. Or, they might have made me leave the sack behind. And there was much worse that I could think of, too. If I had felt bold before, I felt even bolder now, and, indeed, quite mad. I was already imagining the expressions that would appear on my brothers’ faces when I was home again relating the story.

The comical-looking beast beneath me was as fast as he was strong. He galloped along as if riderless, keeping pace with the Hun’s horse and seemingly oblivious to my touch on his reins. I lowered my head onto his thick dirty mane, and keeping my arms tight around his neck, closed my burning eyes. After a while, the horse’s steps became shorter, choppier, so that I knew the terrain had changed. The grasses were higher now, like the ones I had ridden through some days earlier when the trees had first begun to thin. I relaxed and gave way to the muffled sound of the horses’ hooves. When I opened my eyes again, I thought to find myself riding beneath the stars with the moon on the rise to the south. To my astonishment, the sky was pink, and it was the sun that was rising. My arms, which were stiff and badly cramped, had kept their vigil all through the night.

My companion laughed heartily when I lifted my head. And thinking that my riding and sleeping on horseback would make a fine story for Attila’s ears, I laughed as well. I imagined myself explaining that valkyrias did this all the time. I had trained my mind on the powers I would feign to have for so long that my uncanny slumber made me feel I had actually come to possess them.

Soon enough, the City of Attila appeared on the horizon—a vast tract surrounded by a high wooden palisade. My escort stopped to point it out, and I checked myself for panic. When I was satisfied that I felt none, I nodded, and we began to ride again. Before long we reached the city gates and the men who guarded them. My escort stayed at my side only long enough to deliver his message to the guard who rode to meet us. Then he turned and rode off, taking with him the story which I had hoped to hear repeated to Attila. The gates were pulled open. My new escort led me in.

Activity was everywhere. Clusters of men on horseback were engaged in conversations. Women walked among them carrying baskets or vessels on their heads. They were trailed by small children while older children sat in circles on the ground laughing and teasing one another. Most were Huns, but there were others who were clearly Thuets. And there were some, especially among the children, who appeared to be half and half. The Hun women, like their men, were short and stout. Many were quite fat. Only their lack of facial scars distinguished them from their male counterparts.

Mud and straw huts dotted the landscape. Beyond them, in the distance, was a second wooden palisade, its circumference so great that it appeared to take up half the city. As we approached it, the gates opened. We entered a long tunnel from which I could hear the pounding of feet overhead. There were other smaller tunnels leading off to the left and right, but their doors concealed the chambers they led to.

When we came back out into the daylight, I saw yet another palisade—this one set back on a high grassy mound. Like the city walls and the first inner palisade, it was circular, with wooden towers protruding at intervals. From each tower, guards looked down. “Attila’s palace?” I asked my escort, though I knew the answer even before he nodded.

There was as much activity here as there had been within the first palisade, but my gaze fell on the group of men who tarried on their horses nearest Attila’s gate. This group was more richly dressed than others I had seen. Many wore arm rings and finger rings. Some even had precious stones sewn into their shoes. It was the most heavily jeweled among them that my escort seemed to be eyeing as we approached. Thinking this man must be Attila, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak the words I had so thoroughly rehearsed. But when he turned toward me, I saw immediately that he could not possibly be Attila. He was not even a Hun. Though his face was as deeply scarred as those of his companions, he was clearly a Thuet. I had felt no emotion seeing the other Thuets in the village, because I took them to be prisoners, men who had been forced into Attila’s service. But the jewels and dress on this one indicated that he was pleased to live among the Huns, that he had earned Attila’s favor. He glanced at me. If he saw the involuntary look of disdain that crossed my face, his expression did not reflect it. He listened to the words of my escort, then jerked his head to indicate that I should come with him.

To my disappointment, he led me away from Attila’s gates, off to the southwest of his palisade, past a good many more huts and through a large open field and very nearly to the far wall of the inner palisade. There were only a few huts ahead of us now, and unlike the others that I had seen, they were spread apart and faced west rather than east. The one the Thuet took me to was the most isolated of all. But it was built up on a small knoll, and I could see the vast stretches of grassland beyond the tops of the inner palisade and the city walls just behind it—a boon for a woman who had never before found herself enclosed within so many fortifications.

The Thuet motioned for me to dismount. My legs were weak, and I had to hold on to the Hunnish beast to get my balance. When I was able, I made a move toward the sheepskin curtain that covered the doorway of the hut, but I hesitated when I heard voices inside. The Thuet heard them, too, and in what seemed one motion, he jumped from his horse and threw back the curtain, exposing a young couple. In the Hunnish tongue, he admonished them harshly, his riding crop held threateningly over his head. Holding their garments in front of them, the couple backed out of the hut and bolted. The Thuet lowered his whip and laughed as he watched them flee bare-assed across the open field. Then he turned back to me, his expression fierce again. “Get yourself inside now,” he shouted.

I stepped into the hut, and holding the curtain open, watched anxiously as he cut down the sack from the side of my horse. I told myself that I should be pleased to be in the company of one who spoke my language, but my hatred persisted. He threw the sack in carelessly, so that it fell just short of my feet. Then he entered, drawing the sheepskin curtain behind him so that only a little daylight streamed in.

I looked around in the dim light. There was no window, no hearth. A pile of skins were thrown into one corner, and more skins lined the four walls. “I have come to seek an audience with Attila,” I said.

He laughed.

“I must see Attila,” I reiterated. “I’ve come a long way—”

His hand sliced through the air. “You are not to leave your hut,” he said in a voice that was unnecessarily loud in the tiny space. “A guard will be posted at your door day and night. You are not to attempt to speak to him. You are not to speak to anyone. If you try to escape, you will be killed. Do you understand?”

I did not. His declaration was a contradiction to the ease that had brought me this far. I took a step toward him. “What is your connection to Attila?”

He laughed, then sobered abruptly. “I am Edeco, second in command,” he boasted.

“Then let me speak to the man who is first in command,” I hissed.

Edeco drew his lips back, exposing his teeth. His hand came up from his side slowly, and I lifted my head, bracing for the impact. But his hand faltered and hung in the space between us, quivering for a moment. Then it dropped. He turned and went out.

I stood where I was, considering our exchange. At first it seemed to me that things had changed now, that my run of fortune had come to an end. But then I realized how tired I was; my slumber on the racing horse had done little to relieve my fatigue. Perhaps it was best that my audience with Attila be delayed.

I took the sack from the earthen floor and hid it beneath the pile of skins. Then I took a skin from the top and spread it out and lay down. I fell asleep almost immediately—and found myself in the forest behind my brothers’ hall, walking among the birches.

Someone called out my name, and when I turned, Sigurd was coming up behind me, leading his steed. I ran to him. When I was safe in his embrace, I cried, “Oh, Sigurd, I have been so afraid! I am so glad to have found you. Things will go well enough now. You will not let me face Attila alone, will you?”

He smiled. “I will not,” he said. “I’ll be at your side every moment, as I have been all along, whether you knew it or not.”

I clung to him, my heart almost breaking with emotion. “I have the war sword,” I whispered. “I plan to give it to Attila.”

“Let him have the cursed thing,” Sigurd answered. “For all that it shines like the sun, it brought me nothing but trouble.” There was a warm honey-like scent in the air; it seemed to emanate from Sigurd.

“But if the thing is truly cursed,” I asked, “how is it that it had no effect on me in all the days that I carried it at my side?”

Sigurd only smiled. “Have you thought by what name you will call yourself here?” he asked.

“Brunhild,” I answered.

“It will bring you bad luck to call yourself after someone who loved you so little,” Sigurd replied. “Why not call yourself Ildico?”

“Ildico,” I repeated, and I recalled that Ildico had been the name of the valkyria who had befriended my mother many years ago, the same woman who had brought my eldest brother into the world.

            “Ildico,” I said again, but this time I spoke aloud as well as in my dream, and the sound of my voice awakened me.

I remained motionless for a long time. I had dreamed of Sigurd many times since I had regained my health, but always he was at some distance, riding among other men. Or, if he was close, he was silent and oblivious to my presence.

I gave up the notion of falling asleep again and sat up. He was with me; he had said so. No matter what dangers lay ahead, I would be satisfied if sleep would sometimes bring me the sight of Sigurd’s face and the feel of his embrace, from which my skin was still tingling. But the dream puzzled me, too. Ildico: I had never thought to call myself that. And why had I told Sigurd that I was afraid when I felt no fear? When my madness lingered and made me bold?

The curtain was drawn aside. A Hun woman entered carrying a bowl of meats and breads, a cup, and a large wooden vessel of wine. She set everything down and left without once looking at me. I got up and rushed to the curtain, but she had already turned the corner of the hut. I saw only the guard who had been posted outside, and the sun, which was low in the western sky. I had slept for some time.

I ate with vigor, in a manner that I would have once scolded my brothers for. I was determined not to touch the wine, but as I had no water left in my flask, I took a sip. It did not taste nearly as bad as it had the last time I had tried it on Burgundian lands. I drank more.

When the curtain opened again not long afterward, it was the Thuet, Edeco. He left the curtain open behind him and sat down across from me. I studied his face and sipped at the wine, which made me feel light-headed and even more impudent. “Have you come to hear me speak?” I asked.

Edeco laughed. “I did not come to clear away your crumbs.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Then I will tell you what I tried to tell you before. I have come a long way, riding for days, to see the face of Attila. I have eaten, I have drunk, I have rested. I would be pleased to be brought to him now.”

Edeco threw his head back and laughed so heartily that I was forced to think of Gunner, who also threw his head back when he laughed. Then Edeco’s face changed. “Why should he see you?”

“I carry a gift for Attila,” I said.

“Attila receives many gifts, most so large that they must be carried in carts pulled by oxen and guarded over by many men.”

“Mine is greater.”

“Show it to me.”

“I’ve told you about it. I will show it only to Attila.”

Edeco jumped to his feet, his blue eyes flashing. As there was only one place in the tiny hut where a person might hide a thing, he went directly to the skins and cast them aside one by one until he had uncovered the sack. Then he turned it upside down and shook it so that its contents—my cloak, the wooden bowl that Guthorm, my dead brother, had once played with, and the straw concealing the war sword—tumbled out. Edeco fell to his knees and tore at the straw until some part of the blade was revealed. Even in the dimming light it blazed, as if excited by his agitation. He swept the rest of the straw aside hastily. Then, with his eyes swimming in their sockets, he ran his fingers over the hilt, tracing its intricate engravings. He turned to me and saw, no doubt, my self-satisfied smile, and he immediately lifted his hand from the thing. He cocked his head as if considering something. Then he came back to sit in front of me, though his eyes continued to stray toward the sword.

I got up slowly and placed the war sword back in the sack. I gathered up the straw and shoved it in after it. Then I put the sack in the corner and covered it over with some of the skins. As I went to sit again, I found, to my disgust, that Edeco was just replacing my wine cup. His hand was quaking. “A thing of great beauty, is it not?” I asked.

He looked away. In profile, the deep scar across his cheek looked even more hideous. I seemed again to smell the warm honey scent that had come to me earlier in my dream. Sigurd had to be there, invisible but beside me, just as he had said. The notion made me giddy. Edeco turned back so sharply that I wondered if I had unwittingly laughed aloud. “Who are you?” he demanded.

“Ildico.” The power of transformation seemed to lie within the word itself. I was glad Sigurd had suggested it.

“Who are your people?”

I looked aside. “I have none.”

He took my chin and jerked my head toward him. I was pleased to see my composure reflected in his eyes. “I’m a Thuet!” I sneered.

“I can see that for myself.”

“I was separated from my people when I was a child,” I went on. “A band of Romans cut us down while we were traveling. They killed my parents and my brothers and would have killed me, too, had I been older. But I suppose they did not feel it necessary to redden their swords with a small child’s blood when she would likely starve or be killed by some beast anyway. But as you can see, no beast crossed my path. And I did not starve, either.”

Edeco laughed and let go of my chin roughly. “You look half-starved to me.”

“Aye, half. I ate roots and berries. I grew. I learned to steal from the Thuet tribes I came across in my travels. I learned to hunt. There was no excess, but there was enough. And so you see me as I am.”

Edeco searched my eyes. “If there were other Thuets about, why didn’t you show yourself and beg for mercy?”

“When I was younger, I did not because I was afraid. Having seen my people put to death before my eyes, I had no notion of mercy, and I would not have known how to ask for it anyway since I had no language skills then. As I grew older, I did show myself to other Thuets. I stayed with various tribes from time to time. I learned my language and more. But I longed for the way of life I had become accustomed to.”

“How did you come by the sword?”

I sighed and glanced at my wine cup, contaminated now by this Thuet who was a Hun. “It is no ordinary sword. You have seen that. It was fashioned by Wodan himself, back in the days when the gods roamed the Earth as freely as people do now.”

Edeco’s eyes widened. “How can you be certain?”

“The man it once belonged to told me so.”

“And what man is that?”

“He was called Sigurd, a Frankish noble. Perhaps you have heard of—”

“I have not. Tell me how you came by the thing.”

I stared at him. These matters I had planned to save for Attila’s ears. Now I feared that if I told too much to Edeco, Attila would be satisfied to have the story second-hand. But as it was clear that Edeco would not retreat until I answered him, I explained that long ago the gods had lost the sword to a family of dwarves, and that one of these dwarves, wanting the sword for himself, killed his father. To keep his brothers from confronting him, he changed himself into a dragon and took the sword off into the high mountains. Then, years later, one of the dwarf-dragon’s brothers, Regan, promised the sword to Sigurd if Sigurd would accompany him into the high mountains and help him to avenge his father’s death. I made no mention of the rest of the gold. Nor did I mention the curse.

Edeco heard my words with interest, taking his eyes from mine only long enough to raise the wine cup to his lips now and again. Once, when I hesitated in my discourse to catch my breath, he passed the cup to me. I put my hand up to renounce it but then thought better of it and drank, the shared cup being an emblem of camaraderie. Edeco smiled then, and I was satisfied to think that I might easily deceive him into believing that I had come to the City of Attila as a friend. “And how did you come to steal the sword from the Frank?” Edeco asked.

“I did not steal the sword from Sigurd,” I answered. “After he was dead, I stole it from the man who had gotten it from him. Sigurd loved me. He would have wanted me to have it.”

Edeco squinted. I sighed. “You see,” I explained, spurred by his disbelief to give more details than I might have otherwise, “Sigurd returned from the high mountains with only his horse, the sword, and the heart of the dragon. His companion, the dwarf, changed his mind about giving Sigurd the sword when he saw again what a glorious thing it was. And since the dwarf had bought Sigurd’s assistance with the promise of the sword, Sigurd had no choice but to slay Regan.

“I found Sigurd, forlorn because he’d had to kill an old friend, at the foot of the high mountains, not far from the cave where I lived at the time. He was tired, and confused about what he should say to the Franks concerning Regan’s death. Although Regan was not a Frank, he had lived among them for many years, and the Franks loved him. Sigurd was afraid that they would demand the war sword as his man-price when they learned that Regan was dead. Thus he was only too glad to return to my cave with me until he had settled his mind on the matter. He lingered, and I wrote a rune outside the cave to keep the Franks at bay in case they should be looking for him. This rune-wisdom was taught to me by a peasant woman with whom I stayed for a time and made potent by the gods themselves when they determined that I should become a valkyria.”

I hesitated, but Edeco made no comment on my avowed enlightenment. It occurred to me that perhaps being a Thuet who was not a Thuet, he knew nothing of such matters. “We were well matched,” I continued, “me a valkyria with the power to alter events and Sigurd the man who slayed the dragon. And thus it happened that our admiration for each other grew into something more. But before Sigurd and the dwarf set off on their quest, Sigurd had betrothed himself to a Burgundian woman for whom he no longer cared. Still, being a Thuet, he did not like to defile his betrothal vows. And so it was that our intimacy only served to confuse him further. Thus he stayed on with me, vacillating, making himself ill with worry.

“At length, he reached the decision which a man of his word must. He would return to the Burgundian woman, to let her know that he was safe, and then he would ride to the Franks and tell them the truth about the dwarf. But until he had the Franks’ reaction to this news, his desire was to keep the sword hidden. He decided to leave it with the Burgundians, for safe-keeping. Even then I felt that his decision was less than wise, but I was so in love with Sigurd that I mistook my premonition for envy and made no attempt to stop him from doing what he felt he must.

“He’d been safe enough with me, but my powers are mine, and once he was away from me, I had no means to lay them on him. He saw the Burgundian woman, left the sword with her brothers, and then he went home to inform the Franks of Regan’s death. Later he returned, as he felt he had to, to marry the Burgundian. But shortly after their wedding, her brothers began to behave toward him in a manner which was insulting. The elder of the two complained that Sigurd should have offered the war sword to him as part of his sister’s bride-price. Sigurd’s wife likewise became greedy. It was not enough for her to be married to so great a man, a dragon-slayer. She once heard him call out my name in his sleep. And when he reddened the next morning when she asked, ‘Who is Ildico?’ she became enraged. She conspired with her brothers against him. But he grew wise to their conspiracy, and one day he rode out to see me, to tell me all of this and to ask my advice. I looked into the fire that was burning at the mouth of my cave, and I saw that Sigurd’s wife and her brothers were set on killing him, that his life-blood would be spilt as soon as he returned to them. I told him he must never return. But Sigurd’s wife was already heavy with their child, and though he had every right now to break his vows to her, he had no mind to give up the child. He wanted to go back, to offer the sword to his wife’s brothers in return for his life, and then, once his wife had delivered the child, which he hoped would be a son, to steal the child and the sword and return to me. I begged him to see that it was more than the sword these folk wanted. They wanted the glory that Sigurd would have attained, had he lived, in retrieving it. They wanted Sigurd dead so that they could say that they were the ones who had gone off into the high mountains…

“When I told him this, he shook with rage. He could get used to the idea of giving up the war sword, but to know that the brothers would bask in the glory of his acquisition was too much for him. He was set on returning, now to kill the brothers who would do this to him. I begged him not to go. He went. He was killed.”

I hung my head and waited. At length, Edeco spoke, “How did you come to learn of his death?”

I lifted my face so that he could see the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “I knew because I knew. I had foreseen the event in the fire, and I saw it again later, on the walls of my cave as I lay thinking of Sigurd and wishing him back by my side. I knew, but I was numb with sorrow, and for a long time I did nothing. Then, more recently, I came across a tribe of Thuets, Alans, who were traveling to the Western Empire. They spent one night in my cave, and the one who had a harp sang the song of the war sword as he had learned it from the Burgundian brothers.

“I set them right of course, and they promised they would sing the true version thereafter. And when they were gone, I made my plan. I found my way to Burgundian lands, and, at night, when I felt certain that all within were sleeping, I entered the hall of the brothers and found the sword—no difficult task. You saw yourself how the thing catches light in a way which only an enchanted thing may do. The proud brothers had not even thought to hide it. It was there on the wall above the high seat. I took it down noiselessly, and as soon as it was in my hands, I felt how it was thirsty for blood, how it was made to be sated. You know this, too! I saw your face when you touched the thing! It was all I could do to hold myself back from taking it up against the brothers and the woman as well. But I understood also that this sword, Wodan’s war sword, was meant to cut down armies, not a few insignificant Thuets who would suffer a greater loss than life when they learned the thing was gone. I stole a horse. I rode feverishly. You know the rest.”

I sat back on my heels and drained the rest of the wine from my cup. I could feel Edeco’s eyes on me, burning with wonder. I was burning, too, with pride and something more. I had imparted my tale with vigor. It differed from the one that I had rehearsed with my brothers before my departure, yes, but it was no less a marvel. I had not meant to mention the Burgundians by name, and I could not think why I had done so, but I did not see how it would matter one way or another. And most of all, in spite of all my fabrications, I had managed to be true, or nearly so, to Sigurd. His name and his glory were secure, even here, in the City of Attila.

I set down the wine cup and glanced at the doorway, graced now by the lower edge of the descending sun. The light pouring in was golden.

“Why Attila?” Edeco asked softly.

I was prepared for the question. “Have you heard nothing?” I exclaimed, falling forward and planting my palm on Edeco’s knee. “I grew up in the forest alone, living on what I could steal! I stayed here and there, yes, but only for short periods of time, and not one of those I stayed with ever loved me or considered me one of his own. And, in truth, I preferred my aloneness, until I met Sigurd. Only then did I come to learn what it means to walk in the shadow of a great man, to be called friend by someone whose powers are equal to my own!

“Sigurd is dead, and I will never love a man that way again. But I have come here to seek the company of another great man, to lend my powers to a man who is, perhaps, in his own way, even greater than Sigurd. And I have brought with me the thing which only a great man may possess, the likes of which would cause chaos in the hands of a lesser man.”

I jumped to my feet and tossed aside the skins as carelessly as Edeco had earlier. I reached into the sack, and spilling straw everywhere, pulled forth the war sword and held it up by the hilt. When I turned with it, the hot red orb of the sun was lower yet, filling the space now between the top of the doorway and the high palisade beyond it. And thus the sword became a torch in my hand, a wild, flashing thing which put the sun’s light to shame. Edeco, who had bounded to his feet as well, abandoned his pretense of indifference now and let his mouth drop open. He drew back and shielded his eyes from the sword’s fierce glare. Was it an accident, I wondered in my boldness, that the sun had chosen this moment to set? I had seen that it was setting, but I had made nothing of it; I had not planned to retrieve the sword. Again the warm honey scent permeated the little hut, and I fancied that it was Sigurd who had compelled me to take up the sword at just that instant.

My triumph made me giddy. I heard myself laughing wickedly, as the valkyria Brunhild might have done. In response, Edeco’s expression became even more bewildered, his bright blue eyes darting feverishly from me to the sword to the sun and around again. I felt his fear, his awe. I watched, amused, as he struggled to strike an attitude. His eyes still dancing, he brought his hand up from his side and growled, “Give it to me.”

I drew back. “I will give it only to Attila.”

“I will give it to him for you. You have my word,” he said more gently. “Give it to me. I do not want to have to hurt you.”

I laughed in his face, for as I had the sword, the notion was absurd. But the guard, who had halted his horse to learn the cause of the commotion, had seen the thing now, too. I lowered the sword and handed it to Edeco. He took it up as if it were a fragile thing. The guard saw the exchange and began, reluctantly it seemed, to pace again.

“Attila returns tomorrow,” Edeco said, his gaze sweeping along the length of the sword. “I will keep the sword until then. I will tell him all that you have told me. I have no doubt that he will send for you.” He gestured for the sack.

As soon as he was gone, I spread out the skin I had slept on earlier. I was anxious to see Sigurd again, to discuss with him what I had said and done, if only in a dream. His scent was still heavy in the hut; I had no doubt that his phantom would still be available to me. I lay down and closed my eyes, but my mind was racing, and I could not fall asleep. In spite of my efforts to empty my mind, it bustled with my image, with the way I had spoken, the way I had planted my hand on the Thuet-Hun’s knee, the way I had pulled forth the sword and held it up, as if to silence the setting sun.

I saw myself over and over again as I imagined I had looked to Edeco, a small, thin woman laughing sardonically and holding light itself in her grasp. My only regret was that my audience had not been Attila. I marveled at how evil I had become, at how much I had enjoyed my wicked charade.

But the evening progressed, and, gradually, my conceit was shaded by another perspective. I had drunk from the same cup as my enemy. I had laid my hand on him as if he were a brother. I had despised the Huns all my life, and yet I had spent a time conversing with one—for he was a Hun in mind if not in blood—and it had never once entered my thoughts that this Hun, this Thuet who was a Hun, might well have been in Worms when the blood of my people flowed like a river. When I had held the sword up to the sun, I had felt an impulse to strike Edeco with it, but not because he was my enemy. The truth was more that in holding the thing, I had felt myself an extension of it—and thus had been overcome with an urge to experience its power.

The night was slipping by. I could sense the sun yearning to rise again, and still sleep evaded me. The honey scent was gone now, and I wondered whether I had only imagined it earlier. What force had caused me to mention the Burgundians like that? Would it really make no difference? I had taken some pleasure in marking my brothers as villains. How was that possible? I had even taken pleasure in tainting myself.

Perhaps it was not madness after all that had made me feel so emboldened, so oblivious, so giddy—all feelings that eluded me now as cunningly as sleep. Perhaps, I thought, the curse had found a way to reach me. Since the time I had first received the sword from Gunner’s hand, I had amused myself by thinking that I was too good, too much a true Burgundian, to be contaminated. Now I wondered. Now I was ashamed.

I crawled into the corner and trembled with humiliation. I felt alone, afraid, as if I were a marmot without a tunnel on hand, separated from its colony by time and space and allegiance. I was sick with longing for Sigurd, and I tried with all my being to conjure up his presence again, to detect once more his honey scent. But I smelled nothing but my own fear. And soon I came to suspect that the illusion of Sigurd’s presence, like the illusion of my valor, which had been building for days and days, had been yet another trick of the sword. I was sick with fear and self-loathing. I gagged but could not vomit. And when I had spent myself and finally fell asleep, I dreamed of nothing.

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, literary fiction | Tags: , | 1 Comment

‘A Decent Woman,’ by Eleanor Parker Sapia

PUBLISHED BOOK COVER (front)Title: A Decent Woman
Author: Eleanor Parker Sapia
Publisher: Booktrope
Genre: Historical

Purchase on Amazon

Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa. Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older, wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor. Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

Chapter One

La Conservadora de Asuntos de Mujeres ~ The Keeper of Women’s Business

Playa de Ponce, Porto Rico  ~ July 1, 1900

On the morning of the Feast of the Most Precious Blood, Serafina’s waters discharged and labor pains commenced. Ana Belén hurried along the dirt road as ominous storm clouds rolled in from the east, threatening to obscure the last of a hazy sunset. The only sound on the deserted street, save for the bleating of a goat in the distance, was the rush of the ocean. When the winds picked up and the first ta-ta-ta sounded off zinc roofs, Ana was nauseated, all part of the familiar heaviness she now experienced before every storm. She lowered her head as the first raindrops dotted the dusty road ahead and noticed cool rain droplets glistening on her ebony skin. Pulling the heavy linen skirt up to her knee to avoid the splatter of mud, Ana picked up her pace. Inside the black leather satchel she gripped tightly, the steel instruments jingled with every step.

Heavier raindrops pelted the dirt street and bounced before settling into the warm, wet earth. That’s the way it always was; the rain formed narrow streams in the parched riverbeds that created fast-flowing creeks. A few days later, the water would find its way back to the sea–the source–or dry up. What a waste of energy, thought Ana. In a few days the streets of La Playa would return to dry, cracked earth. When the wind switched direction, a palm frond flew by, inches from her face, and rain soon followed the wind. The acrid smell of burning sugarcane reached her nose; always a reminder of her childhood in Cuba as a slave.

A black dog with white markings around the eyes barked, startling Ana as she approached the small, white clapboard home of her client. As was her custom before a birth, Ana removed a small knife with a one-inch blade from her pocket. She placed it under the house to keep away evil spirits, and to hopefully cut the length of labor for her client. Ana knocked once on the weathered front door, and stepped back, surprised by Roberto Martínez clutching a squawking chicken by its scrawny neck. He hurried out and then looked back at her. With a quick jerk of his head, he flicked curly, black hair away from his eyes, and motioned for Ana to enter the house. She nearly shouted out to save the chicken carcass for Serafina’s first meal of broth following the birth, but decided against it when a flash of lightning struck over Ponce harbor. Before Ana could ask how his wife, Serafina, was getting on, Roberto had disappeared around the house.

The door creaked open and the familiar aromas of fried garlic and onion welcomed her, confirming the hen’s imminent demise and signaling–in Ana’s opinion–the proper first step in preparing every meal.

She shut the door behind her, and soon her eyes grew accustomed to the dim lighting, which emanated from a solitary lit candle inside a rusty, faded blue tin. Pearls of hot wax from the burning candle settled in a small pile near a wood box of white candles. The one-room house was small and tidy with several cast iron pots on the wood floor for catching rainwater–a common sight in hurricane season. Ana laid her satchel on the floor and lit the wick of the oil lamp. She counted ten candles, and was pleased to see a few newspapers on the table and a stack of folded rags on a chair. Roberto had listened well. When she raised the wick, the silhouettes of a bed, a dresser, and a low table were illumined behind a gauzy curtain. Ana replaced the glass globe on the oil lamp, pulled the curtain aside, and found Serafina sleeping in an iron bed. The image of the two small windows on either side of the bed resembled a cross; Ana prayed it was an omen for a short summer storm and a quick delivery.

Ana removed a hinged, tin case with leather handles from her satchel and took out a blunt hook, steel, scissors, and a crochet hook. One by one, she placed the instruments in a straight line on a white cloth covering the bedside table. The smell of birthing fluids permeated the already stifling house, made more pungent by the closed shutters. Hoping a bit of fresh air might also settle her queasy stomach, Ana pushed open the wooden shutters and fanned herself, thinking the codfish she’d had for lunch might have gone bad. Somewhere in the harbor, a lone foghorn lowed mournfully, filling Ana with a sense of dread. Behind her a voice said, “Are you Doña Ana, the midwife?”

For a moment, the voice sounded far away, and then Ana turned around. “Yes, I’m thecomadrona. I thought you were sleeping.” A contraction tightened around Serafina’s abdomen. The young woman held her belly and rolled her head on the thin pillow, clenching her teeth until the contraction subsided. Several gold bracelets graced Serafina’s thin wrist and a gold crucifix hung from a substantial gold chain around her delicate neck. Ana guessed a merchant marine as wiry and young as Roberto Martínez could make quite a bit of money.

Serafina lifted herself onto her elbows. The light from the candle’s flame was reflected in the gold aretes dangling from the girl’s earlobes. “¿Es un huracán?”

Nena, nó; it’s not a hurricane,” Ana said, hoping her voice showed no sign of concern. “It’s only a storm, my girl. How often are the pains?”

“I don’t know…maybe every two or three minutes?”

Ana helped Serafina out of her chemise, soiled with birthing fluids, and dressed her in a freshly laundered slip before placing a layer of newspaper under the sheet. “Why did he wait so long to call me? Your husband, I mean.”

Serafina raised her eyebrows and shrugged. “His sister was meant to be our midwife, but my baby is late. She has her own children to care for.” Serafina studied Ana. “Excuse me for staring, Doña. I’ve never seen eyes like yours. They are green and brown in this light.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that before,” Ana replied as she checked Serafina’s cervix. “You are very close to pushing. Do your best to rest between contractions; it won’t be long now.” Serafina closed her eyes, and Ana leaned out over the windowsill, feeling the dampness on her forearms. Through an embroidered handkerchief, she breathed in el sereno, knowing the night air was not good for her or Serafina. White-capped waves, showcased by the lights of the new wharf, rushed toward the shore, and exploded onto the boulders below. Lightning slashed a jagged path across the night sky, illuminating the craggy rocks near the house and the objects inside a paint-chipped cabinet. As if on cue, mismatched glassware and assorted plates tinkled and rattled inside. A tempest was imminent.

Ana remained vigilant at the open window for the egún, the spirits of the dead. The oldbabalowa-the village priest, whose wrinkled and gnarled body resembled the roots of the ancient Ceiba tree, had told the patakí, the sacred story, of evil spirit soldiers hidden in the waves and the wind. The thick, uneven scars on Ana’s shoulder ached as they always did during the rainy season–a somber reminder of him. Her chest tightened as she prayed that the spirit soldiers, who were determined to collect more souls in service of the warrior goddess Oyá, would not come collecting her debt. Ana had never imagined a new path would open for her the moment El Mulato took his last breath. The last time she’d seen him was on a night of rough seas and despair.

“Oyá, ten piedad,” Ana whispered, asking the goddess for mercy. She straightened her back as a lightning bolt cracked over the harbor. Reaching deep into the pocket of her floor-length, linen skirt, she pulled out a rosary, a gift wrought by her mother’s hands—a rosary made of the deadliest of all seeds, the red precatory. During their days of slavery, Ana’s mother had told her the pecatory bead rosary served many functions–for prayer, suicide, and murder, as mashing one tiny bead could kill quickly if ingested. Ana closed her eyes, made the sign of the cross with the silver crucifix at the end of the rosary, and in a low voice, recited prayers the priests had taught her. Every now and then, she opened an eye, watchful for the egún. The spirit soldiers were known to possess great stealth. She breathed in the dust of her ancestors, and felt fear and restlessness in her heart.

Ana invoked the orisha, the goddess Yemayá, mother of the ocean and all creation, to calm her daughter Oyá, the owner of winds and the guardian of the cemetery. Ponce needed the softer side of the goddess that evening. Deep rumblings of thunder echoed through the small house, alternating with lightning strikes. “Ay, Santo Dios,” Ana said, making the sign of the cross again when the rolling thunder caused the floorboards to shudder under her feet. She brought in the shutters, and felt certain from the looks of the menacing, dark clouds and the sweeping winds, that La Playa would not escape a bad storm.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?” Serafina looked intently at Ana. In the dim light, the girl seemed younger than sixteen. Ana removed her knitted black shawl and draped it over the back of a wooden chair.

Muchachita, we’ll be fine. Don’t you worry; rest now.” Ana patted the girl’s hand, detectingAgua Florída cologne in the girl’s hair, as long and thick as a horse’s tail. Wide-eyed Serafina bit her lip, and seemed to search the midwife’s face for signs of a lie, or perhaps she smelled Ana’s fear. Ana tried ignoring the thunder and the lightning in the distance, and managed a smile. Couldn’t the goddesses have waited one more day for this baby to be born? The neighbor Ana was mentoring had promised to assist in the delivery that evening, but in light of the weather, she knew the woman would not come.

Ana had considered asking Roberto to move Serafina to the parish church for safety when she’d arrived, but when the skies turned darker, she’d decided against it. The small wooden house didn’t inspire great confidence, but it had survived San Ciriaco. That brought Ana a little comfort. She rested in the hope that young Serafina’s labor and delivery would be quick; besides, the parish church would surely be full of people, offering no privacy for a laboring mother. It was imperative to remain watchful for signs of a hurricane.

When the room grew dim, Ana lit a second candle and set it in the tin. The shadows of the flickering flames danced across the walls, spurred on by a short gust of wind, and then softened by a gentle trade wind. Ana pulled at the sides of her sweat-soaked blouse, shivering against the cool, wet fabric. Her nerves felt as erratic as the flame’s dance. The items she’d asked Roberto for—hot water, clean cloths, and a basin—were in place. Focusing on the task at hand helped calm Ana’s nerves as outside the walls of the humble house, the dance among the wind, the rain, and the ocean began. The fierce winds shifted course, and rain found its way inside the house through cracks in the walls and between the slats of the shutters. Somewhere, the sound of shutters slamming against a house caused Ana to wince. She looked back and Serafina sat up, startled. “Don’t worry; it’s only the wind.”

Ana tugged on a knotted strip of purple fabric someone had tied to the iron headboard for spiritual protection, and she was pleased. Oyá’s color–someone had given the girl good advice. Knowing she couldn’t run from the egún or her responsibilities to Serafina and the baby, Ana tucked a stray, wiry ringlet under her white cotton tignon, and waited for the next contraction, which came quickly. Ana touched her mouth when she tasted blood. She wiped her bloody fingers on her skirt as a dull ache throbbed at her temples. The metallic taste of blood reminded her of him, but this was no time to think of him. She pushed her fear deep inside, and cut her eyes toward the window, thinking of the celebratory cigar she enjoyed after every birth. The thought offered a sliver of hope the birth would go well, but Ana couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding.

Ana mopped the sides of her face with the hem of her skirt as she peered between the slats of the shutters. Cold beads of sweat ran down her back. “Qué loco,” she whispered when she caught sight of Roberto. She touched the beaded necklace around her neck, remembering how cocky and sure of himself he’d appeared when he told Ana he would return to sea soon after the birth. Ana had replied it depended on Serafina and the baby, but now she sensed Roberto would do as he pleased. The young man challenging the wind and rain was headstrong and stubborn.

Recently turned sixteen, Serafina was a pretty girl with hair the color of café colao, eyes like pale green sea glass, and a small mole on the right corner of her full lips that broke the prettiness of her oval face. Serafina, with her perfumed hair and gold bracelets, reminded Ana of the goddess Oshún, the orisha of love. Had this pale, delicate girl with the coffee-colored hair wanted a pregnancy so early in her brief marriage? Ana shook her head, mystified at how many women of La Playa didn’t practice birth control. Had this young couple made any attempt to prevent a pregnancy? More than likely, young Roberto Martínez refused contraception. And now here they were.

Serafina moaned and squeezed her eyes shut during the next contraction. She held her belly with shaky hands. “I don’t think I can do this,” Serafina shouted, struggling to sit up.

Cálmate, cálmate, these are good contractions. Don’t hold your breath. Let’s see where we are.” Ana placed two chairs about two feet apart, facing the side of the bed. “Sit near the edge of the bed and lie back,” she instructed, helping Serafina maneuver into position. ”When you feel the urge to push, I will help you.” Ana wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sturdy forearm. In the area between the chairs, she positioned a large cloth and placed a basin on it, just below Serafina’s bottom. She set a wooden stool between the chairs, just above the basin, and asked, “Are you ready, child?” Serafina shrugged.

With a gentle hand, Ana pushed Serafina’s stiff shoulders back onto the mattress, and pulled the girl forward. She washed her hands, spread lard on Serafina’s inner thighs and labia, and introduced her hand under the slip. She opened the labia, and passed her fingers into the vagina. Serafina winced. The cervix was soft and fully dilated. Ana hoped the baby would pass through the birth canal without incident, and wondered if the young mother was mentally prepared to deliver a child. At this age, they hardly ever were. “It won’t be long now,” Ana said, seeing the bloody show on her fingers. The pinging sound of water dripping into the aluminum pots echoed from the main room.

“I hope this pain doesn’t get any worse! I have to push!” Birthing was difficult for all women, and young girls needed extra coaxing and mothering. Ana prayed the ill-timed storm would not complicate her already delicate task, but whether or not they were ready for the birth was inconsequential; the storm was upon them, and Serafina’s body was ready. The girl sat up, grabbing at the sheet, and cried, “I’m scared! It is a hurricane! I want my mother!”

There it was. The conversation Roberto had urged Ana to avoid–Serafina’s mother’s death. There was nothing Ana could do to ease the girl’s suffering about losing her mother in Hurricane San Ciriaco, but it was critical to distract her now. Ana twirled a mass of Serafina’s thick curls, willing the hair to remain in place, and took Serafina’s face in her hands. “Listen to me, nena. You can do this. Your mami is with you; she will always be with you. But right now, you’re going to push this baby out, and while I’m here, nothing will happen to you or your baby. Do you understand?”

Serafina nodded, but didn’t seem comforted by Ana’s words. It was crucial to bolster the girl’s confidence before she did something like pass out from the pain. Serafina’s petite body shuddered under Ana’s hands as she began pushing.

Ana glanced over at the low table, making sure the scissors were where she could reach them. Outside, something substantial hit against the wall. The women gasped, jerking their attention to the side of the house. Ana moved deliberately around the cot, feigning confidence that was more difficult to muster now that the storm was upon them. She’d vowed to remain calm if the storm got any worse, and at the moment was finding it difficult to keep that promise. Serafina covered her eyes with her wrist, and tears streamed down her pale cheeks. Ana moistened Serafina’s parched lips with a cool rag, hoping the delicate girl held energy in reserve for the decisive moments ahead. The Martínez baby was two weeks late, and Serafina’s waters had already broken; there was now the worry of infection. Ana would have to employ all her skills to ensure a speedy delivery.

The flames of the white candles flickered rapidly, illuminating the garishly painted faces of two small plaster statues—La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Ponce, and La Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of the Canary Islands, where she’d heard Serafina’s people were from. A current of cool air found its way into the house, offering a brief reprieve from the heat, and with it a new threat–total darkness. Virgencita, don’t let the candles go out!” Ana said, forgetting her vow to remain calm. While there was still light, she checked Serafina’s cervix with the sound of waves pounding the rocks, and the whistling wind sneaking through cracks in the walls all around her. Ana wondered where Roberto was. “As if we don’t have enough to worry about,” she muttered. “Roberto!” Her voice sounded less controlled and higher-pitched than she’d intended. Maldito hombre, where could he be? She couldn’t worry about him as well, but deep down she knew she’d need him in case the storm turned into a hurricane. The driving rain, beating on the roof like dundun and batà drums, reminded Ana of her childhood, and made it impossible to hear.

When the next violent pain wracked Serafina’s body, she took a seething inhalation before pushing. “I see your baby’s head!” Ana’s skin tingled with anticipation as it did with every birth. She snatched a clean, white cloth from the bedside table, and dipped two fingers into the can of lard. Ana massaged and coaxed the perineum with her index finger until the baby’s shiny, wet head crowned and was delivered. “Pant, Serafina. Stop pushing for a moment!” A sense of urgency and excitement came through when Ana saw the thin membrane covering the baby’s head and face. Ana gasped softly and whispered, “Oke.” It was a caul. A translucent membrane covering the baby’s head and face; a valuable good luck charm for sea captains and sailors, who believed the caul, would protect them from death by drowning. Ana had never delivered a caulbearer before, and as she struggled to remember what she should do next, Serafina pushed one last time. Ana delivered the shoulders, allowing the baby’s body to slip out into her experienced hands.

Ana lay the infant gently on the bed, and with the utmost care, she peeled the thin membrane off the baby’s face and head, careful not to tug on delicate skin. As Ana dropped the caul in the bowl on the floor, the baby cried. Serafina made the sign of the cross and lay back, shaking from exhaustion. The smell of blood and birthing fluid permeated the small room, adding to Ana’s queasy stomach. She would tell Serafina about the gifts the gods had bestowed on her daughter later, when the time was right.

“I see you, little one,” Ana murmured, clamping and cutting the cord. She swaddled the infant in a warm blanket. “She’s a beautiful baby, Serafina. What’s her name?”

“Lorena,” Serafina breathed before retching over the side of the bed.

Ana kissed the baby’s forehead. “You’ve made quite an entrance, Lorena Martínez. I will bury your placenta, and plant a fruit tree in that place, so you will know where you were born, and never go hungry. I will keep your caul safe, and now that I’ve said your name, no one can ever change your orí, your destiny. Like me, you are the firstborn, and your destiny name is Akanni. Welcome to the world of suffering, my girl.”

***

Ana puffed twice on the cigar and threw back a shot of rum. She closed her eyes, enjoying the burn at the back of her throat, and the familiar tingling in her knees, signaling her body was beginning to uncoil. She lowered her jaw to relieve the pressure in her eardrums. Although mother and child were sleeping soundly and Ana was filled with renewed hope, she also understood no one could fully relax–even now, the storm could produce a hurricane. She tore a page out of her ledger, and delicately placed the caul flat on the paper, careful not to stretch it too tautly. She folded the paper in half and finished by tying a string around the small parcel. Did the young couple know about caulbearers, and the exorbitant prices the cauls went for in the seafaring world? Roberto was a sailor, of course he knew, she thought.

Ana put the wrapped caul in the pocket of her skirt, and felt the otánes in the other pocket, recalling her mother’s tear-stained face as she’d placed the three blessed pebbles in Ana’s hand. They’d hugged tightly until her father pulled them apart, and shoved Ana into the bowels of the ship. Ana’s body shuddered at the memory of the ship’s crossing from Cuba to Porto Rico in the middle of the night.

Moments later, Ana’s attention turned to the violent, unrelenting winds that shook the Martínez house, and flying debris banging against the corrugated zinc roof, inflicting mortal terror in her heart. In the parish church, Ana knew the faithful would plead with the Blessed Virgin to spare them, their loved ones, and their homes; the homeless and those who thought themselves less worthy of salvation sought refuge in the same parish church. Saints, sinners, and doubters sat side-by-side, each casting judgment toward their fellow brothers and sisters.

A familiar howling sounded through the cracks and holes in the wooden walls. When the roof lifted and banged down, Ana looked up and froze. Seconds later, Roberto stood in the house. Serafina brought the mewing newborn closer to her chest. There was no need to speak; they knew what was coming. Roberto  pushed the bed into the corner away from the window, and helped the terrified women under the bed. As if hoping his weight would keep the bed from lifting if the roof blew off, he lay face down upon it and covered his head. When the shutters burst open, the women screamed, turning their heads toward each other. Ana didn’t know which ear-piercing scream had been her own, and imagined a huge wave would soon engulf and swallow the house. The zinc roof twisted, groaned, and then ripped clean away from the walls, disappearing into the black sky. Ana prayed Roberto was heavy enough to keep the bed in place as she and Serafina huddled together, protecting the baby between them.

Ana’s muscles cramped, and she would not remember how long they waited in the same positions. What she would remember, opening her eyes for the briefest of moments, was watching the two statues of the Virgin Mary crash onto the slick, wet floor boards and the taste of salt water in her mouth. Small, wet shards of glistening bright blue, white, and yellow littered the floor amidst wet sand and dirt. Ana prayed fervently until the storm veered northeast, and the rain stopped.

Categories: Historical Fiction | Tags: | Leave a comment

The Saint of Santa Fe, by Silvio Sirias

Sirias - Cover - 9781937536565.inddTitle: The Saint of Santa Fe

Genre: fiction

Author: Silvio Sirias

Website: http://www.silviosirias.com

Publisher: Anaphora Literary Press

Find out more on Amazon

In 1968, a young, recently ordained Colombian priest leaves behind everything to start a new parish in the jungles of Panama.  Father Héctor Gallego soon discovers that his parishioners live as indentured servants.   Inspired by liberation theology, he sets into motion a plan to free them.  Father Gallego is successful, but his work places him on a collision course with General Omar Torrijos, the nation’s absolute ruler.  On June 9, 1971, military operatives abduct the priest.  He is never seen or heard from again, but he remains very much alive in the minds of Panamanians who, still today, clamor for his case to be brought to justice.  Although The Saint of Santa Fe is a work of fiction, the novel is based on the real-life experiences of Héctor Gallego and the campesinos who worked alongside him to create a just society. This sweeping novel tells many stories, including that of Edilma, the priest’s sister who since age eleven has been searching for the meaning of his death.  The Saint of Santa Fe is a story of faith, heroism, and sacrifice that’s reminiscent of Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory and Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, mártir.

Chapter One

Callings

September 29, 1999

It’s her first time on a plane.  Nervous, she follows Nubia so closely that she steps on the heel of her left foot and her older sister turns to glare for a moment.  Upon reaching row nineteen, Nubia, who has been assigned the window seat, steps aside and says, “Take my place.  That way you can enjoy the view.”

She makes her way across with difficulty while Nubia, the experienced traveler, places their bags in the overhead compartment.  Once her sister is seated, she imitates her, fastening the seatbelt and adjusting it to fit tightly.

Earlier that morning, at Colombia’s José María Calderón Airport, in the city of Medellín, she had clung onto the temporary passport as if she feared someone would take it away.  Fearful of getting lost, as Nubia checked them in at the Avianca counter she made sure her shoulder was always touching her sister’s.

After listening attentively to the pilot’s greeting, she places her purse on the floor—as she has seen her sister do.  She then leans against the backrest of the seat, hoping to ease the dull, throbbing ache in her neck.  That doesn’t work.  To distract herself, she watches the flight attendants—three women and one man—as they walk up and down the aisle, closing the compartments and making sure that every passenger’s seat is upright.

When they are done, she closes her eyes and, still trying to calm herself, starts to recollect how this urgent trip started: with a phone call she received less than forty-eight hours ago.  They were lucky to find her, for she had sworn never to return to Salgar, her birthplace.  But the depression that followed her divorce, the health problems that doctors couldn’t diagnose, and the loss of her job of eight years, forced her to accept a former neighbor’s offer to care for his elderly mother.

Don Pantaleón Gómez, a family friend of old who lived seven houses down the street, had received the call.  The person at the other end of the telephone line wanted to know if anyone from the Gallego family still lived in Salgar.  She was out of breath when she arrived.  The young boy Don Pantaleón had sent to fetch her said that she needed to hurry because the call was long-distance, from another country.  With great curiosity, she picked up the phone.

“Aló,” she answered, her breathing labored

“Sí, buenos días,” a deep, attractive voice replied.  “Am I speaking to Héctor Gallego’s sister?”

“Yes.”  The mention of her brother’s name startled her. The simple utterance stuck in her throat and came out as a grunt.

“This is David Alfaro,” the voice said.  “I’m the station manager at Radio Caracol in Panama.  May I have your name?”

“Edilma.  Edilma Gallego.”

“May I call you Edilma?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Edilma, I’m calling because a mass grave has been discovered on the grounds of a former military base in Tocumen, next to the international airport.  The person who tipped off the authorities wants to remain anonymous, but he claims that your brother is buried there.”

“¡Dios mío!” Edilma gasped.  Stunned by the news, she reached out, seeking the wall for support.  Don Pantaleón quickly brought her a chair.  She glanced at him, nodded her thanks, and sat down.  Lord, she thought, finally, after twenty-eight long years they’ve found Héctor’s body.

“We want you to come to Panama.  Immediately,” David Alfaro said.  “The attorneys who are working on behalf of the families of the disappeared have managed to halt the excavation until you get here.  The station will pay all of your expenses.”

Edilma didn’t know what to reply, and then, as if the Holy Spirit had whispered the thought into her ear, she said, “I’ll go if my sister can come with me.”

“Certainly,” the station manager answered.  “That’s even better.  And we’ll pay for her expenses as well.”

 

* * * *

 

As the plane starts taxiing toward the runway, she turns her attention to the flight attendant who is explaining the safety instructions.  Edilma tries to follow these, thinking that her life might depend on the information, but she soon begins to panic because she doesn’t comprehend a word.

“Nubia, I can’t understand what she’s saying.”

“Don’t worry about it,” her sister answers as she flips through the airline’s magazine.  “They always mumble.  Besides, if the plane goes down little of what she’s telling us will matter.”

When Nubia sees Edilma flinch, she pats her younger sister on the forearm and says, “I’m sorry.”  Smiling reassuringly, she adds, “Really, Edilma, don’t worry about it.  Flying is very safe.  But if you really want to know what she’s talking about, there’s a card that explains what to do in case of an emergency.”

Edilma grabs the card and starts to read, but before long, she realizes that she’ll never be able to memorize the information; plus she doubts that she’ll be able to think clearly if something awful should happen.  She returns the card and, to distract herself, she leans hard into the backrest, closes her eyes, and begins to recall her brother’s life.

The last time Edilma saw Héctor she had just turned eleven.  She was the youngest of eleven children and one of only two girls—Nubia and herself.  A twenty-two-year gap separated her from Héctor, who was the oldest.  In spite of this, she remembers him vividly.  What’s more, she also inherited her mother’s memories of him.  After Héctor disappeared, Alejandrina consoled herself by repeatedly telling Edilma stories about her consentido, her pampered child.

In Gallego family history, the date of Héctor’s birth, January 7, 1938, is sacred.  Married less than a year at the time of their first child’s birth, Alejandrina and Horacio were living on their farm in Montebello, a small village not far from Salgar.

“As a little boy, Héctor was sickly,” Alejandrina would tell visitors during the uncertain days after her son’s disappearance, when the family still hoped that he was alive, locked up in a cell somewhere.  “He was allergic to everything, so I had to be careful about what I fed him.  Still, even though he was sick a lot of the time, he never complained.  He was a very good child: loving and always smiling.”

Her mother would then sigh before recalling the most frightful incident of Héctor’s childhood.  “When he was six years old, I gave him a purgative.  I thought that maybe if I cleansed his insides he would get over his allergies.  That was a terrible mistake.”  In spite of the many times Alejandrina relived the episode, she always had to stop here to brush away the tears.

“The poor boy almost died.  His father and I rushed him to the hospital, and right after we got there, he went into a coma.  After examining him, the doctor came out of the room with a worried expression on his face.  He told Horacio and me that he didn’t think Héctor was going to make it.

“As soon as I heard that, I ran out of the hospital.  I was so distraught I couldn’t even hear Horacio chasing after me, calling my name.  I ran to the nearest church and lit several candles at the feet of La Virgen del Carmen.  I prayed the rosary, concentrating harder than in my entire life.  Once I finished, I made Our Lady this promise: ‘Holy Mother,’ I said, ‘if you save my little boy, I will make sure that he becomes a priest and that he lives out the rest of his life in your service.’”

 

* * * *

 

Breaking away from her recollection, Edilma notices that the flight attendants have vanished.  She sits up straight and looks toward the front and then the back of the cabin.  “Where have the attendants gone?” she asks her sister.  Nubia merely shrugs, too engrossed in reading an interview with Paulo Coelho, her favorite author.  The plane, having reached its takeoff position, stops moving.  Gradually, the engines rev up.  Edilma becomes alarmed.  She looks toward her sister for comfort, but Nubia, acting as if taking off is the most natural thing in the world, continues to read.  Closing her eyes to try to forget that she’s about to fly for the first time in her life, Edilma returns to Héctor’s story.

“And La Virgen del Carmen heard my prayers.”  Edilma smiles at the clear memory of her mother’s voice.  “The moment I knew that Héctor was going to survive, I made up my mind to spoil him.  And I did.  I never denied him anything.  You can’t really blame me, can you?  He was my firstborn; the child that the Blessed Mother rescued from death.  But I never imagined that she’d want him back after only a few years.

“When he returned from the hospital I made sure that he didn’t do any heavy chores.  I also wanted to make sure that he would fulfill my promise to La Virgen.  If Héctor was going to become a priest, he needed to study, so I sent him to an all-day school, not just half-day, as most children around here do.  He was an excellent student.  His teachers loved him.  That poor boy had to ride to school on the back of a mule, thirty minutes each way.  But he never missed a day of class, even when he was sick and it was pouring rain.

“Because he was so frail, I fed him better than the rest of my children.  A couple of times a week, I made his favorite—Sopa de papa, with plenty of cilantro and chicken.  On Sundays, I’d make an enormous Bandeja Paisa for the entire family, making sure that Héctor got the best portions.  I’d always serve him first, loading his plate with rice, beans, avocado, mashed plantains, fried cassava, grilled beef, and sausages.  But since he wasn’t a big eater, he always ended up sharing his food with his brothers, who ate like starving soldiers.  Although I spoiled Héctor, my boys never got angry.  On the contrary, the rest of my children were very protective of my firstborn, never letting him do much of the physical farm work.”

Edilma smiles, allowing the warmth of the memory engulf her.  For a moment, the recollection has helped her to forget that the plane is about take off.  As the roar of the engines intensifies, she immerses herself once again in Alejandrina’s story.

“When Héctor finished the sixth grade, he called a family meeting to announce that he wanted to become a priest.  He asked his father to enroll him in Jericó—a high school and seminary in Medellín.

“I was thrilled to hear this because it meant that my promise to La Virgen del Carmen would be kept.  Horacio, though, didn’t like the idea, not one bit.

“‘No son of mine, especially my firstborn, is going to become a priest,’ he said when we were alone.  ‘It’s the eldest son’s duty to follow in the footsteps of his father and oversee the family business.’

“‘But, Horacio,’ I said to him, ‘you’ve got other sons who can do that.  Let Héctor become a priest; that’s what he wants.  It will bring the family great blessings.’

“It was difficult for Horacio to accept Héctor’s choice.  He’d always grumble, saying that the priesthood was a waste.  But I’m grateful that he never said anything in front of Héctor.  If he had, the boy would’ve been crushed.

“I, on the other hand, was so excited by my son’s decision that the day after the family meeting I made two black cassocks for him.  Héctor loved them, insisting on wearing the robes everywhere he went, even on the farm.

“Since Horacio thought the whole thing about Héctor becoming a priest was ridiculous, he kept asking me to take away the cassocks, which I wouldn’t.  This went on until one day, as Horacio returned to the hacienda from an errand, he noticed that the workers were missing.  That made him angry; he thought they were off somewhere, sitting in the shade and being lazy.

“After searching a while among the coffee bushes, Horacio headed for the farmhouse.  As he was climbing the steps, he heard voices.  He stopped to listen.  He didn’t comprehend the words, but it sounded as if the workers were praying.  Then he heard Héctor’s sweet voice responding to their chorus.  As Horacio reached the top of the stairs, he gently pushed the door open.  What he saw amazed him: twenty-three grown men were kneeling before his son, their heads bowed in reverence as his twelve-year-old boy celebrated mass.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Historical Fiction, literary fiction | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story by Freddie Owens

Then Like the Blind Man 7Title: Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story
Author: Freddie Owens
Publisher: Blind Sight Publications
Pages: 332
Language: English
Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of Age
Format: Paperback & eBook

Purchase at AMAZON

A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten backcountry of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story is the enthralling debut novel by Freddie Owens, which tells the story of a spirited wunderkind in the segregated South of the 1950s and the forces he must overcome to restore order in his world. Rich in authentic vernacular and evocative of a time and place long past, this absorbing work of magical realism offered up with a Southern twist will engage readers who relish the Southern literary canon, or any tale well told.

Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s coworker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. Since the marriage, Orbie, his sister Missy, and his mother haven’t had a peaceful moment with the heavy-drinking, fitful new man of the house. Orbie hates his stepfather more than he can stand; this fact lands him at his grandparents’ place in Harlan’s Crossroads, Kentucky, when Victor decides to move the family to Florida without including him. In his new surroundings, Orbie finds little to distract him from Granpaw’s ornery ways and constant teasing jokes about snakes.

As Orbie grudgingly adjusts to life with his doting Granny and carping Granpaw, who are a bit too keen on their black neighbors for Orbie’s taste, not to mention their Pentecostal congregation of snake handlers, he finds his world views changing, particularly when it comes to matters of race, religion, and the true cause of his father’s death. He befriends a boy named Willis, who shares his love of art, but not his skin color. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends, he happens upon the solution to a paradox that is both magical and ordinary. The question is, will it be enough?

Equal parts Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, it’s a tale that’s both rich in meaning, timely in its social relevance, and rollicking with boyhood adventure. The novel mines crucial contemporary issues, as well as the universality of the human experience while also casting a beguiling light on boyhood dreams and fears. It’s a well-spun, nuanced work of fiction that is certain to resonate with lovers of literary fiction, particularly in the grand Southern tradition of storytelling.

Book Excerpt:

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them.  They’d been saying it for weeks.  Then Victor changed his mind.  He was my stepdaddy, Victor was.  It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky.  Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too.  I was a handful, Victor said.  I kept everybody on edge.  If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s.  As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell.  Missy too.  I was fed up trying to be good.  Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t.  Pretending I understood when I didn’t.

Momma’s car was a 1950 model.  Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic.  I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats.  They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.

One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile.  The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck.  Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.

It rattled too – the Ford car did.  The glove box.  The mirrors.  The windows.  The knobs on the radio.  The muffler under the floorboard.  Everything rattled.

We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky.  Down to Harlan’s Crossroads.  I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by.  Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs.  She was five years old.  I was nine.

I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine.  It had palm trees and alligators and oranges.  It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water.  Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns.  Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.

Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie.  It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

“No.  Piss with care, Missy.  That sign back there.  That’s what it said.”

Missy’s eyes went wide.  “It did not.  Momma’ll whip you.”

Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign.  “Look Missy.  Do not piss.”

“It don’t say that.”

“Yes it does.  See.  When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee.  But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says.  Piss with care!”

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down.  On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky.  After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.

I had me a war on all the towns going down.

Tat Tat Tat Tat!  Blam!  There goes Cox Creek! 

Bombs away over Nazareth

Blam! Blam! Boom!  Hodgekinsville never had a chance!

“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.

“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered.  “BlamOOO!  Blowed him to smithereens!”

I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would.  She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it.  She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy.  Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast.  After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

Categories: Historical Fiction | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Then Like the Blind Man by Freddie Owens

Then Like the Blind Man 7Title: Then Like the Blind Man: Orbie’s Story
Author: Freddie Owens
Publisher: Blind Sight Publications
Pages: 332
Language: English
Genre: Historical Fiction/Coming of Age
Format: Paperback & eBook

Purchase at AMAZON

A storm is brewing in the all-but-forgotten backcountry of Kentucky. And, for young Orbie Ray, the swirling heavens may just have the power to tear open his family’s darkest secrets. Then Like The Blind Man: Orbie’s Story is the enthralling debut novel by Freddie Owens, which tells the story of a spirited wunderkind in the segregated South of the 1950s and the forces he must overcome to restore order in his world. Rich in authentic vernacular and evocative of a time and place long past, this absorbing work of magical realism offered up with a Southern twist will engage readers who relish the Southern literary canon, or any tale well told.

Nine-year-old Orbie already has his cross to bear. After the sudden death of his father, his mother Ruby has off and married his father’s coworker and friend Victor, a slick-talking man with a snake tattoo. Since the marriage, Orbie, his sister Missy, and his mother haven’t had a peaceful moment with the heavy-drinking, fitful new man of the house. Orbie hates his stepfather more than he can stand; this fact lands him at his grandparents’ place in Harlan’s Crossroads, Kentucky, when Victor decides to move the family to Florida without including him. In his new surroundings, Orbie finds little to distract him from Granpaw’s ornery ways and constant teasing jokes about snakes.

As Orbie grudgingly adjusts to life with his doting Granny and carping Granpaw, who are a bit too keen on their black neighbors for Orbie’s taste, not to mention their Pentecostal congregation of snake handlers, he finds his world views changing, particularly when it comes to matters of race, religion, and the true cause of his father’s death. He befriends a boy named Willis, who shares his love of art, but not his skin color. And, when Orbie crosses paths with the black Choctaw preacher, Moses Mashbone, he learns of a power that could expose and defeat his enemies, but can’t be used for revenge. When a storm of unusual magnitude descends, he happens upon the solution to a paradox that is both magical and ordinary. The question is, will it be enough?

Equal parts Hamlet and Huckleberry Finn, it’s a tale that’s both rich in meaning, timely in its social relevance, and rollicking with boyhood adventure. The novel mines crucial contemporary issues, as well as the universality of the human experience while also casting a beguiling light on boyhood dreams and fears. It’s a well-spun, nuanced work of fiction that is certain to resonate with lovers of literary fiction, particularly in the grand Southern tradition of storytelling.

CHAPTER ONE

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

Momma and even Victor said I’d be coming to St. Petersburg with them.  They’d been saying it for weeks.  Then Victor changed his mind.  He was my stepdaddy, Victor was.  It would be easier on everybody, he said, if I stayed with Granny and Granpaw in Kentucky.  Him and Momma had enough Florida business to take care of without on top of everything else having to take care of me too.  I was a handful, Victor said.  I kept everybody on edge.  If you asked me, the only edge everybody was kept on was Victor’s.  As far as I was concerned, him and Momma could both go to hell.  Missy too.  I was fed up trying to be good.  Saying everything was okay when it wasn’t.  Pretending I understood when I didn’t.

Momma’s car was a 1950 model.  Daddy said it was the first Ford car to come automatic.  I didn’t know what ‘automatic’ was but it sure had silver ashtrays, two of them on the back of the front seats.  They were all popped open with gum wrappers and cigarette butts and boy did they smell.

One butt fell on top a bunch of comic books I had me in a pile.  The pile leaned cockeyed against my dump truck.  Heat came up from there, little whiffs of tail pipe smoke, warm and stuffy like the insides of my tennis shoes.

It rattled too – the Ford car did.  The glove box.  The mirrors.  The windows.  The knobs on the radio.  The muffler under the floorboard.  Everything rattled.

We’d been traveling hard all day, barreling down Road 3 from Detroit to Kentucky.  Down to Harlan’s Crossroads.  I sat on the edge of the back seat, watching the fence posts zoom by.  Missy stood up next to the side window, sucking her thumb, the fingers of her other hand jammed between her legs.  She was five years old.  I was nine.

I’d seen pictures of Florida in a magazine.  It had palm trees and alligators and oranges.  It had long white beaches and pelicans that could dive-bomb the water.  Kentucky was just old lonesome farmhouses and brokeback barns.  Gravel roads and chickens in the yard.

Road 3 took us down big places like Fort Wayne and Muncie.  It took us down a whole bunch of little places too, places with funny names like Zaneville and Deputy and Speed.

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

“No.  Piss with care, Missy.  That sign back there.  That’s what it said.”

Missy’s eyes went wide.  “It did not.  Momma’ll whip you.”

Later on we got where there was a curve in the road and another sign.  “Look Missy.  Do not piss.”

“It don’t say that.”

“Yes it does.  See.  When the road goes curvy like that you’re not supposed to pee.  But when it’s straight, it’s okay; but you have to do it careful cause that’s what the sign says.  Piss with care!”

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

We crossed a big pile of water on a bridge with towers and giant ropey things looping down.  On the other side was Louisville, Kentucky.  After that was just small towns and little white stores with red gas-pumps, farm houses and big barns and fields, empty fields and fields of corn and fields where there were cows and horses and pigs and long rows of tobacco plants Momma said cigarettes was made of.

I had me a war on all the towns going down.

Tat Tat Tat Tat!  Blam!  There goes Cox Creek! 

Bombs away over Nazareth

Blam! Blam! Boom!  Hodgekinsville never had a chance!

“Let’s keep it down back there!” Victor said.

“A grenade rolled into Victor’s lap!” I whispered.  “BlamOOO!  Blowed him to smithereens!”

I wished Momma’d left him back there in Toledo like she said she would.  She was always threatening around like that, but then she would get to feeling sorry and forget all about it.  She’d been mad ever since Victor spilled the beans about Daddy.  Victor was mad too, drinking his beer and driving Momma’s Ford too fast.  After Louisville he started throwing his empties out the window.

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

**

It was the end of daytime and a big orangey-gold sun ball hung way off over the hills, almost touching the trees.  The Ford jerked over a ditch at the foot of a patchy burnt yard, thundering up a load of bubble noises before Victor shut it down.

“Get off me,” Missy said.

“I ain’t bothering you.”

“Yes you are.”

“But Missy, look!”

A big boned woman in a housedress had come to stand in the yard down by the well.  She was looking into the sun – orange light in her face – standing upright, sharp edged and stiff, like an electrical tower, one arm bent like a triangle, the other raised with the elbow so the hand went flat out over her eyes like a cap.  She stared out of wrinkles and scribbles and red leather cheekbones.   Her nose was sunburned, long but snubbed off at the end, sticking out above a mouth that had no lips, a crack that squirmed and changed itself from long to short and back to long again.

Missy’s eyes widened.  “Who is that?”

“Granny,” I said.  “Don’t you remember?”

I saw Granpaw too, sitting squat-legged against Granny’s little Jesus Tree.  He was turning in one big hand a piece of wood, shaving it, whittling it outward with a jackknife.  The brim of a dusty Panama shadowed his eyes.  In back of him stood the house, balanced on little piles of creek rock.  You could see jars and cans and other old junk scattered underneath.  It was the same dirty white color as before, the house was, but the sun ball had baked it orange, and now I could see at one end where somebody had started to paint.

As we got out of the car, the big boned figure in the housedress let out with a whoop, hollering, “Good God A Mighty!  If it tain’t Ruby and them younguns of hers!  Come all the way down here from Dee-troit!”  Blue-green veins bulged and tree-limbed down the length of her arms.

Victor stayed out by the Ford, the round top of my ball cap hanging out his pocket.  A gas station man had given it to me on the way down.  It was gray and had a red winged horse with the word ‘Mobilgas’ printed across the front.  Victor had swiped it away, said I shouldn’t be accepting gifts from strangers.  I should have asked him about it first.  Now it was in his back pocket, crushed against the Ford’s front fender where he leaned with an unlit cigar, rolling between his lips.  The sun was in back of him, halfway swallowed up by a distant curvy line of hilltop trees.

“Hidy Victor!” Granny called.  “Ya’ll have a good trip?”

Victor put on a smooth voice.  “Fine Mrs. Wood.  Real fine.  You can’t beat blue grass for beauty, can you?”  A long shadow stretched out on the ground in front of him.

Granny laughed.  “Ain’t been no farther than Lexington to know!”

Granpaw changed his position against the tree, leaned forward a little bit and spat a brown gob, grunting out the word ‘shit’ after he did.  He dragged the back of his knife hand sandpaper-like over the gap of his mouth.

“I want you just to looky here!” Granny said.  “If tain’t Missy-Two-Shoes and that baby doll of hers!”

Missy backed away.

“Aw, Missy now,” Momma said.  “That’s Granny.”

Missy smiled then and let Granny grab her up.  Her legs went around Granny’s waist.  She had on a pink Sunday dress with limp white bows dangling off its bottom, the back squashed and wadded like an overused hankie.

“How’s my little towhead?” Granny said.

“Good.”  Missy held out her baby doll.  “This is Mattie, Granny.  I named her after you.”

“Well ain’t you the sweetest thang!”  Granny grinned so big her wrinkles went out in circles like water does after a stone’s dropped in.  She gave Missy a wet kiss and set her down.  Then her grin flashed toward Momma.  “There’s my other little girl!”

Momma, no taller than Granny’s chin, did a little toe dance up to her, smiling all the way.  She hugged Granny and Granny in turn beat the blue and red roses on the back of Momma’s blouse.

“I just love it to death!” Granny said.  “Let me look at you!”  She held Momma away from her.  Momma wiggled her hips; slim curvy hips packed up neat in a tight black skirt.  She kissed the air in front of Granny.

Like Marilyn Monroe.  Like in the movies. 

“Jezebel!” Granny laughed.  “You always was a teaser.”

They talked about the trip to Florida, about Victor’s prospects – his good fortune, his chance – about Armstrong and the men down there and that Pink Flamingo Hotel.  They talked about Daddy too, and what a good man he’d been.

“It liked to’ve killed us all, what happened to Jessie,” Granny said.

“I know Mamaw.  If I had more time, I’d go visit him awhile.”  Momma looked out over the crossroads toward the graveyard.  I looked too but there was nothing to see now, nothing but shadows and scrubby bushes and the boney black limbs of the cottonwood trees.  I remembered what Victor’d said about the nigger man, about the crane with the full ladle.

 “I want you just to look what the cat’s drug in Mattie!” Granpaw had walked over from his place by the tree.

 “Oh Papaw!”  Momma hugged Granpaw’s rusty old neck and kissed him two or three times.

“Shoo!  Ruby you’ll get paint all over me!”

Momma laughed and rubbed at a lip mark she’d left on his jaw.

“How you been daughter?”

“All right I reckon,” Momma said.  She looked back toward Victor who was still up by the Ford.  Victor took the cigar out of his mouth.  He held it to one side, pinched between his fingers.

“How’s that car running Victor?” Granpaw called.

“Not too bad, Mr. Wood,” Victor answered, “considering the miles we’ve put on her.”

Granpaw made a bunch of little spit-spit sounds, flicking them off the end of his tongue as he did.  He hawked up another brown gob and let it fall to the ground, then he gave Victor a nod and walked over.  He walked with a limp, like somebody stepping off in a ditch, carrying the open jackknife in one hand and that thing, whatever it was he’d been working on, in the other.

Granny’s mouth got hard.  “Ruby, I did get that letter of yorn.  I done told you it were all right to leave that child.  I told you in that other letter, ‘member?”

“You sure it’s not any trouble?” Momma said.

Granny’s eyes widened.  “Trouble?  Why, tain’t no trouble a-tall.”  She looked over my way.  “I want you just to look how he’s growed!  A might on the skinny side though.”

“He’ll fill out,” Momma said.

“Why yes he will.  Come youngun.  Come say hello to your old Granny.”

“Orbie, be good now,” Momma said.

I went a little closer, but I didn’t say hello.

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

“I hope so Mamaw.  He’s been a lot of trouble over this.“

Veins, blue rivers, tree roots, flooded down Granny’s gray legs.  More even than on her arms.  And you could see white bulges and knots and little red threads wiggling out.  “I’ll bet you they’s a lot better things going on here than they is in Floridy,” she said.  “I bet you, if you had a mind to, Granpaw would show you how to milk cows and hoe tobacco.  I’ll learn you everything there is to know about chickens.  Why, you’ll be a real farm hand before long!”

“I don’t wanna be no damned farm hand,” I said.

“Boy, I’ll wear you out!” Momma said.  “See what I mean, Mamaw?”

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

The sun was on its way down.  Far to the east of it two stars trailed after a skinny slice of moon.  I could see Old Man Harlan’s Country Store across the road, closed now, but with a porch light burning by the door.

A ruckus of voices had started up by the Ford, Granpaw and Victor trying to talk at the same time.  They’d propped the Ford’s hood up with a stick and were standing out by the front.

Victor had again taken up his place, leaning back against the front fender, crushing my ball cap.  “That’s right, that’s what I said!  No good at all.”  He held the cigar shoulder level – lit now – waving it with his upraised arm one side to the other.  “The Unions are ruining this country, Mr. Wood.  Bunch of meddlesome, goddamned troublemakers.  Agitators, if you catch my drift.”  He took a pull on the cigar then blew the smoke over Granpaw’s head.

Granpaw was stout-looking but a whole head shorter than Victor.  He stood there in his coveralls, doubled up fists hanging at the end of each arm, thick as sledgehammers – one with the open jackknife, the other with that thing he’d been working on.  “Son, you got a problem?”

“The rank and file,” Victor said.  “They’re the problem!      They’ll believe anything the goddamn Union tells them.”

Granpaw leaned over and spat.  “You don’t know nothin’.”

Anything,” Victor said.

“What?”

Victor took the cigar out of his mouth and smiled.  “I don’t know anything is what you mean to say.  It’s proper grammar.”

“I know what I aim to say,” Granpaw said, “I don’t need no northern jackass a tellin’ me.”  Granpaw’s thumb squeezed against the jackknife blade.

Cut him Granpaw!  Knock that cigar out his mouth!

“Strode!”  Granny shouted.  “Come away from there!”

Momma hurried over.  “Victor, I told you.”

“I was just sharing some of my thoughts with Mr. Wood here,” Victor said.  “He took it the wrong way, that’s all.  He doesn’t understand.”

“I understand plenty, City Slicker.”  Granpaw closed the knife blade against his coveralls and backed away.

“Ain’t no need in this Strode!” Granny said.  “Victor’s come all the way down here from Dee-troit.  He’s company.  And you a man of God!”

“I’ll cut him a new asshole, he keeps on that a way,” Granpaw said.

Momma was beside herself.  “Apologize Victor.  Apologize to Papaw for talking that way.”

“For telling the truth?”

“For insulting him!”

Victor shook his head.  “You apologize.  You’re good at that.”

Over where the sun had gone down the sky had turned white-blue.  Fireflies winked around the roof of the well, around the branches of the Jesus Tree.  Victor walked around to the front of the car and slammed the hood down harder than was necessary.  “Come on Orbie!  Time to get your stuff!”

I couldn’t believe it was about to happen, even though I’d been told so many times it was going to.  I started to cry.

“Get down here!” Victor yelled.

Momma met me at the car.  She took out a hankerchief and wiped at my tears.  She looked good.   She always looked good.

“I don’t want you to go,” I said.

“Oh now,” Momma said. “Let’s not make Victor any madder than he already is, okay?”  She helped bring my things from the car.  I carried my tank and my box of army men and crayons.  Momma brought my dump truck, the toy cars, my comic books and drawing pad.  We put them all on the porch where Missy sat playing with her doll.  Momma hugged me one last time, got Missy up in her arms and headed to the car.

Victor was already behind the wheel, gunning the engine.  “Come on Ruby!  Let’s go!”

“You just hold on a minute!”  Momma put Missy in the car and turned to hug Granny.  “Bye Mamaw.”

“Goodbye Sweetness.  I hope you find what you’re looking for down there.”

“Right now I’d settle for a little peace of mind,” Momma said; then she hugged Granpaw.  “I’m real sorry about Victor Papaw.”

Granpaw nodded.  “You be careful down there in Floridy.”

“Bye Momma!  Bye Missy!”  I yelled.

Momma closed her door and Victor backed out.  I hurried down to where Granny and Granpaw were standing.  The Ford threw dust and gravels as it fishtailed up the road.

Granpaw tapped me on the shoulder.  “This one’s for you son,” he said and handed down the piece he’d been working on.  It was a little cross of blond wood about a foot high with a burnt snake draped lengthwise along its shoulders.  Granpaw moved his finger over the snake’s curvy body.  “Scorched that in there with a hot screw driver, I did.”

It was comical in a way, but strange too; I mean to make a snake there – right where Jesus was supposed to be.  Like most everything else in my life, it made no sense at all.  Momma’s Ford had disappeared over the hill.  Pale road-dust moved like a ghost into the cornfields under the half-dark sky.  It drifted back toward the skull of Granpaw’s barn, back toward the yard.  I stood there watching it all, listening as Momma’s Ford rumbled away.

Categories: Historical Fiction | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

First Chapter Reveal: ‘Deeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion,’ by F.W. Abel

DeedsofaColoredSoldier_med

TitleDeeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion, Volume 1: From the Beginning to Chickamagua
Author: F.W. Abel
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
Pages: 573
Language: English
ASIN: B00IA42TMU

Purchase on  Amazon / Twilight Times Books / B&N

Deeds of a Colored Soldier during the Rebellion, Volume 1: From the Beginning to Chickamagua is a novel of the Civil War.  Written as a memoir as told to an interviewer more than thirty years after the war’s end, it traces the story of Jedediah Worth, a teenaged slave who becomes a soldier fighting for the Union and the freedom of his people. 

At secession, although he vaguely realizes that the conflict started over the question of slavery, Jedediah regards Kentucky, and the South, as home.  When his master’s sons join the Confederate army, he and his friend Obie accompany them as their personal servants.  Eager to prove himself as a man, Jedediah runs ammunition and even rescues a wounded Confederate until, with Obie’s prodding, he comes to realize his valor should serve the cause of emancipation.  He escapes, meeting up with Samson, an enslaved African who becomes his life-long friend. 

Jedediah and Samson travel hundreds of miles to Kansas, to join one of the few units of colored troops allowed to serve in the early part of the war, and participate in the first battle fought by colored troops, the victory at Island Mound. 

Gaining confidence in his abilities, Jedediah becomes a non-commissioned officer, leading his men during the brutal, hand-to-hand combat at Milliken’s Bend, where the Confederate promise no quarter will be given to colored troops, and where he becomes the first colored soldier to be awarded the newly-created Medal of Honor. 

INTRODUCTION 

Jedediah Worth, 70, Distinguished Soldier & Lawman 

One of Langston’s most prominent citizens, Jedediah Worth, passed away yesterday peacefully in his sleep, just two months short of his 71st birthday.

Mr. Worth was well-known in Langston City, having served as our sheriff for more than a decade.  Before settling here, Mr. Worth had a long and notable career in the United States Army, during which he rose to the highest non-commissioned officer grade, Regimental Sergeant-Major, in the celebrated 10th U. S. Cavalry.

 He was the recipient of the highest award the nation bestows for bravery in battle, the Medal of Honor, not once, but twice, a feat almost unique in the annals of the American military.  He was the first Negro to be awarded the Medal, for deeds of valor performed during the Rebellion, when he was only seventeen years of age.

A widower when he died, of Mr. Worth’s children, two still survive: Jubal, his only son, and Harriet, a daughter.  His funeral will be held at 10:00 a. m. tomorrow at the Bethel Baptist Church. 

This obituary, clipped from the Langston Herald, gave me deep sadness when it arrived from Oklahoma.  For I had the privilege of knowing Jedediah Worth for more than twenty years.

I saw him for the first time in the spring of 1891, when I was a reporter for the Washington Colored American.  Sergeant Worth was among the heroes from the Negro regiments sent to Washington as an honor guard in the nation’s capital.  Our meeting was brief.  Because White soldiers objected so vigorously to their presence, the Negro soldiers were quickly sent back to the frontier.

I met him again in the fall of 1898, when he was the Regimental Sergeant-Major of the 10th United States Colored Cavalry, the famed “Buffalo Soldiers.”  The 10th Cavalry had just returned from “the splendid little war” to free Cuba from the Spanish.  Because the authorities feared the tropical diseases to which they had been exposed might become epidemic among the general population, soldiers returning from Cuba were quarantined.  The men, White and Negro, were kept in a camp established at Montauk Point on Long Island, some 130 miles east of the city of New York.

  The Colored American sent me out to Montauk to interview Negro soldiers about their experiences in the war.  My editor was concerned that their contributions would not be acknowledged by the white-owned papers.  Indeed, if you read only Hearst’s New York Journal, you would have thought that the only regiment that did anything of note at all was the 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry, Theodore Roosevelt’s headline-grabbing “Rough Riders.”  The Colored American was determined that the fortitude and pluck of the Negro soldiers be publicized.

(I suppose things have not changed much since then, as the paper is sending me off to France with the 15th  Regiment of the New York National Guard, newly re-designated the 369th Regiment.  We are determined that this latest group of Buffalo Soldiers not be ignored, either.)

Upon my arrival at Montauk, the officer acting as the liaison with newspaper reporters and correspondents gave me leave to enter the camp of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments, and the 24th and 25th Regiments of Infantry, all of which were composed entirely of Negro enlisted men.  He advised me to make the acquaintance of each regiment’s sergeant-major, the highest-ranking enlisted soldier in the regiment.  The sergeant-major, even more than the regiment’s colonel, was the man who made sure the enlisted men were trained and disciplined, sheltered and fed.  In short, he was the man responsible for having the men behave and carry themselves like soldiers.  In this way, I was re-introduced to Sergeant-Major Worth.

You might expect, given his responsibilities, to find a dour, humorless, authoritarian man, quick to admonish and slow to praise; harsh, even brutal, made narrow-minded by the need to enforce discipline and regulations.

As I interviewed his men, I discovered the affection and respect in which he was held, not only by the soldiers, but by the white officers also.  I shy away from the term “legend,” but there is no other way to describe the man, as can be intimated from just reading his obituary.

Of course I wanted to find out more about him, but when I approached him for an interview, he refused and insisted that my news reports be about his soldiers, of whom he was intensely proud.  But I am a reporter, a “news-hound” if you will, and over the course of several weeks was able to question Sergeant-Major Worth about his life and military career, and learned even more in subsequent meetings through the years.

It took me a long time to get to know the man.  Even now, I recall that when I first looked on his weather-worn and war-scarred visage, how I concluded that the crow’s-feet around the eyes had to have come from squinting into the Southwestern sun and the lines about the mouth etched by the strain of having to immediately judge the correct course of action during battle.  I know now that they were equally the result of laughter.

It is only now, years after I met him and two years after his death, that I am able to set his story down in chronological order.  Apart from some endnotes I added in clarification or support of his reminiscences, the words are those of Jedediah Worth, a slave who became a soldier, a soldier who became a hero. 

LeOtis Henry

Washington, D.C.

February, 1918 

PROLOGUE 

You’re a newspaper man, so why would you want me to tell of events that happened more than thirty years ago?  Events so old, they certainly don’t qualify as news.  But I don’t consider them to be history either.  I’ve always been of the opinion that history is what happened in the distant past, not what happened in one’s own lifetime.  Maybe when I have white hair, not gray, and am sitting in a rocker on a porch, then it will be time to tell my life story.  Of course, by then, who’d want to listen to the rambles of a senile old man?  There’s been a lot of dullness and monotony in my life, just as in any lifetime.

You say that people will be interested, that our young people need to be reminded about the times of slavery.  I think that many of us who were slaves might prefer to allow the memory of slavery to fade into oblivion, just as the institution itself has.  But I can also see your point that, to fully appreciate freedom, our people perhaps should be reminded what slavery was like.

However, I think that, as our people continue to be discriminated against in so many ways, often with the connivance of the very government for which we fought, we need more to devote our energies to ensuring that our people are free in fact as well as in name.  The lesson that should have been learned is that legal freedom was, of itself, no panacea–much to the chagrin of most abolitionists.

But, yes, the very idea of freedom for those of us who were enslaved was a powerful impetus.  Witness the great colored pugilist of the early century, Tom Mollineaux.  The promise of freedom was enough to raise him almost literally from the dead.[1]

You remark about my use of words.  Do you think that journalists are the only people with “nickel” vocabularies?  But I do have to admit that I have gone out of my way to catch your ear.  Many civilians, I’ve found, regard soldiering as being for those too lazy or ignorant to make a go of civilian life, so I wanted to dispel that notion right from the start.

I was lucky to have learned to read while fairly young and thus developed a taste for it as a leisure-time activity, as well as a continuance of education.  Sitting in an isolated, dust-scoured fort in the desert allows ample time for reading, a welcome change from the arduous living on the campaign trail and the excitement, and terror, of combat.  Reading fills one’s mind and occupies one’s time and goes a long way in keeping one from becoming a drunk or a deserter, the scourges of the frontier army.

Let me say, though, drunkenness and desertion both occurred far less often in the colored regiments than in white ones–a minor miracle given the undesirable locations in which we were usually posted.  The Seventh Cavalry was especially prone to both, understandable given their commanding officer.[2]  But I am already rambling.

Yes, I understand that there is a great deal of interest in the War of the Southern Rebellion, especially by those too young to remember it.  Witness the popularity with which General Grant’s memoir was received–probably read by more people, Americans and foreigners, than any American writer save Mark Twain.

And I can see the need for veterans of the Rebellion to tell our stories, especially in light of the romanticism currently accrued to the Confederate version of the war, their “lost cause,” doomed from the start, to defend an honorable way of life and principles of the Constitution.  Let us just call it a myth.  The Southern planter class led their region into rebellion to protect slavery, and their lower classes followed out of notions of white supremacy.[3]  General Grant said it well it his memoir when he said it was one of the worst causes for which men ever fought.  In contrast, Unionists fought for the morality of freeing an enslaved people, even if many of them did not see it that way at first.  The Northern veteran said it best when he wrote that they fought not just to save the Union, but for a Union worth saving.

I can tell you about the Rebellion as I experienced it, but don’t expect a grand view of it, like that depicted by General Grant.  His was the unique perspective of the commanding general of all the National armies.  My range of vision at its widest was limited to a company, and that was when I was a sergeant.  When I was a private, it didn’t get much wider than that of a squad.  Think of the descriptions of battle found in The Red Badge of Courage.

Of course I have read The Red Badge.  It’s a remarkable work, especially when you consider Crane’s innocence of war.  Just about any enlisted man, in any time since the invention of the musket, could read Crane’s work and say to himself, “That’s just about the way it was.”  However, that very thing is one of its flaws as a novel about a Northern volunteer, as it does not render the sanctity with which the Northern man regarded the cause for which he fought.  Our cause, the freedom of all Americans, was nothing like that of the Southerner, who convinced himself he was defending “states’ rights,” but was in fact fighting to prolong slavery and white supremacy.

            The other flaw as a novel about the Rebellion is that the protagonist is portrayed as believing that he, himself, one soldier, could make a difference. Although by the end of the story, it must be said, he has come to realize his own insignificance and, more importantly, has come to accept the inevitability of his own death,“the great death,” as Crane called it.  This, in his first battle.  I guess I wasn’t as precocious, as I didn’t come to that acceptance until the night between the first and second days at Nashville, two years after my first battle, and after having been wounded.  But in The Red Badge, there’s none of the fatalism, almost despair, that afflicted many Union soldiers, especially the volunteers of 1861, during the autumn of ’64 and the following winter.  That’s when ran rampant the chilling thought that all the sacrifices might have been in vain, when it appeared McClellan and the “Peace Democrats” could win the presidential election and end the war by giving the Confederacy its independence.  But I’ve heard that The Red Badge was set fairly early in the war, so maybe it’s not such a flaw after all.[4]

That was why the enlistment of colored troops made such a difference to the outcome of the Rebellion.  It wasn’t just our numbers.  It has been said that the best men, on both sides, were those who enlisted in 1861.  What they lacked in soldierly skill, they made up for in enthusiasm and determination.  The men who followed, the conscripts and bounty men, just weren’t up to their standard.

Except for us.  The coloreds who enlisted in ‘63 and ‘64 possessed all the enthusiasm and determination of the volunteers of ‘61.  We appeared at a propitious time, when many of the ‘61 men were war-weary and losing heart, or were dead.  If the Confederacy had the wisdom to enlist slaves, promising freedom to those who enlisted, the war might have ended differently.  I’ve often thought the Confederacy was akin to the protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, doomed by his own flaws.  In the South’s case, it was the fatal flaw of slavery.  Most colored troops in federal service were from the South.  Not only did the South not benefit from the fortitude of their own colored population, the valor of Southern coloreds was turned against the Confederacy.  Except for an incident in which I was involved that occurred in the spring of 1865.  The description of that will have to wait until its due time. 

On the other hand, coloreds almost didn’t get a chance to fight for the Union either.  It may seem nonsensical, but powerful forces in the federal government were opposed to colored soldiers, at least at first.  For coloreds, who had the most to gain or lose as a result of the outcome of the war, the first battle was for the right to be Union soldiers at all.  We had to fight for “Sambo’s Right to be Kilt,” as that apparently scurrilous, but actually clever, poem was titled, which helped change opinion toward the use of colored soldiers.[5]

You have to understand that, of all the things I’ve done, I’m most proud of having been in the first battle fought by colored troops during the Rebellion.  It was small, so small we didn’t even give it a name at the time.  It’s now called the battle of Island Mound, because it took place on a small island in the Osage River in Missouri.  Given what a signal event it was, it’s lamentable how few people today even know of its occurrence.

It took place in the autumn of ‘62.  That’s right, before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  The real wonder of it all was the number of people who simply ignored the federal government and allowed us to soldier in the first place.

My road to Island Mound started with me in bondage in Kentucky.  I went with my master’s sons when they joined the Confederate army.  I was with them at Belmont and Shiloh.  Then I got the chance to run for freedom.  While on the run in Tennessee is when I met my best friend, Samson, the African warrior who became Sergeant-Major Miner of the 9th Cavalry, and Effie, Belle and Josh, who became family.

Even now, as I relate it, I’m astonished at how simple my life seemed then.  I suppose that one problem with living past one’s youth is the amount of regret one tends to accumulate.  I was young, not much more than a boy, really.  My boyhood was spent on Wentworth Farm, one of the largest horse-breeding farms in Kentucky.  The farm produced some of the finest horses for racing and hunting in a state famous for its horseflesh.

When I call it a “farm,” you might get the idea that it was small, but Wentworth Farm covered more than six hundred acres, surrounding a red-brick mansion fronted by six white fluted columns. Although some of it was covered by scrub forest and underbrush, most of it was devoted to large pastures, bound by whitewashed plank faces.  Closer to the center of the farm were smaller paddocks, also divided by fences, where single horses roamed; the whole estate was sprinkled with stables and the small cabins in which the servants lived.

“Servants” was the hypocritical term usually employed by our masters, but we were slaves alright, bought or born, and there were more than eighty of us, mostly to care for the horses.  There were trainers, jockeys, grooms, stableboys, two blacksmiths and, the most expensive of all, a veterinarian.  There were field hands to grow hay and vegetables and take care of cattle and pigs and mend fences, and house servants to take care of the four members of the Wentworth family.

The field hands were organized in gangs of ten or a dozen, each under a driver, who was himself a slave, but had the function of making sure that the field work was done.  I’m sure that now, many of our people who were not born into slavery, would consider them turncoats to their own people.  But a good driver was expected to be the voice of his gang, standing up for them if the master became unreasonable in his demands or harsh in his treatment.  The reason I mention it is because many of the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants and corporals, of the first colored regiments had been drivers.  They knew how to lead, and they knew how to handle our white officers, many of whom, coming from up North as they did, just didn’t know how to deal with us.

The reason I had been bought at the age of twelve, some three years prior to the war, was to help with the horses.  I was somewhat tall for my age and working with my hands had made my shoulders broad, while riding horses had given me well-muscled legs.  Muscle is heavy, and my height and weight caused me some concern, because I wanted to be a jockey, and most jockeys were short and lightweight.  But again, I digress.

I guess a good starting point for the story of how, to borrow from Frederick Douglass one of his most noted phrases, I got “an eagle on my button,” is a day in May of 1861.

Like most days, this day started with me shoveling horse manure.  Of course, I would have already gotten dressed and gone out to the privy and then the pump house to clean up.  I was then ready to start my chores.

As I said, my first chore concerned the collection and disposal of horse manure.  The spring grass was plentiful and lush, and it seemed that the horses barely swallowed it before it came out the other end.  The stable I took care of, built for twelve horses, had ten just then, but that was still a lot of manure.

I would then pump the trough full of water, and take the horses, two-by-two, to drink, before turning them out on their paddocks to graze.  I would do all this on my own, without any orders or overseers.  All of us who worked with horses were “on task” and were trusted to get done whatever needed doing.  All that mattered to Mister Wentworth was that the horses were properly cared for.

I recall that, as I awoke that morning, I had no notion it would be such an uncommon day.

 

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First Chapter Reveal: Hitler’s Silver Box, by Allen Malnak

ATT00002Title: Hitler’s Silver Box
Author: Allen Malnak
Imprint: Two Harbors Press
Page Count: 328
Price US: $16.95
Genre: historical thriller

Novel’s WEBSITE

Purchase the book on Amazon and B&N.

A modern day historical thriller set in Chicago, begins with an elderly bookseller and Holocaust survivor, Max Bloomberg, being brutally murdered in his own home by a trio of thugs. Max’s closest relative, Dr. BRUCE STARKMAN, chief ER resident at Chicago’s Cook County Hospital is shocked when he learns his Holocaust survivor uncle is dead—his body already cremated, a violation of Uncle Max’s Orthodox Jewish views. A change in the will shortly before Max’s death provides a clue, allowing Bruce to find a hidden journal in Max’s handwriting detailing his uncle’s ordeal some fifty years before, during which Max is ordered by a Waffen SS Colonel to craft a silver box which is to be a birthday present for Hitler. The silver box contains a document written by Nazi leaders, which if discovered will lead to a worldwide Nazi resurgence. Max manages to hide the birthday gift after a strafing run interrupts their journey to Berlin to present the box.

Bruce decides to try and find the box and to solve the mystery of his Uncle’s untimely demise. He and a gorgeous Israeli female companion are followed by the thugs, who turn out to be present day Nazis intent on reviving the Reich.

The novel leads from Chicago to Paris to Prague in swift, hair-raising turns. And the novel concludes with a nearly heart-stopping climax.

The full journal of Max Bloomberg is included in the book and alone, is worth the cover price.

————————————–

PROLOGUE

Moscow: Wednesday, October 12, 1994

Daylight was fading on the late autumn day as Vasilevich made his way up from the subway and plodded the five blocks to his modest apartment in the Petrovka district.

The file clerk took the rattling elevator to the tenth floor, unlocked the heavy door, and began peeling off his coat. He momentarily wondered why there was no pleasant odor of shchi, his wife’s delicious cabbage soup, when out of the corner of his eye he noticed a tall stranger holding a handgun.

He carefully raised his hands and turned to face the man, forcing himself to move slowly and keep his breathing even. It was probably just a robbery, not unusual with the soaring number of drug addicts in Moscow. He’d give the man what money he had, and probably be fine.

But the intruder was too well dressed, too clean to be an addict. He waved his weapon and placed a finger over his lips. “Put down your hands and sit.” Passable Russian, but with a heavy German accent.

Vasilevich sank slowly into a large armchair in a corner.

“I’m not here to harm you,” the man said, “but don’t provoke me. You are Danislav Vasilevich, and you work for Rudolph Pikhoia?”

Vasilevich’s mouth became dry, and he had trouble forming the words. “Who are you? Where’s my wife? What do you want?”

The intruder waved his hand in a calming manner and spoke softly. “It’ll be better if you just listen and answer my questions. Then, perhaps, I’ll answer yours.”

Vasilevich took a deep breath to try to calm himself. Something strange and deep was going on here, but it left him with no choice but to obey. He lifted his chin. “Director Pikhoia is the chairman of the State Archival Service of the Russian Federation. While I work in the archives office, I’ve only met the director once. I’m just a clerk … a clerk. You must need someone higher up.” Knots formed in his stomach, and a wave of nausea hit. “Please, where’s my wife?”

The stranger smiled. “Svetlana is a lovely young woman. Don’t worry. No harm will come to her. Not if you pay attention to what I want.”

The gunman knew her name. And his. And where he worked. What were they doing to her? Vasilevich stood and took a step toward the armed man. “If you harm her … .”

The intruder waved the automatic again and said in an almost-kindly manner, “Sit back down and listen. My needs are simple. We know you have access to many German documents from what you Russians still call the Great Patriotic War.” The man pulled out a small notebook. “They are kept in the … Central State Special Archive, division 14B, room 2.” He returned the notebook to a pocket. “We need a small amount of information. If you obtain it without letting anyone know what you have done and deliver it to me, you’ll have enough rubles to enjoy a nice seaside vacation. With your wife.”

“My Sveta. You’ve not harmed her? Please don’t. She’s … very sensitive.” He heard a quiver in his voice but was beyond embarrassment.

“The Soviets captured a camp in the Czech Republic called Theresienstadt.”

“I mostly file old documents. I’m able to read some German, but I usually only read enough to get an idea of the contents, so the papers can be properly classified. Our great Soviet armies liberated a number of concentration camps. I can’t remember hearing that name before. Frankly, I’ve never paid much attention to what happened such a long time ago.”

“That’s not important. The Soviet NKVD grabbed many records from the camps, and we’ve discovered these documents are now in your Archives of the Russian Federation. We need you to find certain information and bring it to us. Quickly. You must start your search tomorrow.”

The Russian shook his head and was on the verge of tears. “Not easy. We need special permission to enter areas we aren’t assigned to.”

The German’s face registered no emotion. “I’m sure you can deal with that. I don’t want to spell out what will happen if you fail. Listen carefully now. No notes. Nothing ever in writing, except copies of the information I need. Back in 1945 an SS Colonel Steinhauser had a prisoner make a silver box while in Theresienstadt. I must know the name of that silversmith. It has to be in the archives here. My countrymen kept excellent records. I need any and all information about this prisoner. Everything. Understand?”

“But, what if—?”

The German speaker didn’t allow Vasilevich to finish. “Better you should not think of that.”

The man reached into his pocket and handed the Russian a cellular phone. “Tomorrow at this time, I’ll call you. Let the phone ring without answering. Then go at once to the Cafe Gallery. You know the place?”

“I know where it is. Not far from here.” He frowned and shook his head. “Never been there. Too expensive a restaurant for people like us.”

The intruder handed the young Russian a small stack of rubles. “Order a meal and start to eat. Sit near a window. While you’re eating, I’ll call you again. If you have the information, simply say ‘I’m busy.’ Otherwise, just say, ‘You have the wrong number.’ Better that you be busy. Understand?”

Still shaking and still sick to his stomach, Vasilevich simply nodded.

“I’ll give you instructions about delivery tomorrow. Remember, not a word to anyone if you want your lovely Sveta back home unharmed. Now sit on the floor and face away from the door.”

Unable to think of any other response, Vasilevich obeyed.

As the German opened the door, he murmured, “Remember, your wife’s life is in your hands. We have informers everywhere, so don’t do anything you’ll regret.”

And he was gone.

A few minutes later, just as he calmly exited the building, a shiny black Mercedes pulled up alongside. He jumped in before the car came to a full stop, and was whisked away.

“And so, Gerhard, did it work out?” the driver asked in German. “Can he do it?”

Gerhard nodded. “Your information on the archivist was correct. I think it’ll work.”

“Suppose he does obtain what we need to know about that Jew,” the driver went on, “how do we handle him and his woman, after we get it?”

“No question about Herr Vasilevich. He has to be erased. An accident. Can you arrange it?” His contact had better be able to, or of what use was he?

“Shouldn’t be a problem. And the lady?”

“That depends. Did she see or hear anything? Has she been touched by your people? You know what I mean.”

“Absolutely not. She was blindfolded and kept isolated. Given food and water. No one has spoken to her, except a few whispers. We even made her wear earplugs. She has a little bell she can ring with her fingers if she needs to use the facilities.”

Gerhard’s expression conveyed indifference. “In that case, no matter how this turns out, just take her somewhere, give her a few thousand rubles, and turn her loose. She’s young and pretty. She can still have a life.”

You’ve entered a different world from the one you knew. At home, we planted gardens. Here we only plant the dead.

Max Bloomberg’s journal

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

“I trust these ruffians didn’t harm you, Herr Bloomberg, and the bindings aren’t too tight?”

The tall, well-dressed man projected civility, even benevolence. He was perhaps thirty and handsome in a craggy-faced, broad-shouldered, athletic sort of way. Unlike the cracked and dirty fingernails of the others, the smiling man’s nails were professionally manicured. Speaking in fluent German, he seemed sincerely apologetic that his prisoner, whose arms were securely bound to his leather armchair with clothesline, was being inconvenienced.

Max Bloomberg understood every word, though he hadn’t used his native language in decades. If only he could get a grasp on what was happening here. The men must have crept in during the middle of the night and deftly disconnected the security system. They seemed well-armed, although Max understood little concerning firearms—except the ones that had been pointed at him by guards herding him and his fellow Jews into boxcars, herding them off boxcars, herding them through “processing” at the camp.

But that had been eons ago. Max closed his eyes, squeezing them tight to push away the memories. He opened them, blinked a few times, and glanced around. The home invaders had drawn the drapes before turning on the table lamp. Not amateurs, any of them, he supposed. It occurred to Max that the two rough men who accompanied the well-spoken, well-groomed, well-dressed man relished their work. He’d seen too much brutality not to recognize when someone enjoyed delivering pain.

Glancing toward his accomplices, the elegant interloper continued, “I told them not to gag you, but if you cry out, well, as they say in America, all bets will be off.” The stranger switched to English with only the faintest hint of a German accent. The man almost sounded Jewish, with a few Yiddish phrases thrown in, though Max considered that was probably an act, an attempt to ingratiate himself.

The intruder still spoke softly, but his almost coal-black eyes bore into Max Bloomberg’s own like steel daggers. There was something familiar about the man’s manner, something Max couldn’t help but recognize. He’d seen eyes such as these before—the color was of no importance. He’d heard voices such as this one long ago—the words didn’t matter. The words soothed and the lips smiled, while the hands choked the very life from your throat.

But, how could this fellow possibly know Max? Though he’d encountered the type, Max had never seen this particular man before. And this incident couldn’t be connected to what had happened so long ago. Not possible.

Since Winston, Max’s companion cocker spaniel, had recently died, Max lived alone in this two-story Georgian in River Forest, an affluent western Chicago suburb. Head throbbing, Max found concentration difficult. He’d been having trouble sleeping since finding Winston’s small body sprawled lifeless in the backyard. How long ago was it that his beloved Winnie had died? A week? Two? Max had taken a Seconal only an hour before the rough men, on the German’s orders, had dragged him—an old bookseller, not a rich man—out of bed and down to the small den that served as his library. Now they sat or stood among his treasured books, books Max had accumulated throughout his career and cared for like dear friends, though they had little monetary value. Were these devils here just to rob him? Could he be that lucky?

The other two men were each shorter and not nearly as well dressed as the German. They’d held handguns of some kind when they’d stormed into the bedroom, but the weapons were now out of sight. Standing almost like soldiers at attention on either side of Max, they stared at their leader as if awaiting orders.

A hint of a smile once again crossed the tall intruder’s face. “Bitter cold and snowing tonight. Mind if we light a fire in your beautiful fireplace? Make the room cozy, yes?”

Max didn’t answer.

The heavyset man standing to his left, wearing an old Navy peacoat, said, “Come on, we don’t have time for fuckin’ around. Let’s get on with this shit.”

An American with a hint of a Southern accent. Unusual here in Chicago. As he spoke, “Peacoat” played with a roll of quarters, tossing them from one hand to the other, sometimes grasping the roll tightly in his massive right fist.

The German held his left hand up, palm outstretched. “Now, now. Let’s be civilized, shall we?” He crossed his arms and nodded. “Perhaps—hmm—perhaps, we can even put the heat to some good use. Very good use. Verstehen?”

A pile of dry kindling was stacked in the fireplace.

The man on Max’s right, wearing a worn sheepskin bomber jacket, moved to the fireplace and nodded as well. “Yeah, Ich verstehen.” No southern accent, but not a German speaker, either. “I’ll need some newspaper to light the fire. Or something.”

The leader glanced at Max. “Our good friend won’t mind if we take a few of his old Jew books to use. That’s what they were made for, don’t you think?” Without waiting for a response, he continued, “Remember those good old days when the Führer burned all the Jew books, old man?” The tall stranger’s voice deepened, the tone no longer benevolent.

“Sheepskin” snatched several of the oldest books with Hebrew on the covers and ripped them into chunks, tossing the pieces onto the fireplace with the tinder and the wood. Although he couldn’t make out the titles, Max had placed each book in its slot so often he knew exactly the ones chosen. One was a siddur, a prayer book considered holy to Orthodox Jews. If such a sacred book accidentally fell to the floor during a religious service, the owner would instantly retrieve it, treating it as gently as one would an injured child, and plant a kiss on the cover. Tears filled Max’s eyes.

Soon, they had a blazing fire. The leader nodded to his henchmen. “Bring him closer. Careful not to mark this beautiful floor.”

With Max still bound securely, Peacoat and Sheepskin dragged the chair across the waxed parquet floor, only stopping when the well-spoken German motioned for them to do so. Now Max was so close to the fireplace his bare feet began to feel uncomfortably warm, although he didn’t yet feel any pain.

The German stared hard into Max’s eyes. “You know what we want. So, tell me where the box is. Hmm? Then, we go. We know all about you. You’ve hidden long enough, old man. Too long.”

Max shook his head. “No idea what you’re talking about.”

His aching head began to clear. He kept the rest of his words inside himself. He wasn’t crazy. Something had been going on around him in recent weeks. My God, after all these years. How? How’d they find him?

Max tried to lift his right arm, but was only able to raise his index finger. Pointing it as best he could. “Get out of my home! Now!”

He felt like screaming for help, but knew no one could possibly hear him. The closest house was perhaps fifty yards away, and the windows would be shut during the freezing weather. His house was modest—one of the least expensive on the block—but it occupied a quarter-acre corner lot, carefully landscaped with Northern Accents rose bushes as well as tall red oaks and American elm trees.

He tried to study the men, so he could describe them to the police, but they had handled him roughly when they’d forced him out of bed, and he had difficulty focusing. His heart was pounding. Did that mean the drugged feeling from the sleeping pill was wearing off, or was he becoming even more frightened?

The German simply stood there, allowing Max’s helplessness to sink in. “Oh, you’ll tell me whatever I want to know. Perhaps time has caused you to forget the methods we can use on you Jew bastards? You’ve forgotten the camps?”

Heaven forbid, the camps. That was going back over fifty years. Before these evil men were even born. What could they know about the camps? Only stories they’d read. Max knew—really knew. And, sometimes in the dark, alone at night, his flesh bathed in a cold sweat, he only wished he could forget.

In the next instant, it came to him. His dog, Winston. That was what had happened to his sweet little friend.

“You, you rotten, filthy Nazis. You killed my beautiful little Winnie.”

Now, for the first time, Max began to sob. He became even more short of breath as his chest tightened, and he began to wheeze. Prayers came automatically to his mind. Please, dear God, no time for my emphysema to act up. I’m choking.

He tried to take in deeper breaths, but it didn’t seem to help. If only he had the inhaler with him. But that was still atop his bedside table.

Ignoring Max’s comment and grief, Peacoat lit a Camel, flicking the old-fashioned kitchen match with his thumbnail near his prisoner’s face. The sulfur smell caused Max to cough, and the tightness in his chest increased. The room began to spin as his breathing became ever more labored.

“Go in the kitchen,” the German said. “Get a dish for those ashes, so you don’t leave a mess. No cigarette butts left behind. Verstehen?”

The leader had just confirmed what Max already suspected, since the men wore neither masks nor disguises. When they left, there would be no evidence of their crimes. Alive, Max would be evidence.

Resigned to his fate, Max turned his thoughts to his nephew, Bruce. If Bruce were half as smart as Max knew him to be, he’d find what Max had left for him.

Max silently thanked God he’d been suspicious. And that he’d carefully shredded his notes after finishing the detailed review of exactly what had happened to him so long ago. He had never spoken of it, even to his closest friends or family. But when he finished the journal, he’d hidden the document and left a clue for Bruce, should Max’s worst fears be somehow realized.

The German put his hands on Max’s shoulders and shook him, almost gently. “You haven’t answered. Where’s our box?”

Shortness of breath made speaking nearly impossible “Why … why are you here? Take what you want … leave. I just sell … a few old books.”

Peacoat laughed. “Look who’s asking questions now.” He turned toward the leader. “Better let this Jew vermin know who’s running the show. Before you know it, he’ll be ordering us around. And you’ll probably click your heels and say, ‘Yes, sir, your honor!’ That’s what guys like you are trained to do.”

The leader ignored Peacoat and tapped his right index finger on Max’s head. “Pay attention. I’m running out of patience, and, as you see, my friends here are not as pleasant as I. I must have that box and its contents. Then we’ll leave, and you can get on with your miserable life. You mean nothing, the box everything.”

At that second, the fire crackled and flared, and Max felt a burning sensation in his feet. He did his best to pull them back. His eyes closed for an instant, and he silently prayed. Please, dear God, let me be strong. This may be the last favor I ask.

Max leaned forward as if to whisper something. The German leaned in toward him.

Max spat into his interrogator’s face.

The German straightened, snatched a silk handkerchief from his pocket, and without uttering a sound, carefully wiped the sputum from his cheek. At almost the same moment, with the rolled coins clutched in his right fist, Peacoat punched Max on the left side of the head, knocking him and the chair onto the floor. Max let himself go limp. The pain in his head was excruciating, but he didn’t cry out.

“Pick him up and cut out that kind of thing!” the tall German shouted. “Leave that to me. You’ll kill the old Jew before we get him to tell us what we need to know.”

As the two men lifted the chair along with the apparently semiconscious Max, the German carefully removed three fluid-filled syringes from the side pocket of his cashmere topcoat and laid them on a little table. Max began to groan. The German strolled to a nearby armchair, removed his coat, and folded it over the chair back. He dragged the chair close to Max, who was thinking desperately, trying to dream up some way out of this. Through half-open eyes, Max watched the German sit down and cross his legs.

After a moment, Max slowly opened his eyes and blinked a few times. He shook his head, acting as if he were still trying to clear his mind. His whole body throbbing, he needed a few minutes to figure out if he had any options. From previous experience though, he knew these types wanted people to grovel, to be frightened out of their wits.

Max took a deep breath, sucking in as much air as possible. “Please, don’t hit me again,” he whispered. “I’ll tell you.”

“Speak up,” the German urged.

“Those papers. Burned ’em. In the woods. Didn’t … didn’t make any sense to me. That’s the truth.” Max looked the interrogator in the eyes without blinking. “They important?”

The German nodded. “Sure. And the silver box? What did you do with that?”

“Box? Oh, the box.”

“You know exactly what I mean. You made it. Called yourself a silversmith back then. Where is it?”

Max didn’t hesitate. “Melted … melted it down. Sold the silver.”

Peacoat stepped up to Max and waved his clenched fist, the roll of coins still in it. “You’re a filthy, fucking liar.” He turned toward the leader. “You going to let this piece of shit get away with this nonsense? Look! Let me at him. Leave the room, if you need to. Just give me ten minutes. Probably won’t take that long.”

“Patience, patience.” The German waved his hand. “Now, do me a favor. Take a deep breath and sit down.” Then the German whispered just loudly enough for Max to hear, “We do only what we have to in order to get what we need. Yah? After all, we are not animals. So.”

Peacoat stared hard at his leader, shook his head, and frowned. “Talk. Talk and experiment! That’s what you’re best at. The way you’re going at it, we’ll be here all fuckin’ night. My way will be lots faster. You’re too damned smart. And you know what? That makes you too damned soft.”

“And you never learn how to follow orders. So, shut up and maybe we’ll all learn something besides how strong you are and how brave when your victim is an old man, tied up and helpless, hmm?”

The German picked up one of the syringes. “So. Let us begin.”

Categories: Historical Fiction, Mystery, Political Thriller, Suspense, Thriller | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

I, Walter by Mike Hartner

I, WalterTitle: I, Walter
Author: Mike Hartner
Publisher: Eternity 4 Popsicle Publishing
Pages: 224
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0973356154
ISBN-13: 978-0973356151

Purchase at AMAZON

This is the life story of Walter Crofter, an English commoner who ran from home at the age of 11.  After two years living on the street, he ended up on a Merchant Mariners boat in the service of the Crown.

On his first voyage, he rescued a girl from pirates.  A very important girl, who stole his heart before she was returned to her home.

This is the story of his life.  What adventures he had at sea; what took him off the waters, and what happened to him as he lived his life and stayed true to his character.

First Chapter:

“I, Walter Crofter, being of sound mind….”  Bah, this is garbage!  I tossed my quill on the parchment sitting in front of me.  People may question my sanity, but they should hear the whole story before judging me.  I’m sitting here, now, at the age of 67, trying to write this down and figure out how to tell everything.  I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right, though.  Too many secrets to go around.  However, this is my last chance     to offer the truth before I die.  The doctors say it’s malaria, yet I’ll be fine.  Perhaps.     But if the malaria doesn’t kill me, my guilt indeed will.  Maybe if people know the facts surrounding my life, everyone will have a better understanding.

I dipped the tip in the inkwell again, and wrote:

I was born September 2, 1588, and named Walter.  I didn’t belong in this Crofter family, who were storekeepers in London and not farmers as our surname might indicate to those who study this sort of thing.  My parents were courteous and even obsequious to our patrons.  Yet they received little or no respect.  The ladies came to us to buy their groceries or the fabric for their dresses, but as seemly as they comported themselves, and some even called my father ‘friend,’ it was not out of regard for him.  I was forced to run.  Well, “forced” might put too harsh a point on it, like that of a sword, but others can judge for themselves.

By the time I reached the age of 12, I’d found another family that was more     “me”.  They weren’t rich, but they were comfortable.  The parents had several children, including a girl my age who was named Anna.  Within two years, we had come to know each other quite well, and were getting to know each other even better.  Her father caught us getting too close to knowing each other better yet, and showed up at my parents’ house with a musket in his hand, telling them if I ever came near his daughter again, he’d use    it on me–and then on them.

I paused to dip the pen and wipe my brow.  Even though I was wearing a light cotton shirt, it was bloody hot in early August in Cadaques.  My wife, Maria, entered    the room and looked at my perspiring face and what I had just written.  Between fits of laughter, she smiled at me with wide lips and said, “You can’t possibly write this.  You’re not the only boy a doting father ever had to chase away.  Nobody cares about this sort of thing.”

“It will at least give a pulse to this writing,” I replied.  “It’s too boring to say          that I left because I was mismatched with my own family, so much so that I was positive someone had switched me at birth.  Or that I thought I was ready for more in life than what I could find at home.  Nobody would read that, not even me.”

“I agree, so tell the story that really means something.  All of it.”  She sighed softly and placed the parchment she had been reading on the desk in front of me and kissed my cheek.  The gleam in her eyes shed 20 years off her age and reminded me of    a much gentler time.  God, how much I love her.

I said, “Before I met you, I spent my life like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole.  I’m just trying to make my story more interesting.”

“I’ve heard the accounts of your life before you met me.  Or I should say found me.  It was anything but boring.  So, if you insist on including in the story lines like those you just wrote, make sure they’re the only ones.  If you don’t, I’ll consider adding my own material.”  She winked.  “You know I’ve had good sources.”

She turned and walked away, laughing loudly as I called after her, “Yes, dear.”

I dipped the quill and put it to parchment again.

In my earliest days, I remember my father, Geoff, being a bit forceful with other people.  I also recall my brother Gerald, nearly five years my senior, and myself being happy.  Or at least as contented as two boys could be who were growing up in the late 1500s in England, and working every day since their seventh birthdays.  It was a time when boys were earning coin as soon as they could lift or carry things.  The money   could never be for themselves, however, but for the parents to help pay the bills.

Father lived as a crofter should.  He was an upright man and sold vegetables off   a cart like his grandfather did, and he also dabbled in selling fine fabric for the ladies of status.

One afternoon, when I was eight years old, my brother came home and got into a heated debate with my father about something.  When I ran to see what was the matter, they hushed around me, so I never got the full gist of the argument.  But whatever it was about, it was serious, and the bickering continued behind my back for five straight days.  When I awoke on the morning of the sixth day, Gerald was no longer at home.  And he never came back.

Soon afterwards, my father lost enthusiasm for his business and became generally passive.  I assumed this was because of Gerald’s leaving, and only on occasion would I see flashes of my dad’s former self.

At the start of my tenth year, our family moved closer to London.  We rented    the bottom floor of a three-story building in which several families lived in the upper floors.  My father said we relocated because he needed to be closer to more business opportunities.  But my mom didn’t believe he’d made the right decision, since he was  now selling food out of a cart and not inside a storefront.  One night, she greeted him at the door when he came home.  She was wearing a frown and a dress that had seen better days.

“Did you bring in any decent money?” she asked him before he had time to take off his coat.

“I told you, it will take some time.  It’s not easy to make good money these days.”

“Especially when you let the ladies walk all over you.”

“I know, I know.  But what am I to do when they aren’t running up to me to buy what I’m selling?”

“You at least bring home some food for us?”  My father had carried in a bag under his arm.

“It’s not much, a few carrots and some celery.”  He handed her the bag.

“What about meat?”

“We’re not ready for meat yet.”

“That’s true enough,” my mother said.  “But you should at least try to feed your family.  Walter’s growing, and so are our other children.”

“Leave me be, woman.  I’m doing the best I can for now.”  He sat in his chair, leaned his head against the wall, and fell asleep.

That same debate played out between my parents for the next two years.  Except for the summer months, when food was plentiful; then the arguments subsided.  But for the rest of the year, especially during the winter, the same discussions about money continued on a daily basis, and they were often quite heated.  I lost two younger siblings during those two years.  One during my tenth winter and the other during my eleventh winter.  Neither of the children was older than six months.  I always suspected hunger    as the primary cause of their deaths.

Just before my twelfth birthday, my father started taking me with him when he went to work.  My closest living sibling was nearly six and not feeling well most of the time, and the family needed the money I could bring in by helping my father, who was bland and wishy-washy, particularly when selling fabrics.  I had no idea what he was like before, but in my mind his lethargy explained why our family was barely making ends meet.  Our lives had become much harder since Gerald left, and part of me blamed him.  I’m going to thrash him if I ever see him again and teach him a lesson about family responsibility.

It took me less than a week to realize that the people my father was dealing with, as with those in Bristol, had no respect for him.  They regularly talked down to him.  Rather than asking the price, they regularly paid what they wanted to pay. And he took it without a quibble.  And when he tried to curry favor, he would never get it.  His customers looked upon him as a whipping board, at least that’s how it seemed to me.

I remember when we got home in the dark after a long day of work in late November, and my mother started in on Dad.

“Well?  Have you got the money for me to buy food tomorrow?”

“A little.  Here.”  He fished a guinea from his pocket.

“A guinea?  That’s it?  That won’t feed us for a day.  You’ve got to start working harder.  With what you earn and what I bring in sewing clothes, we can barely pay the rent, and there is nothing left over to heat this place.  And it’s going to get colder, Geoff.”

“I know, Mildred, I know.  I’m trying as hard as I can.”

“You haven’t worked hard since Sir Walter Raleigh left favor.  You can’t wait for him forever.”

“He’ll get favor back.  And when he does, I’ll be right there helping him.  You’ll see, we’ll be fine again.”

She groaned.  I was aware that this was not the first time my mother had heard this from my father.  It’s great talk from a man trying to get ahead.  But after several years of the same song, it loses its credibility.  She had enjoyed respectability in the early days when my father grabbed the coattails of the then revered Sir Walter Raleigh, and it was hard not having this luxury now.  She hadn’t planned to be satisfied with being a shopkeeper’s wife, and she wasn’t even that, at present.  She changed the subject, not her tone.

“I overheard the ladies gossiping on the street today.  They were talking about seeing Gerald’s likeness on a ‘Wanted’ poster.  A ‘Wanted’ poster, Geoff.  There’s a warrant out for our son’s arrest.  What are we going to do?  What can we do?”

My father stared at the wall.  “Nothing.  He’s an adult.  He’ll have to work it out for himself.”

I watched quietly as my mother cried herself to sleep, her head on my father’s shoulder.  No matter how bad things got, they loved each other and wanted their lives to be better, the way I was often told they were before my birth.  Maybe this is why I wanted to get away from them as soon as I could.

I didn’t usually watch my parents fall asleep.  But, that night I did.  And, after they were sound asleep, I left.  I had no plans.  I didn’t know where I was going.  I just left in middle of what was a dark, chilly night.

I could hear the dogs barking around me as I scurried along the roadside.  It felt as if they were yelping at me and coming towards me.  I began running, faster than I’d ever sprinted in my life, my speed assisted by my sense of fear.  Every time I heard a dog, or an owl, or any other animal, or even my own heavy breathing, my pace increased until I was exhausted and had to stop.  This continued throughout the night until the sky started to lighten and I found a grove of overhanging bushes and crawled inside for some sleep.

I scavenged for food during the day and swiped a few pieces of fruit from merchants along the way.  This became my means of subsistence.  I left a coin when         I could, as I’d pick up an occasional odd job, but I was always out of money.  I also tried begging, and while I did survive on the street, I found life difficult.  Yet for nearly two years I stayed with this vagabond existence before deciding to make my way to the sea.  Too bad my internal compass wasn’t any good.  Turns out I was moving more to the west than to the south.  But before long I was on the shores of Bristol.  And my life changed forever.

Categories: Historical Fiction | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

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