literary fiction

‘The Bronx Kill’ by Philip Cioffari

CioffariCoverColorTitle: THE BRONX KILL

Genre:  Suspense/Literary

Author: Philip Cioffari

Websitewww.philipcioffari.com

Publisher: Livingston Press

Find out more on Amazon

When Danny Baker returns home after a self-imposed exile, he finds himself face to face with what he’d run away from. On a hot August night five years earlier, a teenage brotherhood called the Renegades—Danny, Charlie Romano, Johnny Whalen, Tim Mooney and Julianne Regan, the lone female of the group with whom they were all in love—set out on a misguided and ill-fated effort to swim the East River from the Bronx to Queens. Under questionable circumstances, Tim Mooney, known affectionately as Timmy Moon, and Julianne both disappear in the failed attempt. Timmy washes up the next day, but Julianne’s body is never found. In the initial police investigation, the apparent drownings were ruled “accidental.” But Timmy’s older brother, Tom, has recently been promoted to the rank of detective in the NYPD—and he’s decided to re-open the case. Convinced that the death of his brother was anything but an accident, he’s determined to bring the surviving Renegades to justice by any means possible.  Now Danny must fight not only to preserve his childhood friendships but also to save himself and his friends from the detective’s vigilante brand of justice.  And that will mean having to confront the truth about what really happened on that hot August night…

With its richly-developed characters and seductive, suspenseful storyline, The Bronx Kill is a thoughtful, thought-provoking, exquisitely crafted tale.  Gritty, dark, and ominous, The Bronx Kill is an intense character-driven thriller that plunges readers headfirst into the mean streets of the Bronx. With characters that come alive within the novel’s pages, a plot that draws readers in from page one, and its poignant exploration of such universal themes of friendship, loyalty, loss, and redemption, The Bronx Kill is destined to stay with readers long after the final page is turned.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR 

phil in b&W

Philip Cioffari is the author of the novels: DARK ROAD, DEAD END; JESUSVILLE;  CATHOLIC BOYS; and the short story collection, A HISTORY OF THINGS LOST OR BROKEN, which won the Tartt Fiction Prize, and the D. H. Lawrence award for fiction. His latest novel is THE BRONX KILL (Livingston Press, 2017). His short stories have been published widely in commercial and literary magazines and anthologies, including North American Review, Playboy, Michigan Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, Florida Fiction, and Southern Humanities Review. He has written and directed for Off and Off-Off Broadway. His Indie feature film, which he wrote and directed, LOVE IN THE AGE OF DION, has won numerous awards, including Best Feature Film at the Long Island Int’l Film Expo, and Best Director at the NY Independent Film & Video Festival. He is a Professor of English, and director of the Performing and Literary Arts Honors Program, at William Paterson University. www.philipcioffari.com

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Categories: literary fiction, Suspense, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter reveal: ‘Ninety Nine’ by Rocco Lo Bosco

ninety-nine (1)Title: Ninety Nine

Genre: Literary Novel

Author: Rocco Lo Bosco

Website: roclobosco.com

Publisher: Letters at 3am Press

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

During the summer of 1963 in Brooklyn, Dante’s family falls into financial ruin after his stepfather borrows money from loan sharks to start his own trucking business. Young Dante has his first love affair, with an older woman, while his stepbrother Bo struggles with murderous impulses over his mother’s abandonment. The brothers become part of the Decatur Street Angels, a wolf pack led by their brilliant cousin who engages them in progressively more dangerous thrills. Four event streams—the problem with the loan sharks, Dante’s affair, Bo’s quest for closure, and the daring exploits of the Angels—converge at summer’s end and result in a haunting tragedy.

Ninety Nine is a fierce coming-of-age story, with tight plotting, interesting characters, and the timeless ingredients of any good piece of fiction—the anguish of change, the agony and ambivalence of love, the exuberance and craziness of youth, and a tragic ending with the whisper of redemption.

CHAPTER ONE  

  1. Bed on Fire

Even through the curtain of cold rain Bo clearly saw her watching him from the window. Why was she crying anyway? Falling to his knees, he clasped his hands together and sobbed, “Mama!  Please! Let me back in. Please!”

She put her hands over her eyes. Then she shut the window.

He was a bad kid, everyone said so: his aunts and uncles; his fat little grandmother with her tight, white bun and her support stockings rolled down to her swollen ankles; his thick-armed, ugly grandfather who stank of cigars and had the eyes of a snake.

He screamed and yelled and threw things, not because he was mad, but because it was so much fun. He liked to scale the refrigerator like a mountain climber and then leap off the top and land onto the counter. He liked to race through the rooms while pretending he was The Flash, a comic book hero who dressed in a tight red suit and yellow boots and ran so fast he couldn’t even be seen. The Flash had tiny wings on his ears and a yellow lightning bolt wrapped around his waist. Bo once tried to paint a lightning bolt across his chest with black oil paint, but the thick blobs of paint smeared and ran in black rivulets down his body. When he saw the mess he made, he decided to paint his whole body black. His mother became hysterical when she saw what he had done, and it took her hours to remove the paint with olive oil.

He liked to tease his sister, pulling her hair and taking her dollies away, throwing them up into high places where she couldn’t reach them. He stayed up at all hours of the night, turning on the television and watching old movies that he didn’t understand while eating Italian bread and leaving crumbs all over the living room. He sometimes broke stuff for spite and dropped water balloons on people’s heads from the second-story window where he and his sister lived with their mother and grandparents. He’d fling his cereal bowl against the wall when its contents weren’t to his liking. He could howl at the moon like a wolf. But the thing that got him tossed out, it was really bad.

His grandfather had been eating goat cheese and his little sister Angelina wanted a piece of it. She called it “ticky.” “I want some ticky,” she said, reaching up her small dark hand. The old man said she could have it only with bread. But she didn’t want the bread, only the cheese. She became insistent, saying “Give me ticky!” over and over, and she started crying, but that fat slob just kept eating his bread and cheese, drinking his sandy, homemade wine like she wasn’t even in the room. When Angelina grabbed for the cheese, he slapped her so hard she fell down. Then he picked her up and slammed her into a chair, offering her some cheese he had spread on the bread.  When she threw the bread and cheese on the floor, he beat her across her arms, shoulders, and face with his thick, meaty hands. Bo jumped on the old man’s back, and the beating turned on him, much harder, the old man knocking him to the floor and wailing on him with closed fists.  His mother ran into the room to save him, and she and her father began screaming at each other in Sicilian. Bo had a bloody nose and a swollen lip.

About an hour later, when everyone was gathered in the kitchen, he used the big, wooden matches he had stashed in his dresser drawer to set his grandparents’ bed on fire. The fire looked surprisingly beautiful, the flames leaping up from the mattress like hungry tongues, spreading across the bed as if they had been spilled from a bucket of pure fire, long intertwined ropes of flame the color of bright autumn leaves twisting and dancing in the air. Completely entranced, he watched as the fire billowed across the bed, its outer edges licking the air like something alive.  He could see shapes forming in it, faces and beasts and landscapes made of flame momentarily appearing before being sucked back into the roiling blaze. He had turned the bed in which his two rotten grandparents slept into a blazing barge of light, an altar of shimmering incandescence.

When his mother ran into the bedroom and saw the spreading inferno, she yanked at her hair and began screaming incoherently. His grandfather came in behind her and, cursing in Sicilian, pushed his daughter aside and flipped the mattress onto the floor and stomped on the flip side, quickly putting the fire out. Nonetheless, besides the ruined bed, the parquet floor was burned, and the walls of the room were partially covered in black soot. Within the hour his aunt was called to pick up Angelina, and Bobby was put out in a pouring autumn rain with his suitcase to wait for his father.

Every few minutes his mother would come to the closed window and look at him through the blurry glass. The rain became heavier, beginning to flood the streets. She looked like a shadow standing behind the window, her face a dark blurry thing to which he silently mouthed the word “Mommy” each time he saw her.  His suitcase and its contents were thoroughly soaked by the time Valentino pulled up in his blue Ford, breaks screaming and tail lights glowing like red eyes peering through the watery veil. When he saw his Papa, Bo began to wail, half in fear, half in sheer relief.  But Papa’s face was a boiling blur of rage as he tore out of the car. “Get in the car! Hurry! Get in!” he told his teary-eyed son.

Papa ran toward the building and screamed up at the window. “You wretched Butana! How do you throw your own son out in the rain? He’s seven years old! You pig! You whore! You should be slaughtered like a cow!”

She pushed up the window, stuck out her head, and with a face twisted in fury, began shouting back at him in Sicilian. “You take him, you bastard, you pimp, you take him! And Angelina, too! She’s at your sister’s house if you want her. They won’t take your son. Nobody wants any part of him! He set my parents’ bed on fire! On fire!  He’s a criminal, just like you! I don’t want either of them! I’m starting a new life! Without you! Without them!”

In the same dialect he screamed back up at her. “It’s a shame you and your filthy parents weren’t in the bed when it was burning. The three of you aren’t worth the bones and ash that would be left, you ugly disgraciata. If I come up there, I’ll kill you all. I’ll pull your heads off like chickens. You’ll burn in hell for what you’ve done, you whore, you filthy pig, you soulless bitch! You should be gutted, you rotten stronza!”

She leaned halfway out the window, shaking her fists in the air. “Come up here and I’ll stab you to death, you stinking piece of shit!  I never wanted you! I never loved you! I hate you. If I go to hell, I’m sure to meet you there, bending over for Lucifer!”

Her voice pierced the rain like a siren. Bo had not gotten in the car. He stood next to it, his soggy suitcase beside him with his mouth opened and his eyes pinned to his mother. His father whirled around and screamed, “Didn’t I tell you to get in the car? Get in the goddamn car right now!”

When his father turned back to face his mother, she threw a potted plant out the window. It missed Val’s head by inches and smashed against the rain soaked sidewalk, scattering its dirt like ash among the broken shards and sodden green leaves. Val bit the middle knuckle of his forefinger so hard that he drew blood, and then he kicked at her front door, over and over, splintering it and stopping only after he had really hurt his foot. Still exploding in volcanic fury and hopping around like a madman, he punched the garbage pails, knocking them over and scattering trash in the downpour. He ran in circles, punching the air and howling while she screamed down curses from the window and threatened to call the cops. It looked to Bo like Papa was dancing barefoot on thumbtacks.

“Even a dog doesn’t abandon its puppies!” Val screamed hoarsely, throwing pieces of garbage up at the window. “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you, you miserable bitch! Your asshole should be sewn to your mouth, you filthy porka disgraziata!”

Bo’s mother spat out the window, “And I hope they find you someday with your cock and balls stuffed in your mouth! Get lost you bum, and take your bastard son with you! You and your rotten kids should drop dead.” His grandfather finally came to the window and rained down a few curses of his own before he pulled his daughter away.

When Papa got back into the car, he was soaking wet and shaking with such rage that it looked like he was being electrocuted. The whites of his eyes had become red, and when he turned those terrifying, bloodshot peepers on his son, Bo cringed against the door and put his hands over his face.

“What did you do!” he screamed so loudly it hurt Bo’s ears. “Just what did you do this time, you bad, bad boy!”

Bo clenched his eyes shut and waited for the rain of blows. He heard the sound of the rain pounding against the car and the streets outside. Nothing else. Finally he opened his eyes and saw his father with his hands clenching the steering wheel and his head down between them. It was the first time he saw his Papa cry.

 

Val told Bo he had to put him in a place for a little while, a good place, where sisters and brothers watched over little boys until their parents could take them back. He told Bo not to cry, gently chiding him for starting the fire. “If you didn’t burn your grandparents’ bed, I’d have more time. But don’t cry, it’s only for a little while. Everything will be okay. Don’t be afraid.”

“What kind of place is it, Papa?’

“I told you, it’s a place for boys. It’s a Catholic place, Saint Joseph’s Home.”

The name sent a small ray of heat into the ice spreading in Bo’s gut. However large or small, every statue of Saint Joseph that he’d ever seen in a church or on a house altar depicted a kindly man. Saint Joseph was a good saint and so the home had to be good too.

“Where is it?”

“It’s in Watertown.”

Watertown. He was going to a place with lots of water. “Where’s Angelina going?”

Papa glanced at him, then looked away. “Staying with Aunt Alba and Uncle Santos.”

“Why can’t I stay with them too?”

“Bobby, people don’t like taking care of someone else’s kids. You and Angelina together would just be too much.”

“What about Aunt Conchetta and Uncle Carmine?”

“We hardly talk. I can’t really ask them for a favor.”

“Why can’t I live with you, Papa?”

The old man hissed out a long sigh. “I work all day. Who would take care of you? I’ve got to get a new life. It’ll take some time. But eventually we’ll all be together, the three of us. You have to be patient.”

“When can I come back?”

“I don’t know, Bobby. Maybe several months.

“How much is several?

“Roberto, please! Not now, okay?”

 

 

 

Categories: literary fiction, Uncategorized | Leave a 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

Hidden Shadows, by Linda Lucretia Shuler

HiddenShadows_medTitle: Hidden Shadows

Genre: Literary

Author: Linda Lucretia Shuler

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

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Hidden Shadows is a story of connection: to the land, to our ancestors, to others, to ourselves – and to the redemptive power of love:

Cassie Brighton, devastated by the accidental death of her husband, flees to a remote homestead deep in the rugged Texas Hill Country. Alone in a ramshackle farmhouse steeped in family secrets, Cassie wages a battle of mind and heart as she struggles to overcome the sorrows of her past, begin anew, and confront the possibility of finding love again.

Mountain Waltz

Summer, 1996        

Death waited to dance for her through the eye of the camera. It would be a slow dance, graceful as a waltz against a slate blue sky.

She gazed at the view framed in the lens, unaware of danger: Colorado mountains rising all around, glowing pink and purple in the morning sun. Her husband Thomas grinning on the precipice of a sheer cliff, the canyon wide and deep behind him. A golden eagle hovering above, drifting silent in the winds, wings outspread like a dark angel descending.

All she had to do was press her finger, one small click, and the photo would be taken. Yet she hesitated, wanting this moment to last.

Thomas pulled a cap from his jeans pocket and rammed it on his head. “Going to take all day?” he teased. “C’mon, Cassie girl. Everybody’s waiting.”

The air smelled of fecund earth and crushed leaves and coffee warming over a campfire. Cassie glanced toward the scattered tents and the handful of friends who had traveled with them. No one seemed in a hurry. After a long week of roughing it, they likely welcomed the last few hours of leisure before heading separate ways, as did she.

There was something magical about this mountain, this breeze warm upon her skin, the shifting colors and glowing sky, the soaring eagle. And Thomas, standing like a young oak that had sprouted from the rock, a natural part of the elements with wildness in his blood.

The camera was an old Nikon with a bulky zoom, and hung from a strap around her neck. “On the count of three,” she warned Thomas. “One, two…”

She snapped the photo, the sound swallowed by the eagle’s cry. The bird dived into the canyon, the shadow of its great wings sweeping across the precipice. Cassie saw it through the camera’s eye, saw Thomas and his startled response, his head jerking upward, his foot stepping back, the rocks beneath crumbling away.

Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.

Thomas stretched out his arms as though he, too, were about to lift from the ground and fly. Then he seemed to float backward, softly slipping from the cliff edge. His cap lifted away, light as a fallen leaf carried by the wind. He looked directly at her, mouth agape as if wanting to speak, and dropped from sight.

Cassie ran toward the empty space where he once stood, the camera whacking her chest, seeing everything, seeing nothing, a scream ripping her throat. Her red hiking boots flashed forward and back as her feet propelled her on and on. Red boots, red as blood, red as the fear roaring in her heart.

She teetered on the precipice. There, far below, sprawled face upward on a jagged outcropping as if sleeping in the sun, was Thomas, still as the stone he lay upon. Wind touched his wheat-gold hair, lifted the hem of his shirt, tasted the blood spreading from the back of his head like the bloom of an exotic flower. Ruby tendrils reached for the edge and dripped into the canyon depths.

“Thomas!” Her cry echoed among the mountains, Thomas! Thomas! Thomas! “I’m coming down!”Coming down! Coming down! Coming down!

She stumbled along the rim in a frantic search for access. The mountains yawned as if cloven with a knife, the sides shimmering, the floor sinking into shadows. Afraid of tumbling into the vast emptiness, she dropped to her knees and crawled along the precipice, pebbles and debris raining down from her scrabbling hands.

God help me!

A root thrust a gnarled arm from the wall some ten feet below. If she could somehow manage to get to it, then to the narrow shelf below that, and then…

How far down had Thomas fallen? Her mind couldn’t calculate. He looked so small from where she knelt, so abandoned, like an unwanted doll.

Oh, God! Oh, God!

She lay flat, the rock-strewn earth digging into her stomach and legs, and stuck her feet over the lip. She could feel the tug of the wind as she inched downward, fingers grabbing at the dirt, her boots seeking a hold. Grit caked her teeth. She was sobbing, unaware of the sound, thinking somewhere in the deep recesses of her mind that she heard the anguished cries of a wounded animal.

Then she was airborne, lifted by a half-dozen hands and hauled onto level ground. She struggled against the arms that held her fast, the clamor of voices, the contorted faces. They dragged her to safety, the precipice receding through her tears.

She couldn’t breathe. Her body shook and turned cold. They laid her on a sleeping bag and wrapped her in blankets, constraining her like a mummy while the sun slid across the sky and the eagle returned to its flight, wings glittering.

Thomas. Her lips formed his name. She looked up and imagined it was he who soared across the blue, gliding in the winds as if his spirit had risen free and now gazed down upon her. The bird dropped closer and closer still, transforming into metal and roaring as it dipped into the canyon and disappeared. Dust whirled in torrents from the blast of its wings.

She tore the blankets aside and lurched upright, clinging to the hands she had once fought. She had no sense of minutes or hours, only of an icy numbness that settled into her bones.

Whap-whap-whap! Propellers rose from the abyss, lifting the helicopter, lifting the basket that swung from its belly and carried her love. Even from this distance she could see the gold of his hair, the silken texture. The helicopter hovered like a giant prehistoric bird, then began its journey. She stumbled after it, the shadow slithering along the rugged mountain, until it vanished into the horizon.

The Ghosts Are Singing

Summer, 1999

Three years had passed since death danced on the Colorado mountain – one thousand eighty-odd long days of grieving.

Cassie drove with the window down, squinting into the glare as miles slowly passed and the Texas sun blazed hot in the noon sky. Gnarled oak, honey mesquite and cedar crowded for room in the rocky Hill Country soil, crawled up outcroppings and plateaus,   and butted against prickly pear cactus, purple-stemmed grass, and the occasional cow or goat. Willow City Loop, the road was called. An odd name, since there was no city. Just a couple of buildings missed in the blink of an eye. And the loop straggled with dozens of turnoffs, gravel-tossed and rutted and often identical, rambling to pastures or buildings unseen from the road. Fortunately, the one she sought was marked by boulders tumbled in disarray like the ruins of an ancient castle, setting it apart from the rest.

She longed to be thirteen again, worry-free and anticipating the summer ahead in her grandmother’s home among the hills. But here she was, old enough to be mother to the girl she barely remembered, driving under that same sun toward the same home, now holding only echoes of long-ago days.

The renovated Thunderbird jounced across cattle guards, through gray-weathered wooden gates, and past split-rail cedar fences. Little had changed since she was a girl traveling this dusty road in her grandmother’s creaking Studebaker. She could almost smell the bitter scent of torn leather and hear the rattling complaints uttered by the car they had christened Methuselah since it seemed destined to live forever. Mimi would drive it like a madwoman, stomping on the gas and grinding the clutch as if in a battle of human against machine.

Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!

Thoughts of her beloved grandmother often came unbidden, and with them the memory of Mimi’s hands clutching hers for the last time.

“Promise me!” Mimi had sighed, pale and shrunken amid the rumpled bed sheets. “Promise!”

“I’d like to, but…”

“Live there one year, that’s all I ask. You’ll make the right decision after that.”

“But how?” Something clattered in the hall beyond the door, followed by a spurt of laughter. Cassie paused, startled. Gaiety seemed out of place in this dreary nursing home. She squeezed Mimi’s fingers, surprised at how spindly her bones had become. “Thomas and I just opened a boutique, remember? Spirit of the Southwest. I may be an old lady before I have time to spare.”

“Go when you can. The land will wait.”

Cassie nodded, “All right, I promise,” loving this worn-out old woman who bore little resemblance to the vibrant soul she remembered. When had her grandmother withered into a husk? She leaned in close, her breath stirring wisps of the silver-streaked hair. “Why me? Why not Mother?”

“She can’t… hear them.”

“Hear what?”

Mimi closed her eyes, her voice a mere shadow. “The ghosts are singing.”

“There are no ghosts here, Mimi. Just me.” Cassie laughed quietly.

“They sing for you,” she murmured, and said no more. She never opened her eyes again, nor spoke.

There, finally! The marker she was looking for: a jumble of boulders under an arching mesquite, a wooden plank nailed to the trunk. A sun-bleached arrow pointed toward the hill beyond with the words,Spring Creek. She turned and winced. Gravel pinged and splattered under her treasured Thunderbird and exploded from the wheels as she bounced along rutted dirt hard as concrete, winding upward until Willow City Loop became a ribbon curling far below.

There was something in the road, small, gray-brown, unmoving. An armadillo, she realized, her hands already tugging at the wheel to swerve away. Cassie yelped and swerved, bumped over jagged rocks, crashed through prickly pear, then nose-dived into a shallow ravine. The motor sputtered and died.

She sat with hands clenching the wheel and foot pressing the brake. After a moment, she opened the door, almost afraid to look. Briars scratched her bare ankles as she walked up the incline and down again, bracing her hand against the car, eyes sweeping every inch of metal and chrome. Other than tilting thirty degrees and settling on the rim of a flat rear tire, the Thunderbird seemed miraculously untouched, a fine layer of dust powdering the pastel yellow finish.

“Now what?” She groaned. No way could she change a tire at this crazy angle. There wasn’t a soul around to help, nor a house in view. Just the armadillo lumbering along unscathed and a couple of distant goats.

She pulled a scrap of paper from her pocket. On it she had written the name Justin Grumm, followed by his telephone number. Although Mr. Grumm was the caretaker of Mimi’s property and had exchanged letters with Cassie about the estate, she had yet to meet him in person. He and his wife lived about a half mile ahead in a white cottage on cinder blocks that had been there ever since Cassie could remember, the time-warped porch supported by pillars hacked from mesquite. Mr. Grumm had been delighted to hear from her several weeks ago. “Excellent!” he declared after Cassie explained that she was planning to move into Mimi’s home and would need a key. She had liked his voice, warmed by the trace of a German accent.

“Good lord, you’re going to live there a year before putting it up for sale? Why bother?” her mother asked from somewhere in Paris with husband number four or five, Pierre something. Tuff, or Taft. Maybe Tift. In the long-run it wouldn’t matter since Lillian seemed intent upon changing husbands along with the seasons. “Mama’s dead, God rest her soul, and won’t know one way or another. Just clean the place up, throw away all that junk, and put it on the market. You could be in and out of there in a couple of weeks.”

“I promised…”

“Promises don’t count when the ears that heard them are buried six feet under.”

“How can you say such an awful thing?”

“You’re throwing a year of your life away! Let the past stay in the past and get on with living. Why isolate yourself in the sticks? What are you running from?”

Cassie couldn’t answer, then or now. Maybe she was running. Maybe she just wanted some peace. Maybe she didn’t know where else to go.

Maybe she was hoping to pull the raveled threads of her life together.

She had tossed luggage in the trunk and back seat, topped helter-skelter with odd items. Her potted rosebush sat alone in the front, belted and secured, crimson blossoms glowing. Long buried amid its roots were two treasures, one already turned to ash and the other rendered so by time. The rose and its roots had traveled with her from one city apartment to another, and now would be experiencing a much different life in the country – as would she.

Telling herself to hurry and do something, she reached into the car for her cell phone, pausing with a start when she caught her reflection in the side-view mirror: raven hair windblown, cheeks flushed, eyes murky as coffee brewed too long in the pot. Tiny wrinkles creased the corners. “Crow’s feet tapping at my door,” she groused. She’d be forty-five soon. Forty-five! Where had the time gone?

She dialed the phone and was met with silence. Disgusted, she flung it onto the dashboard; it skittered off, bounced against the gear shift, and plopped to the floor. No cell, no call to Mr. Grumm, no rescue. She would have to walk.

The rosebush presented a problem; she couldn’t risk leaving it in the blistering heat of a locked car. She hoisted the heavy clay pot into her arms, struggled up the road toward a wild black cherry tree, and dragged it the last few yards into the shade. “Take care, my loves,” she said. “I’ll be back soon.”

One more trek to the car for her purse and keys, and she was on her way. The sky gleamed colorless, with a scattering of clouds to break the bleached monotony. Blackbirds spiraled overhead, satin feathers glinting. Cassie imagined what they saw from their avian drafts, looking down – a lone woman, soft summer skirt brushing her legs as she trudged uphill along a rock-strewn roadway. A bare wind breathed upon her face as the earth fell away behind her, and when she looked over her shoulder she could see an eruption of vegetation-furred plateaus on the horizon, their tops so flat and defined it looked as though God had skimmed them with a buzz saw, while up ahead the hills leaped from the earth rounded and full.

The dry air tasted like scorched weeds. Her feet moved on, their beaded sandals soon swallowed by dust. “Idiotic,” she grumbled. Why hadn’t she worn something more practical, such as… what? Her hiking boots came to mind, red with black laces wide as ribbons, boxed somewhere among her other belongings stored in Houston. Although she had worn the boots only briefly, she was loath to do so again and equally loath to throw them away. So she hid them from sight and from the memories they evoked.

Those memories tugged at her now, pulling her heart along with them.

She had met Thomas Brighton at an outdoor music festival in Colorado. Tall and blond and wide-shouldered, he sat on the sun-warmed Vail slope, eyes closed while the sound of fiddles shimmered among the aspen. As she approached, his eyes opened, vivid blue, and she felt as though she had come face to face with a Viking from ages past somehow hurled into the present. He smiled and motioned for her to join him, offering his hand. She settled next to him, trusting the inner voice that whispered, “Yes.”

Ten years later, while celebrating their wedding anniversary among those very same mountains, it all came to an abrupt, horrifying end.

She buried his ashes in the roots of the rosebush he had planted beneath the bedroom window. When she could stand to live there no longer, when phantoms prowled among the darkened corners and empty rooms, she dug up the bush, put it in a clay pot with as much of the dirt and ashes as it could contain, and left. The roses were the only constant in her life as the years passed, the one thing she treasured above all else, protecting the dust of her youth.

Stop thinking about it! she scolded herself. That was another time, another world, another self.“Don’t dwell on sadness,” Mimi had often told her. “Lift your eyes to the heavens and your spirit will follow.” As much as she loved her grandmother, Cassie knew from experience that the only thing you got from looking upward was a stiff neck.

I’m like a dog with a chewed-up bone, gnawing on old grief.

A train whistle shrieked faintly across the miles. She turned and looked back at the slope she had climbed, the massive stretch of sky. A splotch of yellow marked the presence of her car below, tipped and waiting on three solid wheels. The whistle echoed once again, as if lonely and weeping for something lost.

She shook the dust from her sandals and continued onward, one step following another, the air glistening with heat mirages. Her mind quieted and she fell into an easy rhythm, feet moving steadily, arms swinging. It was almost a surprise when she saw the caretaker’s cottage standing as she remembered – except for one thing.

Or many things. Perched on the fence and crowding the yard were multitudes of angels in all sizes and shapes, constructed out of metal scrap – wings of rusty tractor seats, halos of wagon wheels, billowing skirts of chicken wire, trumpets and harps from shovels or hoes, scissors or hedge clippers. Mobiles of angel forks and spoons dangled from the porch overhang, and several angelic giants with bodies made of barrel hoops appeared ready to launch themselves from the rooftop.

She walked up the steps onto the porch and peered through the screen door. The room beyond, bright with splatters of blues and yellows, resonated with the sound of clocks. “Hello?” she called over the barrage of tick-tocks. A fat white cat, face round as a stuffed pillow, appeared from inside and looked up at her with cobalt eyes. “Hi,” Cassie said. “Is your mommy or daddy home?” She knocked on the door, the frame rattling under her knuckles.

Ja, I’m coming!” A woman approached, almost a perfect match to the cat – small and plump and silver-haired, with lively hazel eyes magnified behind thick, gold-framed glasses. She smiled at Cassie through the screen.

“Mrs. Grumm? I’m Cassie Brighton, and I…”

“Mrs. Brighton, gut, gut! Justin has been expecting you.” She opened the door, its hinges protesting, and glanced at the road. “Where’s your car?”

“Somewhere at the bottom of the hill. I drove into a ditch and got a flat tire. So I walked.”

“In this heat? Oh, my dear girl, sit down this minute. Let me get you something to drink.” She led Cassie toward an overstuffed chair draped with a floral shawl and scurried away.

Before Cassie could protest, Mrs. Grumm had gone and the chair beckoned. She sank into it and rested her feet on a needlepoint stool, the shredded fabric testament to its daily use. A replica of the cat smiled at her through the worn threading along with the name, Strudel. “How did you rate your own portrait?” she asked as the cat brushed against her legs. Perhaps thinking this an invitation, Strudel leaped upon the arm of the chair and stretched its head toward her lips as if wanting a kiss. Cassie had never been fond of cats but didn’t protest when it curled into her lap and began to purr. “Like a miniature lawn mower,” she murmured, and closed her eyes.

Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!

Cassie jolted out of her chair, tumbling a disgruntled cat to the floor. From every room in the house clocks clanged, sang, or rang the hour. There must have been two dozen – no, surely more. Cassie spun around, delighted. A tall grandfather clock with a huge round head atop a narrow body chimed in a stately fashion, a minuscule sailing ship tick-tick-whistled, and an intricately carved village with costumed folk danced around a well and tinkled “Edelweiss,” each telling her it was four o’clock in the afternoon.

“Are you rested?” This spoken behind her, the voice deep and obviously amused.

Cassie turned to face an impossibly tall man, all bones and joints, with a toothy smile spread in a wrinkle-grooved face.

“Yes, thank you, but I… was I… Did I fall asleep?”

“Thoroughly. Snoring is healthy, by the way. Clears the lungs.”

“I’m so sorry, I…” Cassie stammered.

“Justin!” Mrs. Grumm scolded. “Enough teasing.” She smiled at Cassie. “Pay no mind to this old man. You napped very lady-like. Now come, I have something for you.”

Justin ran a hand through his fluff of sparse hair as Cassie, pulled along by Mrs. Grumm, entered the kitchen. It was a cheerful place, decorated with crisp white curtains and a blue tablecloth. A pottery jar filled with sunflowers graced the windowsill.

Cassie soon found herself sitting at the table, enjoying a glass of iced tea garnished with mint. “Delicious. It’s been years since I tasted fresh mint.”

“It came from my mother’s garden long ago, in Villach. Every spring it sprouts up more, like weeds.”

“Can’t kill the stuff.” Justin pulled out a chair and sat at an angle, long legs half under the table and half out.

Mrs. Grumm opened the refrigerator and reached for an ice tray. “You want to give her the key, or do you expect her to kick the door down?”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. I didn’t forget.”

“You left it in the freezer, next to the ice cream.”

“Well, hand it over then.” Justin grinned at Cassie. “That house will be happy to see you. It’s been empty too long.”

“Cold as the devil.” Mrs. Grumm wiped the key with a dishtowel and laid it beside Cassie’s plate. “Sometimes this man of mine is so forgetful I wonder he can find his own head,”

Forged from iron and tipped by an ornate heart bound in vines, the key was longer than Cassie’s hand. “How beautiful!” she exclaimed. “I wonder how old it is.”

Justin shrugged. “As far as I can figure, the olden part of your house – the one in the back that the rest was added onto – was built sometime in the mid 1800’s. So close to a hundred sixty years, give or take a few.”

“I didn’t expect a key like this.”

“You’ve not seen it before?”

Cassie shook her head. “Mimi never locked her doors. She said the spirits in the woods would watch over things. I gave up trying to talk sense into her head.”

“Now don’t you worry about bad spooks. Only good ones fly around over there.”

“There you go again, giving the girl a hard time.” Mrs. Grumm patted Cassie’s shoulder. “We’re surely happy to meet you at last.”

Justin nodded. “What took you so long?”

“Well, I…” Cassie floundered. How could she tell them? What could she tell them? Her troubles were hers alone: the emptiness that faced her, the dreams that plagued her.

“Justin, enough for today. Let the girl tell us all about herself later, when she’s rested.”

“All right, all right. I know I’m a nosy buzzard.”

Relieved, Cassie nibbled on a ginger snap. “These are wonderful.”

“Berta isn’t too bad with the sweets. Except for her grebbel.”

“So you’re complaining about my doughnuts now?” Berta smacked him with the dishtowel. “You ate three this morning, silly old fool.”

“Had to force down each bite. Pure torture.”

Cassie watched the Grumms grinning at one another and something twisted inside – a longing, a regret. She drained her glass and set it aside. “Thanks for your hospitality, but I really must be going. Do you know who I could call to upright my car and fix the flat? Is there a gas station nearby?”

“I reckon so, if by ‘nearby’ you mean within twenty miles or thereabouts,” Justin said with a chuckle. “Guy’s Auto is closer in, but he doesn’t work on Thursdays. Today is Thursday, isn’t it?”

“Yesterday was Wednesday and tomorrow’s Friday,” Berta said, “so unless the world has turned upside down, yes.”

“That settles that, then.”

Cassie’s heart plummeted. “Surely there’s someone around who could help. I’d hate to leave my car and everything in it until tomorrow.”

“Guy may not work on Thursdays, but this man does.” Justin stood and adjusted the pants at his narrow waist. “Come on, then. Let’s get the job done.”

“Stay and have dinner with us afterward,” Berta said. “There’s not enough in your refrigerator for a good meal tonight – just eggs and such. We didn’t know what you might need.”

“How kind of you. I didn’t expect anything at all.”

“Drive straight here once the tire is fixed and I should have something nice and hot for you both.”

“Oh, but I couldn’t. I mean I shouldn’t. I have too much to do. You’ve both been so lovely to me, but I haven’t been to the house yet and…” Several clocks chimed the quarter hour. “And it’s already four-fifteen.”

“It doesn’t get dark until after eight. Please, we’d love to have you.” Berta nudged Justin. “Isn’t that right?”

“Right as blueberry pie – which we’ll have a good portion of tonight, fresh-made.”

Cassie was tempted, but she still had a long day ahead of her, a car to upright and a tire to change, luggage to unload, a house to inspect. “May I have a rain check?”

“Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?”

“That sounds delightful.”

“Good! I’ll see you at noon. Fix that car good, Justin. And try not getting your shirt dirty. I just washed it.”

“Stop fussing, Schatzi. You’ve scrubbed this shirt so much there’s hardly a thread left.” He leaned to Cassie and muttered, “Berta goes into fits when she sees dirt anywhere except on the ground, and even then it better be clean dirt.”

The roses, secured once again in the passenger seat, filled the car with their heady scent as Cassie followed Justin’s blue pickup truck. A sign with red and white letters was painted neatly on its door:Grumm Clockworks and below, J. Grumm, Master Clocksmith. They parted at the cottage; Justin stuck his long-boned arm out the truck window and waved as Cassie passed by. She continued along the high-rising hill before turning into a rough weed-choked drive. Following its wanderings, she arrived at a wooden gate so old the earth had swallowed part of the supporting frame. Scattered posts leaned into each other, vague remnants of the proud fence that might have been built by her great-great grandfather.

She had always been curious as a child about her ancestors, but Lillian refused to speak about them, saying, “They’re all dead and gone. Let them stay there.” Mimi, who normally talked a blue streak, remained strangely mute – with a single exception. One evening, while the two of them were swapping tales on the porch swing, Mimi let slip that their ancestors had come from Germany long years ago, sailing over a troublesome sea then traveling in an ox cart along the Guadalupe River and upland until they arrived at this very place. “Someday I’ll tell more,” she had promised.

But the day never came.

Cassie got out of the car and pushed the gate. It opened easily enough, although the bottom edge dragged along the ground. The hinges made a low creaking sound, a three-syllable whine, as if saying,come on innnnnn. She gripped the dry wood, suddenly transported to the past, a girl in shorts with her hair in a ponytail opening the gate so Mimi could drive through. Turning, she half-expected to see a ghostly Studebaker swimming in the heat behind her.

She returned to the car and sat, looking through the windshield at the hills humped beyond the fence, the slope on her right shadowed by trees, the driveway snaking around the juniper on her left, and the great spread of land between them. The house, windmill, and barn waited for her around the bend and out of sight, their images hovering behind her eyes, dim and quiet as old photographs in a family album.

“Oh, Mimi,” she whispered, and drove through the gate.

Categories: literary fiction | Tags: | 1 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

‘A Very Good Life,’ by Lynn Steward

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000037_00031]Title:  A Very Good Life

Genre:  Literary Fiction

Author:  Lynn Steward

Website:   http://www.averygoodlife.com

Publisher:  CreateSpace

Purchase on Amazon.

Although Lynn Steward’s debut novel, A Very Good Life, takes place in 1970s New York City. it has a timelessness to it. Dana McGarry is an “it” girl, living a privileged lifestyle of a well-heeled junior executive at B. Altman, a high end department store. With a storybook husband and a fairytale life, change comes swiftly and unexpectedly. Cracks begin to appear in the perfect facade. Challenged at work by unethical demands, and the growing awareness that her relationship with her distant husband is strained, Dana must deal with the unwanted changes in her life. Can she find her place in the new world where women can have a voice, or will she allow herself to be manipulated into doing things that go against her growing self-confidence?

A Very Good Life chronicles the perils and rewards of Dana’s journey, alongside some of the most legendary women of the twentieth century. From parties at Café des Artistes to the annual Rockefeller Center holiday tree lighting ceremony, from meetings with business icons like Estée Lauder to cocktail receptions with celebrity guests like legendary Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Steward’s intimate knowledge of the period creates the perfect backdrop for this riveting story about a woman’s quest for self-fulfillment.

Chapter One

Dana McGarry, her short blond hair stirred by a light gust of wind, stood on Fifth Avenue in front of the display windows of the B. Altman department store on the day after Thanksgiving, November, 1974.  Dana, public relations and special events coordinator for the store, pulled her Brooks Brothers camel hair polo coat tighter around her slim, shapely frame.  Shoppers hurried past her, huddled in overcoats as mild snow flurries coated the streets with a fine white powder.  It was now officially Christmas season, and Dana sensed a pleasant urgency in the air as people rushed to find the perfect gift or simply meet a friend for lunch.  The frenetic pace of life in Manhattan continued to swell the sidewalks, but pedestrians were more inclined to tender a smile instead of a grimace if they bumped into one another.  Dana often told her friends that Christmas was a time when there was a temporary truce between true believers and grinches.  As far as business was concerned, she was pleased to hear the cash registers of B. Altman singing their secular carols inside the store, but she also still believed that the holidays brought magic and balance, however briefly, into a world of routine and ten-hour workdays.

Balance?  Dana smiled wistfully, for balance was becoming harder to achieve.  She was only twenty-nine, but the pressures of life were already assaulting her mind and spirit in numerous ways.  She tried to please multiple people in B. Altman’s corporate offices on a daily basis, not an easy task given that the seasoned professionals who were grooming her had various agendas, not all of which tallied with each other.  And then there was her marriage to Brett McGarry, a litigator at a Wall Street law firm.  Brett was as busy as she, and simultaneously attending to her career and the needs of her husband was sometimes difficult, if not downright burdensome.  His needs?  Well, “demands” would be a more accurate description of what Dana had to contend with.  Although Brett didn’t overtly order Dana around, he informed her of what he would or would not be able to do with her on any given day.  His growing air of superiority was extremely subtle and couched in affable smiles that most of Dana’s friends could not accurately read.

Dana’s eyes had become unfocused as she stared past the display window, but she quickly snapped her attention back to the present moment.  People, coated with a dusting of light snow, continued to stream through the portico outside B. Altman’s.  Magic and balance still held the better claim on Friday, November 29.  She’d worry about Brett later.

“I think they like it,” commented Andrew Ricci, display director for the store, as he stood to Dana’s left, referring to the happy, animated shoppers. “Good idea, Mark.  Christmas was the right time to bring in livemannequins.”  Andrew, slender and dressed in a gray suit with sweater vest, wiped snowflakes from his salt and pepper hair, wavy and combed straight back.  Even as Andrew said this, a little girl waved both hands, trying to get the attention of one of the Sugar Plum Fairies behind the window, saying over and over, “I saw her blink!  I did! I saw her blink!”

 

Mark Tepper was the president of the Tepper Display Company, and B. Altman had been a good accountfor ten years.  “You’re welcome.  I want you guys to look good.  Bloomie’s is just twenty-five blocks away,” said the suave president, dressed in a blue pinstripe suit.  He stood to Dana’s right.  His light brown hair was parted neatly above a broad forehead, and he had intense blue eyes that could capture the slightest nuance.  He was of average height, in good physical shape, and his ideas seemed to emanate from a bottomless reservoir of energy.  “You can’t go wrong with a Nutcracker theme.”  Mark stepped back and surveyed the scene.  “Now if I could only figure out a way to make the live mannequins stop blinking,” he said with a grin.

Dana and Andrew laughed at Mark’s quick wit, the result of keen intelligence combined with a sophisticated playfulness.  He could be highly focused without taking himself too seriously.

Andrew rubbed his hands together and exhaled, his breath drifting away in a small cloud of vapor.  “Say, would you two mind coming inside to look at the blueprints for the cosmetic department? I have to make one change.”

Dana, like all B. Altman employees, was energized by the transformation of her beloved store, and being a close friend of Andrew’s, she knew of changes starting with the planning stage. More than a year ago, when Dana first learned that thecosmetic department would be renovated, she thought it might bode well for her idea to add a teen makeup section.

Inside, the store was glowing from Christmas decorations, chandeliers, and red-capped  mercury lamps illuminating counters that curved and zigzagged across the main floor in every direction.  A decorated tree in the center of the main floor rose fifteen feet into the air, a grand focal point for the holiday atmosphere.  Andrew led the group to one of the counters in the existing cosmetic department and unrolled a set of blueprints he’d stored beneath the glass counter.  The trio would be undisturbed since holiday shoppers were buzzing past them on their way to the gift departments, many to see the new million-dollar menswear section that opened the previous month and extended the entire block along 34th Street.

“We’re aiming for the new department to open the first week of May,” Andrew said, “followed by a black tie gala.”  He poked his index finger onto the center of the blueprints for emphasis.  He then looked up proudly and pointed to a section of the floor where the new cosmetic department would be installed.

“Good placement,” Mark said.  “And nice layout, too.”  Mark usually spoke rapidly and in short sentences.  Insightful, he sized things up quickly and didn’t waste time.  It was another aspect of his confidence that allowed him to act professionally without losing his innate charm.  He also had a knack for including everyone around him in any discussion.

“So what does the public relations and special events coordinator think?” he asked, pivoting to face Dana, sensing she had something to say.

Dana cocked her head slightly while mischievously narrowing her eyes.  “I think we shouldn’t forget that a teen makeup section is just as important as an updated cosmetic department.  Otherwise, why are we bothering to update it in the first place?  Our demographic is getting younger.  Girls today are wearing makeup by the time they’re fourteen.”

Dana turned to Andrew. “What do you think, Mr. Ricci ?

Andrew chuckled at Dana’s use of his surname, which she occasionally did when talking business with her friend and confidante.  Andrew was the quintessential Renaissance man—artist, craftsman, and cook.  He and Dana attended art lectures at the Met, and he had personally taken Dana under his wing to give her what he called “a gay man’s culinary expertise” when her husband announced they were hosting a dinner party for a few of the firm’s partners.  Andrew was not only Dana’s close friend, but he was also a consummate professional in his capacity as display director.  He was a passionate man, at times almost compulsive, but he commanded respect from the refined corporate culture at B. Altman.

Andrew rolled up the blueprints and sighed.  “Good luck trying to persuade Helen.  She’s done a great job with her department, but she’s from the old school—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”  Andrew paused.  “But the fact that Helen isn’t on board isn’t going to stop you, is it?”

Helen Kavanagh was the junior buyer at B. Altman.

Dana shook her head and winked.  “Not for a minute.  I’m an optimist, Andrew.  Besides, it’s Christmas.  I’ve been a good girl, and Santa owes me.”

Mark was clearly enjoying the good-natured exchange.  “Santa naturally wasn’t big at Temple when I was growing up.  No stockings hung by the chimney with care—although I remain an ardent fan of stockings.  That having been said,” Mark continued, “I think—”

The conversation was interrupted by a no-nonsense twenty-something secretary, dark brown hair falling to her shoulder.  “Ms. Savino would like to see you in her office as soon as possible, Ms. McGarry,” she said.  The secretary turned on her heels and promptly disappeared into the busy throng of shoppers without waiting for a response from Dana.

Bea Savino was Dana’s boss and the vice president of sales promotion and marketing.

“She’s new,” Dana commented. “Poor girl—she’s scared to death.  We all were when we started.”

“I still am,” Andrew laughed, “and I don’t even report to her.  Bea can kill you with that look. You know, when her eyes tighten and she peers over her reading glasses—ouch!  But give her a martini, and it’s party time.  Bea’s a moveable feast.”

Dana nodded.   “True enough.  I better see what the indomitable Ms. Savino wants.  Gentlemen, it’s always a pleasure.”

Dana headed to the bank of elevators on the far side of the store, passing a dozen lively conversations that blended into what she regarded as a delightful holiday symphony.  People were spending money—and happy to be spending it.  She envisioned a teen makeup section facilitating that same enthusiastic banter at some point in the future.

“Dana!”

Dana wheeled around to see Mark hurrying past shoppers, his outstretched arm indicating that he wanted her to pause until he could catch up.

“People just can’t get enough of my infectious optimism,” Dana proclaimed.

“You’re cursed with good genes,” Mark said, stopping a foot from Dana.  “Seriously, the teen makeup section is a smart move.  I think you should ask Helen if she’s been following the incredible success of Biba.”

“I think everybody’s eyes are on London.”

“If not, they should be.  Biba just moved to a seven-story building in Kensington, and the store is attracting a million customers a week.  Teen makeup sure seems to be working for the Brits.  The birds, as the English call young girls, are flocking to the store in droves.”  He paused.  “I’m mixing my metaphors—birds, cattle—but you get the gist.”

`           Dana put her hands on her hips and burst into laughter.

“When was the last time you used the word droves, Mark?”

“Hey, I’ve watched cowboys on TV like anybody else,” he replied with mock defensiveness. “Head ‘em up and move ‘em out.  And that’s what Biba is doing.  The customers are in and out, and most of their wallets are quite a bit lighter when they leave.  That’s the idea, right?”

 

“Absolutely!

“Go get ‘em, tiger,” Mark said, touching the side of Dana’s arm right below her shoulder.  He walked away, turned back with a big smile and a thumbs-up, then disappeared.

Mark’s energy and enthusiasm, as well as his one-minute pep talk, were just what Dana needed to boost her confidence and keep her idea alive.

As Dana neared the far side of the store, she and Helen Kavanagh simultaneously  approached the same elevator.

As always, Helen was impeccably dressed, and her carriage bespoke an elegant, stylish demeanor.  She was in the later years of middle age, but she advanced towards the elevator briskly, her blond hair pulled severely back from her face and secured with an ever-present black velvet ribbon.  Her face expressionless, she glanced at Dana, her pace unchanged.  A signal had clearly been given.  In point of fact, Helen truly admired Dana, but the young events coordinator was in her twenties, and there was a protocol in Helen’s universe that she didn’t believe needed to be articulated.  Respect carried the day, with camaraderie offered in moderation, preferably outside of the workplace.  Danatherefore halted just long enough to allow Helen to slip into the elevator before she followed, the doors closing behind her.  The two women were alone as the elevator ascended to the executive suite of offices on the fifth floor.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained, Dana thought.  Besides, Mark had literally gone out of his way to suggest that she approach Helen.  Mark, of course, could be aggressive and disarming at the same time, so such a feat would naturally be far easier for him to accomplish.  Still, she was quite aware that Mark had her best interests at heart.  It was worth a try.

“Good morning, Helen.”

Helen nodded and smiled thinly.  “Dana.”

“Helen, I was wondering if you shopped Biba when you were in London last month.  They’re pulling in a million customers a week.  A million!”  Dana raised her eyebrows, her clear blue eyes sparkling even in the dim light of the elevator.

Helen tapped a silver ballpoint pen against the brown leather case holding her yellow legal pad.  “Biba,” she said with frustration.  “Biba is filled with non-paying customers who rush in before work to try on free makeup.  Free, Dana.  Are they running a business or having a party?   Try it before you buy it?  I don’t think so.  They’re crazy.  Excuse me—as the British say, they’re quite mad.  They’ll be out of business in a year.”

Dana’s heart skipped a beat, but she wasn’t going to show any nervousness.  Instead, she laughed. “Well, I’m sure you’re right.  Shows what I know!”

It was a self-effacing remark, but Dana knew when to back down.

Helen, who had been facing forward, turned and looked at Dana squarely.  “And don’t even think of taking this to Bea.”

Dana smiled as the elevator door opened, but she said nothing.

The two women stepped onto the fifth floor, the rooms of which were a facsimile of the 1916 interiors of Benjamin Altman’s Fifth Avenue home.  Dana and Helen walked through the reception area, which was a replica of Altman’s well-known Renaissance room.  Fine art adorned the wood-paneled walls beyond the anteroom, with elaborately carved woodwork accenting the hallways.  The President’s Room was a reproduction of Altman’s personal library, while the Board Room was a faithful rendering of his dining room.  Oriental carpets lay on the polished parquet floor, and Dana never ceased to marvel at the rich interior of the executive suite and its expensive art collection no matter how many times she entered the area.  It had the ambience of a corporate cathedral, and the first time she stepped onto the floor years earlier, she had unconsciously lifted her right hand for a split second, as if to dip her fingers in a holy water font.

Dana and Helen walked in the same direction for fifteen paces until it became obvious that they were both heading for Bea Savino’s office.

“I was told Bea wanted to see me,” Dana stated.

“I’m sure you were,” Helen said flatly.  “But I need to see her first.  That isn’t a problem, is it?”

“No.  Of course not.”

It was another elevator moment.  Dana gave Helen a politically correct smile and stepped back, allowing her to open Bea’s door and slip into the office.

Dana walked up and down the hall, admiring the landscapes hanging on the dark paneling.  Miniature marble sculptures stood on pedestals and library tables with inlaid mother-of-pearl.  She hoped Helen wouldn’t be long since she wanted to get back home, walk her dog, and double-check arrangements for the annual McGarry Christmas party, now only six days away.  It was one o’clock, but if Bea called a special events meeting, Dana’s afternoon would be lost.  She was overseeing the expansion of the adult programs, known as “department-store culture,” and she and Bea were still working out the details for the rollout in January.  B. Altman was a pioneer for such a program, and Dana would be programming three events a week in the Charleston Garden restaurantthat seated two hundred.  A smaller third-floor community room was newly renovated for the expanded sessions that included mini-courses in art appreciation, cooking demonstrations, book signings, self-improvement, and current events.

She reversed direction and walked past Bea’s office, noticing that the door was slightly ajar.  She turned around and decided to wait outside Bea’s inner sanctum to make sure Helen wouldn’t slip out unnoticed.  Heart pounding, she stood near the open door and heard Helen expressing dismay.

“You know how I feel about having shoes in my department, Bea.  Can’t you help me convince them to find somewhere else to put this Pappagallo shop?  Shoes belong with shoes.  It just doesn’t work for me.  I don’t want to see them. Period.”

There was clear exasperation in the junior buyer’s voice.

“But it works for Ira and Dawn,” Bea responded calmly, “and they firmly believe in the merchandising potential for this young market.  “Don’t quote me, but I heard Ira’sdaughter will be working in the shop this summer.  You gotta get on board, Helen.  Think young.  Think upbeat.”  Her voice rose with sudden enthusiasm.  “Think Biba!”

“Bea, if I hear that name Biba one more time!” Helen interrupted.

Bea ignored her.  “The kids are all drinking espresso, and I’ll probably go down for a cup in the afternoon.”

“What are you talking about?” Helen asked.  “You’re going to—”

“Helen,” Bea slowly responded, “Pappagallo stores have love seats and espresso machines.  It’s that Southern hospitality.  They were introduced in Atlanta.  Anyway, we have no choice.  Remember, Pappagallo is leasing the space.”

There was a noticeable silence inside Bea’s office.
“Breathe deeply, Helen,” Bea advised with a laugh.  “You’re going to hyperventilate.  It’s

not the end of the world.”

“Espresso machine?” Helen repeated. “Love seats? Taking up selling space.  I’m not putting up with this.  Fine.  Then they’ll just have to give me a larger department.  I’m not giving up without getting something in return.”

Dana smiled.  IfIra Neimark, the executive vice president and general merchandise manager of B. Altman, together with his hand-picked vice president and fashion director, Dawn Mello—Helen’s boss—were looking for waysto bring  young people into the store, maybe the teen makeup department wasn’t a lost cause after all.

Helen came flying out the office, brushing past Dana by mere inches as she talked to herself under her breath.  “B. Altman will be out of business before Biba.  It’s all totally absurd.”  She took no notice of the young events coordinator.

Dana moved forward and stood in the doorway.  “You wanted to see me?” she asked. “Yes, Dana.  Come in.”

Bea Savino was a tiny but feisty Italian woman with snow white hair, a chain-smoker with a no-nonsense approach to life and business.  Bea had married five years ago, at the age of forty, and had no children, but she felt compelled to give her adopted young staff reality therapy every chance she could, believing they were too influenced by the soft dress-for-success career articles in fashion magazines.  With Dana, Bea’s mantra was “Toughen up, for God’s sake!”  When Dana had been passed over for an assignment and complained to her boss, Bea merely said, “It’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease, kiddo.  I didn’t even know you were interested.  Carol was in here every day, begging.  Speak up, Dana.”

Bea lit a cigarette, exhaled a plume of smoke, and laughed.  “I think poor Helen is headed for a stroke.  I saw you standing outside, so I know you heard our exchange.  Ah well.  She’ll get over it.  She’s a tough old broad, God love her.”  Bea shuffled some papers around her desk before finding the folder she was looking for.  Her office was not a model of perfection and order, as were Helen’s and Dana’s.

Dana cringed at the term “broad.”  The expression seemed out of place on the sacrosanct fifth floor, but she merely took a deep breath and remembered that Bea didn’t mince words.  She decided to pitch her idea despite Helen’s warning.

“Bea, since Mr. Neimark and Ms. Mello are interested in the youth market, why can’t we go one step further than the Shop for Pappagallo and add a teen makeup section too?  As I told Helen, Biba is pulling in a million customers a week.”

Bea leaned back in her chair and took another puff of her cigarette.

“You always tell me to speak up,” Dana said, her voice rising slightly as she shrugged her shoulders.  “So . . . ?”

“It’s not a bad idea,” Bea conceded as she surveyed her cluttered desk, “but it’s not going to happen, at least not now.  One step at a time.  Let Helen adjust to the intrusion of Pappagallo first.  It’s too much at once.”

“But—”

“Go whine to Bob.  I know you two are thick as thieves.  I asked you here to discuss something else.”

Bob Campbell was the store’s vice president and general manager.  He was Dana’s unofficial mentor, a fact that often irritated Bea to no end.  It was she, not Bob, who was the young woman’s immediate boss.

Dana clasped her hands behind her back, squeezing her right fist in frustration.  Was she supposed to toughen up and be vocal or remain silent?  Bea’s mixed messages could be infuriating.  Dana was advocating the same teen strategy that the general merchandise manager and fashion director of the store apparently believed in, and she couldn’t help but think that she was being penalized for her youth.  Or maybe it was because Helen might pitch a fit.  Either way, Andrew had been right: Bea was a moveable feast.

“Bob has chosen the winner for this year’s teen contest.  You’ll announce the results next week at the Sugar Plum Ball.  It’s a favor for a friend of Mr. Campbell.  His friend’s daughter, Kim Sullivan, will be this year’s winner.”  Bea sighed deeply and crushed her cigarette in a large glass ashtray on her desk.  “Have a good weekend, Dana,” Bea said, summarily dismissing the figure standing before her.

Dana was speechless.  The contest involved getting the best and brightest teens to write essays, make brief speeches, and model clothes, and they were down to the five finalists. She’d run the contest for three years, but the idea that the contest was rigged this year—and by Bob Campbell of all people—left Dana dazed and temporarily unable to move.  The Sugar Plum Ball was the annual December benefit for the Children’s Aid Society.  The idea of committing fraud was bad enough, but she would also have to disappoint the girls who would be competing in good faith.  Did such a prestigious charity event have to be marred by dishonesty?

Bea looked up, glasses perched on the end of her nose.  “Is anything the matter, Dana?  You look positively pale.”

“No.  Everything’s fine.” Everything was most decidedly not fine.  Dana had the ear of Bob Campbell, and she would use her access to the general manager to express how odious the idea seemed.  One way or another, she’d find a way to avoid making the contest into a sham.

Feeling manipulated, Dana turned and left Bea’s office.  Her normally fair complexion was red with anger, and her breath came in quick, short bursts.  She marched down to the Writing and Rest Room for Women, a beautifully carpeted room with chairs upholstered in blue velvet.  The mahogany walls and soft lighting made this one of the most elaborate rest areas in any store, and Dana sometimes came here because of the quiet and repose it offered.  Today the room was, not surprisingly, filled with shoppers taking a moment to compose themselves.  She hurried to her office in the General Offices section of the fifth floor, retrieved her purse, and tried to calm down.

Regaining her composure proved impossible, however.  She took a deep breath and decided that she would have no peace for the rest of the day until she spoke with Bob Campbell.  Bea must have been mistaken.  Bob would never rig the yearly teen contest.

Dana got up from her desk, hoping to get a few minutes with the general manager.  She walked back to the executive suite, ready to make her case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: literary fiction, Women's Fiction | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Plug Your Book Spotlights Azuka Thomson author of Dark Patches

Dark Patches

Author: Azuka Thomson

Title: Dark Patches

Genre: social drama, literary fiction

Language:  English

 ISBN:  UK ISBN 978-1-84698-782-3:     DE ISBN 978-3-8372-0763-7

 Genre: Literary fiction/ Social drama.

Publisher: Frankfurter Literaturverlag

Publication Date: November 2010

# of Pages: 245

Purchase Here:

Link to book on Amazon (or where it is sold): http://www.amazon.de/Dark-Patches-Azuka-Thomson/dp/3837207633/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books-intl-de&qid=1297197255&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Patches-Azuka-Thomson/dp/3837207633/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1297197345&sr=1-1

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Dark-Patches-Azuka-Thomson/dp/3837207633/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1297197458&sr=8-1

Visit Azuka Thomson at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Azuka-Thomson-Dark-Patches/116641701734714

Book Synopsis:

Meet Ndidi, the high school teacher and adoring wife. Blissfully married for seven years, a single question brings her world crashing down.

Grant, Ndidi’s loving husband, is his mother’s only child. Unable to stand up to his relatives, he devises a plan to keep his family together.

Omorose, Grant’s mother, is determined to leave no stones unturned in her quest for more grandchildren, even if it means spiritual intervention.

Josephine is no ordinary second wife. Selfish, manipulative and troublesome, she does not intend to share Grant with Ndidi, so she starts an evil campaign with horrifying consequences.

 As each of them make sacrifices for the sake of a common goal, ruthless bids for power unleash sinister forces of catastrophic proportions….

Excerpt:

Book Excerpt from Dark Patches

“Ndidi, please come and sit down with us,” said Uncle Agadagba. “We have a message for you from the village.”

Surprised, Ndidi walked back to the sitting room and took one of the vacant seats available. As she did so, she realised that the visitors were occupying the couch while her husband was sitting on the single chair next to Uncle Agadagba.

Consequently, she was forced to sit across from them. For a moment it nearly seemed as if they were purposely aligning themselves against her. But Grant would never join anyone against her, she reasoned. So Ndidi tried to smile at them but they were all watching her solemnly, except Grant who was contemplating the carpet. Her smile dimmed as she sensed trouble. They did not keep her waiting.

As the oldest in the group, Pa Ewuru cleared his throat and began.

“Ndidi, we all know that your husband loves you very much and when he married you, we accepted you into the family with open arms. We also know that you are a loving and loyal wife to your husband and that is why we understand his attempt to ignore our traditions and culture.

“Our forefathers told us that any man who gets all his children from the same woman is regarded as the father of only one child. In the days when everyone respected tradition, every Bini man married many wives so he could have many children. These days, some educated people see nothing wrong in a man getting all his children from the same woman. Most of them blame this attitude on lack of money and usually, our elders try not to interfere in the matter.

“Your case, Ndidi, is however an exception. As you know, Osahon is the only surviving son of his father and you have been married to him for more than seven years. In all that time, you have given birth to only one daughter who is nearly five years old. We do not blame you for this situation but the elders cannot sit idly by and watch Osahon waste his energies. He is almost forty years old and time is not on his side. He needs to father more sons and daughters.

“The elders have therefore sent us to seek your cooperation in getting a second wife for Osahon. The decision on how to proceed in this matter is in your hands and we want to hear from you.”

Every word spoken by Pa Ewuru stuck like a sharp knife in Ndidi’s heart. By the end of the speech she was in so much physical pain that she glanced at her chest expecting to see blood. Surprised at the absence of blood, she looked up at her attackers. The three men were staring at the floor. Only her mother-in-law continued to watch her. Ndidi did not say anything because she could not say what she really felt. She felt insulted and wronged and would have liked to ask them to leave her house. But this was Nigeria and she was dealing with her “Bini” in-laws. Only her husband could defend her.

So why is he staring at the carpet and saying nothing? She wondered as she continued to look at him.

Grant’s mother was very pleased with the way her plan was working out. She glanced at her son and noted with satisfaction that he was obeying the elders’ instructions not to interfere. It was time for the little “Erue ahusa ”(bed bug) to know that she did not own Grant. Ndidi had to know her place and a second wife was just the thing. Moreover, Omorose really did need more grandchildren. Grant was her only child and she had so looked forward to having many grandchildren. She was not about to allow Grant’s love for this foolish girl to destroy her dream. No sir, she would see to that.

She looked back at Ndidi and saw her still staring stupidly at Grant. 

“Ndidi,” she chided, “we are not asking Grant to throw you out. We are only asking him to take a second wife who will bear him more children. So stop staring at him and give us an answer.”

When Grant still did not come to her defence, Ndidi knew that the battle was already lost. She tried anyway.

“Uncle, I thank you and the elders for your concern over our welfare.” She began in a low and quavering voice. “Grant and I have only this one child because we planned it so. We are spacing our children to enable us to give them our full attention. We shall have more children when the time is right. Moreover, at twenty-seven, I am still very young and there is nothing wrong with me. I fully expect to bear more children for my husband and therefore see no reason for this . . .”   

“Ndidi,” cut in her mother-in-law, “you can expect all you like but your expectations are not in discussion here. The issue is that your husband needs another wife to bear him children. Even if you are able to have more children in future, it will only increase the number. We are sure that my son can take good care of you all.”

At this point, Ndidi appealed directly to Grant. “Husband,” she asked softly, “what do you say?”

Visit Azuka Thomson at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Azuka-Thomson-Dark-Patches/116641701734714

Categories: literary fiction, Social Drama | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

MARIPOSA by Candis C. Coffee

Mariposa
by Candis C. Coffee
Literary Fiction/Historical Fiction/New Age Fiction
Behler Publications

A spiritual, intellectual, brave young woman creates the life of her dreams, only to be deeply disappointed by its inability to sustain her.

The setting of Mariposa is 1920s and 1930s West Texas, Los Angeles, and Mexico. The theme is that of a spiritual quest – a young woman’s desire to feel the magic she believes exists in connections to nature, to people. Deep down, she feels that fulfillment of spiritual longing, the ultimate mystical experience, is found within a connection to the “other.” The other for Annarose – an Anglo woman from rural 1920s Texas – is a Mexican man. Along the way, the story illuminates the perils of prejudice as well as the intimate, yet treacherous bond that exists between Anglo and Mexican people who live side by side near the border.

As a child in West Texas, Annarose sees life and intelligence in everything. She finds herself in a relationship with an invisible “Presence,” which beckons to her spirit and with whom she feels most alive. A friendship with a Mexican boy and her love of the landscape also nurture this young girl who feels rejected by her Mother.

Annarose is deeply hurt when she is banished to Los Angeles at thirteen. She loses her connection to spirit, then begins to seek it again through intellectual pursuits. Here she finds herself in a waiting room between worlds, that of Texas and Mexico.

Her philosophical studies and supportive friendship with Estelle, a gifted musician, lead to an awakening for Annarose. She becomes a writer, and she travels to Mexico. She wants to feel life again. She meets Mexican muralist, Crisanto and chooses him as her lover. He is her connection to all that is beautiful, wild, free and happy because he is the “Other” and she feels that she can also find aspects of the maternal within him. She befriends the artist, Frida Kahlo. She embraces all that this man, his people and his country represent.

In the end, Annarose returns to West Texas alone, ready to give birth to their child. Over a period of three days, the “Now” of the story, she spends time with her family, and she recalls her experiences. She finds peace, and she finally comprehends the true nature of joy.

This is first person literary fiction – an experience of self-discovery for educated women, particularly ethnic minorities between the ages of 16 and 60. The book contains about 87,000 words.

Mariposa is divided into three stages of Annarose’s life. The first is her youth in 1923 West Texas. Here I tell the story of Annarose’s childhood, her relationship with the Presence, her family, and her friend, Ismael. I introduce a young girl in love with mystery. The second section is 1930s Los Angeles. In this part I write about Annarose’s life in LA, her inspiring friendship with Estelle, and her new spiritual quest, which now involves reading and thinking rather than direct experience. The third stage is 1930s Mexico, the story of Annarose’s connection with magic, her love affair with Mexican muralist, Crisanto, friendship with Frida Kahlo, and the understanding of her true motivations for being in Mexico, with these people. She acknowledges her need to find connection to Spirit and magic outside herself.

The idea is to bring to light passages in Annarose’s life, with the most important occurring at the age of 13, then again thirteen years later. At the beginning of the story we meet the adult Annarose, who at 26 must decide what to do with herself, now that she has begun to see that, though her quest and objectives were honorable, the path she chose toward them was misguided. We then meet the child Annarose at the age of 13. This is a significant period, due to her spiritual life, her feelings for her friend, Ismael, and her eventual exile to Los Angeles. I divided the story into 13 chapters, with the idea that each would describe meaningful events or themes in her life. I chose the title Mariposa because the story is about transformation.

About the Author:

Candis C. Coffee grew up in West Texas where her family has lived since 1848 when they immigrated from Ireland. The house in Mariposa is based on the 150-year-old home of her grandparents on the banks of the Concho River in San Angelo.

Candis spent nearly fifteen years in Santa Monica, California, where she was employed as a writer for various organizations. She later moved to New Orleans where she helped Chef Paul Prudhomme write the cookbook of his dreams and titled it Fork in the Road. Candis longed for the desert, however, which inspired a move to Santa Fe and graduate school at the University of New Mexico. She has since returned to her birthplace in West Texas where she currently resides.

After receiving a BA in Literature from the University of Texas, she pursued graduate studies in Creative Writing, Literature, and Spanish. She is presently at work on a children’s book and is pursuing a doctoral degree in alternative health care and the healing arts.

You can visit her website at www.candiscoffee.com.

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