Posts Tagged With: Historical Fiction

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

Chapter Reveal: The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy, by Graciela Limón

ximenaTitleThe Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy

Genre:  Historical Fiction

Author:  Graciela Limón

Website www.gracielalimon.com

Publisher:  Café Con Leche

Purchase on Amazon 

The Intriguing Life of Ximena Godoy follows the story of a woman from very early life to maturity.  Her tale takes place in the early to mid-twentieth century unfolding first in her native Mexico, and ending in Los Angeles, California.  It is a story of love and revenge told against the historical events of Revolution, Repatriation, War and Peace.  When Ximena Godoy falls into the abyss of crime, she faces the punishment demanded of that crime.

The Beginning

XIMENA GODOY stood in the empty cocktail lounge, struggling to catch her breath. It was just before daybreak, on an early December morning, She had sprinted up the stairs to glare out the window at the commotion below. After a moment, Ximena opened her fur coat, fumbled to feel the wetness, then jerked her hands away and wrapped the coat tighter to cover the blood. On impulse, she reached for a cigarette and her lighter, but when she flipped the lid, the metallic click was so chilling that her hand shuddered violently. Once the cigarette was lit, she sucked in a long drag, inhaling deeply into her lungs, and waited for the jumpiness to pass.

Ximena tried to shake off the terror gripping her, but her mind slipped and staggered as she relived the moment when Camilo’s body had crumpled onto the street. She still felt the impact of falling onto her knees and hunching back on her heels, holding his bleeding head on her lap. Now, trembling, she looked out the window and muttered, “It’s done.” She took another drag on her cigarette, but the steadying calm she needed from the cigarette still didn’t kick in; the earthquake inside her continued—it just would not go away. Again, she glanced out the window and this time saw the coroner’s ambulance pull up next to the man’s body sprawled on the street.

Los Angeles 1950

The nightclub faced Sunset Boulevard, on that half curve4 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

just before it intersected with Alvarado Street, so from her vantage point Ximena could see up and down the street. As she watched, it filled with cops piling out of black-and-white patrol cars, cherry lights whirring, splashing the damp pavement with flickering shadows. Some of the officers were busy writing; others exchanged words about the killing that had happened less than an hour before. On the opposite side of the street, a couple of newspaper reporters haggled over a camera and the pictures they had taken.

Ximena was taking it all in; she wasn’t about to miss anything. She watched when the rear panels of the ambulance swung open and two orderlies jumped out to help ease the gurney down next to the corpse. She stared as they paused, took a breath and then heaved the body up onto the stretcher, and just then she took a good look at Camilo’s blood-soaked head and shirt. His tie hung limply around his neck, and that sight made her hand shake so hard that the ash from the cigarette flaked onto the front of her coat.

The lounge was dark, lit only by the flickering reflections that bounced up off the street and smeared onto the ceiling. For a moment Ximena looked around at the rows of cocktail tables piled with upside-down chairs. At the end of the room, glittering in strange reddish shadows, was the long bar that had been so jammed with carousing, smoking customers just a few hours before. Nervously looking for an ashtray, Ximena moved closer to the bar, and for an instant she glimpsed her reflection in the darkened mirror behind the rows of colored bottles. She took a hard look and saw an angular face, its sharp features drawn by a startled expression.

It didn’t cross her mind that most people thought her looks were very special, even now at fifty. Maybe it was her smooth skin, or that pile of black hair, that made her so attractive; or it could have been the way she strutted on those high-heeled platform shoes; or perhaps the way her shoulders shimmied just a little when she spoke. On the other hand, she was actually more striking than pretty. When she glanced at a man, he got the message right away, and could be enticed to be by her side in a split second. Women, too, responded to her looks. They saw that she had a certain allure, a natural glamour and grace that

GRACIELA LIMÓN 5

made her striking. They knew that it came from inside her, and it made her different from other women.

Some people knew that despite her good looks and what they saw on the outside, the real Ximena Godoy was a closed book. Others said all sorts of things about her, especially that she didn’t know how to love, and that her life’s path was littered with withered love affairs. Well, that might have been so, but who really knew? Maybe it was just that she was reserved and solitary, or maybe the truth was that no one really knew her, and so they had no right to talk.

Ximena’s mind was fixed on her mirrored image when the flashing lights suddenly jerked her back to the scene down below. She turned, still searching for an ashtray, but she couldn’t find one so she let the ashy butt drop onto the floor and then absentmindedly squashed it with her foot.

“Mrs. Ibarra?”

The detective called out Ximena’s name twice before she turned to look, but it took her a moment to make out the man moving toward her. He was dressed in the style of the times: dark flannel suit with a matching tie and vest; a fedora pulled low on his forehead, an unbuttoned raincoat over his suit. In general, the detective cut a heavy-set figure, maybe a little out of shape.

When Ximena didn’t answer, he repeated, “Mrs. Ibarra?” She finally spoke up, “Miss Godoy.”

“What? Sorry! I didn’t catch what you just said.”

“I said, I’m Miss Godoy.”

“I thought you were… ”

“Married to the dead guy? No. We were partners, not married. My name is Ximena Godoy.”

“Right! Well, miss, I’m Detective Poole with Homicide. We need a statement from you. You’ll have to come with us to the station.”

“Why? Don’t you get the picture? There was a holdup and my partner was shot dead. We were robbed. What more do you need?”

“A lot more, Miss…”

“Godoy!”

“Right! You’re the only witness. We need to ask you some

6 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

questions and get a signed statement from you.” “Now?”

“Yeah!”

“How will I get home?”

“Someone will drive you when we’re finished.”

Ximena leaned against the bar as she reached for another

cigarette, but when she held the lighter to its tip she, realized that her hand was shaking even more than before. She glanced at the detective and caught his sharp eyes taking in her nervousness, so she hid one hand in her pocket and tried to steady the one holding the cigarette.

“All right, let’s go.”

Once in the vehicle, she crouched into a corner; she was scared, and the dark streets didn’t help her get hold of her nerves. It was December in Los Angeles, with one of those drizzles: just enough rain to muddy pavements and cars. Inside the car, the swishing sounds of tires on the pavement and the back-and- forth rhythm of the windshield wipers broke the eerie silence.

The patrol car reached the precinct entrance and pulled up to the curb. When the vehicle stopped, Ximena pulled the collar of her coat high around her neck, stepped out and quickly climbed the steps to the front door. Inside she found Detective Poole waiting and ready to open a door into a small office. Without saying a word, he motioned with his head for her to step in. When she did, he followed and then pointed to a chair facing another man sitting behind a desk. The seated man was wearing a hat but not a jacket; his tie was loosened at the collar, and his face showed signs of serious fatigue.

“Thanks, Poole, and that’s it for now.” The man turned to Ximena, “Sit there, Ma’am. I’m Detective Tieg, Poole’s partner.” Then he reached into his shirt pocket for a cigarette, lit it, and Ximena did the same. He spoke with a drawl, as if perhaps he was from Texas, or maybe Oklahoma. He then pushed back his hat, giving her a clear view of his face: lean and craggy with flinty blue eyes.

The room was dim, lit by an overhead fluorescent light that cast a grayish tint on their faces; even Ximena’s coffee- toned complexion looked ashy. The bad lighting was made worse by heavy cigarette smoke, so it took her a few minutes

GRACIELA LIMÓN 7

to see that over in the corner was another cop sitting behind a typewriter, evidently ready to take down her statement. Tieg slid a form toward Ximena: “Fill this in. We need your full name and address. When you do that much, then we can get to your statement.”

Ximena filled in the blanks and then pushed the sheet back toward the detective who was rubbing his face, evidently trying to get new energy. He muttered, “Okay. Let’s start at the beginning. About what time did it happen?”

She said, “About three.”

“What makes you think that?”

“We usually close the club at two in the morning. We had

already done that.”

“What happened during the hour between closing time and

when the robbery came off?”

“Camilo and I stayed behind to have a nightcap. We

do…did that all the time.” With that, Ximena turned to look at the man tapping out the questions and answers and wondered how he kept up, but she knew from the clicking and pauses that he was catching every word. Then Tieg asked, “What happened next?”

“As always, we closed the place and headed for the car.” “Where was it parked?”

“Around the corner.”

“Where did the robber jump you guys? Were you in front of

the club or down the street?”

“We had just come out so we must’ve been in front of the

club.”

“Where did he come from? The side? Or maybe from another

doorway?”

“I’m not sure. I think he came from behind us.”

“Did you see his face?”

“I turned when I heard his voice, but I couldn’t see his face

because it was covered.” “Covered?”

“Yes. He had a handkerchief tied over his nose down to his chin. And his hat was so low, all I made out were his eyes.”

“Is that when he pointed the gun at you?” “Yes.”

8 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

“Right or left hand?”

“I didn’t notice.”

“You said that you heard his voice. Was there anything about

it that caught your attention? Anything like a funny accent or drawl?”

“No. All he said was ‘Gimme the satchel.’ His voice was ordinary. Nothing different about it.”

“What about his eyes?”

“What about them?”

“Well, were they slanted, like a chinaman’s?”

“No they were regular.”

“What does that mean?”

“I mean they were round.”

“Was the guy a metzican or a negro?”

“He wasn’t a negro. If you mean mexican, then maybe he

was, but then maybe he wasn’t.”

Tieg made a sour face. “What about his size? Short? Tall?

Fat? Skinny?”

“He looked about six feet and he wasn’t fat.”

“Was he dressed like a bum, or like just another gigolo who

might’ve been in the club dancing and drinking?”

“He wasn’t a tramp. He was dressed in a dark suit and overcoat.” And after a pause Ximena said, “What do you mean,

‘gigolo’?”

“Never mind! Was there anybody else with you and Mr.

Ibarra? The barkeep, or maybe a waiter?” “No.”

“Why not?”

“Camilo didn’t think he needed anybody tonight.”

“Okay, let’s go back to when the guy ordered Mr. Ibarra to

pass the satchel. What then?”

“Camilo snapped, ‘No!’ Then the guy grabbed the bag, but at

the same time Camilo tried to rip off his mask.”

“Did he rip it off?”

At that point Ximena seemed out of breath. She finally

mumbled “No!”

Although he noticed that she was shaky, the detective still

pushed for more information. “Go on!”

“They fought over the bag, real hard, going back and forth.”

GRACIELA LIMÓN 9

Her voice was rough with strain but she went on. “Then I grabbed the guy from behind, by the collar, and I made him lose his balance. He nearly fell. Then the gun went off.”

“Went off? Like, an accident?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. There was a shot. That’s all I remember.”

“And then?”

“And then he pulled the bag from Camilo’s hands and ran away.”

“In what direction?”

“I don’t know. Away from us.”

“Then what did you do?”

“The next thing I remember I was on my knees with Camilo’s

head on my lap. He was shot through the head. He didn’t stand a chance.” At that point Ximena was finding it hard to breathe so she clammed up. The tapping of the machine stopped. Everything stopped. Even Detective Tieg let up on the questions, but after a while he went on. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I have to ask questions about you and the victim. What was he to you?”

“He was my partner.” Her voice was a whisper.

Tieg glared at her and then asked, “What kind of partner?” “Business,” she answered.

“Is that all?”

This time, it was Ximena who glared at him and said, “What

do you mean?” Tieg squirmed a little. “I have Mr. Ibarra’s driver’s license here, and it shows the same address as the one you just gave on this form.”

“Yes, we lived together.”

“Then I’d say that he was more than a business partner.” “And you want to know if we slept together.” Ximena’s retort

was quick and wrapped in sarcasm.

Tieg countered, “Well, you said it, I didn’t, but now that it’s

out, what about it? Did you or didn’t you?”

“Yes, we slept together. What’s that got to do with the

robbery and Camilo’s death?”

Without hesitating he snapped back, “I can’t tell right now,

maybe later.”

“Look, Detective, I’m tired and real upset. I’m going home.” “Just a couple more questions before we finish. How did the

10 THE INTRIGUING LIFE OF XIMENA GODOY

thief know that Mr. Ibarra had money in the bag?” “I don’t know.”

“How much was in the satchel?”

“About ten thousand.”

Tieg whistled through his long front teeth. “Christ! That’s a lot of dough! Was that just one night’s work?”

“No. It was money that came in during the week. We kept it in a safe until Sunday when we took it home for Camilo to deposit Monday morning.”

“Is that what you always did?”

“Yes.”

“Besides you, who else knew your routine?”

“I don’t know if Camilo told anyone.”

“How about you? Did you ever tell anyone?”

“No.”

Tieg stared at Ximena, and she guessed that his eyes were

snooping for scraps of information that she might be holding back. When she sensed that he was trying to catch her in a lie she shut up and waited until he spoke. “Okay, ma’am, that’s it for now. Don’t leave your place in case we have to reach you.”

A short time later the patrol car slid through the now- awakening streets off Sunset Boulevard. When the vehicle pulled up to the curb in front of her house, Ximena didn’t wait for the driver to come around to the door before she pushed it open, jumped out onto the walkway leading to the front of her house, and in moments she stood facing the front door. “Jesus, why did I let Tieg rattle me? He saw through me, and I let him do it,” she muttered until she finally reached into her bag for the key, but because her hand was shaking so hard she fumbled around for a while before she found it.

When she finally made it through the door the house was shrouded in early morning shadows, but Ximena didn’t put on a light. Instead she kicked off her shoes, slipped out of the coat, stripped away the bloodied dress and let it fall on the floor. She kicked it aside. The place was cold so she headed to the bedroom to find something to pull on, and there she found the robe she had left on the bed the night before.

Thinking of Camilo, she absentmindedly put on the wrap and waited to warm up. Ximena returned to the front room

GRACIELA LIMÓN 11

where she lingered in the long shadows creeping in through the windows. She went to the liquor cabinet, poured a drink, helped herself to a cigarette, lit it, and then she went to the sofa where she sat trying to put things together, all the while smoking and exhaling thick coils of smoke that spiraled up toward the white plaster ceiling. Unmoving, she stared at the shadowy patterns inching across the floor. Daylight was making its way into the room.

Ximena scanned the room: high ceiling, bricked fireplace, polished wood floors, plush woven rugs. She sipped while taking drags on the cigarette, and when it burned down she lit another one, and yet another one. All the while she was lost in thought, reliving the events of the night that ended with Camilo shot through the head. Then, too agitated and nervous to sit, she got to her feet and paced the room while she drank, smoked and thought. The cops will wise up. They’ll track down Chucho Arana, and he’ll talk. The thought of her lover made her stomach churn. I’ll disappear. Just become invisible. Who’s to know? Then, suddenly struck with another thought, she stopped. Wouldn’t that prove that I’m guilty? With that idea Ximena returned to the couch; she decided to take a chance and stay put.

Ximena felt alone and scared as she sat in the gloomy room staring at nothing, but relieved when after a while she felt herself calming down. Maybe to escape those fears and anxieties bearing down on her, or maybe searching for a way out, she shut her eyes and let her memory take flight back to the beginnings of her life.

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‘A Decent Woman,’ by Eleanor Parker Sapia

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

Purchase on Amazon

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

Chapter One

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

Playa de Ponce, Porto Rico  ~ July 1, 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Historical Fiction | Tags: | Leave a comment

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

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

Purchase at AMAZON

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

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

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

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

Book Excerpt:

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

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

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

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

“It don’t say that.”

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

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

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

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

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

Bombs away over Nazareth

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

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

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

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

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

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

Then Like the Blind Man by Freddie Owens

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

Purchase at AMAZON

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

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

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

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

CHAPTER ONE

EVERYBODY ON EDGE

Thursday, June 6th 1959

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missy couldn’t read.

“Piss with care,” I said.

“Oh Orbie, you said a bad word.”

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

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

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

“It don’t say that.”

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

“It don’t say that.”

“Does too.”

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

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

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

Bombs away over Nazareth

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

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

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

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

I liked to watch them bust on the road.

“Pretty country, Kentucky,” Victor said.

**

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

“Get off me,” Missy said.

“I ain’t bothering you.”

“Yes you are.”

“But Missy, look!”

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

Missy’s eyes widened.  “Who is that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Missy backed away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Marilyn Monroe.  Like in the movies. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How you been daughter?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He’ll fill out,” Momma said.

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

“Orbie, be good now,” Momma said.

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

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

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

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

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

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

“He’ll be all right,” Granny said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anything,” Victor said.

“What?”

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

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

Cut him Granpaw!  Knock that cigar out his mouth!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“For telling the truth?”

“For insulting him!”

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

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

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

“Get down here!” Victor yelled.

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

“I don’t want you to go,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bye Momma!  Bye Missy!”  I yelled.

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

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

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

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I, Walter by Mike Hartner

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

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

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

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

First Chapter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I dipped the quill and put it to parchment again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What about meat?”

“We’re not ready for meat yet.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AXE OF IRON by J.A. Hunsinger

axe-of-ironAuthor: J.A. Hunsinger
Title: Axe of Iron: The Settlers
Hardcover: 384 pages
Publisher: Vinland Publishing (Aug. 2008)
Genre: Historical Fiction
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0980160103
ISBN-13: 978-0980160109

First Sentence: The sun appeared as a dull orange orb through the haze and sea mist as it began to rise above the horizon..

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The first novel of a continuing character-driven tale of a medieval people whose wanderlust and yearning for adventure cause them to leave the two established settlements on Greenland and sail west, to the unexplored land later referred to as Vinland.

Eirik the Red established Eiriksfjord in 986 and later Lysufjord, 400-miles to the north. Just 22-years later, new settlers from the homelands found all the best land already occupied, the fragile Arctic environment strained by too many people and animals on too little arable land.

Under the capable leadership of Halfdan Ingolfsson and his lieutenant, Gudbjartur Einarsson, 315 men, women, and children set sail from Greenland in the spring of 1008, bound for the unexplored continent across the western ocean.

Standing in their way are uncounted numbers of indigenous people, the pre-historical ancestors of the Cree (Naskapi), Ojibwa (Anishinabeg), and Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Indians. From the outset, these native people strenuously resist the incursion of these tall, pale-skinned invaders.

Two calamitous events occur that pave the way for the hostile beginnings of an assimilation process to occur between these disparate peoples. The way is rocky and fraught with danger at every turn, but the acceptance and friendship that develops between the Northmen and the Naskapi over an affair of honor, the eventual acceptance of a young boy of the Northmen by his Haudenosaunee captors, and a scenario that seems ordained by the will of the gods, makes it all begin to fall into place, as it must for the Northmen to survive.

See the saga unfold, in this first book of the Axe of Iron series, through the eyes of the characters as each day brings a continuation of the toil, love, hardship, and danger that they come to expect in this unforgiving new land.

ja-hunsingerJ. A. Hunsinger lives in Colorado, USA, with his wife Phyllis. The first novel of his character-driven, historical fiction series, Axe of Iron: The Settlers, represents his first serious effort to craft the story of a lifelong interest in the Viking Age—especially as it pertains to Norse exploration west of Iceland—and extensive research and archaeological site visitations as an amateur historian. He has tied the discovery of many of the Norse artifacts found on this continent to places and events portrayed in his novels.

Much of his adult life has been associated with commercial aviation, both in and out of the cockpit. As an Engineering Technical Writer for Honeywell Commercial Flight Systems Group, Phoenix, AZ, he authored two comprehensive pilots’ manuals on aircraft computer guidance systems and several supplemental aircraft radar manuals. His manuals were published and distributed worldwide to airline operators by Honeywell Engineering, Phoenix, AZ. He also published an article, Flight Into Danger, in Flying Magazine, (August 2002).

Historical Novel Society, American Institute of Archaeology, Canadian Archaeology Association, and IBPA-Independent Book Publishers Association, are among the fraternal and trade organizations in which he holds membership.

You can visit his website at www.vinlandpublishing.com.

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

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