Posts Tagged With: literary 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

Hidden Shadows, by Linda Lucretia Shuler

HiddenShadows_medTitle: Hidden Shadows

Genre: Literary

Author: Linda Lucretia Shuler

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Amazon OmniLit B&N / Twilight Times Books

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

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

Mountain Waltz

Summer, 1996        

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time and motion slowed as if in a dream.

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

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

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

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

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

God help me!

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

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

Oh, God! Oh, God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ghosts Are Singing

Summer, 1999

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

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

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

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

Oh, Mimi, how I miss you!

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

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

“I’d like to, but…”

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

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

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

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

“She can’t… hear them.”

“Hear what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I promised…”

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

“How can you say such an awful thing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bong! Tweetle-too! Cuckoo-cuckoo!

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m so sorry, I…” Cassie stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t expect a key like this.”

“You’ve not seen it before?”

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

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

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

Justin nodded. “What took you so long?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That settles that, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course! How about tomorrow at lunch?”

“That sounds delightful.”

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

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

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

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

But the day never came.

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

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

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

Categories: literary fiction | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter Reveal: The Accidental Art Thief, by Joan Schweighardt

TheAccidentalArtThief_medTitle: The Accidental Art Thief

Genre: General fiction

Author: Joan Schweighardt

Website: www.joanschweighardt.com

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Find The Accidental Thief on Amazon.

For a quarter of a century forty-five-year-old Zinc has worked as a caretaker for a wealthy old man, living in a small casita on his ranch in New Mexico. She doesn’t make much money, but she has the old man, her dogs, and gorgeous views of the mountains. She is basically a very content recluse who doesn’t invest much time thinking about what she might do if her circumstances change. So when the old man dies suddenly, and his daughter all but throws her off the property, Zinc is forced to reinvent herself—and quickly.

With a touch of magical realism and a collection of offbeat characters, The Accidental Art Thief explores the thin line between life and death and the universal forces that connect all things.

//////////////////////////////////////

THE ACCIDENTAL ART THIEF

a novel

by

Joan Schweighardt

Chapter 1

Zinc had hung feeders all along the boughs of the trees, mostly cottonwoods and piñons that she could see from the window of the casita where she lived. This way when she needed a break from the work she did at her desk, she could look up—a small window was right there—and drink in the bird life, albeit at some distance. There were greenish-brown hummingbirds and red-brown finches to be seen three seasons of the year. Sometimes there were piñon jays, their blue bodies as vivid as the desert sky overhead. At least once a week she caught sight of the local roadrunner, whom she had named Steven, after someone she had loved once, someone who had broken her heart. And once—mystery of mysteries—a peacock dropped out of the sky, spread its resplendent blue-green feathers, turned its head in the direction of the window behind which Zinc stood with one hand over her open mouth and her eyes brimming with tears of joy, and looked right at her before disappearing into the scrub. Now that was a day to remember.

But lately Zinc had begun to wonder what it would be like to work facing the mountains rather than the cottonwoods. In fact her casita did have windows facing east, but the main house, where the old man lived, obscured her view. She wondered what it would be like to work outdoors sometimes, where she might see jack rabbits running in the scrub, or maybe even a lone coyote reigning proud from some rocky outcrop. She mentioned this desire to Smith, the old man’s sometimes driver, and Smith said she should get a laptop. Smith told her there was a second-hand computer store on Central. The owner was a real geek, he said; he picked up obsolete models for next to nothing and gave them new life. His prices were extraordinarily reasonable, as if he labored merely for the love of it.

For the love of it. Zinc liked that.

*

On a Saturday Zinc walked down the dirt road from her casita to San Dominic Road, and from there she walked to the bus stop on Bonita. She preferred not to talk to strangers if she didn’t have to, so she carried with her a Macy’s shopping bag into which she’d stuffed the bathrobe she’d removed from her body earlier that morning. It still smelled faintly of the coffee she’d accidentally spilled. When the bus came, she took the seat behind the driver. Then she watched out the window, and sure enough, before long she saw the second-hand computer shop storefront, wedged in between a coffee shop and a new-age gift store that featured a large limestone Buddha in its big front window.

She took the bus a mile or so farther and then got off and awaited a return ride. This time she knew where to look and she was able to gather in more information. The computer store was called Timothy’s Second-Hand Computers, and what Zinc recognized as a very old Mac model sat in the center of the window—a bookend (in size and positioning if not in eminence) to the Buddha in the shop beside it. The Mac’s screen and the innards that should have been behind it had been removed, replaced with a roll of toilet paper, the end sheet of which stuck out from what had once been its floppy drive opening. Timothy had turned the old Mac into a toilet paper dispenser!

Zinc could drive of course, and she had a junker to prove it—a seventeen-year-old Pontiac Firebird that her brother, Frankie, had given her two years earlier. But she didn’t drive it unless she absolutely had to. Just looking at the orange-red beast with its long raised snout and angry flared nostrils, parked as it was as far from her casita as the old man would allow, seemed like a bad idea. And so the following week, late in the afternoon, she took the bus once again, this time throwing a pair of jeans and a paperback into her Macy’s bag, and getting off at the corner just before the second-hand computer store. Then she stood, hidden behind sunglasses with lenses the size of fists, her wild brown curls stuffed beneath a NY Yankees cap, leaning against the stucco wall of the Central Ave Bank, cattycorner from Timothy’s, at the point where she could see the door but could not be seen herself, attempting to determine how busy the place got. When she felt quite sure there wasn’t much traffic (in fact, the door hadn’t opened once), she crossed Central and marched in.

A little brass bell on the door announced her arrival, but Timothy, who had his back to her, only mumbled, “How ya doing?” and didn’t turn around. The table he worked over was full of computer parts, illuminated by a green goose-necked desk lamp, the bulb of which was close to the table surface.

“Fine,” she heard herself say. It came out sounding like a child’s voice. Well, that was her voice; it was high-pitched and there wasn’t much she could do about it.

“Can I help  you?” he asked, and he looked past her for a second, perhaps searching for the child he thought he’d heard.

“I’d like to buy a computer. A laptop. A used laptop. An inexpensive used laptop.” She smiled nervously.

Timothy was old, perhaps in his mid seventies. But it was only the skin on his face, which fell over his bones like carelessly hung curtain swags, that gave him away. He was trim and—she noted as he got up to round the counter—spry and surefooted. She raised her hand to her sunglasses, but then dropped it just before her fingers made contact. A moment later her hand came up again, and this time the glasses came down with it. Timothy stopped in his progress to stare into her eyes, tipping forward from his waist for the briefest moment. “The laptops are over here,” he mumbled, and he turned to show her the way.

Timothy spent the next several minutes describing the virtues of each of the four second-hand models he had available. Two were so old they didn’t even have modems. “What do you want it for?” he asked, turning toward her suddenly.

Zinc swallowed. This is what she hated. The sudden question, the switch in focus, and then the inevitable journey the interrogator always took into her eyes. Years ago, when her skin was smooth and tight, people only said, “What an unusual color your eyes are.” But now she was forty-five and there were tiny lines around her eyes, making them somehow more—not less—prominent, or so she felt. Sometimes it seemed as if they were doorways, with doors that strangers could throw open easily and walk on through. Where did they go?  What did they do in there all that time?

Caught off guard, there was no chance to come up with a lie. And the truth was Zinc was a terrible liar anyway. “I write poetry,” she said.

“For a living?” asked Timothy, sounding alarmed.

“No, I keep house.”

“For a living?” This time he chuckled.

“For an…a…man.” She’d almost said “an old man,” how she and Smith referred to him, a term of affection for them.

“Your husband?”

“My employer.”

“Full time?”

“Part time…the housekeeping. Well, actually, it’s more than that. I do other things for him. And then the poetry. I make some money now and then from that too. So if you put the two together….”  She realized she was rambling and stopped abruptly.

Timothy turned back to the computers. “You’re under the radar,” he mumbled. “One of those people who can’t manage a real job. A lot of you here in Albuquerque.”

The color came to her face immediately, a flash flood. She loved what she did. She loved her life. Why did everyone assume that if you didn’t make much money or didn’t do something glamorous, you were a loser? And wasn’t he under the radar too, working at rejuvenating dead computers in a store that nobody visited? She squared her shoulders. For the love of it indeed. But all she said was, “No.” And then she thought better of it and forced a chuckle. “Well, maybe.”

“You shouldn’t admit it,” Timothy said, turning to hand her one of the laptops. She could see in his eyes that he was serious, that he meant well. “If you make your money cleaning house for someone,” he expounded, “you should tell people you’re a personal assistant. It’s almost true if not exactly, and it sounds much better. Saying you keep house….” He shook his head. “People will make assumptions. You’ll never get anywhere. You’ll clean houses forever.” Again he took the journey into her eyes, but this time he returned much sooner. “But then you’re not all that young, are you?”

Although she wanted nothing more than to escape, she forced her feet to stay planted just where they were, because, second to escaping, she wanted a laptop. And, as Timothy had so kindly pointed out, she wasn’t a child anymore; she had learned to control her impulses. Ultimately, she chose the laptop that was least expensive—an old modem-less IBM that Timothy guaranteed would work for the next five years if she was kind to it—and took the bus home.

So lost in her thoughts was Zinc that she was briefly startled when she opened the door to her casita and was immediately charged by two dogs, her dogs, Paddy and Orlando. Paddy was six years old and appeared to be mostly golden retriever with some chow mixed in—a furry yellow dog with a black tongue that was always hanging sideways out of his mouth. Zinc had found him at the end of the dirt road that led to the property when he was a puppy. He was half starved then, and the gash on his leg indicated that a larger animal, probably a coyote protecting her pups, had tried to warn him away. (If a coyote had really wanted to hurt him, it would have gone for his throat, and given his size at the time, Paddy would not have survived.) Paddy was sweet and intelligent, but he was also suspicious when there were strangers about, generally up at the old man’s house as Zinc didn’t get visitors herself. Orlando was a beagle mix, about four years old. He had come from a shelter just over two years ago. This was back before the old man’s legs had gotten so bad, back when he could still get around with a cane on one side and someone’s arm on the other. He’d heard that his neighbor’s dog had run away, and since the neighbor was in worse physical shape that he was, and didn’t have a driver to chauffer him around, the old man volunteered to have Smith take them both to the shelter to look for the Doberman, Gilly. Gilly wasn’t there, but the old man saw Orlando dancing at the bars of his cage, and he imagined that the beagle would be the perfect companion for Paddy, that Paddy might relax if he had a younger dog to play with. So he brought him home and told Zinc if she didn’t want him, or if Paddy wouldn’t tolerate him, it wasn’t a problem; the shelter would take him back. But both Zinc and Paddy fell in love with him immediately and that was the end of that.

Once she had greeted her dogs, given them each a biscuit and let them out, Zinc let the “under the radar” remark go down the drain, literally. It was a trick her father had taught her when she was a child (back in rural upstate New York, a couple hours north and west of New York City) and would come home crying because someone had teased her or called her a name at school. He would drag a wooden bench over to the kitchen sink and have her step up on it. Then he would turn on the faucet and Zinc would repeat the words that had hurt her so (“weirdo,” “mute,” “witch eyes,”) and together they would wash them down the drain. They had done this so many times and with such zeal that both believed that they could “see” the insults swirling drainward. “Go play, now,” her father would say, and she would, skipping outdoors, her curly brown pigtails flying out on either side of her head, calling out her brother’s name, Frankie, Frankie, who, her father hoped, would watch after her after he and his wife were gone—because a sixth sense told him they would never reach old age.

Zinc had been working for the old man and living in the casita behind his house for twenty-five years now, since the year after her parents died, the same year Steven left, and she did not love the place any less. It had been built over one hundred years ago, from adobe. Although it had been upgraded with central cooling and heating, Zinc seldom needed temperature control. The adobe stored and released the heat slowly, keeping her little house cool in summer and warm in winter, except when the temperatures were extreme. It was almost as if she were living in something that was alive itself.

Her little casita was beautiful in its simplicity; all the walls were painted a warm white and all eight-hundred square feet of flooring was covered with a red-gold Mexican saltillo tile. Her furnishings had all come from the old man’s house over the years, odd pieces that he no longer needed, and all of it was Mexican as well. And then there was the art. The old man was a collector, and each time he brought new paintings into his house, he would pass the old ones on to Zinc. His daughter, whose name was Marge, liked to carry the smaller ones over herself, probably, Zinc thought, so that she could remind her each time that some of the paintings were of considerable value and that Zinc must never never come to think of them as anything but a loan. As if Zinc could ever forget that.

Zinc did not have a land line or a cell phone. She did not have a TV or an MP3 or an iPod or a digital camera. She had a radio. And she had a computer, now two of them, and while the new one was modem-less, the Internet that worked through her desktop model had become her connection to the world. She had even made a few friends over the Internet, most of them editors of literary magazines who considered—and sometimes accepted—her poetry for their quarterly or biannual publications.

She opened her new used laptop on the kitchen table and plugged in the charger. In addition to the Word program that she planned to make good use of, there were a half dozen others. She was delighted to see that one was a chess game, and that you could “zoom” it up to be the size of the screen. She and the old man played chess all the time. She couldn’t imagine playing chess with a computer herself, but the old man might enjoy it. He got so lonely sometimes. And now his eyes were so bad that he could no longer read. She read to him frequently, but never for more than an hour at a time, because she was prone to sore throats. He listened to audio books, but he said it wasn’t the same. They made him sleepy. He hated to sleep, because he had nightmares much of the time.

Zinc thought he must have read more books in his life than any ten people she knew, not that she actually knew ten people. He could remember everything too, even information from books he’d read back when he was quite young. Although his tastes ran toward histories and biographies and hers toward fiction and poetry, they could spend hours talking about books; they could spend hours talking, period.

While the computer charged, Zinc heated leftovers from a casserole she’d made for the old man the evening before: artichoke hearts, spinach and chicken tenders. She called the dogs in and fed them and let them out again. When she finally allowed herself to look at the digital indicator on the computer screen, she saw that the charging had progressed only to fifty percent of capacity, but it would have to do.

Zinc pulled out the cord and closed the laptop and hurried out of the house. Her breath caught immediately and she stopped in her tracks, the laptop crushed to her chest. There was a moment every evening when the setting sun was exactly opposite the mountains, and if one were lucky enough to catch it, one could see the Sandias (sandia meant watermelon in Spanish) turn pink. Not just light pink, but if conditions were right, shocking pink, a kind of otherworldly fuchsia that made the heart pump faster.

Almost as soon as it began it was over. The mountain turned gray and the sun was on its way again, descending over the volcanoes to the west. The spectacle moved Zinc to run, something she did occasionally when no one was around. Orlando and Paddy, who had been resting together under a pine tree, saw her and rose simultaneously to join in the fun. With the dogs at her heels, Zinc ran across the yard, along the slate path through the garden, and started up the slate stairs. The stairs were beautiful. The old man had built them himself, years ago, back when his wife was alive and his children were young. They were encased in stone and featured stone risers. He had gathered the stones himself, from multiple hiking trips taken into the mountains with his loved ones.

Zinc was almost to his door when the toe of her leather sandal caught and she fell forward. Of course she had to drop the computer to keep from landing flat on her face. She sat up and immediately burst into tears. Her new computer—which had cost her two trips to town and half of the money she’d saved in the glass jar she kept on top of the refrigerator—had to be broken. There went sitting outdoors facing the mountain. There went who knows how many poems about coyotes, about jack rabbits running through the brush. Orlando licked her. Paddy moaned as if he knew exactly how she felt.

Under the radar.

 

The door opened slowly beside her. She looked up expecting to see the old man looming over her. She always praised him when he came to the door with his walker instead of waiting in his wheelchair for her to open it herself. He needed more exercise. He was a small man now, the size of a twelve-year-old boy. He suffered from, among other things, kyphosis, a hunched back. A very hunched back. It made him look like a troll. But it was not the old man’s troll face that Zinc found herself staring up at. It was his daughter, Marge. “What are you doing on the ground?” she asked impatiently, in a shrill voice. “And why are you crying? And where were you this afternoon?”

Zinc got up slowly, lifting the laptop from the slate as she did. She could feel movement, things inside slipping around. She glanced over her shoulder at the driveway. Usually when Marge was there she parked out in front of the house, where a delivery person might park—which made sense because she never stayed any longer than a delivery person would. Now Zinc saw that Marge’s car was beside the workshop. She could see the bumper of the dark red PT Cruiser. If she had known Marge was there, she wouldn’t have run across the yard, and then she wouldn’t have dropped and broken her new computer. “He’s all right, isn’t he?” she asked.

Marge folded her thin arms beneath her small breasts. “No,” she snapped. “He’s not all right.” She looked upward and took a breath. “He took a fall. Down the stairs. Right here. Where were you all afternoon, Kathryn?”

“What do you mean, he took a fall? How?”

Marge unfolded her arms and thrust them out, exasperated. “He must have been feeling badly. I don’t know. He must have wanted something. He must have tried to get you on the intercom and then gone outside to see if you were in the yard. And he must have tripped.” She took another swallow of air. Her arms fell to her sides. “Peter found him. He’s dead.”

* * *

Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Soul of the City by John McMillan Book Blitz – Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

407370_BookBlast_L1

 

9781491714386_COVER_FQA.inddTitle: The Soul of the City
Author: John McMillan
Publisher: iUniverse
Pages: 310
Genre: Literary Fiction
Format: Kindle

Purchase at AMAZON

The Soul of the City is a tale of two cities, Belfast and London, in the heady, liberating days of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young Jim Mitchell moves through a succession of jobs, girlfriends and apartments in the quest for personal fulfillment and his dream of becoming a writer in the face of often dispiriting circumstances. There is the trauma of his affair with Maureen, an older, married woman, and the trap of his career on the unrelenting white-collar production line of the “Ministry of Truth”, against the background of civil rights protest and the onset of the troubles in Belfast.

Escaping to the space and freedom of London, Jim tries to live the dream of the bohemian writer but all too soon there is the pressing need to earn a living in the more mundane occupations on offer in the metropolis. Just when all seems lost, Jim meets and falls in love with the beautiful Anglo- Irish student Bridget and is drawn into an exciting student-hippy milieu of experimentation, idealism and fun.

However, such pleasures are by definition transient and the young couple, Jim and Bridget, must strike out on their own, exploring love, intimacy and enlightenment together in their ongoing search for the soul of the city.

amazon

 

John McMillan writes with an unfailing eye for the telling detail and an irrepressible native humour. He balances an acute social awareness and sense of history with a strong lyrical feeling for the underlying meaning and beauty of life.

The search for the soul of the city is nothing less than the search for the soul of a man and a woman in our time.

 

Pump Up Your Book and John McMillan are teaming up to give you a chance to win a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

645

Terms & Conditions:
  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • One winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter to receive one $25 Amazon Gift Certificate or Paypal Cash.
  • This giveaway begins June 2 and ends on June 14.
  • Winners will be contacted via email on Monday, June 16.
  • Winner has 48 hours to reply.

Good luck everyone!

ENTER TO WIN!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Categories: Book Blitz | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

MARIPOSA by Candis C. Coffee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author:

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

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

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

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

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

%d bloggers like this: