M.J. Iuppa is the Director of the Visual and Performing Arts Minor Program and Lecturer in Creative Writing at St. John Fisher College; and since 2000 to present, is a part time lecturer in Creative Writing at The College at Brockport. Since 1986, she has been a teaching artist, working with students, K-12, in Rochester, NY, and surrounding area. She has three full length poetry collections, most recently Small Worlds Floating (2016) as well as Within Reach (2010) both from Cherry Grove Collections; Night Traveler (Foothills Publishing, 2003); and 5 chapbooks. She lives on a small farm in Hamlin NY.
Waking before any sign of dawn crept over the town’s snowy
rooftops, she felt the tingle of ants marching in her cramped
hands. She steadied herself against the vanity’s basin & stared
at her face floating like a balloon in the mirror. Her breath’s fog
against the glass made her realize she needed to do something.
Close work quieted her mind’s electricity. If she could cut out
patterns of fabric that matched her feelings, she’d let them come
& go in the pulse of needle & thread, quilting what she couldn’t
bear. Beneath her fingertips, she sensed each stitch, undone.
Talking to her isn’t conversation, it’s a monologue.
What is the point? Listen, no one can take that pug
face seriously. What could anyone offer to calm this
battle-axe? A cup of Earl Grey, a nod of confidence
when, in fact, they thinks she’s nothing more than
a caustic blowhard. Who in their right mind would
wrestle her to the ground for her bag of beaded misery?
Yet, there’s one thing that makes her intimidating, and
they all agree, that she knows how to leave red wheals
of punctuation in any argument.
An Essential Still Life
Garbage plate: two grizzly hamburgers smothered in everything— onions,
mustard, ketchup, pickles, and hot sauce; mac salad and cheddar fries
served in a styrofoam container, with plastic spork, and one paper napkin.
A cure for the pain in your head, the on-coming hangover that will make
you regret knowing the names of 100 craft beers. They were impressed
with your ability to swallow pickled eggs whole. They tried to make you
choke. Amateurs, you think. What’s worse? Finding the stain on your
new silk shirt, or stumbling home alone— flushed by winter air—bankrupt
of honor— speed-dialing their numbers?
Far from Perfect
An unexplained bruise blooms on the back of her left
hand: bluegreenyellow. It hurts like a mother, Kit says
on the phone to her best friend who just lost her cat.
Her kind friend barely sniffles for a hand that seems
to be a well-versed weapon— the way Kit reacts with-
out blinking twice. I don’t remember doing it, she blurts.
Relax— it happens, her friend says, looking at the damage
left in her tiny kitchen— empty wine bottles, glasses &
plates, silos of cigarette ash left on the sill. Where to start?
She sorely misses lover-girl, her reliable cat.
Donal Mahoney, a native of Chicago, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. He has worked as an editor for The Chicago Sun-Times, Loyola University Press and Washington University in St. Louis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in various publications, including The Wisconsin Review, The Kansas Quarterly, The South Carolina Review, The Christian Science Monitor, Commonweal, Guwahatian Magazine (India), The Galway Review (Ireland), Public Republic (Bulgaria), The Osprey Review (Wales), The Istanbul Literary Review (Turkey) and other magazines. Some of his work can be found at http://eyeonlifemag.com/the-poetry-locksmith/donal-mahoney-poet.html#sthash.OSYzpgmQ.dpbs
Henry Showed Wendy His Paintings
Henry and Wendy Throckmorton had been married a week when Henry took Wendy to his garret 100 miles south of their estate in posh Kenilworth, a suburb of Chicago. Wendy thought she was going on a delayed honeymoon. Henry had never told her that he was a painter by avocation. She knew only that he was a successful patent attorney and had a large, profitable practice.
There was a heavy snowfall that evening and it made the trip for Wendy, looking out the window of the car, all the more beautiful. They arrived at the garret around midnight and walked up three flights of stairs in the dark. It was good that Henry had brought his flashlight. He used three keys on a long silver chain to open three locks on the steel door. Once inside the garret, Henry turned on the light with triumph.
"Voila!" he said as he turned slowly in a circle with arms outstretched.
Wendy was certainly surprised. There were paintings all over the walls. Other paintings, half completed, sat on their easels waiting for Henry. He explained to Wendy that she was the first person to see his work--his work of a lifetime. He had never shown his work to anyone before but now that they were married, he felt she had a right to see it.
"Wendy, you are the one person I know who is qualified to see my work and I am very happy about that."
Wendy had been curator of several art collections at prestigious museums in a number of cities. As soon as she was settled in her new home, she planned to seek similar employment in Chicago, perhaps at a small private gallery so she would have less pressure and more time to make a nice home for Henry who had been a bachelor for a long time.
Wendy was an expert in watercolors, Henry's medium of choice. With his encouragement, she walked around the garret slowly, looking at every painting on the walls and even those on the easels before she said anything.
Finally, choosing her words carefully, she told Henry his work was "interesting." She did not praise or condemn any particular painting. She spoke quietly, trying her best to say something nice when her professional assessment told her just the opposite--the work was mediocre, mundane at best. Later on, Henry thought to himself that Wendy had looked bemused after reviewing his life's work.
Henry Throckmorton earned his living as an attorney but that was simply to buy the time necessary to paint. Before marrying Wendy he had spent weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret, painting night and day for many years. He had done well as an attorney but painting was his passion. He knew now, however, that the canvases he thought so highly of had failed to impress his young wife.
Henry drove home alone that night and told everyone at work the next day that Wendy had left him without notice. He called her parents and cried on the telephone about her sudden departure. He begged them to ask Wendy to call him if they heard from her and he said he would call them if she called him. He asked her mother if Wendy had ever gone off on her own before and she assured him that Wendy had not.
No one ever saw Wendy Throckmorton again. Over the years, her parents had died, still worried about Wendy. Since she had been an only child, there were no siblings to ask about her. It was obvious to the staff in Henry's office that he was in no mood to discuss her. They felt the man was brokenhearted.
Once again, Henry was spending weekends, holidays and vacations at his garret painting in watercolors. No one since Wendy had seen his work nor had anyone else visited his garret. Paintings were still everywhere, their number increasing as a result of Henry's ever-increasing frenzy for painting.
A wonderful cook, Henry still stored a few steaks in a small refrigerator in the kitchen but he no longer hung big cuts of beef from hooks in the walk-in freezer at the back of the garret. That freezer had been a selling point when Henry bought the place from a retired butcher many years ago. But now Henry never went into the freezer. In fact, he didn't know where he had put the keys to the locks he himself had installed on the freezer door after Wendy had disappeared.
In addition to being good at the law and enjoying painting, Henry Throckmorton had always been handy with tools. He had hoped some day to try his hand at ice sculpture but he would have to do that outside now and not in the freezer as he had once planned.
Keith Robbins (writing prose as K.L. Slaughter) is a semiretired proofreader. His novellas’ characters Rory, Esther, and Red Top are based (somewhat loosely) on himself, his wife Paula, and their great feline companion--now age 17--whose name was not changed. The voice here is formal yet self-mocking, with a generous dose of the colloquial usually in close juxtaposition. Mr. Robbins also has written perhaps a dozen poems, and one of his latest, “Plainsong,” appeared in The Squawk Back in December 2016. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Long Way Home
Who is not mesmerized by a river’s flow? By day, sparkling beneath the sun and dappled by cloud shapes; on a clear night, ink dark and somehow deeper beneath the moon and stars. But what of underground rivers, whose movement cannot be seen, but only felt if you entered their flow, and trusted to a destination unknown? No fanciful clouds remind you of darting schools of fish or cotton candy or ships with billowing sails, happy childhood things. No cottonwoods line the shore, winking beneath the sun and smelling like water, if water had a smell. No flowers or tall grasses throw color and scent with the sun’s building heat. There is only you, and the darkness, and a future you may or may not welcome. But one thing is certain: You will arrive somewhere, and you will be asked to make your way in a place that is utterly foreign to you, or if familiar, with the familiarity of a dream you cannot quite remember.
We have often extolled the harmonious domestic relations attendant in the everyday life of our four protagonists—husband and wife Rory and Esther, and their feline companions Red Top and Omar—and the more fastidious reader would scarcely miss the mark in suspecting the authenticity of so much sweetness and light.
Indeed, in several more whimsical tales, we have witnessed the delight of this or that character in the embarrassment or discomfiture of another Castle denizen. It would not be an exaggeration to state forthrightly that each and every one of our heroes—up to and including the recently added raven, Lucifer—had an acutely developed sense of schadenfreude--that wonderful (well, at least wonderfully useful) German term signifying the experience of pleasure at the misfortunes of others. The author must stipulate, however, that this particular schadenfreude, this seemingly endemic Castle contagion,
was not, and could never be, the product of diseased or truly malevolent minds; no, it
was simply a matter of a perhaps overly expansive—even unruly--joie de vivre, of
the irrepressible spontaneity of four (now five) distinctly different, but uniformly
But it was a deeper motive than schadenfreude, and a series of circumstances that strained domestic civility nearly to the breaking point, that saw the creation and uncertain flowering of the Red Top Detective Agency. And so we begin our journey.
It was not long on the heels of l’affaire Grinfels—the loyal (or at least vaguely addicted) reader will recall that ultimately edifying tale where we first meet our intrepid quartet—and a justifiably proud Rory could perhaps rightfully claim a somewhat extended hiatus from the workaday world. After all, he had pursued the archvillain unceasingly for fully twenty years! But the Grinfels case, for all its satisfactory conclusion, for all its free publicity, had been a pro bono venture, and the Castle economy could not be long sustained through the sole contribution of Esther’s seasonal sales of fruits, vegetables, and herbs from her huge garden, successful as they always were.
The natives—with the notable exception of Rory— were growing restless. Unpaid bills accumulated, and spare funds for such frivolities as new glass for the inevitable broken windows following the predictably regular winter wind storms, or paint for the faded and increasingly dingy interior walls, could not be found. While Rory seemed to languish contentedly in his typically minimalist lifestyle (if one counted opium alongside bread and water in the most spartan of life-support systems), his roommates were finding every day more and more difficult: Esther lamented the impossibility of replenishing her art supplies; Red Top suddenly realized that his reliable enjoyment of Neufchâtel cheese as midmorning snack had entered the realm of the nostalgic; and Omar especially grieved the absence of fresh catnip—Esther had had no choice but to sell her entire harvest this year to fend off the more relentless of their creditors.
As always, a new client would arrive either through the woods from the north just as darkness fell, or via the system of underground tunnels that stretched from Clover Creek Falls to a dim, gated corridor in the bowels of the Castle itself. The usual fastidious secrecy was enforced as to the visitor’s awareness of his actual geophysical destination, and Omar served as reliable guide and somewhat less reliable interpreter—the black feline only spoke in riddle or verse.
For better or for worse, it was Rory’s marquee status—especially after the Grinfels coup—that attracted most clients, and they asked for him by name. When he was either literally unavailable—not even on the premises—or else greeted them wild-eyed and unkempt, his clothes reeking of a sickly-sweet, almond-like fragrance, reciting Baudelaire or Henry Miller or William Burroughs or a mishmash of all three nonstop for half an hour until the perplexed and somewhat fearful client begged Omar’s complicity in a hasty getaway—Esther or Red Top, or both, would apologize profusely, offer their own services at a drastically reduced per diem, and thus in this way reel in perhaps one in twenty business prospects at fees that barely covered their expenses.
Things had come, as they say, to a pretty pass.
In the far southeast corner of Esther’s garden, which enterprise comprised fully five acres, a small stone cottage—initially built by Rory to house live-in gardeners during those seasons when Esther’s mysterious illness, now in remission for seven years, rendered her barely able to lift her head, much less attend to the strenuous upkeep of such an ambitious horticultural undertaking—rests inconspicuously in the tentacled shade of a hundred-year-old Gravenstein apple tree.
Except for the rare houseguest whose requirements for solitude exceeded those already amply provisioned by accommodation within the Castle proper—either in the spaciously quiet second-floor guest room, or in the library, which featured not only numerous couches suitable for sleeping, but its own small yet adequate kitchen and bathroom as well behind a swivelling bookshelf appropriately dedicated to the culinary and sartorial arts—the little stone cottage, its single room usually curtained to roughly denote living, dining, storage, and sleeping quarters, patiently weathered the years in a state of lonely desuetude. A family of red-winged blackbirds or mockingbirds might call the chimney shaft home for a season, grateful for protection from the elements. Field mice had been known to nest in the square room’s corners, but Rory had eventually sealed all access from the outside, and temporarily blocked the hearth as well.
Esther moved her ladder here and there, gathering the last of the season’s fruit on an unusually balmy day at the beginning of April. This accomplished, she turned to scouring the ground beneath the great tree for apples that were damaged but still usable for drying or canning. “Let me help you with those,” Red Top offered, and his silent approach and sudden words caused Esther to startle slightly.
“Thank you,” said Esther, and she watched appreciatively as the orange tabby darted hither and yon, snagging serviceable fruit in his strong jaws, and carrying them to his mistress’s half-filled metal pail.
“Perhaps you can help me with a project as well,” Red Top purred somewhat slyly, and flicked his tail in the direction of the cottage’s front door.
Leaning there, waiting to be hung by chains from the porch railing, was a simple but pleasingly done wooden sign, its legend etched in a clearly readable font, the burnt-in letters highlighted in orange:
the red top detective agency
Painted beneath, in appropriately smaller black letters, the proprietor had added: all species welcome.
You could have knocked Esther over with a feather, and after enlisting her assistance in hanging the sign—opposable thumbs and grasping fingers do have their purposes—Red Top invited Esther inside, offered her plain but much appreciated refreshment—a delightful iced black tea with sprigs of fresh spearmint (or catnip), served with poppyseed cakes—and began his story.
A rare, and always welcome, visit from Beatriz de la Fuente at this uncertain juncture in the Castle’s economic welfare would provide Esther a pleasurable diversion from everyday concerns. The two women had forged a strong friendship during those long weeks when Arthur Grinfels was stalking Rory, and the fate of Beatriz’s daughter, Evelina, a captive consort of the arch-predator, was shrouded in uncertainty and fear.
Esther received news of the impending visit through Lucifer, who had been away from the Castle visiting his first human family—Beatriz’s son-in-law Lucas, and his wife Evelina—whose high-domed greenhouse, retrofitted to house fauna as well, occupied fully half of the seven acres that stretched from the last of Beatriz’s farm outbuildings to the dense white pine and red cedar forest to the south.
The note banded to the raven’s leg conveyed brief yet warm greetings, a simple question: Could Esther accommodate a week’s visit sometime in the next month?, and a somewhat unsettling disclosure—Beatriz had gleaned from the unfolding narrative of successive Tarot readings that Arthur Grinfels was once again a danger. A naturally enthused—and vaguely alarmed—Esther banded a strongly affirmative reply to Lucifer’s leg, and sent him on his
Esther, naturally, was beside herself with financial worries, and Red Top’s curious new venture, the reliable delight of his conversation, and at this very moment, the wonderfully tender cake and soothing coolness of iced tea on this unseasonably hot spring day—all conspired to induce in her a welcome sense of relaxation, a magical illusion of floating blissfully outside the lately grim confines of space and time.
“You may well wonder,” began Red Top, “just what has inspired me to open my own business. First and foremost, I feel a real and urgent need to contribute more to our household commonweal than my usual wit and legendary good looks.”
Esther chuckled appreciatively, then asked in a vaguely peevish yet droll tone, “What is this deal with ‘all species’?”
The orange tabby continued, unperturbed. “Do not take this wrongly, but human bipeds as a general rule cannot, or more likely, choose not, to see—as the common expression has it—beyond the tips of their own noses. They spend whole lifetimes building theoretical sand castles to understand the world, and literally cannot see what is right in front of them. We lesser creatures, on the other hand, rely on a brain that is constantly informed and synergized by our physical senses. If we have recourse to words, it is only as a last resort—we do not, in the final analysis, trust them to accurately describe any kind of lived reality.”
Red Top paused, and neither human nor feline felt any overwhelming need to break the companionable silence. As they sipped and lapped their tea on the porch, their gazes took in the view of Esther’s garden—the orange tabby’s eyes wide and unblinking, Esther’s slightly hooded and unfocused. The sun was approaching his zenith, and the first flowerings of fruit trees, of tomato and squash, of marigold, daisy, and narcissus, seemed a vibrating riot of color with visiting squadrons of bees, beetles, and butterflies.
Then Red Top spoke again, this time a bit more forcefully. “One of your most treasured spiritual and philosophical works opens with a very strong claim: ‘In the Beginning was the Word.’ With all due respect, this is where we part company.”
“For someone who disparages the spoken language so vehemently, you certainly know how to fill the air with words,” Esther pointed out, looking her great and dear friend straight in the eye.
“Guilty,” confessed Red Top, with the added exclamatory (or perhaps dilatory) punctuation of the twitching of his tail’s bushy tip. “I will plead extenuating circumstances, however—I have spent nearly my whole life to date in the almost exclusive company of only two humans—you and Rory—and while you both have made impressive headway in interspecies communication, both my love for you and my own possibly genetic predisposition to an unusual facility in all languages have led me down the primrose path, so to speak—”
“Of overvaluing the verbal approach?” Esther completed his thought.
“Yes, precisely,” Red Top concurred. “But my saving grace is that while I have gained facility in Human, and of course, Raven, I have not sacrificed any fluency in my native tongue.”
“Which explains your easy rapport with Omar, I should guess,” said Esther.
Red Top roared with laughter. “Easy? Omar? You must be kidding! His riddling and poetry can drive me up the wall.”
“But his intuitive truth, his ability to see where others cannot—”
“Yes, I freely admit it,” the orange tabby confessed, although with a seemingly begrudging air. “How shall I put it? Omar, unlike the rest of us, is barely earthbound. He walks effortlessly between worlds. Do you know what he answered when I asked him about his insistence on speaking only in riddle and verse?”
“Surely a rhetorical question, my dear friend—how could I possibly know?”
“Of course, my apologies—he said it was too painful to speak what others would assume was either true or false.”
“Ever the riddler,” said Esther, and her already great love for Omar beat even more loudly in her heart. “I begin to understand.”
Red Top looked affectionately at his mistress. “And that, I would humbly theorize, is the birth of wisdom—to realize that we are always beginning.”
Esther nodded, then sat up in her chair, as if bringing herself to some kind of attention. “So your prospective clientele—shall you limit yourself to fellow felines?”
“Not in the least,” demurred a suddenly beaming Red Top. “I said all species, and I mean all species.”
“But how will you talk with them, with dogs and possums and snakes and birds?”
“Oddly enough, most nonhuman mammalian languages have much in common. As for the others—for practical reasons, I will begin with the larger birds, the waterfowl and raptors—though the latter pose a degree of personal danger—”
“How do you mean?” said Esther.
Here Red Top left his chair, and did several long, slow strides and pirouettes as if he were on a fashion runway. “You will note that I am not as limber or fast-moving as in the days of yore. And I have lost a few wanted pounds. I must acknowledge that I could possibly be carried off to an avian dinner-table like some common rabbit. ”
“I wear the blinders of love,” said Esther. “Somehow I believe you will never die.”
Red Top brushed affectionately against his mistress’s leg, and then resumed his seat and his story. “If I can establish a reputation of trust, I may eventually be able to include the passerines, the songbirds, as well. Mice and similar rodents will pose analogous problems.”
“How will you communicate with the nonmammals?” enquired Esther.
“Would you believe it? Every species on—or under or over—the face of the earth has professional interpreters, allowing unimpeded communication with anyone, anywhere.”
“For what possible reason?” exclaimed Esther.
“You think humans are especially litigious? That other species are not capable of murder and mayhem?” chortled an indulgent Red Top. “Mark my words, I will be so busy your head will spin. I am glad that Omar and Lucifer will be joining me.”
“You have recruited Omar?” Esther asked, and her voice fell to a horrified whisper. “Tell me it isn’t true.”
“True as true can be,” Red Top replied.
“Rory will skin you alive, break every bone in your body, have you drawn and quartered, and then think of how to punish you.”
“C’est la vie,” answered an imperturbable Red Top, leisurely grooming his always magnificent tail. “When he wants to exit his opium-fueled fantasies and join the rest of us in the real world, and pull his weight once again, I will be more than happy to talk with him.”
Esther bowed her head. “You will understand, I hope, why I cannot join you as well?”
“Yes, I understand the ties that bind. I understand and respect loyalty. But do not lose yourself and others in the bargain.”
Red Top’s bluntness might well have offended a lesser human. But Esther rushed suddenly to him and embraced him with all her heart. “Thank you, my great friend. I shall do my utmost to save us all.” Eyes brimming with tears, she turned back to the Castle and the long road ahead.
Esther faced a daunting challenge—ensuring a civilized and gracious visit for her friend, given the Castle’s drastically reduced circumstances—the monotonous and unimaginative, often barely palatable meals they fashioned and endured from an always shrinking larder, the aforementioned dingy and faded walls, the broken windows—only a lottery win or some equally absurd deus ex machina could see her past the real possibility of her ongoing toxic ennui becoming an outright humiliation.
She took bold and decisive action. As much as it pained her personally, she sold what many considered her finest self-portrait, a brooding study in blacks and greys, with boldly placed splashes of intense color, a huge canvas fully 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide. A well-heeled collector had been importuning her for twenty years to sell the piece, and Esther had contacted him as soon as Beatriz’s visit was finalized; but the prospective buyer, perhaps buoyed by the lack of competition (Esther’s art could perhaps be fairly categorized as a succès d’estime) harangued and dithered, and it was fully ten days before they could agree on a price.
The day of the sale Esther already had painters and glaziers at work, and sent Red Top, Omar, and a typically grumbling Rory to Clover to order badly needed provisions for the pantry. She had recruited Red Top to keep an eye on her often impractical husband, and to compensate the orange tabby for his loss of business that day, she paid him a generous per diem. She restored the phone service as well.
What could possibly be going on with Grinfels? Esther well knew, experienced gardener that she was, that the archvillain was still at this moment providing welcome fertilizer to her massive flowerbeds. His fate, however, was not known beyond the ken of the Castle regulars, although Sheriff Higgins, even while issuing the official line of Grinfels’ remand to federal custody, must have had his suspicions. But he was a realist, an honest man, and a longtime friend of Rory, and played this hand close to the chest.
This visit with Beatriz would be indeed interesting, and, Esther logically surmised, could well provide the currently self-indulgent Rory with sufficient motive to lay the opium pipe aside, and join the world once again. And of course, the delightful culinary adventures that lay in store for Rory with the added impetus of a well-stocked larder would only further augment the heady incentive of revisiting the Grinfels saga—though Esther could not in her wildest imaginings find any credence for Beatriz’ Tarot revelations.
Rory and the felines had placed the grocery order fully a week before Beatriz’s expected arrival, but the sheer volume of the goods (the herbs and spices alone filled nearly a whole saddlebag), and the need to hire an estimated eight mules and two drivers, took longer than expected, and now our three heroes returned to Clover to escort the caravan back to the Castle the very day before Beatriz was due to arrive. Even with Rory’s capacious rucksack stuffed to the gills, and the small but glad assistance Red Top and Omar provided with their own backpacks, fully a dozen mules, loaded until they nearly staggered beneath the weight, and their four wranglers wended their way from Clover, flanked the Castle to the southwest along the creek, and assembled on the garden patio for unloading. It was near sundown when the unburdened mule train began weaving their way back north.
Early the next morning, a thoroughly delighted Esther and a less and less grudgingly enthused Rory unpacked and distributed the bounty to cupboard and pantry. Even though the always fastidious Rory had checked expiration or packing dates at the grocer’s, still he uncapped and assessed the appearance and freshness of every jar of herb or spice. Esther for reasons of economy had had to sell more and keep much less this year, and many were the sad, empty jars he set aside for next year’s harvest, reluctantly replacing them with store-bought equivalents—in name only, he well knew.
His eyes welled with fond tears as he shelved many favorites they had long gone without—the vaguely licoricy tarragon, the household staple catnip (above and beyond Red Top’s and Omar’s newly acquired personal stores), a quart jar of poppy seed he had decanted from a 50-pound sack destined for cold storage, a mace whose pungency gleefully assaulted his nostrils, and a host of other herbs and seeds—coriander, cumin, basil, oregano, marjoram, thyme, sage, rosemary, lemon balm, bergamot, chamomile, dill, fennel seed, lavender, lovage, marigold, parsley, rose petals, savory, tansy, lemon verbena, star anise, caraway, celery seed, juniper berries, sesame seed; and then the spices—cinnamon, allspice, anise, ginger, nutmeg, cayenne, cloves, cardamom, paprika, tricolor peppercorns, turmeric, and saffron. (Rory paused, and rapturously recalled his favorite saffron bread—an old French recipe he had surreptitiously stolen from chef Anatole—the dark pumpernickel featured a thick and chewy crust, and an unexpectedly delicate interior discreetly augmented with currants, dried tart cherries, toasted walnuts, and flecks of orange rind like a summer’s night full of blazing stars.)
Esther, meanwhile, dusted and scrubbed disused pantry shelves, patiently arranged tinned and boxed goods, and filled many an empty storage jar with such staples as pinto beans, black beans, green lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, navy beans, kidney beans, red lentils, quinoa, rice, millet; and various grains and flours—oat, wheat, rye, buckwheat, corn.
Auguries from both Groundhog Day and the usually reliable Farmers’ Almanac showed clear sailing from spring into summer, and already Esther had gladly noted the first watercress along the creek, and early peppermint, spearmint, nasturtium, and wild mustard on the verges of her cultivated land. The perennial bay laurel could be found along many paths in the woods.
As well, Esther and Rory had found a suitably cool and dry cavern in a tunnel near the Castle, and recruited it as a root cellar—here Esther stored some staples from last year’s harvest, coincidentally of relatively low market value and invaluable in helping them through the winter months—russet and red potatoes, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips. The cold storage was suitable as well for winter squash, and amidst a haphazard pile of acorn, butternut, and spaghetti squashes, perhaps a half dozen kabocha could be found, their knobby forest green skins flecked with sea green concealing the dense, brilliant orange fruit that Rory especially prized for pie-making. Here too, Esther kept pint jars of her rare horehound honey—perhaps the apotheosis of bittersweet—and horseradish and ginger roots buried in vats of salt and sand.
The Fort Knox of provisions suitably sorted and stored, Rory opted for an early afternoon nap, and Esther set about the joyful occupation of baking her favorite carrot cake—a wonderfully dense affair with the unusual addition of fresh orange. Later, in the heart of the afternoon, the somewhat reconciled couple brewed Darjeeling tea and shared a plate of day-old scones and small honeycakes—both ginger infused for want of any other flavoring, and liberally endowed with poppy seeds—on the garden terrace. Rory’s eyes grew large as he surveyed the cooling cake on the kitchen table, and it took him every ounce of self-restraint to avoid tearing into it with his bare hands, frosted or not. They daydreamed out loud about this or that personal favorite, suddenly made possible again with the arrival of chocolate and cinnamon, of walnuts, currants, and lemon.
Over the next half-hour, Rory noted an unusual amount of traffic along the forest path flanking the Castle to the west, curving gradually southwest to where it joined the foot of Esther’s garden close by the gardener’s cottage. Five skunks ambled past, two couples and one solo male, probably a teenager. Rory counted no less than a dozen geese, all in one noisy, squabbling gaggle, and a great horned owl; and saw rabbits, opossums, and squirrels. A seemingly determined king snake slithered along the path, apparently oblivious to the usual prey and predators around him. Rory was surprised to see domesticated types as well—cats and dogs, parrots, and truly astonishing, a young, rearing, and high-stepping colt being urged along, presumably by his mother or grown sister. Animal sightings, especially along the creek and in the garden, were hardly a rare thing, but never had Rory noted such variety and volume. His wife having a well deserved reputation for astuteness not only in agronomy, but nearly every aspect of natural history, Rory thought to enquire further. “What is this traffic jam today? Never have I seen so many creatures scurrying to and fro.”
Esther started slightly, as if caught with her hand in the cookie jar. Then she thought better of it, and a look combining both craftiness and a joyful recklessness quickly crossed her features before she composed a serious and quizzical visage for Rory’s benefit. “I have absolutely no idea,” she answered. “But would you mind checking the tree once again for apples? It has been nearly two weeks since I last gathered.”
Rory rose to the bait. “Certainly. And perhaps I can get to the bottom of this curious rush-hour traffic.”
“I have no doubt you will,” said Esther, “Not a doubt in the world.” She then turned her attention once more to her tea and cake, and daydreamed of lemon-glazed bundt cake and chocolate soufflé, and the arrival soon of her longtime friend.
The dark-haired young man, tall and of wiry build, sorted his mail quickly in the foyer of the two-story apartment and condo complex, filling fully six square blocks, that had until forty-odd years ago been the Clover Bottling Company, purveyor of spirits and artisanal waters for the town and three surrounding counties since the early 1900s.
Even though his mind told him that his father was in all probability dead, a small voice in his heart kept him camped out in his father’s former apartment, waiting for a knock on the door, searching the mail every day for that familiar handwriting. Adding today’s mail to his bag of groceries, he swung the little metal door closed once again.
The groceries put away, he passed through the sliding doors to his second-floor balcony, and sat and sipped a bottle of beer after a quick lunch. Across the wide expanse of greensward and shade trees comprising Clover’s flagship municipal park, he noted with curiosity the large group of mules tethered in the grocery store’s rear parking lot, sharing space with the usual mix of compacts and SUVs. As the final saddlebags were filled by the store clerks and cinched by one of the four pack drivers, Andrew Grinfels drew up sharply and whistled under his breath. There could be no mistake: the portly, middle-aged man with vaguely supercilious air and voluminous black cloak, in the company of an orange and a black cat, could be none other than his father’s erstwhile pursuer and persecutor—Rory MacBean.
The young man quickly added light provisions for a few days—changes of linen and a warm sweater, and several protein bars—to his travel backpack, which already contained such basics as a water purifier, some sturdy rope, and a Swiss Army knife, and strode briskly across the park. The dozen loaded mules, one of whom labored under the not inconsequential added burden of the man named Rory, passed single file out of town, heading for the great meadow and the woods that stretched south to the Castle. The two felines had raced ahead, their own backpacks loaded only with catnip.
Rory was fast approaching a state of apoplexy. The signage in front of the gardener’s cottage had more than adequately explained the unusual stream of animals along the forest path, and he stormed the threshold of the fledgling business just as the aforementioned gaggle of geese were leaving. Perhaps their unresolved bickering predisposed them, but certainly the added complication of a large biped blocking their exit did nothing to add any species of sanguine emotion. Four of the more aggressive drakes set about Rory’s ankles with an admirable ferocity. Kicking them aside as best he could, he then confronted a maddeningly smirking Red Top.
“You may as well take the food straight from my mouth. What is the meaning of this outrage?”
“Such eventuality, though I would in no wise countenance or even contemplate it, would improve your waistline,” Red Top answered nonchalantly.
Rory lunged for the orange feline, but his reflexes were no match for those of the fifteen-year-old Red Top, who easily scooted out of reach, and then onto the porch. The still-fuming Rory followed, and sat glaring across from him.
“Calme-toi, mon ami,” Red Top purred. “Do you trust me or not? Think of our long friendship, of all we have been through together. You know I would do nothing to jeopardize that.”
“But you have lured Omar away from me! How can I possibly work without him?”
“That is a strictly temporary arrangement. Quite frankly, Omar has become bored of late, and jumped at the opportunity to assist me. If, however, you were to mend certain ways”—here Red Top demonstratively swept together a neat pile of poppy seeds which had strewn the table from his and Esther’s brunch yesterday, and further highlighted it with the rhythmic twitching of the tip of his tail—“and get back in the game, Omar will rejoin you. That is our arrangement.”
“You must appreciate how the Grinfels affair exhausted me, and—”
“It exhausted us all,” interrupted an impervious Red Top. “But the time has come to move on. Everyone is tired of living hand to mouth, poor as church mice. The bounty from Esther’s sacrifice will not last forever.”
Rory seemed to be stubbornly acknowledging the reality of the situation: he did not respond immediately in self-justification. Instead he fidgeted restlessly, arranging and rearranging the little pile of poppy seeds, sighing melodramatically from time to time, letting his gaze wander. He noted the line of prospective clients halted respectfully on the forest path flanking the garden. “Can we agree, at least, that you will not include Homo sapiens among your clientele?”
“That will not be a problem. Their overrated powers of observation, their often faulty memories, their monstrous egos—all make them inherently difficult to work with.” Here Red Top hesitated, then spoke in softer, almost conspiratorial tones. “Rory, are you familiar with the so-called Pickwickian syndrome?”
Rory came to rapt attention, a not uncharacteristic smile of self-congratulation spreading across his features. “I would assume it has something to do with a connoisseur’s appreciation of all things gastronomic?”
“Astronomic would be more to the point,” continued a playful Red Top, encircling barely a quarter of his master’s waistline with his bushy tail. “It is a medical term encompassing the unfortunate, even potentially dangerous, intersection of gluttony, sloth, and an already overly generous physique. One’s bucket list need not include all seven of the deadly sins.”
“But I—” stammered Rory, clearly set back on his heels.
He had no time to finish his defense. An agitated Omar was suddenly at their side, and the words fairly tumbled from his lips:
Could I would strike my own eyes
With blindness, end my thought’s
The dead have risen, and walk among us,
And La Llorona weeps once more.
The black feline then staggered slightly, and fell on his side, breathing heavily. Red Top quickly chewed catnip, and then thoroughly groomed his distressed friend’s face, concentrating on the nose and lips. Soon Omar’s breathing became more regular, and a gentle wheezing indicated he had fallen into a restorative sleep.
“Whatever can he mean, ‘the dead have risen’?” Rory wondered out loud. “One thing is certain—Beatriz is in some sort of trouble.”
“She is due to arrive sometime before dark,” Red Top said, “and Lucifer is travelling with her. Surely he would let us know if anything untoward has occurred. Let us confer with Esther. You go ahead—I will set out food and bedding for Omar, and advise my waiting clients that I must regrettably shutter early for the day.”
Esther’s daydreams had devolved into a fitful and disturbing sleep. Rory woke her gently, and broke the news about Beatriz as soothingly as possible. Even so, she screamed aloud and slumped in her chair. As Red Top arrived and jumped immediately to her lap, Rory said softly, “Yes, my friend, give her what comfort she can take in.” He then passed through the screen door into the kitchen, his posture suddenly straighter and his brow furrowed. “I will bring her a sweater and blanket.”
The twenty-eight-year-old Andrew Grinfels, almost a spitting image of his father in that unworthy’s earlier days, had followed the fate of the arch-predator—in Andrew’s eyes, the selfless proprietor of a worldwide network of foster homes—beginning with the first wire service reports issued from Clover by Sheriff Higgins. The young son was naturally shocked and outraged at the allegations of sex trafficking, and resolved to make every effort to clear his father’s name. He duly followed the trail of custody from Clover, and was met with shrugged shoulders at every turn.
After crisscrossing the country no less than three times, he was ultimately sent back to Clover and the continued emptyhandedness of Sheriff Higgins, who, Andrew eventually suspected, was hiding something. But what, and how could he find out? Then the chance sighting of Rory, his father’s nemesis for twenty years, always concocting wild stories and casting truly nasty aspersions, gave him the slim lead he so desperately needed.
As the mule caravan crossed the wide meadow outside Clover, heading for the shady paths of the forest that stretched south to the Castle, and beyond, a cautious Andrew Grinfels kept his distance, occasionally picking up his leisurely pace slightly to bring his quarry back inside the range of his small but powerful binoculars. Fortunately for him, the caboose of this particular train was its largest car as well—a mule a head taller than his fellows, loaded down with ballooning saddlebags, and topped by the noticeably abundant Rory. As he approached the forest edge, he caught the strong scent of pine resin in the hot afternoon air, and then stopped just inside the first welcoming canopy of shade to mop the sweat from his neck and brow. Unfamiliar with the terrain, he had no way of knowing there was but a single path to the Castle grounds. He ran for a few minutes to bring the caravan back into view, now believing he must keep them in sight at all times lest they diverge suddenly at some fork in the trail.
It is a trek of some five miles from Clover to the Castle, and the heavily laden mules and the four drovers who walked alongside them covered the distance in just under four hours. Andrew noted a few rest stops along the way, when an imperiously shouting and gesticulating Rory made known his immediate need for this or that refreshment, the discovery and enjoyment of which, depending on how deep it was buried in an eventually located saddlebag, could easily consume a quarter hour or more.
As the mules reached the Castle grounds, and flanked southeast to finally assemble in a loose circle on the garden patio just outside the kitchen and pantry area, a discreet Andrew Grinfels sought the deepest shade and densest foliage. The air was unusually still, and the young man easily heard the desultory shufflings and low whinnyings from the mules as they were relieved of their burdens. As well, he was privy to the ongoing conversation between the man Rory and a woman of slender build who was likely his wife. One exchange in particular caught his attention.
“You have no idea how much this provisioning eases my mind. Beatriz is a great and dear friend, and I want things to be just right for her.”
“It is a long haul even from Caroline, and Ms de la Fuente lives, if I remember correctly, almost another ten miles south from there. Perhaps we should send Omar to greet her,” Rory continued. “He could guide her through the tunnels and save, as you well know, two extra miles of walking. When is she due tomorrow?”
“Late afternoon, probably close to sundown. If she parks on the fire-road just above the falls, it’s still easily a half-mile scramble through the brush down to the creek. She will appreciate the coolness of the tunnels after such a hot day’s travel.”
“It’s settled, then. I will bring Omar up to speed.”
“Thank you, Rory.” They paused in conversation, and the younger Grinfels watched as they silently surveyed the huge mounds of groceries that needed sorting and storing. They quickly loaded two boxes with perishables and carried them to the refrigerator. Certain spoken words resonated with the last letters he had received from his father. Omar. The falls. Beatriz de la Fuente. The tunnels.
The couple came back out, and scanned the mounds once more. The woman stretched like a cat and yawned deeply, and her husband’s sympathetic yawn was not long in following. “Tomorrow morning, then, bright and early,” she said softly but still clearly.
Joining hands, the couple entered the house, and the screen door’s gentle closing was the last human-related sound Andrew Grinfels was to hear that night. Now only the occasional call from mourning dove or early owl, and the rustling foliage and light crunch of his footfalls broke the near total silence as he flanked the garden and headed even further south. The rising half-moon’s steady glow illuminated his grim and cunning smile.
The rattle of Esther’s tea-cart was clear indication that the good woman had revived from her shock, and gone about her business. But even now, as Rory and Red Top enjoyed a very late afternoon tea—the sun was the merest blip of yellow on the horizon, and the shadows were coalescing into a truer darkness—Esther paced to and fro on the garden terrace, tossing out rambling thoughts to whoever would listen.
“For the love of God, where is Lucifer? Surely he was not captured as well.
“How can we cavalierly take tea and lounge about while our great friend is in such danger?
“I must go,” she cried out suddenly. “I must find her now.” She grabbed a small paring knife and a strong flashlight from the kitchen, and ran back past an astonished Rory and Red Top. “Surely Omar will help me,” she added vehemently, “while you sluggards take your leisure.”
Rory, between great mouthfuls of the long-awaited carrot cake, sought to restrain her. “Esther, do sit down and be reasonable—it is better to wait until dawn. The darkness is not our ally here. Even though it may provide us with cover, we must acknowledge once and for all the great advantage of an enemy lying in wait, easily attuned to the slightest snap of a twig underfoot, the rustling of bushes as we pass.
“As you well know from your expertise in local fauna, there is no mammal anywhere near our size in the vicinity—no mountain lions, no bears, no wolves, nothing larger than the occasional county-fair-sized possum. The dumbest human would also have to be deaf and blind not to be instantly aware of our presence. We would be sitting ducks. Esther, this is perhaps the finest carrot cake I have ever tasted—you have truly outdone yourself.”
Esther, strictly entrez-nous, could be considered the undisputed Queen of the Non Sequitur, and Rory’s last comment did not annoy her in the least—indeed, it seemed to soften her stance somewhat—the well-deserved culinary praise elicited slightly pursed lips and a raising of the chin, sure signs of a successfully flattered vanity. Then she sat down heavily and exhaled a great sigh of resignation. “Perhaps you are right,” she conceded.
Red Top silently concurred as well, wrapping his soft bushy tail around his mistress’s ankles. Then he spoke, his superior night vision in full evidence. “Here comes Omar.”
Try as they might, Esther and Rory could discern only a slight movement in the darkness at the foot of the garden, and would not swear they were not imagining it. But in mere seconds, Omar was among them, and Esther rushed to caress him and bring him a saucer of chamomile catnip tea.
Beatriz had made better time than she expected on the drive north. She parked above the falls, met a waiting Lucifer, and they then respectively scrambled and flew to the ledge beneath the waterfall. Omar still had not arrived. After another half-hour passed, Lucifer decided to fly towards the Castle in hopes of intercepting him.
No sooner had the great raven flown out of sight than the shadows to Beatriz’s left shifted slightly, and a slim young man, open knife in hand, moved from inside the tunnel entrance. Before she turned, he blinded her using a dark bandanna, and bound her wrists together with a length of rawhide. Beatriz was not the screaming sort, and instead did what she could by way of defense, wildly kicking to force her adversary to lose footing on the narrow ledge and tumble to the creek below. But his superior strength and the coercive power of the sharp blade he drew delicately but meaningfully across her lips soon achieved her surrender, and she was then gagged as well. Andrew Grinfels guided his captive at close knifepoint, indicating by grabbing her left or right elbow which direction to take as they reentered the tunnel beneath the waterfall.
He knew enough from his father’s correspondence that the passage to the right led theoretically to the Castle, whereas the left passage, sloping steeply downward, would seem to dead-end abruptly after about two hundred yards at a gigantic mound of rubble. If one climbed to the top, there was just enough clearance to squeeze beneath the cavern roof. This Andrew and Beatriz accomplished, and then scrambled down the opposite side to within five feet of the floor below. Then they jumped.
They found themselves in a large circular space. Beneath a natural skylight the charred rocks defining a fire-ring attested to the presence of earlier tenants. Also beneath the skylight, close by the fire-ring, another circular opening led to the underground stream; along its perimeter rested a metal bucket with rope attached. In the near total silence of the cave, the sound of the flowing water rose and dispersed like a steady and gentle wind. Indeed, a slight updraft could be felt as one stood above the slow-moving water, and this no doubt helped fuel the fires that were built.
Night was fast approaching, and Grinfels knew he would need to build a fire—for warmth naturally, but also to generate enough light to keep an eye on his captive. Before venturing out again, he decided to walk the roughly sixty-foot perimeter. As luck would have it, the former inhabitant had left a good-sized pile of kindling and wood along one arc of the wall furthest from the heap of rocks and boulders at the cave’s entrance, perhaps to offer the least attraction to rodent incursions from the outside world.
Following the curve of the wall, Grinfels first encountered three natural depressions in the rock face at roughly shoulder height. Even in the gathering darkness, he could see evidence of leftover foodstuffs—acorns, a shrivelled bunch of dandelion greens, and a neat stack of dried albino crustaceans, their beady red eyes faintly glowing in the dying light. Continuing along, he came upon a construction of planks formed by lashing together small branches with dried grasses, separated into shelving with the support of flat rocks. The three, two-foot-long planks, about six inches in depth, created, with the cave floor as the first shelf, a four-tier storage unit, suitable for books or clothing, perhaps a folded blanket.
Just adjacent to the skylight, a length of rope hung from the ceiling, its length punctuated at equal intervals by four knots. This must have provided a second avenue of entrance and egress.
In deepest shade where the mound of rocks abutted a corner of the cave, a large raven blended easily into the gloom. His head moved slightly from time to time, as he drank in every detail of the drama unfolding before him.
His cursory inspection complete, Andrew approached a still defiant Beatriz, who kicked at him savagely. Pinning her throat in the crook of his arm, he drew his knife blade slowly across her throat from ear to ear. “Do not act up again,” he warned. He removed her blindfold, gag, and wrist restraints. “Now build us a fire.”
Even though Omar seemed to be over the worst of his shock, he was not up to the task of participating in what would essentially be a press conference with Rory, Esther, and Red Top. While his poetic utterances made perfect sense to him, humans generally scratched their heads—not, Omar knew, due to fleas—and required further versifying, annoying repetitions, often some pantomime—it could all be quite demanding. Usually he was up for it, even found the exercise enjoyable. Tonight, though, he was tired, and opted instead to use Red Top as a go-between. The two friends spent fully five minutes exchanging a long series of what Rory and Esther could only characterize as moans, yowls, squeaks, and loud rumbles, accompanied by various undulations of their tails, opening and closing of eyes, ear movements, and episodes of self and buddy grooming.
Then Red Top spoke. “Omar, as we know, left earlier tonight to greet Beatriz and Lucifer and escort them through the tunnels. Making his way along the creek bed, he was startled to see a solo Lucifer winging in his direction. Our corvine friend, however, quickly set his mind at ease—they had only arrived earlier than expected, and Lucifer thought to intercept Omar and urge a bit of speed.
“So they flew and ran to the falls, where Lucifer had left Beatriz sitting on the ledge beneath the cataract not more than ten minutes before, soothing her scratched-up ankles and shins after the long scramble down from the fire-road. But she was nowhere to be found.
“They conferred briefly, deciding that Lucifer would do a flyover to the south, while Omar would enter the tunnels and look for any clues. He senses right away that no-one has entered the tunnels leading to the Castle, and instead heads down the left-hand passage. Arriving at the pile of rock and boulder, he first notices a pattern of loose rock scattered out from the base, as would naturally occur if someone climbed the mound. Even from below, he can hear voices from the cavern beyond—a man’s and a woman’s. He then carefully climbs, heedful of not dislodging even a single rock, and arrives at the top. Here he encounters the scene he first described to us so vividly at the cottage—of course, we all know that La Llorona signifies Beatriz, but who would have guessed that the man risen from the dead was Grinfels, miraculously twenty-odd years old again?”
His audience emitted various shrieks and groans of disbelief, but Red Top held up a paw to request their patience, and continued his story. “Omar, of course, was as shocked as you are now, but gathered his wits to return outside and climb the nearest highest boulder. Soon Lucifer returned northward from his reconnaissance, and flew down to join Omar once more. Again they decided to part forces—Omar returning to the Castle to alert us, and Lucifer to roost atop the mound of rock and keep his eye on Beatriz and her captor.”
“We must go at once, before she comes to harm,” Esther said decisively. “Surely with our greater numbers and superior knowledge of the terrain we can eke out an advantage.”
“If only we could forge upstream just south of the falls, and come to the cavern from below—the element of surprise would be a great advantage,” said Rory.
“There is a very narrow passage about six feet behind the top of the falls,” said Red Top, “hidden among the exposed roots of the ancient live oak, but only Omar or I could negotiate it. And neither one of us is a very good swimmer.”
“Then we must arm ourselves as best we can, keep our wits about us, and trust to fate,” concluded Rory.
Our four heroes turned as one to enter through the kitchen and retrieve their personal weapons from various locations within the Castle—Esther and Rory their pistols, Omar his slingshot, and Red Top his whistle. Alone among the Castle regulars in possessing no grasping facility, he had designed a whistle—unambiguously proven effective through field testing on his aggrieved roommates—whose expressed pitch caused an instantaneous loss of bowel control. Not exactly your standard “force plus one,” but an effective deterrent in its own right.
But a sudden apparition bolting from the darkness of the garden rendered all their frantic theorizing moot. A somewhat dishevelled Beatriz de la Fuente staggered into the faint circle of light from the kitchen.
“You! Then the cards did not lie,” she exclaimed, finally able to talk. In character, she let her professional curiosity—as a practitioner of Santería, she specialized in the fascinating but still poorly understood intersection of the material and spiritual worlds—initially trump any concerns about her personal safety, and so continued. “Who has ensorcelled you?” Beatriz asked suspiciously. “This is indeed a professional job.” She circled the young man cautiously, looking him over slowly from head to foot. “My sincere congratulations.” Then her brow darkened as she recalled her very present, and very real danger. “What do you want
Andrew Grinfels looked at her askance, as if she were not dealing from a full deck. “I only want to find my father. I can use you as a bargaining chip with Rory MacBean—surely he knows what has become of him.”
Beatriz thumped her forehead, laughed at her own foibles, then grew abruptly serious. “I saw the villain last in detention at the Castle, awaiting federal authorities to take him into custody. I can only hope and pray that he has met a merciless and painful end.”
“This is my father you are talking about,” countered her instantly enraged captor. “A man who saved the lives of thousands of abandoned children, and never asked a penny for himself.”
Beatriz was initially dumbstruck, and then let the ineluctable reality of the situation crystallize within her mind: How could even the son escape the masterful manipulations of Arthur Grinfels? Then a plan began to form in her artful psyche.
Adopting a tone both powerless and conciliatory, she addressed the younger Grinfels. “Might I trouble you for a drink of water? I cannot remember the last time I drank.” Swaying slightly on her feet, she seemed almost on the verge of fainting. Andrew, still scowling, nevertheless obliged her, dropping the bucket to the stream coursing below the cave. He then found two stones with suitable concavities from the great heap at the entrance, dipped them into the pail, and served first his captive, then himself.
A seemingly overwhelmed Beatriz broke into great sobs, and as her tears dimpled the surface of her drink, the young man came closer to her, stiffly extending his arms as if to comfort her. Then, red-faced, he let them fall uselessly to his side, and stood about like a self-conscious teenager, shuffling his feet, and running his hand across his scalp over and over.
Just as I thought, Beatriz said to herself. Only a confused son, good-hearted and loyal. No amount of persuasion from me, from Rory and Esther and Red Top, could ever bring him to see his father in the light of truth. As he lifted his chin, she saw the resolve reaffirm itself in his eyes, and he clicked his knife blade open again. “That fire,” he said in a loud, flat voice curiously devoid of menace. “We’ll need it now. Tomorrow morning you bring me to Rory.”
“No,” answered Beatriz evenly, “I won’t be going with you. And you will begin that journey alone tonight. Starting now,” she said, turning and flinging her water in his face.
He thrust his knife violently forward, but the blade encountered only empty air, so poor was his aim—Andrew Grinfels had been instantly blinded, and Beatriz moved easily out of his way.
“Let me tell you now the course of your travels over the next month or so. You may or may not be blind for the rest of your life—in the final analysis that depends on you, on whether you can accept the unfolding truth in your heart of hearts.
“The potion I threw in your eyes, which I activated with my own tears, the tears of a mother whose daughter was kidnapped and subsequently abused by Arthur Grinfels for four long years, will display the truth to your eyes, willing or not. You will see your father’s life, your life, and the lives of hundreds of young men and women appear as if in a newsreel. You will not be able to turn it off, or avoid it, or distract yourself in any way. I have allowed you recourse to sleep, because I believe that your dreams will help you along the path. How long you wander with these images and voices in your head will ultimately rest with you.”
Beatriz then kicked the knife from his hand and rested its point briefly on his chin. She tied his wrists with the same strip that had bound her own, and led him back over the mountain of rubble—here the watchful Lucifer joined her, perching on her shoulder—through the passage, beneath the falls, and into the first of a series of tunnels that eventually led to the Castle. She removed his restraints, reassured him he would not go without food and water, almost gently squared his shoulders in the right direction, and said softly, “Go now, and even in terror, see the final joy in your heart. You do not realize it now, but I have given you the hope of ages—guard it wisely!”
The young man, his arms outstretched, shuffled forward and blended quickly with the darkness.
Our heroes’ jaws dropped as of one accord, and only the countervailing laws of biophysics kept them from bouncing off the floor. How had Beatriz, and Lucifer, brought off this miraculous escape? Who on God’s earth might this Grinfels doppelganger be? And where was he now?
“I have set him on a vision quest,” a still agitated Beatriz explained, her eyes glittering strangely as if she were drugged, or possessed. “I literally cannot say another word at this time. I don’t make the rules, but I do follow them,” she added by way of fruitless clarification. “Now, sleep, I beg of you—sleep!”
Rory spoke up. “Might I suggest a little light refreshment first, a nightcap of sorts, in the company of friends?”
“For the record, I perceive a gentle but unmistakeable twisting of the arm,” demurred Beatriz.
“Duly noted, and I will further stipulate that your senses do not deceive you. Let us retire to the library. Esther, would you be so kind as to join us posthaste with tea and more of that divine carrot cake?”
“Why the library? The common room is more than adequate, and we could enjoy the fire as well.”
“I have my reasons. Pray indulge me.”
Esther exhaled a long-practiced sigh, and headed to the kitchen to prepare the tea-cart.
Esther wheeled her trusty tea-cart, laden with pots of three different teas—a chamomile spearmint blended with valerian; catnip; and Yorkshire Gold black—and the one-third remaining triple-layer carrot cake, its honey Neufchâtel icing a pointillist study in black poppyseed and orange zest, through the kitchen, bridging to the dining room, across the great common room, finally pausing to lower the retractable bridge used to enter the library. (Readers of even limited recall will remember that the first floor of the Castle, with the exception of the library and the kitchen, rotated to follow the path of the Sun.)
She was at first nonplussed to find the library vacant. Thinking they may have gathered around the table in the library’s small kitchen, she swivelled the rank of cookbooks to reveal the interior space—nothing. Then from across the room, she heard the distinctive sound of Omar’s voice, coming only slightly muffled from behind the stacks.
Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!
Un matin nous partons, le cerveau plein de flamme,
Le coeur gros de rancune et de désirs amers,
Et nous allons, suivant le rythme de la lame,
Berçant notre infini sur le fini des mers.
“Ah! ‘Le Voyage’ from Les Fleurs du Mal,” came Rory’s husky voice into the room. “My French, de longue désuétude, has grown rusty. Could you favor us with a translation?”
Again Omar’s dulcet tones seemed to enchant the very air.
The world is equal to the child’s desire
Who plays with pictures by his nursery fire--
How vast the world by lamplight seems! How small
When memory’s eyes look back, remembering all!--
One morning we set forth with thoughts aflame,
Or heart o’erladen with desire or shame;
And cradle, to the song of surge and breeze,
Our own infinity on the finite seas.
Esther, though entranced herself with Omar’s recitation, waited no more than thirty seconds into the ensuing silence before announcing her presence, in a tone both querulous and perhaps overloud. “Where is everybody? Has no-one the manners to greet me?”
Her questions were answered with gales of laughter, and Esther had no trouble in singling out the individually culpable harmonics of Rory and Beatriz, Red Top, Omar, and Lucifer. She was fast approaching the boiling point when Rory offered direction: “Esther, do peruse the biographies.” She obligingly scanned the four floor-to-ceiling ranks of biography, autobiography, and memoir, looking for the one book that would trigger, as did The Enchanted Broccoli Forest in the cookbook shelves, the swivelling mechanism opening the room behind to her passage. As she suspected, nothing stood out—it was a matter of knowing in advance. “Rory!” she bellowed at the top of her lungs. After a mercifully brief interlude of giggling from within, he said, “You know—the de Quincey Confessions.”
She did not know; but she soon found the slim, well-thumbed volume, its chocolate brown vellum binding soft and slightly crumbling, just at shoulder height in the second rank, and pushed it carefully but firmly toward the rear of the shelf. The second and third stacks bowed inward, and Esther spied, through a haze of sickly sweet smoke, her husband and Beatriz stretched out on flanking fainting couches, while Omar, Red Top, and Lucifer curled together, perhaps for warmth as much as pleasure, on a small Oriental rug between them.
Esther blew past the aforementioned boiling point. “Can I be dreaming? Am I even in my own house? Whence this den of iniquity? Your own room reeks after years of debauchery. Rory, how long have you kept this from me?”
He play-acted scratching his head, then drawled offhandedly, “Let me think—has it been ten or twenty years?”
Esther, far from amused at his ill-conceived buffoonery, lunged suddenly for Rory’s prized opium lamp, a fine and well preserved example of antiquity, with its cloisonné brass base, appropriately decorated with the petals, leaves, and stems of Papaver somniferum, and—rarity of rarities—Peking glass chimney. She raised it over her head, and was about to dash it to the floor. Only the counterintuitively quick reflexes of her husband, the iron grip of his hands about her wrist loosening her hold, and the deft collaboration of Beatriz saw the disputed object safely restored to its table.
Beatriz then spoke, and her tone was obviously conciliatory. “Esther, do excuse our rowdiness and lack of common civility. Rory, as befits his temperament, is the greatest perpetrator here, but we will all own a measure of responsibility.
“Opium, in addition to its more commonly known effects—benefits, some would say—does lower the usual threshold of what the psychologists call inhibition, and encourages impulsive behavior. It disinhibits, provokes a freewheeling enthusiasm which may easily be interpreted as inappropriate or rude. It is a species of drunkenness but, I would claim, une ivresse tellement plus sublime.”
Beatriz had taken Esther’s hand in her own, and now Esther’s shoulders slumped slightly in relaxation, the tense line of her jaw slackened. Her great friend Beatriz was safe—this was what really mattered. As she looked about her, she saw to her satisfaction the simple but aesthetically pleasing details Rory had incorporated into the decor. Perhaps she could come to terms with this unwelcome metastasis from Rory’s room.
True, the fainting couches were a bit trite for her taste, but the upholstery, a simple brocade in purest ivory, did not clash or compete with the Oriental throw rugs, with their intricate patterns and brilliant plant-based colors. Esther could tell even from a distance that these small rugs were the real deal; she recognized a classic Five Tree pattern in Turkmen madder red; another, also predominantly in reds, she strongly suspected was from Azerbaijan. She did find the swag velvet drapes over faux windows a tad over the top, but their strongly saturated burgundy was both stimulating and soothing to the eye. She noted with approval as well the spartan inclusion of only two portraits in the room, and these on opposite walls—quality reproductions of the modernist Reginald Gray’s Rimbaud, depicting a remarkably clean-cut yet vaguely dissolute youth, complete with hashish pipe and likely glass of absinthe; and a perhaps obligatory Thomas de Quincey by the prolific Scots portraitist and contemporary John Watson Gordon.
She now turned her attention to her husband, Beatriz, Lucifer, and her great and loyal feline friends. No longer did they seem a source of irritation, or worse, moral indignation. In this moment, they were simply themselves, and Esther felt the vibrating web of intersecting ideas and emotions. Curiously, she was no longer at the center, nor were any of the others—she sensed she was watching the tableau from a distance, not a great or uncomfortable distance, but one that expanded and contracted with the sole objective of keeping everything in the clearest possible focus.
Rory’s opium pipes, like his lamp, exhibited superior workmanship. The stems were ivory, the bowls jade. The removeable metal saddles were of a pleasingly oxidized copper, and Esther noted the greens and blues winking softly in the candlelight. Rory then picked up a pipe, and patted the couch cushion next to him.
Esther sat beside him, and Rory showed her how to hold the pipe. He
moved the lamp beneath the bowl, adjusted the flame, and nodded to her, pantomiming a slow and deep breath.
She was pleasantly surprised at the mildness of the smoke. It soothed and cooled her throat, and a tickling she feared would lead to sneezing or coughing subsided quickly. She imagined tasting the smell of a potpourri of white rose petals, freshly mown grass, and faint clove.
She did not wait long to notice a difference in her sensorium—hardly had she laid the pipe down than a vast stillness suffused the room. Rory took her hand and directed her attention to a pitcher of water on the low table. He tossed a round jade bead to its center, and Esther watched fascinated as the spreading concentric circles slowly—she could not believe how slowly—vanished one by one, beginning with the center. As the final outer ring settled to stillness, Esther saw her face briefly reflected in the water’s mirror, and then it too disappeared.
She felt a silent humming fill the room, and as she sat among her friends, she had the wholly unaccustomed and comforting sensation that everything was being done expressly for her. Instead of breathing, she was being breathed; and she realized, in great good humor, that if she were any more relaxed she would be dead.
Finally she spoke, and was at first vaguely alarmed at the perceived
intrusiveness of her own voice. The others seemed somewhat startled as well—it had been a full ten minutes since anyone had spoken. She addressed no-one in particular.
“Beatriz, of course, could not have known. She had already left with Lucas and Lena. Lucifer knew the score, but we swore him to secrecy. I can understand Omar’s confusion—he doesn’t experience space and time as
“What precisely could I not have known?” asked Beatriz, suddenly all ears.
“That your captor could not have been the elder Grinfels.”
“Let us say that it is just not possible. I imagine you thought the young man was a sorcerer’s creation.”
Beatriz freely admitted it, and then spoke plainly. “He told me straight up he was Grinfels’ son.”
“And you set him to endless wandering. Where and why?”
But Beatriz was done talking, and the gently debauched party enjoyed their tea and cake in silence. They then for convenience returned only as far as the library, and its several comfortable couches and chairs, to spend the night.
Less than three miles way, a young man blindly wandered a maze of underground tunnels, his mind a kaleidoscope of reeling images. As Beatriz fell asleep, so did he, surrendering instantly to the welcome oblivion.
Esther easily rose before the others, perhaps owing to her lesser indulgence the night before. Red Top, Omar, and Lucifer woke mere minutes later (the secondhand smoke induced a not unwelcome dreaminess and relaxation, but no hangover), and the four gathered in the kitchen to plan and assemble what would likely be brunch rather than breakfast.
Esther still chafed under the not strictly deserved stigma of playing second fiddle to Rory in the culinary realm. On the (to her) regrettably rare occasions when they entertained company, she seized the opportunity to add to her credentials, to boost her reputation as more than just a baker of truly superior cakes, scones, and muffins. Of late, too, her resourcefulness in turning out numerous praiseworthy entrées using such a limited palette of ingredients had won her several standing o’s (the felines simulated this by raising their tails to a 90-degree angle, and twitching the tips from side to side; Lucifer by standing on one leg and raising and lowering his wings) from her roommates.
So she was definitely gaining in confidence—and this morning decided to reach for the heavens with her first-ever soufflé. The most difficult part, she chuckled to herself, will be getting the inebriants to table in a timely fashion. The serving window for such a delicate and temperamental creation was regrettably small, and Red Top, as sous-chef, would also have the responsibility of herding two likely groggy and possibly grouchy bipeds to table. Omar, meanwhile, was dispatched to the creek to gather fresh watercress, and Lucifer to the garden to assemble a bouquet of early blooms.
Esther set eggs out to reach room temperature, and had just finished grating gruyère and parm-regg. As she grouped jars of herbs in a neat circle on the table, she heard a faint rustling behind her, and none other than Beatriz de la Fuente shuffled amiably to her side, arms open wide in greeting.
“Do forgive me for my less than admirable behavior last night,” she said. “First I arrive in truly melodramatic fashion. Then I aid and abet your already wayward husband in his vice of choice. I can only plead nervous exhaustion—the ordeals of the previous hours truly took it out of me, and the prospect of softening the contours of my jangled psyche proved irresistible.”
Esther laughed good-naturedly. “Understood, my dear friend. And I, as well, feel I may have talked out of place in pressing you for such details in your obviously delicate state.”
“All water under the bridge,” Beatriz replied, slack-wristing the air in the Jewish manner, which shared familiar nonverbal trope cracked them both up immediately, and dispelled any lingering trace of uneasiness between them. “Now, how may I help you and Red Top?”
“Would you be so kind? A simple fruit salad,” Esther answered, pointing out a heaping bowl of fruit on the kitchen counter. The wooden bowl itself, fully two feet wide and nine inches deep, had been carved and finished by Rory from a single cut of a red cedar tree toppled five years ago by a particularly violent winter storm. Its complex matte grain shimmered softly in the early morning sunlight streaming in from the garden terrace—it was Esther’s custom to prop open the back door while she was cooking—and the years had not diminished its distinctive scent, which was instantly and delightfully recognizable as one entered the kitchen. Beatriz took her time in choosing, and finally settled on Dancy tangerines, McIntosh apples, and early black ruby plums—Beatriz’s first, and happy, encounter with a freestone plum. She tossed the cut fruit with lime juice, added coarsely broken toasted walnuts, and after consulting with Esther, a drizzling of Calimyrna fig balsamic (made using the finest figs of that cultivar, pollinated by the fig wasp) barely sweetened with honey, whisked with a generous pinch of mace. Omar had returned with some sprigs of spearmint as well, and these Beatriz arranged over the salad.
A beaming Esther wheeled her tea-cart to the garden patio after a resounding success at the breakfast table—her fledgling soufflé had met with unanimous critical acclaim, and Rory, notoriously chary of praise, actually led the hallelujah chorus.
Despite the excellent food, the breakfast gathering itself had been a relatively subdued affair. Perhaps the meal itself contributed to the paucity of conversation, the savoring of each bite commanding full attention. No-one, it seemed, was in any rush to talk about yesterday’s harrowing adventures and still unresolved mysteries.
But as Esther distributed coffee, tea, and pastries, the idle chitchat that had characterized the breakfast table gave way abruptly, thanks no doubt to Rory’s opium-cleared brain, to more substantive matters. The rarely circumspect host—whose past relations with Beatriz had often been rocky—started out in high gear. “What were you thinking, Beatriz, in setting that monster loose? I could have dealt with him much more effectively—and unearthed invaluable data about so-called cold cases as well. ”
“I trust my intuition. I believe he truly is an innocent young man, understandably angry about the unexplained disappearance of his father.
Of course I disapprove of his actions yesterday—kidnapping me in hopes of getting to you, and the truth. Rory, just what is the truth about Arthur Grinfels?”
Rory, without moving his head, looked quickly to Esther, who communicated some private signal to him—perhaps a hand to one earlobe, a slight tilt of the chin, the drooping of an eyelid. “Let us simply say that his days of predation are safely behind him. And now the sins of the father—trust me, this is no innocent young man, but a cold and calculating son bent on revenge. I am not safe with him at large—”
“Nonsense!” interrupted Beatriz. “You are simply being paranoid, and your megalomania is showing. He wants closure, and as I open his mind to the truth, he may seek redemption as well. But he will need the whole truth about his father, and you seem intent on keeping that a well-guarded secret. Why?”
“I have my reasons, and you would be well advised to respect them.”
Beatriz glared at him, then coolly replied, “I can get Omar to talk.”
Rory advanced to within an inch of her face, his index finger stabbing the air. “Just how much do you value your life, Ms de la Fuente?”
Esther rushed to separate them, and collared her husband roughly. “Rory! That is enough. Beatriz is our guest, and I will not see her treated this way.”
Rory locked eyes back and forth between Esther and Beatriz. “Then she had best mind her p’s and q’s, and let the real professionals handle this case.” He then strode resolutely back into the house, his necessarily voluminous cloak billowing behind him.
“Beatriz, please excuse me for a while. Do not hesitate to ask Red Top or Omar for assistance in any way.” So saying, Esther followed after her husband, and the two could be seen wildly gesticulating as they passed from kitchen to dining room.
“Omar,” said Beatriz, “I have no intention of coercing you in any way—that was simply my way of moving this drama along in a particular direction. I am hoping, however, that with your intimate knowledge of the tunnels, I could recruit you as courier for perhaps a month? You need only carry a light backpack, and your dexterity and know-how will easily see your per diem of $100 earned in well under two hours. Are you game?”
Omar’s reply, though silent, was unequivocal—he jumped to her lap, settled comfortably, and gazed up at her, eyes wide.
Esther rejoined her friends on the garden terrace after fully an hour’s absence. She seemed distracted and nervous, but overall had a determined air. “Please excuse my long desertion—only now have Rory and I reached any kind of detente.”
“I trust you did not have to sell the farm,” said Beatriz, still clearly affronted at Rory’s attempt to bulldoze her.
“Hardly,” replied Esther, and then continued in a tone both conciliatory and somewhat hard-edged. “But I do consider it best policy to respect both your and Rory’s points of view, however irreconcilable they appear to be. The bottom line is this: I have negotiated a fortnight’s time for you, free and clear, and my husband’s personal pledge of noninterference. After that, all bets
Beatriz jumped up, and seemed on the verge of mounting a strong counteroffensive. But then her face relaxed, she let her balled fists loosen and her arms swing freely at her sides, and took Esther’s hand in a firm clasp of agreement. “As always, my friend, you have gone the extra mile. How can I express my appreciation?”
Again Esther seemed both placating and forthright. “Just as I have asked Rory, I shall ask you: do try to be civil to one another. I don’t want us dining separately, living in a state of outright or looming warfare.”
“Agreed,” said Beatriz, “and upon further reflection, I can understand Rory’s position—he has too much Grinfels history to see things so differently so quickly. Trust me, the topic of Andrew Grinfels will come up again—I will tread lightly, but I am also absolutely certain that my assessment is correct.”
“If I were able to broker a meeting, a bargaining session, would you be willing to participate?”
“Absolutely,” affirmed Beatriz, “but can you give me a week before the conference? I have a strong hunch that events will conspire by that time to not only assure Rory’s willingness, but bring him wholeheartedly on board with me as well.”
Esther’s eyes opened wide, and she practically roared with laughter. “Red Top may well be making book on that hunch—did you know that that is one of his favorite amusements, along with skinning us alive at any and every game of chance he can inveigle us into?—and I would be among the first to lay a goodly sum at 100-to-1 odds against you.”
“This grows curiouser and curiouser,” Beatriz replied good-naturedly. “I may be able to pay off my mortgage sooner than I thought.”
The orange tabby, rousing himself quickly from half-slumber, said matter-of-factly, “The betting cage will be open from nine to five, seven days a week. Omar or Lucifer will be glad to assist you.”
“Where should I direct my steps?” enquired Beatriz.
“Come to the foot of the garden, and you will find the Red Top Detective Agency.”
Now Beatriz’s eyes opened like saucers. “That’s a new one on me. When did this come about?”
“Have you an hour or two to spare?” Red Top answered. “Come with me to the office. I don’t work weekends, so we’ll have the place to ourselves.”
“Esther, will you excuse me for a while? I am intrigued with our friend’s entrepreneurial spirit.”
“I fully understand—in fact, I have taken the grand tour myself, and would wholeheartedly recommend it.”
“Thank you—for this, for everything. I do have one further favor to ask. It may seem at first strange, but I will explain later. Do you have a shallow glass bowl or cistern I can borrow, a bit less than two feet in diameter?”
“Offhand, I can think of two or three likely candidates,” Esther answered, extending a curious look in Beatriz’s direction.
“Excellent.” She then walked casually with Red Top towards the foot of
Omar found the young man still wandering the set of tunnels closest to the waterfall. The black feline’s acute hearing and impeccable sense of direction tracked Andrew Grinfels down in less than five minutes, and he then meowed and rubbed against his leg. The lonely and newly blinded man was naturally ecstatic to find any kind of companionship more cuddleworthy than spiders and mice, and he stroked the glossy feline eagerly from head to tail. Of course, he instantly noticed the saddlebags Omar was carrying, and soon found the two bottles of water, dried apricots, and beef jerky they contained. The bags emptied, Andrew reached down again to express his thanks, but his benefactor had left without a sound.
In a flabbergasting display of largesse, Rory had consented to allow Beatriz use of his library retreat for her mediumistic purposes. At dinner that first night—technically, the second night since her arrival—she had sketched out her basic requirements: a totally dark, windowless room; a glass-topped table; candles; and the glass bowl she had requested of Esther earlier.
The session was scheduled to begin precisely twenty minutes past the rising of the moon, and everyone was invited. Rory, while not wanting to appear enthusiastic, could not help but harbor a certain excitement as the time grew near—now, he thought, the charlatan’s true colors would show for all to see. He hoped the frisson of schadenfreude he felt along the length of his spine was not also tellingly reflected by a twinkling eye, or worse, a cunning smile. “Here’s to a newfound spirit of cooperation,” he said, raising his wineglass in a toast to their guest. Beatriz seemed genuinely pleased and flattered, and raised her own glass in return. “Rory, do forgive me for my often brash tongue—do not take this amiss, but you of all people know exactly how I might feel. Let us go forward together.”
“Hear, hear!” chorused the assembled company.
They then retired to the common room for a simple dessert of cheese
and fruit—Esther had paired leftover toasted walnuts with Comté, and goat’s-milk Capricious with dried Kadota figs, and ringed the platter with the delightful sweet tang of sliced McIntosh—and a typical assortment of evening teas: Darjeeling for the bipeds, chamomile-catnip for the felines, and juniper berry for Lucifer. As they finished, the waxing half moon was just rising in the northern sky.
In the small windowless room, they arranged the fainting couches around a low, glass-topped table. The only light in the room came from a single candle beneath the table, its flame centered beneath a shallow glass bowl filled
Beatriz signalled for silence, and motioned the group to lean over the table and watch the mirrored surface of the water. She removed a small bell attached to a chain from her bodice, and rang it sharply once, deftly muting the clapper with thumb and forefinger. She then firmly flicked the water at its center, forefinger uncocking from thumb. As the concentric circles flattened and stillness returned to the water’s surface, an image began to form. At first it was hazy, out of focus, but it slowly became clearer and clearer. Then a collective intake of breath broke the silence of the room—only the focused, meditative breathing of Beatriz de la Fuente showed no change.
The tunnels were instantly recognizable—our heroes, singly and in various combinations of twos and threes and four—had walked these passages close to the falls innumerable times. Just as a seemingly monotonous desert landscape is filled with distinctive details and landmarks visible to the practiced eye, so too the Castle regulars saw a familiar outcropping here, a distant angled intersection there to unerringly focus their bearings.
And the young man, dressed in simple dark tee shirt and khakis, his arms extended like feelers at his sides, elicited a sure recognition as well—here was the very image of a young Arthur Grinfels. Then Beatriz spoke
softly, just above a whisper. “Rory, Esther, Omar, Red Top, Lucifer—meet Andrew Grinfels.”
Rory was the first to break the silence. “So you cleverly bugged the tunnels. Where have you hidden the receiver?” he said, leaning lower and feeling beneath the rim of the table. Then, not surprisingly for that exemplar of plain, often crude speech, he made the following observation: “He staggers about like a common drunk! Surely, Beatriz, you did not provision him with spirits for this so-called vision quest?”
Beatriz did not rise (or descend?) to the bait, but took a humorous tack instead. “But of course I did! The spirit of adventure, the spirit of the holy quest, the spirit of truth at all costs—”
A hardly amused Rory persisted. “Perhaps that weight of spiritual baggage explains his stumbling about, his constant steadying himself with his arms. One might think him blind.”
“As indeed he is,” answered Beatriz, looking Rory straight in the eye.
“Impossible! How came he hence, then? No unsighted, unguided person could possibly find his way to the falls, subdue you and hold you hostage. Well?”
Beatriz paused to flick again the surface of the water, and the image disappeared. “I simply brought his physical sight in harmony with his spiritual state, which has been blinded by a lifetime of deception from his father. Now I will show him the truth—I will send sound and image to his psyche. If he chooses, he will see again.
“Here’s where you come in, Rory. I know only so much from following the news over the years, from my conversations with Lucas and Lena. Will you open the Grinfels files for me?”
“It would be a waste of time. At every turn, his tracks are covered, his defense ironclad.”
“I do not doubt it—but I have a great advantage, the psychic gifts I can bring to bear. If I know actors, time, and place, I can unfold the entire history—who did what, where, when, and why. For example, I could see a letter written but never sent, hear a telephone conversation, follow someone from point A to point B. If, however, I were to go day by day from, say, January 1, 1977 to July 30, 1980, it would take exactly that elapsed amount of time to replay the events in my mind. I would end up exhausted—after over three years!—and perhaps the proud possessor of a few barely useful facts. If I studied your files, however—and may I be so bold?—if I had the added benefit of your assistance in that endeavor, I could pinpoint perhaps three or four extremely fruitful leads—”
“And your final goal?” said Rory.
“To give a worthy young man the life he deserves—to break, if only once, that horrid cycle of abuse that follows generation after generation. And I would not be surprised if new evidence encouraged other victims to come forward as well, to tell the stories they have borne alone for years and years.”
“I’m out of my depth here, with sorcery-induced blindness and this search for a needle in a haystack. For all I know, your spell will wear off tomorrow, and this son of a Grinfels will come gunning for me. I need time to think this over, to confer with Esther and Red Top and Omar.”
“I would be honored to work with you,” Beatriz reemphasized, “but will respect whatever decision you take.” Then turning her gaze slowly to include everyone in the room, she said in a tone both grateful and importunate, “My strength is not all it should be, and I must retire early. My gentle good-night to all.” She rose, and passed quietly through the swivelling stacks.
Now it was Esther’s turn to speak, and while she addressed the company at large, she more than once let her gaze rest a few extra seconds on her husband. “That was no camera feed—that was a genuine séance. Omar?”
The black feline merely slit his eyes momentarily, sure sign of agreement.
“And you will recall, Rory, that Beatriz from the very first realized that Omar was not a golem,[*] even though you were so convinced otherwise. Think of the great debt we owe her for that alone!”
Rory had no defense there. Then slowly but surely, he raised his head from thought, and spoke decisively. “I will work with Beatriz. I have nothing to lose but some ill-conceived pride, and there may be a world of redemption to gain for Beatriz, for Lucas and Lena, for Andrew, for one more soul whose story wants to be told—”
Tears formed at the corners of Esther’s eyes, tears of pride for her husband and joy at his staunch willingness to roll up his sleeves once more and get
Her mischievous streak fully on display, she wiped the tears from her eyes, and proposed a celebration sure to please at least one other organism in the room, and not unserendipitously, the one she wanted most to honor. “Rory, would you fire up that pipe for me? It has been a long, long day.”
Two felines and one raven drew closer to the couple, and a dutiful husband bent to the task.
At the close of day, as the last horizontal rays of the sun evenly illuminate the landscape, bringing every detail, large and small, coarse and delicate, colorful and drab, into stunning and equal relief for perhaps one minute, at most two, a clear-eyed observer, a sharp-shinned hawk for instance, would have no trouble discerning and describing the two men cresting the farthest hill on the horizon.
Both were tall, slim, and muscular; the graying temples of one caught the dying light, whereas the other’s hair, indistinguishable from the gathering dark, must have been deep brown or black. As the men disappeared beyond the slope, the final, brilliant rays of the plunging sun starkly outlined the contorted branches of an ancient cottonwood, a lone black bird at its very top, and then darkness was sudden and total, as if a candle flame were abruptly extinguished.
Local geographers and historians—the line between the two disciplines was often blurred in the county stretching from the seat of Clover in the north, past the Castle, and on to Caroline and a few unincorporated townships even farther south—relying on perhaps a half-dozen firsthand newspaper accounts by explorers over the span of the last century, had learned the noteworthy significance of that venerable cottonwood—it marked the southernmost known entrance, via a narrow and steep defile fully a quarter-mile long, to the underground Lost River.
Now in the total darkness, his path assured by decades of familiarity, by unerring instinct, a large raven soundlessly leaves the highest branch of that tree and just as silently wings his way due north.
Beatriz de la Fuente powered through breakfast the following morning, eager to attack the Grinfels files and make some real headway. So it was with a growing sense of irritation leading to frustration that she watched an unusually chummy Rory and Esther loll about the table in maddeningly desultory conversation, each pause to gaze mutually moony-eyed longer than the last. Often they practically roared with giddy laughter, and called time and again for a bemused Omar—the extra digits on his front paws providing a prehensile function—to refresh their coffee cups for the umpteenth time.
She finally stood and spoke. “If I am not interrupting anything terribly important, I would modestly propose that we spend the fast waning hours before lunch with the patiently waiting Grinfels files.”
A suitably chastened Rory and Esther snapped to attention—if snapping could be defined as the conciliatory abandonment of fully slouching, and then making eye contact with any third person—seemingly eager to distance themselves from any suspicion of dereliction of hostly duty. “Of course, of course,” boomed Rory. “Ladies, follow me.” A squawk from Lucifer conveyed his wish to be included in the investigative party. “And gentlemen,” he added, nodding to not only Lucifer but Omar and Red Top as well.
Rory’s insistence on secrecy was legendary, and undoubtedly only the Castle regulars knew the more ridiculous depths he had historically plumbed in obedience to that idiosyncrasy. Perhaps the most bandied about quirk was his habit of hiding the last cookie or chocolate from jar or box, and then forgetting where he had stashed it—truly the apotheosis of secrecy!
So no-one was particularly surprised at being blindfolded and asked to link hands in a daisy-chain as Rory led them to the Grinfels files. The room itself was obviously a cul-de-sac in one of the many tunnels branching from the bowels of the Castle, but aside from the ten three-drawer gunmetal file cabinets circling the walls, there was nothing to distinguish it from any number of its ilk. Little did Rory realize that Omar or Red Top could retrace these steps by smell alone, but of course they would never let him in on that.
As the noon hour approached, and the lamps’ batteries had lost much of their illuminating power, Beatriz, with the inestimable help of Rory’s nearly photographic memory, had gleaned two promising leads from the files—one, a newspaper clipping detailing the budding career of a newly certified elementary school teacher, a handsome young man by the name of Arthur Grinfels; the second, a curious three-liner in the crime column later that same year—a Velma Grinfels had called 911 to report a domestic violence incident; perhaps a red herring, but then again, how many Grinfels could there be in a town of ten thousand? These were not photocopies, but the actual, now yellowed newspaper articles, and Beatriz felt sure this intimate connection with the past would help in her psychic quest for the stories behind the stories.
Rory then banded together the two pertinent file folders, and left them on a small desk near the entrance. Blowing dust from a clipboard, he used its attached pen to enter a brief description of the contents being checked out, and then dated and initialed the log. Again his companions donned their blindfolds, and joined hands to follow the pied piper back to the Castle
Rory’s typically robust appetite was hardly remarkable, but her lunch companions found ample fodder for catty—often literally so, as Red Top and Omar contributed their two cents—commentary as Esther, ordinarily a slow and moderate eater, devoured three plates of linguine al pomodoro in rapid succession, pausing only to belch (and not always discreetly) from time to time before attacking her plate once more.
“Just what was the name of your finishing school?” Beatriz enquired. “Esther! Do stop picking at your food,” Rory managed in one of the few brief interludes that his mouth was not otherwise fully occupied. Red Top put out stagily whispered feelers, trying to make book on how many plates his mistress would eventually consume. And Omar began reciting the perennial Coleridge classic—“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan / A stately pleasure dome decree—” Only Lucifer held his tongue, perhaps grateful for an occasion involving long-stranded pasta wherein he did not take reluctant center stage.[†]
The luncheon party were just settling to a light dessert and tea on the garden patio when the phone rang. Esther answered on the Castle’s single line, an old wall-mounted dial phone in the kitchen. It was Evelina, calling for her mother. Soon Esther called Beatriz to the phone, put more water on for
tea, and rejoined the others. After five or so minutes, the tenor of the conversation changed, and the garden party rightfully assumed that Lucas had come on the line.
Lucifer flew to Beatriz’s shoulder, and made gentle cooing sounds in her ear. She said her good-byes to Lucas, then added, “Wait a bit before speaking; I’ll get Esther to switch to speakerphone.” This externally cobbled feature was a nod to Red Top and Lucifer, the two Castle citizens constitutionally unable to handle the headpiece, the former lacking a grasping facility and the latter unable to long sustain bearing the weight of the ancient receiver.
Lucas, in addition to fluent English and a workable knowledge of Spanish, had gained, through native linguistic talent and long association with Lucifer, a general facility in Raven as well. One salient characteristic of the language
is its sudden changes in volume and pitch, and many humans found it disagreeable, if not outright painful, to the ear. As Lucas and Lucifer settled in for what appeared to be a long conversation, Rory closed the door from the patio to the kitchen. Red Top and Omar excused themselves, pleading the allure of a good afternoon nap. They scooted through a flap door communicating to the kitchen, presumably on their way upstairs to their respective rooms. But they stopped and lounged comfortably in a discreet corner of the kitchen, listening carefully to the ongoing conversation.
Red Top, more fluent than his companion in the corvine language, whispered bits and pieces transcribed into English in Omar’s ear. Yes, there is no doubt; this is Grinfels’ son. For a while the voices grow hushed, and Red Top cannot understand them. Then you will meet us tonight? A long pause. Should we be interfering with Beatriz’s plan? Hers may or may not work, but mine will; meanwhile, an innocent man is essentially being tortured—a blind minotaur in a maze. You will prepare him for the news? Yes, I will give him the courage he needs to heal—I can do no more. I will meet you then, and together he and I will float
the river back to my old home. Won’t mother-in-law be surprised! A grim but somewhat satisfied laugh from Lucas ends the conversation, in synch with an enthused caw from Lucifer.
Then a suddenly stern Lucifer strides purposefully to the felines’ corner. “Shall I have both your words? Not a hint of this must leave the room.” They both nod gravely in agreement, get up, stretch luxuriously, and head upstairs to fulfill their promised naps.
Lucifer, wanting to leave undetected, gives the felines suitable time to settle in, then follows their path through the single-brick-wide passageway that flanks the fireplace, and has available exits on both the second floor and the roof. The great raven then flanks north and west before setting his course south for the tunnels behind the falls.
We have recounted the history of Lucas Lapierre elsewhere,[‡] but a brief recap is in order. Lucas and Arthur Grinfels, who meet as fellow teachers in their early twenties, looked physically similar—both tall and wiry, both dark-haired. This unfortunate coincidence played a large hand in Lucas’s fate.
A third-grade student, abused by a “thin, tall, dark-haired man,” confides in his teacher. That selfsame teacher, Grinfels, through innuendo and lies convinces the boy that his abuser is Lucas. The boy fingers Lucas, the parents are brought onboard, and then allegations of satanic practice are added to the mix—and after a hasty trial notable for its absence of forensic evidence and unquestioning acceptance of his colleague’s damning accusations, Lucas is convicted and subsequently sentenced to twenty years. He makes parole after fifteen, and despite the hardships of ostracism and exile in town after town, city after city, he completes his parole before vanishing for good.
In his nomadic life, he chances upon an injured forty-year-old raven, and nurses him back to health. In return, the raven Lucifer initiates Lucas into the ways of the shaman. Following a chance encounter with another fugitive—Evelina, daughter of Beatriz, and teen sex-toy of Arthur Grinfels—Lucas heals a dying Omar, and sets in motion the events that will see Beatriz and Evelina reunited, Grinfels captured, Omar cleared of suspicion of being a golem, and finally, the blossoming romance and marriage of Lucas Lapierre and Evelina (Lena) de la Fuente.
After soothing his throat with a welcome iced tea following the exertions required in speaking Raven, Lucas began to assess the situation Lucifer had talked him into. As Lena brought him the tea, she was still chuckling after a protracted bout of belly laughs, guffaws, and screams of delight at her husband’s pseudo-operatic performance—the impressive range of notes, the volume which often leapt from a whisper to a shout, and back again, the truly inhuman screeches, clicks, rasps, grindings, and squawks.
Now, as his wife exited to the back garden, still smiling, Lucas took the time alone to remember and reflect. If only the timing had been even slightly better, he thought, I could have turned the tables. In his mind’s eye he saw again in perfect detail that scene in the boiler room, remembered thinking as he watched: I will never forget the smallest detail here. And he hadn’t, even though over twenty years had elapsed.
In addition to his part-time teaching duties, he tended the furnaces, dealt with the occasional electrical problem, and did plumbing work at the school. Loading his coal scuttle early one morning, he thought he detected low voices from the direction of the boiler room, and hastened quietly to the doorway. Grinfels grabs the boy roughly by the ears and hair, knees him in the small of the back so that he is bent over a small armchair upholstered in red and green chintz, and yanks down his sweatpants until they rest atop his red sneakers. Spotting Lucas behind him, Grinfels pulled a small revolver from his waistband, cocked the trigger, and pointed it meaningfully in his direction. Lucas quickly moved from the doorway, but listened from just outside the room. The boy whimpers, then cries and moans. Sudden silence—Grinfels must have gagged the boy. Now only the rhythmic slapping of flesh on flesh. “Be a good boy, now. This is how a son loves his father.”
The very next day, Arthur Grinfels called in the police and corroborated the sobbing testimony of another third-grader who had accused Lucas of abusing him. Lucas Lapierre is handcuffed and taken away. And the rest is history.
The vivid memories took their toll, and Lucas felt suddenly paralyzed with indecision. Then a snippet of conversation with Rory came suddenly to mind. The occasion was the farewell dinner for Beatriz, Lucas, and Lena at the Castle following Grinfels’s arrest. Everyone, felines and raven included, was drunk, and Rory in particular was uncharacteristically sentimental. “I was fifty-nine years old when I realized I was abused at age twelve. Can I ever stop imagining how my life might have been better if I’d known the truth earlier?” His friends and family rushed to embrace him as he wept the quick and hot tears of the child for whom there is no consolation.
It won’t be easy, Lucas decided, but I will do it. I will do it for Rory, and who knows, I may even be doing it for myself. He put a few provisions in a daypack, added two helmets with headlights, brought Lena up to speed, and began his trek north to the ancient cottonwood. If he kept up a good pace, he could make it well before sundown.
At the first branching of tunnels behind the falls, Lucifer caws loudly three times in quick succession. As the echoes fade, he hears a returning human shout. Raven and man continue this back-and-forth for another minute, and by then Lucifer, skilled at echolocation, has found the young man.
Lucifer lands on Andrew’s shoulder, and gently nuzzles his ear, cooing softly. Andrew reaches a trembling and shy hand to stroke the raven’s silken plumage. Lucifer then moves his beak rapidly from ear to ear, emitting a rapid series of low whistles. A startled look suddenly crosses Andrew’s face, and he cries out, “I can see again!,” then somewhat suspiciously, “How do you know my name? I can understand every word you say, but you still sound like a squawking crow.”
“Raven,” corrected Lucifer. “I have restored your paltry human sight, but if you are like most men, you will unknowingly trust it too much. I have taken the liberty of opening your third eye as well—that’s how you can understand me. Very soon you will need all the wisdom you can find, and your courage and self-love will be sorely tested.”
“Why all the riddles? I feel fine now, and cannot wait to see my friends again.” The young man stretched luxuriantly, and gazed in wide-eyed wonder at his surroundings, drab as they were. He sprinted from one end of the tunnel to the other, joyful to be alive in his body again.
“You will not be going home right away. First, there is a journey we must take. I will introduce you to Lucas, who once taught school with your father, and he will take it from there.”
Andrew bridled. “Who are you to tell me what to do? I come and go as
“You will not find that possible now. I suggest you try to leave this tunnel.”
A sneering and resolute Andrew walked quickly to the intersection leading back to the waterfall. Suddenly he was thrown backwards, landing roughly and ruefully on his buttocks. He confronted a nonchalant Lucifer. “What is this, voodoo? Black magic?”
“Nothing that esoteric, I am afraid,” answered the raven. “Just your run-of-the-mill force field.”
“So I am your prisoner?” asked Andrew.
“Funny how the tables turn,” Lucifer replied coyly. “But no, not strictly. As I said, we have a journey before us.”
“At least,” Andrew said peevishly, “I will meet an old friend of my father—”
“Friend!” screeched Lucifer. He then paused, as if deciding whether an explanation was necessary at this time.
He evidently concluded against it, and merely said calmly, “Follow me. We have a long trek, and I want to make it by late afternoon. Any funny stuff will get you exactly nowhere—unless you consider testing the limits of my temper a worthwhile destination.”
Andrew had nothing more to say. After shuffling and dragging his feet for a few yards in some futile yet probably necessary ritual denoting independence, he lifted his head, assumed a smile of sorts, and walked and ran to keep pace with Lucifer, who circled back from time to time.
At several points in their journey, the great raven stayed for half an hour at a time on either of Andrew’s shoulders, his beak close to the young man’s ear. Finally, they climbed the side of a steep ravine and saw the giant looming form of the cottonwood directly in front of them, its many branches like beckoning arms. A lone human figure stood to the right of the tree, and slowly raised his arms in greeting.
Beatriz had done her psychic homework, and was eager to interrogate Andrew about the domestic violence incident. She had fleshed out the story somewhat, but needed Andrew’s corroboration of a hazy detail before she could parse the scene more fully.
Dinner at the Castle that night had been a low-key affair—Esther for one was still recovering from her overindulgence at the lunch table (and perhaps a novice’s lingering hangover from the night before); Rory seemed morose and more than usually irritable; Red Top essentially monologued unchallenged about whatever topic struck his wandering fancy (tonight he bounced from fish farms to herbal remedies to the endangered tigers of Sumatra); Omar appeared lost in thought; Beatriz tried unsuccessfully to begin several conversations and then gave up, contenting herself with “Esther, please pass the bread,” or “Rory, would you kindly carve me a slice of ham?”; and Lucifer was AWOL.
The dinner party seemed to revive somewhat as they took tea before a gently crackling fire in the common room. Felines and humans initially sprawled every which way across the flanking leather sofas, but as the various teas of choice soothed or revived them, their postures gradually assumed the vertical and the first faint rumblings of what might evolve into civilized conversation could be heard.
The sun was sinking low, and Beatriz was eager to get to work. She gratefully noted a distinct yet muted renaissance of community, and began detailing her plans for the night. “I know for certain that Grinfels beat his wife, and engaged in relentless emotional abuse. But her mind then, and now, is hard to read; understandably, she popped sedatives as others might take vitamins, and she has recently been diagnosed with early-onset dementia.”
“What might you expect from Andrew?” asked Esther.
“Perhaps a snip of overheard conversation from his parents. Did Velma provoke her husband? Did she have something to hold over him, and he chose to beat her into submission? I see a blurred image of a boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, crouched like a dog, crying and whimpering. It is almost unbearably hot, and I can see the bottoms of his red Converse sneakers. But every time I recall the scene, it grows fainter and fainter.”
“Why would that happen?” Red Top asked.
“I am not sure—energetically, there could be any number of reasons.” She shivered slightly. “Am I sensing an interference, or is it only my overactive imagination?” She suddenly cast a suspicious glance in Omar’s direction, but the glossy black feline only met her with his usual sphinx-like stare. He then returned his gaze to the fire, just in time to watch a rectangular screen of yellow flame collapse and vanish.
Perhaps Beatriz had offended Omar; perhaps not. In any event, he did not leave with the others for the evening séance, but instead remained by the fire. Soon another screen began forming from the corners of four branches, and Omar again gazed directly into the pale yellow flame. The faces of Lucas and Lucifer gained clearer and clearer focus, and soon the trio were exchanging a variety of physical signals that may have constituted a common language, or an agreed-upon code—closing one or both eyes fully or partially; tilting and rotating the head left and right, and at clearly differing angles; and a half-dozen others—and any one of these duplicated two, three, four times in succession, or following one upon another in any serial arrangement.
The communication was accomplished in mere minutes, and Omar then joined the party in the library. A clearly exasperated Beatriz, and a variously bemused and increasingly bored audience intently watched the mirrored surface of the water, justly expecting the likeness of Andrew to appear in
But the young man never appeared, and Beatriz gestured Omar closer for verification. The black feline scanned the tunnels from falls to Castle—akin to his powers at pyromancy, he sensed presences by their individual heat fields, or signatures. Every parcel of aerobic matter in the universe, from bacteria to apples to humans, from birth to death and even somewhat beyond, elaborated its unique matrix of heat waves. Omar detected no human presence anywhere in the tunnels.
“Someone has broken my spell,” Beatriz declared, “and returned his sight. There is no other way.”
Omar conferred briefly with Red Top. After grooming his tail for nearly a minute, the orange tabby spoke. “Omar has a hunch, and begs our indulgence. Would we join him in a late-night ramble of sorts? The sky is clear, the
Rory and Esther raised their hands in agreement, but a still disgruntled Beatriz again glared at Omar. “Just what does he have up his sleeve?” she wondered aloud.
The remaining players, however, were already of one mind, and exchanged a round of familial glances.
“Let it be noted, for the record, that Omar neither now, nor at any possible future date, possesses or will possess any sleeve to have anything up,” Rory intoned magisterially. “And now, I suggest we provision ourselves for a midnight snack. Am I correct in assuming we have a bit of a trek before us?”
“About four miles,” said Red Top. “We will head south following the creek bed, skirt the falls to the east, and then arrive within minutes at our destination.”
“Esther, would you kindly join me in the kitchen to help assemble our moveable feast? And then we’re off.”
Esther, however, was not quite ready to leave. Picking up one of Rory’s exquisite pipes, she gestured to her husband and patted the cushion next to her. Red Top looked at his mistress first in wonder, and then lowered his head in thought.
Soon Rory and Esther hastened to their chores, giggling like schoolchildren. Beatriz, slack-jawed, watched their departure, and then firmed her gaze toward Omar, and Red Top as well. Was she imagining things, or were they silently snickering?
A chastened but still game Beatriz de la Fuente shook her head several times as if to clear cobwebs, then rose and headed upstairs to don jacket and hiking shoes. From beneath her bed in the guest room, she slid out a slim leather briefcase. Laying it on the bed, she quickly located two handmade dolls. Standing about four inches tall, they were stick figures from the twigs of trees, simple bodies with arms and legs, their cloth heads attached with wire, and the facial features denoted with stitches of thread. She then removed a small roll of masking tape from the briefcase, cracked her knuckles, and set to work. I have a few teeth left in my head, she reminded herself. And the night, though old, is still young.
There was no scarcity of firewood and kindling beneath the centuries-old cottonwood, and Lucas and Andrew soon had a strong blaze going well before sundown. Lucifer had provided only the briefest of introductions, supplying each with the other’s Christian name, before settling at the top of the huge tree and fluffing his feathers for warmth. He did not tuck his head preparatory to sleep; instead he carefully scanned his companions from his unparalleled vantage point.
As Andrew rises from his haunches to gather more firewood, Lucas quickly and quietly follows. He grabs him by the ears, knees him in the back to force him to the ground, and then starts pulling at the rear waistband of his pants. He moves his lips wetly to Andrew’s ear, flicks it with his tongue, and whispers, “Be a good boy, now. This is how a son loves his father.” The young man screams in terror, flails his arms uselessly, and then collapses in
Lucas lifts Andrew in his arms, and cradles him gently as they return to the fire. He staggers slightly beneath the weight, and tears course freely down his cheeks. Propping the unconscious Andrew against a boulder still warm from the late afternoon sun, he drapes his own jacket over the gently rising chest and shoulders, and moves close to the fire.
Lucifer wings noiselessly down and settles on Andrew’s shoulder. Lucas overhears and recognizes the incantatory rhythms of the shaman, and remembers afternoons long ago as he and Lucifer crossed many a wide sunlit field, the great raven’s beak close by his ear.
It will be fully an hour before a shaky Andrew, leaning heavily and gratefully against his new friend Lucas, descends the hill behind the cottonwood. Their flashlit helmets in place, they begin the steep drop to the river, and their
long float back to the cavern just above the falls. Lucifer, his mentoring accomplished, rests briefly atop the cottonwood, sights the North Star to confirm his bearings, and then heads back towards the Castle.
Lucas and Andrew dropped the final three feet to the shoreline. To their left, a roaring cataract of water explodes from the roof of the cavern, and falls thirty feet to the stream bed below. This is the farthest known source of the Lost River. They must walk single-file along a quickly narrowing shore, and within a minute they have run out of path. “Now we must float,” Lucas said, shrugging his backpack off his shoulders. “When I give the signal, grab both packs and roll onto your back. It will take us nearly two hours before the river is shallow enough for us to walk.”[§]
“It is so dark, I cannot even see the water,” answered Andrew.
“I will guide you, and bring us to the center of the stream, where the current is steadiest. That way we will float together. I remember how many strokes it takes—now place your pack against mine, clasp your hands around my chest, and I will take care of the rest.”
With Lucas’s athletic expertise, the task was soon accomplished, and Andrew passed Lucas his backpack. Now they floated in complete darkness, the silence only broken by the surprisingly loud sound of the water, amplified by the solid rock overhead.
“How fast is the water moving?” Andrew asked, reaching for Lucas’s hand. Lucas quickly moved his hand away, but Andrew persisted, and there was something about the young man’s grasp, needy and trusting and childlike all at once, that caused Lucas to relent.
“About three miles an hour,” he replied. “We should arrive easily before midnight.”
Lucas was a sensitive man, and a proud man as well. This prolonged physical intimacy with Andrew brought conflicted feelings—on the one hand, he accepted and even took a paternal pleasure in Andrew’s innocent handholding; Andrew, after all, was just the right age for a son that Lucas never had, and he seemed oddly immature for a man approaching thirty. And Andrew’s grip was in no way suggestive; nor was it yet that of a grown man, but somehow of a child fumbling uncertainly toward manhood. Still, Lucas could not shake the memory of this young man’s father, the man whose brutal dishonesty cost him so dearly, and he could not entirely separate the father and the son in his heart. Should not the son owe him at least a secondhand apology?
Then he abruptly realized: Andrew very likely does not know. Who could have told him among their mutual acquaintances? Beatriz possibly, but she had an agenda of her own; perhaps Lucifer, in his healing rituals, deemed it necessary to convey the full extent of the father’s evil.
The last thing he wanted was for Andrew to see him as the good father he now knew for the first time in his life never existed. Lucas asked himself the biblical question that has never found a universal answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” and, like many others before and likely after him, could find no answer. But I can rightfully insist on being known, he said to himself.
Then he broke the long silence between them. “Andrew, what do you know about your father and me?”
“Lucifer told me you taught school together when you were young, and being colleagues, I thought you might also be friends. When I said this, though, the crazy bird shrieked like someone had shot him.”
“I am not surprised. Arthur Grinfels, in addition to molesting you, and God knows how many other boys and girls, abused another third-grader, and pinned it on me. I spent fifteen years in prison, and can never get my good name back. No matter how innocent you are, and how exonerated you may be by facts uncovered later, you are always tainted, always stained.”
Andrew was struck dumb. Reflexively he released Lucas’s hand, perhaps suddenly ashamed. Then, between great, choking sobs, he cried out, “I am sorry! I did not know.” After several more minutes of crying, he asked, his tone at once apologetic and genuinely curious, “How could you bring yourself to help me, to free me from my life of lies? And then, keep helping me, asking nothing for yourself?”
This time, it was Lucas who reached for Andrew’s hand and took it firmly in his own. “I don’t know,” he answered quietly. “I honestly do not know. But somehow, I am glad. I keep thinking that Lucifer asked this favor of me for a reason, not just for you, but for me, too.” Then a shock of recognition: After twenty long years, I reached out for friendship with another man. I did it not because I was sure of him, but because I was suddenly sure of myself again.
“He does seem wise,” Andrew said.
“That I do know, beyond all doubt. Look, the crustaceans are beginning to appear on the walls. See their light? We can stand now, and walk.”
Man-boy and boy-man helped one another to their feet, and laughed together as they ran splashing to explore the albino crayfish from Mars with glowing red eyes.
“If it is not too much trouble,” Beatriz opined, her intent gaze shifting from Red Top to Omar, “I believe it would be useful to learn just what, or who, we are expecting. I for one am not especially enamored of our waiting room.” She shivered not from the cold, for she was suitably attired against the late night air, but at finding herself once again at the site of her recent captivity.
Before anyone could volunteer or hazard an answer, a sudden blackness hovered over the skylight, coalesced in the cone of light cast by the fire,
and landed among them, his glossy plumage and introductory caw unmistakeable—it was none other than Lucifer. After appropriate individual greetings to all present, he flew to Beatriz’s shoulder, and occupied her ear for several minutes.
The gamut of expressions animating Ms de la Fuente’s features could well be lauded for both their artistry and transparency—her face, as the expression goes, was an open book. One by one the emotions passed, some lasting mere seconds, some building as storm clouds, others seemingly frozen in time but then gone in the blink of an eye. In no particular order—indignation, curiosity, territoriality, anger, envy, admiration—and finally, resolve. Opening her rucksack, she withdrew two stick figures with missing arms and taped-over mouths, and threw them onto the fire. Almost immediately, two voices sound from the river below, and a man’s hands and elbows find purchase on the opening’s rim. Andrew Grinfels hauls himself into the circle of light. He then kneels for leverage, and reaches out his arms for the welcoming grasp of Lucas Lapierre.
Once again Andrew kneels, this time before Rory and Beatriz. He does not lift his eyes to theirs, but does extend his arms palms up in their direction. They see one large tear form in each of his eyes, and then roll slowly down his cheeks. Lucas clears his throat, and says in a husky voice raw with emotion, “Here is the finest man I have ever met.”
“Then rise, young Sir Andrew, and join your new family,” Rory proclaimed, his words echoing and re-echoing in the vastly intimate chamber.
“We have been waiting for you for a long, long time.”
[*] See Book Three, “Esther,” of The Four-Leafed Clover.
[†] See The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Four, “Omar.”
[‡] In The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Three, “Esther.”
[§] Lucas has made this journey before. See The Four-Leafed Clover, Book Three, “Esther.”
Author is a retired attorney having practiced for 35 years in Illinois who now lives in Texas and started writing stories about a year and a half ago.
The Persistent Pursuer
“Well when will he be back?” Marcia inquired of the attorney’s secretary Luann.
“The hearing was set for ten and scheduled for half an hour but you never know how long they are going to run. He might not be back before noon,” the secretary informed her.
“I’ll just wait.”
Marcia had been pursuing this attorney for a couple of months now trying to get him to pick up on her signals. The first time she had been in his office she was instantly attracted to him and she had believed that he was attracted likewise but things weren’t moving fast enough for her. She needed more information.
“What’s Attorney Lawson’s wife like?” she asked. Marcia didn’t care if he was married. She had her own agenda and she needed to know what she was up against.
Luann had sensed from Marcia’s first office visit that this woman had a crush on her boss. It seemed silly to her, a sixty year old woman having a crush on a fifty eight year old man, so she gave a silly answer. “Like? Oh she likes her husband.” Somewhat embarrassed she quickly added, “Oh she’s nice, a housewife and they have two grown children.” Then hoping to draw her away from the subject of her boss, because Luann knew that she couldn’t control herself and could be somewhat chatty at times and give out way too much information, she inquired of Marcia “What art school would you recommend for my son next year.” Marcia had previously mentioned that she was a retired art teacher and Luann’s boy had some talent along that line. Luann got her sidetracked somewhat on art for a while until a quarter to twelve when Mr. Lawson returned. Immediately upon seeing Marcia he politely said hello and went straight to his office.
Luann followed him in and shut the door. She raised her eyebrows and jerked her head back toward the reception room.
“How long she been here? asked Greg Lawson attorney at law.
“Since ten o’clock.”
“Send her in. I’ve got a one o’clock closing and still have to do lunch. Don’t worry I’ll be polite and nice to her, but firm, and after a while have her leave.”
Marcia had previously come in with a property line problem. He looked at all her land title paperwork that she had brought with her and determined that her original lot had a ten by twenty foot chunk taken off which was now her neighbor’s property. It didn’t matter that she thought the line ran straight, that she had put her flower bed there, this chunk of land belonged to the neighbor. Her flower bed had to go when the neighbor decided to use the extra footage to put up a new garage. She begged and pleaded with him to get a court order against her neighbor restraining him from building his garage as he was being mean to her and taking advantage of a poor little old divorcee lady who had no one to protect her. But there was nothing he could do and he told her so in the most gentlest way possible. It was his property and he had title and all the necessary building permits. Nevertheless she continued to plead and whine trying to draw sympathy and attention to herself. Politely and respectfully he listened. But after a while he noticed that she was more interested in him than her legal problem. All this whining and crying poor little old lady routine was overdone and underneath it all he saw that she was now trying to flirt with him while coquettishly batting those big baby blue eyes of hers. Finally but firmly, he diplomatically ended the conversation. When he escorted her to the door he told her there would be no charge. She thanked him. He said oh it was nothing.
The second time that she was in she was complaining that a police officer pulled her over for no reason other than to talk to her about her sports car. She claimed that he really was hitting on her. She wanted to know if that was against the law, police harassment. Since her conversation was totally inane and a waste of time, and a come on, he again knew the real reason for the visit. Once again he waited her out and In a gentlemanly manner he got her to leave.
The third time she stopped again unannounced and demanded to see Mr.Lawson. Her problem was that her sister was being mean to her. She wanted to know what he could do about it. Totally pointless and inane, he again listened, not having the heart to interrupt her or be rude to her.
The last time, again without an appointment, she had no legal problem, all she really wanted to do was talk. He had never charged her for all these times though because he felt sorry for this woman, hopelessly frazzled by life’s experiences. Furthermore he felt that he really never did perform any legal services for her and therefore couldn’t bring himself to charge her. He just sat there for the half hour while his mind wandered and she went on and on. When she asked him a question every now and then he felt guilty having to have her repeat it as he hadn’t been paying attention.
Today she was spiffily attired, as usual, in the latest expensive trendy fashion wearing tight fitting jeans. In all honesty he had to admit that she was a somewhat attractive shapely woman for a woman of her age. And he had to admit that he knew the true purposes of her visit but could do nothing stop her.
“I’m going to open an antique store,” she said as she sat down and straightened herself out.
Attorney Greg Lawson interrupted her. “Look Marcia before we go any further I’m sorry but I’m going to have to charge you from now on. Okay?” Maybe this would discourage her he hoped.
“Well okay,” she replied somewhat miffed and handed him a lease. “But you’ve been so kind to me I thought you would look over this lease for me for free. Aren’t you lawyers suppose to do pro bono work or something?”
“You don’t fall under the pro bono category Marcia,” he replied. She handed him the lease anyway.
He took it and gave it a cursory glance. “Well I guess I can’t charge you after all.”
A small smirk came over Marcia’s face as she felt that she was back in control again.
“Your landlord Mitchell Granados is my client. I drew up this form lease for him. All he has to do is fill in the legal name of the lessee and have everyone sign it. I can’t represent both sides. You’re going to have to find someone else to represent you,” he said relieved.
Her eyes started to well up and she pouted, “But I don’t have money for an attorney. You’ve been so kind to me. I thought you liked me. Couldn’t you make an exception?”
“No I can’t, not even for you Marcia. It’s not allowed under the code of ethics.” By invoking the code of professional ethics he alleviated any guilt he felt for not helping her. “You do understand ethics don’t you?”
“Kind of,” she squeamishly replied. Not giving up hope she changed the subject. “Well the least you can do is stop in my store when you get a chance. Maybe you can buy something for your wife? I understand she likes antiques.”
How in the world did she know that he wondered. She must have been pumping Luann for information again.
“Okay sometime,” he conceded believing that to be fair solution to end all this.
“How about I buy you lunch then as a way of thanking you for all your previous kind considerations. It’s noon now. We could go to that cute little new restaurant up the street that just opened, The Cozy Corner Cafe.
“No,” he blurted out almost losing it. Then regretting the outburst and feeling somewhat embarrassed he said, “I have a business meeting across town. I’ve just got time for a fast food drive through. Sorry but that’s the truth.”
Marcia lowered her head and finally took no for an answer and left despondent. Nevertheless she still continued to stop by Attorney Lawson’s office every so often. She went on with her fiddle-de-dee routine as though nothing had happened as she chatted away with Luann. The times she stopped when he was there, he would sit and politely listen to her and agree with whatever she said but he there was nothing he could do about her neighbor, sister or any cop that pulled her over to allegedly hit on her, or any of her new found alleged wrongs perpetrated on her. He knew that she was there to see him for her own designed purposes and nothing else. But he didn’t have it in him to tell her off so things continued as usual with her demands on him and his time.
Finally It got to the point where he would check in with his office before returning to make sure that she was not there. If she was, he would tell Luann to tell Marcia it would be at least an hour before he was back and then he’d wait for Luann to call and tell him that Marcia had left before he would return. He felt that he compromised himself somewhat by doing this but he knew of no other solution.
But the day came, when through no choice of his own, he had to confront her because of his wife. He had to get his wife a birthday present for her birthday tomorrow and he was running out of time as usual. He thought that he would stop at Marcia’s antique store on the way home and kill two birds with one stone. Stop in as promised and get that over with and get his wife a present. Besides Marcia probably knew what his wife wanted as well as he did after coaxing all that information out of Luan so the stop shouldn't really take that long at all.
Marcia jumped right up the minute he entered and straightened out her blouse and skirt and patted her coiffured hair do. No one else was in the shop but the two of them.
“I need to get my wife a birthday present for her birthday tomorrow.” Then he added. “For my wife of thirty plus years. She likes” but before he could continue Marcia completed the sentence for him, “Love dove figurines. I know Luann told me.”
“I don’t have any on display but I might have some in the back room. You want to come back and help me look?” she said coyly while bending over to pick up her glasses that she just happened to drop. He couldn’t help butt notice those tight fitting jeans again. She made sure of that alright.
Attorney Lawson looked through the open door to the room in the back. There was a cot.
From the back of the room Marcia noticed his concern and said, “Oh I lie down and take a nap every so often when I get tired. I’m not suppose to stay on my feet for long periods of time,” said the spider to the fly. He remained stationary.
“How are things working out with Mitchell?” he inquired hoping to change the subject.
“Well I’m a little behind on my rent actually. But I’ve been trying to work something out with Patty. You know who I mean. That woman in a wheelchair.”
“Oh yes Patty. She’s come in the office with Mitchell. She’s his property manager but I don’t know her last name though.”
“Oh she’s more than that. They’re intimate you know. How they can be intimate with her in a wheelchair I don’t know but I’d sure like to find out,” giggled Marcia. “And her last name is Cakes, Patty Cakes. Not really he just calls her Patty Cakes. She actually told me that woman to woman. I think that it’s cute when people have pet names for each other like that. Don’t you? “Come on back,” she beckoned. “I think I have something here you might like.”
This is way too much for Attorney Lawson. She had crossed the line. “It’s getting late. I really need to go Marcia. Good by.”
As he headed for the door Marcia suddenly found the pair of doves. “Wait Mr. Lawson I’ve found the perfect pair of love doves for you. Hold on!”
She ran to him just as he was about to open the door and leave her little shop of horrors. She handed him two white doves their heads and necks intertwined and billing each other and with little pink roses all around the base of the figurine. It was not an antique but a cheap piece of Chinese junk porcelain. “Here please take this for your wife’s birthday. No charge”
“Oh that’s not really necessary Marcia.”
“Thank you,” he relented and opened the door to leave, finally relieved that this was the end of it.
But oh no it was not.
“It’s the least I can do for all of your time that I have taken up,” she replied. “Perhaps
I can do something else for you later,” she said batting her eyelashes coyly and nodding toward the backroom.
That was the last obnoxious straw. That did it. Attorney Lawson couldn’t take it any more and cracked.
“No!” he suddenly and uncontrollably shouted out. “Look Marcia we’re all even now. I think it best that you would find yourself another attorney. Don’t stop in my office anymore. I don’t want you as a client. In fact I don’t want to see you ever again. You understand that?” he growled out not feeling guilty but glad that he had got this out of his system and told her off. His face and body language left no doubt that he was totally disgusted with her.
“Oh dear,” she gasped putting her hand to her mouth. She almost started to cry but then quickly regained her composure.
“Oh well. Can you possibly recommend an attorney for me? Preferably an older gentleman, a widower perhaps,” she asked. Her mind raced and her eyes twinkled as she spoke.
Attorney lawson actually knew of a couple and he hated both of them with a passion. But he wouldn’t wish her on his worst enemy and both of them were his worst enemies.
“No,” is all he said.
My name is Jamal Rashad Cornell but I prefer to go by “Poetre”. I am a 29 year old student at Full Sail University studying Creative Writing for Entertainment and an active duty Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps. I was born and raised in Greenwood, MS and have been writing poetry since June 2000. I aspire to open my own printing/publishing company to help beginning artists and writers find their places in the world.
“Jesus!!! Could you NOT do that to me?! You know I hate that!”
“Now, Jai, it wouldn’t be any fun for me if I warned you before scaring you,” PitStop said with a grin.
“Right, because everything is a joke to you.” Jai rolled his eyes.
“Who you gettin’ all pretty for?”
“Nunya, mane. Could you please let me finish getting dressed and stop harassing me?”
“Lisa. Oooh. Wait a minute? Isn’t that the girl we met at Barnes & Noble the other day?”
“How did you-?”
PitStop tapped his head with a sly grin. “Really?”
Jai hung his head. “Oh yeah. I forgot.”
“Wait. Jai has a date and didn’t invite us?!”
“Dear God, not you, too! Can y’all please let me have this evening to myself? I really like her!” Jai hung his head in desperation.
“No can do, señor,” mocked Lot. “We’re going, too. We need to know that she’s good enough for our dear boy and to make sure YOU don’t screw it up.”
“Me? Screw it up?” scoffed Jai. “You two are always buttin’ into the conversations, making me seem crazy.”
“But you are crazy, Jai,” PitStop and Lot said in unison, “you’re literally talking to yourself in the mirror. We’re just figments of your broken imagination.”
William Quincy Belle is just a guy. Nobody famous; nobody rich; just some guy who likes to periodically add his two cents worth with the hope, accounting for inflation, that $0.02 is not over-evaluating his contribution. He claims that at the heart of the writing process is some sort of (psychotic) urge to put it down on paper and likes to recite the following which so far he hasn't been able to attribute to anyone: "A writer is an egomaniac with low self-esteem." You will find Mr. Belle's unbridled stream of consciousness here (http://wqebelle.blogspot.ca) or @here (https://twitter.com/wqbelle).
“How do you know he’s not gay?”
Kate glanced at Sally as she fiddled with the cleavage of her dress. “I don’t.” She looked at herself in the mirror. She took a deep breath, cupped both her breasts and let them fall into place. “What do you think?” She turned to her friend and struck a pose.
“If he doesn’t get a boner and try to jump you, he’s got to be gay.”
Kate chuckled. “Listen, he told me he’s been married, divorced now for ten years.”
“Maybe he got divorced because he finally admitted to himself he prefers men.”
“Oh stop it, ya silly. He’s a nice man. I’m sure he’s a little gun shy. Who isn’t after a divorce?”
“You talk. You dance. You have drinks. But he doesn’t try for a kiss? Cop a feel? Nope, there’s a story.”
Kate turned back to the mirror and traced the V from her collarbone. “Okay, if this doesn’t work then I’ll agree with you. But you can’t blame a girl for trying.”
Sally sighed. “Beggars can’t be choosers. I haven’t seen many eligible men on this cruise. This isn’t exactly what I would call a single woman’s dream.”
The instructor called out, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re all going to start with the rhumba by going through the basic box pattern. Please make sure your frame is solid. Gentlemen, you have to guide the ladies.”
Larry took Kate’s right hand in his left and slide his right arm around her waist. She took a deep breath and stuck out her chest as he held their arms up in position.
“Let’s begin. Count, one, two, and three, four. One, two, and three, four.”
Larry and Kate looked each other in the eye as they concentrated on stepping to the rhythm. Left leg out followed by right. Right leg to side followed by left. The two of them acted as a coordinated team.
“Gentlemen, lead your partners into a turn. Let’s add what we’ve practiced this week.”
Larry held up his left arm and removed his right, guiding Kate into a turn. She finished and came back into position and they successfully completed their box step.
“Excellent, folks. That’s it for tonight. Let’s regroup tomorrow for our next lesson. In the meantime, there are refreshments on the side table and you’re more than welcome to take your drinks out onto the deck. The last rays of sun are still visible over the ocean.”
“Thank you, Kate,” Larry said. He nodded his head politely.
“You’re most welcome, kind sir.” She glanced at the table. “I’m feeling a little parched. How about you?”
“Let’s see what they have.”
They walked over to the table and looked over the various items. He held up a ladle from a punch bowl. She leaned against him as she peeked in the bowl. “Something tropical?” she said.
Larry gave her a side-long glance and stepped down the table to examine other offerings.
“I wouldn’t mind white wine,” she said pointing to a bottle.
He set a glass on the table in front of him and poured from Kate’s choice. As she reached for the glass, she brushed against him so her left breast touched his arm. “Thank you,” she said.
Larry poured himself a Perrier and held his glass up to her. “Cheers.”
Kate clinked glasses with him. “Would you like to go out onto the deck?”
“Sure, why not?” He gestured for her to go first.
They walked over to the balustrade and looked out over the water. The sun had set, but the sky glowed in the twilight.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes.” She looked at the ocean but glanced at him. “Larry?”
“May I ask you a personal question?”
He turned to her with raised eyebrows. “Sure, what?”
“Do you like women?” She sipped her wine and studied his face.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I’ve been sending signals but getting no response. My girlfriend wondered if you were gay. I wondered if you don’t like me.”
Larry snorted. “You don’t beat around the bush.”
“Life is short; a cruise is short. Nobody has time to wait. You must act and you must act quickly. She who hesitates and all that.”
“I’m not in the market, Kate, if that’s what you mean.”
“I wasn’t looking to get married, Larry. I was merely looking for a good time, a moment of fun.”
“As fate would have it — bad luck, really — you’re in the company of a man whose days with women are over.”
Her gaze darted around. “A sexual what?”
“No, no. I mean asexual — all one word: the letter A followed by the word sexual. Asexuality is the lack of sexual desire.”
“Ah, I don’t get it. Who doesn’t like sex? You have a medical problem?”
“Amongst other things, I suffer from E.D.”
“Erectile dysfunction. I have trouble in the bedroom.”
“What kind of trouble?”
He chuckled and shook his head. “Have we opened Pandora’s box? You really want to delve into this.”
“How many times have I been rejected? I’ve been told I’m too old. I’ve been told I’m not attractive, including not sexually attractive. And yes, a guy even told me he was gay. Your story seems like a novel brush-off.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. This isn’t about you. This is about me. As a jokester once said: If you can’t get it up, don’t bother to get it out.”
Kate frowned. “Aw, come on. It can’t be as bad as that.”
“It’s taken me a bit of time to come to accept my newfound limitations. I’m old, or at least older. I’m certainly not getting any younger. I’ve slowed down, it would seem, in more ways than one.”
“You do realize that this isn’t a race. This is supposed to be about two people enjoying themselves together.”
“I can appreciate that. However, with no reflection on you, I don’t like to start something I can’t finish.”
“What do you mean finish? Have sex?”
“Sex, percentage-wise, is a small part of our relationships. I’ve been given to understand that the average male orgasm lasts about six seconds. Just six seconds. It’s hardly seems worth going out on a date for only six seconds.” He smiled. “But there are many other important parts of any relationship: love, intimacy, closeness, sharing those personal things we don’t share with everybody. At the end of the day, I think we’re all looking to have a connection with another human being: to completely expose ourselves to somebody else, to be vulnerable, but then to be accepted unconditionally without judgment.”
“You seem to have a good grasp of relationships.” She hesitated. “So, what’s the problem?”
“An important part of that connection is sex. As I said, percentage-wise it may be a small part, but it’s an important part. I would say that it’s the thing that seals the deal. It’s the glue that binds two people together.”
“Yes, it can be fun.”
“Of course. Having a relationship can be fun: a friend, a colleague, a member of your family, even an acquaintance. But add passion to the mix, a sexual relationship, and you have something special. You’ve discovered what makes the world go round.”
“Okay. But I have to ask again: What’s the problem?”
“If you don’t have sex, what are you having? Can you say you’re in a relationship or is it something else? A friendship, a companionship, a fellowship, a comradeship: it’s some ship, but it’s not what I would call a relationship, at least not in terms of passion, of sexuality.”
“You said sex is a small part of a relationship.”
“Yes, it is. But I also said it’s an important part. It’s what makes the difference between friendship and that special emotional and spiritual connection you have with another human being through sex.”
“I’m not sure I agree with what you’re saying. A relationship is far more than sex. You yourself spoke of love, intimacy, and closeness.”
“I have felt all those things with people I’ve not had sex with. I have felt great intimacy and a closeness with people talking openly and honestly as you and I are doing right now. But you have to admit, while those nonsexual relationships are good, there’s something wonderful in those relationships where there is sex. It’s the icing on the cake.”
“I’m not sure I believe your situation is as grave as you’re portraying.”
Larry nodded. “You’re not the first to say such a thing. I can’t help thinking that our initial reaction to anything is to doubt its veracity and to demand proof. If I was blind, wearing sunglasses and walking hesitantly with a white cane, you’d still wave your hand in front of my face to confirm I couldn’t see.”
“So, let me ask you. If I was blind, if I couldn’t see anything, would you ask me to go to the movies?”
“You and other people have suggested that relationships are more than sex. I fully agree. We can have meaningful relationships with people without having sex. But what if you want to have sex and I can’t have sex?”
“I don’t understand.”
“If I was blind, would you ask me to go to the movies with you? The two of us can sit together. We can hold hands. We can cuddle. We can share a large bag of popcorn and a drink. Afterward, we can go out for an ice cream cone and talk over the movie. We’ve had a shared moment together. That’s a good thing and shared moments are an integral part of any relationship. However, while the two of us have had a shared moment, we haven’t had the same experience. I’m blind. I didn’t see the movie. Yes, I heard the sounds: the dialog and the sound effects. I heard your response and the response of the audience laughing at the humor, sighing at the sad parts, and gasping at the action. But I didn’t see anything. I only saw blackness. I was there and shared that moment with you, but I did not have the same experience as you.”
Larry paused and sipped his Perrier. “I’ve had sex.”
“I’m sure you have,” Kate said.
“No, I mean after all this started.” He leaned against the balustrade and sighed. “In the last two years of my marriage — I don’t know the exact number, but for the sake of simplicity, let’s say once a week — my wife and I had sex about a hundred times. Out of that hundred times, I had an orgasm five times. That’s five times out of a hundred. Ninety-five percent of the time we had sex, I never came.” He shook his head. “That’s not normal. But at the time, I didn’t appreciate how abnormal it was. I did not understand what was happening to me and I was confused, ashamed, and humiliated. My doctor gave me Cialis and somehow I managed to get an erection, even if it was only a partial one, so I faked my way through our lovemaking. I wanted to maintain the status quo, perform my conjugal duty and all that.”
“Didn’t you talk with your wife?”
“No. In retrospect, why didn’t I? I don’t know. There was a lot going on in my life at the time, and that was one more thing I didn’t want to deal with. Life had been good up until that point and I didn’t want it to change. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.”
“Wait. Sex isn’t about penetration.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. I was talking specifically about me and my problems. Those problems had no effect on my ability to make love.”
“Relationships, well sex, is more than sex. It’s about connecting with another human being. A long time ago, I learned that is far more satisfying to give than to receive. Don’t get me wrong, I like an orgasm as much as the next guy, but to give pleasure to my partner is truly gratifying. And in turn, my partner’s pleasure comes not just from sex, but from being the center of my attention. She enjoys being the center of my universe and she pleases me by being that center.”
He shifted his weight against the railing. “I’ve always subscribed to three rules in my lovemaking. One: I always put my partner’s pleasure ahead of my own. Two: I never rely on penetrative sex to please a woman. Three: I always perform cunnilingus.”
Kate grinned. “Oh, I like you.”
Larry held his glass up and smiled. “Cheers.”
The two of them clinked glasses and sipped.
“I like to think,” he said, “we’re here to experience one another. It’s not a performance. The objective isn’t the orgasm: that’s the icing on the cake, the cherry on the sundae. The real objective is to bond with somebody, that moment when we have the feeling we are one with somebody else. We’re born alone and we die alone. In between, we spend a lot of time trying not to be alone. Sex, great sex, can be that ultimate moment of bonding with someone spiritually.”
“You talk a good game.”
“Anybody can talk. I’m a flawed individual; I’m an imperfect man. In retrospect, I don’t know if the signs were all there, that I was building up to some catastrophe. My doctor discovered a number of years ago, I had an enlarged prostate. He was so concerned; he sent me twice for a prostate biopsy. Believe me, that was not a pleasant experience. And it scared the heck out of me. If I was worried about getting old and eventually dying, twice I’ve had to go through a procedure which could have ended with a diagnosis of the big C. I was lucky. But, I guess it was a sign that I had a growing problem with the plumbing.”
He glanced at his drink. “I regret not being able to talk to my wife, I mean my ex-wife,” he said. “She deserved better. I could say that I wasn’t a man about not being a man.” He chortled. “How’s that for ironic humor?”
He shrugged. “It’s for the better. I hope she’s found somebody who’s a good companion, somebody who can still function as a lover. And for me? I don’t have to have sex anymore. I no longer have to fake it.”
“You paint a pretty grim picture.”
“I’m not sure how to sugarcoat it. Sometimes reality sucks. And sometimes that means our only choice is to accept the situation and move on. Some things we can’t change. Oh, I know somebody would counter with a hope-springs-eternal attitude: If we only persist, we can all eventually have sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. I don’t mean to sound like a downer, but continuing to do something in the face of failure and succeeding is persistence. Continuing to do something in the face of failure and continuing to fail is ... well, stupid. I guess the difficulty is knowing how to make the distinction.”
“You make it sound like you’re never going to have sex again.”
“Oh, I did. Once. A couple of years back. I met a lady, same age as myself, recently widowed, and unsure of how to proceed in life. She was lonely. And she was very, very horny.”
“One thing led to another. I discovered her buttons and learned how to push them. She was a responsive woman.”
“But what about your problem?”
“As I said, a man doesn’t need an erection to please a woman. Even if I was having problems in the bedroom, it didn’t mean I had forgotten how to make love to a woman. Is it like riding a bicycle: you never forget?”
“So ...” She gave a sly smile. “What were her buttons?”
Larry sipped his drink. “I do a competent Venus Butterfly.”
She furrowed her brow. “What’s that?”
He looked around then motioned for her to come closer. He leaned over and whispered in her ear. Kate’s eyes widened, and she softly muttered, “Jesus.”
Larry stood up. “Over the years, lovers may have been hesitant at first, but soon became repeat customers. It can be an act of great sensuality and intimacy between a man and a woman. Can the two of them be closer than that?”
She shivered. “You’re making me feel a little flushed, you know.”
“Do I have to touch you ... to touch you?”
“Apparently not.” She shifted against the railing. “So, what happened to the woman?”
“We weren’t exclusive. She met another man, and I gently pushed her to him and bowed out of the picture. We remained acquaintances, but I thought she had a better future with this gentleman. However, she taught me a valuable lesson.”
“As I said, she was responsive. And multi-orgasmic. I don’t think any man could ask for a better sexual partner. But me? Out of the ten times we had sex, I never got an erection, and I never had an orgasm. Not once.”
She stared at him attentively.
“I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Intellectually, I knew I was with a terrific partner. She was having a fabulous time with me. But physically, I wasn’t responding to the situation. I should have been so aroused; I would have burst into flames. Instead, I felt little passion, little sexual excitement. I was amused, at best, titillated, but I felt no real physical desire. And I’m not talking about my response to her specifically, I’m talking about my response to sex in general.” He sipped his drink.
“She was understanding and kind. She told me she didn’t care if I was suffering from erectile dysfunction and that did sort of make me feel better. However, I realized that whatever problem had started in my marriage and led me to my divorce, continued unabated. My problem was permanent. I used to get horny at the drop of a hat. Now, nothing. I know I should feel different, I know I should be attracted to women left, right, and center, filled with the lust of raging hormones. Surprisingly, I’m no longer looking at them with the idea of having sex. Even I know that’s weird for a horny old toad like me. Well, for the horny old toad I used to be.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“What can anybody say? I survive a divorce. I’m a free man. I have no commitments and no responsibilities. I could be dating regularly, however, God, with his infinite sense of humor, takes away my capacity to have sex. What a cosmic joke. I have the time and the money to watch every movie ever made, except I’ve been struck blind and now I can’t see anything.”
“Don’t feel sorry for me. Yes, it’s a loss, but it’s also no longer a loss. I’ve accepted and I’ve adapted. I once met a guy who had been in a car accident and lost the use of both his legs. He would never walk again and was condemned to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He told me it was a tragedy, but not to feel sorry for him. He had accepted his condition and moved on. He had gotten over his anger; he had gotten rid of his bitterness, and now he was determined to live his life as best he could without two good legs. He was going to seek out all that life had to offer. Sometime not having legs was a pain in the ass, but he was having one hell of good time.”
“Aren’t you lonely?”
“Sometimes, yes. But I don’t want to mislead anybody. I don’t want to find myself with someone who’s expecting something in a relationship I can’t provide. Nobody wants a sexless relationship. Heck, I don’t want that. I think any good relationship should be consummated. Sex is an integral part of that connection with somebody.” Larry chuckled. “I haven’t forgotten what to do, it’s that I no longer know why to do it.”
“The question in my eyes, Kate, is not what I’m going to do for you, rather, what are you going to do for me.”
“I don’t understand.” She squinted at him. “Do you mean ... well, will I give you a blowjob?”
Larry smiled. “I would appreciate the offer, but the effort would be wasted on me. That’s not a criticism of your abilities, but a realistic assessment of my response.”
“Will you ever have sex again?” she asked.
“I doubt it. I no longer seem to feel physical desire. I don’t feel sexual excitement. It’s not about disappointing the woman; it’s about disappointing myself. I want to get aroused, but I don’t. Intellectually, I know I should get excited, but physically I don’t. I’ve tried and failed. And I’m tired of failing. I’ve been embarrassed. I’ve been humiliated. Now, I’m just tired.”
“What do you want?”
“What do I want?” He sighed. “I want to go back to the way I was. I don’t want to get old. I don’t want suffer from the physical limitations that come with age. And I don’t want ill health.”
Larry looked out over the ocean, thoughtful. “What do I want?”
He turned and looked at her. “I’d like you to make me so horny I could scream. I’d like to desire you so badly, I would climb the highest mountain and swim the deepest sea. I’d like to lose myself with you in a fit of unbridled passion.”
“You’re quite poetic.”
He exhaled and slumped his shoulders. “It’s taken me some time to redefine myself as a man. Heck, to define myself as a human being. I’m not the same. I’ve lost something and I’ll never get it back. The rest of the world can enjoy themselves at the movies, but I will never again have that pleasure. I can only accept and move on. And I must find other things in life to sustain me.”
They stared at one another for a moment then turned to lean against the railing. The occasional splash of a wave punctuated the silence.
“I’m sorry we didn’t have a chance to be intimate,” Kate said.
“Ah, but we were intimate.” Larry nodded. “It’s been a while since I’ve had such an open and honest conversation with somebody about such personal matters. I call that intimate. Just because we didn’t have sex doesn’t mean we can’t have intimacy.”
“You seem like a nice guy, Larry.”
“That’s kind of you, however, I’m reminded that nice guys finish last.”
“I meant it as a compliment.”
“I know. I was trying to make light of my situation.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. This has been a nice moment together. I appreciate it. Thank you.” He glanced at his watch. “It’s getting late and this poor boy needs his beauty rest. All this dancing has worn me out.”
“Yes, ah ... I guess I should get back and see what my roommate is up to.”
“Kate, it’s been a pleasure.” Larry smiled, hesitated, then stuck out his hand.
She glanced down at is gesture. “No kiss?”
He pulled his hand back and nodded. “How gauche of me.” He came forward and hugged her, kissing her cheek. He paused, looking her in the eye, and softly said, “We’ll always have Paris.”
Larry let go and stepped back. “Once again, Kate, a pleasure. I bid you good night.” He took several steps away and stopped. Looking back at her, he half-smiled. “By the way, I’m not completely blind. You have beautiful breasts.” He walked across the deck and disappeared into the ship.
She stared after him for a moment then turned back to the railing. She looked down at the ocean and followed the movement of the waves in the light of the lower cabins.
“What happened? Tell me. Tell me. Tell me.” Sally grinned as she carried two wine glasses onto the balcony. “Sit down and give me every little detail.”
Kate took a glass and arranged herself in a lounge chair. “I’m not sure.”
“Ah ha! I knew it. He’s gay.”
Kate shook her head. “No, that wasn’t it.”
“Either I just got the most elaborate rejection of my life, or I’ve met a man who’s had a life-altering health issue and I should feel sorry for him.”
Sally scrunched up her face. “What the heck are you talking about?”
“I’m not sure.” Pensive, Kate took a sip and looked out over the moonlit ocean. “Let me tell you what happened, then you can decide what to think.”
She slowly crept up the basement stairs. Knowing she could not hide from him. Her only escape was him passing out, which seemed in her mid to talk forever. As Emmalynne slowly crept through the house. She knew her only salvation was tonight.
He had drank two bottles of whiskey and if she was super quit she may get out. She had planned this for months when he wasn’t around. Emma-lynne knew it was him or her. She knew he keep the shotgun by the bed. Slowly and meticulously she crept up the staircase. Fear climbed into her throat. But she knew this was the only was out.
She made her way the bedroom, when suddenly the wind gust in from an open window. It made her jump, she never knew where he could be or could come in. Emma-lynne’s long, chestnut hair blew in the wind. She slowly made her way to his side of the bed. She hesitated as she reached for the gun.
After years of being an abused slave, she was going to be free. Her conscience was getting to her. It was 1059 and there is no protect for women.
She had to decide if this was her only way out. Still her Christian beliefs were holding her back. He could wake up at anytime. Her heart raced like a speeding train. How was she going escape or would her only option to be to kill him?
Emmalynne’s head raced but she didn’t have much time, there was a noise downstairs. Oh God she thought what if he woke up? Her heart was pounding in her ears as she made her toward the dark hallway. Fear gripped her chest and throat. Please god she prayed do not let him be up.
Emmalynne heard a yell for her from the stairs. She slowly, dreadfully walked toward the stairs
Dreadfully and slowly she made her way down the dark hall toward the stairs. All her worst fears were coming true all at the worst time. Suddenly he screamed bitch where are you? Her heart pounded and she knew what she wain for if she did not do something. This was to be the biggest decision of her life.
Many racing thoughts went through her. Suddenly he was bounding up the stairs. He started to beat her. The pain filled her body. There was no escape. She had no way to defend herself. Then she remembered the gun in her hand.
She slowly backed up. With a firm grip on the gun she fired. Her thoughts were racing. She backed up. She rushed past the body and ran out the front door.
She ran with no where to go and no options.
My name is David William Holm and I am currently enrolled into Fullsail University in the creative writing course while working on my BFA. I served in the United States Navy for 8 years and that gave me the opportunity to meet great people and to see the world a bit. After I got out I had to really think about what it was that I wanted to so and Writing just seemed to fit, seeing that I love to think about the wondrous possibilities in a story. I have never written anything that got published and am excited to get out there and learn and grow.
AN UNSUSPECTING DELIVERY
What would normally be a dull and rather boring Monday morning turned out to be rather mysterious and full of questions. Shana started her day like normal, waking up at 6:30AM promptly and started the coffee pot. She always had to have her coffee when she woke or else, even the cats knew this to be a ritual of hers. Both Munch and Guinness being black and having some white fur slept soundly in the bed next to her and even rarely under the covers. Last night was rather old and the cats ended up sleeping under the covers and sadly one of them ended up scratching Shana.
“Well thank you for the bleeding wound…” Shana says while glaring at the cats, who seem to be without a care about the wound inflicted.
Soon after the morning ritual and a shower there was a ring at the door. Shana, who hated feeling rushed, took her time getting dressed and made her way down the stairs to the front door. The landing was chilly and she shivered a bit. It had snowed the night prior and she was normally use to the cold having been from New York. She unlocked the door and opened it. At the base of the door was a rather perfectly square box, equal on all sides and wrapped in brown shipping paper. Aside from the wrapping, there was no indication as to where the mysterious package came from.
“Who the hell delivers a package like this with no information on it?!” Shana stated brashly.
After a brief period of deliberation, she decided to go ahead and unwrap the package. Tearing through the paper like a Christmas lunatic, not stopping until the paper lay on the ground in a heap. Shana could not understand why a delivery was made in the first place, she had not ordered anything and was not expecting a gift of any kind. Examining the exterior of the box, Shana could make out a series of letters evenly spaced to read “O P E N W I T H C A R E”. This being the only set of words on the box she examines the back side. The box was a sleek black and had swirls of blue, almost as if the galaxy had morphed into a box, and delivered itself to her. The box stood about 4-foot-tall and was equal feet wide. It had a keyhole on the lid.
“If I did not know any better, that keyhole looks like a key I have!” stated Shana in surprise. She remembered a key that was given to her by her Boyfriend William not just 10 months prior.
Rushing upstairs she fetched the key, almost plowing over the cats who, just as she, had a bizarre look of amazement plastered to the face. With key in hand she made her way back downstairs to open the box and put an end to this excitement. Like she suspected, the key slipped in with ease and she turned the key cautiously and hurriedly. There was a small clank and the lid pop up just a smidge. Setting the key down she hoisted the lid open to find William, knelt on one knee, cheesy look on his face.
“Will you marry me Shana?” asked William.
“WILLIAM I SHOULD SMACK YOU SILLY!” replied Shana with a certain flare of rage.
William was not too sure how to respond but repeated the line over. Before he could finish however, Shana had started to cry and with a sobbing voice replied “Yes you goof”. While this would have been a normal day much like the others, it turned out to be a special day, even the cats got to enjoy as they ran out the door to play with the wrapping from the box.
Melannie Jay is a high school senior in Madison, Wisconsin whose academic notebooks often turn into impromptu anthologies, much to the chagrin of her calculus teacher. Besides writing, she loves cats, punk music, comic books, baseball, dark chocolate, and the friends who put up with hearing about these loves every day. Next fall she will be studying Biological Basis of Behavior and Creative Writing at the University of Pennsylvania.
A Letter, Later Destroyed, to the Girl Who Lived After All
I saw a photo of you today, the first image after twenty years. You had cleaned yourself up, made yourself nearly unrecognizable from the time you told me to pick up milk from the grocery store and I came home to the note telling me that you had bought a plane ticket to Prague with the intention of blowing your brains out and letting your broken body fall into the Vltava. On the back side, you had scrawled the poem that gave you the idea in the first place.
With the new hair and new clothes and new smile I almost didn’t believe it was you, that somehow your crazy half-Scottish, half-Hungarian name was common enough to belong to another girl, but it was your eyes that forced me to admit that you had made it through that week after all. One was blue, but the other was split down the middle, blue and brown, in what you called an homage to your divided ancestry.
The night that we met at the bar we were both too young for, when you were coaxing the bartender into giving you a whiskey sour between sets of the garage band you still thought was going to make it, I was the first person you talked to who didn’t comment on your eyes. Instead I told you that your references did not go unnoticed and listed in chronological order every band riff you had swiped from in the first half of your performance, but I told you that you made up for it because I liked the color of your shoes. You found the whole exchange so off-putting that you laughed like a caffeinated hyena, if only because you knew not what else you could do. I left the bar without you or even your phone number, and thought that was the end.
We ran into each other on campus the next day and you said you remembered my hair; it was right after I had gotten the blue streak put in that would become my marker until I entered the real world and endured a few months of bleach-blonde lingering around until it all grew out. This time I mentioned your eyes and you smacked me upside the head. I spilled my coffee on the street and you offered to buy me some more. It was during chemistry and it was the only class I ever skipped, walking with you out of the gated community to some little dinky place all the way on the other side of the city with mediocre at best coffee. This time I got your number and your name.
I went to every single show you did, every rinky-dink gig at a frat party or open mic night at similarly run-down cafes. You weren’t very good at singing, always speeding up and slowing down at the wrong times, and your style of guitar-playing was more focused on “loud and fast” than anything technically difficult. You split from three chords and the truth by the occasional addition of an E minor to your usual repertoire of G, C, and D. I watched you the way that I did because your energy and passion for your music was like nothing I had noticed in other ensembles at school, the ones who actually did go on to record an album or to, or at least upgrade their gig space to something where the most expensive item on the menu hit double digits.
You never seemed to use the term dating for what we did, grabbing something quick to eat after you had worn yourself out thrashing on stage for a few hours. I wanted to think it was, but I never said anything out of fear that you didn’t see me that way. Then one night you kissed me without warning, and even though I wasn’t expecting it I didn’t pull away. I leaned in, and we held hands the whole way back. You introduced me to your band the next day as your girlfriend and once again I never said anything to support or refute the point, only went along with it.
In a way, that’s how I felt the whole time we were together. I was just grabbing onto a lock of hair or a scrap of fabric on your coat as you, in all of your glorious energy, shot through life. You were a great comet hurtling through the stratosphere with disregard for everything you were burning up in your orbit, including yourself. Despite my best efforts to get you to have breakfast other than a shot of Jack and whatever grains you could find in your pantry, you were either too ignorant to realize that what you did was killing you or too stubborn to change something that would have made you too much like the rest of us, too ordinary.
We had moved in together when you started getting sick. Do you still call it that, getting sick? Do you still consider yourself to be ill, or have we moved past that to some new state of physical and mental health since your absence? No matter the case, I knew something was wrong when I came home and you didn’t say hello to me, you were just sitting on your bed scribbling furiously, having gone through an entire pad of the sheet music you kept on you at all times and moved onto the lined notebook that I was using for work. I took the notebook away from you and you didn’t seem to understand what was wrong. Dazed from the changeling that had taken your form, I decided to make you dinner, thinking this was another spell caused by malnutrition, and I came back to see that you had moved onto the walls. One look at your pitiful face and I didn’t want to make you pay for repainting the walls on your measly day job salary – of course you had to use permanent marker instead of pencil – so I paid for it myself and hoped that this, like all things else, was temporary.
I knew that it wasn’t temporary when I got the call, halfway through the work day, that you were in the hospital for trying to gnaw off your fingers in the middle of the day. This had come the day after you went crazy halfway through a set, nearly destroying your guitar and taking off your drummer’s head with one of his own cymbals. We had closed the show early and I walked you home as you cried, tears freezing to your face. I put you to bed and prayed that this would be the end, that you would start changing your ways and figure out what to do with your life, because this wasn’t working.
When I got to the hospital I screamed at you. Never mind the speech that I had rehearsed about how this was okay and we were going to get through it together. No, damn all of that, I was furious at you for being so immature. You knew that something was wrong and yet you elected to do anything about it, just hope that it went away and keep on living in your dysfunctional manner. The lack of hygiene you applied to your life was never helping anything, and you were relying on me to make things okay, but I wouldn’t be around forever. I slammed the door behind me and started crying. You never saw that part, the tears I left behind, because I was worried about you, worried about the face of terror that I had never seen before. I thought I had ruined something between us and you would never trust me again, the one permanent thing in your life. I tried to turn around and make things better, but nothing would make me move my feet.
Two weeks later they sent you home with new medication and you were fine for a time. You didn’t want to perform, so you went out and got a job at a record store, something that would keep you busy all day and allow you to still be around music without having to jump around. We were better again, never fighting, and I never had to worry about you, but I never felt that I was with you from that point. You had been replaced by an automaton, an android in my bed. In a way, when you left the note behind, I was relieved to know that you were back.
In all the time that you were gone, I never thought that something had gone wrong. Every time I remember that day, I picture you staring out the window of the plane and seeing the Atlantic below, planning everything meticulously, getting your hands on a pistol, putting it to your temple, and pulling the trigger with the first bliss you had known since the illness started brewing within you and working its way into every aspect of your life.
What happened? Did they not allow you to purchase the weapon in the first place? Did you get caught stealing it and have to go to prison, whereupon you rethought your life? Or did they allow you to take it and go down to the river, only for you to look down and realize that what you were doing was stupid, throw the pistol into the river instead of yourself, and turn around and have a drink instead? Did you, like Beethoven’s nephew, press the metal to your temple but find your hand shaking too badly to find the soft part, instead having the bullet glance off your skull and send you, dazed, into the river, only to be rescued? Maybe you spent the money, walked down to the bridge, climbed up on it in your dirty sneakers, raised your arm to your head in a macabre salute, and put your finger to the trigger when someone wrestled you down, stopped you from doing it. Forever in their debt, you clung to them as you once clung to me. Maybe you and that woman, or man, are still together and living happily in the Czech Republic, far away from the cruel world you left behind.
Is it wrong to say that I feel nothing to know you are alive? I am not happy, for even though I praise God that you survived it means that I cannot guarantee your suffering to be at an end. The demons may still plague you. Despite that, I cannot be sad that you made it along, or even sad that you never made your way back to me. In a selfish way, I wish you the best with the theoretical person that you met out there because it means I have no more sleepless nights worrying about whether or not you’ll make it through the day. You were mine for a time and I ruined it, made things worse than you had known them before.
I never married. You put me off of it; I could not handle the responsibility. I killed you, after all, or at least I thought so. I worked all day, I advanced in my job. I adopted a dog and I come home to him every night. He is all I need, and I never worry the way that I did about you. I don’t want to see you again, to become reattached to the woman who I left behind, or who left me behind all those years ago. I only want to know that you are at peace. Send me a sign if you are, or disregard this message entirely. I am not yours and you are not mine. If anything, find your peace for your sake and not for mine.
Bob Carlton (www.bobcarlton3.weebly.com) lives and works in Leander, Texas, USA.
The king awoke with a start from a dream he could not remember. Beside him, his wife stirred momentarily, but did not wake. Getting out of bed, he was surprised at the chill in the air. Summer, it seemed, had fled his land during the night, and in its place a shift in the wind announced unequivocally the turn of the seasons. The king had always been a believer in the prophetic nature of his dreams, and though no images of this one remained, the residual agitation was real enough. The changed face of nature to which he rose confirmed him in his faith.
A feeling that something of importance had occurred compelled him to gather a small troop and head for the coast. The sound of chariot wheels and horse hooves on paving stones, the rock and sway of the car, lulled the king to the point of sleep at one moment, then jolted him back awake the next. Through the stillness of the still-sleeping town, the king and his men rode across the culvert, the ravine dry these many months. They came out finally onto the plain, heading toward the markets of Argos, passing through olive groves, vineyards, fields where lately barley had stirred in the breeze, through small villages and family farms, slaves shooing cows and sheep out of their path as the king and his men rode on.
# # #
Commerce in the towns and estates of the plain is conducted on a point to point basis. One man takes his goods to market, trading his surplus for necessities, the pathways simple and explicable. The itinerant merchants on the coast, who ply their trade across the broadest regions, constitute an altogether different class. They move goods on behalf of powerful men, and while often artisans in their own right, they trade also in merchandise not of their own making. No correlation between what they produce and what they sell. From an economic point of view they are faceless, unattached to the products they trade, the masks they display those of the monarchs in whose palaces they move. Looking through the hold of any one of their ships will reveal where they have been and something of the conditions found there. Changes in style and quality of workmanship show the extent of foreign contacts, mass migrations, changes in climate, and the decay or growth of imperial fortunes. Burial customs, manner of worship, legal procedures, peasant population, dietary habits, rules of succession: gleaned over the years by paying attention to what a man packs on a string of mules headed for the palace. Accountants maintain records of such detail the mind blanks attempting to behold them all. No pot of honey uncounted, no amount of wheat and figs destined for the most humble pounder of flax overlooked. Beyond a means to control and maintain the productivity of the palace, all such data, every exchange of goods from one hand to another anywhere, are individual tesserae that, taken together and viewed from the proper distance, make an image of the world, not fixed but moving, one which, by understanding the laws of its motion, can be entered and altered. In the port of Tiryns a miniature copy of this larger world can be found. With the coming of autumn, sea-borne travel will soon come to an end, and with it the flow of information that forms the basis of foreign policy. Perhaps there is news that will provide a course of action through the winter, something to rouse retainers grown bored with the spoils of past campaigns. Also, the palace workshops are not producing the bounty of previous years. Marble and lumber are needed for tomb construction. Even bronze is in short supply, and bronze is the engine of empire, bronze the means to an end and an end in itself, a tool of and reward for the labor of men. The life of the kingdom depends upon imports. Imports and war.
There is talk of a massive earthquake in the land across the sea to the east.
# # #
Imports and war. Both are necessary to maintain rule. Metal workers manufacture goods, including weapons, at an ever-increasing pace. More weapons bring more gold, more gold buys more manpower, more manpower needs more weapons, and the fabulous tombs will house massive amounts of all these material products. There will come a time when this system is untenable, but until then, to maintain control of the region, not to mention preeminence among peers, acquisitive aggression must continue.
To an outsider, the dominance of Mycenae may seem curious. There is little arable land in the immediate vicinity, no direct access to the sea, a paucity of natural resources, and a less advantageous position to command the plain below than that of Argos. However, for more than one hundred fifty years, dating back to the beginning of the current dynasty, Mycenae has been the major power, first over the kingdoms of the plain, then over an ever-expanding area. None of this is the result of an act of God or the outcome of an inexorable Fate. Large, abstract forces, inscrutable to mere mortals, do not shape the destinies of men and states. It is the individual will, the actions of men strong enough to command, wield, harness, and shape that constitute the history of Mycenae. This is what the outsider must be made to understand. At sword point if necessary.
# # #
One of the first official acts of the last king was to begin a major construction project, the extension of the outer circuit wall of the citadel. Outward, symbolic displays of power often coincide with practical considerations. The new wall would reinforce the grandeur of the kingdom, the scope of military might and ambition. The fact that such a wall is in reality a defensive structure does not betray any weakness. It speaks, in the ominous silence of stones, of permanence.
This project has provided another propaganda opportunity as well. Just beyond the older walls lay the graves of the family that founded Mycenae. During construction, the graves were brought within the walls of the citadel itself. This was no simple matter, for the level of the cemetery floor had to be raised up to that of the surrounding city. Stone markers, salvaged from the older cemetery and carved with the wondrous exploits of these legendary kings, were then erected over the refurbished graves. A small stone wall encircled the entire area, making of it a sacred space. Anyone entering or leaving the citadel would stop and make sacrifice, offer a prayer, or at the very least, spend a silent moment contemplating the unbroken glory that extended from a remote and misty past right up to the present moment. Even the most orderly successions create schisms. To be linked to a past violently altered is a bold stroke. It is almost as if prior rulers were the willing offerings in a sacrifice necessary to secure the power of this new family. Where before there may have been the perception of a broken history, there is now a bond, mythic instead of familial, with the great city’s founders.
# # #
The Earth-Shaker Himself has visited the coast to the north-east. This as an invitation from the gods, a sign concerning a course of action. Considers the facts: an earthquake has devastated a wealthy state just as winter is coming on; the likelihood of effecting repairs is greatly diminished, both by weather conditions and the apparent loss of many members of the ruling family; there are large number of potential allies, both at home and abroad; recent shortages among the local kingdoms make an extensive raid attractive. All secular indications seem to recommend this course.
But the ways of the gods are strange sometimes. The earthquake to the east seems a call to act, a summons and a gift, not to be ignored. The weather is perfect for sailing, unseasonably warm and dry. All signs indicate that a successful campaign lies ahead. While diviners affirm this interpretation, other advisers, more familiar with conditions beyond the city walls, respectfully offer an alternate view. As one shareholder with land among the small farmers of the plain puts it, “We have already heard the first cuckoo. Three days later, a smattering of rain, not even enough to wet a bull’s hoof print, much less fill it. It will be a bad harvest for those who sowed late, and there were many.”
The prospect of shortages of any kind, despite being an incentive when properly considered, is always a concern. Most of the materials needed to operate the palace workshops must be imported: tin, copper, lumber, gold, ivory, marble. And while the production of luxury items and the accoutrements of war are the lifeblood of the palace economy, without grain and grapes, olives and flax, the apparent necessities of the system are as nothing; no food, no people.
# # #
Over the coming days, heralds head out, summoning the most powerful landowners in the area, men who have fought together, suffered losses and shared in glory. They stood by Mycenae as it consolidated rule over the sometimes obstinate kingdoms of the plain, and have been amply rewarded. The small farms, the flocks of sheep and goats, the vineyards, the olive groves, the scattered villages: there is all this, and of much else beyond, united under the acknowledged overlord of a vast group of local monarchs. Many of these vassals and fellow rulers are kinsmen, bound by marriage or blood, both spilled and familial. There is a complex system of oaths, treaties, obligations of various sorts, such as gift exchanges that, while on the surface appear to be signs of mutual respect, are in fact a symbolic debt that cannot be repaid. Royal hostages help insure loyalty as well, though the changing political climate can often negate a particular individual’s efficacy. Formal agreements exist which define boundaries, set forth terms for extradition, and lay out schedules for military aid.
Of course, none of this means anything without the demonstrable ability to execute responsibilities and enforce the obligations of others. It seems that with every generation, the new ruler of any land must be able to reinforce the legitimacy of his rule. The fortunate are able to do so without confronting peers and rivals directly. The skillful ruler, however, is able to buy their loyalty, enrich himself, and weaken their power bases, all at the same time. Realize that challenges faced by some on a grand scale are the same as those faced by others on a smaller one. If, for example, the ruler of Pylos has some villages in his outer provinces that are harboring a rival claimant, an ally could plunder the region, haul off captives and resources, swelling his own storehouses at the expense of the Pylian palace, and receive thanks from Enkhelyawon for support against the pretender Wedaneu.
Some call it raiding. Others might call it commerce. Landholders and villages under direct control provide only so much. Sometimes, it is necessary to venture outside the immediate environs in search of resources. Some call it piracy. Others might call it small scale redistribution of property and the securing of favorable conditions for future trading. Goods flow into the palace, craftsmen produce the luxury items used to appease any lesser monarch offended by incursions. If need be, enlisting the aid of the injured party on the next outing, and rewarding him amply, reinforces the social order. In the end, the Achaian monarchs understand and accept that the benefits of having an overlord outweigh the damage done by the occasional liberties taken. At least for now.
# # #
--And what of any allies they may have?
--You speak, of course, of Hattusilis.
--I do, your Highness. I think it wise to consider any possible involvement on the part of Hatti.
--Do you believe they will send in troops to defend Wilios in the event of an attack?
--Quite likely, your Highness. There is a treaty between Hatti and King Alaksandus of Wilios. Any move against his territory will likely bring an armed response.
--I have heard of this man. He fought with Muwattalli against Mizra some years back. He has proven his worth to Hatti over the years. Do we know what the treaty says exactly?
--I was in Wilios a few years ago. One of the clauses in the treaty requires that it be read aloud thrice yearly. I was present, among a number of other dignitaries, when this was done. Some hastily jotted copies circulated afterward among the diplomatic community. Though there is certainly room for error, I believe I have reconstructed the most important points.
--Can you do so for us now from memory?
--Of course, your Highness. I fail in my service to you if I cannot.
--There is first a good deal of past history between Hatti and Wilios. There is a long period of friendship between them, up to and including the time of this treaty between Alaksandus, current king of Wilios, and the king of Hatti, Muwattalli. The key point to remember is put thus: ‘Keep loyalty with my son and my grandson, with my grandson and great grandson.’ I take this phrasing to mean any of the king’s heirs.
--I assume so, my Lord.
--Then what of Hattusilis?
--I think, your Highness, that at this point, the reign of Hattusilis may safely be assumed to be sanctioned by powers both secular and divine. As such, all treaties previously in effect remain so.
--Of course. That was mostly said in jest. Please continue.
--Very well, sir. Now, following the injunction on Alaksandus to remain loyal to the heirs of Muwattalli, it states: ‘And as I have been loyal to you, because of the word of Kukkuni your father, and have come to your aid and killed your enemy, so in the future my sons and grandsons will be loyal to your son, grandson, and great grandson.’
--So the treaty pledges mutual military support in the event of an attack.
--Yes, your Highness. In fact, there are specific campaigns in which Alaksandus must provide infantry and chariots.
This fact is of interest. While some, such as Mizra, Sanhara, and Assura do not concern the present purpose, the mention of Arzawa does. Of the four Arzawan kings mentioned, one is a cousin of Muwattalli. The treaty states that the political clients of Kupanta-Kurunta of Mira, including members of the Arzawan royal clan, are a treacherous lot. “One shall be the help and support and offensive force for the other, and the one shall keep loyalty with the other” is how the treaty defines the relationship between Wilios and Mira. Clearly, several powers in the area are obligated to send troops in support of each other in the event of an attack. But what happens if several attacks are occurring simultaneously? Perhaps they make a mockery of the treaty’s closing formula: “So enjoy welcome authority in My Majesty’s sphere of responsibility, and grow old in My Majesty’s sphere of responsibility.”
# # #
The empire of Hattusilis is a precarious structure. The heartland itself is under pressure these days by warlike tribes on its northern border and an ever-expanding neighbor to its east. Mizra is a constant worry as a threat to its southern trading partners on the coast, which have taken on greater importance in recent years after several disappointing grain harvests. With all that going on, the last thing Hattusilis needs is an uprising in the west. The unruly rulers of Arzawa seem especially prone to such behavior. Uhha-ziti, for example, who rebelled against Mursilis. After his defeat, the Arzawan fled, and one of his sons, who had also taken up the cause, found refuge in the Mycenaean court. Though his stay was short-lived, royal Arzawans still dot the rolls of retainers, mercenaries who love nothing so much as heading east each year to burn a few villages and knock down a few walls, if only to annoy the king of Hatti. One man in particular, the grandson of Uhha-ziti himself, seems determined to spread as much discord in the area as possible in his ostensible quest to gain a kingdom for himself in the homeland of his ancestors.
# # #
“My brother, the Great King of Ahhiyawa,” spoken with mock gravity.
“Tawagalawa of Milliwanda,” replied in kind. “By Dzeus, you certainly are every bit the native of barbarian lands.”
“The better to serve the overseas interests of your empire, my Lord. I find my foreignness less a hindrance if I make a few concessions when it comes to dress and speech.”
“Of course, all this for my sake alone.”
Remember the proverb: when transacting business with your brother, laugh and call for a witness. The easy mirth and disarming manner can sometimes blind the casual onlooker to the ruthless cleverness behind the smile. Eteocles is no one’s fool and is well aware of his value, as well as aware of his own unique position and power. He possesses the ambition for empire, and the pragmatism to pursue it. A realist in his approach to policy, fluid in his ability to adapt to changing conditions. Not one prone to casting a backward glance, Eteocles is moving constantly forward, an Achaian warrior equipped with the curved sword and tasseled helmet of the East.
“My Lord, I present to you Prince Piyamaradu, grandson of Uhha-ziti of Arzawa.”
Everything about the man, from his physical stature to the way he nods a greeting that conveys respect without deference, marks him as a formidable warrior. Dressed in and equipped with skins and fashions that are exotic on this side of the sea, the effect of his appearance and manner is made all the more striking by his bright, almost waist-length red hair.
“You are most welcome in my palace, sir.” Eteocles translates into what, without understanding a word of it, anyone could tell is a broken form of a language.
For a decade or more Piyamaradu has campaigned in lands against the allies of Hatti, including an attack on Wilios, the subjugation of the Seha River Land, and the sack of Lesbos. Upon defeating the forces of the ailing Manapa-Tarhunta of Seha River, Piyamaradu installed his son-in-law, Atpa, governor of the land surrounding Milatos, over Manapa-Tarhunta. Massive numbers of skilled workers under Manapa-Tarhunta’s authority, as well as those on Lesbos, defected to Atpa. Manapa-Tarhunta appealed to Muwatalli for help. The Hittite response was swift. General Kassu, who had just saved Wilios from destruction, was dispatched to deal with the crisis. With the Hittite army in support, the Hittite vassal Kupanta-Kurunta, king of Mira, persuaded Atpa to return the workers from Lesbos, who were under direct Hittite control. However, Atpa refused to turn over those received from the Seha River Land, his reasoning being that they came with the territory he had been granted by Piyamaradu, who, as far as anyone can tell, had no authority to do so in the first place. The Hittites let the matter rest. The entire conflict illustrates the power Piyamaradu is able to exercise. It is only later, when the aging and ineffectual Manapa-Tarhunta is replaced by Masturi, that Muwatalli will regain control over the Seha River Land. When pursued, Piyamaradu has always packed up his entire household and fled to Milatos and the protection of Eteocles, or across the sea to Achaian territory. He is a man of proven military acumen, a natural leader, and someone with the ability to sow instability across the western lands of the Hittites. Support for him from the Achaians has usually been indirect. Now, in order to disrupt the movement of potential allies to Wilios, he will have men and a navy.
# # #
The most elite troops will descend on Wilios. Still, there are hundreds more, often unshod and nearly naked, armed with makeshift weapons, men hungry for the rewards of a summer spent ransacking the stores of anywhere that is not a rock-filled field carved out of a hillside, men willing to row up and down the coast between Milatos and Wilios just for a chance to seize slave girls and gold.
But further business must be postponed for the time being. Tonight is for feasting, with Eteocles, Piyamaradu, the remaining party of foreign visitors, members of the household, the leaders gathered to help plan the future of East-West relations. The queen and her ladies will be present for a show of regal finery, but will retire before the entertainment begins.
Great care should be taken in the presentation of revels. It is important to impress upon alien visitors both the extent of wealth and the reach of power through the judicious blending of the native and the exotic. The best wares local artisans have to offer are showered on guests, gifts of fine woolen stuffs, ornamental bronze weaponry, highly ornate drinking cups. However, throughout the evening guests will sample delicacies, both foreign and domestic, spiced with cumin from Mizra and sesame from Syria. Slave girls of every race will serve the men in every way, exercising all the remembered arts of their shattered homelands. Ivory gaming boards will host pieces of white marble and black obsidian. Stirrup jars from Crete will pour out perfumed oils, pressed from the palace groves, infused in the palace factories. Acrobats and jugglers from distant lands will cause amazement and merriment throughout the evening. The display of domestic wealth is proof of local power, while imported luxuries, sent as gifts, testify to the esteem of foreign monarchs.
Finally, appetites sated and energies spent, the gathered company will recline on the cushioned benches, partake leisurely of the best wine, and lazily drift along the currents of history into the lands of legend, swept along by the four-stringed phorminx and the rolling cadences of the finest rhapsodes in the land as they stitch together the story of this house, a lineage going back to the dawn of the gods, the great deeds of heroic ancestors as they overcome all manner of monstrous foes in order to found a city, the great deeds even of the guests and their forefathers, artfully entwining the fates and futures of all those present into a tightly woven narrative. The skill with which the singers accomplish this is such that by the end of the night, the already drunken sense of solidarity among these men will have become a deeply held, if only newly forged, belief in their essential unity in the eyes of Time.
# # #
Achaian interference in the east has a long history, but potential gains were measured only in single years. An alliance of noblemen, a solid power base in Milatos, a powerful ally in Piyamaradu, and Wilios, crumbling atop its hill, waiting to be taken. Prey upon any weakness, and there seems to be an opening on the western frontier of the Hittite empire.
The plan as presented: an assault on Wilios for the purpose of taking massive quantities of treasure. The city sits like a spider in the center of a vast web of trade routes. It is rich in gold, horses, laborers, women, and livestock. There are storehouses filled with the goods of merchants from all over the world. Then there are the ships anchored in the nearby bays, unable to pass through the straits until the northern winds die down. Wilios collects fees and taxes on all that is passing through or just sitting there. Obviously, the city did not acquire and maintain its wealth without being able to defend it.
The lesser Achaian rulers seldom think in strategic terms. The proposition has ramifications none of them understands. While they think of the invasion as merely a raid, albeit one on a grand scale, the use of such force will be perceived by every land to the east as all out war. An attack on Wilios with an army this size is not so much a bid for riches as it is for the expansion of power, for the kind of fame that, whatever material gains Wilios yields, will make a name itself a word spoken only in awe.
Normally, even the largest raids involve only a handful of royals, with troops numbering perhaps a few hundred. Retainers, vassals, and peers are all familiar with what is essentially a summer ritual, practiced among themselves as well as on foreign soil: the annual campaign for slaves and treasure. The targets are usually a few small towns, grouped closely along a coast, with perhaps a larger walled site nearby singled out for a quick strike. Most of these raids replenish supplies, with enough women and livestock collected to keep the troops loyal for another season. The practice is tolerated not only here, but by all the lands that lie along every coast around the world. The Hittites have long tolerated such raids in their western states. No one, theoretically, is exempt. Every ruler understands the laws of retribution, restitution, and retaliation. Every ruler knows and accepts the price of human life. Every ruler exercises his own judgment when deciding if he should accept four oxen for a trained female worker or go to war over it. Small disruptions of this sort open up trade routes, moving goods along new pathways created in response to ever-changing conditions on the ground. A little tension keeps everyone creative and elastic. There is a limit to which this model can be pushed. Find that limit.
# # #
--Let the kings of Achaia know that we mean to depart for Wilios immediately following Metuwo Newo. The new wine will fortify the troops with courage, and our endeavor will receive the blessing of Mater Theia Herself on the eve of departure.
--And what of Lekhestroterian? If the grain harvest is not what is expected, and we are not here to oversee the festival...?
--Is the mighty king of Thebes concerned that his comrades will not look after his interests in his absence? Does he not have skilled men who can apportion and transport in a competent manner? Or does he not trust his underlings? Does he not have the power over them that we all suppose? Come, sir, would you really have us believe that one of the richest kingdoms in all the land fears for its abundance?
--With all due respect your Highness, we merely feel that a protracted campaign is not the wisest course at this juncture. With the best men gone for too long, the worst may try themselves against us, aided perhaps by those suffering from want that we are not there to address.
--Take heart, sir. While we may miss the grain harvest and Lekhestroterian, with the aid of the gods we should return in time to celebrate Thrypteria.
--This, my Lord, is all we wish to be assured of.
--Keep this in mind as well: while our lands may be getting less rain than we would like, the lands of the Hittites are much worse. Many stories of severe water shortages in some of the kingdoms near their western coast have made their way here. Large troop movements are difficult, if not impossible, in certain areas. Besides, has not our Poseidon bested their Appaliuna already?
# # #
There is a good deal of intelligence concerning Wilios and the surrounding countryside. There is the bay just to the southwest of the city where many traders wait out the strong summer winds, as well as the harbor close by Wilios itself. There are dozens of crudely drawn maps, detailing the topography of the plain and location of local villages. Distill these into what is a fairly accurate picture: the best places to beach a ship, where most of the shoreline trading occurs, where beacons and watchtowers stand, where the rivers lie, where the plain will be its driest, the ridges from which the Troians will mount their most vigorous attacks. Here is where the most blood will be shed, a narrow passage of flat land between high ground on the south and a wide river mouth on the north. Wherever the landing, the troops must funnel through there to get to Wilios itself, unless it is possible to land in the bay and secure that high ground first. Many men attached to the court have visited Wilios, bearing gifts of royal stamp: perfume, ivory, decorated ostrich eggs, silver pins, the fine-spun wool and linen proverbial throughout the world. They return with diagrams of city streets, armory locations, descriptions of defensive ditches and walls, gate and tower locations, troop strengths and dispositions. When the assault on Wilios comes, there should be no surprises, no contingency unconsidered, no loss of time due to the unexpected. And time is of great concern.
All these maps and diagrams, and only one certainty: with the wind at its back and situated on an inland hill with a view of almost every accessible harbor, Wilios will not be taken quickly or easily. There is something eternal about the place; attackers come and go, the people slaughtered and scattered, the walls knocked down, the city put to the torch. Yet through it all, the people return and rebuild, out of tenacity, or stubbornness, or arrogance. This attachment to place means there will always be a source of plunder here, a post for trade, and people secure in the knowledge of their own blessed state.
# # #
The landings occur in phases, over a period of weeks and in several places. Largely unopposed, troops are able to ravage the countryside, gaining in strength and confidence, even as the people of Wilios, dispirited though they may be, prepare to defend themselves, gathering everything they can within the walls of the city, burning and polluting everything they cannot carry away. The preliminary moves of both sides have a chaotic, haphazard quality, as blood lust, panic, easy avarice, and staunch patriotism spill out uncontrollably. Brief skirmishes, civilian defections, senseless slaughter of livestock and prisoners, wholesale desertion by untrained soldiers quickly satisfied with easy rewards--all this and more characterize the first weeks. It is when men begin the serious business of armed conflict that a strange order arises, as if the participants are players in a larger narrative than they can comprehend. As if heaven-sent by Poseidon Himself to finish what the god has started. The time has come to gather timber to begin the construction of a tribute to the patron deity of this expedition, the Earth-Shaker and great Master of Horses.
Business continues apace in the harbor. Most of the merchants will trade with whatever partner is at hand. A steady supply of goods and services flows unabated. Sheep, goats, and oxen for food and sacrifice, camp whores for the pleasures of the troops, pour into the Achaian camps, bought and sold on the beach or seized in the countryside. Far from a deterrent to business, war is a boon to the independent merchant, provided of course he knows how to deal with men-at-arms in such a way that his wares are not simply seized and himself put to the sword. Being of some use beyond a source of material goods is an advantage. Every successful trader deals in more than worldly wealth. Most move through several different levels of society, across many different lands, speaking several different tongues. It is their absence of fidelity to anyone’s interests but their own that makes them valuable as messengers, translators, and spies.
Sinaranu of Ugarit, trading in grain, oil, and beer, is a man of great wealth and highly respected by Ammishtamru, ruler of Ugarit, from whom he is exempt from taxation, “clear as the Sun is clear.” From Knossos to Wilios, he is welcomed in the highest circles, and as such, he is always good for an interesting story at least, and more often than not, valuable intelligence concerning state matters.
--There is no trade to be had with the palace. The destruction is unthinkable, the dead were many.
--And what of Alaksandus?
--I cannot say with certainty, your Highness, but there is great mourning, burials and cremations, elaborate rites that apparently continued for weeks. Even now, months later, no sign of rebuilding.
--There is no one capable of leading them?
--If there is, I do not know his name. The crown prince, Walmu, is far too young to hold the throne. It is said that those loyal to Alaksandus have fled with the boy to await a more propitious moment.
--But the city...
--The people are demoralized, without purpose. But the wealth of Wilios, well, riches need neither morale nor purpose to survive, do they?
# # #
The often marshy plains are dry and easily passable, on foot, horse, or chariot. There is an advantage to any fighting done in the open. These elite troops are far superior to any that Wilios has to offer, and even the more undisciplined and unskilled foot soldiers have the advantage of numbers and morale. And more: an ox-hide car painted bright red, silver-covered wheels and horse equipage, brightly polished bronze and ivory, flashing in the sun. A panic-inducing sight, but of little use in hand-to-hand combat beneath city walls. Here: sword and spear, sharpened bronze with gold-covered grips, and a dagger, deadly anachronism passed down through ages, studded with silver, a clear round crystal embedded in the bottom of the handle. Boar’s tusk helmet and armor of bronze, worth several enemy lives based on nothing more than the fear they inspire.
Rocks, sling bolts, and arrows rain down from both sides across the ditch and wall of the town. Attrition, fatigue, and pestilence will soon erode the will of the inhabitants, and one day in the coming months, the assault on the town will breach the outer defenses, the gates will be flung open, and chariots will race across the bridges of the city and into the panicked crowds swarming the streets. The citadel should offer little resistance by then, and men will overrun the sloping walls, burn every building left standing, and overturn every stone not already leveled by Poseidon’s anger.
# # #
Summer continues, and various contingents come and go, sallying forth to raid further inland or sailing down the coast to make a quick strike against a defenseless village. Thus a constant flow of livestock and slaves is assured, and, well-supplied against the choked and hungry city of Wilios, the soldiers begin to exact an increasing toll upon the defenders. Fewer and fewer offensive strikes emanate from behind the walls, occasional night raids and sally-port surprise attacks resulting in fewer and fewer casualties on this side. In fact, most of those venturing outside the city are fleeing the war, deserting the cause, or staggering out to throw themselves on the mercy of their besiegers. Desperate messengers, riding in the night in hopes of reaching allies, are intercepted and dispatched. Hope and slashing bronze swords have become despair and hurled chunks of mud brick. In the brutal heat of the long days, blood and dust cake the bodies of victor and vanquished alike, though the import is different for each. What is a celebratory cup of wine at night in the camp of one is the grim liquor attempting to revive ebbing courage and resolve in the other, to wash away fear with the grit of the day’s battles.
When the first fires begin to appear within the lower town, the time has come for the final assault. The defensive ditch, filled with the rubbish of siege, can now be crossed with relative ease in many places. Battering rams and ladders follow the rush of the first soldiers. As the defenders expend energy and ammunition on these nameless, ill-equipped farmers, the well-trained, heavily armed troops swarm the walls and gates, their own dead and dying bridging the space and providing footholds from which to mount the outer defenses. The screams of men in agony mingle with the shrieks of women and children in terror.
The citizens of Wilios flee before the enemy as they pour through the city gates, across the ditch, and over the walls. Once the route is started and panic sets in, the slaughter begins. The lower town must be secured as quickly as possible so the looting can begin.
While the elite troops look to the citadel for their reward, the foot soldiers are concerned with the goods in the lower city: oil, wine, livestock, women, household goods useful to the man who spends most of his day walking behind oxen or protecting sheep. The barefoot man with the homemade spear, not the richly adorned warrior on the scarlet chariot, will win the battle for control of Wilios. Only later, when most of the populace is dead, captured, or fled to the hills, will the royal families of Achaia, in all their finery, argue over the wealth of the palace.
As the assault on the city continues, twilight sets in, and the king and his brother find themselves making their way around the city to the west. The two men decide to scout the area in darkness, on the lookout for useful information, or any strays they may be able to cut down. Accordingly, they strip off any weapons or armor that would slow them down or cause noise. These things they hide at the base of the hill. The king wears nothing more now than his helmet and breech cloth, and carries only a short sword and his favorite silver-studded dagger, archaic weapon of his ancestors. Waiting for night to settle in completely, they listen to the sounds of battle beginning to die down. As they creep westward, they get a quick glimpse of torchlight and movement on the hillside above and ahead of them. Pursuing as swiftly as silence will allow, they soon catch sight of two figures quickly disappearing among the brush and rocks into a concealed grotto just outside the city wall. The king and Eteocles are upon them in an instant.
The king knows at once that whatever fabulous wealth Wilios delivers, he has found his prize. As he lays hands on the girl, out of her shrieks he can understand the words “sacred” and “prophet”, but this only inflames him more. In this moment, his is the ultimate travesty, for as he drags her into the mouth of the cave, he cuts down the unarmed man at its entrance, a man whose garments and gesticulations mark him as a priest, this place as a shrine, and this girl, who wears an identical robe to his, as a priestess and perhaps his daughter. In her eyes the king sees a plea for mercy that will go unanswered, an arrogant defiance that will be punished, and a patient understanding that will baffle all attempts to fathom it. The rage to destroy that finds its satisfaction in warfare is the same rage that he unleashes inside her, both as a will to dominate completely, and paradoxically, a will to annihilate himself. His blasphemy is also his cry for salvation, his desire to rape the heavens themselves one and the same with that to protect this creature even as he is bent on crushing her. Every sobbed prayer is answered with a curse and increased brutality. The screams and tears of both are the climax of a communion, sacred and profane, filled with violence and hatred; his silent pleas for forgiveness the human mind can neither grasp nor grant, the divine mind neither assuage nor answer. From the moment he is finished with her, the king is dimly aware of some loss that offsets the material gain of his defiled treasure.
“What place is this?” the king asks, though the darkness, the echoes, and the sound of dripping water have already told him.
“This is the way into the Underworld,” Eteocles whispers back. “We have shed the blood of the priest of Kaskalkouros.”
# # #
Scouting parties head out continuously. While success is assured in the war on Wilios, there is no certainty of the result in a direct confrontation with the army of Hattusilis. With Piyamaradu roaming the lands and sea to the south, the Hittites will stay busy, assisting one vassal ruler after another in an attempt to quell any widespread uprisings in support of the charismatic rebel. Still, it is only a matter of time before Piyamaradu flees back to Achaia and the Hittites turn their attention northward.
When word finally comes, it is in the form of a squadron sent by General Kassu himself. The Hittite warriors, accompanied by the scouts who encountered them, are an impressive group, arranged in chariots by threes, long hair flowing out beneath tasseled helmets. They represent the highest ideals of Hittite military principles. They are at once courageous, skilled, disciplined, and thoughtful. It is easy to see why Hittite expansion over the last several generations has been so successful. These are men one could come to admire. Right now, however, what matters is the proximity and intentions of the Hittite army.
First comes the observance of the elaborate social rituals that govern displays of hospitality and friendship between battlefield enemies. There are the introductions, filled with genealogies and military accomplishments that allow those of more subtle turns of mind to gauge the relative merits of the participants. There is honest fellowship, the avoidance of any hint of aggression, the intricate courtesies and deferrals, the setting aside of hostility by those who know death first-hand and do not take casting a spear at another man lightly.
Local merchants and villagers, for whom little is at stake beyond the temporary discomfort of war, provide services of all kinds, from translation to entertainment. Women, skilled in the kitchen and seized as prizes by the various generals present, prepare a hearty local stew, a simple lentil, leek, and onion dish, heavily spiced with garlic, rosemary, thyme, fragrant toasted cumin, and fortified as befits the occasion with generous slabs of lamb. Wine flows freely from large Troian goblets, while Hittite beer, tart and bubbly, makes its way around the company, poured out to gods obscure and familiar, then consumed through straws out of shallow bowls. A convivial night passes, until the more sobering intentions of the deputation are made known the next morning. The small group of merchants who the night before translated the informal toasts and tales of men at rest now convene to commence the more delicate task of diplomacy. While certain details may become garbled, the sense of the plain talk of soldiers is almost certain. These are straight words not twisted by rhetoric, figures of speech intertwined with figures of thought into a unity approaching exactness. Dispensing with the overlay of ambiguous signs, a man becomes his language, every gesture containing the clarity of a single word. Here, where violence can spring suddenly from an ill-considered remark, relish the full weight of a necessary eloquence, a crystalline simplicity of expression devoid of ornament.
# # #
--Once before, Piyamaradu attacked Wilusa. It is said he defeated the forces of the naked and radiant Shaushka, who comes from heaven as a lion, turning warriors to women. Even so, General Kassu drove him away and freed the people of Wilusa. The Storm God of Ahhiyawa has run before you at Wilusa, but even now, General Kassu approaches. Do not mistake the peaceful intentions of My Lord, My Sun for weakness. If the army of the land of Hatti arrives to find you here, blood will be shed.--
It is fortunate that Wilios has already rendered up its treasures: women, horses, oxen, sheep, slaves, gold, silver, ivory, bronze. Achaian ships are going home so full of plunder that several will not finish the journey, foundering in sudden squalls and sinking along rocky coasts. Rivals back home are seizing on these calamities, with claims of arrogance and an affront to the gods in order to justify regime changes. There are rumors of shipwreck and death at sea. Are these bearing the first inkling of coming patterns? Far off days indeed.
--Let the general of the Hittite army know that the Achaians have no wish to engage in a war with the Great King Hattusilis. The dispute with Wilios over the abduction of members of the royal household from Milatos has been resolved. The gods have made their ruling and the matter rests. The land of Achaia has no wish to encroach upon any territory under the care and protection of Hatti. When General Kassu arrives at Wilios, he will find the Achaian army gone.--
# # #
While the Achaians are by and large a sea-going people, there is no feeling of power that equals this: standing atop a wall or hilltop, shadow cast forward, a dark double covering the stones of some conquered town or beloved fortress. A man can see himself here better than in any delicate mirror of foreign make, with feet planted firmly on the life-giving mother, a spear's shadow-point stabbing at an overturned stone, head thrust proudly into the sky, nothing above him but the gods.
# # #
The beacon burns atop the hill. Time to prepare for a long anticipated visit. Send out a small detachment of troops, borne in chariots and ceremonially armed, a formal royal welcome to friendly visitors, a display of military readiness to hostiles. In a few hours, the palace must be ready to receive and impress guests. Animals are gathered for sacrifice and consumption, and gifts are retrieved from palace stores and workshops: a pair of rhytons, gold and silver worked into stags, should probably suffice. Perhaps some lapis lazuli as well, just in case.
The Hittite ambassador makes his way up the hill, across the ravine, and through the town. A man called Kulana-ziti, known to be trusted by Hattusilis with the most delicate and sensitive foreign missions. A royal by blood, he has been a soldier and a statesman, a warrior and a scholar, and all at an age when he might still be driving chariots for generals. The combination of courage and cunning, his vast knowledge of the edges of the Hittite world, its peoples, languages, and customs, make him one of a select elite that is known and welcome anywhere he goes, even when he is functioning as the mouthpiece of an enemy.
Here is completeness, a moment to bequeath to eternity. Through the eyes of anyone looking on, a visiting Hittite dignitary for example, the design of the world is here made manifest; the grand exterior of the citadel, the great walls, the stately palace, the well-ordered streets, the restored cemetery, the newly completed main gate. It seems the visitation of a whispering god, this perception of a peak realization. Poised on the tip of history, the fear and exhilaration at the prospect of maintaining balance, knowing every future choice contains the seed of decline. Yet no prayer for guidance or wisdom will pass these lips.
A few steps from a palace window to the top of the grand staircase. Once the Hittites enter the citadel proper, they stop at the grave circle to make sacrifice. Three to a chariot as seems to be their custom, they dismount: the ambassador, his attendant, and the driver. Kulana-ziti performs a lengthy cleansing ritual, meticulously washing and drying his hands before he takes from the Hittite baggage the bread and wine that will constitute their offering. Standing before the first grave marker, he chants a summoning prayer, calling the warriors and kings of days gone by back from abroad, to seat themselves in chariots of stone in pursuit of lions forever frozen in rock. Kulana-ziti makes an elaborate gesture of passing his hand over the offering so the gods may know who feeds them. Bread is broken and wine is poured, the meal touched to the carved lips of each royal figure throughout the cemetery. The misunderstanding is amusing, the Hittite belief that a god lives in the graven image. Why else, they seem to believe, would one stop and pay obeisance? Hatti is indeed the land of a thousand gods. There is no deity to whom they will not appeal, none they will not try to win away from its native land. Their piousness toward foreign gods is both deeply respectful and extravagantly arrogant. But these stones are empty, the seat from which divine favor is dispensed lies elsewhere.
# # #
“Puduhepa, Queen of Hatti, sends her greetings as well.”
The sovereignty of the women of Hatti. Puduhepa is allowed to carry on diplomatic correspondence of her own, completely separate from that of her husband. She has political influence, disguised as religious duty, never direct in its exercise, but which may, perhaps even has, altered the fortunes of empires. On the other hand, while the Achaians honor the Divine Feminine, women themselves are bearers of children and weavers of cloth. Despite the limited domestic role assigned to her, the queen of Mycenae is something of a political force. Invested with no official power, she somehow manages to remain remarkably well-informed on current events, as well as acquainted with almost everyone who passes through the court. She harbors almost masculine levels of ambition. If given the opportunity through some weakness, she could, and in all likelihood would, ally herself with some rival intent on seizing the throne.
# # #
Gauge the gravity of Hattusilis’ message by its length alone. He will no doubt rehearse the entire history of contact between the two powers, going into particular detail concerning the career of Piyamaradu. Sometimes, the entire diplomatic enterprise seems a farce. No one involved speaks the same language. The translation may well take days. Words come from Hattusilis to a scribe and messenger, then to a scribe and messenger in another language on the other side of the world. Ambassadors will say things that cannot be written down exactly, each text will make its necessary substitutions and assumptions not to be found in the other one, wars will be fought, kingdoms won and lost, all on the words of men who can neither read nor write in their own tongue, much less speak to one another directly. The disclaimer concerning a previous misunderstanding at the end of Hattusilis’ letter sums it up: “Because your servant spoke that matter, may that man die! It did not come from the mouth of the god, the servant later altered it. He did not make it match my message for you!” It is amusing that Hattusilis could think that the word of his gods could be received, told, written, rewritten into another language, and retold without some loss or alteration, especially given the scope of the events in question. Hattusilis is a very intelligent man, and probably an accomplished orator as well; anyone who is a true leader of men must be. However, there is no way of knowing if the well-polished figures of speech are truly those of Hattusilis, or those of his ambassador. Is anything objectionable due to the arrogance of the Hittite ruler, or the unintentionally unsympathetic words of a servant? The one certainty is that there is too much at stake here to make hasty decisions based on nothing more than the face value of what is spoken or heard. Sift through every clue, every subtlety, in order to glean the exact thoughts of Hattusilis. Upwards of three hours passes as the entire letter is read by the Hittite ambassador and translated phrase by phrase, with appropriate explanation or amplification. Watch the way the foreign dignitary reads, search for meaning in voice and gesture to accompany the written text. Study, too, the reactions of the diplomat to the Hittite courtt, who will know when a confusing turn of phrase is conventional and when it is meant to be provocative, offensive, or disrespectful. It is imperative that nothing remains hidden, that nothing enigmatic stays enigmatic.
Though couched in restrained terms, the accusatory tone of the letter is unmistakable. Hattusilis has always seemed to be easily offended, as well as somewhat blunt, qualities which could be, indeed have been, exploited in matters of diplomacy. The Hittite king is an experienced and capable general, a truly formidable opponent, the ruler of an empire not to be trifled with, but a man whose emotions can perhaps prevail over his reasoned judgment on occasion. The kingdoms of Achaia have seldom experienced the external pressures necessary for the development of subtle speech. However, the highly evolved discourse of the Hittites is in some sense a sign of weakness, the development of the rhetorical arts a result born of the necessity for compromise. Hattusilis no doubt sees nothing but pirates here, despite the cultivation of the court. But the crude image of pillager and rapist inspires, if not respect exactly, a certain respectful fear. Hattusilis will try to hide the fact that he is essentially a usurping soldier; others can afford to flaunt their aggressiveness.
Hattusilis will go to great lengths to justify his complaint and request. Following his initial rehearsal of past events, he will swear to the truth of all he has said: “I, the Great King, have taken an oath. May the Storm God hear!” He will make an accusation, clothed in the form of a question that was asked in a previous letter: “That Piyamaradu kept attacking me, does my brother know it, or does he not?” He will forestall objections to his own tone by finding fault with past slights: “When the messenger of my brother found me here, he brought no greeting to me! He brought no gift for me!” He will attempt to show that Piyamaradu’s behavior is unworthy among such company Great Kings keep: “Even Tawagalawa, when I, the Great King, came, he came to Millawanda. Previously Kurunta was here. He drove into your presence, Great King. Was he not an eminent king?” He will go into great detail, several times throughout the letter, concerning promises made to Piyamaradu for safe passage into his presence: “When I, the Great King, put you on the road, I will write to my brother, the King of the land Ahhiyawa.” Upon continued evasions by Piyamaradu, he will again return to his suspicions of collusion: “But he kept attacking my territories! If I hinder him, he returns to your land. Do you, my brother, approve?” He will then answer that question himself, in the negative, and even go so far as to fashion an appropriate course of action to follow: “‘In the matter of the city of Wilusa, the king of Hatti and I were hostile toward each other, he persuaded me to make peace. Hostilities are no longer permitted between us’ Write that to him.” And immediately following that, he will justify sending troops into Milatos: “Even if he leaves Millawanda alone, my subjects will gladly turn to that man. So, my brother, I have sent my troops into Millawanda.” By this time, the outcome envisioned by Hattusilis will seem so reasonable that it must be seen as inevitable. Admirable, the way Hattusilis has managed his attack, all quick feints and flanking maneuvers, designed to box an opponent in without direct confrontation or an avenue of escape. It fools no one for a moment, but it is admirable. The entire performance is exhausting, and this too, may be part of the game.
# # #
--Thus says the Great King, King of Ahhiyawa: Say to His Majesty, King of Hatti:
Let my Brother know that I have received his request and most humbly wish to accede to it at my earliest opportunity. I am uncertain of the whereabouts of Piyamaradu at this time, though I suspect he may be in Milatos with my brother Eteocles and Atpa. I will ask that they deliver up Piyamaradu, or if unable to do so, inform me of his whereabouts. Please assure the Great King of Hatti that his Brother is not knowingly harboring a fugitive. Further, let him know that if, in the past, I have given reason for offense or mistrust on account of this man, that I meant no harm to my Brother, nor bear him any ill will. The Great King Hatusilis is indeed wise in counseling that war would not be in the interest of anyone, and I will endeavor to persuade Piyamaradu of this as well, and that it would be to his immense benefit to put himself under the Great King, to go before him and seek his friendship, and to accept such lands as the Great King believes befit his station. Further, I will make assurances to Piyamaradu on behalf of the Great King Hattusilis that he promises safe passage for him and his household on their journey into his presence. I will endeavor to make him understand that, as the Great King himself has said, bloodshed is not permitted in the land of Hatti. May the Great King, my Brother, rest assured that Piyamaradu will be informed of every detail: that I, or Eteocles, or Atpa will receive Tapala-Tarhunta as guarantee of his safe conduct, that he will know by bread and beer of the good intentions of the Great King, and that he may return to me if unsatisfied, under condition that he remain in the lands that I grant him, far away from Milatos and the territory that lies under the protection of my Brother.--
# # #
There is both opportunity and danger in the dispute between Hattusilis and Piyamaradu. The Arzawan has probably outlived his usefulness, and while providing him with refuge has cost little in terms of resources and risk, it not advisable to grant the perennially warlike Piyamaradu a state of his own on Achaian soil. However, a great many people in and around Milatos are loyal to Piyamaradu, whether or not the nominal governor in the area is Eteocles, Atpa, or a general appointed by Hattusilis. There is no benefit in forcibly seizing Piyamaradu there. However, Hattusilis has been pushed as far as he possible. An almost direct confrontation at Wilios, already once drawing the Hittite army, with Hattusilis himself at its head, into Milatos by assuring Hattusilis that Atpa had been instructed to turn Piyamaradu over to him, even as Piyamaradu was on a ship bound for Achaia. Any more trickery could result in all out war in Milatos, which of course would probably negate any advantages gained through the diminished power of Wilios. However, the presence of the Hittite army in Milatos, far from being objectionable, is actually of use if all ties with the Arzawan are severed. Then, any insurrection there on behalf of Piyamaradu will be a matter for others to settle. Unrest in the area will continue to erode Hittite power, and economic opportunity, in the form of trading or raiding, will abound.
# # #
The proposal to Piyamaradu is simple: if he wishes to remain unmolested in Achaian territory, there is a price. Making that price the most skilled and beautiful women seized as household workers and concubines is sure to provoke the wrath of the proud Arzawan.
The response is exactly what is hoped for: “I am not your vassal. There is no treaty between us, there are no obligations imposed upon me, a guest in your land.” Piyamaradu will flee back to the east. While he may take a few men with him, without royal support most will abandon him. With the Hittite army occupying Milatos, he will no longer have anywhere to go where he has a ready-made army at his disposal. Still, as long as he lives, wherever he goes he will occupy the attention of Hattusilis. Simply wait until the Hittite rulers no longer perceive the Achaians as a threat. Their army will be needed elsewhere, and soil that was once foreign is now the beginning of a much larger homeland.
# # #
A return home, all the feasting and celebration, and still this unease. Something is amiss, somehow this campaign, the most ambitious to date, has not remedied what ails this kingdom. Rulers of the past gained and maintained royal power through military prowess. Recent times have been unmarred by major conflicts within the kingdom itself, a relative peace seemingly sanctioned by the gods themselves. On the other hand, among more powerful followers and rivals, who are often as not one and the same, doubt concerning leadership roles could perhaps be creeping in. No one questions the right to rule; they may, however, question the right of being ruled. The raid on Wilios might once have settled the question, but it now appears to have only confused things further. Vast spoils were indeed brought back, more than enough to satisfy retainers and allies. No one should be unhappy with the division of booty. In fact, it appears quite the opposite is the case. Unfortunately, the riches gained now appear to be more a curse than a blessing. Tiryns, for example. While Mycenae may have to depend on Tiryns as its main port, Mycenae commands the approach to the markets of Argos and points inland. Having a navy sitting in the harbor of Tiryns itself and a well-paid, numerically superior army just to the north helped insure that current conditions remained in place. It was always easy enough to understand that treasure buys loyalty; perhaps too much treasure buys independence.
# # #
Every village has its own way of conducting its business: allocating land, settling disputes, enacting laws. For previous generations this had never posed a problem. As long as the palace could run its operation, how the locals twenty miles distant conducted themselves was not a concern. But think about the consequences of the widespread disturbances that seem to be occurring. With no formal administrative control over distant lands, the cooperation and competence of local authorities must ensure the flow of assessments necessary to maintain the palace workshops. However, if some displaced, marauding Achaian prince bent on establishing a new kingdom with the aid of bitter, unpaid mercenaries formerly attached to another ruler should sack a village that supplies, for example, timber, the link between palace and village, and therefore palace artisans and timber, would be lost. In addition, since many villages are dependent upon the palace for the staples the village itself cannot produce, and are also not necessarily connected to other villages, these villages themselves would soon cease to exist. While values such as personal responsibility and honor have long served Mycenae well, it would seem that at this point the expansion of the kingdom beyond its means has rendered them obsolete. It is not like repairing a chariot, replacing a broken axle with an identical part. Outside the tarasiya system, each part is unique. It is a new, and terrifying notion, that a kingdom can grow so large, powerful, and complicated, that it might be too much for one man and his immediate retainers to govern. Imagine a time when the machinery of kingship will require several levels of organization, one level nested inside another, a vast bureaucratic hive in which the smallest section is a mirror image of the larger whole, a set of relations that ancestors would no doubt find chaotic. Perhaps this is inevitable after all. But no one will effect such change if he believes that power does not reside in systems, but in men, even though, in his darkest, unspoken moments, he knows this to be a battle he cannot win. Besides, the decay all around seems to proceed at a pace that far exceeds the possibility of effective solutions. Still, though the enemy is unseen, perhaps even unknowable, some will go forward into what future they have left as warriors, doomed almost certainly to glorious failure. A fate far preferable to becoming like one of the sycophants the queen seems to favor these days, clever, devious men lacking the capacity to satisfy the physical appetites necessary for empire, men who make war on nothing more than clay tablets using nothing more than a stylus.
# # #
The difficulty of the age is in trying to decipher the meaning of the signs. As everyone knows, elektron is a rare and precious material, wealth infused with magic. Suddenly, after two generations gone it is returning to these lands once more from the far north, where it is forged in fires of ice from pieces of broken sunlight by giants whiter than snow. At the moment, the mystery of its origin is not as important as the meaning of its renewed presence. Normally a sign of wealth and status, could it instead be preceding the imminent arrival of outsiders, further sources of unrest and upheaval? Or could those merchants who traffic in it sense a renewed necessity for protection by magical means for those who sit on thrones about to topple?
This is not at all the way of the past, when effects had simple, often singular causes. The net of connections has become too large, too intricate to take in all at once. Kingdoms to the north are falling, one after the other. Some reports have peasants in the country storming the fortresses and slaughtering their masters, though this seems unlikely. Groups of mercenaries roam the hills and bays; are they fleeing the overthrow of their lords, rising against them, or a combination of both? The royal clans of the Achaians are large, and given the opportunity, any prince may convince himself of the unwarranted lowliness of his station. Lands that fell into disorder during long absence have become prey to the ambitions of kinsmen left behind to maintain the affairs of state. As the chaos spreads, so too does the number of royals, left without land holdings, who have taken to the road as bandits, to the seas as pirates. There is also the lamentable possibility of kings ransacking their own lands. Shortages on assessments headed to the palace cause the use of arms by less than judicious rulers, wolves bent on chewing off their own hindquarters.
# # #
It is a show of trust, to be entertained in the court at Tiryns. The ruling elite of this growing power are as yet uncertain of their ability in open confrontation. An evening spent feasting here will be a kind of game, one abounding in subtleties, coded messages, nuances of speech and gesture intended to gauge relative strengths. Every gift exchanged will carry a hidden meaning, and the course of future events will depend upon the ability of the two sides to interpret them correctly. Is a gold drinking cup, encrusted with precious stones, a sign of friendship and fealty, or the suggestion that an abundance of wealth, and with it power, now resides in Tiryns? And what of the songs of the poets tonight? They feel like the old stories, but turned to a different purpose. What were tales of heroic conquest, the creation of great dynasties, the vanquishing of primordial monsters, have become accounts of fratricide, cannibalism, child sacrifice. What are figures of speech to the mind of a monarch can easily become literal fact in the mind of a disgruntled peasant. The story of the marriage of a princess to the king of Assuwa dramatized as the offering of a daughter in exchange for favorable seas can be retold and perverted over the years, making it less a story of politics embodied in personal actions than one of a family curse brought on by unspeakable atrocities enacted on a cosmic scale. Sometimes brutal acts of political expedience become, when fostered by superstition and those unsympathetic to the regime, horrors so repugnant the gods themselves must intervene. Every clash and struggle for power feeds the fame of the victor, and his infamy as well.
# # #
The gods have deserted this temple. The rituals performed here have become increasingly empty; no sense of the sacred remains. Prayers, the chants of priests, the low intonations of seers and diviners, are now so much air set vibrating to no purpose. It is time to abandon former practices, to search out protectors in new forms, to let eagles and sparrows, barley scattered on the wind, point the way to a new center of sanctified energy.
The first order of business is the ritual disposal of cult paraphernalia. Directed by the highest religious authorities, items whose uses date back to legendary times and places are broken, then placed in a small room upstairs. Tripods, dishes, basins, ivory combs, statuettes of gods, goddesses, worshipers, and snakes, sacred stones, beaded necklaces, glass ornaments, even the scarab of Tiye of Egypt--all deprived of any sacred value and removed to the closet. The room is sealed and the wall plastered over, leaving a set of stairs that leads nowhere.
It is now imperative to find a new language in which to speak to the gods, gods who have become increasingly distant as the world becomes less and less familiar. Why are the lands of fellow kings and kinsmen in flux? How and why do refugees and landless clans roam and destroy kingdoms that have flourished for centuries? Questions asked, in silence, of the gods, and the silence of the gods is their answer.
# # #
Over the years, less and less taken from Wilios remains. There are memories of combat, surely some descendents of the livestock seized, gold melted and recast into other forms, broken ivory figurines, tarnished jewelry, piles of loot whose origin is beyond recall, but some of which must surely be of Troian origin. She is the only thing of value that has lasted, a treasure whose worth is beyond calculation or understanding. There is a hardness to her features now, a hardness that has not been able to dull the beauty, though it has erased any hint of innocence. This innocence, however, had seemed a strictly physical trait, a product of childhood merely. Always there has been about her an aura of knowing, perhaps even wisdom. This aura does not really seem to glow around her so much as, jewel-hard, encapsulate her, insulating her from her fate with a sacred protection through which no human act can pass to touch her innermost core, around which only the gods can converse. Even as she has aged, bearing all the abuses of time, there is something of eternity in her, something which stands in judgment and rebuke.
Youth has only the most general understanding of regret. All desires had been within reach of realization. But with age comes the knowledge that ambitions based on the easy acceptance of received values are not equivalent to the exhaustion of life’s potential. Now, a heaviness of spirit that can only be the weight of mortality. It is the God of Death that whispers in the night now, with His gentle insistence that fame alone is not enough, that only orderly succession secures a place in the company of illustrious ancestors. So how many children are there, working looms or tending sheep, born of slaves so slaves themselves by ancient custom? Those born of the queen have always seemed more hers, and her eldest son, training even now with men of dubious loyalty and motives, would be a mere puppet, an impotent witness to the disintegration of all here built. A fantasy (and that is all it could ever be): one of the sons of a Troian priestess assumes the throne. There is, however, the certainty of their fates if left alone. They are the end of two noble lines, and the world will never know their names, will never number them among its honored dead. The adulterated histories of the time will pass over them in silence. No gold foil rosettes, delicately woven shrouds, or beaten death masks will confer anything beyond the veneer of honor necessary to placate the people and satisfy fickle gods. This is what all kings truly fear: when they die, their entire world dies with them.
# # #
As unrest in the land grows and the arrogance of Tiryns increases, there is a need to take defensive measures. Now is not the time to hew massive tombs into hillsides, or decorate fortress gates with more impressive sculptures. It is time to repair and reinforce the walls of the citadel and ensure a source of water in the event of siege. Because of all the upheavals, securing enough limestone to accomplish this purpose requires deployment of troops, which in turn requires an outlay of resources which are themselves subject to increasingly tenuous supply lines.
There was once a feeling of safety standing alone atop this hill, nestled between the breasts of Mother Earth, head held high in the wind. Now, fear is beginning to creep into places it never has before. The thought of a stray arrow on the battlefield has never caused a moment’s pause, but that same arrow shot from within this city? Days are spent shut up in the palace, nights spent descending the steps that are being cut into the northeast corner of the hill, steps that lead underneath and beyond the walls, down to a cistern into which blackest thoughts can be cast. Perhaps to atone for some unremembered crime, or to escape a fate long ago foretold.
# # #
As the years go by, small bands of Achaians will return to harass the people of Wilios. So too will the wandering tribes of many other nations, people on the move away from some catastrophe visited upon them and into another of their own creation. Many old friends and allies, victims of some of these catastrophes, are gone, men whose last great act was to plunge a once shining city into a downward spiral from which it could not recover, leaving it easy prey to lesser men. The old stories become grafted onto the histories of these men, who conduct desperate searches for heroic stature that they can only find in lineage rather than action. The great war in the east did not establish a lasting empire; nor could it save anyone from their fates, and in fact may have hastened the downfall of everyone involved.
The king awoke with a start from a dream whose every detail he remembered. Beside him, his mistress stirred.
“A dream, my Lord?” she asked, her voice betraying no sign of emotion, only the confessor’s willingness or obligation to listen. The king groped in the darkness for the words that would make the images in his mind come alive to her, words seeming just then so inadequate to convey the dream’s fullness, much less convey that fullness to someone who often seemed to understand so much less, and so much more, than what he felt he was telling her.
“It was,” he began slowly, and with many pauses, “...it was dark. Maybe it was nighttime, or maybe the day had gone black. There was the clamor of battle, and fire all around me, though it did not seem to give much light. I could see no one clearly, but there were many men rushing around. I was in a courtyard of the palace. I had the sense of being at the summit of the hill. I had my sword in my hand, and I was turning about wildly, trying to figure out who my enemy was. Suddenly, it was...it was as if the wind shifted, though I felt no wind. A huge cloud of smoke started to swirl all around, and the fire seemed to be moving...not spreading, but moving. I slowly started to rise off the ground, not flying like a bird, but straight up into the sky. Soon I could see nothing but the fire below me. It was in the shape of a triangle, upside down, with a point on the bottom, and with the sides going up extending beyond the base, making the whole thing look almost like the head of an animal with horns or long ears. As I looked down, the whole figure was in motion, turning so that soon it had rotated exactly half a turn, and now stood, as if what had once seemed horns might now be legs. There it stopped, and burned, never growing brighter or dimmer, and I had the vague sense that it was some kind of sign, or symbol, for a world not yet here...”
And there he stopped, for there were no words left to reach for.
“Does my Lord wish to know the meaning of this?” she asked. Having never doubted her gift, he assented, though he had never before asked for her spiritual guidance. He had always had the implicit faith of the just monarch that his interests and those of the gods were as one. Now however, his spirit was troubled, and he did not know why, but he was sure that spilling wine and killing a snow-white ram would not soothe it.
The woman began to prepare herself. Naked, yet seemingly oblivious to the cold, she left the bed and disappeared into the annex which held the few things she owned. These she kept in a large reed basket, a modest vessel given that it contained some of the finest handiwork of the king’s own craftsmen, gifts of gold and ivory, silver and precious stones, bestowed upon her over the years as the king’s favorite, and lately only, concubine. It had always puzzled him that she did not seem to value these things as others did, but it was beneath these lightly regarded treasures that she kept her true riches. When she returned to the apartment, the king was stunned to see her wearing the same robe she had worn when he first saw her. How, through all the terror and death, had she managed to save it? How had he not known?
She worked in silence, a ritual of pure gesture. Her every movement was controlled and purposeful, paced to show the respect due each step, but without undue solemnity. On a low table near the hearth, she set out a small, plain woolen towel, on which she set what appeared to the king to be some kind of incense burner. Into this she placed a small amount of a black, resinous substance she kept in a little white container. The king knew this to be something which, in his experience, could be used to relieve pain and induce sleep, but which for her was a means of transport to that realm where mankind and gods could converse.
The woman lit a small piece of kindling from the hearth, and soon she was kneeling at the table, inhaling the vapors as they ascended, along with her mind, out into the night and toward the abode of the gods. Her words, mumbled and unintelligible at first, soon crystallized, the clarity of enunciation sometimes at odds with the obscurity of meaning.
“Woro...kijo...nejo...my Lord and his kingdom have fallen into confusion and do not know friend from foe. The burning figure is the bull, symbol of kingship. The turning of the bull on to its horns is the reversal of the fortunes of Attarsiya Wokode....Po-se-do-ne A-AB-BA Enasigaios himself, U-NILGAR-ENYA thrashing in fury, steps across the waters and makes his way inland toward your city. Your fame will be burned like a brand into this hilltop, to be remembered for as long as man walks the earth. All mankind will know the things you have done. A-re-ke-tu-ru-wo! The dawn is come.”
The king found Truth to be that most elusive of goddesses. He knew She waited for him somewhere in the opium-sated amalgam of languages swirling out of the mouth of this woman who, even after so many years together, was still a mystery to him, still somehow aloof and foreign, still untouched by him even in their most intimate, often touching moments, still harboring, however buried, the hope of divine wrath finding her captor.
A few moments of silence followed, as the king simply watched her, slumped and relaxed at the table. She then seemed to come back to herself. As she carefully gathered and put away her things, she began to hum, softly to herself at first, then gradually a bit louder. The king found himself touched by the strange beauty of the music, its exotic but unmistakable sense of melancholy and loss. After a minute or two, she began to chant.
“Ahatata ala-ti awienta wilusa-ti...” It was in a tongue the king did not recognize except for a single word, and he knew in that instant that the world she had known before his coming was gone for her, replaced by the stories of heroes, dim memories fleshed out by an imagination longing to return to a home now in ruins. He thought of Piyamaradu, a rootless prince, destined to wander, a man who had walked out of history and into legend, already remembered only as a mighty warrior, a ptoli-porthios. It was, he knew, an ironic fate, to be celebrated by future generations for a life you never lived, known by a name never yours.