A Muse Bouche Review: March 2023
Anticipation: It’s Making Me Wait
Welcome to 2023’s third edition. Anticipation.
If you’re an American of a certain age, you’re thinking: Ketchup. (And, yes, there will be a reference to Ms. Simon coming (though not “coming around again,” which would have been last month)).
And of whatever age, if you’re in the northern hemisphere, one of the great “anticipations” is the change of seasons, the end of our winter. So we start with a guest contribution, a poem (with graphics) by Heather Wickers of the cruelty of a warm winter’s day and the heightened anticipation it brings.
Renée Gendron offers a bit of very pleasant if too-long-delayed anticipation. Louise Sorensen is again with her animals. Nicole Wells’s character is wondering what will become of her as she dives, however temporarily, into a new and very foreign world.
Perhaps most dramatically, David Simon speaks of anticipated freedom. Marian Thorpe does almost the opposite, the first moments of Lena (the main character in her initial Empire trilogy) being a volunteer hostage as part of a peace process. Joe Garland imagines the last night of Róisín Campbell as she is about to leave her Irish home forever in 1870, as did so many.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Feature: Anticipation (Heather Wickers) Poetry
Home (Renee Gendron) Fiction
Ponderation (Louise Sorensen) Non-Fiction
First Light (Nicole Wells) Fiction
Delphine’s Pillow (David M. Simon) Fiction
History Lessons (Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
One Final Night (Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
March Team Showcase
Heather Wickers (@HWickersWriter)
Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
CARRIE HALL STOOD at the baggage carousel at Ottawa International Airport. Her shoulders were stiff, and her ankles were swollen from the six-hour flight from Vancouver. Her mouth and nose were dry from breathing pressurized air, and her right ear was blocked.
She was done with travel. The promotion wasn’t worth it. Sure, the extra money was nice, but not the travel. She’d had enough of it for the rest of the year.
She removed a piece of chewing gum from her purse and popped it into her mouth, but chewing didn’t ease the pressure. Instead, the pressure built and built and built, deepening the ache.
Two weeks gone on a business trip, and she’d had enough of greasy restaurant foods, sagging hotel mattresses, and endless meetings in windowless rooms. She was done with working fourteen-hour days to stay on top of emails, give presentations, tour manufacturing facilities, then catch up on emails after dinner.
Her muscles were tired from lack of exercise, and there was an ever-present fatigue about her. She missed Gabriel. She missed his cooking, elbowing him in the night to stop snoring, and sharing conversations before going to work.
A crush of people filtered from the domestic gate, crowding the carousel.
Black luggage after black luggage plopped onto the carousel. The conveyor belt spat out a duffel bag, followed by a hockey bag, and a bright pink hard-plastic suitcase.
She checked her cell phone. Three minutes had passed, and a wave of people grabbed their wheeled suitcases and rolled them towards the door.
The carousel squeaked and spun, bringing the same set of unclaimed luggage around again.
Three text messages flashed on her cell phone’s screen. One from her husband said his train up from Toronto was delayed. Disappointing, but no surprise there. She answered with an x. She answered a text from her best friend, confirming a lunch date in three days, but ignored a work message. It was seven o’clock on a Friday night, and after two weeks of travel, she was off the clock until Monday morning, eight-thirty.
More luggage spat out onto the belt, and none of them hers.
A woman brushed against her, reached in front of her, then picked up a matching set of floral luggage.
Next to Carrie, a couple reunited with their public display of affection worthy of a reel on Instagram.
Carrie’s bright blue suitcase fell from the conveyor belt. She wove between people, snatched it up and went to the taxi stand.
Every taxi was being loaded with people. She pulled out her cell phone and looked up Uber. Not a ride in sight on a Friday night.
She sat on her luggage at the head of the taxi queue and scrolled through local news. A kitchen fire was reported in a house in the west end. The local minor league hockey team was on a three-game winning streak, and the mayor was expected to announce something important on Monday.
Her stomach growled. The pathetic in-flight meal had bridged the gap but had not filled her. Breakfast had consisted of greasy scrambled eggs and a small container of plain yoghurt.
She wanted real food. Homemade food. She wanted Gabriel’s famous grilled trout with grilled asparagus and eggplant. She wanted a real cup of coffee that had robust flavour, not the acidic taste of percolated swill. She wanted her sweatpants and pullover, and to curl up on the sofa watching a movie or reading a book next to Gabriel.
The little comforts of life. The tranquil moments that were serene and soul-filling.
She reached into her purse, took out the bottle, and sipped the last of the water the airline had given her. She tapped her shoes against the sidewalk, not that it reduced their swelling or achiness in her feet.
An ambulance siren rang out, then faded.
People streamed out of the airport, the sound of plastic casters rolling on cement drumming a steady beat.
A taxi approached and stopped. Carrie stood, extended the luggage arm and handed it to the driver, then got in the rear seat diagonal to the driver.
The driver slammed the trunk closed, then sank into the driver’s seat. “Where to?”
The driver grunted, set his meter, pulled out onto the darkened Airport Parkway, then turned onto Hunt Club Road. The car rattled with each pothole it struck.
Carrie leaned her head against the window. Almost home. Almost home to her warm bed. Almost home to her fluffy bed covering, and stuff. Small stuff like her knickknacks. Important stuff like some toiletries she always forgot to pack and her notebooks. Big stuff like her favourite coffee mug, plants, and most comfortable sweater.
She closed her eyes. The fake pine smell of the air freshener was nauseating.
The problem with living out of suitcase is that home never fits into a suitcase. Gabriel could never fit in a suitcase. She couldn’t bring his smile or his smell or the curious look in his eye when he gazed at her from across the room.
The driver drove to the end of Hunt Club and took the ramp to the 417. The last leg until home.
The taxi came to a stop.
She paid the driver, pulled her luggage up the sidewalk to her front door, and fumbled with her keys. Four keys, four fails at unlocking the door. She tried the first key again, and the door opened.
The kitchen light was on. The delicious aroma of grilled fish teased her nostrils.
Gabriel. He was home.
Her pulse accelerated, gathering speed like a plane at the base of a runaway. She dropped her luggage and hurried down the hallway.
Dressed in sweats, Gabriel set two plates of grilled trout on the sofa table. A movie was loaded on Netflix.
A handsome grin, nearly as handsome as the one he’d worn at their wedding, graced his lips.
The ache in her joints, the fatigue in her muscles, the stress of travel. All were gone. She went to him and pressed a tender kiss to his lips.
Carrie was home.
Louise Sorensen (@louise3anne)
Is makin’ me late,
Keepin’ me waaaaaaiting
THE CARLY SIMON SONG “Anticipation” was ringing in my ears. It had been playing in my head for a week as I pondered what to write for the story prompt of the same name.
Because the music might distract me, I focused on the footing. I’d brought the horses into the barn in the afternoon for extra hay and grain, and rest and relaxation, and I was headed there that night to let them out. The moonless dark made the slippery ice and snow on the path doubly dangerous, and I had only my small flashlight to light the way.
Despite vowing to focus, my thoughts ran to the news. Muscular dysmorphia among young men was trending in Canada. Bombs were raining down on people in Ukraine, and apartments were raining down on people in Syria and Turkey from earthquakes.
Meanwhile the Church of England is discussing non-gender terms to describe their god. To make the church more inclusive.
And the Earth is going to hell from global warming.
These thoughts and others were making the rounds as I reached the barn. I unlatched the door, went in, and turned on the light.
The first thing I saw was our Shetland pony, Yoshi, standing in the north-south aisle, looking at me. He was wearing a perplexed but innocent expression. It took me a moment to figure out he was not supposed to be there. He was supposed to be safe and snug in his stall. I immediately wondered if someone had sneaked into our barn and turned him loose. Or had he jiggled his stall door so much that the two hook and eyes had come undone?
When I got close to him, I saw that one of our other ponies, a big nine-hundred-pound gal named Chloe, was at the south end of the aisle, at the closed front door, waiting. For what?
For me, of course, to fix whatever had happened.
This was a tricky situation.
It’s not enough to say that Chloe is not your usual pony.
She’s come a long way in the five years I’ve had her, but when she came to me, she was stubborn and aggressive, and really knew how to throw those nine hundred pounds around. She’s a heavy-set mare, built like the proverbial brick outhouse. She was mean to the other horses, constantly fighting with them as she tried to establish dominance over them. Her whinny was deep throated, like a stallion’s, and she had a big cresty stallion’s neck. She had no respect for personal space, and was so aggressive and bad tempered, even snapping at me, missing my face and mostly catching my gloves thanks to my quick reflexes, that I’d had the vet out to check her for ovarian tumours, which would secrete testosterone, and make her behave like a stallion.
Turned out she had no ovarian tumours, so it appeared her problem was not hormonal, but training.
To establish my dominance over her, I got into the habit of making her back up every time I handled her. Snapping at me when I tried to get near her turned out to be caused by my approaching her head on. If I approached her from the side, she’d let me get a hand on her halter and lead her out of the barn.
My horses go into their stalls in the barn every day.
So. There’s Chloe. Waiting at the closed front door with her rear to me. The aisle was so narrow there was barely room for me to squeeze past her ample hips and get to her head. On the plus side, she’d never kicked at me.
It was a traffic jam, with two ponies waiting to go out. Only they were in the wrong order. Normally the order going out was first our big boss horse, Leighla, then Hackney pony Heidi, then little Yoshi, then large Chloe. Horses are creatures of habit, and they don’t like doing things out of order.
There was no way Chloe would turn around and go back to her stall, especially with Yoshi just a little ways behind her, blocking her, and Leighla in the stall right beside her, just waiting to make a fuss because Chloe was so close. Chloe had never integrated into the herd, and she and Leighla hate each other.
It was a dangerous situation, but horses are inherently dangerous. Big, strong, and flighty. If you’re not stupid enough, or crazy enough to put up with them, you shouldn’t have them. I squeezed past Chloe’s big rear end and went to her head.
I swung the front door all the way open and tried to get her out. As I said, Chloe’s come a long way, but she’s still very unusual. She insists on me blowing into her nostrils to identify me every time I take her out of her stall, and though she came to us stall sour, that is, she hated to be in a stall, these days, she doesn’t want to leave hers to go outside. I used to just open her stall door, and she’d walk out and I’d walk beside her, at her head. But now I have to put a rope around her neck and make her go out.
How do you move a creature seven times your weight? Leverage. Push one end, either front or back, to unbalance her. I usually choose the front end. Once a horse gets moving in this way, they’re apt to keep moving. Making them move their feet is also a way to establish dominance over horses.
When I got her outside, I gave her an apple-flavoured treat as a reward. Since I started doing that a few weeks ago, she’s been slightly more cooperative.
After finally getting Chloe out, I closed the door on her. Then I wanted to get Yoshi out. That wasn’t as easy as you might think, because he’s distrustful of humans and hard to catch, even after five years with me. So instead of putting him out next, I had to leave him loose and release the Leighla. Remember I told you she hates Chloe? Well, Chloe was lurking just outside the door, waiting to bull her way back in, and effectively blocking the exit.
But Leighla’s a big horse, dominant over Chloe, so when I let Leighla out, she attacked Chloe and chased her out of the way.
That cleared the way for Yoshi to go out, and then Heidi. Heidi is a retired broodmare, and pretty good in most ways, but she’s bonded to Leighla as the herd boss, and will run you over to get to her protective pal. She stepped on my foot in her panic to get out, but luckily I was able to scrunch my toes backwards in my boot to avoid being hurt.
And the cause of all this?
I checked Yoshi’s stall door. It was wide open, flush with the wall. I wondered if he had jarred the hooks and eyes loose by rubbing on the door.
Still mystified, I checked Chloe’s.
It was wide open, still hooked to the wall, the way I leave it when I’m taking her out, so it won’t fall closed and smack her, thus pissing her off.
Unless magical leprechauns had messed about in the barn while I wasn’t looking, it appeared I’d forgotten to close the stall doors when I let the horses in earlier.
Colour me chagrinned. That’s the first time I’ve ever done that in all the years I’ve had horses.
So now, after I bring the horses in for the afternoon, I double check all the stall doors to make sure I’ve closed them properly.
If you asked me why I have horses, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t know. I’ve loved horses all my life.
All I know is that life is short, suffering great, death long.
If something makes you happy an’ it hurts no one, my motto is go for it. Life is for living.
Winston Churchill is attributed with the saying, “There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” These days that saying applies to everybody.
More than you ever wanted to know about horses? Alas, I couldn’t think of a story to write for the story prompt Anticipation, so I wrote this.
It occurred to me later that the reason I forgot to latch the ponies’ stall doors, was because I was so preoccupied trying to think of what to write. So this story is about Anticipation after all. That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.
The end chorus for “Anticipation” goes,
These are the good old days.
These are the good old days.
These aaaaaaaare, the good old days.
And now that I’ve written this story, maybe I can finally get this song out of my head.
Everything you know about who you are is a lie…
And it all started with her.
Ari is the Chieftain’s daughter, and also a powerful Seer. Amidst the decimation of her village, she is betrothed to a rival clan’s son. But can she forgo the promise of the mystery man from her visions and let the flame she’s carried for him die out?
Be careful when you trespass the divide between heaven and earth, the ripples may spin out for the rest of time.
SINCE THEIR MEDICINE MAN is gone, I have full access to the sacred hut. One of the village girls helps me stock a pile of herbs and coals. I worry about who will tend to me when I come out—will I even be capable of expressing my needs?—but I must cross that bridge when I come to it. Hopefully, I will only require a day here. Ayat did say my powers were growing.
The girl leaves and I settle onto the bench. This structure, all the idols, the smell of the herbs, and even the layout of the baskets, are all familiar. I could almost convince myself that I’ve been transported back home.
With that thought, I send blessings to my homeland and my people. Then I begin my ritual, lighting the bundle of leaves, wafting the smoke, and intoning ancient sounds that thin the veil between this world and the next.
The heat builds fast in this small space, and sweat pours off my body as I calm my breath, sinking quick and deep into a trance.
I’m surrounded by people, the press of bodies alarming, but it’s the noise that is terrifying. I feel it pound through my feet, shaking the earth, and reverberating in the bellows of my lungs. I cover my ears, but it makes little difference. This world is dark, but brilliantly colored lights flare in the sky.
I think this must be the end of the world, or another world altogether. Impossible colors, the likes of which I’ve never seen, pierce the sky and transiently illuminate this hellish world.
Massive dark stalks crisscross against the sky. There is nothing that I can relate to—no stars, no moon, not even any wind. The air is rank with a musty odor which is probably all these sweaty bodies, and layers of unrecognizable, cloying scents that overwhelm me.
Am I under the earth? It is hard to think with the booming sounds bouncing around in my skull, and I would be gone if not for the press of bodies.
I look at the people here. I recognize from the manner of garish dress that this is like my other visions. I must be in the world of the Gods. Could there be this many Gods in existence? The flashes of light illuminate a sea of them, more than a swarm of insects, moving arms, bodies akimbo, swaying like they are not familiar with this form yet.
But none of them are panicking like me.
I take a calming breath, reminding myself this is just a vision. I need to identify which God has a message for me; which one brought me here. This is not my world to worry about; I am only here for a spell.
I look around again, trying to take in more this time, but the sounds pierce my ears. A woman’s voice is singing, and it would be beautiful if it wasn’t for the booming volume. I have not the ears of Gods. My mortal perception breaks under this pressure.
“Are you okay?” A face with tribal piercings invades my field of vision. Just like last time, I seem to understand their language. He must be a prince, the impossible shine of the metal at his brow and lip denoting his worth. He has skin the likes of which I’ve never seen before, white, like the life has been leached from it, and he is a spirit. The explosive stars erupt again, a flash of pink and green. In that moment, I can tell that his hair is multi-hued, and I think immediately of the fur of a predator, each individual hair with tips white but base brown, with bands of black in-between. Is this God-spirit prince a predator?
“Hello?” He waves a hand in front of my face, and that’s when it dawns on me that he can actually see me. Heavens, I have never had a vision like this before!
“Dude, she’s probably high as a kite,” a voice from behind me shouts, and I almost jump out of my skin.
These gods can really see me! Interact with me!
I remove my hands from my ears and bow to the prince, in case I have offended him. I am self-conscious of my humble garb amidst the finery of this world, but with the low light, I do not think he notices how plainly I am clad.
I turn to offer a bow to the other, a muscular man whose build and stance screams his role as warrior and leader, but he’s not looking at me.
His face is distraught, the lines of his body tense. He is focused, and he has already moved on from me, his eyes scanning the crowd. I know that look. It is the look of a leader on the eve of a battle he knows he is going to lose.
A woman joins him. She shares his look, face set in deadly concentration. I am forgotten, and I myself forget the blaring music as I stare at this transfixed couple. I don’t know what it means, but I do know that this is why I am here. His jaw clenches and she reaches her hand over to hold his. His shoulders relax as their eyes meet. Words, thoughts, and emotions whisper in my head, circling around aloft in my mind like airborne seeds before drifting away:
Love is all there is.
Love is what makes us human.
Love is why we will prevail.
She says something aloud to him that I cannot make out in the noise, and I see him nod, like he’s accepting an order. I notice the prince look to her for direction too. I’m shocked as I’m struck by the realization. She is their leader.
The world fades and I find myself lying flat on the bench, face down. I come back into my body slowly, my ears still ringing from the onslaught of the vision. The odor of that subterranean world permeates my clothes, and my eyes sting from the blinding flashes I still see behind my eyelids. I take several moments to compose myself, cradling my throbbing head.
I curl into a ball, and that motion seems to tip me off balance, as I sink into an endless free fall. Too disoriented to brace myself, I curl tighter, the wind rushing in my ears. I’ve never been so thankful for the natural and comforting feeling of wind in my life.
I open my eyes to find myself in front of the largest expanse of water imaginable. The water roars in a rhythmic motion, as if it is a living, breathing thing. Sand under my toes grounds me, and I cry as I look up into a normal sun in a perfect, beautiful blue sky.
“I am not sure what reaction I expected for your first time seeing this ocean, but staring at the sky was not it.”
I turn to Ayat, and gleefully throw myself into his arms. He is unprepared for it, but he catches me just the same, laughing at my exuberance.
“That is more agreeable,” he murmurs, and he tilts my head up, swiping my tears with his thumb and then tasting them.
“Ah, yes. The Wood energy.”
“Teleportation. You can shift now. It is different from how I move, but it will still be useful.”
“I don’t understand.” I stare in his eyes. All of my worlds, everything I’ve known is still reeling, these last few days calling everything into question, but his eyes ground me.
“You taste of fear, my love. Please, just take in the peace of this place.” He folds his legs and sinks into the sand, dragging me with him. I am sitting on him, and I would normally find this highly improper and uncomfortable, but with his arms around me, I relax into his body, not feeling caged, but instead treasured and protected.
No, that’s not right, either.
Loved. I feel loved.
FirstLight, the prequel to the Five Elements, is available for free with a newsletter subscription.
David M. Simon (@writesdraws)
THE SWAMP WAS DIFFERENT in Ohio, different from what they’d crawled through in Louisiana.
Down there they were wet more often than they were dry. They’d be waist deep in the muddy water, weaving between cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. Snakes big around as a man’s arm hung from the trees, and the hot, thick air hummed with mosquitoes.
Third night on the run a gator took Leon. Leon was six. One minute he was stepping down off one of the rare dry, grassy hillocks where they had stopped to rest, trying not to lose his footing on the slick cypress roots and go under. Then an alligator had its jaws clean around his narrow chest and started to roll, tail thrashing, roiling the water, red blood mixing with the brown.
Judah planned their escape for months, starting right after his wife Mina died of an infection that went bad. The overseer had begun to take an interest in his daughter Delphine, not yet thirteen. Judah would not abide that. He gathered what food he could—they would have to make it through the swamp and all the way to the station in Jackson. An old woman named Maria had helped keep an eye on Delphine after Mina died, and Judah promised to take her and her grandson Leon along.
The four of them slipped away quietly the night of a party at the big house, losing themselves in the festive chaos. Judah had the food and the clothes on his back, Maria a small bible. Delphine carried a burlap sack that held her mother’s pillow.
The pillow had been Mina’s prized possession, a gift from the boss’s grandmother she tended to. It was goose down-filled, trimmed with lace. Judah told Delphine she had to leave it behind, but she was adamant. She said, “Papa, this is all I got left of Mama. I’ll carry it, you don’t have to. Mama never laid a free head on that pillow. I’m gonna keep it wrapped up safe and clean, and I won’t lay my head on it until I know we’re free. That’s a promise. I’ll wait, no matter how much I want to.” Judah started to argue, but he saw the same fierce look in Delphine’s eyes he used to see in Mina’s, and he let it be.
Delphine was true to her word. She kept that pillow swaddled like a baby, kept it dry through the swamp and all the way to the Jackson station. They were taken in there, given a hot meal and a place to sleep. From there they made their way to Montgomery, then Nashville, and Frankfort, Kentucky. In Frankfort they heard that two teams of slave catchers had been hired to track them. It was decided they had a better chance if they split up. Maria left them there, and Judah and Delphine continued on alone.
They crossed the Ohio River near Cincinnati, huddled in the bottom of a jon boat, covered with a tarp. A preacher dressed as a farmer met them with a hay wagon on the Ohio side. The wagon had a false bottom Judah and Delphine crawled into, stifling hot, black as pitch. They were stopped twice on the way north. Judah held his daughter close, both of them numb with fear, as they listened to slave catchers try to bully the preacher. The preacher remained calm, serene, unflappable, and in both cases the slave catchers finally walked away, frustrated.
They parted ways with the preacher a little north of Lima, where a wall of trees went on for miles in both directions. The preacher said, “This is the Great Black Swamp. There are easier ways to reach Lake Erie, but this is the safest. Not even the slavers will follow you in there.” He preacher handed Judah a compass, and they shook hands. “Stay north. When you come to the Maumee River, follow it to the mouth and wait. Stay hidden. A week from now, a fishing trawler will anchor in the bay, with three lanterns hanging in the bow. They’ll take you to Canada.” They shook hands again.
If the Louisiana swamp was unending muddy water, cypress trees, and hidden dangers, the Great Black Swamp was mud. Cottonwood and sycamore forests, the trees so close together you could barely squeeze through, grassy lowlands, and everywhere deep black mud that sucked at your feet, sucked the energy, the very life from your body. One thing was just the same as the other swamp, and that was the mosquitoes, great clouds of them.
When they finally reached the Maumee, Delphine burst into exhausted tears, and Judah’s own eyes welled up.
They had been holed up for three days in a grove of trees on the banks of Maumee Bay when the trawler arrived, three lanterns shining brightly in the dark. Judah and Delphine were both sick with fever, half starved. A small skiff rowed in to take them out to the larger boat. Delphine hugged the burlap sack to her chest.
Lake Erie looked like rippled grey glass beneath a canopy of stars. The ship cook fed them bowls of stew until their bellies were full. The captain offered them a place to sleep below deck, but they chose to stay above, settling in near the bow, the lanterns above them. “Are we really free, Papa?” Delphine asked.
“We are,” Judah answered. “When we dock, we’ll be in Canada. We’ll make a new life. It’s what your Mama would want.”
“Then I think it’s time,” Delphine said. She untied the twine that held the burlap sack closed, and removed the pillow. It was clean and dry. Delphine made a nest in a pile of fishing nets on the deck. She placed the pillow carefully, and laid her head down. As she drifted off to sleep, Judah heard a whispered, “I love you, Mama. We made it.” Judah was soon asleep himself.
Marian Thorpe (@marianlthorpe)
An edited excerpt from Empire’s Hostage, Book II of the Empire’s Legacy series.
WE STOPPED AT A RISE in the track. Below us lay a long, deep valley and several buildings, built of grey stone. An L-shaped hall made one side of the complex, standing three storeys high and roofed in lichened, mossy slate; from each of its wings ran lower structures, and two or three free-standing smaller buildings surrounded the central courtyard. Trees sheltered it, and the rocky valley side. It looked, to my eyes, very old.
“The Ti’ach,” Ardan said, gesturing. “Also called Ti’ach na Perras, for Perras, who heads this house, and to distinguish it from the others. Here you will live and be treated as any other woman who has come here to learn.”
Looking down, I swallowed my apprehension. Smoke rose from several chimneys. Someone came out of one of the smaller buildings, a basket in her arms, and began to peg out washing on a line. Others worked in what I thought was probably a garden plot, preparing the ground. It looked peaceful, nestled in its valley, undisturbed.
By the time we reached the hall and dismounted several people had emerged from inside. Two young women—one no more than a girl—and a man a few years their senior, flanking a grey-haired man leaning on a stick, and an upright older woman beside him.
The older woman spoke. “Ardan,” she said. “Welcome back. We were not expecting you. Are the talks completed then? Is there peace?”
“My lady,” Ardan said. “There is a truce: six months to replenish our food supplies, on both sides of the Wall. Our Teannasach and the southern Emperor have proclaimed it. For surety, hostages have been exchanged. One has been sent here. I bring her to you: this woman, Lena, who stands hostage for the General Casyn.”
As Ardan spoke I stepped forward. The older woman smiled. “Welcome to Ti’ach na Perras, Lena,” she said. “I am Dagney, and this,” she gestured to the man beside her, “is Perras, Comiádh to this house.”
She turned to my companion. “Ardan, will someone take Lena’s horse, please?” I felt Clio’s reins taken from my hand, heard her turn away. “Come,” Dagney said, beckoning.
I followed her up the shallow steps into the house. The door opened into a wide hall, lit only by small windows. The air smelled of stone and a smoke that was not woodsmoke, but something sharper. As my eyes adjusted, I could see a long table and chairs standing on the flagged floor. At one end of the room a huge fireplace dominated; cabinets lined the opposite wall. Perras and Dagney and the other man and girl waited, standing at the table. The room was cold.
“Jordis,” Dagney said gently. “Please go and fetch tea. Lena, will you sit?” Chairs were drawn. I took the one that Dagney indicated, draping my cloak over the back. Everyone sat, the young man last, after helping Dagney with her chair.
“Let me introduce you,” Dagney said. “This is Niav,” she indicated the girl, “and,” nodding to the man, “this is Sorley. They are students here, as, I assume, you are to be?”
“I suppose I am,” I said, “my lady. Your Teannasach—” I stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar title, “said I should come here.” I tried to remember his words. “He said he would send me here, because I like to read and write, and this is where sons and daughters of your land come, if that is what they are drawn to.”
“The Teannasach was a student here himself,” Dagney said, “for a while. He still visits when he can. Now, Lena, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from?”
“Tirvan,” I said. “It’s a fishing village, on the coast, south of Berge and Delle.” I saw Perras nod. “I had a boat there, with my partner. We were separated, and later I went south, to find her, and for other reasons. The search took me to our Emperor’s winter camp, and I was there when…” I hesitated. What did I say to these people? It had been their men we had fought against.
“When the Teannasach took his men through the Wall,” Perras said, his voice precise and measured.
“Yes,” I agreed. “When that news reached us.” I warmed to Perras, coming subtly to my aid as he had.
“And you came north, to the fighting?” Dagney asked. “I also did not realize women fought at the Wall.”
I shook my head. “Not at once. I was given a task to do first. I came north, to the Wall, later.” That would do, I thought. They did not need to know all my history.
“The General Casyn is your father?” Perras asked. “You are hostage in his name, did I hear?”
“I am,” I said, “but he is not my father.” I saw Jordis return, carrying a laden tray. “He asked me to stand instead of his daughters, who are mothers with small children, and some distance from the Wall. He is—” I stopped. “Was, I suppose,” I amended, “my commanding officer.”
Perras nodded. Jordis put the tray on the table and for a minute or two the distribution of tea and small oatcakes, spread with a soft, pungent cheese, occupied us. I sipped the smoky, unsweetened tea.
“What books have you read?” Jordis asked.
“Schoolbooks,” I shrugged. “My mother has books of healing—she’s a midwife—but I haven’t read those. There were not many books in Tirvan, except those, and some on husbandry.”
“But why, then, were you sent here?” Sorley asked. “Forgive me if I sound rude, but you have less learning than one of our children in their tenth year.”
I put my cup down and took a breath. “I came late to an interest in books,” I said, trying to remain calm. “In the weeks I spent at our Emperor’s winter camp, I was given a history of our Empire by the Emperor’s brother and advisor, Colm. Reading that, I began to want to know more. So I may know very little, but I am eager to learn.”
“Colm’s History?” Perras said, his voice a shade less measured. “You have read Colm’s History?”
“I have,” I said, “and discussed it with him, just a little.”
Perras shook his head. “He and I exchanged a few letters. His loss was more than unfortunate,” he said. “What do you remember? Could you write it down?”
“I could,” I said. “But I have a copy, if you would like to read it.”
Perras put his cup down. No one spoke.
“You have a copy of Colm’s History?” Perras said. I could hear the disbelief.
“Yes. Colm gave it to me to read, and after he was killed, the General Casyn told me to keep it. It’s in my saddlebag.”
“I would be…” Perras hesitated. “Most grateful if you would let me read it. Would you consider allowing it to be copied?”
What would Colm think? He and this man had corresponded. “Yes,” I said, “I would, as long as it is done here. And I can keep an eye on it,” I added.
“I will do the copying myself,” Perras said. “As I read it; it will help me in considering and remembering what is written, and allow me to annotate as I go. Is that acceptable, Lena?”
“Would you like more to eat or drink?” Dagney asked. “If not, then I will have Jordis show you to your sleeping chamber, and you may wash and change after your ride. And then,” she smiled, “perhaps you could bring the book down to Perras. He will be in his workroom, waiting as patiently as he can.” I heard the gentle teasing, and the affection behind it. I glanced at Perras. He acknowledged me with a nod. I smiled.
“I will be as quick as I can,” I said, standing to turn to Jordis.
“This way,” she said, pointing. I picked up my cloak, following her out of the room and up a flight of wooden stairs. The sound of my riding boots echoed against the stone walls; Jordis, I saw, was wearing deerskin slippers. We reached a landing. At the third door, she stopped.
I stepped through the door. My saddlebags sat on a low chest against one stone wall. A narrow bed, covered by a woven woollen blanket, faced a small fireplace, with a sheepskin on the flagged floor. A table and chair filled the space under the one window, and a wardrobe and washstand lined the other wall. Simple, but more than adequate, and much better than my shared quarters at the Wall.
“I am next door,” Jordis said. “Is there anything you need, Lena?”
“If you don’t mind waiting,” I said, “while I think I can find my way back to the hall, I do not know where the Comiádh will be. Will you show me? I’ll be quick in changing; soldiers learn to be.”
“I’ll wait. I’m that side,” she indicated with a movement of her head. She closed the door quietly behind her.
I took a deep breath, valuing the brief solitude. I walked to the window. It had a view over the yard. The wind had picked up a bit, and the laundry billowed in the weak sunshine. I looked out, beyond the valley, to the hills where the play of cloud and sun dappled the grey-green of their slopes. A lone bird—a buzzard, I thought—rode the air.
I stepped away from the window to pull off my riding clothes. Quickly washing in the cold water, I dressed again in my clean tunic and trousers. Hair freshly combed, I pulled my indoor slippers onto my feet, and picked up Colm’s book.
Jordis had left her door open. I knocked lightly; she turned from where she sat at her table. I saw she had been reading. “That was quick,” she said. She looked down at what I held. “Is that the History?”
I held it out to her. “Do you want to see it?”
Her eyes widened. “Not before the Comiádh,” she said, with a quick shake of her head. She stood. “Come.”
* * * *
Perras sat in an armchair beside a fireplace, where a fire glowed, warming the room. On both sides of the fireplace, shelves held many books, and some objects. On a large table lay writing tools and paper, and an open book.
“Lena,” Perras said. He stood carefully, steadying himself with the arms of the chair. “You were very quick.”
I held out Colm’s book. “I thought it important to you.” And I have been trained to not keep those who outrank me waiting, I thought, but did not say. Perras took it from me. He turned slightly to the firelight, and opened it. I knew by heart the words that began the first page: ‘In the third year of the reign of the Emperor Lucian…’.
We stood in silence as Perras read, turning pages carefully. After a few minutes, he sighed, closing the book. “I must not be greedy,” he said, “but I have waited a long time to read this work.”
“You never met Colm?” I asked.
“No,” Perras answered. “We exchanged a few letters, as I think I said, a few years ago, about what our records and our memories say about the building of the Wall, but we never met. I had hoped we would. We would have had much to discuss.” He glanced down again at the book in his hands. “So much,” he echoed. Then he raised his head to smile at me. “Please sit; it is easier for me.” he said, his voice firmer. He nodded toward a second chair, facing his, on the opposite side of the fireplace.
I did as I was bid. Perras settled himself back into his armchair, looking up at Jordis. “You may go,” he said gently. “My thanks for bringing Lena to me.”
“My pleasure, Comiádh,” she answered, and slipped from the room, pulling the door firmly closed.
I waited for Perras to speak. The warmth and flicker of the fire threatened to make me sleepy. I suppressed a yawn. The Comiádh appeared deep in thought.
“I think,” he said, “that I would like you to sit with me each day, for a few hours, as I copy the History. That way I can ask questions of you, and discuss what you remember, as I read it.” He smiled. “And you can keep an eye on your book, as you requested. Does that seem reasonable, Lena? I can see the book is precious to you.”
“Yes…mostly because Colm gave it to me, and because both the book and he taught me things I had never known about our history.” I stopped. Perras regarded me intently. I felt a need to explain. “In our village school, we learned just simple facts. That was all I wanted to know, at ten or twelve. But now…”
“But now the facts are not so simple, and you are questioning whether they are facts at all,” Perras finished for me.
“Yes,” I said. “Comiádh, as we go through this book together, would you tell me what you know, from beyond the northern Wall? I would like to hear your side, too.”
I saw a flicker of surprise in his eyes. “It will not make things simpler,” he warned. “But that is enough, for today. Can you find your way back to your room?”
I wanted to object, but I knew Perras was right; I had learned more than enough for today. “I can,” I said. I stood up. “Thank you, Comiádh.” I hoped I had got the pronunciation right.
“Thank you, Lena,” he said. I crossed the room, pulling open the door. I glanced back before I closed it; Perras had Colm’s book open on his lap, his face rapt.
One Final Night
Joseph P. Garland (@JPGarlandAuthor)
RÓISÍN CAMPBELL WAS BORN on an Irish farm early on a misty morning in March of 1852. From the moment of her first breath her fate was sealed. And now, just over eighteen years later, she quite naturally was anxious about the impending destruction of her prior life.It was her final night in Hospital, the farming town on the eastern edge of County Limerick. It was where she was born and where her family had its dairy farm. In recent years, two of her sisters and one of her brothers had been forced to cross the Irish Sea to Liverpool, where they established some sort of lives for themselves. It was the accepted reality throughout the island.
For reasons she did not fully understand, Róisín’s fate would differ in one significant respect from those others. She’d be going to America. Where a cousin said she might find a job as a housemaid in one of the fancy mansions that lined the streets of New York. For a sweet, attractive Irish girl such as Róisín, with a bit of training to know how to care for the person and things of a society woman combined with the basic skills of sewing and polishing all Irish girls had, she’d find a secure place. After a time, she could send some of her slight earnings—she had little to spend it on herself—home so a sibling or a cousin could follow her.
Aye, it was the Irish way. A life of service. Unless she misbehaved or especially was misbehaved by one of the randy sons or, God forbid, the master of the house, she’d never need worry about being fed or having a warm place to sleep, at least for several decades.
This is what Róisín and all the other Irish farmgirls knew.
For her, it had all been arranged, it had. The steamship on which she would cross the Atlantic was identified and a spot aboard had been obtained from a ships’ broker in Limerick City two months back. All that remained was Róisín travelling by train to Queenstown. It was where she’d first see the ocean and would last set foot on Irish soil, for her and the hordes of others who’d embark on the City of Paris for the journey to New York.
This one last night and early in the morning Róisín and her daddy would travel the six miles to catch the first of a series of trains that would take her, and her alone, to Cork and Queenstown. For the last time she would see her mother and the siblings who were still in Ireland, at least for now.
She woke in the night. She did not know what time it was when she shot up from what had been a deep sleep. All was quiet except for the rhythmic breathing of her sleeping sister, Sophie. It was dark, too dark to see anything, and thus her hearing seemed heightened. And she understood that she would never again hear what she heard at that moment. Her sister would never be dreaming beside her. The slight Limerick wind she’d sometimes wake to in the night would never whistle through her room and across her bed.
It was that realization, the concept of never again, that finally chilled her. She long knew the day would come. It was a Wednesday in June of 1870. Her eyes were open, but it made no difference in the pitch black. Still, it gave her the illusion that she was seeing something, and the something she imagined she was seeing was burning into her memory. From the ceiling to the bedroom to the farmhouse itself. Moving from room to room, imagining she was running her fingers along the walls and the windowsills and the tops of the old, dark furniture she’d long taken for granted. The kitchen with its pots dangling. The outhouse discreetly in the rear corner of the yard, sometimes too far and sometimes not far enough from the back door.
Soon—she could not know how soon—her daddy and her brothers Liam and Aidan would be heading into the fields with the dog to drive the cows to the barn for milking. Her mamma would start making a small breakfast while she and Sophie tried to stay in bed as long as they could. The night before, her mamma gave Róisín the letters written to her by those who’d left for England. Each told of how there was a good, or good enough, life away from the farm. That she should not be afraid though she was going far, far away.
Her mamma handed her the letter from her sister’s son Jimmy, too. He worked on the New York docks. In it, Jimmy said he would see to Róisín when she arrived and that he hoped he could help her get placed at the home of an admirable Irish-American family once she was properly trained.
Hours after reading those letters, she was looking at the dark ceiling and trying to memorize every part of the house that was her home since she was born over eighteen years before, and she could not control her sobs. She refused to cry before about this. She knew that she would have to leave. She was strong till that moment. The farm could only support one boy. The rest had to leave. So Liam would stay and he would marry the eldest daughter of a nearby farm—much as Ciara married Gerry Owens—and Aidan and Sophie would follow her or their other siblings to England or America when they, too, turned eighteen.
Róisín fell back asleep, and it took several shakes from Sophie to awaken her.
“Get up, you fool. Today’s no day to sleep in.” Sophie was a troubling sort and far too unsettled in Róisín’s mind, even for a fifteen-year-old. Still, Róisín would miss her.
Things were somber when she reached the kitchen, and her mamma insisted that Róisín do nothing but be waited upon. She told her mamma when she saw the others finished with their milking, and Mrs. Campbell got the tea ready. Everyone was quiet as they had their eggs and toast and tea, and they were somber as they went about doing chores. For those in the house, the ticking of the clock above the mantel in the front room seemed to get louder with each minute, approaching the moment when Róisín would have to leave to be in Knocklong to catch a train that would begin her destined journey to New York.
Liam carried Róisín’s satchel to the parlor. She’d packed it the night before with her mamma, and it contained the clothes they bought two weeks earlier in Limerick City supplemented by family mementos, her siblings’ and Cousin Jimmy’s letters, and three of her beloved books. Her daddy made a point of buying one for her when he went to the city. She was a good, bright student, and she read alone when she could in quiet times and appreciated that her parents did all they could to encourage it, hoping it would give her an advantage in her new life.
Finally, Róisín’s mamma went to her room and she sat on the bed with her child, holding her hands, and Róisín put her head on her mamma’s shoulder as the others had done before her, and her mamma said everything would be grand. Not long after that, Liam rushed in.
“Daddy says…you must get going,” and he hurried down the stairs, followed a long minute later by the two women, who went to the drive at the front of the house as Liam put Róisín’s satchel in the back of the single-horse trap her daddy had brought around. Mamma handed her a large package containing food to have until she reached Queenstown. Aidan and Sophie were joined by Ciara, holding her baby and beside her husband, as well as some of Róisín’s friends. One by one they hugged and kissed her—except for little Meghan Owens, who received Róisín’s lips on her forehead—until she reached her mamma, and that dear woman clutched her tightly and made her daughter promise to be a source of the family’s pride.
Finally, Róisín joined her daddy in the trap for the journey south to Knocklong. There she would catch a train that would ultimately take her through Cork City and to the port of Queenstown where she would spend the night in a hotel. It was a pleasant day, and Róisín sought to imprint it on her memory as she looked back one final time just as the trap started a turn that would forever leave the farm behind. With a wave, it was gone.
Her daddy was his usual taciturn self for the early portion of the ride, and Róisín’s head leaned against his shoulder. Neighbors on farms along the way stood at their stone walls to wave their own goodbyes and shout their own encouragements as had become a ritual, and they stopped at the church, where the teacher, Mr. Sullivan, reached up to her to hug her goodbye and the parish priest, Father Crowe, handed her the book, a Bible in Gaelic, he gave each who left. After the Campbells received his blessing, they continued south, and Róisín took her last look at the town and could just see the church’s steeple until it, too, was all gone.
As they neared Knocklong, her daddy spoke in a way he never had before.
“Your mamma and I will miss you, that’s for sure. You understand why it must be?”
“From Jimmy, we hear good things about New York. And some bad things, too. You are a good girl. I know you will do good.”
“I will, daddy.”
“Lots of people who are not like us, though. Some very poor. They are God’s creatures and do not forget that. You will also see people who think themselves superior to you. Like the English do. Remember you are a good, Irish girl.”
“I will, daddy.”
“And be sure to write to your mamma regular. Some of the ones in Liverpool are not so good. But you are in America. Write when you can.”
They arrived at the station shortly after nine. Róisín’s daddy handed her a bag with money. This was for the train and the boat and the hotel in Queenstown plus enough, according to Jimmy, to tide her over until she could cash the modest bank draft her daddy got for her in Limerick City, which was safely stowed in her satchel.
Father and daughter found a place for the trap, and after Róisín bought her ticket, they went to the platform. When the train pulled in some ten minutes later, the two hugged. She put her head out the window and waved as she looked upon her daddy, waving back, for the last time.
As the train neared Cork some hours later, Róisín was amazed at how crowded and congested everything seemed. She was in Limerick City a few times. It was nothing compared to this. But she was in Cork only briefly as she switched to the train to Queenstown. She had the name of a small hotel near the quay. At the desk, she was asked what boat she was on and when it was departing. Róisín shared a room with another girl, from County Sligo. She’d arrived at the hotel the day before, and the two went to the dining room. It was full of girls and boys near Róisín’s age and some older men and women and some families with wee ones. All were waiting to go to America, and Róisín was at a table with seven others.
“You think Cork is big, lasses?” It was addressed to the table by an older man. “I hear tell that ‘tis tiny compared to New York.” He slurped his soup, and his wife said, “And the hurrying. Our son be there, and he says they never stop. But he says it’d be a good life for us.” They looked to be from a farm, and Róisín could not place their accent, and she missed some of their words.
After the meal, Róisín went out with her roommate and several others for the air of their last night. They were mostly quiet, paired arm-in-arm till dusk appeared. Róisín had never seen the water before, though some of the girls from the west had. The group strolled to the quay, where they saw the City of Paris on which they would all sail to America, and they watched the darkness cover it and the sea. They returned to the travelers’ hotel, going to their rooms to sleep at home one last time.
March Team Showcase
New This Month: Guest contributor Heather Wickers has written, as Heather Melo, the novel Just One Night, which is available on Amazon. She regularly posts her poems on both Twitter and Instagram. Her author’s website is TheLitKitty.com.
Renée Gendron‘s Two Hearts on the Backspin, Novella 2 of her Heartened series, is available at Amazon. The second book in her Outdoorsmen series, The Officer’s Gamble, was published on October 18. Book 1 of the Outdoorsman Series is available as is her Ninth Star, Jaded Hearts, and Seven Points of Contact, Heads and Tales, a supernatural/mythological anthology. to which Renée contributed a historical, supernatural, romance. Shopkeeper & Spoon, Beneath The Twin Suns: An Anthology, Heartened by Crime, and In The Red Room: A crime anthology with heart, all edited by Renée Gendron, are also available now.
Marian L Thorpe‘s newest installment in her wonderful Empire series, Empress & Soldier, has been released. (Empire’s Daughter is the first part.) She has numerous titles available; they can be found at her aptly-named website, MarianLThorpe.com. Her books are at Books2Read.
David M. Simon has published The Wild Hunt: Novella 2 of The Wild Hearts and Hunts Duology (Part 1 is Renée Gedron’s Ninth Star) as well as Trapped in Lunch Lady Land, a middle-grade fantasy adventure.
For Nicole Wells, her The Five Elements series (Upspark, StarDust, and TwinFlames), a genre-bending series of science fantasy romance, is available at most retailers. The Worst Story Ever Written (an excerpt of which we’ve seen here), a humorous paranormal romance plus mystery, and Midlife Magic School, a paranormal women’s fiction novel, are both available on Amazon (and free in Kindle Unlimited). She mixes genres that always include romance and fantasy and also designs book covers. Her most recent release was part of the Royal Rods Anthology. Learn more at NicoleWellsWrites.com
Louise Sorensen has contributed to numerous anthologies that are available on Amazon, and is the co-author, with Misha Burnett, of Duel Visions.
Joseph P. Garland has a blog and information on his books and those bits of classic literature that he has republished at DermodyHouse.com.