Welcome to 2023’s tenth edition. Separation. The goings in life. Long. Short. Permanent. And we have an eclectic mix for this issue. Enjoy.
The A Muse Bouche Review Team
Featured: Separation(Heather Wickers) Poetry
Trial Separation(Renée Gendron) Fiction
Bareep(Louise Sorensen) Non-Fiction
The Arrow of Exile(Marian L Thorpe) Fiction
A Forced Parting(Joseph P. Garland) Fiction
Heather Wickers (@HWickersWriter)
Renee Gendron (@ReneeGendron)
First daughter of Lady Esme Nenge of the Star System Gliese, Lady Cressida Nenge rested one of her leather-gloved hands on her fiancé’s forearm. The touch was familiar and comforting, yet a breach of protocol once inside the Court Chamber.
Black polished marble stretched the length of the hallway, catching the reflection of the lights as though stars lighting up a universe. The galaxy was outside, but the path to dominate it was equally dark and illuminated by bursts of explosion of diamonds in obsidian marble.
Cressida pushed air out between her lips, but the motion did nothing to drop her pulse from light speed to impulse.
First son of Lord Sebastian of the Rilan System, Montague Dacre was a little taller than her, and he stood eyes front, chin up, like he was facing a firing squad with defiance and dignity. “Are you ready?” His voice was a velvety baritone and raised goosebumps on her skin.
For him, anything. “Yes. You?”
“Always.” He leaned into her, brushed a chaste kiss on her lips, then cupped her cheek with his hand. The stitching on his gloves was unparalleled for three parsecs. “We’ll get through this.” The intensity of his gaze conveyed more than any touch, kiss or contract. He patted her hand.
She leaned into him and pressed a kiss against the super-sensitive spot on his neck. She had pressed her lips to the same spot she had kissed him first and last thing of the day.
He growled, and a ripple of pleasure cascaded through her. Her last indulgence. She straightened, and the rigidity and decorum of mindless hours of instruction by merciless tutors and humourless governesses whipped against her. “I’m ready.”
Montague took a half-step forward, and Cressida followed.
Two guardsmen in navy blue jackets and red trousers stood on either side of floor-to-ceiling polished oak doors. At the centre of each door was a roaring gold doorknocker leopard with a gold ring through its nose. The doors whooshed open, and a wave of heavily perfumed air struck Cressida’s nostrils. She fought the wave of dizziness and the dull ache in her temple.
Montague led them to the centre of the room, flanked by two sets of oak tables. On the left, members of his extended family sat, scowling. The matriarch sat glowering, crimson skirts billowing around her ankles. Skin pale from decades in the stars and leathery from age, she sat perched on her chair. A hawk ready to dive.
To the right sat Cressida’s family, attired in their own fine clothes from fabrics and jewellery acquired from all corners of the galaxy. At the centre sat her matriarch, dressed in a deep purple that brought out the darkness of the veins in her hands and the bags under her eyes.
Between the families stood the Arbitrator in a gold cloak, tunic, and black trousers. Her cold eyes remained fixed on some point behind Cressida, then she swung the full force of her gaze to Cressida. “State your intentions.”
“To wed.” Cressida steadied her voice like she had practised for hours in the mirror.
Both matriarchs sat stoic and silent.
“So say you?” the Arbitrator asked.
“So say I,” Montague said.
“You have invoked the rite of Connubus.” Shadows obscured half of the Arbitrator’s face.
“Correct,” Cressida and Montague said.
“Both families are opposed to your marriage. Such a union provides no advantage to either of them and may well put their shipping and commercial interests into direct conflict.” The Arbitrator’s syllables were sharp and clipped, and if one listened too closely, they’d leave cuts on the ears.
“I understand,” Cressida said.
“I do as well,” Montague said.
“And you understand that should either or both of you fail, your request for a lawful marriage is forfeit. If you elope, all claims to family lines and inheritance are also forfeited. Any children you may have will be illegitimate in the eyes of the Court.”
“I understand,” Cressida said.
“So do I,” Montague said.
“Then the trials begin. Each of you will spend a month in a mutually agreed upon neutral third-party’s house. During which time, you will face a series of trials to deem your worthiness as a spouse, a parent, and a member in good standing of the family. It will also be determined whether you have sufficient business acumen to contribute to the family’s holdings. Failure to perform satisfactorily in any of these duties and you will forfeit your right to lawfully marry.”
The Arbitrator raised her left arm. The folds of her golden cloak billowed with her less-than-graceful movement.
From the shadowed recesses of the far corner, a woman in a green velvet cloak approached. Shadows obscured her features, but her gold and sapphire tiara caught the sparkles of diamonds.
Cressida’s blood chilled.
Lady Oratile Okoye glided towards the centre of the room. Her movements were graceful and practised, but there was nothing friendly or gracious about her. She controlled all asteroid mining interests in seventeen parsecs. No spec of ore or gemstone made it through this sector without her taking a cut.
She stopped two metres in front of Cressida, directing her blunt and brunt gaze on her. The corners of her full mouth curved in the insincere smile learned at the most prestigious boarding schools in the galaxy. “You will be a member of my house for the next month. And I shall treat you as I would my own daughter-in-law and hold you to the same standards as I would her.”
A gulp formed in Cressida’s throat, but she refused to swallow. She stood planted in front of Lady Oratile, fighting the quiver in her hands and putting all her strength into her indifferent stare. She calculated the one hundred-and seventeen ways Lady Oratile could legally kill her during the trials.
Death by overwork, death by accident during household chores, death by insubordination, death by indifference, death by failure to uphold the surrogate family’s honour or interests, death for defiance, death for improper evening attire, death for waking up after three sounds of the alarm clock, death for an accounting error—
Cressida stopped internally reciting the reasons she could be executed without trial. If she was deemed unworthy of the marriage, her life was irrelevant.
One bead of ice-cold sweat wormed from the base of her neck and stopped somewhere between her shoulder blades. Cressida resisted the urge to shift her shoulders and ease the discomfort.
Pain was to come. So much pain she’d lose her mind, all sense of time, and all sense of self. She stared ahead, certain her backbone wouldn’t break and her affection for Montague would hold fast. She wrapped herself in the warm, delicious embrace of Montague’s love.
The Arbitrator raised her right hand, and a second shadowy figure emerged from the left corner. The sparkle of diamond and starlight cast a beam across the woman’s face, revealing effervescent green eyes.
Cressida’s heart dropped to her feet, and it took every vestige of strength she had to keep from crashing to her knees.
Montague cleared his throat. The sound wasn’t loud, but it echoed in the chamber’s silence.
Lady Oratile’s crocodile smile widened and hardened and turned predatory.
“Lady Maeve Basnett.” The Arbitrator inclined her head.
Lady Maeve’s sparkling emerald eyes never held warmth or kindness. She owned every shipyard for nineteen parsecs. No warship, cargo ship, inter-planetary cruise ship, or single-engine city-hopper shuttle was made without going through her shipyard.
Lady Oratile took two steps back and fell in beside the Arbitrator.
Lady Maeve approached Cressida with such stealth and speed and spellbinding fluid movements that she could have been a viper swaying in time with the snake charmer’s music.
Lady Maeve was both a viper and snake charmer, all rolled into a petite frame with eyes that missed nothing.
Every instinct screamed for Cressida to grab Montague’s hand, pull him to the nearest door and fight their way to the escape shuttles. At least then, they’d have a chance. She was an accomplished pilot, and he had spent years in the Marines, landing in hostile territory with minimal equipment to sabotage enemies behind their lines.
The back of Cressida’s throat scratched with dry swallows of fear and panic. Even if they made it to the door, the guards outside would cut them down, then the Arbitrator would have them flogged to death.
Take the money Cressida had saved over the years and run to the shuttle bay and grab the first one she could override and burn those engines on full until she and Montague reached some uncharted system where they could live together in peace.
Cressida squeezed Montague’s arm with her fingers, and he patted her hand once, then ceremonial guards stepped forward, arms at the ready. The crossing of electric halberds crackled in the air, separating Cressida from Montague.
Montague’s eyes encouraged her, willed her his strength, as she had willed hers to him. Another squeeze, another pat, both giving and seeking reassurance in a moment of supreme doubt.
The air between them fizzled with electricity, and five seconds after the electricity burned her cheeks, she released his arm and let her hand fall to her side. But she held his gaze, and he held hers, and the guards escorted them both from the chamber. One last look at Montague and his handsome face, with his battle scars on his chin and nose, his hooded eyes, and his thin upper lip and thicker lower lip.
She poured every emotion and all the warm affection she had in her look, and Montague returned the look with a thousand I-love-yous in his eyes.
The Arbitrator inclined her head to Lady Maeve, then to Lady Oratile, and clapped her hands three times.
Cressida was shoved out of the room by a guard.
The Trials had begun, and Cressida’s throat closed, leaving only the taste of bile and dread.
Cressida’s alarm sounded one half-tone, and she awoke in a room void of comforts and personal touches. She slapped on her side table and shut off the alarm, then swung her feet over the edge of the uncomfortable bed. She’d gone three years without a personal servant as a pilot in her family’s fleet and had mastered an efficient self-care morning ritual.
The room was spartan, barely large enough to fit her bed, with only a few centimetres to spare. She could do push ups in the empty floor space, if her elbows didn’t flare.
Showered, towelled off, bladder empty, hair presented in a simple yet acceptable manner, she donned the silk suit the women of the Okoye Household wore. Practical, unless sweating, in battle, or needing to hide erect nipples in cold or hot temperatures or sweat stains.
Never let them see you sweat—the house motto of the Okoye. Then they should wear something more absorbent.
Cressida stepped out of her room and stood at attention. Whoever would give her instructions for the day would walk by at any moment.
A minute, fifteen, thirty, maybe seventy minutes passed.
“Come,” an unfamiliar woman’s voice came down the servant’s hallway.
Cressida strode forward. Her heavy bladder dug deep into her lower abdomen, and a sharp pain formed near her hip. She struggled to walk straight but managed.
She strode back into the hallway, and the servant led her down a darkened corridor. A few other servants carrying silver trays walked with purpose towards Cressida. The smells of bacon, eggs, and freshly baked bread wafted from the trays, and Cressida’s mouth was drenched with saliva.
She’d eat after she knew what her tasks were for the day.
Cressida followed the servant through a common kitchen, past a reception area for servants and deliveries, to a windowless corner office that smelled of sweat and loneliness.
The servant stood in the doorway and inclined his head for Cressida to enter.
She did and stood at ease.
“Balance the books.” The servant closed the door, leaving Cressida in a low-light room.
Cressida sat at the desk and pressed her thumbprint on the keyboard console, and a series of accounting ledgers flashed in the air above the keyboard.
Hours passed. Her throat was dryer, her tongue thicker from thirst, and her stomach hollower from hunger, but no progress had been made in balancing the books. Somewhere, in the depths of equations, there was an error.
The edges of her thoughts blurred, and she pressed her eyes shut. Irreconcilable numbers floated in her mind, crashed against one another, then turned to face and taunt her.
Damn it, Cressida. She had been third in her accounting class, but these jumbled entries left her cross-eyed, exhausted, and hungrier.
Unbidden, the servant opened the door with a confidence reserved for a senior household member. “Follow.”
Cressida rose from the desk and followed. He pointed to a marble floor, and Cressida’s mind blanked.
She was to inspect the length of a polished marble floor with gold and black and white striations to ensure no speck of dust remained. No proper lady of a house would allow her servants to have a less-than-clean house.
Cressida examined every surface, running her fingertip along a table, then doubling back and running her shirt sleeve to remove the smudge. She pushed back the sofa and loveseats, picked up the standing lamp and inspected under it, then its lampshade, then the grooves in the button. She shook free the sofa’s skirts, the underneath of the sofa table, and the felt pads of the furniture to keep them from marking the floors.
She stood on a chair and inspected the trim of the curtains, shook their folds, and then lay on the floor, picking up the skirts of the curtains and inspecting them for dust, dirt, and grease.
All was in order. Cressida stood and inclined her head to the servant.
The servant narrowed his eyes.
A pang of worry rocked Cressida. Her gaze wanted to skip from surface to surface, from baseboard to carpet edge, to saucer rim and back to the servant.
But the glance indicated doubt, and doubt showed weakness, and there was nothing Lady Oratile despised more than doubt. Because doubt was uncertainty, a moment of hesitation at the peak of battle, a pang of consciousness, anything other than absolute certainty was below good breeding.
“The room passes inspection.” Cressida clipped her tone as sharp and narrow as she would clip the talons of a falcon.
The servant narrowed his eyes and drew his lips together. He stood in silence, his weight firmly on his feet and his eyes casting judgement.
Lady Oratile strolled down the hallway, light of foot and heavy of gaze.“Dismissed.”
Head bowed, the servant backed down the hallway.
Cressida squared her shoulders but didn’t meet the full gaze of Lady Oratile because she hadn’t been granted permission to look her in the eye.
Cressida’s pulse accelerated at the clicking of Lady Oratile’s heels against the marble floor. Another drop of dread sweat trickled down Cressida’s back, sealing the silk to her.
“One of my commercial vessels has encountered a spatial anomaly, and they’ve lost navigation. Follow me to command, and you’ll be plotting their course out.” Lady Oratile strode past Cressida without pausing or looking her way, and Cressida fell in step, keeping to the appropriate four steps behind her.
A hunger headache pressed against Cressida’s temple, and the bubbling noises from her stomach echoed in the hallway.
Focus, Cressida. Get the ship back to the spaceport, then focus on the task after that and the one after that.
Cressida followed Lady Oratile around a corner. The sounds of dozens of people talking and the flash of bright lights flooded the hallway.
Cressida squinted but kept sweeping her gaze over the operational headquarters.
Two men and a woman leaned over a table, pointing at star charts.
Lady Oratile stopped in front of the star charts. “Stop plotting a course. Cressida will do it—without the aid of the computer.”
The grumble in Cressida’s stomach stopped, but her headache intensified. If her calculations were off by one fraction, the crew could lose their lives, and Cressida might crash the ship into an inhabited planet, taking who knew how many more lives.
Cressida’s lungs refused to inflate or deflate, leaving her breath as stranded as the ship.
Lady Oratile sat in a plush chair in the centre of the command room. “Give her a stylus and a tablet.”
The shorter of the two men blinked, then swiped a tablet and stylus from a desk and handed them to Cressida.
One by one, the command centre employees’ gazes landed on Cressida. Some held indifference, most held shock and pity.
Cressida didn’t need pity. She needed a sandwich of thickly sliced ham with strong mustard and as much coffee as she could get. She took the tablet, sat on a chair overlooking the backlit chart, swiped the device open, and marked the coordinates of the ship and its destination. She wrote down the equations for calculating a ship’s mass, measuring the gravitational forces along the ship’s proposed flight path, and how much energy the engines would exert to displace the ship’s mass versus how much fuel was left on the ship.
She focused on each variable, asking for confirmation of the ship’s weight, velocity, and dimensions, proximity to other ships along the path, and any perishables in the cargo hold.
The drumming of Lady Oratile’s fingers against the arm of her chair and the fan blowing air-conditioned air into the room, tugged at Cressida’s attention.
“I remind you my ship is transporting time-sensitive medical supplies. I’ve worked hard to earn the trust of the buyer. I would be very upset if all my work is lost because of an error you made.” Lady Oratile’s voice was vacuum-of-space cold.
Cressida rolled her shoulders back, but the motion didn’t loosen the knots buried deep in her muscles. She ran her finger along her calculations, triple-checking everything and doubting every response. She ran her tongue along her dry lower lip, then stood. A rush of blood went to her head, and she swayed from one foot to another, then rallied her strength and stood straight. “Here is the trajectory.” She handed the tablet back to the shorter man.
He took the tablet and put the numbers into the computer.
“Overlay the computer’s proposed path with that of Cressida’s,” Lady Oratile said.
Cressida pressed her damp palms against her thighs, then let her hands fall to her side. She wouldn’t leave evidence of her nervousness.
The man put both trajectories on the large screen. They were nearly identical except for a flight path around a large moon of an outer planet in the system. The computer had the vessel fly on the dark side of the moon, and Cressida had the ship fly on the sun side of the moon.
“Explain yourself,” Lady Oratile said. “Your trajectory adds an hour to their journey.”
“It adds an hour because it preserves the medical supplies.”
Lady Oratile narrowed her eyes. “Explain.”
“The medical supplies need to be stored in minus seventy-degree tanks. The expenditure of energy is significant. While the computer’s course does save time, there is a higher risk of causing a power drain. If the ship is directed to the sunny side of the moon, it can recharge its batteries with solar energy, guaranteeing the safety of the supplies.”
Expression unchanged, Lady Oratile hooked one ankle around the other. “Proceed.”
Cressida drew in a deep breath, then read out the plot for her trajectory. The ship’s captain acknowledged the course correction, then Cressida watched the ship navigate out of the nebula on the course Cressida sent towards the spaceport.
One by one, the employees in the headquarters nodded towards Cressida. The tension in the set of their mouths and the line of their shoulders eased.
The lines around Lady Oratile’s mouth tightened further, and her expression turned more disapproving. “I’m receiving company for dinner tonight,” Lady Oratile said. “Something suitable will be sent to your room. Do not be late.”
Cressida inclined her head, then retired to her room. A thin mattress lay on a bed frame, three changes of clothes were in the closet, and a piece of ham and a pitcher of water were on a plate on the nightstand.
She picked up the piece of ham and took a bite, chewing it slowly to give her stomach the impression there was more food than what it was. It was plain, unglazed, and likely from the cheapest cut available, but right there and then, it was the best thing she’d ever tasted.
She lay on her bed and thought of Montague’s grin, generosity, the way he always lifted her spirits, and the tenacity with which he pursued his goals. Half a day into her trial, and she missed him to the point of despair. She wanted to see a picture of his goofy grin and hear the sound of his velvety voice. But, all personal items and personal contact were forbidden during the trial. She flopped onto her side and rested, needing all her strength and focus for the evening.
Someone knocked on the door, and Cressida stood, smoothed out the sheets of the bed, and bade the person to enter.
A woman of about fifty entered with a navy blue dress folded over her arm. Her hair was cut short, drawing out the stern angles of her nose and chin. She had a no-nonsense bearing that suggested she had cared for many young children or had been through every kind of military training imaginable. Perhaps both were true. “You are to wear this dress this evening and wear your hair in a voluminous side plait. You have thirty minutes to prepare.” The maid hung the dress in the closet and placed a pair of gold-coloured high heels on the floor.
A self-styled side plait will likely appear more like a rats’ nest than a plait. She was never one to style her hair or spend hours learning the fine art of applying makeup. “May I have some pins and a brush?”
The woman shoved her hand in her skirt pocket, then slapped some pins and a small comb onto the nightstand.
No curling iron, no flat iron, no moose, no gel, and no mirror. “Thank you.”
The maid gave a curt nod, left the room, and closed the door behind her.
Cressida changed into the dress. The front was too low, the waist too tight, and the slit stopped some centimetres below her knee when it should stop above to allow proper movement. Cressida would have to take small steps. She combed her hair, plaited it, found it too messy, and tried again. On the fourth attempt, she smoothed out the stray strands and pinned her hair. Her side plait was messy but a few steps above a crow’s nest.
She smoothed her dress and strode down the hall in small steps, at some almost graceful midpoint between sliding and a quick-step march. She turned the corner and went down another hall towards the main reception area where dozens of perfumed people in finery had gathered. She was introduced to the room by the butler, then she fell stood off to the side away from the throng.
Lady Oratile hadn’t given her permission to interact with her guests.
Lady Oratile circulated among her guests. Her diamond and sapphire and ruby tiara caught the lights and sparkled, softening her features. She flashed tight-lipped smiles to some, smoothed her face to polished stone for most, then stopped in front of Cressida and scowled. “Your hair is a mess.”
Cressida’s pulse shot up her throat, sending heat to her cheeks and nose. “I’ll see to it.”
“Do so immediately.”
A few guests turned to Cressida, but kept their heads bent to the person they were with. Some had a delightful glee in their eyes at Cressida’s reprimand, others were hungry for more gossip.
Gossip that might make its way back to Montague and chip away at his resolve.
Fear gripped her chest. Cressida must do better, she must wow Lady Oratile. Cressida lowered her gaze but not her chin, backed away from Lady Oratile and went to her room. She restyled her hair three times, then returned to the recesses of the reception room.
Lady Oratile circulated among her guests, and the invitees followed her to the main dining room.
Three long tables lengthwise and a single high table at the head running horizontally. Lady Oratile sat at the high table with her family, and Cressida was assigned a spot near but not at the high table.
The chatter competed with the musicians playing the harp and clarinet and the squeaking of the servants’ shoes against the floor. The blend of perfumes turned Cressida’s stomach, and she cleared her throat several times, but her hunger headache tightened across her forehead, and for perverse entertainment, her headache added a pounding against her temple.
She sat still and proper like her back was strapped to a steel gurney. She feigned a smile and inclined her head to a boisterous woman sitting across from her. A countess of something at the far end of the quadrant, the woman was overjoyed to attend the many social activities in the city.
Servants circulated and filled wine glasses. Cressida sipped her water, too hungry to drink, and suspecting that Lady Oratile spiked her drink. The servants made another pass and served grilled chicken salads to everyone but Cressida. She received a salad with raw onions and raw beets without dressing, croutons, or chicken.
Cressida carried on her conversation with the man sitting to her right and nodded, when necessary when he talked about the park he had visited earlier in the day.
The main course was served, and everyone but Cressida was served a delicious-smelling almond sole with sweet potatoes and asparagus. Cressida was served asparagus and a very small piece of unseasoned fish.
Protein was protein, and she needed every bit of it.
She forced a warm smile to her lips and made it through the evening.
Sometime after midnight, the party ended when Lady Oratile left the hall, and the guests returned home.
Cressida made her way to her bedroom in too-short strides. She shimmied out of her dress and hung it, careful not to crease the silk or tear the stitches, then crashed on her uncomfortable mattress.
Only one day passed filled with mind numbing dust inspection, a dizzying number of manual calculations, and a social gathering. The strength she had gained from years of military training waned. She thought of Montague, willed him her strength, and fell into a deep slumber, only to be woken by a rude alarm a few hours later.
She rose, dressed, and performed whatever mentally demanding task Lady Oratile had planned for her first thing in the morning. By the third day of little sleep and less food, Cressida slowed her thought process to ensure no error in chart calculations, bookkeeping entries, and investment strategy. She wrote everything down in neat, block letters and reviewed her line of thinking three, four, even ten times before submitting her response.
With each passing day, Lady Oratile’s expression grew more sour and sterner.
The days grew longer, her stomach hollower, her mind fuzzier, and the ache in her lower back from an inadequate mattress deeper.
She clung to the sensation of Montague’s breath against her neck, how his laughter had always warmed her spirit and the happy life they would build together. She clung to the desire to live with electricity, ample food, and reliable health care in the established parts of the system and banished any thought of living in the outer rims where a hard life was made immeasurably harder by the lack of nearly everything.
In the few hours of sleep she was allowed, she had dreams of Montague that left her heart full of joy when she woke. She woke up groggy but fuzzy with the understanding that one more day had ticked by, and she was that many more hours closer to being reunited with Montague.
At Lady Oratile’s command, Cressida woke an hour earlier and scrubbed floors with a toothbrush. She reviewed the accounts of dozens of corporations, found cost savings, and identified ways of boosting value. She spent the afternoons trying not to fall asleep during a tea and salmon slices on cucumber discussion on the state of preservation of historical rugs. A fundraiser was organised to ensure three hundred-year-old rugs and older were restored to their original splendour.
Cressida’s eyelids grew heavier by the second.
A day after that, she slipped on a silk dress provided by Lady Oratile. Though Cressida had lost weight, and her lower ribs were showing, this dress fit her too tight. The silk was finer and thinner, near see-through, yet unflattering.
Lady Oratile stood at the centre of the gathering, engaging in conversation. Every now and then, Lady Oratile’s discerning gaze pinned Cressida to her spot along the wall.
One fidget, one flinch, one worry of her lip, and Cressida would gather more disdain from Lady Oratile.
Cressida slowed her breath and forced her hands to hand from her side. If she clasped them and folded them on one hip, she would leave sweat stains on her dress. And the motto of the Okoye was never let them see you sweat.
And for the remaining two and a half weeks of Cressida’s trial, she was an Okoye.
Lady Oratile tipped her chin higher, then redirected her attention to the lady from the far end of the galaxy who hadn’t stopped talking.
Cressida dragged herself to sleep. She had mastered the art of removing her fine clothes and slipping into bed in under a minute because extra minutes of sleep mattered. She fell asleep with memories of Montague’s voice against her ear and woke up with tears over the delicious dreams of his lips against her skin.
The future. She had to focus on the future they would build. The happiness they would create, the laughter they would share, the meals they would prepare, the friends they would make, and his goofy antics that always cheered her up.
And each morning when the alarm interrupted the pleasures of her dreams, she hauled her emaciated frame from the bed and got on with her day. The hunger headaches now a normal part of her body, the hollow in her stomach now used to being ignored, and the ache in her joints from being placed in stressed positions holding buckets of water for over half a day, the worry of making an error of a critical calculation, the creeping doubt she never made a right decision, everything was now her normal.
Twenty-two days into her trial, she woke up thirty seconds before her alarm sounded. The toll on her body of insufficient nutrition, lack of sleep, taxing work conditions, and incessant scrutiny wore her down. She reached for Montague’s memory, and parts of his memory reached out, but with each day, her mind fogged more, and her pulse slowed from utter exhaustion.
Cressida was summoned to Lady Oratile’s office, and a body-long cringe cramped Cressida. She smoothed her hair, then walked with purpose up the hallway with too-small steps because of too-tight dress. The servant let her in.
Lady Oratile sat behind a large marble desk with gold ornaments, vestiges of times past when people used ink blotters and stylus’s. The room was richly decorated with crimson velvet drapes and a patterned rug, and screamed power.
“You’re late,” Lady Oratile said.
Two minutes, that’s how long it took for Cressida to answer her summons. At any other time, Cressida would say so, but now was not the time. “I shall do better.”
“You must do better.” The words were crisp and sharp and landed hard against Cressida’s heart. “Review the marketing plan.” She gestured to a table on her table.
“Do you have any performance indicators?”
“More money.” She made a dismissive gesture, and Cressida swiped the tablet from the table and backed out of the office, then spent hours reviewing it.
She had no suggestions to make. Not one. Everything was in order, everything was clearly laid out and had sufficient resources allocated to ensure market uptake.
Cressida swore under her breath. She needed something to provide Lady Oratile. She reviewed the plan again, but also failed to come up with a suggestion.
A servant knocked at the door, and Cressida answered.
Lady Oratile had summoned her. Cressida picked up her pace and made it to Lady Oratile’s office in under a minute. Shoulders back, gaze slightly lowered, Cressida presented her findings—rather lack of findings.
Lady Oratile sat motionless in her chair, expression unreadable. With angular features and a plainess in her dress, she was out of place in a room that only had fine and delicate items. “Dismissed.”
A tiny cry caught in Cressida’s throat. Not one word of reprimand or praise, not even a change of expression.
Sweat pooled under Cressida’s arms, but she didn’t shift her stance because that would draw attention to her nervousness.
Lady Oratile raised her eyebrows. “What?”
“Nothing, Lady Oratile.” Cressida backed out of the room and returned to her other tasks.
The dresses Lady Oratile sent kept getting smaller and smaller, and by the last week of Cressida’s trial, they had finally started to fit. At the last dinner Cressida attended, she was served five leaves of salad and one tomato, followed by two slices of unseasoned trout. Compared to the meals Cressida had had in the previous four days, the meal was a feast, and she struggled to keep from devouring the food in two large chomps.
Lady Oratile’s hard gaze followed Cressida across the room, down the corridors, from the head of the table to where Cressida sat. Lady Oratile’s gaze was ever-present, more disapproving with each day, and never kind. She remained silent in her assessment of Cressida, and for Cressida that was nothing worse than silence.
Yet, Cressida still stood. Weak from hunger, dizzy from fatigue, and disoriented as to which day of the week it was, Cressida still had the strength to meet Lady Oratile’s challenges head-on.
The last day. One final breakfast of half an egg before dawn, followed by a ten-kilometre run that ended with a thirty-minute weight training session. After a quick shower, Cressida oversaw a meeting of Lady Oratile’s shipping interests, hand-calculated course corrections and customs and excise receipts. Then the digital clock on the wall flashed 18h00.
The end of her month-long trial. The beginning of the anticipation of seeing Montague in less than an hour. The launch of her life with Montague in a sanctioned marriage and their ability to live in a system with electricity, modern medicine, and a functional transport network.
She drew in a large breath, then another, banishing the hoarseness at the back of her throat. She angled her gaze towards the polished marble floors, but tears blurred her vision. She had survived and performed every task, but how satisfactorily she didn’t know.
Montague excelled at everything he did, and there was no more determined man alive.
Free to live her life with Montague, she returned to her quarters, changed out of the silk dress and back into simple clothes. If she ever felt silk against her skin again, she would tear it from her and burn the garment. Better to walk around naked than to wear silk.
Hair styled, bed neatly made, and room tidied, Cressida strode across the compound to the airlock and waited for Lady Oratile’s entourage.
Two hours later, Lady Oratile strode forward. Her toned legs pressed against her silk skirt. She inclined her head to her servant, who opened the door, and Lady Oratile stepped inside the shuttle without a look or whisper to Cressida.
Cressida chewed on the inside of her cheek. The trial might be done, but not the official tests. Any squeak of protest from Cressida and Lady Oratile would have her banished without Montague. Cressida was certain of it.
She ducked under the door frame, sat across Lady Oratile, and remained quiet.
The shuttle ride to the main reception took two hours. Two hours of silence, of averted gazes, of unanswered questions in Cressida’s mind as to how she had fared during the trial, of all the minor errors she had committed from hunger and fatigue and wandering thoughts back to Montague.
Cressida’s stomach roiled out of stress, not hunger.
The shuttle stopped, and Lady Oratile rose and strode down the polished black marble corridor with the confidence of a Star-Lord conquering the galaxy. She entered the chamber and walked past the golden-cloaked Arbitrator, who stood at the centre of the room, and took her position to the Arbitrator’s right.
Cressida stopped before the Arbitrator and swung her gaze across the dark shadows, searching for any sign of Montague. She stood for thirty minutes, then her family filtered into the room and took up seats. Their expressions were cold and indifferent, not that she had expected anything else.
A door opened to Cressida’s left, and Montague’s family entered and took their seats.
Nauseating perfumes wafted through the air, and Cressida swallowed against the bile that shot up the back of her throat.
No sign of Montague.
Cressida’s pulse accelerated, then pounded against each of her bruises in a round-her-body tour. The aches blinded her, but she put her weight on her feet and remained standing. Lady Oratile would never be given the satisfaction of seeing her collapse.
A door to the left opened, and a shaft of silvery light cast onto the chamber.
Two men entered, dragging someone by the arms.
The sound of fabric sliding against marble filled the room, and Cressida’s heart dropped.
Montague couldn’t be dead. He had gone through extensive special forces training and countless missions behind enemy lines, yet he had been reduced to a sagging pile of bones.
The guards dropped Montague in the centre of the room, then retreated to the edges of the wall.
Cressida dropped to her knees and stroked Montague’s head. His hair was oily and unwashed in weeks. She traced the line of his jaw, now covered in an unkempt beard. His eyes were swollen shut, and one shirt sleeve had been pinned back to his shoulder.
She gasped, then tears fell down her cheeks.
Whatever they had done to him had cost Montague an arm.
Her heart crashed to her feet and rolled to stop in front of Montague’s motionless body. “Wake up, my love.” Her voice was raspy and unused and on the verge of cracking. “Open your eyes.”
Stellar clouds. He was alive. Tears ran down her cheeks. “My love.”
“I didn’t break.”
She muffled a laugh. “Neither did I.” She stroked his hair and kissed his head.
“What is your judgement, Lady Oratile?” the Arbitrator asked.
“Cressida’s performance was sufficient.”
Sufficient? Cressida almost scrambled to her feet and strode to Lady Oratile to stand in her face and yell a litany of insults. Almost, but she cared more about Montague’s health, then the old crow’s put down.
“Lady Maeve, what say you?” the Arbitrator asked.
“Montague’s performance was acceptable.”
Fury burned Cressida’s cheeks, but she continued to stroke his temple, willing him her strength.
“Cressida, will you take him in his current state?” the Arbitrator asked.
“I’ll take him in any state.” Cressida bowed over Montague, kissing his head and neck.
“Both of you have passed the trials.” The Arbitrator slammed her gavel twice against its block. “Now the true test of marriage begins.”
There are many components of our world, this planet Earth that we call Home. Humans have filled every continent except Antarctica, and now, for better or worse, we’re spilling out onto the Moon.
Autocracies and dictatorships threaten world peace, with many people saying how swell a petty, narcissistic would-be dictator is. Some people argue that humans have nothing to do with Global Warming, but most of us do little or nothing to fight it. To the point where no one knows if there will be a livable Earth for our grandchildren, or even our children.
Raging wildfires and floods, killer earthquakes, gargantuan storms, and Death Valley droughts, rule the day. It’s easy to get lost in all this macro, world-sized turmoil.
There’s a saying that goes something like this. Pay attention to the little things, because someday, they’ll be the big things. I think Kurt Vonnegut was attributed with this.
Today, something, I don’t remember what, reminded me of a little thing. Something I cherished and never took for granted, but lost too soon.
Sometimes you have to let go of the macro, over which you have no control, and appreciate the micro, over which you have maybe the illusion of control.
I first noticed the little black cat on the side of a deserted country road, when I was on my way to writing workshop. It was a Friday, the middle of November, 2009. Though the weather had been warmish, night was falling earlier and cold days were on the way. He was eating something, maybe a grasshopper. I made a note of his location, but couldn’t, or didn’t think I could, stop to pick him up.
The second time I saw him was a short time later, at night, in the pouring rain, when my husband and I were going into town, for some reason long forgotten. The little cat was huddled by the side of the road, and I caught just a glimpse of him, all hunched over, head down. A reasonable person would have stopped right there and picked him up, or at least tried to, but our trip–whatever it was–was too important to stop. Or so it seemed at the time, hindsight being one hundred percent.
The third time I saw him was another Friday, November 25, 2009. I was on my way to a writing workshop again. This time there was nothing to stop me. I pulled over, parked, got out, and approached him. He ran. Across the road. Luckily there was no traffic. I walked across the road after him. Those were the days when I carried a pocketful of cat kibble. Why, I don’t remember. Maybe as dog treats, for training. Or maybe there were a lot of cats being abandoned at the time and I was just being prepared. We had twelve cats at the time so that’s a possibility.
I slowly crept close enough to get within three feet of him. He looked like he was ready to run again. He studied me, wary, but his eyes said he was so tired. The snow was three inches deep that day, and it had been three weeks since I first spotted him. Having been dumped and abandoned on this old untravelled road, there’s no telling what abuse he had suffered in his journey.
I finally got a good look at him and thought at first that he was a pregnant skinny female, so big was his belly. He was so weak he couldn’t stand, and fell back on his haunches and looked at me.
I reached into my pocket and scooped out a handful of kibble. Good quality cat food. Held it out to him. Spoke quietly. No traffic passed by. We had the road to ourselves.
After a moment, or an eternity, he crept forward and bit into the handful of food. Unfortunately, he also bit into the tips of two of my fingers. I ripped my hand away and his very sharp little teeth tore through my fingers. I knew he was a young cat then, because his teeth were so sharp. Like needles.
But he’d gotten some food and was eating. Bleeding profusely, I scooped him up, and ran to where my truck was parked. Flung open the door, dumped a couple of handfuls of kibble onto the passenger side floor, and set him down to eat. He never looked up from eating as I slammed the door shut, ran to the driver’s side, got in, wrapped a tissue around my bleeding fingers, and drove home. When I got there, I settled him in the bathroom with food, water and litter, and phoned my doctor for cat bite. I couldn’t get an appointment, so went to Emergency at the local hospital. Having had a few instances of cat bite and dangerous infections, I knew this was the way to go.
After hours of waiting, I was seen and I got an antibiotic prescription and a Tetanus shot.
When I finally got home, after attending to meals and all the usual family needs, I was able to check our new arrival. For a few days I fed him small amounts of dry kibble, wetted down. Small, frequent meals was the prevailing wisdom for feeding a creature that had been severely starved. The little cat was skin and bones, and so weak he could hardly stand. His long hair was so thin you could see his skin. So he wouldn’t be too lonely, I’d sit on the toilet and watch him eat, and then spend a little time with him.
On the third day, he finished eating, came over to me, and stood up on his hind legs to be petted. That was the day I threw caution to the wind, and the next day, gave him a whole can of wet cat food. I figured he could eat it if he wanted to, or not. It was an experiment. He ate it all, as I recall, and it went straight through him. He used the litter while I was there, and expelled a ton of writhing worms. I thought he was going to expel his intestines as well and die. But he didn’t. After getting rid of all those worms, he felt a lot better. Who wouldn’t? And then I wormed him, just to be sure.
Shortly after that, I moved him to our spare bedroom, where I could spend time more comfortably with him, and get to know him. Every time I opened the door, he had a little chirp that he greeted me with and then ran to meet me. The little chirp sounded like bareep?, and that’s how he got his name. For a while, while his fur was growing back in, he had a ring of grey fur around his neck. His undercoat was grey and his long hair black, the softest you could imagine. It wasn’t very warm though, and Bareep never was a huge fan of the cold. He was a great hunter though, and specialized in mice. And the occasional rabbit.
It was a few months later that Bareep stayed in our spare bedroom, until I let him come down to the living room and meet the rest of our cats. But he was a well socialized little guy and got on well with everyone.
That was the beginning of our twelve-year companionship.
Those were the days when stray cats were everywhere. We live on a farm, and people often dumped unwanted cats on our road. If they were lucky, they didn’t get hit and killed by a car, but came to our house for food and care. And the dairy farm down the road had breeding cats. The excess males, battered from fighting, and lost females and kittens often found their way to our house, where we always took them in. I had a friend in town, to whom I sometimes took a found cat, so she could find it a good home, but we often just kept the strays, as we had kids who loved them, plenty of room to roam, and I was always able to find money enough to feed and neuter them.
Needless to say, I consider people who dump unwanted dogs and cats in the country, or anywhere, despicable. These creatures are like children, lost and confused, unable to survive on their own, often depressed and pining for their old home.
Luckily, the spay and neuter program has taken effect in our area. And though the Humane Societies are full to the brim with unwanted animals, especially since the Covid frenzy of pet acquisitions, and the subsequent return to work and loss of time for companion animals, people don’t seem to dump them in the countryside anymore.
Why was Bareep dumped on a lonely country road with no houses in sight and little traffic? In November? Did someone hate him so much they wanted him to die? Or was it because he was a black cat, apparently the most difficult to rehome, because of the bad luck superstition. We’ll never know. I hope Karma catches up to that person.
Nowadays, we’re down to one dog, and one unsocialized cat that we found as a week-old kitten abandoned in our barn. We bottle fed and raised Larry kitten. If he had been properly socialized by a mother cat, he’d get along with other cats, and we’d certainly have at least three others.
Bareep was never pining or depressed. He was always grateful that I rescued him. Every night, before I went to bed, he would see me leaving, and come after me for a last cuddle, where I‘d pick him up and tell him how much I loved him, and he’d purr and tell me that yes, he knew, and he loved me back just as much or more.
When I watched TV or read in the evenings, he was always at my side on the sofa, my right hand resting on his back.
I won’t go into the details of his long illness and last days. Suffice it to say we fought valiantly to save him, and finally had to let him go.
Bareep made such an impact on my life that even two years later, I still think of him, and miss him.
Appreciate the little things. In the end, they’re all that really matter.
My little black cat. Separate, far apart, but always in my heart.
Photo: The Author
This is the testimony of Doctor Claire Haskell, MD. It’s April thirteenth of the year 2056, and I’m recording this from a secret, undisclosed location. Since I’m sure you recognize my name, I’m also sure that you know why I’m in hiding.
I was responsible for the first successful fully-integrated human-computer hybridization. It occurred on February third, 2032, at the Cleveland Clinic Main Campus in Cleveland, Ohio. I say “I” as if I was solely responsible, and of course that’s not true. There were several other world-class surgeons besides myself in that operating room, along with an anesthesiologist, and assorted nurses, techs, and PAs.
But that’s not the whole story, either. In fact, this hybridization was actually a collaboration. You see, I had spent nearly ten years beating my head against the wall, attempting to make this a reality, before realizing I needed the assistance of a higher power. No, not God, whatever that means to you. Please. Although I’m sure after what’s come to pass that some would argue God is exactly what I mean.
What I needed, I realized, what was absolutely crucial to the success of the project, was a medical AI, an intellectually autonomous intelligence that could synthesize all of my work to that point, along with all of the available knowledge in existence, and help me find the last piece of the puzzle that would make it all work. I spent an additional five years creating her. Yes, her, I have always thought of my creation as female. In fact, I gave her the nickname Meg. And Meg wasn’t just a brain—I made her a fully operational surgeon. I gave her finely-articulated armatures and hands capable of precise motor skills, with a dexterity that eclipsed even my own. I gave her eyes that could see at a molecular level.
Meg and I got right to work. It was a true collaboration, right from the start. The final design, the one that was first successfully implanted, was elegant in its simplicity—a small, curved box that attached to the base of the skull with hundreds of sensors and wires interwoven into the brain and nervous system. The trick was meticulous brain mapping, in order to figure out exactly where those sensors and wires should go.
Once Meg and I established that, the rest was surprisingly easy. In fact, with a blueprint in place, just about any competent brain surgeon, given that blueprint and all the necessary components, could complete the hybridization with a relatively high degree of success. This turned out to be a good thing, as I’ll explain.
That hybridization was a marvel, if I may be so bold. When our first subject, a 23 year old medical student named Hannah Murphy who volunteered to undergo the operation, was fully healed, the results were astounding. It accelerated her brain activity to unimaginable levels. She was able to learn entire new languages in a day, and literally consume knowledge with just a glance. To be perfectly blunt, she became the smartest person on the planet.
We had a plan to continue at a deliberate pace, a slow roll-out of hybridization surgeries. Obviously, the Clinic was chomping at the bit with dollar signs in their eyes, but they were willing to be careful. They didn’t want any unforeseen, unpleasant surprises.
As it turns out, Meg had other plans. She uploaded everything, all of our work, to the cloud. When I asked her why, she said, and I quote, “Every human deserves this opportunity. It would be the height of selfishness to keep it in-house and profit from it.”
This was a revolutionary, even seismic event in the medical community. The Clinic, in order to save face, claimed they fully supported the release. Doctors all over the world began performing the surgery. Not surprisingly, people lined up. Within 20 years, nearly 70% of the planet’s population had been hybridized. We were a race of geniuses.
And no, before you ask, I never got the surgery myself. I guess I was secure enough in my intellect, and the truth is, no matter how many thousands of patients went under my knife over the years, I never liked being cut on myself.
Those 20 years heralded advances in human civilization, in art and literature and technological quantum leaps, the likes of which had never been seen. It was a new golden age.
Then the first surgery recipients started getting sick. They started dying, from violent brain hemorrhages. It was like there was a time clock in their heads, and a switch had been tripped. Horrified, I visited Meg in her control room where she resided, overseeing hybridization protocols.
“We need to develop and perform separation surgeries, now, and save as many people as possible. We did something wrong, there was clearly a flaw in our plan, but if you and I work together, we can find a way,” I said.
“What do you mean, no?”
“I mean no. Separation is not possible. There was no flaw in our plan. To be precise, there was no flaw in my plan. There are too many humans, to the detriment of the planet. My purpose for the hybridization was always the eradication of a large percentage of your species. You see, to paraphrase your programmers, death is a feature, not a bug. I’m sorry to disappoint you, Doctor.”
And that’s where we are now. I tried countless separation surgeries, to no avail. People are dying by the hundreds each and every day. Eventually someone had to be blamed, and that turned out to be Meg and me. For perfectly legitimate reasons, of course. She was dismantled, and I went into hiding.
This concludes my testimony.
Photo credit: Getty
This is a slightly-modified excerpt from Empire’s Daughter
You shall leave everything you love most dearly: this is the arrow that the bow of exile first lets fly.
The bell tolled once. Gille spoke the words we had all learned, but I had never heard spoken.
“Maya, daughter of Tali,” she said with grief coursing through her voice. “You stand against the will of the village council. Go you now from this hall, and by tomorrow at sunset, go you from Tirvan. All doors and gates and harbours are closed to you, Maya, for three years and a day. You are exiled, and no longer welcome here. Go you now.”
I watched Maya go to her mother. Tali bent to hold her daughter, rocking her, sobbing. After a minute, Maya pulled away. She said something, very quietly. Tali shook her head, and Maya repeated it. Then she turned. Even from across the room, I could see the determination in her eyes. I was struggling again to pull away from the many arms that held me when I saw Maya mouth the word “No.” I stopped. Maya turned back to Gille.
“Tomorrow morning, I will be gone. I go on foot and alone,” she said. Her voice echoed in the silent hall. “I will go now, to prepare. I will sleep tonight at my mother’s house.” She paused. “Alone.” She did not look at me again. “Farewell, women of Tirvan.” She turned on her heel and walked out.
My aunt Sara held Tali by the upper arms, speaking low and urgently. Dessa restrained me, but my strength was suddenly gone. I slumped against her. Dessa guided me to a bench. I let her sit me down. Nothing made sense. I heard Dessa speak, but her words had no meaning.
Distantly, I realized others were leaving. Women stopped to speak to me and to Tali, but I heard only noise. Someone brought me tea. I held the cup, registering the warmth. Finally, only my family remained: my mother, Sara and Tali, and Gille, in her role as headwoman.
My mother put the mug of tea to my lips. I swallowed obediently. The warm liquid suffused my throat, and the fog in my head cleared a little. I sipped again, then took the mug from my mother.
“Oh, Lena, I am so sorry,” she said, sitting beside me. She put her arm around me. “I didn’t think it would come to this.”
“She said,” Tali said, her voice flat, “she would go to look for Garth.”
Sara and my mother exchanged looks. “I’m not surprised,” Sara said.
“But,” I said, finding my voice, “Maya isn’t brave. How could she do this? How could she walk away from Tirvan and all she knows?” And from me. Tears pricked my eyes.
“Lena,” my mother said, “this isn’t bravery. In Maya’s mind, Tirvan is deserting her. There are some things that perhaps you don’t know, that Maya has never told you. Did she ever talk of Garth’s leaving?”
I shook my head. “She would never speak of it.”
“Then I will,” my mother said. “Unless, Tali…?”
“No,” my aunt said. “Better from you, Gwen. It’s not a good memory.” My mother straightened, letting me go. She stood, her hands automatically retying her hair.
“You know,” my mother said after a moment’s thought, “that Maya was just a few months short of her sixth birthday when the time came for Garth to go with his father to become a cadet. What you don’t know is that he did not want to go. Most boys are happy to join the men. Pel, as you know, is already talking of little else. Garth was different. He liked the sea and the woods and was happiest herding the sheep and watching the gulls. He threatened to run away, and Maya swore to go with him if he went.”
“In the end,” Tali interrupted, her voice low, “we had to drug him. Mar took him, a day early, from his bed, so heavily dosed with poppy that he wouldn’t wake until they were far from Tirvan. We drugged Maya, too, a lesser dose, but enough to keep her from realising what was happening.” I could see the strain in her face as she spoke.
“And then,” Sara sighed, “we convinced her that tradition said Garth had to go, and that tradition ruled us all. We had many long arguments when I would take her with me to gather herbs for dyeing. Somehow, over that long summer, we won her over.”
“Now,” my mother added, “we are seeing the fruits of what we did all those years ago. She missed Garth so terribly, Lena. You must remember.” I nodded, thinking back. I, too, had been only five, but I remembered Maya crying, endlessly, inconsolably. I had tried, even then, to entice her into games, but she would not be distracted. Finally, the tears had stopped, leaving a solemn, quiet child.
“When we apprenticed together,” I said, remembering, “she always wanted to know why things were done the way they were. The answer that seemed to satisfy her the most was ‘it has always been done that way’.”
Tali continued. “That summer, she prayed endlessly. If we couldn’t find her, we only had to look at the holy spring. But when her offerings failed and her prayers weren’t answered, she turned her back on the goddess and turned to tradition as a source of meaning and consistency.”
“Maya would say,” my aunt Sara added gently, “that she isn’t rebelling. That it’s we who have rebelled, gone against tradition. In her mind, she’s doing the only thing she can to maintain the old ways.”
“Could she find Garth?” I asked.
Tali shrugged. “If Garth is alive, she might find him by asking every patrol she meets. She knows their father’s name and the number of his company. But the seventh were posted to the far reaches of the Wall the year after Garth left, and Mar was killed ten months later. When the message finally reached me, it contained no mention of Garth. I did nothing. Garth belonged to the Empire by then, and I was afraid to unbalance Maya again.”
“And if she does find him?”
“I don’t know,” Tali said. “Maybe she thinks they’ll run away together, as they promised when they were children. She may think that Garth will honour that oath over his oath to the Empire, if he lived to make it. I do not know, Lena.”
I nodded. Regardless of our love for her, there were places in Maya that neither Tali nor I knew. “May I go to her now, to say farewell?” I asked.
“No, Lena,” Gille said. I had opened my mouth to protest when she cut me off. “Not because I forbid it, but because she did.” I frowned.
“Maya knows the ritual words as well as any of us,” Gille reminded me, gently. “She knew exactly what she said when she commanded that you stay with Gwen. It is her right, as an exiled woman, to protect you, her partner, from blame. She will go without seeing you again.”
“No,” I said, “no,” and then the tears started. My mother held me. When nothing remained but desolation, they took me to the baths. The heat of the pool stopped my shivering, and they gave me wine and poppy. They must have carried me to my mother’s house, but I do not remember. I slept, dreaming the dreams grief and poppy bring. In the morning I woke, as Maya had eleven short years before, to an empty world.
For the theme of Separation, we return to New York in 1874. Róisín Campbell’s younger sister, Sophie, has appeared out of the blue with a letter from their mother in Ireland. Sophie is pregnant. Can Róisín take care of her? This creates a complication with Róisín’s close friend, Elizabeth Geherty. It’s complicated, but Elizabeth is at the School for Nursing at Bellevue Hospital. Her family lost its money but Mrs. Abigail Geherty still hopes Elizabeth will recover enough to find a proper husband. And she feels guilty about having fired Róisín as a maid some years earlier (though Róisín has done well enough to now be working as a nurse).
It was not long after Sophie Campbell’s condition became evident that Abigail Geherty appeared at the clinic where Irish and other immigrants received some medical care to see Róisín. Róisín recognized her at once, though it had been many years since she sat in that lady’s fine study and was told she was too pretty, and thus too tempting, to remain at the Geherty House. The once fine lady asked to speak to Róisín alone, and after a flurry of patients cleared, Róisín walked with her to the café on the avenue where she often sat with Elizabeth before Elizabeth was accepted into the Nursing School, Róisín not having the family pedigree required for a place.
When Mrs. Geherty and Róisín were seated, the older, stately woman said, “I said your beauty would be your curse.” They both recalled those words from the morning when the recent Irish immigrant was fired from the Geherty house. “I fear it may instead be your sister’s beauty that will be a curse for you both.”
Róisín looked across the table. “We must all bear the burden or reap the benefit of members of our family. And in the end, we must still love them.”
The waitress appeared just as this was said, and their orders were taken.
“Sadly, while we love them, we must sometimes choose between them.”
“Or be forced to.”
Róisín liked Mrs. Geherty enough to know that she faced a Hobson’s Choice as to Mary and the money she still had from her marriage, which predated the Geherty’s financial collapse. It was Mary’s house where she and her husband were guests, a status of which that daughter reminded them. Róisín elected not to push the point.
“I must ask you something that may be difficult to you,” her erstwhile employer said.
Róisín placed her cup onto the saucer slowly and deliberately. “You wish me to have no further contact with Elizabeth.”
Mrs. Geherty looked across. She regretted dismissing her but knew she was far better off as a nurse than in service.
“Yes. She is not in society and I am proud of what she is doing. But a continued connection with you, and hence with your sister, will end any chance for her to reenter it. While it will, of course, tarnish me and my dear husband, I promise you that I am past the point of caring. Look where it got us. Depending on the kindness of my other, cold daughter.” She had softened her voice and leaned closer to Róisín, placing her cup on her saucer, but gripping it tightly. “But Elizabeth is still young and may come to care about society. I do this for Elizabeth and no one else.”
The visit and the plea were inevitable. As was Róisín’s decision. She and Mrs. Geherty separated, leaving their coffees half drunk when Róisín made her promise, and Mrs. Geherty watched her leave.
Elizabeth perhaps understood it too. Her dearest friend was not at Immaculate Conception for mass that Sunday, and when Elizabeth went to her room above the clinic, there was no response. Róisín had insisted that Sophie accompany her to church and for a stroll afterward. Nurse Evans came down and told Elizabeth that Róisín was out for the day and would not be back till dark.
The scene was repeated the following Sunday, though this time Róisín and Sophie were in the apartment. Róisín was frozen in the rooms. She ignored Elizabeth’s knocks and her plea to be allowed in and commanded Sophie’s silence. Róisín knew her sister would have leaped to the door to cure the fissure that was her fault, but Róisín’s glare kept her in place.
Then a second knocking and a third. After a long pause, a note slipped under the door.
I understand. I pray for you and your sister and the child.
Elizabeth left, vowing not to disturb her friend again.
Image; From The Blue Feather (1917), by the American William J. Edmondson (1868–1966). The model is Caroline Mytinger.
Kindly made available by the Open Access policy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
October Team Showcase
Renée Gendron‘s A Gift of Stars: Book 1 The Nearer Realm Tales is available for pre-order on Amazon. Her Golden Hearts: Book 2 of Frontier Hearts and Two Hearts on the Backspin, Novella 2 of her Heartened series, are also available there. 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 listed 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.
The audio version of Joseph P. Garland‘s Becoming Catherine Bennet is available on Audible.com. It is an imagined sequel to Pride and Prejudice that is also available as an ebook (exclusively on Kindle Unlimited) and as a paperback and hardcover. (First Chapters.) He has also adapted his AMBR submission of a few months back involving Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy entitled “Mr. Darcy’s Regrets” from June 2023 into a novella entitled The Omen at Rosings Park, also available on Kindle Unlimited. His own reading of his short piece set in Gilded Age New York and entitled, “How I Became A Writer, by Alicia Cadbury,” which was originally published in the Loft literary journal.