Virginia: A Tale of a Virtuous Vegetarian

By Gershon Ben-Avraham

When four years old, while eating a piece of chicken on a family picnic, Virginia Coleslaw ingested a chicken claw. It didn’t chew well, and had to be surgically removed from her throat, where it had lodged itself on its way to joining the rest of the chicken leg. Virginia decided that that was it for her with meat. Going forward, she would eat only grains, vegetables, nuts, and fruits. Her mother tried to reason with her, but Virginia was stubborn. She would hold her breath until she turned purple, at which point her exasperated mother would concede and make Virginia a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

When she started school, Virginia graduated into what might be called the activist stage of her vegetarianism. It was then she learned that her older twin brothers took packed lunches to school. At night, Virginia would sneak downstairs, replace her brothers’ meat sandwiches with tofu, and feed the meat sandwiches to Poindexter, the family dog. Later, thinking more about it, she felt guilty and decided Poindexter shouldn’t eat meat either. From then on, the sandwiches went into the toilet. The next day her brothers would complain to their mother about the tofu. She would simply smile and say, “Dears, I didn’t pack you tofu.” Eventually the brothers gave up and set up a sandwich exchange program at school where they cornered the market on ham. Both died at twenty-two of massive coronaries. The doctor’s report said simply, “Chests exploded.”

In high school, Virginia started a vegetarian club. It never had more than three members. Even so, the meetings were always extremely passionate. People walking by the club’s door would think there was a much larger club in there. She received a full scholarship to a college in Mississippi where she posted a sign on the door of her dorm room saying only vegetarians could enter. This allowed her much quiet study time. However, Jimmy Mullins, a heavy, lifelong vegetarian from Itta Bena, would occasionally stop by with chocolate. This, Virginia would find irresistible. Her physics book would be shut immediately as she and Jimmy pondered the wonders of the cocoa bean.

Virginia dated only vegetarians. She even went so far as to develop a questionnaire boys had to complete before asking her out; not that she was pretty. In fact, Virginia was rather homely; but being a woman of principle, boys found her irresistible.

After graduation, Virginia and Jimmy married and moved to Hershey, Pennsylvania, not a place one ordinarily thinks of as a watering hole for vegetarians. The air appealed to her husband, though, and the countryside appealed to Virginia. “A good place to raise children,” she said. In time, Virginia and Jimmy had eight daughters, none of whom ever ate meat, and never had acne. Once, visiting their grandparents in Ohio and being told that being a vegetarian was “unmanly,” the girls replied, in unison, “Pawpaw, that’s wonderful!” Jimmy smiled, and handed each girl a dark chocolate Hershey bar.

Virginia, wiping her eyes, beamed. “There’s a whole new world coming,” she said.

Gershon Ben-Avraham lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel, with his wife and the family’s collie “Kulfi.” His poem “The Kabbalist” earned Honorable Mention in the 2015 Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards. His short story “The Janitor” has been accepted for one of the 2016 issues of Jewish Fiction.net. Gershon became a vegetarian while earning his M.A. in Philosophy at Temple University, Philadelphia.

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Obituary of Marvin J. Furskin

By Chuck Kramer

Marvin G. Furskin, noted animal rights activist, passed away last week, poisoned while liberating an enraged and uncooperative black mamba from the city zoo.

Through his pet adoption service, he found homes for the homeless and brought the joy of animal companionship to the aged, the lonely and the forlorn. His motto was, “A pet is just another mouth to feed.”

Mr. Furskin began his career volunteering for SPCA, but moved on to more radical work with the local chapter of PETA. After serving his sentence for firebombing a butcher shop, Mr. Furskin worked as a groomer and dog-dewormer at Petland Spas. He was renowned for his magic finger.

He later opened his adoption service which specialized in rescue animals, service dogs and therapy canaries. His service also spared thousands of goldfish a final flush down the toilet, enabling them to live long, happy lives in the aquariums of caring families. “Marvin was such a gentle soul,” Helen Trawler said, “so concerned with aquatic life. He personally delivered Jules and Jim, my twin pet goldfish, in a clear Tupperware container. That’s rare for a man of his stature.”

Sandra Simpatico, local PETA chairperson, noted, “This is a great loss for our community. Mr. Furskin provided a much needed service with respect, empathy and remarkable sensitivity, and was able to counter both actual and imagined animal mistreatment with justified outrage and occasional cold-blooded violence.”

A memorial service will take place next Thursday evening in the lobby of Petland’s Grand Spa . The family is requesting that all animals attending be leashed. PETA will host and provide refreshments — iced bitters, mock turtle soup and soyburgers. The eulogy will be delivered by Kathy Robyn Warbler of the Audubon Society.

Mr. Furskin will be laid to rest the following morning at Mammal, Fish, and Fowl Memorial Park in the Friends and Allies Protected Preserve, Rev. Daniel Fang of the Holy Spirit Barking in Tongues Congregation presiding.

Mr. Furskin is survived by his wife, Smoothie (nee Velour) and his golden retriever, Marvin Jr., his flock of merino sheep, and the three dozen fleas that performed in his renowned Insect Circus Spectacular which entertained both handicapped children and wounded veterans at hospitals throughout the area. In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to Mr. Furskin’s favorite charities—Those Misunderstood, better known as PROUD (Protectors of Rodents Occupying Urban Dwellings), and the Society for the Prevention of Battered Chickens.

Reprinted with permission from Animal Husbandry Weekly.

 

Chuck Kramer taught reading and writing in Chicago’s public schools for thirty years. He has also worked as an advertising copywriter, a public relations writer, and the theater critic for the Oak Leaves newspaper. He currently co-hosts the Weeds Poetry Open Mic in Chicago every Monday night and freelances as a photographer and reporter for Windy City Media.

Before and After

By Charissa Rabenstein

Father stopped breathing. Still, I followed his instructions. What else could I do? I sat at his big, oak table, quite alone. I ate my supper properly. I sat on the edge of the hard chair in the parlor for thirty minutes. Then I blew out the candle and went to bed.

The next morning, a crowd of the town women called. They walked up the steps of the porch, and they rang the bell. I told them that they were not needed. I told them that he was sleeping. Then I shut the door. They were not needed. Why would they think that they could take him away? Even now he would not allow that.

More town people came after that. I don’t think they believed me. They were persistent.
After three days of this, I noticed that Father was dead. I did not understand. I didn’t realize that was possible. But I let them take him away.

I ate my supper properly. I sat on the edge of the hard chair in the parlor for thirty minutes. Then I blew out the candle and went to bed. Quite alone.

 

Charissa Rabenstein lives in West Liberty, Ohio, with her husband, Bill. Her work days are spent at Marie’s Candies, and her leisure time involves books and baking. When she has a writable thought and takes the time to jot it down, she sometimes ends up with a bit of poetry.

Gone

By John Grindstaff

Warm and cozy as a creaky old man can be under the thick blanket, Hoover doesn’t feel like crawling out of the big comfortable bed he bought for his wife even though he knew the furniture store overpriced the thing and called it a bargain. Geraldine wanted the bed and he couldn’t argue with her. He wasn’t afraid of losing the argument. He couldn’t stand the thought of winning on logic and denying her something she wanted and deserved to have. He rolls from his stiff back onto his aching hip. Might have to pee. Sometimes his plumbing’s iffy. He takes his eyeglasses from the nightstand and nearly pokes himself in the eye with the end of the earpiece trying to put them on. He groans as he slips his feet into waiting house shoes then limps one small step at a time to the half bath off the bedroom.

After he pees a weak stream that takes longer than it should, Hoover shuffles to the sink and runs the water until it’s warm. He washes his hands then dries them on the pink towel hanging next to the sink, frowning at the old man with wild, messed up white hair in the mirrored sliding doors of the medicine cabinet, scrubbing a hand over white stubble on his cheeks. Looks like he hasn’t shaved in a couple of days. Strange. He has shaved every morning of his life for longer than he can remember. Until now.

Geraldine tried to talk to him about something important last night after they went to bed but he was exhausted and fell asleep. She’s usually up by this time, the smell of breakfast and coffee wafting through the house, but he doesn’t smell anything. He is a little congested. A cup of strong hot coffee would do an old man good. He takes his robe from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, wincing as he slips each arm into a sleeve, and ties it in front. There’s room left inside for another one of him. Geraldine should be happy about that. She’s been on him to lose some weight, afraid for his ticker.

Crumpled sheets on his side of the bed tell the tale of tossing and turning in his sleep. He does that when his joints hurt worse than usual. Geraldine’s side of the bed looks like she didn’t sleep there long or maybe not at all. She must’ve been up all night with one of those stomachaches again. She worries herself sick about everything and nothing. Worries about their daughter even though Judy’s a grown woman with a husband and she works in the family business, doing a fine job, healthy as can be. Geraldine worries about people. She can’t help it. When she’s not worrying about her family, it’s something she heard on the news or neighborhood gossip about who done who wrong. She’s spent too many sleepless nights in her lifetime.

He does that zombie-like stiff limp shuffle walk down the short hall, but the pain in his joints is nothing he can’t handle. It’s all part of the morning routine these days. He steps into the living room. One of those mystery books Geraldine likes lies face down on the table next to her chair. Reading glasses lying on top of the book. Sky blue shawl folded across the arm of the chair. She was probably reading all night, trying to ignore the pain in her stomach. They should hear from the doctor soon to find out what he found. Hoover hopes they can do something to make her feel better. He told her for years she was going to worry herself into a stomach ulcer.

He zombie walks on into the kitchen. The room’s cold and feels empty without Geraldine performing her cook’s ballet. His favorite coffee mug sits on the counter next to the coffeemaker where he must’ve left it yesterday morning. If Geraldine weren’t feeling awful, she would’ve washed the cup and hung it in its place on the hooks above the coffeemaker where the rest of the mugs hang. There’s no coffee made. Geraldine always makes a pot of strong black coffee first thing in the morning. Even when she feels bad.
Hoover looks in Judy’s old room, now Geraldine’s craft room. Everything’s dusty, as if she hasn’t been in there for a long time. He pokes his head into their bedroom. It doesn’t look like she slept in bed last night but he remembers his wife lying next to him. The gaunt, scared expression on her tired, beautiful face terrified him. A cold wave breaks through his body. He shivers. She doesn’t go anywhere without letting him know where she’s going and kissing him goodbye. Maybe she went outside to read on the porch swing. She doesn’t do that as often as she once did. Warm sunlight streams through the sheers over the big window in the living room. It looks like a beautiful day outside.

He opens the front door and steps out onto the porch. The empty white swing hangs motionless. The sweet smell of mown grass tickles his nose. He doesn’t recall mowing yesterday but the lawn’s fresh cut. He hurries inside, forcing down the odd urge to cry, and closes the door behind him. There’s something scratching at the back of his mind he should remember. Something that would explain his missing wife.
Panic quickened strides wobble his heart in his chest and numb his head as he walks through the house faster than he thought he could, struggling to breathe air into his tight, burning lungs. He holds onto the back of a chair at the kitchen table as the room spins for a few seconds, slows, then stops, leaving him lightheaded and trembling. Geraldine might’ve gone to the grocery store without him, thinking he needed the extra sleep. They usually make the list together and he doesn’t recall doing that. He doesn’t remember mowing the yard either, which he obviously did.

She goes to the grocery store every Saturday morning unless a big snow traps them at home. She has done the grocery shopping on Saturday mornings since they were first married. Hoover checks the digital clock on the counter. The fancy thing has the date on it because apparently it’s too hard to look at a calendar on the wall for most people nowadays. It’s Thursday. So she’s not at the store. She wouldn’t leave without telling him.

Geraldine’s gone.

Hoover can’t remember the last time he saw her.

It was last night.

She was here last night. They went to bed at the same time.

That doesn’t sound right, but why wouldn’t she have been here?

It feels like he hasn’t seen her in a long time.

He shuffles to their bedroom. Pauses inside the door and stares at the big empty bed, feeling the answer so close if only his mind would stop skipping like an old scratched record that plays memories instead of music spinning under a bad needle. Not only is the record scratched, the turntable in his head runs too fast for a few seconds then too slow, back and forth, blocking any clarity. He sits on the edge of the bed and looks at her side of the mattress. He lies down and scoots close to where Geraldine sleeps. His hand rubs slow circles over the spot where she would be if she were in bed with him.

A sound like a giant cricket startles him. His body is stiffer again and sore like it is when he’s been in bed a long time. He rolls over, picks up the chirping landline phone he refuses to give up and pushes the button, hoping it’s Geraldine.

Hoover clears his throat. “Hello?”

“Mr. Galloway, it’s Penny.”

“Hello Penny.” His face droops when hears her voice instead of his wife’s.

“Judy asked me to call and check on you,” Penny says. “She tried your cell but it kept going straight to voice mail.”

Hoover picks up his little flip cell phone lying on the nightstand where it charges every night, unplugged charge cable curled up next to the phone. He tries twice before he flips open the phone. It’s dead.

“Are you still there?” Penny asks.

“I’m going to take a day off,” he says.

“Yes, Judy, this is your dad,” Penny says. “He’s taking a day off. Mr. Galloway, are you there?”

“Still here.” He hates when someone calls him then talks to someone else, even if it is Judy.

“Judy wants to know if you’re feeling okay,” Penny says.

“I’m fine,” he says. “It’s Geraldine. She’s not feeling well. I’m staying home with her today. Do what I can for her.”

“Judy,” Penny calls across the office. “I think you need to come here, talk to your dad.”

“It’s nothing to bother her about.” Hoover says.

“He says Geraldine isn’t feeling well,” Penny whispers.

“Daddy? Are you okay?” Judy sounds scared.

“I’m fine,” he assures his daughter. “Your mom will be all right. She doesn’t feel well today. I’m going to stay home with her, be a good husband for a change.”

“Daddy, hang on a second. Penny, I’m going to take this in my office.”

“Hang on, Mr. Galloway,” Penny says. “Judy will be on the line in a sec.”

Hoover sighs. He didn’t mean to worry his daughter.

“Are you there?” Judy’s voice quavers.

“I told you, I’m fine. Going to stay home with your momma today.”

“Daddy. You’re not staying home with momma.”

“You don’t need me there.” Hoover growls into the phone. “You run that place as good as your momma did. I don’t need you to pretend I’m still important to the business. I know I’m in the way there.”

“Think what you’re saying about momma,” Judy says. The phone is quiet for so long she starts to ask if he’s still there.

“She’s gone.” He chokes on the words, unable to hold back flash flood tears. “I don’t know what to do.”

 

John Grindstaff is a self-described hermit writer who lives in Jonesborough, the oldest town in Tennessee. He’s an avid reader, a hiker and likes to camp as much as he can.

The Knowledge of the Queen

By Juan Ersatzman

Chapter One

The Knowledge of the Queen is a serial novel, debuting with chapter one in January 2016 and slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

Marigold came awake abruptly, staring at the ceiling of her bedroom. In the same instant, she became conscious of a prickling that danced along her collarbones, throbbed downward through her torso, and dissolved on the tips of her toes like a firework. She smiled into the gloom; it was Saturday.

As far back as Marigold could remember, she had loved Saturdays. As a girl, she loved scrambling out of bed in the dark and clambering into her milking frock while predawn air pooled and eddied around her shivering legs. She loved that she always managed to milk the cow in half the time on Saturdays. She loved seeing the cats waiting for the milk that splattered when she jostled the can, running across the farmyard to the house.

She loved the quick Saturday breakfast of eggs and bread with milk. She loved wolfing it down in the yellow light of an oil lamp, and hurrying to wash her fork and plate, change into her special market dress, and help her father hitch the horses to the wagon, still swallowing the last crumbs of breakfast.

The Gnowker family farm lay two gently sloping kilometers from Valeview, and Marigold loved rattling and bumping up the roads carved into the rocky flesh of the foothills. She loved watching the sun make jewels of the dew, the fat, shining beads bending down the grass. She loved rolling onto the top of the hill, through the southwestern gate, and into the market square in Valeview.

The market was open most of the year (with a midwinter break), but Marigold’s memories were all of brisk air and steaming breath. She thought of her father puffing out great blasts of steam while he stumped around the wagon, swearing at the horses and smoking a corncob pipe, and the little clouds that burst and blew away as her mother shrieked greetings to her friends, and instructions at her husband. She loved the rituals, and the habits, but she also loved the way the day exploded into color and noise — working with her parents, running through the crowd with friends, staring at city folk, getting treats from other stalls, and taking in the chaos of the day. She also loved the rituals of packing up the vegetables in the evening, of her mother and father being too hoarse to talk. The clanking bag of the day’s earnings, and drifting to sleep as the wagon rolled through twilight back to the Gnowker farm.

Now, her father was dead, her mother was a shrill, wizening widow, and Marigold had become a woman, more or less. She had been so young when she was taken from her family, and it had been so long ago that she sometimes forgot that many village girls her age still lived with their parents. Others were married, some of them mothers. Lying still and letting the first thrill of waking on a Saturday fade, it occurred to Marigold that if she’d stayed in the village, she might be someone’s wife by now. She giggled at the thought, and climbed out of bed.

Years and change aside, Marigold still loved Saturdays. She loved sliding out from between dark linen sheets and standing barefoot on the tile while the draught from the air conditioning swirled against her knees. She loved dressing up like a villager — slipping into blue jeans, and a fleece-lined flannel shirt — without showering, without washing her hair, without putting on makeup.

She still wolfed down her breakfast, even though it wasn’t half so hearty or exciting, anymore; a bagel, usually, or perhaps a bowl of cereal. Her father would have questioned the bagel, and hated the cereal. The cereal was all flax seeds and health-food, and she ate it with skim milk, or sometimes even soy. This particular Saturday morning, she did her level best to wolf down a bowl of flakes and flax with skim, admitting to the ghost of her father that of all the rituals, Saturday breakfast had perhaps lost the most magic. Maybe it was the absence of coffee; she never brewed coffee at home on Saturdays — she bought a cup at the market.

Her drab breakfast forgotten, the thrill of Saturdays tingled in her fingertips as Marigold walked to the train station through the sleeping city, empty alleys and thoroughfares wrapped in a seal of frost.

As usual, because she hadn’t had coffee, she fell into a doze on the train, lulled by the cheery lights and the hum of the electric engines. She woke up as it pulled into the Hartsburg station, three miles down the mountain from Valeview. The sun was rising, and Marigold woke slowly, blinking through a tangle of hair, then nestled deeper into the warmth of her clothes, as the train groaned and squealed and clicked to a halt.

Some Saturdays, her brother would be waiting outside the terminal with his old station wagon wheezing out steam, but today, like most Saturdays, Marigold was obliged to pay a crown and ride a bus for ten minutes with the tourists.

By way of an artfulness born of experience, she slipped off the bus at the front of the mob, and while the tourists milled aimlessly through the carpark fretting about cameras, children and water-bottles, she hurried ahead of them toward the market.

She dodged past the soldiers at the edge of the carpark, giving them the briefest and tightest of smiles, and flitted down King’s Avenue, the cobblestone thoroughfare that cut diagonally through the concentric rings of cottages and stables to the square.

The main entrance to the square was a stolid arch made of brick, plastered over with clay. Two soldiers, halfway through a transition from sleepy to bored, slouched on either side of the arch, surveying the busy crowd of vendors. On market days, farmers and craftspeople sold their wares out of wagons and temporary booths along the circular rim of the square, in front of the shops that stayed open through the week, and the slightly-larger-than-houses buildings that were home to government and cultural institutions.

As she always did, as she always had, Marigold stopped just inside the gate for coffee. The Hotchkiss family ran a dry-goods shop, and on Saturdays, they set a table in front of their shop, and sold coffee, hot chocolate, and tea. In her childhood, as soon as the wagon was unpacked, Marigold’s mother would slip her a coin, and Marigold would run through the crowd to the Hotchkiss stand, and stand between adults, drinking her coffee from a mug, and watching Almira Hotchkiss enviously.

Almira was one of the girls Marigold’s age who married young. When they were children, Almira had been a blond cherub, the daughter of a rich man, earning business for her family, and worshipers for herself with her fluttering blue eyes. Marigold had been a dark-haired little farm girl, lost in the crowd, gulping the coffee until she burned her tongue, hurrying so that no one would have to wait for a mug.

The mugs had retired and been replaced by Styrofoam, but Almira was still running the table. She had one son and was pregnant with another. Life had crushed her innocence, and bowed her head. Her blond curls were wisps, now. Her captivating eyes had bags beneath them. Her hips were wider, and her curves had softened. Almira smiled at Marigold as she paid for her coffee, and Marigold smiled back. She wondered how it was that they were the same age, from the same place, but living such different lives. She blew on the coffee as she turned to go, and then sipped it.

As nostalgia washed over her at the taste, she realized that it was awful. Genuinely repulsive. Just the sort of black, grimy water she might expect tourists to tolerate from some rustic hinterland. She took another sip, and was astonished again — the coffee still tasted like home, but home tasted like bad coffee. Marigold shuddered, and turned to find her mother’s stall.

Ma Gnowker (as everyone but Marigold and her brother called her) was already set up. The wagon was in place, beneath the shelter of the Municipal Music House veranda, turned so that the produce spilled out of the tailgate like a cornucopia. The village choir held concerts in the Music House, demonstrating the traditional ethnic musical styles of the mountain folk. Prior to Marigold’s move to the city, the Gnowker family’s local prestige had sprung from Ma Gnowker’s position of importance in the choir. As a leading singer and organizer, she held the spot on the veranda for free. When she was a girl, the choir had been such a part of Marigold’s life that she hadn’t ever even considered that some people might prefer music other than the percussive chanting and shrieking of the mountains. Now, when she thought of her mother, Marigold laughed to herself at the way that Ma Gnowker embodied the spirit of a shrieker in all aspects of her life.

Ma, a gaunt woman of sixty-seven, was already howling eagerly at a customer when Marigold slipped past her into the stall. The market had barely opened, but the first sunbeams had commenced a timid exploration through the gaps of the buildings, and a brisk flow of commerce had already begun.

As soon as the first customer was gone, Marigold’s mother did what she always did — told Marigold that under no circumstances would Marigold, her beautiful, delicate, accomplished city-folk daughter, help run the stall. And as always, her mother was quickly inundated with customers and began screeching at Marigold to help.

It wasn’t until late morning that Marigold was able to take a moment to breathe. When she did, she discovered that Ma Gnowker’s vegetables weren’t alone in their popularity — the whole market was buzzing.
Even old Hivelgott, the hunched-up, shriveled village madman who presided over a tarpload of what he called antiques and rarities (but everyone else called old junk and rubbish) laid out in the open square in front of the Gnowker stall, had customers. Three sleek city folk were glancing with cool detachment through the heaps of rusty, dangerously disintegrated wares he had spread out in front of his patched-up, splayed-axle wagon.

Two of them — a woman and a man — were tall and shaped like ice-cream cones; pencil-thin waists expanding up toward broad shoulders and close-cropped hair. They wore dark glasses, and their bloodless lips were pressed into expressionless lines.

Marigold watched as Hivelgott noticed the trio, sized them up, and dismissed the two tall ones. They were just muscle and logistics — sycophantic lackeys. The important one was the other man. He was shorter, and much broader than his help. His thick neck was corded with muscle, and his shoulders, chest and thighs strained against the fabric of his suit. His shaven head shone in the sunlight. Like his assistants, he wore dark glasses. Unlike them, he was speaking. Noticing Hivelgott’s intrusive gaze, the man said something softly to his cadaverous attendants. The woman’s lips twitched.

Hivelgott sprang to his feet like a dog to a whistle and loped across the sea of worthless trash.

“Sir!” he yelped, running with the gait of a wounded orangutan. “SIR!”

“SIR!” he repeated, catching his breath, “Have you found a treasure, sir? Has a something-special captured your roving, restless eye? Arrested your gaze and engaged your attention?”

“No?” he asked, plainly shocked to the depths, not waiting for an answer. He placed a bony hand on the man’s arm. The lackeys stepped closer.

“I know, I know! The choices! The options! The what-ifs and the maybes! The smorgasbordic, copious, overwhelming abundance! Sir, let me help! Allow me to be your guide!” Hivelgott wheeled away from the man, and plucked up a bracelet that might’ve been gold or might’ve been brass, or might’ve been a chunk of dirt — it was encrusted with grime past the point of being recognizable as anything. Hivelgott fixed his wide eyes on it for a moment, and rubbed it with his sleeve, on which it left a greasy streak. He turned back to the bald man.

“Yeeeessss!?” he asked, holding it up. He seemed astonished to have discovered a treasure of such value. “A bit of glitter for a lady’s arm?” The look of astonishment became a simpering leer.

The bald man made no response, and Hivelgott flung the bracelet away.
“No,” he said, hanging his head, “No! No lady.”

He ran his eyes across the mounds of refuse, pursing his lips in concentration. Before he could seize on another trinket, the man spoke.

“Thank you,” he said, “but I prefer to make my own selections.”

Hivelgott stared up at him, his mouth cavernously ajar, showing the decaying nubs of his teeth. Then he sank back on his haunches and guffawed.

“Of course!” he laughed. “Of course, naturally! No doubt! Indubitable! A sophisticated connoisseur! A man of erudite and individual preferences and tastes! Of course!”

He staggered back across the ocean of junk and resumed his perch atop his threadbare pillow that a judicious Valeview housewife had thrown away two summers since. As he watched the trio pick their way through the heaped-up husks of useful things, he began to smile to himself. Marigold wondered why.

Hivelgott looked away and whistled loudly, bursting with non-attention. Marigold laughed, and then felt ashamed for finding humor in his antics.
“I’m interested in this,” said the bald man, approaching Hivelgott. Marigold leaned forward to see what he was carrying. It was a small disc-shaped amulet, either made of gold, or gold-plated. Swooping lines converged around a smaller disc set into the center of the amulet.
“Ah!” said Hivelgott, hopping to his feet. He clutched the bald man’s arm and looked searchingly into his face. “You are a native of our fair and fecund fatherland?”

The man nodded.

“Then you will know the dolorous, sorrowful story of the tragic decline and disappearance of our wise and benevolent monarchy.”
Marigold supposed that one might describe the abdication like that. The bald man nodded again, hesitating. Sweat beaded on his glowing scalp.
“This,” said Hivelgott, taking a grubby rag out of his pockets and wrapping it around his gnarled hand to keep his soiled fingers off of the disc. “This is an exceedingly rare, notoriously elusive, impossible-to-acquire piece. It is a reproduction of unprecedented and unequalled accuracy and faithfulness of the amulet of succession by which the reigning head of the royal was known. It is a talisman to honor the memory of the great years of their reign, and of the hope of their return.”

He laughed again, and leaned in.

“But if you’re waiting for this one to light up at your touch, till the dread words of destiny shine out ’round your hand, you’ll be waiting till you die.”

Again, the bald man said nothing.

Hivelgott had begun to cackle, but at the man’s silence, he stopped short.

He stared into the bald man’s eyes for an instant, then spoke in a voice so low that Marigold couldn’t hear. The bald man nodded. Hivelgott raised his eyebrows. The bald man nodded again.

Hivelgott took the disc from the bald man, and with extravagant care wrapped it in his cleanest sheet of used newsprint. This was no simple ordeal, given that Hivelgott’s newsprint was as grubby as the goods he sold.

Having completed the laborious packaging, and accepted payment, he bowed obsequiously, and remained bent until the tailored trio had disappeared into the mob. But he tilted his head, and followed them with one protruding, bloodshot eye until they disappeared through the southeastern gate, heading to the carpark.

When they had gone, Hivelgott straightened up, gave a little leap into the air, and clapped his hands. He patted the money pouch at his belt, laughed, and limped back to his hideous cart. He began to peer around the marketplace with narrowed eyes, and Marigold looked away. While she’d been watching Hivelgott, a new crowd had gathered in front of Ma Gnowker’s, and the old widow was shrieking at her daughter to bag up the cabbages. Marigold hastened to obey.

When Marigold had dispensed with the cabbage-bagging, she looked back at Hivelgott. A slim little man with dark glasses and a prodigious mustache was meandering through the trash-merchant’s offerings. His hands were thrust into the pockets of his khakis, and a cigarette drooped from his mouth. He frowned, and peered down into a pile.

“Oh, sir!” exclaimed Hivelgott, arriving at the man’s side.

Again the screech from her mother, and again the cabbages; Marigold’s attention was reclaimed by the vegetable stand.

As she exchanged the three frosty-green heads of cabbage for half a crown, Marigold glanced back toward Hivelgott. She blinked, and for a moment, gaped at him. The new customer was holding up a disc identical to the one the bald man had purchased. She wished the cabbage-buyer a wonderful afternoon, and leaned forward to hear the conversation.
“Oh, yes!” Hivelgott was simpering, “… exceedingly rare! It is a talisman to honor the memory of their illustrious reign!”

Marigold couldn’t restrain an astounded giggle. She’d always known that Hivelgott was a swindler — nothing he sold was worth anything — but it had never occurred to her that he might be a cunning swindler.
Ma Gnowker, satisfied that all her current customers were looking, not buying, followed her daughter’s gaze.

“Hivelgott!” she snorted. “They oughtn’t allow him here. Dirty hooligan.”

“Mamma,” asked Marigold. “Do you know?”

“Know what?” asked her mother, distracted. Another one of the lookers was about to become a buyer. He had picked up a head of lettuce and was turning it over in his hands.

“Best lettuce within a hundred miles of the capital!” howled Ma Gnowker. The man jumped.

“Know what?” she asked again, turning back to Marigold. Hivelgott was wrapping up the new amulet in newsprint.

“He’s a fraud, Mamma — Hivelgott is, I mean.”

“Of course he is, dear — twopence per head, three for half-a-crown!” she told the man. She turned back to Marigold. “— He sells trash.”

“No, he —” said Marigold, and stopped. The little man had shaken Hivelgott’s hand enthusiastically, and set off back through the chaos of the marketplace toward the bus station. Hivelgott, again, was staring after him, waiting anxiously for the man to make it past the guards.

“Marigold, dear —” said her mother, confronted by not one, but two whole cabbage buyers. “I need you to —”

“Just a second, Mamma,” said Marigold, and slipped out of the stall, and off in pursuit of the slim little man. He was moving quickly, and the square was crowded, and for a moment, Marigold lost sight of him in the press.

Still, she guessed that he was headed for the carpark, and she made her way in that direction. She was small, and her years in the city had made her agile in a crowd. As she dodged her way toward the gate, she caught a glimpse of the man passing between the guards and out into King’s Avenue.

As she stumbled free of the square, and followed him out into the street, Marigold realized that she didn’t know exactly what she was going to say if she caught up to the little man. She’d been so startled by Hivelgott’s treacherous dealings that she’d set off without a plan. But still. Something in the little man’s drooping mustache and thinning hair had awoken her sympathy, and she felt it was only right that he know he’d been taken in.
The carpark was a large meadow on the southern edge of Valeview, extending to the eastern corner of the village, where the road bent in, before running due north, up into the mountains. Yellow ropes tied to stakes ran along the edges of it, and divided the section set aside for private cars from the larger area for the buses.

The carpark was almost empty of people when Marigold reached it — the tourists were all in town, the bus drivers were napping or smoking, or sitting on camp chairs, playing cards.

As Marigold came up to the edge of it, she saw the slim man wandering through a gap in the yellow ropes and the sea of private cars. She hurried past the first couple of slumbering buses after him, and was about to call out to him, when she stopped short, and shrank against the side of a bus.
The little man was walking through the rows of private cars toward the broad-shouldered woman who’d been with the bald man. Marigold peered out of her hiding spot. The little man was conferring with the broad-shouldered woman. He held up his newsprint packet, and she nodded. They laughed, and then he held open a car door for her, closed it behind her, and climbed into the front seat.

Marigold watched the car maneuver out through the parking lot. She was confused, and unsure of whether she should be embarrassed or suspicious. Either way, she didn’t want to be seen by the people in the car. As it approached, Marigold crept around to the front of the bus and leaned against the grill. Her chest felt constricted, as it did whenever she did something wrong, and didn’t know what it was — the eternal anxiety of a country bumpkin living alone in the metropolis.

When the car was gone, Marigold turned back toward the market. An entire card game’s worth of bus drivers were staring at her, sucking speculatively on their cigarettes. She dropped her head, unwilling to meet their eyes, and hurried into Valeview.

When she arrived back at the chaos and clamor of the market, her mother was too busy screaming at customers to spend time screaming at her daughter. Marigold, for her part, rushed to help. The line in front of Ma Gnowker’s extended ten people deep, and the tourists at the back were standing between piles of Hivelgott’s merchandise, fidgeting in the heat of the sun.

Marigold set to work, and between the two Gnowker women, they soon dispensed with the line. As the sun rose past its brilliant height, and began to descend, the chaos of the marketplace diminished. A few remaining tourists blundering through the square were aggregated into their proper groups by guides, and settled down for meals, or concerts, or special tours of farms and landmarks.

The women at the stands took out their sewing, and the men took out their pipes and packs of dog-eared cards. Hivelgott unrolled a ragged canvas overhang from the side of his cart, propped up the front end with a stick, crawled into the meager shade, and fell asleep.

Ma Gnowker, never much of a seamstress, was dozing against a pillar of the veranda. Marigold yawned.

“Mamma,” she said timidly.

“Uh?” said her mother, eyelids fluttering, but not opening.

“Ma, you said this morning that —” Marigold dropped her voice to a whisper “— that Hivelgott’s a swindler. What did you mean?”

Ma Gnowker shrugged, and didn’t open her eyes.

“That trash he sells isn’t worth a penny. He digs it out of the garbage.”
“You didn’t mean anything else?”

Ma Gnowker shrugged.

“What else is there to mean?”

Marigold got up and walked around the front of the vegetable stall.

“I’ll be right back, Ma.”

The sunlight was a thick blanket that fell across Marigold’s shoulders as she stepped out of the shadows and into the middle of the wilderness of Hivelgott’s questionable wares. For a moment, she was blinded.

When her eyes adjusted, she saw Hivelgott looking at her questioningly from beneath his makeshift canopy. He stared, but he didn’t move. His stare had none of the overweening enthusiasm he had shown toward his morning customers. His bulging eyes looked almost hostile.

Marigold took a deep breath, and stepped cautiously through the maze of his garbage toward the overhang, telling herself that his expression was afternoon listlessness, nothing more. He remained motionless.

When she was only about five feet from him, Marigold stopped. Hivelgott was still staring at her, and saying nothing. Marigold realized that she, too, had nothing to say. She wasn’t sure whether she meant to warn, or question, or threaten him.

“What do you want?” he asked. His voice was hoarse.

“I know what you’re doing,” she said. It wasn’t what she had planned to say, but it was the truth.

Hivelgott sneered up at her from beneath his awning.

“Do you know? Or are you guessing?”

“Guessing, I guess.”

He nodded with satisfaction.

“I know why you’re here.”

“Really?” she asked, irritated. She didn’t even know why she was there. How could he?

“Yes. I know,” said Hivelgott, now leaning back into his shade. The sun burned down on Marigold’s neck.

“How?” she asked, sharply. “What makes you sure?”

Hivelgott smirked, and wrinkles with greasy stubble on the ridges sprouted across the lower half of his face. A wreath of flesh for his gruesome mouth.

“Now’s not the time to be privy to that,” he said, and grinned. A drop of sweat ran down between Marigold’s shoulder blades.

She fidgeted, and said nothing. Nothing came to mind.

Hivelgott laughed, and turned away. He crawled out from under the far side of his awning, without standing up, and twisted his torso so that he clung to the side of the wagon with his right hand, reaching up underneath it with his left. One eye was turned to his work, and the other was squinted shut against the glare of the sun. He reached, scratched, swore under his breath, and withdrew his hand.

Marigold had crouched down to watch him work, and their eyes were level as Hivelgott came wheezing and nodding back under the awning. He laughed huskily, and held something out to her. Inside of his hand, wrapped in the filthy cloth, was another amulet.

Marigold shrugged.

“I don’t want it,” she told him. “Why would I pay you for a bit of trash?”

Hivelgott’s eyes bulged out, and his lips pressed together in sudden fury. Marigold flinched away, and started to stand, but Hivelgott regained control, and motioned her back to him.

“No, no, no,” he wheedled, his voice crackling. “No, no, no. A bit of trash? No. Never.”

“I’ve heard your speech about rare talismans,” said Marigold. “Twice.”
“No speech,” said Hivelgott, seriously. “Not for you. No gold, either. A token of friendship — a token of honor.”

“You’ve no reason to honor me,” said Marigold. She was becoming annoyed with this. “None that I know of, anyway.”

Hivelgott shrugged, and scratched himself beneath his stained collar.

“You don’t know much.”

He held out the amulet again.

“MARIGOLD!” shrieked her mother. Marigold started, and looked back. Her mother had woken from her stupor, and was standing, clutching at a veranda post for support. “MARIGOLD, come back here now!”

She was suddenly aware of how ludicrous it all was. People were watching. Mostly from the shade of their awnings and verandas, needles still moving, pipes still puffing. A few children were venturing out into the sunlight to stare.

Saturday was destroyed. The simplicity and comfort of her weekly trips home were slipping away. The coffee was disgusting. She was wearing a flannel sweater and thick jeans on a hot day. The madman was a swindler. His victims were deceiving him.

And now, she was crouched before a lunatic, speaking in riddles and nonsense, entertaining his madness, accepting his homage.

The villagers had never been certain what to make of her when she had first come back a year ago, two years after the government had taken her away. And now, she heard humiliation in her mother’s voice, and for the first time she understood how tenuous her position was with the villagers.
She had done something wrong. She wasn’t sure what.

She turned back to Hivelgott. Sweat was beading on the piebald skin of his scalp, and sliding through the straggling forest of his hair to drip off of his brow and down his nose. He was grinning at her. Broken, yellow teeth protruded from his discolored gums. His eyes bored into her.

Stung with embarrassment, Marigold snatched the amulet out from Hivelgott’s oily scrap of cloth. His eyes went wide. Marigold tried to stand up to walk back to her mother’s booth and sit in the shade.

She stood too quickly. The world swirled in indeterminate brilliance for a moment, and she stumbled backward to catch her balance. Blood was roaring in her ears, but she heard Hivelgott laughing, and her mother shriek.

Marigold’s mother was an inveterate shrieker but this was different. This was the sound of terror and horror together, of something worse than humiliation.

Marigold’s eyes focused. Hivelgott was squatting before her, grinning up at her with fiendish glee. Her mother was screaming, and her hand was clasped on the amulet. She glanced down at the amulet, cool and heavy in her hand. And then she stared, and the blood roared in her ears like a waterfall.

Tiny words in a flowing script had been etched along the curving lines of the amulet. Under her fingers, the words were glowing white.

 

Gunpowder Trails Chapter Two

Gunpowder Trails

Gunpowder Trails is a serial novel. It debuted online with chapter one in November 2015, and is slated for release chapter by chapter over the coming months.

By Andrew Sharp

A few hazy figures jostled around Charles in the fog. Beyond them, the rest of the market day crowd was only the subdued morning conversation, the horses’ hooves, the slap of shoes, and the creak and rattle of wagons on the block stone road.

Had the smugglers been lost and stumbled across the road, they would have known they were near a large city because of the stones. Only leaders of a large and prosperous city would pave outside its walls. Most cities didn’t even bother putting down gravel. A traveler’s options were often choking on dust or struggling through almost impassable mud.

To Charles’ disappointment, as he, George and Old Harry approached Scranton, the morning sun started to burn off the fog. Now he could see the steel-armored crossbowmen fidgeting with their weapons high above on the stone walls, and they could see him. The group of soldiers around the gate, armed with long barreled pistols and swords, was also taking a good look at all the faces moving past. The crowd helped; the smugglers were only a few of the many dressed in the crude wool clothes and sturdy boots of peasant farmers, but Charles had very much appreciated the added cloak of the fog.

They filed through the gate, the part Charles hated most. He wished again that George had brought someone else and left him back in camp. He felt like a naive rat walking voluntarily into a giant cage. Should an enemy pounce on them inside, there would be no escape into the deep woods. And in exchange for all that risk, he would see none of the profits of the venture. If the worst happened, Charles would be just as stretched on the rack as the smugglers. His skull would bleach just as white as theirs on a stake on the wall. But he would get none of the wampum, none of the nights of revelry on the town, no estate, no whores, no fine clothes, none of the political power that money brings. Given his own choice, none of the profits would have enticed him to take the risks. He did not have the heart of a smuggler.

As they walked, Charles thought he could feel the heavy hand of a suspicious guard about to fall on his shoulder, but the soldiers didn’t move as the crowd swept them through the gates and on to the market. The smugglers were in the trap now.

If anyone asked the three men their business in the city, their story was that they were traders from the east, from the allied kingdom of Lancaster, here to pick up a shipment of wheat to supplement the winter’s supply. This explained their accented Scranton speech. They had come without their horse and cart today because they were simply investigating prices and making arrangements. Tomorrow, they would bring the cart from the inn where they were staying to pick up any wheat they bought. Charles reminded himself of his name, Brandon, a more common Lancaster-sounding name. The Lancaster story had only one major flaw, which was that none of them spoke more than ten words of Lancaster.

Less dangerous, but still risky, was that it wasn’t out of the question that they might meet a trader here from Easton who would recognize them. It wasn’t likely, since Scranton shipped many goods to Lancaster where merchants from the Peninsula could pick them up, but it also wasn’t out of the question. A few caravans came all the way to Scranton every year, and the merchants might ask awkward questions about when George had taken up such long-distance trading, and why they had never crossed paths on the journey north.

Charles, always thinking ahead about potential risks, had asked George once what he would do if this happened, and for once George seemed stumped. After a pause, he just shrugged and said, “It’s one of the risks we take. I couldn’t really explain it. I’d just lie like crazy and hope it worked.”

Charles knew George was a talented liar in a pinch, but this did not seem sufficient and he had been working on some lies and escape plans of his own, just in case. Unfortunately, none of them were very good. His best shot would be to play the innocent slave forced into crime, and hope for leniency. Scranton judges were not renowned for their leniency toward those suspected of smuggling.

As they walked, Old Harry eyed the pubs lining the street, but George didn’t allow any heavy drinking before business. Carelessness could be fatal. After their business was ironed out, they could come back, as innocent tradesmen, to enjoy a drink before heading back out on the road. Or rather, George and Old Harry would enjoy it, while Charles attempted to casually scan the room for suspicious faces, ready to dive for an exit.
The market crowd temporarily swelled the population of the city by several thousand. With fifteen thousand permanent residents, Scranton was the largest in the known world. Easton, the city state on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay where most of the smugglers were from, was the premier city of that region, but its walls contained a population only about half that of Scranton’s.

In the vast market square, ringed with palaces and statues, George, Charles and Old Harry wandered amid the shouts of the vendors and the manufactured indignance of the hagglers, pretending to drift from stall to stall, inspecting a crate of chickens here, a table of horseshoes and farm tools there, and, of course, the piles of wheat they were supposed to be so interested in.

At the edge of the market, they drifted into a side street without glancing around, then strolled two blocks before turning into an alley. They wormed through the intestines of the city, turning and turning again, following crammed cobblestone lanes with sewage running through the gutters. Blank windows and dark archways watched them, and an occasional passerby. Charles could always feel the eyes of the authorities following them, peering down from the windows, soldiers and suspicious bureaucrats lurking just out of sight. His casual walk felt wooden and transparently guilty. George walked along apparently calm and at ease, as if on a stroll down a wooded country lane on a fine spring morning. Old Harry walked along with the abstracted look of a man thinking about pubs.

They halted in front of a back entrance to the tobacco shop. The front of the store opened onto a busy street lined with dry goods shops. It was a respectable establishment, where the servants of Scranton’s businessmen and lords bought the tobacco for their masters’ pipes. The back of the shop was where the restocking went on, respectable and otherwise.
George knocked on the door. On the other side of the building, they heard a cart go past on the street. George knocked again, and this time a curtain in the window drew aside. Then they heard footsteps, the lock clicked and a bar on the other side of the door slid open. A fat man with a short black beard opened the door.

“Oh, ah ha, yes, it’s you,” he said in the Scranton language, then switched over to the East Coast trade tongue. “Come, come on in. Don’t stand out there drawing attention.”

“Hi Jeff,” George said. They entered a stockroom stacked with crates, one of which had piles of papers scattered on it. A cat jumped down and ran through a doorway of hanging beads into another room. A strong scent of tobacco bales hung in the room, and the smoke of a cigar that Jeff now took up from the dirty plate he had set it on.

“Well, and what mischief have you all been up to?” Jeff asked, puffing out a cloud of smoke. “A little late, yes? I expected you last week. Here, let me get you a glass of something.” He shooed some fat flies off a stack of mugs and filled several from a keg, passing them to the smugglers.

“We got a late start from Easton because of bad weather on the Bay,” George said. “And then we ran into trouble not far from town here.”
“Trouble, eh?” Jeff said, interested. “Trouble? We’ve had a lot of that lately. What trouble for you?”

“Ambush,” George said. “Well, maybe. An attack, anyway. Ran into a bunch of soldiers. Got a few of us, too.”

“Oh yes?” Jeff said. “Well, that’s very bad. Sorry to hear that.”

He paused.

“So many casualties, you won’t be wanting any goods?”

“Not quite that many,” George said. “Almost twenty. But we still want a load.”

“Ah, yes, OK, OK,” Jeff said. “Very good, must struggle on, can’t give up over a little trouble. Smuggler’s life. How many packs’ worth then?”

“Forty-one,” George said. “About nine hundred twenty-five kilos.”

Jeff pursed his lips. “Sorry, not sure I can get you that much. We’ve had a lot of trouble lately. Ah, let’s see, let’s see. I can get you …” he searched the ceiling for a figure, “… ah, about seven hundred kilos.”

George frowned. “What’s all this trouble you keep talking about?”

Jeff explained that the government had suddenly begun checking river traffic much more carefully, and had also stepped up road patrols. The patrols had seized two incoming sulfur shipments in the last month alone.
“Why are they so interested all of a sudden? I can’t say,” Jeff said. “We’re looking into it. My people high up are scared to talk to me. Bad, very bad. I’m watching my own back, I can tell you. Those poor guys they caught …”

The front door bell jangled and they all froze. Jeff held up a finger, and walked out. Smugglers and slave listened as Jeff welcomed a customer, and relaxed when it became obvious it was a simple tobacco sale.

“OK, sorry, sorry,” Jeff said, coming back in. “Anyway, sulfur’s high right now, very high. Got some traders up from Virginia the other month, and they wanted a whole pack of sulfur for each pack of tobacco.” He shook his head at the naivete. “Can’t do it, I told them. Nobody’ll give you that rate.”

“How much can we get for ours?” George asked.

“Hmm, hmm,” Jeff said. “Well, with the sulfur troubles, I tell you, probably not … hmm, not better than two packs of tobacco for one of sulfur. You’ll be traveling light, I think.”

“Dammit,” George said.

They were not haggling. That would be for later. Jeff, as the contact man, could be counted on to give a good assessment on what the sulfur dealers would be willing to pay. This was less because Jeff was a man of ironclad integrity and more because his main stock in trade was trustworthiness, dealing as he did with both sides. It was why he was one of the most important traders on the black market. Had he manipulated one side or the other to skew prices, he would have lost his trade in a hurry, and he knew it, and they knew it. Plus, he stood little to gain from setting up traders for disappointment by promising high prices that were not forthcoming.

Once he knew what they had available, Jeff would talk to the right people and tell them where George and company could be found. These right people would bring sulfur to the secret camp location, and leave the camp with tobacco, much of which would end up in Jeff’s shop.

When the dealers arrived at the camp, that was when the real haggling began, and the smugglers relied on Jeff to give them a market estimate they could negotiate from.

“What’s the quality?” Jeff asked. “Good leaf this year?”

“A little better than average,” George said. “A little too hot for too long, but still, I’d say, a good leaf. Not the finest. Not like that summer three years ago.”

Nostalgia came into Jeff’s eyes. “Aahhhh, yes. Yes, if you brought me that every year, I could finally make this shop worth something.”

The smugglers grinned. Jeff was worth more than a number of the local noblemen, as his waistline testified — he was one of the only fat people Charles had ever met. But he earned it all, doing the risky legwork of knowing all the smugglers and dealers and keeping all their secrets. None of the smugglers would have wanted his job.

They shared a little more gossip about new faces in the business, the ones who had gotten caught and what the government had done to them this time, prices, the outlook for the next summer, and so on. Then the three smugglers left Jeff with his cigar and cat, and made their way back through the alleys. They had a pub to investigate.

 

It took a couple of days before the sulfur dealers started to arrive at camp, with lookouts from the smugglers watching to make sure they weren’t being tailed by troops. Jeff was right about price, as usual. The smugglers weren’t able to get any better than a two kilo to one exchange rate, and sometimes didn’t even get that. In sulfur, the dealers had a commodity in high demand and low supply, and they knew their advantage. The tobacco piles dwindled quickly, and the pile of sulfur bags grew slowly. After several days of trading, when the last dealer left, the smugglers still had much less sulfur than usual, and a little tobacco left.

“I want to check one more place,” George told his lieutenants. “There’s a farmer I know deals a little sulfur on the side, one of the last independent dealers. I cut a few deals with him way back in the day. He’s down around Back Mountain, one of the only farms down there. Nobody from the army ever goes down that way.”

“All that risk, for what?” Old Harry argued. “A couple kilos?”

“I bet I can get ten,” George said. “He used to do a lot of business.”

“Used to,” James said. “But now?”

“Like I said, he’s way out there,” George said. “If they left anybody alone, it’s him.”

Warren shook his head. “With all the trouble Jeff was talking about, I think we should get out of here before the army gets tipped off, comes rolling into camp here.”

“Nope,” George said. “You guys wanted to be safe, you got into the wrong business. Ten kilos of sulfur is a year’s wages for those poor steel merchants back home. Worth the trip down to the farm, and then some. And then we don’t have to carry any tobacco back.”

And so it was that an unhappy Charles set out the next morning with George and two other smugglers, Dan and Henry. The cats preferred lone travelers, and so the smugglers preferred to travel in groups of at least three or four, especially in remote areas. Also, bandits were less likely to bother a group, especially if that group were able to bring out firearms as a negotiating tool.

Dan was the band’s lead hunter, the best woodsman in a group of many good ones. He was well aware of it, shared his opinions with the confidence of an oracle and had no patience with the mistakes of those of inferior talent. Henry, the camp tailor and jack of all trades, was deliberate and religious. Both having plentiful opinion and scarce patience, Henry and Dan were not the best of friends, especially since Henry wasn’t as adept at woodscraft as some of his fellow smugglers. But George tried to spread the extra duty around, and so Henry had been tapped for this trip.

It was a long morning’s hike to the farm, so they got started at daybreak. They had again turned themselves into peasants in simple clothing, wearing the short sleeves considered low class by the aristocracy. They carried no weapons except pistols tucked into their belts, covered by their shirts. In that disguise, they could use the road, when there was a road going in their direction, and travel more quickly, avoiding the deep woods as much as possible. Should any soldiers pass them on the road, they would be humble farmers visiting a neighbor. Should any neighbors happen by, they would be cousins from out of town visiting their relative at his remote farm.

Around lunchtime, they spotted the first cornfield from the farm, and George slowed down, then stopped.

“There’s no smoke from his fireplace,” George said. He veered off into the woods, followed by the others, and began to carefully approach the bright patch of light through the trees that marked the edge of the field.
Resting his arms on the split rail fence, George surveyed the farm.

“No cattle,” he said.

There had been cattle, not very long ago. Water-filled hoofprints filled the muddy corner near a water trough, which was lying on its side. Nothing moved in the barn, or anywhere on the farm, except for a bird that swooped and dipped across the pasture.

George watched for a long time. Finally, he swung himself over the fence, and the other smugglers did the same, following him at a trot across the cow pen to the edge of the barn. Charles noticed many horse tracks mixed in with those of cows. The smugglers glanced at each other.

The silence hung in the air, filling every corner of the farm. The gate by the barn hung wide open. As they rounded the barn, the farmer’s cabin came into view, or rather, the cabin’s chimney, surrounded by a black pile of charcoal. The ashes looked cold; there was no hint of smoke. Behind the cabin a lonely outhouse still stood.

The smugglers did no more exploring, but set off at a jog for the closest trees across the pasture, splashing through puddles brown with manure. The lush green clover in the back pasture was harder to run through, and once Charles got his feet tangled in it and fell on his knees, but jumped up again as quickly as he could and ran on. When the other men stopped in front of him, he almost ran into them.

Just in front of them, the form of a dead animal flattened out the clover near the edge of the forest, red-feathered arrows sticking up out of it like a patch of wooden lilies. A rotting meat smell hung in the air around it.
They stepped closer. It was no animal. It was the farmer, sprawled on his stomach, face down in the clover. Flies buzzed up into the nose and around the one visible eye. The mouth was open in a wordless yell, as if the corpse were shouting clouds of fat flies.

Charles got to the fence at a run, hurdled it and dashed into the woods, leaping logs and dodging trees, until skidding on some moss, he fell awkwardly. He jumped up again and tried to run, but George grabbed his shoulders and held him back.

“What is wrong with you?” he said. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Dan and Henry made their way up, smirking at him.

Charles stared at them, gulping in breath, his heart hammering. The ground seemed to wobble.

“What is wrong with you?” George repeated. “You’ve seen a man with arrows in him before. There’s no soldiers on that farm; they’re all long gone. We’re in the woods. What are you afraid of?”

Charles had no answer. He was shaking and trying hard not to humiliate himself by losing his breakfast in front of them. He leaned over, hands on knees, and breathed deeply. Slowly the shakiness went away and Charles looked up at the others, his face flushing as he saw them watching his weakness.

George opened his mouth to say something, but apparently thought better of it. Finally he said, “We need to get back. Are you going to be able to travel?”

Charles nodded, looking down.

He was confused. He had been part of the group that found Jumpy a couple of years ago, shot full of holes by the Appalachies and robbed of his pack and weapons, and he hadn’t felt this panic at all. He had mostly been glad it wasn’t him. He had seen a number of bodies since then. Why was he so bothered by the death of this farmer, whom he had never met?

It wasn’t just the body. The scene of destruction on that farm had done something to him. He had felt it creeping over him when he first saw the house, a sick panic, a pressing call to run or curl up into a ball.
He hurried along behind the others, who were now theorizing on what they’d seen.

“There’s no way this is a coincidence,” George said.

“Nope,” Henry agreed. “That ambush the other day made me wonder, but with this too … there’s some kind of scheme going on.”

“But how the hell,” George said, almost plaintively.

“A mole in the band,” Henry said. “We have a traitor somewhere.”

“Hmm,” George said.

“How are you so dead sure?” Dan demanded. “You heard about what Jeff said, all the patrols and sulphur busts. Scranton’s after everybody.”

“No way,” Henry said. “Add it all up. You’d see it, but you don’t want to think one of our lovely bunch of top-notch smugglers would be so treacherous.”

“They’re lowlifes, not traitors,” Dan said. They glared at each other.
“Oh, we’ll get it figured out, no worries,” George said. “We’ll get it figured out, and we’ll deal with it. But, whatever’s going on, I wouldn’t give a wampum bead for Jeff’s job right now. The noose is starting to get tight in this line of work.”

Charles disliked this metaphor very much. It made his neck tingle.
He didn’t know what to believe about Henry’s traitor theory. The smugglers might not be model citizens, but they had a strong bond of loyalty that usually trumped all the inevitable rivalries and bickering. They might shoot each other, but woe to the outsider who tried to attack one of them. On the other hand, there were always new faces each year, and one of them might be a spy. But Dan’s point about the army was a good one. With Scranton cracking down on smuggling, why not assume that the authorities had simply been watching the gang and had finally pounced?

Leaving the debate hanging, they navigated into the forest, abandoning the roads for the trip back. Climbing through unfamiliar ravines and over brush-choked ridges, the going was slow, and the sun moved quickly across the sky. As the smugglers went deeper into the wilderness, conversation stopped and they became alert to any sound. The only sounds were their footsteps, and the occasional scurry or flurry of a small animal fleeing.

Charles kept his hand on his gun. Cats, they said, never made any sound. By the time you heard them, they were already in the air. That was the other advantage of traveling in a group. The ones the cat did not select would not be taken by surprise. Small comfort, perhaps, to the one who had been surprised, but helpful for the rest.

Charles had seen the cats’ leftovers, the leaves torn up and littered with deer or raccoon bones picked clean. Once it had been an Appalachie, the only parts left a cat fur cap, a few rags of clothing, empty moccasins, and an empty gun lying among the strewn bones. A set of long scratch marks ran up the stock of the gun.

When they finally approached the camp, they could already see the night fires blazing through the trees as dusk deepened. Once in camp, George immediately ordered everyone to begin to pack up to leave first thing in the morning. Word of the pincushion farmer spread quickly, and there were no slackers.

The sulfur was already packed into leather pouches, and these the smugglers stuffed tightly into their backpacks so they wouldn’t move around and tip. They packed any leftover open space with dry leaves to further stabilize the load. On top of that went more leaves and then leftover trading tobacco, some of which might eventually have to be thrown away due to sulfur contamination. No matter how carefully packed, sulfur smell and dust could not be stopped from oozing out of the packs and through everything in the camp. On top of the tobacco bags went daily supplies — a hunting knife, a bedroll, pemmican, a long-sleeved wool shirt for when the weather started getting more crisp, personal pipes or cigars, bullets and gunpowder, extra arrowheads, bow wax, and other necessities.

“Not much food,” Old Harry said, topping off his pack. “Anybody out?”

“Almost,” one of the men said.

“Everybody’s almost out,” Old Harry said. “Anybody actually have no food?”

“I have some shoelaces,” another man volunteered, “and also a little pemmican.”

“Save the shoelaces for a special treat,” Old Harry said.

Pemmican lasted virtually forever without spoiling, and so it was used last, after supplies like venison jerky, flour and dried fruit ran out. By the end of the journey to Scranton, many of the men had dipped deeply into this reserve. The band had been sending in a few men to town to buy some basics, like flour and dried fruit, in amounts that would not make anyone think of large groups of hungry smugglers. But they still had not managed to stockpile enough for the long trip back, and before long, the band would have to stop for an extended hunting break to resupply. Each supply stop would slow them down by a week or two.

As he helped pack up and gather extra wood to feed the bonfires for the night, Charles noticed that some of the men gave him dirty looks when he went past, and murmured words he couldn’t hear. He was used to being treated as a sort of intelligent pack animal, but this unfriendliness was new and he worried about it.

The next morning, Charles, Marguerite and Gary set off downhill toward the nearest stream to fill up the band’s canteens, as the slaves always did before the day’s hike. A voice interrupted them.

“Hey! Where do you all think you’re going by yourselves?”

It was Eileen, a stocky woman with sharp eyes who stood for no nonsense. She detested Marguerite, but she usually ignored the other slaves.

Marguerite glared at her, and Gary looked to Charles.

“Going to get water,” Charles said. He paused. “We need water for the trip,” he explained.

“Not by yourselves, you’re not,” Eileen said. She marched over to them and grabbed some of the canteens. “What are you staring at? Come on, let’s go! You don’t have any objection to somebody else coming along, do you?”

That dirty old witch, Charles thought. She thinks we helped set up that ambush.

It was a quiet water trip, with Eileen conspicuously vigilant and the slaves sullen and simmering. That Eileen helped with the water did not mollify them.

As he checked his pack later, Charles wondered if any of the other slaves might have been behind the ambush after all. What did the slaves care if the band were obliterated, especially if it meant they could have their freedom? There was Marguerite. Weren’t the quiet ones dangerous? But that wouldn’t be like her to go calling for help from the army. She’d stick a dagger into Old Harry if she thought she could get away with it, but she wouldn’t give a random band of soldiers the satisfaction of doing it for her. And Gary? He was awed by his master John, imitating his style and his way of talking. His biggest dream was to be a real smuggler someday, one of the gang. He didn’t even want to leave. It was ridiculous to think of him betraying his heroes.

Charles certainly didn’t care much if the band met with disaster. Even before they suspected him of treachery, most of the band wouldn’t have been particularly bothered if he dropped dead right on the trail. They would have just been annoyed they had to stop what they were doing and help gather rocks to cover his grave. And he felt the same way about them. He wasn’t a volunteer, and he had never been included in the strong bonds of shared danger and shared experience that smugglers form.
He didn’t hate all of them. He resented George. He hated the way George used trivial privileges to try to make him feel that he owed George in some way, ignoring as if it were incidental the fact that Charles worked full time for him without pay. He also hated the way George put him in extra danger all the time, dragging him along on adventures like that debacle at the farm. But no, he didn’t hate George.

Warren wasn’t so bad either. Warren talked to him without condescension, discussing books and history and mathematical theory and science. Charles was glad for the small amount of camaraderie. In fact, Warren was too kind to be a really good smuggler. He wasn’t a killer deep down. Yet, anyway. Give him time and practice.

It was true, Charles had occasionally let the idea of betrayal float around in his mind. But even if he had been hateful enough to do it, it had major drawbacks. He had nowhere to go, no friends to take him in. And if he were caught in the effort, future plans be unnecessary and his last day of life would make everything that went before seem like paradise.

There simply were too many reasons arguing against the slaves being involved in any treachery, and that should have been obvious to the band, he thought. For starters, Charles had no reason to get involved in such a scheme on his last trip. Furthermore, the ambush would have been a stupid bid for freedom, since the Scranton troops would have just sold them to new owners. Plus, the slaves would have put themselves directly in the line of fire. Surely Eileen and the others knew they were smarter than that.

But what alternative did they have? It was blame each other, or the outsiders in the group. So they were blaming the outsiders.

But somehow the soldiers had found out where they would be. How? He wondered how well he really knew the other slaves. The genius of traitors was they always seemed to manage to be the person you didn’t expect. Or maybe it had been one of the new smugglers, Ronnie, for instance …

He caught himself. He was being as stupid as the others.

He pulled the leather laces tight on his pack and tied them, then knelt, set the pack on his knee and slid it around onto his back.

This would be a hell of a trip. If the band didn’t starve, they might kill each other first.

Sidelined

By Erin Sanders

She always finds a way to make her pain heard. In that way, she’s an open book.

It’s a common belief around here that her husband is a saint. For years her tongue and her mood swings have followed him around from state to state. With every move, a new community of people comes to simultaneously respect and pity him for the cross he willingly carries. Not that he knew what he was taking on at the beginning. He couldn’t have. They were young; she was independent and a little wild. Her words, her touch held the promise of a new and exciting future. Everything about her was enticing.

And now they’re burdened down with a house full of girls they can barely control and, from what I’ve heard in some of our little moments on the sidelines, the memory of the child that might have been.

We’re late to gymnastics again, but class hasn’t started as we walk into the gym. As usual, her voice is one of the first things I’m aware of even before I step through the doorway. Girls are milling around on the mats, goofing off and chatting while they wait. Parents are sitting in isolated clusters in the bleachers. Except for Lorene. She’s out on the gym floor, standing in her street shoes on a mat, bantering with some of Sadie’s friends and laughing like these preteen girls are some of her best friends.

As always, she’s too loud. She never seems to be aware of the way her words can make people around her uncomfortable.

I send Sadie out to her classmates, then find a spot by myself near the other moms and pull out my phone. Gymnastics is a nice breather in the middle of a busy week. A solid hour to make a few phone calls and catch up on social media, maybe even read a book, and to watch my girl do the thing she loves best.

I order a pizza to pick up on the way home and am just about to tap open my email when I hear Lorene’s voice again. It’s more subdued this time and not far from me; her words sound resigned but miserable.

“It was a year ago yesterday.”

Mental facepalm. Of course. I should have been prepared for this. Thank God she didn’t sit down beside me. So, it’s been a year now. And she’s still looking for sympathy. We heard all about it in the beginning. About how excited they all were. A boy. Finally.

Sometimes I think she forgets that this isn’t her unique pain. She’s not the first one to be stunned by drops of red weeks after the feminine supplies have been packed away. She’s not the only one to be halted in the middle of choosing the perfect baby name; of dreaming up a nursery, clipping diaper coupons even though it’s unreasonably early. She is not the only person to feel the pain of losing a child.
But there’s one thing she doesn’t know.

She’s never experienced the sight of a dark blob in the spare bathroom toilet, believing that life is beautiful and precious from the joining of the first two cells, but choosing to say, “It’s just tissue,” before pressing down on the handle. That’s a side to loss that she’s never even imagined.

But, really … I can’t complain. There’s my Sadie Grace out there, the brightest smile in this roomful of energetic girls. And through it all, there’s been Matthew. The one who holds me when I need it, and lets me go when I just need a little space. He’s always understood me; he always has the ability to make me smile. Matthew is the force that keeps me grounded.

Why the spare bathroom? Why were we even in there that night? Such a tiny room, with a shower barely big enough for one person, but roomy enough for a couple of honeymooners. It must have been the closest. When I walked in, I didn’t know I’d find myself bleeding. I didn’t know I’d be staring at those yellow walls and calling for Matthew, then saying, “You look first. I can’t.” I didn’t know I’d walk out of that bathroom empty. Until the day I die, I’ll be able to recall every detail of that little room.

At seven and a half weeks, a baby has ears. And nostrils. Lenses are forming in the eyes.

She thinks she knows empty, her with her five daughters and her busy mouth. You can’t really know what empty is unless you’ve carried it around inside, unspoken and untouched. When it was her sadness, she talked to everyone about it. She used Facebook as an outlet. Asking for prayer, posting photos. I avoided her a long time after the photos. Those gruesome baby fingers, too young to be photographed. And then the casket pictures, the gravestone. And through it all, the talk about the physical discomfort and the tears. There’s not an emotion she felt that someone didn’t hear about.

How long does it take a 0.04 ounce human to decompose?

“Come on Jasmine. You can do better than that!” Lorene could probably choose more encouraging words to yell across the gym. Her oldest daughters, Lilli and Jewel, are in the top of the bleachers, dragged along again to wait as their little sisters tumble and flip on the mats. I always wonder what they’re thinking when they hear their mother’s voice. But their faces reveal nothing. They’re both messing around with their phones, talking once in a while, ignoring everything else in the gym.

A couple of years ago, my mom made the statement that in heaven I’ll have two children. I haven’t decided yet if I want to believe that.

I try to tune out Lorene as she actively watches the girls practice and talks with the moms around her. They seem to genuinely like her, but there’s no denying that a conversation with Lorene in public is a very public conversation. As their words flow back and forth, I keep my eyes on the blond braid bouncing around in front of me. Sadie’s body on the gym floor is as limber as her daddy’s fingers on the piano keys. He passed along that easy gracefulness to her. It’s there even when she’s struggling to learn a new move or just sitting and waiting. Sometimes I see him so strong in her that I wonder if there’s room for pieces of me to show through. I’m relieved when Emily’s mom moves beside me and asks about my day. The hour moves more quickly now.

And suddenly, there’s Sadie, interrupting me in the middle of a sentence and about to shake the phone out of my hand. “Mom, can Kira spend the night? Please?!”

She’s breaking a house rule, or at least tiptoeing around it. Don’t ask for your friends to come over while they’re listening in. Ask privately first. Kira is standing five feet away and looking in a different direction like I don’t know they’ve already discussed this.

“Um, not tonight, baby. This is something we need to plan ahead. We’ll talk about it at home and you can call her later. OK?”

“But she needs to come over tonight. We’re —”
“Sadie. You can call her later. Do you have everything? We’re stopping for pizza on the way home and it’s going to be ready in just a few minutes.”

Somehow, she’s fine with this answer. She’s laughing now. “Did you see me mess up that back handspring? Somehow I landed in Jessalyn’s lap!”

That irresistible laugh; I’m smiling too. “Yeah, I saw you. You’re something else, girl.”

And then, Lorene’s voice again, “Kira, come! Don’t make me wait for you.” Then to her friend beside her, “My back is killing me! I’ve got to get home and get my feet up.”

I never understood the word “strident” until I heard this woman speak to her own children. Kira barely glances in her mom’s direction before turning back to Sadie, embellishing the story for the benefit of Emily’s mom and now Emily who’s wandered over, ready to join the party. When Kira’s in the middle of a group of people, it’s always a party. This kid isn’t old enough to use sarcasm so well. But there’s no denying it. The girl is funny.

Sadie and I say our goodbyes and start toward the door. Lorene is wrestling with her toddler’s shoes as we walk past.

“Hey Lorene. How’s it going?” My voice is light, casual.

She’s distracted as she answers. “Fine. But I’d be better if this kid would keep her shoes on when I tell her to!”

Almost immediately a small set of hands reaches out and takes over the task. Sadie. She’s making faces and sweet talking the dimples into Laila’s cheeks. And now the shoes are securely on and the little girl is up and chasing Sadie, squealing and giggling as my little princess picks her up and spins her around.
As I finally pry my daughter away from her buddy, Lorene is talking about what a chore it is to feed seven people every night. And how expensive. I have a sudden urge to call Matthew and apologize to him for every time I’ve ever complained about anything.

Instead I say goodbye and Sadie and I walk away. She doesn’t realize she’s too old to hold her mama’s hand in public and I’m not telling her. She’ll figure it out soon enough. For now, though, we walk through the double doors of the gym, and I savor this moment, small fingers gripping mine, her excited voice telling me the stories bouncing around in her head, and the promise of an ordinary evening ahead of us.