From the Editors: Baker’s Dozen

It seems a lot has happened since we published our last issue. In light of that, we find it comforting that some things don’t change, such as the observation we occasionally hear from people who probably haven’t actually read The Sacred Cow: “Oh, you edit a literary magazine? How nice.”

Yet here we are with a new issue of The Sacred Cow. We have new contributors, new pieces; in fact, you’ll find that none of what we publish in these pages has been published in our magazine before. If we’re perfectly honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this accomplishment feels nice.

This is our thirteenth issue, our baker’s dozenth. As we all know, a baker’s dozen was originally in tended to ensure a baker’s integrity, founded on the mathematical principle that if someone wants twelve items and you give him thirteen, somewhere in that group of thirteen are twelve presumably edible items.

This is not a perfect rule, of course. For instance, strict observance of the Gregorian calendar leaves us with twelve months, one of which is so much shorter than the others that a person can hardly help feeling cheated. And there’s not much we can do about it.

If you don’t enjoy football but had to watch the Super Bowl anyway; or if you’re unattached and were merely counting down until after Valentine’s Day when you could buy discounted chocolate for yourself with no obligation to share; or if you work at a job that doesn’t close on Presidents Day and doesn’t even offer any special sales, and you’re wondering why we even bother with February at all — that’s not our fault, but we hope we can help ameliorate some of that with this baker’s dozenth issue. If this is the first time you’ve picked up The Sacred Cow, we have twelve more issues that we hope you’ll enjoy. And if you’ve read every one of them, we trust you’ll find this thirteenth issue as readable and as nice as all the others.

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The Knowledge of the Queen: Chapter Seven

By Juan Ersatzman

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.

Previous chapters:
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

In this matter, as in almost all other moments of crisis and impending catastrophe in a life that consisted of little else, Lumi Maltin displayed her tragic flaw: incurable, incorrigible, willfully ignorant optimism. In the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, she held unwaveringly to the belief that if only she pretended it was so, all would be well soon enough.

The strain between the Duke of Maltin and the young king continued to build, and express itself in skirmishes along lines of policy (both foreign and domestic) and protocol. The duke, endlessly proper in all he thought and did, at first weighed down the king with private audiences in which he implored the young man to conduct himself in a manner more commensurate with his office, as indeed, the duke repeated desperately, he had conducted himself at first upon his inauguration.

In their first meetings, the king agreed on every point raised by the duke, affecting a serious cast and assuring the duke that he would strive to improve himself, and that the duke’s experience and insight regarding policies were of tremendous value to him, and would be taken into account immediately.

Of course, neither policy nor performance was altered in the least as a result of the duke’s entreaties, and in short time, he became aware that the king was carrying on a grand game of humiliation — endlessly inviting his counsel in order to make a show of disregarding it.

Traditionalist though he was, the duke was an aristocrat from a long, long line of noble blood. He was no stranger to Machiavellian politicking. So he began to quietly spread rumors — some true, some less true — about the king’s excesses and incompetence, and at the same time, to display a great interest in the forms and systems of democracy.

In short, he began to undermine the king.

— From A History of Trevendland: Chapter 3, “Hiram I, and the Dissolution of the Monarchy” by E. Kodrave

 

MARIGOLD sprawled on the cold cobblestones, craning her neck to see past the bowed heads of kneeling mountain villagers and tourists at the specter of the madman who had declared himself their king. The reverent silence that had fallen at his declaration had begun to stretch to discomfort. King Hivelgott seemed to become aware that the power of the moment was fading with the comfort of his people’s knees. He placed the shining amulet back inside the collar of his white military dress suit, and stepped to the microphone.

“My dear Trevenlanders,” he began, and Marigold was surprised at both the gravity and warmth of his voice, “doubtless it shocks, it astounds, it overwhelms you to process the events of this night. I understand.”

He allowed himself a small smile. “I, too, am overwhelmed. It beggars my faculties to stand before you, bereft of youth, vigor, wealth, and the weight of law which were my one-time advantages by birthright.”

The sky was now faded almost wholly to black, and Hivelgott’s eyes glittered in the brilliance of the floodlights. Marigold’s elbows and torso ached against the stones, but she found she couldn’t tear her eyes away from the spectacle of Hivelgott. Only a scratching and puffing at her side alerted her to the prophetess’s presence.

“Damn,” whispered the older woman, “damn it all to hell.”

“I chose, two endless decades past, to forsake those advantages to which I had become accustomed,” went on Hivelgott, “believing it to be for the good of my people, my nation, my world, and even myself.”

“Liar,” said the prophetess, so loudly that Marigold was afraid she’d be heard again, “mellifluous conniver.”

“In an effort to separate my person from what glittering triumphs, stirring advances or bitter failures would be the denouement of popular rule, I resolved that I must reject all invitations of continued luxury and title, and must live out my life in the guise of the lowest of the low — in short, my dearest subjects, to become to you as a madman.

“In the two decades of my pilgrimage, I have continued to hope, I have clung to my deepest wells of optimism, and I have been …” his voice now rose to tenor quaver, “… in all ways bitterly disappointed.

“I had hope, such hope, such innocent, endless, naive hope that in time the ship would right, and I could see the sons and daughters of my beloved land navigate the treacherous seas of turbulent times to land on the limitless shores of prosperousness. Alas. I see those charged with the care of all my people concerned only with the care of themselves and those whom they took to be particularly useful. For twenty-two years, I held hard to hope as the wind rose and the sails strained. But in that selfsame time,” he went on, darkly, “I knew all along that could and would the grim day come, that I must keep about me those evidences which should prove in uncertain times the truth of my identity, should indeed, the ship of state begin to list, and sink.”

“The nautical metaphor,” hissed the prophetess, “sweet heavens. He hasn’t changed.”

Marigold stole a moment from staring in disbelief at Hivelgott to stare in disbelief at the prophetess.

“You —” she started.

“Shh!” answered the prophetess, waving down the queen.

“I know that my appearance has changed in the intervening years, I know that my manners are those of a man who has lived by stealth and secrecy, not in the comfort and ease of royal living. I have come to know in a new way how a king depends on the kindness and charity of his loyal, benevolent, generous, kind, guileless and goodhearted subjects.

“It is,” he said, wheezing a little in the crisp air, “from a desire to repay that magnanimity with certainty of trustworthiness that I present these little proofs, these trifling, small, incontestable evidences of my royalty.”

“Oh …” breathed the prophetess, beside Marigold, as though the fragments of a thought were coalescing in her mind.

“First, the amulet of succession, that magical metal medallion, whose lights leap to life at the touch of the royal hand.”

“… shit,” finished the prophetess. Somewhat cryptically, she drew back the hammer on the revolver.

Marigold ignored her, trying to fathom what was taking place before her eyes.

“Second,” said Hivelgott, his voice receding into his nasal passages, and taking on a tone of pompous self-importance, “I present to you the incontrovertible evidence of personal reflection, I present to you … my wife.”

The people were still kneeling, and as the speech carried on, had begun to shift uncomfortably in search of relief for their hard-pressed knees. At Hivelgott’s announcement, the distracted shuffling of knees stopped.

Lumi Maltin had been a popular favorite of the people as the daughter of the Duke of Maltin. Her sympathetic personality, optimism and beauty had endeared her to the nation. Indeed, Hiram’s treatment of the people’s favorite — although the details were known only in the form of grim rumor — was a primary factor in his precipitous fall from grace.

More to the point, it had been widely assumed, and indeed, published, that the long-suffering royal consort was dead. It was astounding, though not perhaps, so astounding to a market square full of sore-kneed subjects whose village idiot had revealed himself as their exiled king.

A waifish figure was ushered up the stairs and onto the stage. She hesitated, shrinking back from the crowd, her hands clenched into fists.

To most onlookers, as noted, the declaration that the king’s wife was alive and among them was little more than a startling footnote to the supremely staggering surprise of his return. An unexpectedly living king can bring almost anyone back from the dead with him without exciting much additional comment.

To Marigold, though, this was the true moment of disorienting shock, even as disparate pieces of impossible reality clicked into a cohesive whole.

It was her mother.

“Oh, shit,” said the prophetess again, gritting her teeth, “oh, shit.”

Marigold had often wondered what it meant to have eyes that flashed — eyes do not in themselves have the power to do anything but reflect light, not produce it. But she could’ve sworn in that moment that the prophetess’s eyes flashed. Marigold herself was numb, unable to cope with the volume of questions without answers and answers without explanations she was witnessing in the square.

If Hivelgott was the king and Ma Gnowker was Hivelgott’s wife … she refused to countenance the thought. But if the prophetess’s eyes were flashing on Ma Gnowker’s behalf, and if she said “he hasn’t changed” about Hivelgott … Marigold turned to the prophetess, whose eyes were narrowed to slits. Marigold thought better of asking a question. She turned back to the stage.

Ma Gnowker stepped hesitantly forward, her eyes wide, looking around in terror. Marigold’s heart pounded against her sternum, which was, itself, creaking on the cobblestones. Beside her the prophetess was growling.

“Many of you, my dearest villagers and tourists — many of you have known me,” said Hivelgott, delighted in the stir he was causing, “known me, and mistaken me for a vagabond. And just so have many of you taken my dearest, most beautiful and precious wife Lumi for a simple seller of vegetables and singer of sweet songs. A farmer’s wife, a simple woman.”

Marigold was breathing in gasps. For the second week in a row, she was reeling in the marketplace, staring at the leering face of Hivelgott.

“My dear,” he said, his voice as soft as he could contort it to be, “tell us. Reveal to us the truth — are you my long-lost and forgotten and thought-to-be-dead wife Lumi Maltin?”

Ma Gnowker looked right and then left. Her eyes were large. She appeared to be weighing her options,

“Come on,” murmured the prophetess, “come on.”

“Yes,” said Ma Gnowker. Her harsh, shrill voice was subdued.

The prophetesss let out a rush of breath. Marigold drew a gulp of air in.

“Thank heavens,” whispered the prophetess.

“Thank heavens?” asked Marigold.

The prophetess was unequal to any response stronger than a nod. Her eyes, recently of the flashing-and-glittering variety, were now dull. She let her head fall to the cobblestone, and she lay there for a moment.

While it was apparent that the strings that bound the prophetess up tight had been cut, Marigold felt no corresponding easing of tension. Nor, it seemed, did Harrison. He’d said nothing throughout Ma Gnowker’s appearance, but his face was pale.

The prophetess raised her head.

“We need to go.”

They scrambled out from beneath the wagon, and crawled on their hands and knees backwards through the alley. Once, Marigold blundered into an abandoned fruit crate that scraped and bumped and rattled. They froze in the frigid shadows, staring into the luminescence of the square that spilled over the wagon and into the alleyway, but no one in the square, it seemed, had been listening for would-be queens bumping into fruit crates in the dark. When they reached Louisa at the far end of the alley, all three were panting.

“Okay,” hissed the prophetess, turning to her companions imperiously, “this is what we’re going to do —”

She stopped for breath, and then continued to breathe, somewhat loudly. Finally, she said, “Damn.”

“What?” asked Marigold, panicking. “What’s wrong?”

“No plan,” sighed the prophetess.

“What do we need a plan for?” asked Louisa.

“We’ve got to steal her mother from a village madman-turned-king who’s supported by the K,” said Harrison.

Louisa nodded, and thought for a moment.

“Wait!” hissed Marigold, “wh-”

“No.” The prophetess regarded her with stern seriousness.

“But what —” started Marigold, inflamed by the prophetess’s unblushing hypocrisy.

“No.”

“But I’m —”

“You’re entitled to answers, highness, yes,” said the prophetess, “but not now. You can wait fifteen damn minutes while we save your Ma. Your peace of mind isn’t worth her life.”

Marigold bit her lip, feeling — neither for the first, nor the last time — badly mistreated and deeply misjudged.

Louisa had said nothing in the interim, but now she spoke, addressing her question to the prophetess.

“We can’t wait?” she asked.

“We have no idea when she’ll outlive her usefulness to him,” said the Prophetess. “I won’t see her with them for a moment longer than I can help.”

“Too many of them for us to take on?” asked Louisa.

The prophetess nodded.

“Okay,” said Louisa. She mulled the problem over for a moment, eyes unfocused.

“Okay,” said Louisa, snapping back. “We need a funnel, a diversion and a getaway that’s reliable and fast.”

“Diversion I can do,” said the prophetess.

“I believe it,” said Louisa, “but I need you fighting. You —” she said turning to Harrison, “— you’re our diversion.”

If the prophetess was piqued at not being permitted to stage a diversion, Harrison seemed wounded by the implication that the prophetess was a superior fighter.

They both scowled, and Louisa ignored them. She turned to Harrison. “Can you drive a bus?”
MUCH later, Marigold was able to piece together a rough account of what took place in the square.

Despite his seemingly warm reception from the people of Valeview, it was apparent that Hivelgott wasn’t sufficiently confident to take up residence in easy-identified and targeted locations. Immediately following the speeches, a tight posse of his Kemizeze bodyguards — it was confirmed through the events of subsequent days that the black-clad bodyguards were, in fact, members of that dreaded anarchist deathmob — gathered around him and began to usher him through the press toward the parking meadow.

They proceeded toward the edge of town along King’s Avenue, followed by a crowd made up partially of curious villagers, and more of tired tourists and bus drivers who were following not so much out of curiosity and respect as out of a desire to go home and sleep. The crowd was silent outside of the occasional whimpering child, and the king was silent, loping along in the center of his heavily armed posse.

The foremost group passed through the arch at the end of King’s Avenue into the wide, flat grassy space on the edge of the buspark. There, they came to an abrupt and wary halt. The tall pole lights along the hedgerow that divided the buspark from the village were out, and the whole parking meadow was concealed in darkness. Somewhere in the murky obscurity, a bus engine was idling.

One of the K barked an order — or, given the group’s anarchist antecedents, a suggestion — and a gaggle of flashlights flicked on. The lights scanned randomly for a moment, and then came to rest, across the grill of a bus, some twenty yards away.

A loud exclamation went up from the crowd, followed by a collective shriek of terror. With a blare of its horn, the bus’s headlights flashed suddenly full on the crowd, and the enormous vehicle lurched forward.

For a moment, the king and his entourage were frozen in astonishment. And then, springing to life, they turned and scrambled backwards toward the safety of the arch, slipping and scuttling, dropping guns and flashlights as they careened through the frost-slick grass. The king was cackling with an insane terror as he fled. Behind the arch, the crowd of tourists had also shrunk back against itself and turned to bedlam.

As the first of the guards reached the apparent safety of the arch, there was a crack like the report of a cannon, and a flash of flame. In the monochrome headlight glare, a stumpy, gray-haired woman with an enormous pistol stepped from the shadows on the far side of the arch, scowling.

Ma Gnowker had been half-herded, half-carried by two of the K behind the king, and was not far from the arch when the bus came to life. She was perhaps three steps away from the arch when the prophetess stepped out. Seeing the gun, her captors hesitated. The prophetess raised her gun and fired. One of the K fell lifeless to the ground.

The other guard, recognizing that he had only an instant before the gun was cocked and raised again, lunged forward toward the prophetess, who was stepping backwards through the arch, away from him.

A number of things happened so quickly that they appeared simultaneous to the onlookers.

Another person, dressed in the midnight costume of the Kemizeze, burst from the shadow of the arch and caught Ma Gnowker by the shoulders in a flying tackle, dragging her out of the path of the bus. As they fell away to the side, Hivelgott — bobbing unsteadily in a petrified stagger — slipped, shrieked, and was crushed. The remaining K flung themselves clear of the path of the vehicle or dove through the arch to the relative safety of the other side. The prophetess fired again. And the bus slammed into the arch.

The sound of the collision ricocheted through Valeview and against the mountain slopes above the town, and for a moment, even the crowd was silent.

Then the pop of a small explosion, followed by a fast-moving cloud of manufactured smoke that stung the eyes and nose and throat. Automatic gunfire clattered in the haze, and the crowd set up a shriek. The bus lurched into reverse, paused, and then swung away in a long curve toward the parking meadow.
INSIDE of the bus, Harrison swayed over the wheel with the peculiar motion of a burning tree. The windshield had been crushed to uselessness; the world beyond its cracks and shards was a mess of orange flames and scurrying shadows, then, as they pulled away — a kaleidoscope of grass and mud and metal, lit by one remaining headlight.

Ma Gnowker was curled in the second seat, moaning softly with her hands around her head. The prophetess was kneeling in the aisle, one hand on Ma Gnowker’s head, the other clutching the pistol. Her eyes were set on Harrison.

Louisa was outside in the darkness, using the bus as cover, and flitting around the corners to rattle fusillades of bullets across the wreckage of the arch in hopes of stretching their head start, but as the bus accelerated to a grumbling, smoky trot, she was obliged to run along beside it, firing blindly over her shoulder. Between the speed of the bus, the shock of the ambush and the confusion of the smoke, they estimated they would have between thirty seconds and a minute in the carpark to locate Danny and Marigold, and escape, before their enemies caught up to them. Return fire clattered against the bus and pinged through the windows.

Harrison’s face was drawn, and pale. Dark currents of blood streamed from gashes in his scalp and cheek. He glanced back, into the eyes of the prophetess.

“Drive!” barked the old woman.

He looked back to the shattered windshield, cursing under his breath and dragging the wheel of the bus to maneuver to the lee side of the row of stabled buses. The bus wobbled, reeled and crashed over hillocks. Again, Harrison darted a glance at the prophetess. Again, eyes impassive as a cat’s, she was watching him, and again she roared at him to keep driving.

“You knew,” he said, hoarsely, and then he shouted, “YOU KNEW!” His fingers tightened on the wheel. The bus bounced on a mound and crashed against the yellow rope that served as a barrier between the bus and car lots, pulling it along. Bullets pinged against the bus. Louisa’s gun offered another pert response.

“Drive,” said the prophetess, again, in a flat voice, “or we’ll all be dead.”

They were rushing between rows of parked cars, now, and Louisa’s gun had gone silent as she sprinted to keep up. Harrison compressed his lips for a moment. He darted a glance across the rows of cars, and then twisted the wheel hard to the left. The long-suffering joints of the bus’s body gave a scream of eager mortality, and the whole of its hull wobbled like a ship caught broadside by the waves. A deluge of the tourists’ trinketry, daypacks and snacks, some shattered by bullets poured into the cabin from the overhead bins. The bus teetered on the crest of the wave, and with a sigh went toppling over.

Ma Gnowker and the prophetess were sent pinwheeling every which way, entangled with each other and the seats and the luggage. Glass geysered from windows and metal screeched.

The bus rolled over twice, and came to a grinding, shrieking halt on its side, crushing the hoods, trunks and hatches of a row of cars. Flames billowed up eagerly on the engine compartment to consume the fuselage.

The firearm-wielding parties still sorting themselves out in the smoke at the arch, some hundred-and-fifty yards away, paused in their random firing, unsure of what the crashing, grinding and bright light indicated.

As the bus crossed into the carpark, Harrison had accelerated hard, leaving Louisa falling further and further behind. The yellow rope had continued to drag behind the bus, uprooting fence-posts fashioned from rebar. Freed from the earth, but not the ties that bound them to the rope, the rebar bounced along murderously in the bus’s wake. Dodging through a field of unexpected spears, while trying to catch up to a runaway motor coach and keep her head low, Louisa tripped over the rope and sprawled in the grass.

As she lay winded in the cold, prickling grass staring up into a pristine field of stars, she saw the flash and heard the thunder of the wreck. She rolled back over, panting and gasping, and willed herself to her feet.

The bus was lying on its right side, with the door trapped against the row of parked cars, and the windshield resting in an elevated position on top of a car that had gone through an unfortunate process of compression. Louisa was obliged to climb up the unrecognizably squashed vehicle before she could get into the bus. Having mounted the ruins, she remarked that someone had already kicked through the glass of the windshield, from the inside. She noted the fact, and moved on into the interior.

Inside the coach, the fire had already claimed the rear three rows of seats. Scorching breezes whipped forward from the blaze, carrying smoke and the smell of burning oil and plastic. Harrison was gone. The prophetess and Ma Gnowker were lying in the aisle, pressed against the base of a seat, groaning and coughing. The prophetess’s staff was gone, but her head was raised, and she was pointing the revolver at Louisa.

In the distance, the K fired another hopeful salvo.

“It’s me,” Louisa told the prophetess, “let’s go.”

The prophetess gave a wordless, gurgling moan of agreement, and raised herself on her free arm against the sloping floor. Ma Gnowker remained in place, moaning.

Louisa bent down and pulled Ma Gnowker’s arm across her shoulder. She raised her back beneath the burden, and turned back to the windshield,

“Wait,” gurgled the prophetess, “got to — got to hold on to you, dammit.”

She reached up, found a fold in Louisa’s black disguise, and clutched it. “Okay,” she said, and coughed.

The party inched back through the windshield, then slipped and tumbled down the other side of the row of cars, away from wreckage and the fire. If their head start was thirty seconds, it was gone. If a minute, it was nearly past. Still, the bus wreck was an unexpected boon. More smoke and fire meant more uncertainty for the pursuers. Uncertainty expressed itself in plodding progress across the parking meadow. The voices of the K were echoing from the bus park, some eighty yards away.

Having made a precipitous and bruising descent from the bus, Louisa and the prophetess crawled on their bellies, still dragging a gradually awakening Ma Gnowker around the edge of the car. They inched past another four cars as the voices neared to forty yards, and then twenty.

When she estimated the K were only twenty yards away, Louisa tilted her head sideways, and the women took shelter between the cars. They huddled cross-legged, with their knees pulled tightly in, and their heads low beneath the windows.

Ma Gnowker had recovered enough to be staring at her companions in slack-jawed wonder. She looked first from the prophetess to Louisa, then back again. Finally, she settled on the prophetess and examined her face with an intensity that struck Louisa almost as simple-minded.

“Anida?” she asked, softly.

The prophetess, too, seemed to be recovering. She sighed, and her face grew less hard.

“At your service, as I always am, Lumi,” she whispered, and dipped her gray head.

“Thank you,” said Ma Gnowker, “thank you.”

“What next?” asked Louisa, her voice betraying a hint of tension for the first time.

“Right,” said the prophetess. She gathered up her face into a dense knot of skin as she considered the question. “We need to get to Danny and Marigold, before Harrison without dying.”

The fire was consuming the bus, and though the women were couched in shadow, the world around them was lit in a red glow, and all the frost was melting to steam.

“I know. But we’re out of time,” said Louisa, “and we can’t take them all on.”

“Too true,” said the prophetess. She looked back to Ma Gnowker, now dry-eyed and alert.

“Lumi,” she said, “you’re a goddess of this shrieking thing they go in for up here, yes?”

Ma Gnowker nodded.

“Okay,” said the prophetess, having carefully considered for roughly ten seconds, “this is what we’re going to do — I’m going to throw a bomb into that fire, and then you’re going to scream for Marigold and Danny, and we’re going to try to bust our way out of this mess.”

“Three,” said the prophetess, “two —” she slipped a small, dark object the size and shape of a pinecone out of the pocket of her pants.

Ma Gnowker drew in an enormous breath,

“One!” said the prophetess, and rising, flung the object back toward the fire.

There was a flat, thudding sound, and a concussive wave of air. All three women were thrown back violently. They struggled forward, hacking and wheezing. The prophetess gesticulated frantically at Ma Gnowker, who was struggling to breathe.

Ma Gnowker nodded, coughed, threw back her head and let loose a ragged scream. It was a far cry from her finest effort, and a poor substitute for her most polished and penetrating shrieks, but it was high and piercing, the sort of sound that left blisters on ears and vocal cords.

“DANNY!” she screeched. “MARIGOLD!”

On the far side of the ruined bus, the pursuing soldiers responded with an emphatic helping of gunfire, all of it scattering harmlessly into the night like drops of metal rain.

Away down the line of cars, near the end of the parking lot, headlights flipped on.

“Oh,” said Louisa, “here we go.”

The prophetess grunted.

The station wagon swung into the aisle and came bouncing and wheezing toward them.

“Damn, damn, damn,” said the prophetess. “Run!”

Run they did, through the dense cloud of smoke, and shrouded by a row of cars. It was impossible for their pursuers to achieve a successful bead on the car, but the guns did turn toward the obscured glow of headlights, and rain a liberal hail of bullets down around them. They reached the car out of breath and off-balance, scrabbling at the door handles.

“Get in, get in!” bellowed the prophetess, as she and Ma Gnowker toppled into the back seat.

“Gosh,” said Danny, shrinking back into his seat, as a bullet caught the upper corner of the windshield. Cracks spiraled in all directions across the glass.

“Drive, drive, drive, drive!” roared the prophetess, “get us out of here.”

In the passenger seat, Louisa wordlessly rolled down her window and leaned out of it with the submachine gun to return fire.

“Oh, heck,” said Danny. The car jerked into reverse, and lumbered rearward through the aisle of cars. Another sprinkling of bullets perforated the cars around them.

It appeared to make up Danny’s mind. He swung the station wagon, still in full motion, into a sharp turn. Louisa made a sudden whoofing sound as the motion of the car dragged her against the window. Scrabbling to stay inside, she dropped the machine gun into the outer darkness.

“Darn,” said Danny, “sorry.”

Louisa was not yet equal to a response. Danny turned the wheel again, launching the car forward, and she collapsed against her seat, sputtering and gasping.

“No, for real,” said Danny, straightening the car and roaring forward toward the yellow ropes that marked the back of the parking lot, “I’m so sorry.”

Louisa, leaning out of the window with her bruised midriff on the sill, gritted her teeth and cut the rope, and Danny swung the car left onto the dirt track that skirted the edges of the forest, running down into the valley. Bullets, their constant companions of the evening, made a papery whisper in the trees overhead.

They sped down the track, away from the parking meadow. When they came to a fork in the road, Danny turned right, into the forest, switched off the lights, and proceeded at a cautious crawl.

The prophetess, Louisa and Ma Gnowker were still breathing deep, ragged gasps of exhaustion and relief, but as they wound deeper into the forest, they subsided into silence. Danny, true to his level nature, forebore to interpose.

At last, when all sound but the wheeze of the engine and the rustle of the woods at night had died away, he said, “What is all this?”

After waiting in vain for a reply, he made a second attempt. “I’m glad that whatever danger you were in Ma, that you’re safe. But I’ve just spent an hour sitting alone in the car while all of Valeview went to pieces in explosions and gunshots and bus wrecks, and I want to know what’s going on.

“Also,” he went on, warming to the role of interrogator, “where’s Marigold?”

He broke off, suddenly, as though sensing the sudden deepening of the silence.

“My god,” said the prophetess. Her voice was hoarse as tree bark, and hopeless as the coming of winter.

To be continued

Gunpowder Trails: Chapter Seven

Gunpowder Trails

By Andrew Sharp

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.

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

As they stepped into the clearing, Charles shut his eyes. If Roger was going to shoot him in the head, he’d rather not know it was coming.

“Well, well,” Roger said. “Your smuggler friends came through for you.” He sounded relieved. “As long as it’s not some kind of trick.”

The blazing mid-morning sun in the meadow made Charles blink. Two packs leaned against each other in the middle of the meadow. Warren stood next to them.

“Hey now, don’t fall down on me,” Roger told Charles. “I still need you for a shield.”

Tears Charles had been holding back began to spill over. He fought them back. There must be a trick. Maybe the smugglers had filled the packs with leaves or rocks. Maybe they were hiding nearby waiting to shoot any Appalachies who showed their faces.

Warren’s lips were tight and he looked at Roger with a gaze that seemed calculated to knock him down.

“Here’s your sulfur,” Warren said, clearly detesting Roger for stooping low enough to want such a thing.

“And a good day to you,” Roger said. He kept the gun pressed against Charles’ head. “Well smuggler, I don’t see anybody hiding behind the trees. Yet. So far so good. Now take a stick and poke it down into that sulfur. I want to make sure there’s no garbage in there.”

“We don’t cheat,” Warren said.

“As much as I’m impressed by the honesty of smugglers, I’m still going to have to see for myself,” Roger said.

Warren didn’t move. Roger pulled the hammer back on the revolver.

After walking all those miles, Charles thought, he was going to get his head blown off anyway. Why hadn’t he made them carry him if they wanted him here so badly?

“I don’t have a stick,” Warren said.

“All right, just take off your gun belt then, and I’ll check it myself,” Roger said.

Warren hesitated, then took off the gun belt, put it down, and stepped away.

Roger walked over to the packs, keeping his gun pointed halfway between Charles and Warren, wavering from one to the other a little. Without looking away from the, Roger stuck his arm all the way to the bottom of each pack. After he pulled his arm out, he brushed every bit of sulfur he could back into the bags.

“Good,” he said. “All sulfur. And looks like good stuff, too.”

Roger untied Charles’ hands. “Looks like you’re free to go.”

Charles looked down at his wrists, the white marks from the rope slowly turning red.

“Oh, wait, just a second,” Roger said. He fished a handgun out of his waistband and held it out to Charles, butt first.

Charles stared at it. “What’s this?”

“This is your gun we took off you when we, ah, escorted you to our camp.” Roger bowed, and Charles took it. “A little gesture to make up for all you went through to help us out. Maybe it will help you remember savages aren’t all bad. Happy trails to you, little slave.”

Then he said, “You two outgun me now, but I’d recommend you don’t try anything. You kill me, you’ll be dead before I hit the ground.”

Warren scowled. “Our deal was for you to come alone.”

“And I am alone,” Roger said. “But I have a lot of friends a short way off. Like I said, we don’t trust smugglers. But maybe instead of arguing about fine points, you can just leave the sulfur here and head on back to your camp.”

Warren and Charles looked at each other, then walked together across the clearing. Charles’ legs trembled, and he tried to think what he should do now.

Warren might kill him if he got an inkling Charles knew anything about that personalized revolver. Charles found it ominous that Warren happened to be the one at the hostage swap. The traitor must be worried about what Charles might have found out among the Appalachies. Maybe Warren would shoot him to be on the safe side, and just claim the Appalachies did it.

At the end of the meadow, Charles turned and looked back. Roger and the sulfur were gone.

He decided he had two options. He could pretend he was still ignorant of Warren’s treachery, hope Warren bought it, and then turn him in as soon as they got back to the band. Or, he could confront Warren now, before Warren had a chance to shoot him. Both options were dangerous.

It would be his word against Warren’s, if Charles tried to turn him in. George would believe one of them, and the other would die. And Warren seemed to be a much more accomplished liar than Charles had realized.

And if Warren did suspect Charles had found clues about Warren’s collaboration with the Appalachies, Warren would have to kill him. Given that Warren had probably helped set up the ambush that had seen a third of them shot dead on the spot, it seemed he wasn’t opposed to smugglers dying.

And Charles didn’t see how Warren could help being suspicious that he knew something. Guilty people saw a noose when others just saw rope. Warren would have no trouble at all seeing the noose dangling in front of him.

“Are you all right Charles? We’ve been worried about you,” Warren said.

So that’s how he was going to play it. Concerned, caring Warren, until Charles turned his back.

Charles pulled out his revolver and pointed it at Warren.

“D-drop your gun,” he said.

“Your gun is shaking,” Warren said. Charles did not feel he was showing the proper concern.

“And it might go off,” he said, raising his voice. “Drop your gun right now. Slowly. Or I’ll shoot you.”

“I wonder if you would,” Warren said.

“This is the l-last time I’m telling you,” Charles said.

Warren slowly took off his gun belt and let it down on the ground.

“I’m getting tired of everybody telling me to take this off,” he said. “Are you going to explain what all this is about? You’d better have a really good reason for this. Pulling a gun on one of the leaders is a death sentence, you know.”

“You know what it’s about,” Charles said.

“Nope,” Warren said. “Suppose you clarify.”

Charles had somehow expected Warren to break down and confess, or turn white and try to lie his way out of it. But Warren’s calmness had him rattled. What if he had made a terrible mistake? What if Warren didn’t confess?

“I know you’re the traitor,” Charles said.

“You do, eh?” Warren said.

“The Appalachies told me.” Where had that come from? It wasn’t a bad idea, anyway.

Warren stroked his chin. “Those bastards,” he said.

Charles realized he did not have a plan for what to do now. If Warren wasn’t going to attack him, Charles didn’t think he had what it took to just murder him. But if he didn’t kill Warren, Charles would then have to march him into camp at gunpoint, where Warren could coolly deny the whole conversation.

“Why? Why did you do it?” Charles asked.

Warren didn’t say anything for a long time. Charles was about to demand a response when Warren finally said, “Well, Charles, I guess I may as well try to explain. Maybe honesty will have its reward.”

A little late for you to try honesty, Charles thought. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Charles, we’re on the wrong side, smuggling sulfur. You know that as well as I do. We sell it to everyone, even to Easton’s enemies. Now who’s the real traitor, me or this whole band?”

“Easton isn’t my problem,” Charles said. “I don’t owe Easton anything. Neither do any of the others.”

“You do owe your neighbors something,” Warren said. “Such as not selling highway robbers the ingredients for gunpowder. George knows that. But he wouldn’t care if they robbed his mother, as long as he was making a profit, Charles.”

“He’s not so bad. He gave the Appalachies that sulfur ransom so they wouldn’t kill me,” Charles said.

“Yes, and I was surprised about that,” Warren admitted. “But believe me, we had to do some convincing to get him to do it.”

Sure you did, Charles thought.

“I was worried about what you might have found out, Charles, but I helped convince him. Give me a little credit here.” For the first time his calm voice wavered almost imperceptibly toward pleading.

“Give you credit? You’ve been lying to all of us for months. Or is it years?”

Warren ignored the last question. “Well, you can believe me or not. But you know I’m right about George,” he said. “I know lots of smugglers have plenty of reason to complain about the way the king’s men have treated them. Fine. But that’s no excuse for making money by supporting violence and death like we do.”

“So you thought you’d make things better by getting a bunch of us killed. You could have gotten me killed.” Charles’ gun was shaking again.

“Well … I can’t justify that, not really, Charles. Except to say that sometimes to overthrow violence, you have to use violence. Those Scranton soldiers were enforcing the law. That might not make you feel any better, but I don’t see it as murder, enforcing the law like that. Still, it hurts, when you know the people who are breaking the law and you see them get punished.

“I didn’t want you dead,” Warren said. “You’re not here because you want to be, I know that. I didn’t want Big John dead. He was my friend. I’ve thought about it every day since it happened, and it still hurts. I am a loyal person; you have to believe that, Charles. I’m just not loyal to George.”

“So you’re working for Scranton,” Charles said. “But you’re from Easton. How’s that help out your neighbors back in Easton?”

“I’m working for Easton,” Warren said. “I’m a Builder, Charles.”

Charles’ mouth went slack and he let his gun down.

“No, you didn’t know all the Builders,” Warren said. “I remember seeing you around, though. Some of us are academics; some of us deal more with security. I didn’t quite make the cut for the university.”

Warren was one of the Builders’ secret enforcers now. This story was getting wilder, Charles thought.

“You killed your friends,” he said. “You killed Big John, your friend and one of the best leaders we had. It’s partly your fault, everyone the Appalachies have killed since the ambush, and you got me kidnapped. So forget the big moral argument. You’re my enemy.” Charles brought his gun back up.

Warren sighed. “I don’t seem to be explaining myself very well. Why don’t we sit down, and let me give you a little more of my side of this.” He glanced at the sun. “I think we have a little time before they’ll be expecting us back. If you don’t like what I have to say, you can shoot me. Fair?”

“Well … all right. You sit down first,” Charles said. Warren smiled, and stepped farther away from his gun, then sat with his back against a massive white pine tree. Charles settled down a few feet away.

“I’m never at my best with a gun pointed at me, but I’ll give this a shot,” Warren said. “For starters, the deal with the Appalachies was never about them trying to kill us and stealing sulfur. They were just the messengers to Scranton. That was the only deal I made with them. After that, I guess they got greedy.”

If Warren was pretending to be angry, he was a good actor. His face was flushed and he spoke rapidly. “I’ve been trying to get in touch with them and ask them what the hell they think they’re doing, but I never could. Then one day Roger shows up saying he’s got you, but he’ll give you back for sulfur. They’re the ones who double crossed me.”

“And there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of the people who died in that ambush. But that’s part of war. And the Builders have declared war on the smugglers.”

“But why?” Charles asked. “Easton needs the smugglers to get them more sulfur. That’s why they’ve let George get away with it for so long. They won’t get enough sulfur just from their own trading. Scranton is stingy with it.”

“But George won’t stick to dealing just with us,” Warren said. “We tried to bring him around, believe me, and he won’t listen. If he’s going to arm the whole peninsula, he’s hurting us, not helping. If we had an all out war with plenty of gunpowder on both sides, we could wipe out almost all the people on the peninsula. And we need people.”

“So instead, you want the Builders to have all the gunpowder and all the power.”

“I believe in them, Charles. I believe in what they’re doing. You have to pick a side in life. They aren’t perfect, but you have to pick a side. The smugglers who died were criminals. They were my friends, and that made it the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And if I ever make it back to Easton, I’m done with this job. It’s not for me. I’m out. I’ll work security detail at the garbage dump if they want me to.

“Charles, this will be tough for you to hear, but the world would be better off without George in it. The goal of the ambush was to get him out of leadership — either get him killed, or get him kicked out and get somebody else in who would work with us.”

“Somebody like you,” Charles said.

Warren shrugged. “Would I be such a bad leader, Charles?”

You still betrayed us. I’m on a side, too. I’m on the smugglers’ side.”

“Are you?”

“Well …”

“I want to make a proposal,” Warren said. “I don’t really think you do like the smugglers all that much. And you’re smart. You’ve studied. I’ve seen what you can do. I think I could get you into the university, if you had time to get some tutoring to get you ready of course. If you can help me get back to Easton alive, I’ll do my best to get you in at the university, with special consideration for your service to the Builders. What you do from there would be up to you.”

Very shrewd, Charles thought. Warren knew his weak spots.

“You’re asking me to be a traitor,” he said.

“No. I’m asking you to leave a life you never chose in the first place, so you can work to make the world better, all while doing something that would be a dream for you. Isn’t that true?”

“A Builder sold me into slavery,” Charles said.

“A Builder’s family, if I’m not mistaken,” Warren corrected him. “I’d be lying to you if I said the Builders were all upright and moral. There are good ones and bad ones, like anywhere else. My question to you is, can you get on board with helping the good ones? Some of us are really trying to make the world like it was before. The whole world’s stuck in a pit of ignorance, and we’re trying to get them out. Now there’s a cause you can live for, not just trying to survive after you’re free, or God forbid, staying a smuggler for the rest of your life.”

Or, Charles thought, the option Warren hadn’t mentioned was that Charles could accept the deal and Warren could shoot him in the back whenever he let his guard down.

They sat in silence for a minute or two.

“Charles, all I can say is, I’m being honest with you. I’m making the best case I can. I’m doing what I’m doing for what I believe are the right reasons. George is doing what he’s doing to make himself rich, and damn everyone else.”

After a pause, Warren added, “If I can’t convince you, the least you can do is shoot me now instead of taking me back to George.”

What Warren was proposing would give Charles a purpose, a dream to live for. The chance to join the Builders was a chance of a lifetime. Yes, it was an opportunity to do good, but it was also a chance to make it, to be rich and powerful. Warren couldn’t promise he’d get into the university, of course, that wasn’t his decision, but Charles was sure he could make it in and sure he could thrive once he did.

Warren was too idealistic. But he also had some good points about the smugglers. The smugglers told their own self-justifying story, about how the state drove them to their life of crime through persecution and injustice. What they really wanted, though, was easy money.

At the same time, although he’d always told himself he wasn’t a smuggler, the idea of turning against them now felt like a betrayal. While they were on the trail, whether they liked each other or not, they were a team. They all protected each other.

There was too much to think about, all at once, and not enough time to make a decision this huge.

If he accepted the deal and George found out, Charles was a dead slave. Or would be dead, once the band could no longer keep him alive for their amusement.

There was also the chance Warren would simply shoot him in the back while they were walking back to camp. The man had lied before. Charles really didn’t think he would shoot him, though. Warren seemed sincere. He found he still believed in Warren’s morality, as foolhardy as that might be. The morals of a traitor.

A wind swept along the ridge from the south, bringing the smell of wood smoke from the smugglers’ camp and plucking more autumn leaves from the trees.

How did he end up in these wretched situations all the time? Either he had to kill Warren or join him in his double life. What he really wanted to do was just carry his pack and get in nobody’s way and get home safely.

“It’s risky,” he said finally.

“Yes, it is,” Warren said. “Usually if you’re going to do anything great, the price is risk.”

From where they were sitting, Charles could see through a gap in the trees out over the mountain range, stretching off in the distance toward home. He wished somebody else could tell him what to do. A religious saying his old master’s wife used to quote came to him: “I will lift my eyes to the hills; where does my help come from?” He couldn’t remember the end. She would have said her help came from God, not the hills, he guessed. He could use advice from above now.

All he could hear, though, was the wind.

“All right,” Charles said. He lowered the gun.

“All right what?”

“All right, I promise not to turn you in to George. But you have to swear to do your best to get me into the university.”

“I swear it,” Warren said.

“While you’re at it, swear you won’t shoot me as soon as my back is turned.”

Warren laughed. “That’s an easy one. I swear that too.”

“All right.” Charles stood up, and stuck his gun in his holster. He helped Warren up, and they shook hands. But Charles made sure his gun was loose in the holster, and watched Warren carefully as he put on his gun belt.

“I’m almost glad you found out,” Warren said. “It’s more risky this way, but it was terrible to be alone like that. It was good to be able to defend myself to somebody. And to get an ally.”

Charles nodded, though he wasn’t sure about all this friends and soul mates stuff. The man was certainly not who Charles had thought he was, sincere as he sounded now. He would need some time to get to know the new Warren.

But a deal was a deal.

“Well if it isn’t the runaway slave,” the first sentry said. This less-than-heartwarming greeting was as enthusiastic a welcome as he got from most of the smugglers. Charles supposed it was understandable. They had all lost money on him, giving up their share of the profits from the two packs of sulfur, for a slave they didn’t really like.

George and the other leaders failed to show a great deal of joy, either, but they were more polite than the rest of the band. Warren told everyone how brave Charles had been, and John and James shook hands and told him, “Welcome back, good to have you,” with small smiles.

“Glad you are back,” Old Harry said, with the abstract melancholy of a man who has just misplaced a large sum of money and wants to get back to thinking about it.

George shook his hand and said, “Glad we didn’t lose you,” but his unsmiling face could have fooled Charles.

So sorry to lose you your sulfur, Charles thought.

He nodded hello to Marguerite, who was standing nearby. If she felt any interest in his adventures, she hid it well. “Hi,” she said.

Gary was more enthusiastic. “What was it like? Were the Appalachies like real people, or more like ghosts? Did you —”

Warren glanced in their direction.

“Later,” Charles said. “I can’t talk about it right now.” He needed to go over his story and make sure there were no hints of Warren in it.

“Oh, sure, sure, sorry,” Gary said. “I know you need some time to recover from something like that.” He seemed a little awed.

Why couldn’t Gary have been kidnapped? Charles wondered. Gary certainly would have enjoyed it more than he had.

Keeping Warren’s secret made Charles feel like a small boy hiding a broken vase, but worse, because, unlike the small boy, he didn’t just have vague notions of doom; his notions of doom were precise and detailed. The rest of the trip stretched far out in front of him.

“I want to go lie down for a while,” he said.

“No time for that,” George said. “We’re heading out now. Let’s move it.”

“I don’t really think we have anything to worry about now from the Appalachies,” Warren said.

“Nah. I don’t trust those damn savages, but I’m not worried about them,” George said. “It’s them who should be worried about me. Now pack up!”

The smugglers, finally grasping that he meant pack up, sprang to it.

When Charles first got to camp he had noticed the strips of meat drying on racks, nicely cured and ready to be turned into pemmican. He’d assumed that would be his next chore, but the slaves now hurried to gather up the meat and stuff it in packs. They would have to make the pemmican later.

“Looks like Dan’s idea about finding animals at that water hole worked out, then,” Charles said to Gary.

“Yeah, enough to get us by,” Gary said. “They did get some deer, the day you disappeared. Actually, we were just waiting for the meat to dry before we headed out, because we thought you, we —” he stopped, embarrassed.

“Yeah, I figured,” Charles said.

“Yes … so anyway, then Warren comes into camp saying he’s just been held at gunpoint by an Appalachie, and they have you and …”

“Let’s go, let’s go!” George shouted. His own pack was loaded and on his back, bedroll neatly tied on top, and he started walking away through the trees.

There wasn’t much to gather up, but over their days at the campsite, they had spread their belongings all around, and the smugglers scrambled to gather them up and shove them into their packs. In only a few minutes, the campsite was empty except for the blackened rings of stones and the meat drying racks standing empty and useless; and the band was trailing after George, still tugging at straps and shifting packs around to get them balanced.

“What’s the hurry?” Gary muttered. “There’s hardly time left today to do any walking. We may as well just have stayed here overnight.”

Charles overheard hushed grumbling among the others too. George was running now after all his talk of staying and fighting … gets his favorite slave back … I’d have left a long time ago …

Charles was happy to see the camp go. It had been the last campsite for too many people. But his body was furious about setting out again without a rest, after his long days of hurried hiking. All he really wanted to do now was lie down and sleep, or maybe cry. His thoughts were scattered like marbles and he wanted time to try to track them down and gather them up.

They soon reached the end of the mountaintop they had camped on and the ground sloped downward ever steeper, finally easing into a broad valley. By the time evening had definitely replaced afternoon, the mountain was in the distance behind them and they stood on the edge of a wide stream.

Or it had been a wide stream, when they crossed it earlier in the year on their way to Scranton. It was now several tepid trickles of water, crisscrossing over a broad band of loose stones and solid bedrock. Water bugs swarmed over warm pools standing alone as islands from the rest of the stream.

On the way to Scranton, the band had been forced to string a long rope over the rushing current, so it wouldn’t sweep them off their feet and spoil their trade tobacco. Now their biggest risk was slipping on green algae-slicked rocks.

In twos and threes, the smugglers scrambled up the far bank of the stream.

“All right, now somebody start a fire, would you?” George said.

“Say what?” John said.

“A fire. You take a hand drill …”

“I know how to start a fire,” John said. “What do you want a fire for? We’ve hardly gone anywhere yet. I thought you were in a hurry.”

“You’ll see,” George said. “Gary, you get one started while we bring firewood.”

The thought struck Charles that fires could be used for purposes of encouraging confession, and he edged toward the outer part of the group, so as to be in good position to run if the need arose. He’d rather face the mercy of the cats in the deep shadow than the mercy of the smugglers.

Gary soon had a fire going, and once they had stacked wood on it and it had burned for a while, George said, “Charles.”

He jumped. “Yes?”

“You and Gary get those copper pots and get a nice scoop of coals.”

Gary and Charles looked at each other. Gary shrugged.

When they had done it, George said, “Now each of you go a ways along the stream, about a thousand steps will be about right I’d say. Go over to the other side, and dump the coals out in some nice dry brush or something.”

There was gasping and murmuring. John pumped his fist. “Yeah! That’ll fix those Appalachies!”

“Chief, you can’t be serious,” Warren said, looking ashen. “The fire will jump the stream. It’s suicide!”

“He’s right,” Old Harry said. “This is way too risky.”

“It won’t jump the stream,” George said. “It’s plenty wide enough. Even where there’s no water, it’s not going to burn the rocks. And haven’t you been watching the weather? Wind’s been out of the south all day, southeast. My money is there’s a storm behind it. Should be here by morning. Wind won’t change before that rain hits. But by the time the rain gets here …”

Talk broke out among the smugglers. Charles stood still, overwhelmed by horror. All the women and children in that village. Roger. Running Elk. They were enemies, yes, but not the kind of enemies he wanted to roast to death. And George was going to make him do it.

“Charles and Gary, are you going to get those coals?”

He should not do this thing. He hated George for delegating his murder to other people, to Charles. But surely, this wasn’t his sin. He couldn’t disobey a direct order. And if he did disobey, somebody else would do it.

He and Gary put sticks through the pot handles so they could carry them without the heat from the red coals singeing their knuckles. At the stream, Gary went left, and Charles went right. I’m just obeying orders, he told himself. This is on George’s head, not mine. One thousand steps.

He walked up the other side of the stream bank, crunched a little way into the dusty dry leaves and twigs. What he was doing did not seem real. It was momentous, but small. All he did was set the pot down, tip it over, and watched the coals spill over into the leaves. No longer red from the fire, they looked almost harmless.

For a moment, they just lay there, a bright glow crawling along the dark edges of the charred wood. You could step on it now, he told himself. Throw some dirt on it.

A black spot spread on one leaf, then the spot burst into a tongue of yellow flame.

Charles turned and sprinted for the stream, but stopped at the edge. The pot. He had left it behind.

He ran back and grabbed it. The fire was already the size of a campfire, shooting through the leaves and licking up a dead branch. One edge crackled into some brown grass, and gray smoke rolled out.

“Charles! Get away from there!” somebody shouted at him from the distance.

By the time he got back to the smugglers, Gary was already back too, and everyone was watching the fires. Two plumes of dark gray smoke rose from the forest on the other side of the stream.

“Now grab another bucket load and dump it right across the stream here,” George ordered. Gary and Charles did it.

Other smugglers grabbed partially burning branches and ran across the stream, hurling them into the trees, shouting and whooping.

Nobody could stop the fires now. Tinder dry leaves and grass puffed into yellow flame as the fire advanced, crackling and whooshing as it found new fuel. The fire, it seemed to Charles, was in as much of a hurry as George had been. The wind was blowing from the south, just as George had pointed out. It might be bringing rain, but it had no moisture yet. It leaped through the fire and showered sparks further into the woods, fanning the crackle into a roar.

The flames climbed the trees and blackened branches, which glowed and then fell in flaming chunks. The several fires raced toward each other to join into one.

“There’s no point running anywhere,” Warren said. “If it jumps that stream we’ll never outrun it.”

The whooping died down and the smugglers watched the fire in silence.

It flowed toward them, through the streamside grass, sizzled, and went out as it met the stones.

George stood, arms crossed, a smile on his face, and watched his creation rage.

Next chapter

Previous chapters:

Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six

Last Supper of a Waning Summer

By k.j. mcdaniel

Circling the parking lot, we searched for
a space like ravens hovering over carrion
to keep the slides and monkey bars hidden
from our little girl, wanting to purge distractions
from our picnic under the covered park pavilion.
We sat. We talked of a mother’s bleeding ulcer,
a niece who lived in a faraway place, and about
a sister who issued a death warrant over a coffee
table. All this while we kept mixing the Ranch and
turkey bacon of the cornbread salad and cutting up
yellow tomatoes for the black-bean salsa. We, too,
appreciated the silent moments and the slanted sun
rays that were determined to interrupt our shady retreat
as we pecked watermelon rinds and lamented forgotten
toothpicks for the tiny ivory seeds wedged in our teeth.
We threw away half-eaten fragments and packed up
leftovers when our little girl discovered the playground.
We watched the tips of her auburn strands blow away
in the breeze like dandelion seeds as she ran in place at
the tops of slides, taking turns catching her, entertained
by the other children who pretended to be superheroes
who were out to catch friends threatening Gotham. While
we, under the surface, mulled over the new stuff that
would come with Monday at the end of summer.

A Heaping Helping of Ethiopia

By Amanda Miller

It’s not just the fire-and-earth red of the doro wat chicken stew simmering in the kettle. It’s not just the spongy elasticity of the crepe-style injera almost sticking to your fingers. It’s not even just the dark aroma of coffee beans roasting over in the coals in preparation for brewing buna. Something about the entire sensory experience of making Ethiopian food is so much more than just getting food on the plate (or on one round tray, in this case). My soul ends up being fed just as much as, if not more than, my stomach.

That isn’t to suggest in the least that Ethiopian food simply doesn’t prove satisfying, regardless of the preemptive opinion of several staunch meat-and-potatoes Midwestern farmers. I’ve been teaching cooking classes at a local kitchen store this summer, and was attempting to persuade one of my groups to allow me to introduce them to some East African cuisine, fully aware of the stark contrast to central Kansas dining. Their pre-class joke about “learning how to eat bread and water” expressed what can be unfortunately common social sentiment of other countries’ food and accompanying culture — lack of both awareness and curiosity. I, however, have more than enough enthusiasm to go around, and was happy to share.

Accordingly, I overrode their trepidation and took the disdain as a challenge. Even just in planning the menu, I often had to stop and take a moment. Every recipe is so much more than ingredients and quantities (especially since those are all just nebulous ideas anyway) — each recipe is of names and faces and stories. I was living outside a refugee camp in northern Kenya when I met Ethiopian food and the people who make it, and they are inseparable in my memory.

I know how to watch for yeasty bubbles to pop in the thin injera batter, showing it’s time to peel it off the hot skillet, because early one morning a young woman my age walked me through the steps. She didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Amharic, but she was an excellent and patient teacher. My kitchen these days doesn’t include a clay oven and a giant flat cast-iron, but I can’t make injera without remembering the smell of the charcoal fire and the tin teapot she used to drizzle out the batter.

I know that transliterating doro wat into simply “chicken stew” is almost a tragedy, because that just doesn’t prepare you for a stew like none other. Not only does the deep red of the long-simmered onions in hot pepper berbere catch my attention, but so will the instant flavor inferno in my mouth and stomach. Literal kilograms of hot pepper in the pot will do that. In between gasps for breath, I taste the undeniably delicious fall-off-the-bone chicken and signature hardboiled eggs; I can’t help but keep eating. This is the traditional feast reserved for only holidays and honored guests, and it’s rare to be able to prepare it in the camp. But there we were, being served doro.

I know brewing buna takes patience, because every time I asked my friend if the coffee was ready, she would emphatically observe, “Not yet!” The coffee ceremony is an integral ritual of Ethiopian culture, so much more than a shot of caffeine. No one takes coffee alone (which is probably good, because someone could have a heart attack with how strong it is). Starting with green coffee beans and going all the way through a triple-boil process, the process of enjoying buna is just that — a process to enjoy, something to share with others. Each round of successive almost-thick espresso brings people closer together, and the random popcorn is just another bonus.

I want to go on and describe how the earthy sweetness of cabbage is brought out in turmeric-y alicha wat, or how buttery and meaty tibs makes a day in the desert worth it, or how the pudding texture of spicy lentil shiro is so oddly delicious. The culinary aspects of those observations don’t necessarily mean anything to me; what I care about is the sweet shy smile of the lady who showed me where she prepared her distinct alicha, how lines of men shoveled in their trays of tibs on long low tables in silent acceptance of the awkward white people also eating there, how my hardworking cook friend served me shiro in a mini cast-iron pot on my birthday.

It is impossible for me to forget the flavors of the food, and it is impossible for me to forget the faces behind the food. The instantaneous beam of recognition from the work-worn coffee man every time we came into his shop. We would share a nod as he automatically began to pour out the milk for my untraditional mkiato no sukari (the typical dose of black espresso and sugar is close to lethal for me). Or the silent pain in the eyes of a woman who is one of the last refugees from her region, still waiting after 22 years of watching others being resettled. She prepared our most memorable meal in the camp as a farewell, but then we left to go back to our homes, and yet again, she still stayed. Or the innocent, undeveloped grins of a girl too small and young for her age, who will never receive the special help she needs, since there just aren’t extra resources when everyone is simply trying to survive. The camp is all she’s ever known; maybe it will always be.

Just from the little I’ve known of the camp, I feel like I could keep writing for days, trying to compile a photo album of all the faces that are stories that are lives. The snapshots of memories in my mind travel all the way into my heart each time, pain plus joy. I hear reggae and catch a waft of incense and see dust floors when I cook injera and wat, in an almost startlingly holistic emotional reaction to Ethiopian food.

Food isn’t just food; it’s relationships and community and culture. And when you catch even just a glimpse of those through a tangible medium, such as preparing and eating a meal together, you form this bit of a connection that makes the literal other side of the world not so far away after all. Geography and anthropology aren’t just school subjects anymore. Facts and figures and news clips become real.

The culture of food has something deep and real served up with it, something that lasts even longer than the five rounds of espresso. There isn’t always enough injera to go around, so everyone reaches in with their hands as they gather around the same tray, focusing as much on sharing and fellowship as on eating. When guests visit, they are treated with intense generosity, so hosts might just go without food for the next couple days.

My Ethiopian refugee friends live faith, because they have truly lost everything and maybe everyone they hold dear, and yet somehow they trust. They keep on cooking up stacks of spongy injera, stewing up pots of lentils, brewing up kettles of pitch-black buna. So do I, sharing with anyone who is willing to try.
But I went home after my time in the refugee camp. And they didn’t. Most of them never will.

“For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body … and if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:13a, 26a.

Orchid

By Candice Mast

You appear always poised midair
Ready to take flight, butterfly like.
Your roots put down, but attach to nothing much,
No grounding dirt, you feed on bark, attach to trees,
Survive on droplets.
I wish I was more like you,
No need of roots curled deep in dirt.
Living beautiful, needing little.
Ready to fly away on the wish of God.

Orchid

a trilogy of moments

By Ruthie Voth

i. unexpected

one time
you looked at me
and there was a strange shifting of my tectonic plates
the world around me turned, briefly, to shades of gray
and then
you were gone
and I couldn’t bring myself to look at you.

that was the first time you said I love you.

ii. anticipation in repose

you, lying cradled in my arms
a dark night
— we’re laughing

iii. temporary

I promised
to love, honor and cherish you
until death.

maybe the cherishing part
didn’t kick in
until after the day I thought you were dying.
that might have been the point when I realized
that life is short,
the end will be unexpected,
and a lifetime with you is not a given.

or maybe it was the morning I felt your skin
loose over your muscular arms
and in the darkness
I imagined you covered
in wrinkles and age spots,
balding,
thin…
you’re slipping away from me
faster than I realized.
(oh, to be wrapped in a skin that is not frail and
time-dependent.)