October 15, 2013
With mixed sadness and relief, I welcome you to the final issue of Lacuna: A Journal of Historical Fiction.
When Lacuna first closed to fiction and poetry submissions last August, I had intended to continue the journal in a new format at a later date. This trial hiatus, however, has reminded me how much time and energy I was sacrificing to keep up with submissions, editing, and formatting. The reservations that I expressed last June about the quality of submissions and my own qualifications as an editor of historical fiction remain, and are compounded by a number of recent changes in my personal and professional life: a cross-country move, a new occupation as a graduate student, the need to focus on my own writing, and the desire to make myself more available for new editing projects.
I acknowledge and regret the continuing dearth of markets for short historical fiction. Lacuna readers will be excited to discover (if they haven’t already discovered) Circa: A Journal of Historical Fiction, edited by Lacuna contributor Jennifer Falkner, which has already released two fantastic issues. If you are considering opening a historical fiction journal and need advice or publicity, please feel free to contact me.
Editing Lacuna was an experience - at times exciting, at times draining, always instructive and enlightening. I am honored to have been able to publish so many original, creative, resonant works of fiction and poetry. Thank you for reading. When you have finished enjoying this issue, please browse the many fantastic stories and poems in our archives.
I am happy to answer any questions in the comments.
Sincerely, and with gratitude,
Posted by Megan Arkenberg at 12:11 AM
To Lead; To Follow
by Nathan C. Juhl
OvertureThe two men walked slowly into the room, each at his own pace. One led, the other followed. The first, a younger man, gestured toward a chair sitting in the corner as he took his jacket off. Before the follower, an older gentleman, reached the chair, the young man stretched out and took the follower’s ivy cap, overcoat, scarf and gloves.
The first man took the articles of clothing and laid them down one at a time. The cap, slightly slanted at the front. The long overcoat, black and gray with small clumps of matter caked into the fabric. The gloves, a rich black leather with a fur-like interior. The scarf, dark gray to match the coat. Each was set gently on top of another and placed on the gold and red couch. The younger man moved over and shut the door, taking his keys out and setting them on the polished wood table beside the door.
“Can you sit in the chair for me?”
His words were soft but held a firm tone, the statement less a question and more of a command. The follower nodded weakly and put his hands in his pockets. He stopped in front of the chair, turning slowly to face the leader. He calmly reached down and tugged his own pants at the knee, dragging them higher so that his socks showed. Looking up, the follower once again glanced at the leader’s face, and then sat down, connecting with the chair with a soft thud.
Over There“Corporal Barnett, you’ll be commanding the squad moving beyond those hills. Keep close with the rest of the platoon. Is that understood?”
I look up at my commanding officer; his face is filled with the same emotionless expression I’m so used to by now. His helmet has been shot at least once, grazed to the right by a stray bullet. The joke is that he keeps it on for good luck, though the man seems to care little for such things as luck.
“Yes sir, those hills, sir. It’ll be done.”
I salute him and walk over to my squad. It has been two weeks since we landed at Normandy, in that bloody mess of Omaha Beach. Every man in the 30th Division has thanked God that he didn’t see any of the action there. The men I’m to lead are huddled together, as privates often are before the battle. Of course, how the hell would I know. This is my first engagement too. Seeing the elephant, they used to call it. I sure don’t see any damn elephants here.
“Alright men, the Krauts are just over those hills. We’ve got air support coming in on their position to give us the leg up. A lot of it’s going to be us though.”
This is the first for all of us. But we’re going to take Saint-Lô come hell or high water.
Stop Being PassiveHe had left in ’41 in love with her. He returned a somber stump. He wasn’t the man she had loved, wasn’t the same twenty-first year old who had gone off in glory.
He was silent, didn’t look up to her. A small glass of scotch sat idly in his hand.
“Harold, please talk to me. I can’t… I can’t do this. I can’t follow you around like this anymore. I can’t be the only one who cares about us.”
He still didn’t move. Her words seemed to echo, hitting every inch of the room except for him.
“Harold Barnett, you look at me! I’m tired of it! I’m through!”
She stomped out of the room, not looking at him. Not noticing the tears in his eyes.
Timing is Everything“The air was thick and the clouds were low, but I still should have seen it coming. Saint-Lô was right there, and the Germans were close, but I still missed our planes overhead. Why would I notice them? I didn’t. Not until the red smoke hit my face and their first bomb fell into our ranks.”
How Kids Have Their PhasesThe boy held the stick close to his chest, one hand high and the other low. The foliage covered much of the area and the angle of the valley made it a much better hiding spot. The other boys, their own sticks held close like his, hadn’t spotted him yet. His own group all lay around the area, on their stomach and awaiting his order. Their spot was too good. He smiled.
Jumping up just as the last boy walked past their position, he shouted, “Attack!” Harold and his ragtag eleven year old force pounced in an ambush, his stick troops fighting to victory.
The Dream, The Nightmare“They were falling again. And again. And again. Each one exploding and hurling earth into my face. The air grew hot from it all. I began to run, trying to find the cover that wasn’t there. Finally it came, the hit I was waiting for. It knocked me on the ground, the upheaved ground throwing itself at my face. I could feel my leg, feel it like I never had before.”
Harold burst from the mattress, sweat sliding down his skin. The blanket stuck to him like metal to a magnet. He would have to get to sleep soon. His Dental Admission Test was tomorrow, and he had to do well on it.
“Come hell or high water.”
AppointmentsSchedule for November 22, 1963
Mrs. Eleanor Miller- Toothache
Mr. John Erickson- Dental Extraction: Molar
Master Daniel Barnum- Cavity
Master Matthew Barnum- Cavity
Miss Sarah Barnum- Cavity
Mr. Christopher Barnum- Grinds Teeth in Sleep
Dr. Harold Barnett: Dentist
Down and Out“Bring the litter over!”
“How is he?”
“Seems to have a concussion, maybe a few broken bones. His leg is pretty torn up, though.”
“Alright, get him outta here. Hold on, Corporal. You’ll be okay.”
Read All About It!
June 26, 1944
FRIENDLY FIRE ON THE FRONT!
AT LEAST 100 DEAD!
LT. GENERAL DEAD!
Slide. Thud.Slide. Thud. Slide. Thud. Slide. Thud. Sit. Silence.
“Harold, we’ve got your test back. You’ll be able to walk again, and soon. But it won’t ever be quite the same. After the physical therapy that limp should go away, though… Harold? Are you listening?”
Silence. Stand. Slide. Thud. Slide. Thud. Slide. Thud.
GoodnightThe leader had already stripped down the follower and replaced his clothing. The outfit he now wore was loose around his body. No longer were there shoes on his feet, which annoyed him. Instead the follower wore thick socks that made him slide on the wood floor. The younger man walked in front, escorting the older man to the mattress. The leader tapped the soft comforter.
“Sit right here for me.”
The old man nodded softly, going over and sitting down on the spot that had been touched. Sensing what was next, he stretched out and laid his head down, bringing his legs and feet over the edge of the mattress and onto its warm surface. The young man pulled the blanket over the follower’s body and watched as he grabbed and pulled it over his own head. The leader smiled slightly, and then turned away. He grabbed his coat and his keys and opened the door, looking into the room. His hand found the switch on the wall and one last time he smiled.
“I’ll see you in the morning, Doc Harold. Have a goodnight.”
The ninety-one year old man in the bed mumbled something, which satisfied the nurse.
* * *
Nathan C. Juhl is a senior in college in Kentucky. He writes all forms of genres, mainly horror and historical fiction. He has been writing since he was eleven. Since then he has written two plays, one musical, and a collection of poems, songs, and short stories. This is the first time that he has been published. Nathan plans to not only write more short stories, but to get non-fiction work published as well. Nathan would like to dedicate this story to Eleanor Juhl (1941-2013), who always wanted to see him published.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Well, it really depends on the story that I’m writing. For instance, this story was inspired by a man I took care of when I worked in an assisted living facility. While not completely his story, it is inspired from his life and I hope that I’ve done justice to him. Usually I get my ideas from books or movies that I read, my mind wanders off to, What if this happened? What if it was told from this perspective?, and it just rolls off from there.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
The most important part of any story is plot and characters. A story that isn’t well developed isn’t worth reading. What makes historical fiction different is that you have to actually try and make a place that hasn’t existed for years come back to life. While science fiction does this, it creates its own world, but in historical fiction you are taking something that actually happened and putting in on the page. The most important part of historical fiction writing is understanding that, understanding that when you write you are talking about real people, a real time period that existed. People lived, loved, were sad and happy and confused and disappointed just like you were. They were real, as real as anyone you know. You have to respect and cherish that.
What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Research. Research research research. Know what you are talking about. Because you don’t want a reader to get two paragraphs into a story and stare at some phrase you used that didn’t exist during the time period. It will throw them off and that ruins the experience for them. The most important thing to do is understand the culture that you are representing. You might not need to read every book written on the subject (though I’ll admit I try), but you need to be able to understand who you are writing. Pick a period that you love and have a passion for. Make characters who you would want to be or who you would want to watch. And have a hell of a good time doing it.
Caught on Film
by WC Roberts
We marched on Washington like step-children in a fairy tale
no bread crumbs but the Bill of Rights a spray of pansies
clutched in our hands following the Socratic death
of Hollywood Ten defender Bartley Crum
a handful of reds washed down with fire hoses
our cries for help drowned out by boos and raspberries
blown from the steps of the whites-only Capitol.
Tubes under the banks of the Potomac whisked us
from one sterling prison to the next,
a disquieting vision produced in camera
where every cell turns black by light of day
drawn out and desiccated by a thirst for things
we do not -- indeed, cannot -- know:
the evidence in our case; their case against us.
WC Roberts lives in a mobile home up on Bixby Hill, on land that was once the county dump. The only window looks out on a ragged scarecrow standing in a field of straw and dressed in WC's own discarded clothes. WC dreams of the desert, of finally getting his first television set, and of ravens. Above all, he writes, and has had poems published in Strange Horizons, Apex, Space & Time Magazine, Mindflights, Aoife's Kiss, Scifaikuest, Star*Line, and others.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction poem?
There are many parts. It’s most important they work together, and make a plausible whole.
Breaking the Law
by Marilyn Levy
She marks off the days on the calendar. She knows she should call to confirm her appointment, but she’s too jittery. Unfolding her still lean body, she walks to the closet and drags out her khaki jacket which has seen better days that she can barely remember. When she reaches into the pocket where she stores her money, she finds that it’s empty. She rifles through all the other pockets; they’re empty, too. She quickly tries to calculate what she’s done with the alimony.
Unable to come up with an answer, she sits on the floor and watches the light penetrate the dirt-streaked living room windows forming a pool on the faded fake Persian carpet. Somehow the light’s persistence encourages her.
She walks back into the kitchen overrun with dirty dishes and empties the contents of three drawers onto the linoleum floor. Then she gets down on her hands and knees and picks through the assorted debris – several half-used candles, rubber bands, pieces of foil, scraps of paper, empty prescription bottles, newspaper articles, candy wrappers. Finally, she scavenges three dollars in change. Leaving the mess on the floor, she scurries out of the house.
* * *
Sitting on the El, she forgets where she’s headed and why. After a moment, she tells herself, “Get off at Congress.”
“What?” the young black woman sitting next to her asks.
“Nothing,” she answers. Then asks if she should get off at Congress if she’s heading to Grant Park.
“You going to the demonstration?”
“You look kind of familiar,” the black woman says.
Sabina looks at her but doesn’t quite see her.
“Were you in Kaplan’s Contemporary Lit class last year?”
“I think so.” As soon as she says it, Sabina knows she sounds idiotic and wishes she could take it back.
Wishes she were wearing her hooded black sweater so she could hide inside of it, erasing her identity. She feels the black girl slide closer to the window. “Pynchon,” she says.
The girl doesn’t respond.
“We read Pynchon in the class.”
* * *
When they get to their stop, Sabina slowly unfolds and rises. The girl pushes past her and empties out of the train before Sabina reaches the door. By the time she climbs the stairs to ground level, Sabina wants to turn around, head home and find a way to numb her brain. But she pushes toward the park and wanders around in a daze. Battered by the crush of thousands of anti-war demonstrators.
Time evaporates. Hours, maybe days later, maybe minutes later, she isn’t sure - she’s caught in a rush of blue undulating towards her. I’m drowning, she thinks. And she tries to swim out of the park. But she forgets how to move.
“Hey! Hey!” someone yells at her.
She turns around.
“Hey,” she hears again. “Girl from the El – from Kaplan’s class...”
Sabina tries to focus.
“Are you on something?”
Sabina stares at her.
“No,” she says. But wishes she were.
“You can’t just stand there. Jesus.”
Just then a guy explodes in front of them. Blood hurls out of his head and dances in the air. She doesn’t realize it’s just his long, wild red hair. Doesn’t know that hours later, his head will, in fact, explode.
The girl grabs Sabina’s arm and drags her along, zigzagging towards Michigan Avenue.
* * *
“What time is it?” Sabina asks, anxiously.
Sabina groans, remembering her seven o’clock appointment. “It’s now or never,” she says to herself.
“Right on,” the girl says. And Sabina sees that she’s shaking. “What were you doing – just standing there, girl?”
“Guess I was in shock. All the blood.”
“You saw blood?”
Before they hit the street, Sabina feels that the panic in the park has subsided for the moment. But she doesn’t trust her instincts anymore.
“It’s okay. We’re safe,” the girl says.
Sabina tries to slow down her breathing. But now that the adrenalin of panic has been unleashed inside of her, she has no control over her body, and she exhales in staccato bursts. “Have an appointment. Gotta go,” she says. And she compels her legs to carry her out of the park to the subway, even though she’d feel safer crawling.
* * *
When she gets home, she empties out the drawers in the bedroom. She can’t come up with enough money. She wanders back to the kitchen, looks through the mess on the floor, looks at the wall phone, then empties out a cabinet. Still no cash. Finally, she picks up the phone and dials her father’s store.
“Berman’s Shoes,” he says, with a slight Eastern European accent. It always shocks her to hear her father’s voice over the phone. In person, she doesn’t hear the accent; over the phone the contours of his face, blurred by time, morph into an amalgam of others faces. She listens to him as if he were a stranger.
“Berman’s Shoes,” he repeats.
“Daddy,” she whispers, choking on the word.
There’s a long silence. She can hear him breathing. He inhales a cigarette, then exhales. He’d been told to stop smoking years ago.
“You all right, Sabina?”
She tries to answer. But she can’t. She knows if she even attempts to open her mouth, grief will pour into the phone and electrocute her father on the other end.
“Binnie?” he asks, calling her by the nickname no one ever uses anymore.
She puts the phone back on the hook; then she returns to the living room and watches the sunlight slowly disappear.
* * *
She hears him pull up in front of her house. The blue Chevy sedan, old-fashioned even before he brought it home from the dealer, slides to the curb with an audible sigh. He gets out, coughs a few times; then slams the car door shut. She hears him run up the grey, rotting, wooden porch steps, almost tripping on the third one. She hears him stamp out his cigarette. She sits there, motionless. He walks to the dirt-streaked window, puts his hand on the glass and peers in. When he sees her, he points towards the door.
Like a zombie, she gets up and walks to the hallway, brushing against the coat rack laden with the ghosts of old sweaters whose inhabitants had long ago disappeared. She ignores the musty smell, opens the door, and lets her father into her life.
The small-boned man, bent more from sorrow than fatigue or old age, and the taller young woman, coming apart at the edges, stand looking at each other, feeling like father and child again. Like a father who’s been gone for a long time and has returned to find that his child has grown up without him. Both are sorry, but there’s nothing they can do to make up for lost time.
Finally, he moves toward her. Tentatively, he puts his arms around her and strokes her long, limp hair, as he used to when she was a little girl.
The touch of his hand on her hair conveys more tenderness than she’s felt for months. More than she can bear. She buries her face in his shoulder and begins to sob.
She tries not to think about her mother, but she can’t help herself. She remembers the last time they met. “You’re a selfish girl,” her mother said. “Always thinking about yourself and no one else. Your nose in your books all the time.”
Selfishness isn’t what plagues me, Sabina thinks and wishes she could stop crying.
When the sobbing finally tapers off, she realizes her father’s shirt is soaked.
“I’m sorry,” she says, running her hand down his white cotton shirt with its button-down collar, the kind he’s worn to work every day for the past 30 years.
“Don’t worry. Salt is good to take out the stains.”
“I’m here to listen,” he says. “But first, could we sit?”
Sabina leads him into the living room and pushes aside a pile of books so he can sit down on the old couch, draped with what once had been a colorful Indian bedspread. Faded by the sunlight, it now covers torn spots and material worn thin from years of abuse. The bedspread, still smelling of spices from the Far East, lends an exotic feel to the room filled with mismatched furniture bought at Good Will. Despite her circumstances, Sabina still has an eye for beauty. And even at her lowest point, she’d somehow been able to coax the room into an almost artistic whole. She’d finagled a chair from a second hand shop, walked home with an old globe a neighbor was trying to sell, and made a table from a huge spool for wire that someone had left in her alley. Still, she wishes at that moment that she could be like the children of her parents’ friends, if not for her sake, then, at least, for her father’s.
“I’ve made a mess of things.”
“But you always remember my birthday and Father’s Day,” he says, quickly.
It’s so ludicrous, it makes her laugh.
“If I did, I’m glad.”
“People make mistakes.”
“It’s more than mistakes.”
“I don’t have anyone else to turn to.”
“It’s right that you should call me.”
“Your hair is grey.”
“From old age – or maybe worry.”
“Or maybe worry,” she repeats.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says, sadly. “Should I come, or shouldn’t I? If I say something, will I make it worse? Maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is, I tell myself.”
“I’m not blaming you.”
Looking away, Sabina nervously runs her finger back and forth across the fine scar separating her left eyebrow into neat halves.
“Everybody’s descent is different,” she says slowly, feeling her way into unfamiliar territory, “but I guess we all wind up the same way. We just keep on going down until we’re there – and that’s it – we’re at the bottom. And there’s no place else to go.”
“But up. You can go up from there.”
She wishes she could hold onto the hope in his voice and keep it inside of her for just a moment, so she can remember what it feels like.
“You need my help, you got my help,” he says, without really looking at her.
“I want you to know...”
“I don’t have to know. You ask me for help, and I give it to you because I’m your father.”
“I want to tell you.”
“Do you need money? If you need money, I have it for you. Take it,” he says, reaching into his pocket and pulling out his wallet.
He hands her three one hundred dollar bills.
“How did you know?”
“A growing girl always needs money. Take it. Take it.”
“I need money so I can...”
“Buy yourself a lipstick, some clothes, whatever. You’re a smart girl, Binnie, the smartest in your class. You’re thirty-three years old. You’re still young. You can still make something out of your life. It’s not too late.”
“I have to see a doctor later.”
“Good. It’s good you’re finally taking care of yourself. You look too thin. Next time I come, I’ll bring chocolates.”
“His office is in Skokie.”
Her father reaches into his pocket again. “I’ll leave you the keys. I’ll get the car tomorrow. Brian will drive me over.”
“Everybody’s afraid to go to the doctor,” her father says, quickly. “These days you could have a million different things and not know it.” He puts the car keys in her hand.
“Remember the pink Caddy?” she asks, suddenly.
“Yeah,” he sighs. “That was a car.”
“Where’d you get the money you just gave me?”
“Robbed a bank.”
“Gambling? That’s how you got the Caddy, isn’t it?”
“How I lost it, too.”
“I thought mom made you sell it.”
“Nah. Don’t blame her for everything. She does what she can.”
He pauses for a long moment in mid-decision. “The money’s from her,” he says, finally.
Sabina refuses the information. She hands the keys back to her father. “My friend said she’d drive me.”
“Okay, then. Okay,” he says, with obvious relief. He clearly loves the girl, but he’s already overburdened by the vicissitudes of his own life.
Sabina fingers the money and feels angry – angry because she has to take it from him. Angry because he’s bought her off so easily. Angry because he’s dammed up her insides to prevent the real catharsis, the flood which he knew was coming but which had frightened him so much that he’d stuck his finger in the dike to stop the flood. And angry at herself because she knows that if she had had a choice, she would have chosen the money over the confession, anyway.
* * *
* * *
“Cash in advance,” Naomi says, as they walk towards her brand new 1968 Oldsmobile. “That’s what they all want. At least, you found a real doctor.” She gathers up her red and yellow ankle-length cotton skirt and slides into the driver’s seat.
Sabina, now dressed in a similar skirt with ties at the waist and a loose v-neck top, doesn’t respond.
“I went with my sister – to some dump on the south side. I don’t know who was more scared, her or me. You feel like you’re committing some crime, or something.”
“It is a crime.”
“Okay. So maybe it is. But it shouldn’t be. Don’t worry; you’ll be fine,” Naomi says, as she reaches over and turns on the car radio.
“Fuckin’ A,” she shouts as soon as the news comes on to round out the hour. “It was bad down there today.”
“Where?” Sabina asks, as she bends down to buckle her sandals.
“Jesus, Sabina, the demonstration at Grant Park.”
In the recesses of her mind, Sabina remembers wandering through the park just a few hours ago.
Remembers the explosion of blood. She gags, afraid to think about her appointment. More blood. She thinks about the black girl from the lit class. “I was there,” she says.
“Okay. I know this isn’t easy for you.”
“Pynchon,” she says suddenly.
“Thomas Pynchon. Never finished the book.” She chalks that up to another thing she’d planned to do that never got done. She vaguely wonders why time, now that she has so much of it on her hands, has closed in on her and has kept her static, rather than allowing her to expand. When Jesse and Marty lived with her, she’d been able to do three or four things at once. She amends that to: when Jesse and Marty lived with me before I began ingesting those little magic pills.
Yeah, she thinks. The two of us were inseparable – me and the lady in white. She called her the heavenly nurse because she came to administer the healing as soon as Sabina pushed the right button. She did everything for Sabina, and in return Sabina was totally dedicated to her. And sometimes long into the night, she felt that she was on the verge of a real breakthrough, a real understanding of something profound. She felt as if she were getting closer and closer to “it.” But then she’d forget exactly what the “it” was that she was pursuing. So she’d pick up one of the books strewn around her room and begin reading, starting sometimes in the middle, sometimes at the end. She’d finish in erratic spurts. And if the book gave her some clue, she’d start at the beginning. If not, she’d toss it aside.
She’d thought she was on a roll then, though occasionally she realized that something was wrong and that on some level, she knew she’d essentially checked out of her children’s lives.
Sabina cringes as she glances at Naomi, who’s concentrating on the road and on the news still blaring out of the radio.
“Did you hear that?”
“The cops are still busting heads!”
“The police are chasing demonstrators through Grant Park and across the street to the Hilton Hotel,” a disembodied male voice on the radio breathlessly announces.
For the second time that day Sabina starts to cry. I should have stayed, she thinks. She cares about the demonstration in Grant Park. She cares about what is happening to her country. The war has eaten its way into her very being and is irrevocably tied to her personal battles. Though she tries to concentrate on the radio, her mind keeps slipping back to that inevitable day. She has trouble remembering future appointments and past indiscretions, but that particular scenario never changes no matter how many times she replays it.
She’d been sitting on the floor of the living room, wondering if she could do what the Berrigan brothers had done. She thinks about Daniel, who’d been arrested after the March on Washington, which she has a vague memory of attending. She flashes on Philip pouring blood over draft records in the Baltimore Customs House.
Sabina longs to be a Berrigan. She wants to be brave, like the Berrigans. When the Berrigans broke the law, they made a heroic choice, she thinks.
Sabina had also begun meditating on other choices on that day she’d been thinking about the Berrigans. And she’d suddenly wondered who’d made the right one, Dedalaus or Icarus. When she resurfaced from her meditation, to her great shock, she saw Marty rummaging through her purse.
“What are you doing!”
“I’m hungry. There’s nothing to eat.”
Some rational part of her remembered that she hadn’t cashed the child support check, hadn’t bought groceries, hadn’t done any of the things mothers do. But the memory seemed stuck on the other side of a tunnel she couldn’t quite back into, so she heard herself telling him that “Man does not live by bread alone.” She’d been so sure that this was not only brilliant, but correct, because she couldn’t remember when she’d eaten last. And she’d never felt more fulfilled in her life than she had at that moment.
She’d smiled at Marty. Even now, sitting in Naomi’s car, she feels her whole mouth stretching out across her face. She’d felt ecstatic then, so she was surprised when tears began rolling down his cheeks.
“Let’s go for a run. Come on. You’ll feel better.”
She sped through the house, out the front door, leaving it open so Marty could follow her. When she turned around to say something a few blocks later, she noticed that he wasn’t there, but she couldn’t stop. Running made her feel like Icarus. If she just stayed on course and didn’t fly too close to the sun, she’d make it.
She was barely winded when she got home and almost happy to see Frank’s car in front of the house. But as soon as she walked through the doorway, he began spewing the kind of venom she thought was reserved for rapists and murders. For a moment, she had no idea why he was so angry. Then her head cleared, and with complete clarity, she saw herself as Frank saw her.
“When you want help, give me a call.”
She didn’t want help. But as long as he stood there glaring at her, she couldn’t shake the fear running up and down her spine. She believed that if she remained perfectly still and willed it, her body would disappear from the room and leave only electricity. Then she could return as her real self, her old self. And he wouldn’t look at her that way.
“I’m taking the kids with me. Do you hear me?”
She didn’t answer because she didn’t want to break the spell.
* * *
Naomi settles into a chair in the waiting room and gobbles up “Time Magazine” as Sabina grows agitated, picking at her cuticles. The room is modern, spare, with bland art. It’s after hours, so Sabina is the only patient; even the receptionist has left.
The nurse, whose brisk manner immediately makes Sabina even more nervous, finally ushers her into an examining room, which is ice cold. Peeling off her clothes, as she’d been instructed to do, Sabina shivers.
She lies down on the narrow table and covers herself with a sheet. A pale blue sheet, the same color as the medical equipment and the walls.
The nurse plunges an IV into Sabina’s arm and begins a morphine drip. “It’ll only take a few minutes. Then it’ll be all over. It’ll just feel like a bad cramp.”
“It’ll hurt,” Sabina says as the nurse leaves the room. She tells herself not to be scared and wonders if she’s said it out loud.
Maybe I shouldn’t do it, she thinks suddenly. I can change my mind. It’s not too late. She laughs, suddenly feeling light-headed. I’d be a better mother this time. She’s afraid this is her last chance. She’s afraid if she lets this baby go, her whole life will fall apart. There will be nothing to anchor her. She’s afraid she’ll simply float away – but she doesn’t know how she will support the child.
“God will provide,” she hears a far off voice say.
“Oh right,” she answers. “Like she has so far. Provided me with enough LSD to help me cross the border into infinity and come back empty.”
No, she thinks. When I had the chance, I blew it. Will my kids hate me like I hate my mother? She thinks of her mother’s little life of discomfort, waiting and hoping for her children to provide the satisfaction she could never provide for herself. It’s a life of mismatched appetizers without a main course. Sabina is filled with regret. My mother’s saving money for their plots, hers and my father’s, and she has no idea they’re already dead. If only he’d kept the pink Caddy.
Suddenly, she hears a smattering of conversation outside of the room.
I’m not ready yet. She sits up in a panic as the doctor enters.
I’m an unnatural mother. Worse than Medea.
“Okay, slide down a little,” the doctor says, without any formalities. He’s dressed in blue to match the office.
My mother used to say, “Everyone’s out of step but Johnny.” I always wanted to meet Johnny. I figured we must be soul mates. Only my mother would never tell me where I could find him, so I went looking for him in all the wrong places.
Whatever I choose to do, it will be the wrong decision.
“Lie still; don’t squirm.”
The voice was becoming more and more insistent. She tried to listen to it. She just needed a little more time to decide whether she could trust that voice. She wanted to. But after all, it was the same voice that had whispered to her before, wrapping itself around her, enticing her to follow the Pied Piper to an unexpurgated happiness.
“All done,” the doctor says, as he gathers up his tools.
She lies there, feeling empty and deprived. Then she looks out of the window and sees a sliver of moon tipping in her direction.
I’ve made my own heroic choice, she thinks. I’ve broken the law. I’ll strap on a pair of sturdier wings. Then I’ll find the Berrigans.
* * *
Marilyn Levy says: I grew up in the midwest, went to Northwestern, and taught at Roosevelt University. I began writing YA novels in the early 1980s and have been lucky enough to have had 18 published (Ballantine, Houghton Mifflin, and JPS). Several of my novels have been selected as Best Books by the ALA and have won other accolades, as well. My last YA, Checkpoints, received a silver medal from the National Jewish Book Award. I wrote the screenplay for Bride of the Wind, also historical fiction, based on the life of Alma Mahler, married to Gustav Mahler, Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius, and mistress of other great and famous men of her time. The movie, directed by Bruce Beresford, was filmed in Vienna.
I've had several careers. Besides teaching and writing, I have an M.A. in Psychology, see clients, and work with seniors in high school on their essays for their college applications.
I live in Santa Monica, California.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Sometimes I read an article or a book that provokes me and won't let go until I sit down to write about it. At times, people tell me their stories, and I feel that everyone should be able to "hear" those stories.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
It's not as much inspiration as it is need. It's like a itch. It's not always there, but when it is, I have to scratch.
What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
An historical fiction story, I feel, must be true to the time while also giving an individual spin on it.
What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
History comes alive in this genre. Personally, I could never keep the "facts" straight when I took history classes in school, but once I began reading about people who were part of history, the history became real, and I began to understand and retain what I read. I'm also attracted to a perspective that might not have occurred to me. In writing Checkpoints, I studied both the Israeli and the Palestinian points of view on the current situation in the Middle East; I wanted readers to see that history is not only malleable, but that there is often more at stake than who's right and who's wrong.
What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Do enough research to feel as if you're living in that time; feel comfortable with the language, the clothes, everything about the period; then write.
Death of Enlil
by Dawn Albright
The soldiers had cut off the satrap's head and were trying to find a way to mount it on the city gate. They jammed the bloody neck onto a short spike and wedged the spike into a weak spot in the clay, but the weight of the head pulled it out.
Amat cried out when the head fell into the dust. The temple girls cried out too and pushed closer to the window.
"What is it, Mother Amat?" the ones too far away to see said. "What are they doing to him, what's happening?"
She drew back from the window with a shudder and let them press forward to see for themselves.
"Careful," she said, and reached into the group to pull out one of the smaller girls, who looked like she might faint. I should think of some work for them to do, she thought. I shouldn't let them stand around and scream like this. Before she could think of anything, the Entu, the wife of the God, came down the stairs from the upper level. Amat jumped to intercept her before the girls besieged her with questions.
"What does Lord Enlil have to say?" she said in a whisper, motioning her behind the stairway, out of sight of the girls. Lamari stared at the floor. Amat looked at her face and then dragged her further behind the staircase. Normally, she wouldn't have touched Lord Enlil's wife like that, but seeing the girl's white face reminded her of the time when she had been the God's wife and Lamari had been a scared child deposited at the temple for teaching. When she was sure the girls couldn't see, she slapped the priestess hard on the cheek.
"No tears," she hissed. "We're depending on you. What did the God have to say?"
The young priestess still stared ahead, making noises in her throat.
"I know they killed your brother," Amat said in a kinder voice. "That's our loss as well as yours. He was a good satrap. But there's no time to mourn him yet, not when Naram-Sin's soldiers are all over the city. They'll be here soon, and they'll want to talk to you. Are we going to surrender or will the God help us?"
"I can't tell you," the younger priestess said.
"They're coming," one of the girls at the window shrieked. "They're coming this way, Naram-Sin and his soldiers."
Amat looked back for a second and then turned back to the Entu. "Don't tell the others, but tell me. What did Lord Enlil say to you?"
"He said nothing."
"Don't tell me such obvious lies, child. I saw you go up to the blue-tiled room and I know you were there all night. What did he say to you?"
"He said nothing, Mother Amat, nothing. Leave it at that. I know we need guidance, but we don't have it. Make up something to tell the temple staff, anything you think wise."
A crash shook the temple. The temple girls and the Entu both cried out. Amat pushed her way back to the window. "They're trying to break down the doors," she said. "They're impatient." She considered the women around her. Damgala looked the calmest of them, but she was dressed in a rough woolen kilt for the messy job of tending wounded soldiers. They couldn't afford to insult Naram-Sin by sending a priestess who looked like a servant. Nitidam wore the blue robes of the ceremonies of Ishtar, but her tears had smeared her kohl down her cheeks. Amat grabbed one of the other girl's sleeves and used it to wipe Nitidam's face.
"Can you be in control of yourself by the time you get to the door?" she asked.
"If I have to be, Mother Amat."
"You do. You and Damgala go down and let them in. If you can stall them, do so, but bring them here before they get impatient."
Nitidam nodded. Amat turned to Damgala. "Can you take care of that?"
"Yes, Mother Amat." Damgala took Nitidam's arm and led her down the stairs. They heard another crash.
"And hurry!" Amat called after them. "You girls keep watch at the window. Someone make sure we have food and wine to offer our guests." The girls milled uncertainly. She sighed. "You three stay at the window," she said, pointing. "You others make sure the kitchen is ready." Without looking to see if they obeyed her, she hurried to where the Entu waited under the staircase. "Now, tell me what he said."
"Don't ask me that."
"I was the Entu once myself. I'll do what Enlil wants, don't worry about that. I can't make up a story to tell Naram-Sin unless I know the truth. Forget about your brother, and tell me what happened last night."
"But he's dying, Mother Amat."
Amat resisted the urge to shake her. "Your brother is already dead. I suggest you don't look out the window. What did you see last night?"
"Not my brother. Enlil. Enlil is dying."
Amat grabbed the girl's shoulders. She would have run up the stairs to the blue-tiled room herself, forgetting that she was no longer the Entu and no longer permitted on the highest level, but screams stopped her.
"We don't have time to discuss this," she said in Lamari's ear. "Naram-Sin is here. Are you telling me the truth?"
The girl nodded. Amat's eyes closed. "Then help me, Lamari." They stepped out to where Naram-Sin and his soldiers were waiting. One of the soldiers held Nitidam by the elbow. What had remained of the kohl on her eyelids ran down her cheeks again. Damgala was nowhere to be seen.
Naram-Sin looked much like he had five years ago, when he had come to Enlil's city to be crowned King of the Four Regions. He had let his hair grow past his shoulders so he resembled the statue of the winged bull that guarded the doorway of the temple. His hair had been curled and oiled. Amat didn't think he had seen any of the fighting himself, with his hair arranged so carefully.
"Greetings, Naram-Sin," she said, surprising herself with how calm she sounded. "I am the priestess Amat, and this is Lord Enlil's wife, Lamari. We remember you from when you were crowned King of Sumer and Akkad."
"I remember you as well, priestess. How soon can you get your people out of the temple?"
"How soon... I don't know. Where do you want me to take them?"
The Entu whimpered.
"I don't care. But clear the temple."
"I will have to ask the Entu for Enlil's permission. What shall I have her say?"
Naram-Sin laughed. "It hardly matters, does it, priestess? I know that Enlil won't answer. Do as I tell you or I'll burn the temple around your ears."
"I won't be frightened with silly threats."
"He means it, Mother Amat," Lamari said. "I saw it last night. He means to kill Enlil now that he's ill, kill Enlil and destroy the city completely. If he destroys the temple here, then the worshippers will go to his patron Ishtar in Akkad."
Amat opened her mouth to say that no one could kill a god, but the words dried in her throat when she looked at Naram-Sin. Already, people said that he was a god himself.
"Priestess, I am allowing you until sundown to have your people out of the temple. Your priestesses can enter the service of Ishtar. You can stay dedicated to Enlil if you choose. I don't begrudge him one worshipper. But get your people out of the city."
He turned to his soldiers. "Search the temple and bring what you can find." He bowed to Lamari and Amat. "I'll see you both outside the city in a short time. Entu, I look forward to our next meeting." He left the hall alone, his soldiers running ahead to search for temple treasures. Shrieks followed them. Both women shuddered.
"You clear the temple," Amat said. "People and food first, relics if you have time. Forget the tablets, a fire will only bake them. Can you handle it, Lamari?"
"Find Damgala if you can. I've got other work to do. I should meet you outside the city by sundown."
"Where are you going, Mother Amat?"
"Never mind that. Just get everybody out and take care of yourself. And leave by the garden," she added, remembering the satrap's body outside the front gate.
"Yes, Mother Amat."
Amat waited for her to disappear towards the kitchen in the back building, then headed up the stairs, towards the highest level. She wasn't going to stay away from Enlil now. It had only been five years ago that she had been deposed from her position, and then only because Naram-Sin had wanted a younger, prettier priestess to serve in his coronation and the satrap wanted his sister to have the power of being the God's wife.
She ran up the stairs, past the foreigner's shrines with war-pitted statues of strange gods taken from other cities, past the levels where the temple whores celebrated the rites of Ishtar, past the libraries where schoolchildren learned to scribe in the fresh smell of unbaked clay. Finally, she came to the blue-tiled room, the flat top of the ziggurat with the sky for the ceiling.
She closed her eyes as she pushed the tapestry aside and climbed the last few steps. She had climbed it so often in the past that she knew when she reached the top step, and her eyes opened. The room hadn't changed. She walked around the edge, checking the sights that she had enjoyed five years ago. Fires burned in spots, but the damage looked slight from that distance. The sun lowered towards the horizon. She wondered if Lamari had time to get the temple staff out.
She walked towards the couch in the center of the platform and sat at the floor next to it. "Lord Enlil?" she said softly, wondering if he would be angry she had come. When she had been removed as the Entu, she hadn't been allowed back up to say goodbye to him. She had asked Lamari if he had anything to say to her, but he never gave Lamari a message.
At first, she saw nothing and thought she would have to use an invocation. She knew invocations to speak to the winged bulls, to speak to the captive foreign gods of the hall below, to speak to the demons. But the Lord of the Earth and his family came when they wanted, not when they were called. She had decided to try a more respectful version of the winged bulls' invocation when she noticed a mist on the couch.
Enlil had always appeared a little transparent to her, and so she wondered at first if maybe this new cloudiness was a result of her lessened status. She looked up at his face and cried out -- even if she saw a solid man with that face she would have known at once that he neared the Underworld.
"Lord Enlil, what's happened to you?" She forgot that he was a god and she was no longer his wife and threw her arms around his neck. He didn't seem to be in pain, didn't seem to even notice her presence. He looked tired, like an old man. She tried to examine him as she would have examined any sick man brought to her, but he wasn't a man. She knew all the common demons that plagued man. They all obeyed her when her divinations convinced her to put forth her full effort to exorcise them. She didn't know the demon that besieged Lord Enlil.
"Lord Enlil, tell me what to do for you," she whispered. "Tell me how to help."
"Leave me alone."
Did he speak? She could hear the words, but his face remained motionless. Nonetheless, she answered.
"I can't leave you alone like this." She heard nothing else. "Your daughter Ishtar has sent armies against us. She wants you killed, so she can keep your worship and be King of Heaven." Amat stared at empty space for a moment before she realized that the God was gone. She backed away and stared at the couch, until she remembered that she didn't have much time. She ran down the stairs like a schoolboy who forgot he was in the temple, down to the large chamber where she and the priests gave the blessings of Enlil to the city people. There stood the body that Enlil wore when he led the armies or gave blessings, the great wood and clay monument that the greatest artisans of the city's earliest days had carved out for him, to show his strength and majesty to those he couldn't show himself to directly. She touched the statue's chest and felt the warmth that meant Enlil was there. She didn't think he had the strength to travel up to his home in the sky.
She bit her lip. The monument was mounted on wheels, a precaution that the dead satrap had commanded in order to bring Enlil out to bless the army, but she knew she couldn't drag him alone. They usually used twenty slaves for the job, although two large men would suffice for a short distance.
Naram-Sin's soldiers found her after sundown, when the shadows were bluing. A dead soldier lay twenty feet before her with a bronze knife in his throat. She had moved the statue five feet. She strained at the harness and wept when she saw the men enter the room. She pulled another knife from her girdle and tried to throw it at them, but her arm was so tired that the knife fell far short.
A soldier pulled her away from Enlil and she let him drag her out of the temple. The others followed with the statue.
Outside, Naram-Sin sat on a large couch that had obviously been pulled from one of the large manor houses, with several urns of wine from the same source. His soldiers fought for the drinking tubes from the urns, passing the straws around, sloshing wine on each other. Naram-Sin had his own uncontested urn. His curls drooped.
He held Lamari next to him by a tight grip around her waist. Tears streaked her face. He looked at Amat with no sign of surprise and smiled at the soldiers who had brought Enlil out of the temple.
"Torch it first," he said, with no sign of drunkenness in his voice.
Lamari and Amat both screamed. The soldier who dragged Amat out of the temple grabbed her arms and pulled her back from the statue before she could plunge one of her remaining knives into the back of the man striking the flint. He wrestled the knives away from her and by the time she had given up on her weapons, the aged wooden parts of the statue were burning.
Amat tore herself away from the soldier and threw herself on the statue, struggling to get past the flames to touch the heart, to see if Enlil was still in it. The soldier pulled her back and slapped the cinders on her linen wrap with his hand. Then he encircled her with his arms and dragged her further away from the blaze.
"Mother Priestess, you could have hurt yourself," he said reproachfully, his mouth near her ear. Amat laughed, and her laughter and tears both lasted until the fire burned out and the other soldiers kicked the brittle clay that was left into dust.
* * *
* * *
"My quarrel wasn't with the people of Nippur, but they have suffered for the pretensions of their priests and their God," Naram-Sin said when it was over. "Many of them died today. Those who are left need blessings from their God to start their life over. They need to lay their dead to rest and be comforted."
Lamari said nothing. Amat drew herself straight and forced herself to speak. Wisps of singed hair fell from her hair net.
"You have so generously made them citizens of Akkad, sir. Your priests and priestesses will teach them the ways of Ishtar soon. I'm sure the lady will comfort them in their losses."
Naram-Sin smiled; if Amat hadn't seen the last few hours, she would have called it a compassionate smile on his broad face. "Ishtar is a strange goddess to them. They want their familiar god. Give them Enlil's blessing."
Amat swayed on her feet. "I can't give them a blessing that doesn't exist. Enlil isn't there to protect their dead. I can't do the ceremony."
"The dead are dead. Don't dismay the living more than needed." Naram-Sin turned and left without further argument, as if he had spent enough of his time on a trivial matter.
"I'm not giving the dead to Enlil," Amat said to Lamari. "The ceremony would be a farce."
But three of Naram-Sin's soldiers stood by. They had heard their emperor say that a blessing ceremony should be held, and they didn't care if the god was in a condition to give blessings or not. Amat crossed her fire-reddened arms across her chest stubbornly.
Lamari touched her shoulder. "He's right, Mother Amat. It will only scare them to hear that Enlil is dead. I'll do the ceremony for them, and I hope that it does comfort them."
Amat spun around. "You mean that you won't tell them? If they don't know, they'll pray to a god that's not there for the rest of their lives. They'll commit themselves to nothing when they die. Their pain now is nothing to that."
Lamari shrugged. "What could Enlil do for the dead when he lived? Didn't you ever hear cynicism in his voice, Mother Amat? Didn't you ever wonder just what he could do for us?"
Amat stared at her for a long time. "I knew Enlil when he was strong, healthy. I know what he was capable of."
"He spoke to me of the past. I don't think there was ever a time when he could touch the dead. All he could do was comfort the living, and he can still do that."
She turned towards the soldiers. "Do you know where I can find what remains of the temple supplies?"
"Certainly. The emperor told us to give you some of the artifacts."
Amat left them. Lamari didn't need her to perform the ceremony. The girls were busy tending the wounded or performing the rites of Ishtar with Naram-Sin's soldiers. No one needed her at the moment.
She wandered through the camp of refugees, seeing the injured and the healthy trying to set up camp with whatever necessities or trivialities they had been able to carry away from the city with them. To her left, she could see the city. The walls had been smashed down, as well as the temple and the largest of the manor houses, the grass roofs of the smaller houses burnt along with most of the contents. Other than that, the city wasn't destroyed as thoroughly as Naram-Sin had boasted. The clay walls of the houses stood where they hadn't been battered down by hand. As soon as the army left, many of the inhabitants would straggle back in to replace the roofs and whitewash the soot away. Others would leave with the army and go to Akkad, others would probably wander south to Shuruppak or Erech. Refugees, recognizing her as a priestess, tugged on her arms and tried to ask her for blessings or medical help, but she only suggested that they find someone else.
One tug became insistent, wouldn't let her go. "Mother Amat, the ceremony is starting. Come listen to it with us."
Finally, she heard the voice, heard the horns blowing to tell the worshippers to come. She turned and saw Damgala.
"I was worried about you," she said, surprised, remembering the girls in her charge.
"We were worried about you too, Mother Amat," Damgala said, smiling through a bruise on the side of her face. "The Entu said that you stayed in the temple, and we thought you intended to burn in it. Then she said you were injured, hurt in the head." Damgala's fingers stroked her temples. "Did something fall on you? Where does it hurt?"
"I don't remember anything falling on my head." Gently, she pushed Damgala aside and held her hand out to the other girls, greeting them all.
"If you're all right, then come along to the ceremony. We need a blessing."
"I'm not going to the ceremony. Enlil's dead. There's no one to bless us."
Damgala frowned at the girls. "You'll feel better soon, Mother Amat." Gently, the group of girls pushed her along, with the growing crowd of refugees moving towards the sound of the horn. "It's been so long since you watched the blessings instead of conducted them, I'm sure you'll enjoy it."
Amat let herself be pushed towards the ceremony and let the girls guide her to a dry seat on the ground. Around them sat a crowd who looked much like the city -- scorched in places, but more alive than Naram-Sin had led them to expect.
The horn stopped and Amat saw Lamari and Nitidam standing on a platform with some of the other priestesses. They began to sing, a tuneless drone that reached to everyone in the crowd, and lit incense in front of the one of the lesser statues of Enlil that had been saved from the city square. Amat could feel its emptiness and coldness from where she sat. She thought everyone would know the truth, that their God was dead, when they saw that statue's empty-eyed stare.
The choir of priestesses went from the invocation to the song giving the dead to Enlil. Beside Amat, Damgala lifted her arms over her head, swaying and moaning a soft descant. The other priestesses raised their arms, and then others in the crowd. Soon, Amat was the only one with her hands in her lap. She could hear scattered weeping.
Then the song changed. Nitidam picked up a tambourine and the other priestesses raised little drums and the song became a wordless tone that rose over the beat. Lamari beat her hands together, and the crowd started to move, dancing to thank Enlil that they had survived the destruction, thanking Enlil for saving all that they had saved. Amat sat still on the ground where all around her people danced and laughed through their tears. Soon, she knew, the sacred whores of Ishtar, the temple boys and the girls who didn't have the patience to be priestesses, would melt into the crowd and direct the dancing for a while before going off to lie with those who wanted to feel the comfort of Enlil more directly. The rest of the crowd would probably sleep wherever they stopped dancing, with their grief and worries danced out of them for a night.
"Oh, Enlil, Enlil, watch my son." she heard a woman pant, near enough to be heard over the singing and the drums. It was an old woman who looked like she couldn't possibly move as gracefully as she did. Her eyes were closed and she didn't realize when she stepped on Amat. Her face was serene.
The old woman danced further and further away, her face happy in spite of the tears streaming down it. Amat looked intently at the crowd, and couldn't see anyone who felt that the God was dead. The ceremony was as effective as all the ones she had performed in her years at the temple.
Amat looked up at the platform with the empty statue, and at Lamari shaking a tambourine with the other priestesses in front of it. She could tell by the beats Lamari missed that one other person felt Enlil's absence.
Dawn Albright is a statistician who lives outside of Boston. She is married with two children, and several cats, rabbits, and lizards. She is the editor of the arts and poetry webzine Polu Texni, which can be found at www.polutexni.com. She thinks historical fiction is like fantasy in building a different world from the one we live in, but one with a connection to our own lives.