October 15, 2009

Issue 1: October 2009

October 2009

There is a history in all men’s lives…
Henry IV, part II: III. ii.


Psychometry by Lark Beltran
Cave Painting by Marko Fong
A Small Betrayal by Anne Brooke
The Man We Saved by Terence Kuch
Breath of Amun by Karen Kobylarz
The Enemies of Death by Francisco Nieto-Salazar
Abe Lincoln Writes to Joshua Speed by Jack Peachum
Where is Gertrude Bell? by Kyle Hemmings
Pomodoro by Michele Stepto


The Triumph of Deborah by Eva Etzioni-Halevy
Flint by Margaret Redfern

Editor’s Introduction

When I first decided to create a historical fiction magazine, there were three publications listed on Duotrope’s Digest dedicated exclusively to the genre: by the time Lacuna opened to submissions, there were only two. For me, as for many of you who read historical fiction, write it, or both, this is a very sad state of affairs. I created Lacuna in the hope that it could provide some relief for both readers and writers looking for a place to enjoy and create tales of days gone by.

The lack of historical fiction magazines which lead to the creation of Lacuna has also kept me from narrowing the magazine’s focus to one particular style or theme. The stories are not all literary—though they are beautifully written and meticulously characterized; nor are they all adventure and suspense—though I guarantee you’ll find them hard to put down. The settings run from 19th century Spain to biblical Timnah to the pre-Columbian (or is it?) New World. Some stories have fantasy elements, some are alternate histories, and some aim for precision and historical accuracy.

What all the fiction and poetry in this, the premier issue of Lacuna, has in common is careful attention to historical detail, characterization, and the craft of writing itself. If you enjoy the magazine, please consider donating to help purchase more stories for future issues.

Your help with publicity is also greatly appreciated, and to that end, I'm giving away a free book to one lucky reviewer! Post a link to your review of Lacuna's first issue on the contest page for a chance to win.

And now, I am proud to present to you the best magazine--as Hamlet's long-winded Polonius would say--either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral or alternate history, Lacuna.

Megan Arkenberg

Questions, comments, or concerns may be e-mailed to the editor.
If you are interested in submitting fiction, poetry, or nonfiction to Lacuna, please see our submission guidelines.



by Lark Beltran

Things outlive.
Hoarded, forgotten or treasured,
an heirloom might well feel smug
at our ephemerality
when in its case, a simple
removal of tarnish
can revive pristine youth.

Strata lie before me:
a rose-scalloped silver dish from the 1940´s
holds a calling-card from the 1860´s,
an ancient Babylonian seal
and the fossil of a trilobite which paddled
in young seas before the plant kingdom existed.

Things outlive
the organisms which wander and ponder,
carving out their curves amid sighs
and secretions and excretions. A broken
link stops the frantic, warm-celled
scurrying, but for some
sensitives, an aura still
clings. They intuit, haphazardly,

the war-bride´s pleasure at receiving
the dish; the nondescript small town
street observed by G.W. Kidd
while handing her card to M.A. French;
a conical-bearded patriarch, perhaps,
affixing his stamp of approval to a beige document.
What vibrant rivers of history
run below the surface of perception,
re-created only by hearsay
while we are in the flesh.

Would that psychometry
were merely a technical
trick to be mastered,
affording thrills magnificently surpassing
front-row tickets to mega-events.
I like to imagine
old objects harboring tendrils of emotions past,
rubbing off on the odd dream or random insight.

* * *


* * *

Lark Beltran says: I´m from California but have lived in Peru for over 30 years as an ESL teacher. Over the past several years, my poems have appeared in a number of online and print journals, including Penwood Review, Sage of Consciousness, Ascent Aspirations and Bolts of Silk.

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?

From the combination of a longtime interest in archaeology, from memories of travels to several countries, from growing up in a lakeside house which contained a library of old leather-bound books from England. (My dad was an antiquarian par excellence.)

Cave Painting


Cave Painting
by Marko Fong

Below the Medici chapel, the smell of mildew coats the darkness. The prisoner believes that he is hiding here. The fact that all the servants who provide the prisoner with water, food, and clothing work for Duke Allesandro de Medici, the man he is trying to evade, says otherwise. When it comes to simple matters, artists are notoriously oblivious. This is no hiding place; it’s a dungeon and a most peculiar one at that.

There are no restraints and no beatings. They even feed the prisoner well—a breast of chicken cooked the day before with three cloves of garlic, bits of bread that remain spongy inside, a roasted onion. One morning, he is given a piece of something called a “banana.” It should dawn on the prisoner that this is a hint from Alessandro himself. Any fruit as exotic as a banana could only have come from the Duke’s table, a sure sign to the normally observant that the Duke not only knows exactly where the prisoner has sought to hide, but also proof that the Duke controls his confinement.

A young girl brings the prisoner fresh water each morning and occasionally he gets a goblet of a red liquid that is more wine than vinegar. Even some of the Duke’s soldiers who served him during the Medici’s nine month siege to retake Florence from the Republic do not fare this well. This hardly appears to be punishment for a man who designed the fortifications that prolonged the siege into the summer of 1530. Alessandro’s advisors privately wonder if the twenty-year-old Duke has yet acquired the toughness to be a true Prince.

‘Do you remember old Niccolo?” they whisper.

“Yes, if he were still tutoring the Duke, he would know better. If only Niccolo were still alive,” they agree.

For centuries Machiavelli’s subtlety will continue to elude ordinary minds. Three years after his death, he is still thought to be an advocate of raw power. Only a few individuals have ever seen the treatise, the document that makes it clear that Niccolo, himself the one-time head of the Florentine militia, never saw power as something that should ever be “raw.”

This is what makes it a dungeon. The room is big enough. It’s just that it has three small grates instead of windows. They limit the prisoner to two medium-sized beeswax candles each day, about three and a half hours of the dimmest of light. It’s never quite bright enough to see color or beyond the roughest of shapes. Alessandro has no interest in torturing the man. He tortures the artist inside the man with just enough light to tantalize and frustrate.

Alessandro demonstrates his subtlety through another gesture. He orders that the only persons with whom the prisoner may have contact must be female. Will it be harder for this prisoner to live without sunlight or without male companionship? For the first three days, the prisoner is given paper and charcoal. Even in the dim light, he draws a bit each day. On the fourth day, Elsa, the girl who brings his chamber pot, is instructed to tell the prisoner, “I’m sorry sir, there is no more paper to be had. The people of the city used it to keep warm during the siege. All the charcoal was used to dry mortar for one of the fortifications. My father tells me that the republicans never valued paper or charcoal beyond that.”

The prisoner squats against the warmest of the walls as he contemplates this intensification of his solitude. He spends most of his day lying on his back with his eyes open. He once spent the better part of four years in this exact position, but that was as a free man. He stares into darkness towards the ceiling, but he doesn’t need light to see what’s above the ceiling of his cell.

No one remembers the individuals whose bodies rest inside the tons of polished marble above except for the fact that they were once members of the Medici family. In two generations, no one will remember even that if it weren’t for the paired statues that decorate theses tombs. Atop one, two statues represent morning and night. The other serves as the base for a pair that depicts sorrow and triumph. Two of the bodies in the tombs are women, but all of the statues are male. The ripples in their musculature flow with the light. From certain angles they actually seem to be in motion. The prisoner sculpted those statues. This is the one building in Florence that the Medici would never storm.


Below the supine prisoner, forgotten bodies, victims of the plague from a century ago, wait to be carried away by the currents of an underground river. The river changed course, though, and the bodies never moved. When Brunelleschi started construction on the basilica in 1408, they forgot that the bodies were still there. Some feared that this placed a curse on the Medici family.

Before the prisoner went into hiding, he sent a message to the Pope, himself a member of the Medici family who as a boy dined with the prisoner at Lorenzo de Medici’s table several times. “Your Holiness, please grant me a pardon so that I may finish my sculptures to the glory of God. I played no active part in the resistance to your cousin and his army.”

The prisoner knows that the first part is a lie. His sculptures don’t glorify God as much as they revel in the perfection of the human body, in particular the male torso. He gambles that the Pope remains a Medici first and God’s representative on Earth second. The other part is more debatable. He helped to design the fortifications, but he left the city before they could be completed, only to return in the midst of the siege.

The servant, only eleven years old, who brings the prisoner his meals reports personally to Allesandro twice a week. One would think that the new Duke would have more pressing problems. For one, what will he owe the King of Spain for his assistance in retaking the city? What allegiance will he owe his own cousin the Pope? Whom can he trust to help him restore the wool trade to the city? The only men who know how to finance the caravans and get Tuscan wool to port cities are the same men who betrayed the family. After a nine month siege of Florence, food remains a problem for most. Only the very brave dare to walk near even the main square after the sun goes down.

So why does the Duke take such an interest in a single artist who has either sought refuge beneath the Medici Chapel or been maneuvered there? To understand that, one must know the history of the project itself. Cosimo de Medici started the building itself five generations ago, but it was Lorenzo who saw its possibilities as a monument to the Medici’s memory and power, memory and power being more or less identical as a historical matter. In 1471, a Sicilian cotton trader came to Florence seeking to expand his business to the wool trade in winter. To smooth his introduction to Lorenzo the Magnificent he brought along a gift, drawings of the pyramids of Egypt.

The gift inspired Lorenzo, but Florence did not have the stone or the laborers for pyramids. The best of both went to the duomo, the cathedral. Even Medici ego at its grandest didn’t dare compete with God.

Instead Lorenzo bypassed God by summoning artists to his court. Eternal beauty would substitute for sheer mass. Only Lorenzo never anticipated the possibility that thousands of masons, the most independent craftsmen of all, would be far easier to find and control than the whims of a truly gifted artist. It was Lorenzo who had discovered and courted the prisoner. For three years, the prisoner dined at Lorenzo’s own table until 1491. It was during that time that Lorenzo persuaded the artist who would become the prisoner to redesign what Brunelleschi had started.

Lorenzo died in 1492. First came Savonarola; the first return of the Medici followed, then more war. Between those events, whenever he needed patronage, the prisoner worked on the chapel.

As a student of Machiavelli, Alessandro understands the importance of the project and the prisoner himself. It was Niccolo who told him that it was actually more important to appear powerful than to be powerful as a ruler. Continuing work on this project would be a sign to all of Italy that the Medici were fully in control of Florence and certain of their future. He thus has prioritized persuading his prisoner to return to work on the chapel in earnest. Perhaps only Machiavelli himself would understand just how Alessandro intends to manage this.

The girl stands before Alessandro while he dines. Her body still looks something like a boy’s, but her face is pretty, feminine, and well-defined like Roman sculpture.

“What can you tell me about the prisoner?” he asks.

“Well, there is one thing that I have never seen him do.”

“What is that, child?”

“He never seems to pray.”

The Duke does not react visibly, but he wonders how the man who painted the most celebrated work of religious art in Europe can spend his entire day in the darkness and never think to pray.

Two days later, unknown to the Duke, the girl brings the prisoner a child’s wooden top. She spins it for him on the bit of floor that remains flat stone. The top wobbles after just a few seconds, it is not well made, but the prisoner does not want to hurt the girl’s feelings. It is after all a gesture of kindness as imagined and executed by a child.
After she closes the door behind her, he plays with the object for several hours as he tries to imagine the planets and sun as they spin around the earth.

One afternoon, she sits on her side of the door and listens for the plop of the fat part of the top as it dies on the stone, then the whirr a few minutes later as it hits the floor again. She had once heard a story of a place in the world where men pray by spinning a kind of wheel. She is helping to save the prisoner from eternal damnation.

A few days after that she brings the prisoner his supper and he motions for her to watch. He takes the top and launches it to the flat part of the stone. This time it spins in near perfect balance, barely moving from its spot on the floor. It even whistles. After the second time, he hands it to her and lets her spin it for herself. The girl—she told him that her name is Francesca two weeks earlier—squeals with delight as she admires the possibilities of a simple bit of wood. The prisoner then gives her back her top. She thanks him profusely, then closes the door that lets in what little light gets into the cell beyond the two candles a day.

Once outside the door to his cell, the girl sees that the prisoner has used a small bit of rock to cut lines into the fat part of the top. He has known exactly where and how to score it. Only then does it occur to her that he has managed this feat in near complete darkness. She shakes her head in admiration, but doesn’t tell the Duke anything about the incident.

The prisoner still has no idea when he will be able to leave this hiding place. His days lengthen. He has begun to converse more with this child, Francesca, as she brings him his meals then returns to pick up his wooden bowl and tin cup. At first the conversations are simple. He asks her about the top, about her family (her father is dead, she was taken in by the staff of the chapel as a favor), about what she has seen or knows of the world beyond Florence.

“Does anyone know that I’m here?”

She nods.

“They do?”

“I know that you’re here and those who tell me my duties.”

“Yes, of course, those who work in the basilica must know, but anyone beyond that.”

“No sir,” she lies. After all, the Duke has sworn her to secrecy.

He nods at her answer, not even pausing to consider its implausibility.

Another day, he asks her, “Do you know who I am?”

“Not really, sir.”

He nods at this, too.

She then asks, “Should I?”

“It’s better that you not know. If anyone asks you, you could then deny it. Do you know why I am here?”

“No, signore, only that I am to bring you your food and drink and whatever else you may need.”

This is mostly true, but even Francesca knows that it is in some ways a lie. After she leaves the cell, she crosses herself. As the days pass, the time elapsed between bringing the prisoner his meal and coming to pick it up shortens. He takes even longer to eat; it’s just that their conversations at both ends of this process have lengthened to the point of nearly meeting in the middle.

One morning she asks the prisoner, “What do you miss?”

“What do you mean?” he asks.

She did not expect to be answered with a question.

“If I were in this room, I would miss the warmth of the sun,” she says.

“I miss that, yes.”

He takes a bite of bread. He is an old man, beyond fifty. This is the first time she has noticed that he has all his teeth. How does one manage that?

“I would miss the market.”

“That I don’t miss,” he whispers.

“I would miss the smell of trees.”

The prisoner looks directly at her. The door remains halfway open as a triangle of light comes into his cell. He whispers.

“I miss the light. I miss my drawing.”

The girl says nothing, but nods. If only she could bring him extra candles, but she knows that is strictly forbidden. The head of the kitchen himself counts the candles at the end of every day, just to make sure that the prisoner gets no more than the Duke has allotted. She knows as well that she is forbidden to bring the prisoner charcoal, brushes, paints, or paper. She holds the top beneath her dress and feels the edges of the lines sculpted into its surface. Each the exact depth needed to rebalance the top, some of them are so fine and perfectly scored that one can only see them in bright sun.

Two days later, the prisoner discovers an extra wooden spoon with his bowl. He tries to give it back to the girl at the end of his meal.

“Oh, no sir, I would be punished if I brought back more than one spoon with me.”

The prisoner takes the spoon and hides it under a loose stone in the wall. The next day, he finds another extra spoon with his meal.

“When I was a little girl, my mother punished me for ruining my dress,” she tells him.

The prisoner shows no interest, but the girl continues anyway.

“Some boys had lit a fire the night before and put it out with water. I played with the burned sticks the next day. It left marks all over my skin and clothing,” her voice is high, sweet, and even more childlike than usual. It is as if she’s talking to a friend her own age.

The prisoner stares at the girl in the dim light. For the first time, he has seen her possibilities. After she leaves, he holds the wooden spoon to the flame of his candle and lets it burn, turning it into charcoal. Just before his last candle burns out, he smudges the wall with the charcoal.

In his next supper, he finds two more wooden spoons. He realizes that the girl has thanked him for fixing her toy top. Before she leaves, he tells her,

“You know, there is one other thing I miss.”

“Just one?”

“When I was much younger, I met a sailor from Genoa.”

“You miss him?”

“No and yes. I do miss having others to spend time with, but he is not what I miss.”

She nods.

“He told me that on one of his trips he had been to the end of the ocean where they found an entire new world. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

The girl shrugs.

“There are lands on the other side of the ocean, undiscovered places,” he continues.


“What do you mean by why?” he asks.

“Why would you miss places you’d never visited?”

“There are people there. They have their own history, their own way of seeing the world.”

The girl does not respond, but the prisoner continues.

“They call them the Taino and everything they do is different from us.”

“Do they have the same God as us?”

The prisoner shakes his head. “I don’t know. I didn’t get the chance to ask.”

He knows that it was because he didn’t care to ask, but he assumes wrongly that the girl doesn’t suspect. He also does not tell the girl the most exciting thing he remembers about the Taino. There are Taino males, young boys even, who happily do things that would fill a Christian male with shame. The prisoner has thought for years about these delicious possibilities. He remains confident that the girl will not press him for details about how he came to meet this Genovese sailor. This mention of the Taino is as close as he can come to telling her about what he misses most beyond the light.

It is, of course, the darkness itself that brings out these thoughts of the flesh. When one cannot see, one becomes uncommonly aware of touch and skin. A few days later, with the limited candlelight available to him, the prisoner begins to draw on the walls. The first things he draws are parts of men. He draws the muscle of arms, the twist of a torso, the tension between balance and motion of a perfect calf. He is drawing body parts, but the parts are entirely disembodied. When the light from his candle runs out, he masturbates to his own drawings.

Is he going mad in his own hiding place? Is the drawing helping or hurting his capacity to pass time here? When she brings his food, does the girl even notice these drawings? He has taken care to place his drawing in the part of the room that does not get direct light from the half-opened door. The girl herself does not appear to be the inquisitive type. She barely looks around when she does her duties or when they talk. In the meantime, the walls fill with drawings. He tells himself that she could not suspect what he’s been doing, yet she keeps bringing him extra wooden spoons.


For the first time in a month, Duke asks the girl to report to him personally about the prisoner’s progress. The girl stands before the Duke and marvels at the smells and shapes of the items on his dinner table. He has been unusually kind to her in their meetings. Each time, she has grown less afraid in his presence.

“How is the prisoner faring?”

“He continues to eat well, Your Highness.”

“But you know that I am asking you more than that.”

She nods.

In the last week, the citizens of Florence begin to wander the square later and later. The market has dozens of new vendors. Some of them now offer special prices on food that is about to spoil. It is no longer enough just to sell bread, even some of the poor demand that it be fresh and entirely free of weevils. The Duke, however, remains unpopular. No new work is being done on the basilica.

“Your Highness, the prisoner speaks to me now, quite regularly.”

“And what does he say?”

She hesitates, then answers, “We talk about the things he misses. Once, he told me about new worlds in lands beyond the ocean. I once tried to tell him about “oranges.” Is that what you let me eat the last time I came here?”

The Duke points to the remnants of a sliced orange on the table and motions for her to take another piece. The girls eyes widen with excitement, she does not even attempt to refuse. One visit, he let her taste a fruit that looked like it would be even more delicious, ripe, red, round, something called a “tomato.”

She had been disappointed. It was nowhere as sweet as its appearance suggested and it was filled with yellow seeds. It too had been brought from some strange and exotic place. She thanked God that the people of Tuscany would always have better things to eat. Were these tomatoes from the same new world that the prisoner had mentioned? Only savages would think to eat such things or people in a city at the end of a nine month siege. It was all she could do not to spit it out.

“He hates the darkness, Your Highness.”

“But he is keeping his mind in that darkness?”

“He is talking more than before. He seems a bit more nervous in my presence, but he remains understandable and calm.”

For a moment, she thinks to ask the Duke if she can bring the prisoner more and bigger candles, but then reconsiders.

“You will tell me if he begins to lose his mind?”

“Yes, but how much longer will he be there?”

“Until we come to an understanding.”

“How will I know when he does?”

It has not until now occurred to the Duke that the girl has an intelligence of her own. He takes a sip of wine from his Cellini goblet then motions to a lesser cup at the table, offering the girl red wine. He is only a few years older than she is. He wonders if she has any inkling that they are so close in age.

“God will tell you, my child.”

He has no idea why he has said this, but the answer satisfies her curiosity.

One evening, she brings the prisoner new clothes. He slips behind the door to take off his old ones. She is surprised by his lack of modesty, but he is a very old man. Perhaps he cannot imagine that she would care to look, even out of curiosity.

“Is it September yet?” he asks from behind the door.

“The wool was loaded on to the caravan last week. The merchants are telling the farmers not to slaughter too many lambs before winter for meat. Their wool will be too valuable next year.”

As he puts on the new top and pants, the prisoner instinctively hands her his old clothes. She steps towards the edge of the door and for the first time she notices the drawings. She gasps.

The prisoner is all too aware of what she has seen.

“They look so real!” she exclaims, “How did you do that?”

“It’s what I do.”

Without asking, the girl opens the door all the way and a comparative flood of light fills the cell. It is the first time the prisoner has seen his own drawings this clearly.

“They’re beautiful, but why just parts of bodies?”

He does not answer her question. He, of course, knows the answer, but the prisoner cannot possibly tell an innocent, Because that was all I needed to serve my fleshly purpose.

He remembers Savonarola too well and the winter day on the seventh of February 1497 when they burned his paintings. He watched the canvas curl at the edges in the heat and bits of his pictures break away from the fire, paintings of body parts floating into the night sky in the name of all that is holy. Suddenly, the connection between that pain-filled memory and the drawings on this wall becomes apparent to him.

As he admires his own drawings for the first time, this too dawns on him. This is the most beautiful work he has ever done. These are sketches that are somehow perfect in their state of being unfinished. They are not calves, and torsos, and hands at all. They are unedited expressions of pure desire, straight from his imagination, free of any thought of God.

“It’s just what I was able to draw,” he tells the girl.

It is the girl’s turn to surprise him back with her next question, “Are these those people? Are these the Taino?”

The prisoner’s mouth hangs open. She has seen in a matter of seconds what he the artist had never considered, yet….

He nods, even though he himself has never actually seen the Taino.

“So these are the people who have never met God.”

She doesn’t think about it until she hears herself say it and the very thought makes her shudder. The prisoner wants to assure her that’s not the case, but the drawings speak for themselves. He cannot deny it.

The girl turns away from the drawings.

“I can’t look. I mustn’t look any more….What have I done?”

Her eyes fill with tears. Without thinking about it, the prisoner puts a hand on her shoulder to comfort the girl.

“It’s not finished. You will see….let me show you in a couple days.”

As soon as the girl closes the door behind her, the prisoner lights two of his candles and hurriedly begins a new drawing on the wall directly across from the door. For the next two days, the girl barely opens the door when she brings him his food. She does not look at him, she does not look in the direction of the walls, and she says nothing.

On the seventh day of this, as soon as she drops his bowl inside the door—this time with just one wooden spoon—the prisoner is ready.

“Please, Francesca! I want you to see this. I didn’t mean to terrify you the other day. I would never do such a thing on purpose.”

She turns away but does not completely close the door.

“It’s all right. I saw nothing. It never happened.”

“Please, I ask you open the door and have another look.”

She does not respond immediately. The prisoner will not take “no” for an answer, though. In one motion, he pulls the girl inside the cell and pushes the door completely open. She wants to scream, but somehow doesn’t. The cell fills with light and before her on the opposite wall is a near life-sized portrait of a resurrected Christ.

“It’s even more beautiful,” she murmurs, then drops to her knees to pray.

“So, the Taino have seen God too now,” says the prisoner.

He doesn’t believe any of this, but the prisoner has seen that it would be a sin to hurt such a kind-hearted girl. He now sees the whole tableau, the two walls, for this first time.


When he was painting the ceiling of St. Peter’s, one of the workmen had come to him with a story. He had been in the north and heard of a most curious painting done on three pieces of wood by a German named Bosch. Where the painting at St. Peter’s would be the story of Man and God, from the creation onwards, Bosch had included hell itself and all the dangers of temptation. The artisan related what he knew of this northern painter then asked a simple question, “If this was to be a portrait of all of man’s history, why had we left out the devil?”

The artist had a simple answer at the time; “The Pope had not asked for it.”

Indeed, he had argued with Pope Sixtus about the tableau not precisely following the order that he had learned himself as a child. The Pope had never said it, but he had not commissioned a holy work of art at all. The point of the paintings on the ceiling had been far simpler than that. The stories told in pictures were there to remind visitors that the Pope spoke directly to God. The paintings confirmed the Pope’s authority, not God’s.

When the man had asked him, “But what did God ask for?” the artist replied almost without thinking. “The Pope will tell me whatever God asks.”

He had finished the commission for the ceiling shortly after that, in 1512. As he looks at this new painting, done without colors, done without even light, the prisoner realizes something else. This is the shadow of what he spent four years painting in Rome.

The girl gets up, picks up the prisoner’s bowl, and leaves without closing the door. The prisoner shuts it himself after she leaves, but he draws on the walls of his cell no longer.

She reports to the Duke three days later.

Before winter comes, the prisoner is surprised to receive a full pardon from the Pope, Duke Alessandro’s cousin. He leaves his hiding place and sends a message to the Duke.

“Now that I have returned to Florence, I wish to finish my work on the basilica but will do so on one condition.”

When the Duke gets the news, he does not hide his joy. He has won. He sends a message to the artist to come to him in person to explain his one condition. After the introductions, the two men share a banana. For the last two weeks, the artist has spent entire days in the middle of the square, his shirt open, reveling in the sunlight even as winter approaches. He has also managed to slip away with two young men he meets in the square to play in the darkness. Oddly, in these moments the artist finds himself thinking of the girl. It is the only time in his life when he will think of a girl while having sex. He does not think about her in a carnal way, it is just that he sees her face whenever he closes his eyes during these trysts.

“So, what is this one condition?” The Duke gets to the point.

“There is a room below the chapel. I want the entrance sealed for all time and no one is to ever look inside. I will do the masonry work myself.”

“It’s done,” says the Duke as he unwittingly completes the artist’s revenge.

He will continue to work on the chapel, but no one will see his greatest work, at least not until the world is ready for it. The Medici will never get that kind of immortality from his hands. The artist works for three more years off and on with the sculptures and the entryway for the basilica, but he never finishes. Most of those there have no idea that the man had just months ago been a prisoner in this very building.

One day it occurs to him that he may die here working on projects about which he no longer cares, all to ensure the memory of a family whose descendants after Lorenzo he does not respect. One day, the artist slips away, some say with the help of a young woman who walks him out of the city and helps him to hide at a sheep ranch in the hills.

The artist returns to Rome and finishes one last painting at the Vatican, a picture of the Last Judgment behind the Sistine Chapel. He dies a few months after that. When he dies, no one knows about the secret rooms deep within the catacombs that he has filled with drawings done by candlelight so dim that ordinary people can barely see the walls, much less draw on them. The artist himself set the stones closing off the entrances.

Duke Alessandro dies a few years later before turning forty. His enemies lure him into what he thinks is a rendezvous with the wife of a nobleman. Just as he removes his pantaloons below his calves, knife-bearing assassins take him by surprise and murder him.

In 1976 a workman, who claims to be a descendant of a woman who once knew Michelangelo, goes to fix an electric line just beneath the Medici chapel and drills a hole in the wall. Much to his shock, he discovers drawings at the end of his flashlight beam. The art critics call it “doodles” even if they are almost unquestionably Michelangelo’s doodles. Others, though, see something else. One expert, a Bosch specialist, insists that these aren’t unrelated drawings at all, that there is an eerie coherence to them. It is, she says, “as if Michelangelo created modern art before modern art was possible.”

Some have heard the stories about the rooms, actually more like caves, beneath the Vatican. For instance, there is a mad street artist in Rome who will either tell you the story or draw your portrait on the sidewalk in chalk for just five Euros. Having just come from Florence, you tell him that you’d like to see these caves yourself to see what else Michelangelo might have imagined. You’d pay anything to see what he drew there.

Signore, you don’t have to visit these rooms to see them. I have never visited them myself.”

You laugh and begin to walk away after giving the man two Euros for his story.

Signore, if you want to see these rooms, all you have to do is lie on your back in a completely dark room and open your eyes.”

* * *


Editor’s Note:
See more of Michelangelo’s sketches from the Medici Chapel here.

* * *

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and recently completed a collection of short stories, Inventing China. His most current publications include Grey Sparrow Journal, Summerset Review, and Kartika.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Cave Painting was inspired by a visit to the actual room below the Medici Chapel many years ago and how "modern" the sketches there felt. I think of it as more "alternate-history" than historical fiction. I look at alternate-history as what possibly happens when reality blinks.

A Small Betrayal

Story removed at author's request.

The Man We Saved


The Man We Saved
by Terence Kuch

SEAWEED CHOKED HIS IRON ROBE, arms clutched a blood-soaked plank. Lobster-trappers found him between two islands, passing by on the tide. He would have drifted right on through but they cast a rope and dragged him up onto the sand-grit shore,

AND WE PULLED THE WEEDS FROM HIM THERE, pried the iron robe off like cracking a lobster-shell, wrung him out. There he was, almost dead, greywhite inside his shell. We turned the plank so he was head-down, facing the way he had come, eyes into the morning sun, and one of us held his mouth open while the waters of how many seas? ran out into the sand. But his life ran down not so far, we pulled his life back, he lived

AND SLEPT FOR DAYS, taking a little food and sleeping again. Then one day he spoke. The braves attending him ran away. The chiefs would have done the same, but ashamed of fright they brought him to the king, themselves stood far back. The man began to speak again and the priests shook their amulets, calling on the gods to protect us (but the gods come only when they will, and then who can tell what they will do?). The man spoke

AS ANIMALS SEEM TO SPEAK, babble, rave, no way to tell where one word ended and another began. We thought he must be crazy, but not with that look on his face, fear (but we had saved him), doubt. The king stood up from his throne, walked out. The priests shook their clinking trinkets harder until sweat made reflections on their flesh. The man we saved was shouting strange cadences, gesturing -- but not the way we move our own hands. After a while there was no end but exhaustion, and the man we saved made noises like an animal lost in the woods. Wet salt dropped from his eyes. After

TIME AND TIME WE SAW HIM THEN as one like us but not so much like us. We taught him Tongue that first year, him we thought the babbler in the waves, and he taught us that he had a tongue, too, Othertongue! No one since the gods named all things had thought it could be so. Fat and bossy he became, the first we blamed on guavas and sitting around, the second who knows? He told us stories of his land out beyond the seas. He taught us rituals of that place, kneeling and mumbling that pleased him when we did it. That was the second year. And then he took a wife and fathered too many fatty little half-lobsters, drank too much fermented guava and made himself a nuisance relieved only by stories, stories of bursting fire and ships like floating castles, death and wreckage, and how he came to be drifting here this many days now so long ago. When the village children mocked and called him crazy (everybody knows there’s no such thing as bursting fire!) then the man we saved would bring out the iron robe (good for making war, he said), get it mostly on except the part around his belly, parade around shouting in Othertongue and making thrusting motions with his arm. Then the children would fall deathly quiet and not call him

CRAZY ANY MORE, for a while. But just now (can it be twelve years since he came to us? Fifteen?) I’m recalling it now, this history of the man we saved, because just now sails appear over the sea -- great ships like floating castles lying high in the water, rocking on the waves and coming forward with a slow swaying gait in front of the morning sun. The man we saved is here, on the beach waving and shouting, sweating, jumping up and down. Most of his children had dragged the iron robe down to the shore and he is awkwardly getting into it now (only the leggings and helmet -- too big for the rest of it). He’s shouting in Othertongue, pointing to himself. It seems he is being

SAVED. What sort of people are these, sending ships half a world away to find one wretched man they can’t have known survived? (He is no lord, he tells us, but an ordinary soldier; he doesn’t even know his king’s name!) The ship comes as near to shore as depth of sea permits. Boats put out from these ships, with lobster-colored men in iron robes carrying spears, flags, who can tell what else? The man we saved rushes to greet them. The iron-robed men pull their boats up on shore. One among them must be the leader: he points and others run. The man we

SAVED drops to his knees before the leader. The leader raises him up and takes off his own helmet: an honor, we think. The leader points: a man runs to the boats and returns with a flag on a tall staff. The leader hands the staff to the man we saved. He

GRASPS IT WITH BOTH FISTS AND THRUSTS IT HARD INTO THE FACE OF THE BEACH with many gestures and loud words. The leader laughs and clasps him round and slaps him on the back. But now the leader stops, looks around at our land. But now, but –

NOW OUR GODS BRING UP A GREAT WIND that shreds the flag, that pushes the lobster-ironcoats back into their ships, pushes the ships off, away, backwards through the waves, the man we saved among them. Somewhere in mid-ocean the gods cloud the minds of these men and tell them that there are no lands to the west at all, at all, only the ends of the earth where the sea drops off into a place of monsters. And it is now

MANY YEARS SINCE I WAS A BOY and the man we saved was found in the waves and I held his mouth open to drain the water from him so he could live. And it is now many years since I was grown and watched the lobster-men come in their high ships, and it is now many years since our gods


* * *

Terence Kuch is an information technology consultant, avid hiker, and world traveler. His publications and acceptances include Abacot Journal, Clockwise Cat, Colored Chalk, Marginalia, North American Review, Northwest Review, qarrtsiluni, Slow Trains, Thema, and Timber Creek Review. He has studied at the Writers Center, Bethesda, Maryland, and participated in the Mid-American Review Summer Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the Arlington (Virginia) Writers Group and the Dark Fiction Guild. His irresponsible opinions, on language and other topics, can be found at www.terencekuch.com.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
I get most of my ideas from reading journals and other non-fiction. Jean Baudrillard's five-volume series (titled "Cool Memories") has been a wonderful source. Currently I'm writing a story inspired by Yeats' journal comment that he probably wouldn't live long enough to fill all the pages in his journal (so, fictionally, someone else 'helps out').

Breath of Amun


Breath of Amun
by Karen L. Kobylarz

I awoke to a shout and a hiss-whump breaking through the gentle rustle of the trees. My hands tightened around the arms of my chair, and I sat up, heart racing. Another cry from the guards on the walls told me the enemy had come. The Desert-folk, attacking the palace garden in broad daylight. Only Nahman, their serpent-spawn sorcerer, servant of Apepi, King of Thieves, would be so bold.

Where was he? His men? They could not be far. Where—

There, in a pole of the canopy I rested under, an arrow shaft quivered. An arrow, a mere arm’s length away, so close, even this old woman’s eyes could see it.

Hiss-whump. Another arrow struck, this time into a nearby sycamore trunk. My body tensed as memory stirred, unfurling images of a battlefield and my father, grandfather, uncles, brothers . . . Run. I had to run, had to—

I scrambled off the divan, my body protesting each move.

My fanbearers ceased their work and closed in around me, clutching their fans as if they could protect me from more than the day’s heat. The bearer at my right leaned toward me. “Lady Tetisheri?”

Voices rose from inside the palace, soon joined by the thunder of footfalls, and within heartbeats, royal guards spilled out along the garden path to join the others on the walls. Tree branches stirred and cracked; another volley of arrows sliced the air.

Our men charged forward, up the narrow stairs leading to the top of the wall. One of the fanbearers seized my shoulders and shoved me under the divan. My world dissolved to one of shadows, feet, and legs. As more arrows hissed our way, my bearers crouched down beside me, blocking what remained of my view.

“Forward in the name of Ra Sun-Lord!”

“Hor Falcon-Lord, defend us!”

More soldiers ran to the wall, only to have their prayers choked off by Desert-folk arrows. Why invoke the names of gods who hadn’t answered our prayers for over fifty summers? Gods who left us nothing but death!

I clenched my fists, grit my teeth, and willed a thought in the direction of the enemy. Leave us alone. We surrendered half our country to you. Be satisfied.

“For Amun the Creator and victory!”

My head hit the underside of the divan. Demons of the Netherworld, was that Kamose?

No, my grandson would not be foolish enough. His father wouldn’t let him.

“Sa-Ibana, with me,” Kamose called out to his friend from the guard. “To the walls, men.”

To the walls?

An invisible hand clutched my heart, but I shook free of its grip. Crawling out from under the divan, I pushed my way through the cluster of fanbearers. Where was Kamose?

There, to my right, with leather armor over his white tunic, quiver of arrows on his back, bow in hand.

I dashed after my grandson as if I was still the ten-year-old girl who had followed Atta, Grand-atta, and the others when the Desert-folk first encroached upon our lands.

Branches tore at my dress, cornflowers tangled my feet, and guards brushed against me as they hurried to join him.

As Kamose reached the first step, I clutched his tunic and pulled. We both fell back, sprawling to the ground.

“Kamose!” I kept my grip on him. “Are you mad?”

“Grandmother.” He sat up and tried to yank himself free. “For the love of Amun, we can’t sit in the palace and do nothing.”

I tightened my hold on him. “We cannot die. You cannot die. Did you never listen when I—?”

“Yes, yes.” Kamose frowned. “The same old story about your father and grandfather and brothers and the Desert-folk.”

An arrow whooshed over us, grazing my hair. I pushed him flat to the ground. “You need to hear it again.”

“Not now.” He shoved me aside, sprang to feet as his namesake had done years before.

My little brother’s voice still haunted me. “Hurry, Tetisheri. Let’s follow Atta and the others. We’ll get to see a real battle.”

We had been so certain then. The gods were with us. The Desert-folk had driven us from our North Land, but with strength in numbers, we would take it back. So Atta had said. So Grand-atta and our uncles had said as they and our elder brothers marched off with the army.

My little brother and I waited until they had almost disappeared from sight and crept after them. We found an unguarded spot along the city wall and climbed to the top. On the other side, our army waited for the foe, bows and spears and swords ready.

A dust cloud rose on the horizon, and silence fell. As the cloud came closer, closer, thunder roared. Darkness swallowed all of them. Though my brother and I strained our eyes, nothing but yellow-gray dust spun below us. Shouts rose, then cries, yells, screams, whimpers.

The cloud lifted even higher, rolled toward us. My brother and I ducked for fear it would swallow us as well. But it stopped when it reached the wall, hovered as if examining us, then retreated. As it neared the ground, the cloud became a crimson haze, and from it lanky figures emerged: Desert-folk tramping amid the bodies of our soldiers, the once-dry earth soaked with blood.

In the center of the carnage, a tall, thick-limbed man stood in a chariot. Obsidian-black steeds crowned with red feathers stamped before him. Cloaked in silver, he surveyed the other men, arms folded across his chest, remnants of the dust cloud lingering at his shoulders.

I had straightened for a better look at him, and my little brother had followed my lead.

The man raised his head. Dark eyes fixed on me, and he pointed my way. The Desert-folk archer nearest to him fired his bow. The arrow shot toward us. I ducked; my brother didn’t.

I caught him before he fell and eased him down upon the top of the wall. The arrow had lodged itself in his right eye, and blood poured out faster than tears. His breath came in short gasps, and as I searched frantically for someone or something to help us, a dust cloud danced close by.

When I turned, the thick-limbed man crouched beside me, a dagger as silvery as his cloak in one hand. “Come, child. I am Nahman.” With the dagger pressed to my throat, he brought me down from the wall.

He had guided me to my father’s body, flayed the corpse before my eyes, and ordered the same done to all our men. He had left them for the vultures, setting up a guard to stop those who might try to recover the remains.

I shuddered at the memory and grasped the end of my grandson’s tunic. “I won’t let them do that to you. I won’t.”

Won’t?” A whisper came with a questioning ring, and warmth rushed over me.

Strong hands seized my arms, pulling me away from Kamose, and Sa-Ibana’s voice filled my ears. “Stay here, Lady.” Then he, Kamose, and half-a-dozen more guards raced up the stairs to the top of the wall.

No, not the wall. Arrows flew over the wall, and it would only take one. One arrow, and my brother had fallen, my brother had died . . . On a wall. Because we climbed the wall . . .

I followed them as fast as age would let me. Archers stood aligned, raining arrows down on our attackers. Below, more of our men brandished their straight swords against the sickle-shaped blades of Desert-folk soldiers. The air had thickened with their magic, even though today Nahman did not walk among them. The land had turned into a swirling mass of men and dust and blood.

Several nearby guards noticed my arrival and hurried to my side, covering me with their shields as another swarm of arrows sped our way. When it had passed, I peered over the shields’ edge. Our swords scratched the enemy and nicked their shields. Kamose and Sa-Ibana knocked their bows and fired. But their arrows sailed no further than a child could fling a stone, one grazing the side of an enemy soldier, the other bouncing off a shield.

The majority of Desert-folk soldiers kept well out of our range. But their arrows found us, and in combat the sickle blades of their swords hooked on our shields, forced them down, and sliced our men’s throats.

A hand gripped my shoulder. “Come down now, Mother.”

I spun around and glared at the man standing before me, his gold-threaded kilt glistening in the daylight. “Why? They’ll defeat us whether I stand here or not!” He may have been Lord of the South for the past eighteen years, but Tao was still my son. “Take a look for yourself.” I waved a hand at the battlefield. “We might as well be fighting with pebbles and cattle prods.”

Tao’s usually amber-bright eyes darkened. He opened his mouth, but a distant rumble tore his attention away. Beyond the embattled troops, came a Desert-folk chariot. A lanky man with a fine cloak draped over his armor clutched the reins. He stopped well out of our arrow range and lifted his chin. “Hear me, Vassal Tao! Apepi, King of the North, sends you this warning: The hippos in your eastern canal have been bellowing too loudly of late. They disturb the Great King’s sleep. Remove them at once, or Nahman will come.”

Kamose shifted the quiver on his shoulder, revealing another bow beside it. He cast aside the bow in his hands and took up this one. Beside him, Sa-Ibana did the same.

“Wait!” Tao held up a warning hand.

Kamose clenched his jaw, his fingers drumming against the bow—a bow with a band of wood that curved in the middle ever so slightly. Why wasn’t it straight like the others?

Before I could ask, Tao stepped forward and tapped Kamose’s arm. My grandson fired, and the arrow soared over the Desert-folk ranks, striking Apepi’s herald below the neck. The man slumped over the chariot frame.

Tao grinned. “Now, desert bows!”

Our archers cast aside their straight bows and armed themselves with curved ones. Below, our swordsmen fell back, and a familiar thunder filled the air.

I reached for Tao, my heart like a stone in my chest. “Nahman.”

Tao’s smile didn’t fade. “Not this time.” He turned to the men. “Fire!”

The archers obeyed, the arrows from their new bows flying deeper into the Desert-folk ranks. A second magic cloud rose around the palace as chariots bearing our men, charged the enemy from either side. Another wave of our soldiers followed, armed with the same sickle-swords the Desert-folk wielded.

I stared across the battlefield, my pulse regaining its rhythm. How?

The enemy fell back; their cloud wavered. Desert-folk soldiers flung down their weapons and fled.

Soon, all were retreating, many bleeding from multiple wounds.

One straggler turned and shot single arrow our way. It whisked between Tao and Kamose, and stabbed into the ground below. The sun, which our ancestors had named Ra, shone down upon the weapon, turning its pale wood a dazzling white.

Scrambling down from the wall, Kamose yanked the arrow from the earth.

Tao and I followed.

Nahman will come.” The whisper brushed my ear, rising above the groans of the wounded. I turned to seek its source.

Guards gathered around us. “What was the meaning of that? The man, his warning—” I jabbed a finger at the wall, my blood chilling with realization. The Desert-folk capital was a good ten-day journey down the River, too far for anyone to hear hippos in our canals.

My pulse pounded in my ears. Some-thing-else, some-thing-else. A threat lurked behind those senseless words.

“Tao?” I grabbed his hand, squeezing his fingers until my knuckles whitened. “What have you been doing? Those bows and chariots and swords . . .”

Tao sighed. “I’ve been putting them to good use, and trusting in Lord Amun.”

“Amun?” I spat. “That god has done nothing, nothing.”

Tao’s lips thinned.

If only the gods would grant me power to read his thoughts, I might believe in them again.

Believe again.” The whisper taunted me once more, and a fly tickled my neck. I shook my head to banish them both.

“The hippos.” I clutched the broad collar around Tao’s neck. “He means you, doesn’t he? You’re encouraging our people to take up arms against him.”

An amber glint came into Tao’s eyes. “It seems I do bellow loudly.”

An uneasy chuckle made its way through those gathered nearby.

Tao placed a hand on mine. “All the stories about Nahman and his magic are just that—stories. The Desert-folk’s real power lies in their weapons. They were able to drive our forefathers from the Northern Land by using better weapons.”

I stepped away from him, a silver dagger and flayed corpses lingering in my heart. “Don’t dismiss the stories. I’ve seen what Nahman can do, the sandstorms he raised.”

Tao laughed. “Magic alone doesn’t give the Desert-folk their sandstorm speed. Chariots do, and we now have some of our own, as you have seen.”

He turned to Kamose and took the arrow from him. “My years on the throne have not been idle. My border patrols collected Desert-folk items, and men like Sa-Ibana studied them.” He nodded at Kamose’s friend. “You’ve seen what we have, Mother: their bows, chariots, sickle-swords, and armor. I have been working on this for over twenty years, even while Father still lived. Yes, we must be wary of Apepi and his people, Nahman most of all, but we cannot fear them forever. It’s time to win back our Northern Land.”

Heart pounding, I stared at him. Though a thousand questions filled my thoughts, only one made it to my lips: “How do you know it’s time?”

Tao drew closer, his irises burning like two golden suns. “When I was Kamose’s age, I went to the Mansion of Amun before sunrise and joined the priests in their morning ritual. I heard a voice telling me the time would come. It commanded me to learn the secrets of our enemies and prepare the Southern Land for war. The gods have not deserted us. Amun has not deserted us. We can defeat the Desert-folk. Amun Himself told me I would know when it was time. It is time, Mother.”

My lips pressed together so hard they numbed. “I don’t believe you. I cannot. Where was Amun in the time of our forefathers, when the Desert-folk came and drove them from the North? Where was Amun the day Nahman breached the borderland wall and slaughtered our men? Where was He when the Desert-folk shot my little brother and—?” Sorrow choked my throat, and tears stung my eyes. “Where was He when your father’s father was forced to grovel at Apepi’s feet?”

Taking my hands in his, Tao drew me back into the present. “Mother, He is here now. He has always been here. It is we who have failed, we who have lost faith. Come with me to Amun’s Mansion tomorrow. You will believe.”

* * *


* * *

Tao and I came to the Mansion of Amun moments before dawn. Murmurs arose amid the gathering of priests, musicians, and torch bearers waiting there. The Lord of the Southern Land rarely joined them in their ritual; the Lord’s mother never had. We waited, until the sun’s first rays pierced the horizon, tainting the east with a thin line of blood. The lead musician began shaking her sistrum, two priests opened the Mansion doors, and Tao entered, followed by the First Prophet, then me. Behind us, musicians and priests struck up a chant of welcome to the reborn sun.

At the entrance, the ceiling soared above us, balanced atop walls and pillars that reached up like lotus petals welcoming the light of the sun. A hundred colors, shades of red, yellow, brown, green, and blue seemed to blaze off the whiteness of the stone—a white purer than ivory, dazzling my failing eyes in the early morning dreariness. The newborn world must have been this bright on the first day of creation. Among such hues, a god might be near.


We moved onward at a stately pace, suited for honoring the god and for an old woman’s legs. The musicians’ hymn bounced from pillar to pillar. Our path rose ever upward. My calves began to ache. Above, the ceiling dipped down. A dozen pillars became a hundred, gathering around as we moved in deeper. Darkness snatched the white away, leaving me half breathless. Was it much further? Why had I agreed to this? To feel a so-called presence? Why would the god come after so many years of silence?

Another doorway opened before us, almost invisible in the gloom. Here, the priests prepared the offering, fogging the air with incense. Smoky gray and the smell of bitter-spice mingled with the music and assailed my nostrils. I breathed in and coughed. Why would a god come for this? Incense and song battered against the night. Beneath this attack, the darkness faltered, lifted one handwidth, then another.

Taking the offering, Tao passed through the doorway to the sanctuary hidden beyond, the First Prophet and the chief musician at his side. I stood ten steps behind them. Tao reached out and touched the darkness. A beam of light from the east slid across the floor and up, up, until it caressed his outstretched hand. My heart thundered in my ears. Morning magic crackled in the air, unseen doors thunked open, and the image of Amun, Eternal Lord of Creation, shimmered, his right arm extended, bathed in newborn sunlight.

“Amun,” I whispered the name, shivers dancing across my skin.

The chanting grew louder, and the Mansion roared a joyful welcome to the Creator as if he had truly come.

Breath, hot as the noonday sun, grazed my neck. My skin prickled, and I glanced back, ready to scold the idiot priest who would dare play games with me, but—Nothing. No one was there. The priests had vanished into the field of lotus-columns. The breath brushed against my neck once more. “Who’s there?” I turned around.

No one.

“Tetisheri, who is Ra?”

Something about the voice chilled my flesh, dried my throat. I swallowed hard. “Ra?” The old god of the sun? He had deserted us, as Amun had.

“No.” The voice came wind-whisper soft, its owner reading my thoughts. “He is here with me.” Another breath rushed over my neck and down my back, following the path of my spine. “I am the Creator. I am Amun, and I am Ra.”

I shook my head. He was Amun and Ra? How could one god be another? “Show yourself!” The priests were playing games with me, that was all.

Laughter rippled the air. The voice came louder and clearer now, its words flowing like river water. “Tetisheri, Mother of Kings, is that what you want from me?”

Tears stung my eyes. My hands balled into fists. “Yes, let me see you! Tell me where you were fifty years ago when the Desert-folk slaughtered our men. When—”

When my brother bled to death on the wall?

Something touched my cheek, lifting away a tear.

The laughter faded. “You want easy answers.”

The voice fell silent; moments passed. Had the speaker fled? I peered into the mix of light and shadow, hoping to catch a glimpse of something.


“I am Amun-Ra, the Hidden One and the Visible Sun!” The words came with such force, I stumbled backwards. “By my will, the foreigner shall be ground to dust by weapons of his own making.”

I stared into the darkness, my breath caught in my throat. Could it be? Would He really appear after all this time, as Tao had said?

Tao. My lips curled. How conveniently the god echoed the wishes of my son.

A low chuckle rose from the darkness. “I am Amun-Ra. Long have I waited to do battle against enemies of the Two Lands, for the right vessel through which I could enter your world.” Rays of sunlight rushed before me, gathering together, pouring down like a golden waterfall. The light took shape, the form of a boy with an arrow through his eye.

Then arrow fell away, and the eye healed. The boy grew into a man wearing the Double Crown of a king of a united Two Lands. Amber eyes stared out from a gilded face. Eyes like Tao’s, but the face . . . so bright. His right hand clutched a dagger, not by the hilt, which was covered in gold and inlayed with chips of red jasper and lapis lazuli, but by the blade. He held it out to me. “You have readied that vessel for me at last, Tetisheri, Mother of Kings. Strength and victory are my gifts to your House.”

Heat poured from Him, driving me to my knees. My body shook. My heart slowed; my breath came in gasps. The godwas here, before me. The god was . . . truly . . . and my son would be his vessel. I prostrated myself and awaited His command. “What do You desire, Lord?” My heartbeat faded to a faint pulse, and my blood filled with a winter’s chill. “How can I help make your vessel ready?” If Tao could drive Apepi and Nahman from our lands . . . “What sacrifice do you need?”

“No, Tetisheri, not sacrifices. Faith. Believe my words. If the flesh of your flesh bleeds, I shall bleed also. The blood of a true king will destroy the greatest weapon of another. From the blood of Nahman’s slayer shall come not mere kings, but Per-aa, a Great House that shall rule over the Two Lands for generations to come.”

A hand touched my head, and I lifted my eyes. My breathing eased, and warmth flooded through me. The voice and image faded, but His final words lingered in my heart.


I turned toward the cry.

Tao was rushing to me. “Mother, are you well?” He knelt down, his eyes dark with worry. “Did you sense Him?”

I shook my head. “More than that. I saw Him. I heard His voice.” I swallowed hard and met Tao’s gaze. “You were right, my son. Amun is with you.”

He clapped his hands, triumph rising in his eyes and in his smile. “As the god wills it. The next sound Apepi will hear will be the roar of our chariot wheels.”

* * *

Breath of Amun

* * *

Yellow dust rose in the distance as the enemy approached. From atop the city gates, I watched them, a three-man guard with me. Below, Tao took his place in his chariot, his cloud-white horses stamping the earth. A company of sickle-swordsmen surrounded him, the polished leather of their armor reflecting the sunlight. Behind them lined the common ranks, loincloth-clad, gripping straight swords and leather shields. Kamose joined the left flank of our army. Sa-Ibana joined me atop the walls with his archers, many armed with Desert-folk bows.

For months, Tao had sent Sa-Ibana and our elite forces into Desert-folk border towns, destroying everything and bringing enemy survivors to our capital in chains. Then we had deliberately fallen back, let Apepi’s army through. Hadn’t Lord Amun promised us victory? And where better to win it than before His city?

The enemy drew nearer, and Tao unsheathed his sword. “This day Nahman himself shall die in the sight of Amun-Ra!” A single stroke down, and our army charged. I gripped the protective wall. The drum of horses’ hooves sounded in my ears. The armies met in a thunderclap, a mass of humanity, chariots, horses, and metal. Men fell on both sides, splotching the ground with an all-too familiar shade of red. But Tao stood tall, and so did Kamose, their new curved blades tearing down enemy shields and slicing deep into Desert-folk ranks.

I waited, my body quivering, my fingers growing numb. The dust thickened. Cries filled the air: voices of the dying. Desert-folk or ours? I raised my eyes to the heavens. Ra shone down in a dazzling white ball. Where was the breath, the touch of Amun on my neck? Amun and Ra—they were one.

My guards and Sa-Ibana’s men grumbled and fingered their bows. Thudding hooves, growling chariot wheels, clanking swords, shouts, screams.

Sa-Ibana signaled the archers.

The men raised their crescent-shaped bows and fired. Arrows showered deep into the Desert-folk ranks. The enemy faltered and began to retreat.

“Look, Lady!” A guard’s voice rose above the fray. “Something comes.”

Another chariot hurtled out of the north, bearing a single rider cloaked in silver. Arrows flew his way, only to drop to the earth before reaching their target.


Dust-filled air and flashes of sunlight on metal met my eyes. Tao and the others vanished in a sandy haze.

My heart pounded as if it longed to break free from my chest. One beat. Two, three, four, five . . . one hundred. At last they emerged from the dust: our men running toward the walls. A familiar voice reached my ears. “You and you, with me. We must open the gates. The rest—cover us.”

Sa-Ibana. He bolted from my side and to the stairs. What had happened to Tao? Kamose? The aches of age slipped away. I rushed down the steps, after Sa-Ibana. When I reached the ground, I headed for the gates, battle dust swirling around me, the guards at my heels. Soldiers ran past, their eyes wide with fear. My feet slowed and finally stopped. Pain, low and dull, throbbed in my bones. My lungs heaved. “Sa-Ibana! Sa-Ibana, answer me!”

“Lady.” A rough hand grasped my arm. “Go to the palace. Nahman is victorious. We can’t find the king or the prince.”

A chill raced through me. Couldn’t find them? Before I could question him, Sa-Ibana dragged me away from the gates, down the road toward the palace. A stream of bodies flowed around us, panting breaths and thundering footfalls. Ra was in His heaven, but Amun . . . Where was Amun?

“The god’s Mansion.” The answer came to my lips. I tugged Sa-Ibana’s arm. “We must go there. The god will protect us.”

Sa-Ibana repeated my words to the others and together we made our way to the Mansion. We ran to the gates, and they swung open.

The shadows of the torch-lit hall gathered around us, as did priests, chanters, musicians.

Sa-Ibana turned to the soldiers. “Bar the gates and line the hall, both sides, ten paces apart, weapons ready.”

The First Prophet approached me, his hands shaking, his face pale. “My Lady?”

I didn’t answer at first. Amun-Ra had promised victory. Amun-Ra would know what to do. I grasped the First Prophet’s wrist. “We must go to the sanctuary.”

The man stared at me, his mouth gaping. Angry shouts erupted from behind the gates. There came a thud, then another. The plank of wood barring the gates shuddered.

I tightened my grip. “Now!” Without waiting for him to obey, I hastened down the hall. “Sa-Ibana, all of you, come with me.”

The hallway threatened to slow me down. The floor slanted upward, and columns closed in on all sides. Darkness gathered, punctured only by a handful of torches. But Sa-Ibana and the First Prophet, who had recovered his wits, took hold of my arms and propelled me forward. Soldiers and priests crowded around us. Thunks and cracks echoed behind us.

We reached the sanctuary door, and the First Prophet flung it open. “May Lord Amun forgive this intrusion.” He stepped aside for me.

I approached the gilded doors Tao had opened months before. They gleamed orange in the torchlight, needing Ra’s light for their true golden glow.

Another crack, a groan, the tramping of hurried footsteps. The Desert-folk had breached the gate and were coming our way. Bodies pressed against me. Sa-Ibana’s orders lashed against my ears. “Take up position! Form rows, shoulder to shoulder. Shields up!” The priests called to Amun.

I reached out and flung open the doors.

A wind rushed into the sanctuary, cold as the north breeze at night. I turned to face it. It bit into my skin. Dust filled the hall and the sanctuary, choking off priests’ prayers and soldiers’ curses. The men forming the first row drew their weapons and swung, only to have sand grate against their blades. At last, the wind began blowing in circles, gathering the dust together in a tall, thick cloud before our first line of men.

The cloud took shape, rounding at the top, splintering lower down into limbs, fingers—a human form. Amun-Ra?

I hissed in a breath as the cloud solidified into a man with thick-boned features and silver cloak.

Nahman, unchanged from when I saw him last.

The sorcerer held up his hands. “Disarm yourselves, people of the South! We have your Lord and his heir.”

Desert-folk warriors poured in behind him, two dragging my grandson between them. Kamose’s hands were bound behind his back, his scalp cut and bleeding, his eyes blackened.

I stepped forward, trying to push through the crowd of priests and soldiers. A hand came down on my shoulder, and the First Prophet’s voice brushed my ear. “Lady, don’t.”

I stopped and turned my eyes to Nahman. The air grew heavy with the smell of sweat and fear.

The sorcerer smiled and inclined his head in my direction. “Old woman, tell these fools to do as I say.”

I swallowed hard, dryness filling my throat. “Where is my son?” Amun-Ra, where are You?

Nahman motioned to his men. Four of them came forward bearing a shrouded pallet. Our soldiers and the priests drew back as they set it before me. At a word from Nahman, they pulled back the covering.

Tao lay there, as he had appeared only once before. On the day of his birth, the midwife had held him up, a little squirmy thing, muddy red. He’d cried and thrashed when she’d washed him. Then I’d held him for the first time, and he’d reached out with a tiny hand. . . .

Now Tao didn’t cry, his body frozen in a final thrash. An arrow had claimed one amber eye. Others pierced his arms, and in his neck, a dagger with inlays of jasper and lapis lazuli, like the one Amun had offered me. And silver, like the one Nahman had pressed against my neck years ago when he made me watch—

The world blurred in a crimson cloud. My stomach clenched. My knees gave way. I fell to the floor beside my son. I stroked his forehead as I had done so many times when he was a boy.

Tao, my son, my boy, my baby, so full of promise.


Amun-Ra had made me a promise.

I lifted my head and turned to the sanctuary. Between the open doors, the statue of the god stood, gleaming dully. The crook of kingship rested in His right hand, the crown of the south upon his head. His lips curled in a gentle smile.

Smile? How dare He smile? No sacrifices. He’d promised me.

My hands curled into fists. Something more than blood coursed through my veins. Hate.

Curse You, Amun-Ra. Liar! Traitor!

My gaze fell upon Tao, the blood, the arrow shafts, the dagger handle.

Nahman made his way among our men. “Surrender, men of the South, or your prince will share his father’s fate.” He waved a hand at Kamose. Desert-folk warriors forced my grandson to his knees. Another held a sword to his neck. One by one, Sa-Ibana and our soldiers cast down their weapons.

No. Surrender was not in the promise. Neither was defeat. A god who couldn’t keep His promises was no god, but a Netherworld fiend.

I reached out, gripped the handle, pulled the dagger free. The dagger of Nahman, stained with the blood of my son. I struggled to my feet and rushed to the statue of the god. I raised the dagger, aiming for the neck.

Have faith, Tetisheri.

Warmth washed over my face and trailed along the back of my neck, a tickle, a puff of air, the breath of Amun, who was one with Ra.

“Lady!” The First Prophet’s voice quivered with horror.

I drew my hand back. Too late. The tip of the dagger grazed the statue, marring the gilding. Liquid gold oozed from the gash like blood.

Blood of the gods.

I pressed my hand against the wound.

If the flesh of your flesh bleeds, I shall bleed also.

Nahman’s laughter filled the hall. “See the end of your royal house, men of the South.”

Tetisheri, Mother of Kings. The voice of Amun-Ra rose above the sorcerer’s words. Strength and victory are my gifts to you. His blood burned against my palm. His breath touched my neck and hastened up my cheeks to my nostrils. I breathed deep, taking Him in.

Footsteps behind me, a cold hand on my shoulder. “Come with me, old woman.”

Old woman? No, not I, not now. I had once dwelt in the watery abyss, tamed it, changed it, shaped it into the world that was. I had swum across the surface of the sun, sailed amid moonlight and stars, and danced in the dust of the earth. I was the air stirring that dust, the breath giving life to Sa-Ibana and Kamose, to Apepi in the distant North.

To Nahman.

The hate in my veins boiled into fury, a divine rage, numbing age and pain. I was Tetisheri and Amun and Ra, and what had been given, I could take away.

As Nahman tightened his grip, I turned to him, dagger in hand, a promise on my lips: “The blood of a true king shall destroy the greatest weapon of another.”

Amun-Ra poured out of me, into the weapon, the Creator of Life becoming death. The air pulsed with light. A single stroke to the neck, and Nahman’s blood mingled with Tao’s.

I released the dagger, its hilt silver no longer, but as gold as the blood of a god. The sorcerer collapsed at my feet.

Cries filled the air, those of triumph and disbelief. Sa-Ibana retrieved his sword. “Men of the South, take up your weapons!”

Our soldiers followed his command.

Some Desert-folk warriors fled. Others stood, staring wordlessly at the body of Nahman, at Amun-Ra, at me. One warrior swung out with his sword. Amun’s priests gained courage, rushed at the man, dragged him to the ground. Too late.

Kamose had fallen.

No, Lord Amun! No!

I raced to him and knelt by his side. “Kamose!”

“Grandmother?” The sound came, half word, half cough. Kamose raised his head, scalp still bleeding and face bruised, but no other mark on him.

Tears rushed to my eyes, and with them flowed relief. I touched my grandson’s cheek. Lord Amun had spoken true. Kamose, child of my blood, lived.

“My Lady?” The First Prophet came to me, and the other priests drew around us. The shouts of soldiers and Desert-folk were fading into the distance.

I raised my head and met the First Prophet’s gaze. “This is the beginning of our victory.” Tao had not died for nothing. My hand went to Kamose’s shoulder. “Behold, the first of the Per-aa, as Lord Amun-Ra Himself decreed.”

Kamose rose and pulled me to my feet. Sunlight streamed into the sanctuary, a warm wind in its wake. The First Prophet and priests of Amun-Ra dropped to their knees before Kamose, Lord of the Two Lands—South and North to be reunited for generations to come.

* * *


* * *

Karen L. Kobylarz first encountered ancient Egypt and Rome while watching The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra at the age of eight and has been a devotee ever since.

Her previous publications include the short stories “Expecting Miracles” (Fables Webzine), “Cleopatra’s Needle” (Paradox), and “Imperishable Stars” and “The Book of Thuti.” (Leading Edge).

When she’s not exploring the mysteries of the Land of the Pharaohs, Ms. Kobylarz teaches third-grade transitional bilingual students at a local elementary school. She has B.A. in Elementary Education and an M.A. in Writing.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
[Karen L. Kobylarz] finds ideas for her stories from three sources. She remains an active student, attending as many classes, workshops, and lectures on ancient history as she can. Nonfiction books are also a source of inspiration as are educational programs on the National Geographic Channel, History, Discovery, etc. Sometimes a seemingly insignificant detail or a fleeting image raises the question: What if . . .?

The Enemies of Death

The Enemies of Death

The Enemies of Death
by Francisco Nieto Salazar

For centuries the town of Arenas del Rey considered itself the source Spain’s punctuality. From the times of the Reconquest the main lifeblood of the town, as its name suggests, had been sand. And what a fine and lucrative sand it was! Each grain was handpicked by the most delicate men (only guild members with inherited titles), and with their sharp eyes and doll-like fingers they selected grains of the most precise mass, color, and translucency as determined by royal decrees. They were the King's own arenas, his royal sands. Lesser grades were sold in shops and auctions by the sackful, but no matter what grade of sand it was, or even if it may be corrupted by another, more common sand, it still carried the distinction of being from Arenas del Rey.

During the good years the town of Arenas bustled with glassblowers and artisans who sold their sand-clocks to sea captains, convents, traders, cooks, whores, and anyone interested in keeping strict time. Many fortunes were made over the years, and black market even developed for a time, boosting the town's reputation as a source of precious sands. Good luck was said to come to those whose time was kept by the sands of Arenas.

All this began to change as sand ceded its appeal over the years to the mechanical timepieces from Paris and Bern. Clockwork had seduced aristocrats and sovereigns throughout the world, and Spain was no exception. How curiously the little hands of reason seemed to go around and around. God had invented time and man had finally stolen it, entrapping it behind wood, metal, and glass! Sand instead accumulated and went unsold, blew through the town like snow and got into everything.

The decline was gradual but, unlike the hourglass, it was irreversible. Beggars multiplied and peasants were made out of men of title and shop. And floating tenuously at the top were the sand barons of before, who cursed the coils and gears that had brought about their demise. Failure and despair cut so deep that people began to recall with less and less clarity the bountiful memories of a generation before. It was fertile soil for those who would come to betray the promise of death.

The Enemies of Death

A small caravan arrived one winter day, led by a large horse-drawn circus coach, emblazoned with the words Los Enemigos de la Muerte on its side. They parked in front of the church, as if expecting a crowd to gather. Five minutes later the whole congregation had spilled out onto the plaza, released from Sunday mass to face their temptations anew. Immediately the curiosity and excitement of the townsfolk became aroused; everyone was wondering who the visitors might be. They carried themselves with such optimism and aplomb, as if convinced of their own power to seize the attention of the town.

There were four middle aged men and a dark-skinned valet, dressed in fashions from an earlier time. All were in fact a troupe of traveling actors and buffoons, discharged from royal employment, who had banded together during those hard times and had given themselves over to the practice of chicanery. They made their way from town to town, putting on elaborate shows and getting rich on other people’s hopes. For Arenas they had prepared their newest, most elaborate scheme yet. It involved a little espionage, and previous access to the town’s official records. Once the marriage, baptism, birth, and death registries were obtained and carefully examined by the troupe, the real work could begin. (With what means they conducted this villainous research was never learned by the people of Arenas, for the Enemies of Death rarely divulged their secrets, and were never caught.) All what was then needed was a translucent flask, preferably of cut crystal, a red solution, a good story and a credulous crowd.

One man with a red beard stepped forward. He bent down and kissed the ground. Then he climbed on tall platform extending from the back of one of the carts adorned with red and blue pennants. He hushed everyone with a wave of his hand, staring at everyone as if trying to remember their names. Then he began to speak about far-off times:

“Many years ago, during the time of your of your grandfathers’ fathers, during the reign of the Hapsburgs, we called this place home. Yes, good people of Arenas, proud of our sands we were, and still are! My words are as true as my hand is a hand and my foot is a foot. You are not dreaming! Nor are we ghosts! My associates and I lived in these very parts, generations ago—back when this land was not quite so French; when a father took his duties to heart, and his children never took him for an ass; when love was not a fools’ game, and when a man’s word was valued at twice the going rate! Yet I can see that after so many years, the character, the fortitude of our people has not grown thin. Although much has indeed changed with new faces and ideas, the town remains much as we left a century ago. I, Adolfo Pelayo, was friends with old Bruno Canales, I danced with the widow of Don Reginaldo at the baptism of Hipólito Vergara when he was just a boy. Many of you wise old residents surely recall! I was there at the marriage of Sigfrido Polaco with Doña Inés de la Cuesta! Has anyone here heard of these names? And of Father Abel Hojuelas, and the expedition to the Holy Land he commandeered?"

People broke out in chatter, if they were not busy holding their breaths in awe. The question on everybody’s mind was: how did these men, never before seen, come to know so much of their buried secrets and lives? Could they be true Areneños? The names and long-forgotten incidents that were spouting from his mouth and raining on their heads were oddly familiar, and in some cases eerily on the mark. Everyone had heard of Father Hojuelas. His memory had long ago been eaten away by myth and lore. The people of Arenas roared with optimism and excitement. The old, confused and unsure of even their own age, and with rusty memories, found something comforting to cling to in these visitor clowns, and played the part, even though the events and memories the visitors pronounced were long ago erased or reconfigured a hundred times. “Yes! My God, the Pelayos! They were the boot makers!”

The red-bearded man calling himself Adolfo Pelayo nodded, and went on with his seduction: “I, along with my partners, have traversed all of Christendom and beyond as part of our pilgrimage with Father Hojuelos, and have come across during our marvelous adventures something which is far too great to keep for ourselves, and which, if you allow us the pleasure of explaining, is the reason for our presence here today, and today is indeed your lucky day. As lucky a day as anyone has ever had!

“Every one thousand and one years the mercy of our Lord bestows a gift so heavenly upon his favorites, a gift so divine, that it cannot be dispensed without care, nor squandered upon vile populations; that is why we are here, to share this gift with our descendants, as we have done with a half dozen blessed towns already. And what could it be, I hear? Dear descendants, we humbly announce that in our unworthy possession we carry the very secret of immortality. It is a potion of which we have ourselves partaken, and can most thoroughly swear to its efficacy.” He raised the crystal flask to let the beams of the sun make a dancing red pattern on his face. “This flask before you now contains an elixir derived from the very blood of Christ, as it was collected by an astute Roman soldier centuries ago, and preserved in incorruptible perfection. And now, as your fathers and protectors from times long forgotten, we return to our village of birth, our mission fulfilled (even if holy Father Hojuelos could not himself complete it), to share with you, my fellow Areneños, this most magnificent of treasures. Behold! The envy of all mankind and the privilege of the divine: Everlasting Life!"

Then, another man stepped forward, accompanied by the fierce beating of a dull drum. He was shorter, and wore an enviable tricornio, a three-sided hat. Everybody awaited his message.

“In our travels across the giant forests of Voltaria, past the arid sands of the Great Sultan, and through the underground caverns of Agartha we ventured. Many demons and foul beasts met their doom at our hands, dispatched to the hell they came from. After a journey of countless years, we came upon the antidote of death. From the severed hands of the heathen we pried it free. But our glory was short lived, and soon we found ourselves captives, doomed to live out eternity behind the walls of a cell. We spent years in the rankest of prisons amongst the rankest of men, but as the years amounted, we managed to outlive our jailers. We fled, and continue to hide from the wicked, those who wish ever-so-greedily to steal this gift from us. We hide from that wretched Godoy and his generals, who would kill half of Spain to obtain just one drop of this most excellent and divine panacea. We hide from those renegade sansculottists in France, who would, by the aid of this potion, give permanence to their ungodly revolution. Yes, fine people of Arenas, we have braved cannons and sabers to bring this back to our cherished homeland, to share with you, O cherished descendants. If there are still those who doubt, who see us as nothing but charlatans, allow me to give credence to our cause with this: the tower once held a terrible man who was hanged for crimes you have all heard of. Some of you remember the fierce old Dientes Pardos, no? well I, Teófilo Galindo, my dear Areneños, was the magistrate who sentenced him to die so many years ago. And, proud residents, my friend and long time associate of more than a century here, as well as the others, all took part in the formation and erection of the city gates. And look upon that plaque, on the Ayuntamiento's wall… My brother, Federico Galindo Frias, is commemorated there!”

The elixir encased in the old flask held the multitudes enthralled. With times so hard and spirits so low, immortality became a miraculous dream that came to lift them out of their misery. Somehow everybody decided, as if by a reflex, that they too needed to be immortal. They pushed forward, crowded around like baby chicks with gaping mouths, and offered all they had for a few sweet drops. Livestock of all sizes, melancholy heirlooms, even things that had no value appeared before The Enemies of Death. One man offered away his two horse-faced daughters, but found his offers rejected. Pits and holes were undug and made to relinquish their meager treasures. Regidores and men of influence immediately courted the newcomers with offers of hospice and feast. It became a contest amongst them, of who could offer more riches, more local comforts in exchange for just a little extra of the potion, as if ‘forever’ was something one could expand upon. To alleviate the initial confusion and mad scrambling, it was decided that given the finite supply of the potion, all doses were to be rationed out to all those residents who could produce a hundred pesos, or an equal value in-kind. Such a large sum, it was argued, was to pay for one hundred years of travel, and recompense those who braved the jagged edges of the world to obtain this potion of potions.

“Our party has suffered great losses in trying to obtain this magnificent elixir, and many widows were produced in the process. It would be a great dishonor to them, if we were to recklessly dispense it for nothing. But of course, we would not refuse the kindness and graciousness of those who would contribute more.”

Living in grandeur and with daily propositions by residents, the fugitive Sociedad Ilustre de los Enemigos de la Muerte y el Olvido, as was its full name, entrenched itself in the center of the political world of Arenas del Rey. In less than a week, blood was apportioned into the quivering tongues of over one hundred residents, with a minuscule glass dropper that seemed to never exhaust the flask. These newly anointed walked the street as if bulletproof, confident in their newly acquired ability to endure and survive any travesty, never mind that the potion was no protection against a beheading, or a sword through the heart, or a burning at the stake. They drank and reveled like Romans and made a mess of the town in proper Dyonisian fashion. Sand, for the first time in centuries, was the farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Some monks at the convent of San Juan devised foul plans to make off with the potion, and to encase it at their local chapel, an act which would undoubtedly bring pilgrims and treasure from all of Christendom to their struggling town, but not, they hoped, after taking a bit for themselves to ensure their longevity. When this was suggested, the troupe, who was enjoying everything too much to simply turn it over to the monks for nothing, laughed at the absurdity of the proposition. Besides, they reminded the populace:

“The King, the Pope, and sovereigns from every land are fiendishly trying to acquire this for themselves! We can do with no authorities, nor make deals with them. This is a relic of unbelievable power that cannot fall into the hands of far-off rulers, nor their many agents, because whoever shall consume even a drop of this holiest of secretions shall enjoy eternal life! They already know of its existence in the highest circles. If there are any doubters amongst you, all for the best, there will be others who will clamor for what your pride-filled hearts reject.”

By virtue of their diligence the Enemies found ways to entrench themselves into the most comfortable homes in Arenas del Rey. Their stories withstood anything the Areneños could throw at them, and held up like sea cliffs against the assailments of truth. They had chosen carefully what surnames to employ, and what names to bring up. And that was it. In a matter of days the troupe of performers had seized control of the town. They were mindful of outsiders, and closed the town off to most commerce indefinitely.

It wasn’t long before three agents of the crown, along with several members of their entourage, were detained after their sudden arrival, and held captive in a barn near the edge of town by the blood loyalists. Nobody knew if they were there to investigate the wild rumors, or simply to arrange business with the town as they claimed. They were shackled just the same, until the residents could figure out a way to be rid of them without reprisal.

Few people realized beforehand that everlasting life would be such a calamity—a truffle with a cockroach center. The new Immortals eventually found themselves without any means or direction. It was the promise of perpetuity, and the uncertainty that it awakened which quickly unraveled the delicate balance of their existence. Wives left home, realizing they no longer wished to spend eternity with men they felt nothing but loathing for; marriages fell apart or failed to take place, as ‘until death separates us’ took a whole new meaning. Peasants and laborers, realizing that they would spend eternity eternally dispossessed, dropped their hoes and their tools and turned to vagrancy and game. Refuse and filth accumulated, and even the convent was eventually nearly emptied of its religious, who looked into the endless horizon of the rest of their lives and saw nothing but cloister walls and hymns ad infinitum, and broke away in droves to satisfy their particular desires. Were not all their self-denials and airs of chastity simply part of a big ante in the gamble one makes for a spot in the afterlife? Eternity awaited and it was here on earth! The afterlife, which had kept most people with their shovels and sickles in hand for hundreds of years, had been replaced, or rather erased, before anyone could contemplate its significance. A little bottle filled with watered down goat’s blood and syrup had managed to turn a little sand-mining village into a cauldron of tribulations and uncertainty.

Enemies of Death

Death became worried that the population of Arenas had indeed become immune to her. This feeling persisted until one of the leading men of Arenas, a jovial drunkard and one of the more enthusiastic amongst the Immortals, fell gravely ill. His liver, tired of the gargantuan appetites it was subjected too, ceased to cooperate. To suffer like that into perpetuity was too much for the poor abused organ to endure. So Elizondo Contreras agonized for days, clinging to his immortality and to his bottle of brandy with unfading zeal, all while the population grew tense and unsettled. It seemed like the wisdom of their decisions hung in the balance with the expiring drunk. An impatient Death eyed her hourglass, waiting for a chance to haul another one of the Areneños away. For the Enemies of Death, however, this development was not unforeseen, and upon his death they gathered the populace in the main plaza and announced:

“Sadly, when one is not, on the whole… clean; when one is so riddled with sin and lacking of even the most basic chastity and temperance, then the effects of the Blood are prevented from taking their natural course, as they would in a normal, God-obeying servant of the Lord. How do you think such a marvel survived in the land of the heathens for so long, you ask? Because it has no effect upon Jews, Calvinists, Mahometans, or Pagans. So fear not, good people of Arenas. Only those whose hearts are blackened with soot; only those with tainted pasts, whose souls have long-ago been damned; only they will find themselves still mortal, and rightfully condemned. Only the wicked amongst you will perish. So hold fast and worry not. For those in the good majority, as promised, life without conclusion awaits! As long as your new blood stays within your body, your only concern should be what to do with all those years!”

Despite this setback, the Immortals held even more steadfastly to their promised permanence; a measure of their own piety. Relatives and friends of Don Elizondo Contreras shunned his mass and burial for fear of being associated with the undeserved. Suspicions flourished, as the Immortals began to speculate who amongst them would be carted off next, and sure it would be the crooked Don Fulgencio, who hoarded grain during times of dearth; or the widow of Don Demetrio, who despite her advanced age managed to deflower half of the town’s muchachos. And of course there were all those bearing surnames associated with the reconverted Jews of centuries before. Anyone who had ever cheated on anything suddenly found themselves wondering if they were still immortal, if the blood that ran through their vessels held anything special at all. There seemed to be just one way to tell, and it was, in all certitude, a final exam.

By then a core of True Immortals, those that could be considered part of an impromptu cofradia, or brotherhood, swore to defend the Blood of bloods from all the jealous undeserved. It was also the cofradia’s job to harass these mortals, first into buying their eternity, offering them access to the Blood in exchange for land and goods, followed by an effort to expunge them if they refused to live forever. They were perplexed to meet such disdain for eternity-- it was easier to believe that the small group of dissenters that swirled disjointed at the outer edges of Arenas kept unholy creeds hidden away somewhere, rather than believe in the possibility that they had been swindled.

They were not many at first, but as powers often do, they nursed the infant creatures that eventually became the subversives by repressing anyone that did not drink the eternal Blood. They were an assortment of ill-matched characters, united in the belief that the town had lost its good sense. These included the perpetual poor, the servants, the idle miners, and simply those who had the sense (or stubbornness) to keep their wealth. They began meeting and passing messages. One member of the troupe remarked, upon catching wind of the brewing opposition, “It’s always the incredulous that ruin a good magic show.”

The campaign to bring justice to Arenas and expose the charlatans was a clumsy affair. They hoped to drag the whole troupe from their beds in the middle of the night and hang them in the square, with a sign that would read, Death has no enemies, only friends she has yet to meet. The conspiracy was discovered because two brothers were overheard bragging about it; how they would do it, and how everyone was going to realize what fools they really were when they saw the Immortals hanging in the plaza, without a shedding drop of blood, dancing the frozen dance of the dead. But it didn’t happen this way.

The following day a letter was posted on the convent's door that read:

“Friends, The Enemies of Death have sown great happiness here. We have made many friends and rejoiced over meeting many of our descendants. Our hospitality has always been the pride of Spain. But while we are happy to return to our town, the great village of Arenas del Rey, after such a long and painful absence, we must announce that as of today, we will no longer be residing here. You ask why? What could we have done to scare them off? Were we ungrateful? Well, you need only to talk to the people on the list below. They, and only they, are responsible for our departure. It was them, who at the stroke of midnight made their way into the houses were we have been taking refuge with the intent of ending our lives! These men, if they can be called that, are possessors of diseased souls; they are broken with a thousand jealousies, and would rather end our lives than believe in the joys of eternity. And to you, we leave their fate. We shall return one day, in some better future, but not while they remain here.” Signed: La Sociedad Ilustre de los Enemigos de la Muerte y el Olvido.

The names of the conspirators followed.

Those who had tasted the Blood, from True Immortal to Immortal in Question, held faithfully to their belief that they had purchased for themselves true immortality throughout the upheavals that followed. They were proud of their ‘ancestors’, even if they had relinquished to them the dwindling fortunes of the town. They never questioned the authenticity of their wild claims. The oldest amongst them hardly remembered more than the old names, and took their hatched-up stories as fact. Perhaps it was these folks, the closest to death, who held on to the dream the hardest, as if they knew that to think otherwise would quickly bring about their death. It was they who ordered the purges that followed the departure of The Enemies of Death. They started not long after the conspirators themselves were hanged. And the Illustrious Society of the Sons of the Enemies of Death and Oblivion—their adopted title—swore in secret rites that they would do all they could to maintain their divinely infused blood flowing safely and eternally within their vessels. To achieve this they spared no one.

For a few days that spring, the town of Arenas laid siege to itself, until the issue of death could be sorted out. The prisoners who remained in the barn were hastily killed and their remains tossed into a hole. Signs warning of plague were posted outside, to discourage interference, and allow for a proper bloodletting between mortals and Immortals.

Fear gripped the town, and rightfully so, because after only a few weeks, the town that had prided itself for vanquishing death now found itself a factory of it—a place where grim reapers might gather, like fishermen at a bountiful spot.

And thus, the Areneños came to know of their folly. The mortals did not celebrate their victory, however, because scarcely a single one remained after all the houses were burned and all the graves were dug. All they got for remaining committed mortals all along was an early graduation. The Immortals lived (forever after) alongside Guilt and Remorse, two lethargic and humorless fellows that moved in to the reduced dwellings of the good, gullible people of Arenas del Rey.

And Death, well, she was again happy. Happy to have so many new friends.

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Francisco Nieto Salazar was born in Mexico City and now lives and writes in Oakland, California. He studied history at UC Berkeley, where he focused mostly on Latin America. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in online journals like SoMa Literary Review, Defenestration, and Burst Fiction. He is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel about the murder of a cruel missionary in Santa Cruz. He is 33 years-old and the father of two children.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

Most of my inspiration comes from research into a novel I've been working on for a couple of years. Archived material, out of print historiography, and memoirs from the period are always rich sources for new ideas. Some stories begin as footnotes and break out of their enclosure at the bottom of the page to demand their rightful place.

"The Enemies of Death" germinated in the archives as a sort of critique on the way many historians practice their craft, by sifting through official records like marriage registries and church documents, and then using these construct an edifice based on conjecture and supposition, which we, with mostly honest aims, then attempt to sell to the rest of society as a version of truth. We reanimate the dead and make them immortal so they will tell their tales, which in many cases may be completely off mark. I find that sort of power seductive in a way even as I try and understand the limitations of it. Arenas Del Rey is also a play on the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas' name, whose absurdist historical fiction has been another one of my inspirations.