April 15, 2013

Issue 8: April 2013

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History is the Devil’s scripture.
~ Lord Byron


History Poems by M. V. Montgomery
Ufuve by Maude Larke
Death of a Virgin by Jennifer Falkner
Jailbreak by A. Miller
His Lover’s Keeper by Brenna L. Aldrich
I Went to the Museum to See a Man’s Soul… by Day Al-Mohamed
Death in Paris by Ted Witham
Tranquility Hill by Joseph Rubas
A Knight in Fountains Abbey by G. K. Werner

Questions, comments, or concerns may be e-mailed to the editor at markenberg[@]yahoo.com.

History Poems

by M. V. Montgomery

The First Emperor Speaks
Qin Shihuangdi, 259-210 BCE

I have crossed into a world of stone, where my palace rises,
guarded by generals, archers, and infantrymen. In this place,
there can be no death or desertion. My followers are legion.
I command charioteers, armored cavalry, and saddled horses.
Advisors and scribes stand by to receive my instructions.

Let musicians play their tunes while royal birds step and bob
their necks. Let a strongman astound all with feats of strength.
Let acrobats balance balls while standing on one leg. If clay
summons no more life than this, then mix in the bones of live
followers. Their spirits dare not stray without my authority.

A model of my empire has been built with quicksilver rivers
flowing past mountain palaces to the Yellow and Yangtse,
then on to the ocean. Here I preside, beneath a vault of stars,
over all the known universe. My reign has not been disturbed.

Leonardo at Play

According to Vasari, there never was any mystery to Mona Lisa’s smile.
Leonardo had brought in jesters and musicians to amuse Giocondo’s wife
as she sat: her lips have the curl of a woman trying to keep a distinguished
countenance, and not quite succeeding. Perhaps she also laughed inwardly
at this Florentine genius who could not himself sit still, a super-strong child
who rarely finished what he started. Who felt so deeply that sentient beings
should not be caged he bought birds in the marketplace just to release them,
or shaped balloon animals out of soft wax and blew life into them himself,
laughing at each nascent creation. Father of conspiracies? Secret societies?
While he loved nothing so much as diagrams and intricate plans, it is hard
to imagine enough patience for the follow-through. Consider, this man
who created The Last Supper once bought intestines from a butcher and
inflated them with a bellows until they filled a whole room, shocking those
who came for a look at divine artistry with the sight of outrageous anatomy.

for Nardi T.


Named for a daughter of the North Wind, Boreas,
she was descended of incestuous marriages
for four generations, a Macedonian princess
who ruled the Greek capitol of Alexandria.

Her great-great descendant Ptolemy Philadelphus
is described by Theocritus as light skinned,
blue eyed, and fair. Shakespeare may have
been right, after all, to describe her as tawny.

Her image, recently found on a coin, might belie
the myth of a great beauty—but that, my friend,
is in the eye of the beholder.


More apparent today are her considerable
intellectual gifts. Schooled from an early age
to assume the throne, she is said to have
mastered nine languages.

She accomplished what more powerful rulers
could not, holding the Roman empire at bay.
And did so cunningly, through staged pageants,
masquerading first as Isis, later as Venus.

She knew others believed in a show of faith
and a queen need not care about effrontery.
When Caesar fell, she recast him as Osiris,
exchanging her role of god for consort.


Roman poets and chroniclers who came later
―Lucan, Josephus, Plutarch, Suetonius—
let us call them all out. Males, all driven
by lust, even at a hundred years’ remove.

They could not see past the Great Men of history
to a woman who was emperor to their emperor.
Whose only surviving words, Let it be done,
might have been all she ever needed to say.

La Mallebarbe
July 1596

She was an unwilling Scheherazade, a sixty-year old woman who for years earned
nothing but the scorn of her neighbors. Unable to live in exile either, she decided
to trust enough in the goodness of human nature to return to the village of Charmes.
That was unwise. Under threat of torture, she began to tell stories about causing
the deaths of cows and horses of villagers who had disliked her or refused her alms.
Her interrogators developed a taste for more of the same, perhaps secretly hoped
she might be holding back. So they threatened her again, and she readily confessed
to other crimes, such as poisoning a man who had called her an old bigot and a witch.
Only once did she tire and falter, perhaps temporarily depleted of her stock of folktales.
But after being “gently” racked, she found words again. This time her tales of powers
extended far beyond common knowledge, far beyond anything she could ever have
imagined of herself. She told of transformations into cat-form, of spells to raise fogs
or destructive storms, of evil commands spoken by crows, of secrets heard in the wind.
They wore her down further until she had confessed to dozens more unsolved crimes,
named “accomplices,” and provided testimony of Devil-powers that would serve as
a template for the trials to come. In some stories, Barbe stood up to her Dark Master
and tried to persuade Him to spare the crops, or her fellow poor (she was a day laborer),
but He would not listen and continued to coerce her. Her accusers were indifferent
to such motives. After a fortnight of increasingly fabulous confessions that only served
to reconfirm their beliefs in maleficium, they paid to her the only respect they could
to a convincing foe: strangulation at the stake, death before final obliteration in flames.

Death’s Head

There is nothing to unsettle the gentry
in a Victorian death’s head. These are like
Raphael’s cherubim, heads resting on wings.
Eyes rolled heavenward, as if too enthralled
to attend to a plaintive call.

The eighteenth century death’s head is asleep
in the meadow, dreaming of Elysian fields.
Eyes shut in eternal rest. But neutered-
looking, sans flowing locks, as if to say
All are anonymous in death.
As we turn the historical page, cheeks grow
more sallow, and eyes are reduced to sockets.
No wings, just crossed bones. Death is death,
and we are solemnly shown how Each of us
faces that judgment alone.

And what a rogue is this? Ho-ho!—gnashing
a femur in its teeth like Dante’s Ugolino.
No more than a vacant skull, a study in crude,
the Puritan death’s head stood as a warning:
Death is for all but the few.


After the papers fell like soft petals in the bower where Keats
sat for hours, making notes, his friend Charles Armitage Brown
found the scraps. The poet smiled, giving Charles permission
to edit the poem however he wished. He was done with it—
but the world of the Ode would never quite finish with him.
In his mind, he could still hear the sound of the songbird’s call
from various perches; and the smell of the plum tree, blended
in his imagination with the scent of violets under fallen leaves,
was so pungent that it slugged him like a narcotic. He had,
in any case, become drunk on a single wished-for sip of wine.
The power of that suggestion still left a tart taste on his lips.
He had visited with death, too, and death promised to return.
But the conversation that summer morning had left him entirely
without fear—only in a peaceful daze, relaxed to the last muscle.

Yellow House
December 23-24, 1888

It’s now alleged that it was after wounding his friend
that Gauguin fled to the South Seas, sending his ego
on long safari into the primitive. He might have felt
all was tit for tat, however: the Dutch chatterbox
had talked his ear off with plans for a quasi-religious
community at Arles. Vincent was quite boyish in his
affection, which it was not his nature to suppress.
He planned meals and bonding rituals, even wished
to share secret symbols such as the fish (ictus).

These attentions soon become intolerable to Gauguin.
He had left wife and family in search of adventure
and didn’t care to babysit this lonely soul indefinitely.
Worse, he couldn’t seem to shut him up. He had,
it’s said, a streak of cruelty, and freely took advantage
of the other’s vulnerability, often threatening to leave,
sometimes wickedly brandishing fencing foils in the air
above van Gogh’s head. Vincent had a deathly fear
of the weapons, calling them engines of war.

He was right: ictus, the catchword of their partnership,
was also a brisk French fighting salvo. Intentionally
or not, during that one fateful argument (which spilled
into Christmas Eve), Gauguin appears to have scored
a hit. Characteristically, his initial relief at his friend’s
silence would turn to envy. He perceived that the story
of self-mutilation served to diminish his own reputation
as a swordsman. The murderer took flight, he wrote,
to try to glorify himself in retreat. Then, in a sketch,
he drew a small ear inscribed with that word again: ictus.

Vincent would never see it. Two years later, removed
from the Yellow House by his brother Theo, he was dead
by his own hand, his dream of an ideal artists’ community
thoroughly routed.

* * *

M.V. Montgomery is an Atlanta professor and the author of nine books. His most recent collections of poems are What We Did With Old Moons (2012) and The Island of Charles Foster Kane (2013). Visit his blog at: http://mvmontgomery.wordpress.com/

Where do you get the ideas for your poems?
My dream journal is my best source, but I also take notes on what I read and what interests me.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
Since I'm an English and film professor, I stay in touch with the literary canon, with a special focus on world lit and cinema history. Paradoxically, it's when I'm overworked grading papers, falling behind on household work, commuting, or left with no time to spare that my mind becomes inconveniently flooded with ideas. I tend to write them down in short bursts; and then, over the winter and summer breaks, try to expand on the crib notes and create. Or I might decide to discard them in the name of inventing something new.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction piece?
It has to be honest, and because of its power to perpetuate myth or spawn revisionist myths, sure of itself (i.e., well researched).

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
It’s probably an age thing for me (I'm fifty-one), but these days when I read for entertainment, I often feel I'm wasting my time if I'm not learning something too. I will read most anything from pulp to Proust, but if a writer like Matthew Pearl or Caleb Carr teaches me a little at the same time, it can help me to fill in some blanks in my memory.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
I'm not in the historical fiction encampment often, but when I am, can see the danger of a writer going about the business too schematically. History has to try to adhere to the fact, but "everything is the proper stuff of fiction," as Virginia Woolf said, and so when starting out, a creative writer still has to let the atoms "fall upon the mind" where they may. That means writing it out first, then worrying about editing/separating out what isn't "fact" later.


by Maude Larke


These four fragments seem to be all that exists of the tale told in them, and indeed of the culture that produced them. They are believed to have been carved into their support (a block of wood which seems to have formed a pillar or doorpost to a house) by the sea captain himself; his exact reason for referring to himself in the third person and for speaking in the past cannot be explained.

Hopefully, other such fragments will be found in the same bed of sedimentary rock that is being excavated in Ashkelon. They should both give us more information on the culture referred to and confirm or correct the translation presented here. We thank Professors Burgess and Lodge, members of our team, for their competent study and able rendering of his extinct language.

Dr. F. I. Iskandar
Head of Operations
Ashkelon Archeological Project


Hsn, the Unnamable, the Warning, spoke its name with each clawing on the edge, eternally murmuring of its dread longing. The dwellers by the rippling blue beast readied their sea-houses, their light tundi-hsndi, to take the good hand of the deep motion, and to step through the claws to their neighbors, the Fen-hsndi.

They were an old people, older than the enduhdi along the shore to the north, and little understood the ways of the new-comers. The Fen-hsn writings were like the knock of their mattocks against their ship timbers; but they, the Elioduhdi, wrote like the waves, like the blowing sands about them, like their home. And the Fen-hsn worship was strange, and was scorned by the Elioduhdi, for they worshipped only the white head of Zyrj, and believed not in the old Waiting.

Zyrj is a beast that turns its cold back outward when it sleeps and its warm belly when it is awake. Its belly is bright blue, its back black, dappled white. Its eye is bright and its head is white, and sometimes when it sleeps it covers it head with its black paws. Sometimes the beast is molbrunu, angry, and its fur is ruffled and gray. This the Elioduhdi say.

By a cord around the neck of Zyrj hangs Elio, that which was. And under Elio is Ufuve – the Ending.

“Elio ihto Ufuve,” the priest, the qelduh, chanted every morning to the fishermen as they prepared, and to the traders of goods as they made ready.

               Elio ihto Ufuve,
               Ufuve ino qelde;
               Elio grinta huldo,
               ui Ufuve mol huldo . . .

And on they chanted to protect the men.

                “The Earth hung over the Abyss,
               The Abyss lay under waiting . . .”

On, while Hsn the Unnamable Warning, the blue claws of Ufuve, struggled to pull firm Elio into itself. And on the prows of their ships was written to defy the claws, the waves,

“Elio grinta huldo”; the Earth was called bright.

The ships were loaded, the qelduhdi ended the ritual drone, and the leader of the trade ships signaled to his men. The long tundi-hsndi were thrust into the hands of Hsn, and the men felt the smooth stroking motion of the blue paws. They worked quickly, lightly, they knew by the gentle rocking that the beast was not hungry today, that they were far from Ending and Elio was still strong and bright. And they gloried in the breath of Zyrj giving them speed, and its bright eye approving their sailing, and the strength of their tun-hsn prows.

And when they went far, and saw the sands of the Fen-hsn shores, they turned to Elio and the blue claws lifted them to the beach, thrust them there, carried them vigorously to the shore and the welcoming cries of the Sea-comers.

The men all knew each other, greeted each other with their own people’s words, gave news to each other. They had traded together a long time; they worked together, easily loading and unloading the foods and cloths and animals and woods from ships to land and land to ships. When the work was done, they sat together and shared their meal.

One of the Fen-hsn leaders began talking good-naturedly with the Elioduh captain in the old tongue. “It seems your old beliefs have spread. We hear of a man to the east, a Hipporu. We hear he is building a great tun-hsn, and he wants to put his own Elio inside it. He says the voice of Zyrj came to him, telling him of Ufuve, and how this man must save life from it.”

“He is a madman,” replied the captain. “Everyone knows that there is no saving life from Ufuve, should it choose to come.”

“Well, he is serious, and has done great work. He has three eliedi, and they are helping him.”

The captain was more solemn then. All his people worshipped their own eliedi, and were glad for having them there, a sign, a proof of the strength of Elio. He himself, this captain, had an elie, now grown, and ready to become a qelduh, one who waits.

The Elioduh captain, all the Elioduhdi, respected the Hipporudi, but stayed apart from them. Hulduhdi they called them, Those with Names, for they had come to the land from the east with their own name, and held strongly to their own ways. They did not wait either, but worshipped a being called He Who Is Called So by the Elioduhdi, for they gave him no name, these strange people. Marvelous and strange they were, and the Elioduh captain wondered that a man who ran from the Warning Sea and lived in land could build a tun-hsn, and teach his eliedi to build also.

The captain then laughed and said to the fellow-captain of the Fen-hsndi, “The ways of the Hipporudi have always been strange, and they often seem to be more molenu than we. This must be simply another example. And if the eliedi follow their elqeldo in his madness, it shows that madness comes from the father as beards do.”

And he stood and called to his men to re-enter the grasp of Hsn.

Time passed, Zyrj rolled his blue belly and black back and flashed his bright eye, and the tradesmen forgot about the crazed Hulduh. The great Warning grasped at the sand, the priests chanted, and the people continued their simple lives by the sea.


The captain worked, kneeling under the bright eye, scraping the bottom of his hollow ship out of reach of the claws. As he worked and his brown arms flexed, his elie, dark and lean, came to him.

He watched his father work hard, waited until he stopped to breathe, and spoke to him.

“Elqeldo, father, . . .”

The strong father turned and placed his strong back, shining like Hsn, against the still wooden curve of his strong tun-hsn, and smiled. But he saw the eye of his son, dull like the eye of Zyrj in the cold, and waited for him to speak. The eye searched longer, like an Elioduh too far from shore, and the younger one said, “Strength to strength.” The words were enzyrjuha, a breath from the sky.

“What is this, ‘strength to strength’, enogrintaduh?”

“I see your back, strong, against the ship, strong. Strength put to strength . . . That is what Ufuve will be like.”

“Ah, elendo, you are inu-uha. Sit here in the warm sand by me.”

“Yes, I am inu-uha, my elqeldo, and I am uhazyrjenu, too.” He sat down and folded his legs. “I am restless. It is Ufuve, the strength of Zyrj to the strength of Hsn, pulling at Elio like pulling apart water reeds. It is a world of pulling, like the oarsman against the waters, until the oarsman’s strength fails.”

“Elie elendo,” spoke the father, “you see too much the mol, the dark of things, and not enough of the grinta. You see strength to strength, and you think Ufuve. I see strength to strength, and I think Elio. I see the strength of my back and the strength of my tun-hsn. When we are out on the blue claws, these strengths are together and together they keep us from Ending. Together they bring us to Elio.”

“Yes, father, you are right. I see too much the mol.” He stopped and looked out along the still sands. Then he said suddenly, “Elqeldo, they say that I may not become a priest. They say that the qelduhdi may choose against me.” He lowered his head.

The captain looked at the young bowed head, and knew a sad heart held it bowed.

“Yes, my son, that may be so. The qelduhdi remind us that we are still waiting, and that we will still wait. They are our strength in Elio, and our trust in it.”

“And I,” spoke the son with gloom,” with my spirit molenu, cannot keep this trust. Because ‘the Earth is named bright’ but I see just the dark. I cannot be a qelduh if I cannot see the bright.”

“But you can see the bright,” the father answered, and sat up to his son. “You see it often, but you forget, you let the darkness come in like molzyrj. Yesterday you rejoiced in the ihtuzyrjuha, as it only lifts its wings and Zyrj brings it upwards to him. ‘The small creature is nothing but trust,’ you said, ‘and its trust is its brightness.’ You saw grinta and Elio in the little ihtuzyrjuha, and the brightness was in you too for the rest of the day. If you had not been uhazyrjenu and molenu when you came to me, you would have seen Elio in my strong back and tun-hsn, too, as I did, and you would have felt the brightness again. The trust of the Waiting is in you. You need only keep your sight from being drawn away. You need only keep the mol away for a while, then you will become a qelduh, and then you will be able to keep the brightness always in you.”

The son lifted his head. “Yes, father, you are right – and it is always better when I talk to you.” And he said, “Yes, they say that when a man is a good qelduh he never sees molzyrj again, for the brightness is so much with him. If molzyrj will be gone, so will the inner darkness, and I will not be molenu . . . I want to be a good qelduh.”

The father smiled, and turned from his son to work at his boat again. “It is good to see grintabrun in you.” He scraped a while and said to his son, with a larger smile, “You are like an old Hulduh, you are.”

“I, and old Hulduh? Why do you say that, elqeldo?”

“Because they think of the mol, like you do, but more. They have rarely the bright in them. Their smile is of craft, not joy. They know too little grinta, and it makes them foolish, even before they are old. I have had news. There is one now, an old foolish one, so foolish his own people laugh at him. He has heard someone talk of Ufuve, and it has him so frightened that he is trying to build a tun-hsn large enough for Elio. I am glad that you are not a madman like that.”

He looked up from his work and wished that he had said nothing, for he saw the eye of his elie, dull like the eye of Zyrj in the cold.


The men stood outside the great tun-qeld of the Elioduhdi, the wooden temple, made from Fen-hsn wood bought with Elioduh fruit and sheep. They were waiting for the priests to come with their sons, waiting for the ceremony that would bring qelduhdi among the eliedi to continue the Waiting. Zyrj was molbrun, ruffled, gray.

One group stood apart from the rest, talking loudly with many gestures. With them was the tun-hsn captain, looking serious and thoughtful.

“He has a tun-hsn, very large, built of timbers and pitch, standing on dry land, far from any river. He is filling it with food, and pairs of animals, and is shutting himself and his family inside,” said one.

Another joined, “And his eliedi! One elie has a name like the sea, has the name of the Warning. He is called Shm.” He pronounced the son’s name well, in spite of the strangeness of the sound for Elioduh mouths.

The captain spoke quietly. “This Noa is a Hulduh, and knows nothing of the Waiting, or of the sea. The Hulduhdi do not speak the words of the sea, so the name of his elie means nothing. He is a madman. He heard of the Waiting, and it made fire in his broken head.”

“But he has built,” said another. “He has built a tun-hsn, and his people know nothing of ships and seas. He has talked of the waters, and his people know nothing of Ufuve. He has – ”

“What do the qelduhdi say?” asked the captain.

“Nothing. They still ponder,” said one.

“Do you mistrust your own priests?” he asked.

“No,” they answered.

“As you trust, they will tell you. And if they only ponder, and do not tell you, then it is because it is not yet time, I believe. Ufuve is not yet. Trust the qelduhdi.”

As he said this, the chant began, and the priests walked slowly through the crowd of men and entered the wooden temple. They were followed by the eliedi of the people, coming to be made into those who wait for the others to come. The sea man watched as his own elie walked by, young and lean and dark and straight, calmly walking to enter the temple. The elie looked up at dull, molbrun Zyrj, and his eye became dull. He looked back at his father and his dull eye became wide. His father wondered at this.

The men waited and stayed outside, and listened as the tale began,

               Elio ihto Ufuve,
               Ufuve ino qelde;
               Elio grinta huldo,
               ui Ufuve mol huldo;

As the men stood outside waiting, rain began to fall.


In the rain, the gray, heavy rain, the captain ran and stumbled through the rivers in the lanes of the village. Muddy water to his knees hid the mud of the street, and he stumbled and lurched and pulled his feet from the mud as he ran. He ran from the village, through the flooded fields with rotting grain, past the fields where sheep lay sick or dead in the water. He ran for his house, his tun by the Warning, his hut by Hsn that held his family, stumbling in the pounding rain.

His face was a block, but his eyes were bright as he ran up to his doorway and went in to where the members of his family sat on the table to keep their feet out of the water.

He walked up to the table and stood in the pool of water in his own house. He looked at his wife and said, “Ufuve.”

The word, half whispered, sent a trembling through his wife. The children looked up in wonder.

“If it is the Ending, then why are your eyes so bright?” the wife asked.

“Because it was our son, our own elie, who knew and proclaimed the ending. Our son was the one who knew.”

The captain waded to the window and looked out on the hard rain pouring and felt the chill from the dampness. He watched as he knew the Warning would rise up and grip him in its blue claws and swallow him, and he was happy because he was dying proud of his son who knew of Ufuve. He had trusted in the qelduhdi, and Elio had given him reward by learning of the world’s end from his own elie.

* * *


The language of the Elioduhdi is like the languages of other Middle Eastern peoples in the use of diacritic marks for vowels and in the writing of the language from right to left. It is unlike the other languages in that its letters are formed in a curvilinear style, while those of the other languages use mostly squared or angular shapes.

The Elioduh language was apparently borne of imitation of the sounds of nature, most particularly the sea by which they dwelt.

 photo Ufuve2_zps8a61d9cf.jpg

 photo Ufuve3_zps3bee5981.jpg

brun – eye
brunzyrj – “eye of the sky”; sun
el – first
elendu – “first-come”; first-born
elie – “he who is”; son (pl. eliedi)
Elio – “that which was”; Earth
Elioduh – “he who was”; member of the Elioduh people (pl. Elioduhdi)
elqeldo – “first-waited”; father
enduh – “comer”; a stranger or member of another people
enduhgrinta – “one who came bright”; a term of affection
enogrintaduh – “one who came bright”; a term of affection
enya – to come
enzyrjuha – “a breath from the sky”; inspiration
f – of
Fen-hsn – “sea-comer”; a member of the people living north of the Elioduhdi (pl. Fen-hsndi)
grinta – bright
grintabrunu – “bright-eyed”; happy
grintazyrj – “bright sky”; day
Hipporu – man of a people living inland of the Elioduhdi (pl. Hipporudi)
Hsn – the sea (thought to be part of Ufuve)
Hulduh – “the one named”; the Elioduh name for the Hipporudi (pl. Hulduhdi)
Huldoduh – “he who is called so”; Elioduh name for the Hipporu god
huldya – to call or name
ihtuzyrjuha – “over sky’s breath”; bird
ihtu – over
ihtya – to hang over
inu – under
inu-uha – “under breath”; physical or mental doldrums, listlessness, melancholy, sadness
inya – to lie under
mol – dark
molbrunu – “dark eyed”; angry
molenu – “come dark”; pessimistic, depressed, negative; mad
molzyrj – “dark sky”; night
molzyrju – “dark-skied”; tired
qelduh – “one who waits”; an Elioduh priest
qeldya – to wait
tun – house
tun-hsn – “sea-house”; boat, ship
tun-qeld – “waiting house”; temple
Ufuve – “Ending”; the Abyss of Elioduh mythology
uha – breath
uhazyrj – “breath of sky”; wind
uhazyrjenu – windy (day); restless (person)
ui – and
Zyrj – the sky

* * *


The only surviving portion of the Elioduh liturgy is a set of phrases contained in one of the extant fragments found so far.

the Earth hung over the Abyss
the Abyss lay under waiting
the Earth was named bright
and the Abyss was named dark

This people’s faith seems to have been rather apocalyptic, involving waiting for a cataclysm.

* * *

Maude Larke has come back to her own writing after working in the American, English and French university systems, analyzing others’ texts and films. She has also returned to the classical music world as an ardent amateur, after fifteen years of piano and voice in her youth. Winner of the 2011 PhatSalmon Poetry Prize and the 2012 Swale Life Poetry Competition, she has been published in Naugatuck River Review, Cyclamens and Swords, riverbabble, Doorknobs and BodyPaint, Sketchbook, Cliterature, and Short, Fast, and Deadly, among others.

Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
This story was inspired by my probing of Biblical texts. Often they put me in a "what if" or "what was it like before this" mode.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?
MUSIC. I need to choose carefully what I listen to while I'm working.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?
Creativity. Historical fiction can become very mechanical. Lobbing in the facts rather than creating the scene.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?
The recreation of the scene, the "what was it like" question answered.

What advice do you have for other historical fiction writers?
Read Dorothy Dunnett's "King Hereafter". THE piece of historical fiction, in my humble opinion. I cried at the end.

Death of a Virgin

Death of a Virgin
by Jennifer Falkner

Rome, 44 AD

The shrill scream streamed down the hall and into my room, causing the slave who was braiding my hair to give it a hard, unintentional tug as she jumped.

It was the first of March, the day of the traditional re-lighting of the sacred flame to mark the new year and Thetis was helping me weave the elaborately braided crown of false hair into my own, the traditional style for a Vestal Virgin on parade, a style which took hours to achieve. I was remembering the first time I was having my hair arranged in this way. Nine years old and full of pride at being selected as an initiate in the service of the goddess Vesta. And terrified of leaving my family for the first time, leaving my brother, my only playmate. Thetis, with a fistful of my own curls, yanked me out of my memory. Vibia burst in just as I was rebuking the slave.

“What is it? Has something else gone missing? Thetis has told me she can't find my hair pins.”

“Oh, Valeria, it's horrible. Cornelia Quinta is dead!” There were traces of tears that had rivered down her cheeks and her voice trembled, but her eyes gleamed with excitement.

“What do you mean dead?”

“Aemilia Cana found her. She went to wake her early this morning, but she --” At this, the poor girl's chin trembled and I could see hysteria was going to triumph over excitement. I handed her over to Thetis' care with instructions to make her some hot borage tea, while I went with hair half-braided to see what was going on.

Aemilia Cana, the Chief Vestal, sat at the foot of Cornelia's bed with the dignified stillness of a statue. I entered softly.

“What happened?”

She gestured with one graceful, ringed hand to Cornelia's head. I took a closer look. Her skin had become an inhuman waxy shade and the blueness of her lips made me shudder. The blankets looked dishevelled and the plain woollen shift she wore at night had bunched around her body and under her arms, as if she had been flailing and tossing in her sleep.

When Aemilia Cana finally spoke, her voice was thick. “There was a wine cup on the floor. It smelt of honey, but just to be certain I gave it to the dog. Poor Argus.”


“Are you alright, Valeria? You've gone quite grey.”

“Yes, yes, I'm fine. What is to be done?”

“We must continue with the ceremony. And I,” she said, as if trying to summon the strength, “must send word to the emperor. He is returning from Britain this month.”

The death of Cornelia Quinta brought the number of Vestals living in the temple down to six. Traditionally only six virgins are needed to serve the goddess Vesta: two initiates, two performers of prescribed ritual and two senior Vestals to instruct the youngest. Until that summer there had been eight of us, including the Chief Vestal. Two of our most senior Vestals preferred not to leave the security of the temple when their thirty year tenure ended. Who could blame them? To go from being among the most venerated personages in the city to the relative obscurity and dependence of unmarried women thrust back into the arms of a family that thought it had done with them. I certainly wouldn't. But Numeria Publia, a frail, well-meaning old thing, was taken by fever last August, and we became seven.

Now we are six.

The body was removed. I had somehow to put it from my mind. It was the first of March and the sacred flame had to be relit, preparations for the sacrifices to follow still had to be made. Cornelia and I had always shared this duty. Now I took Hortensia Calvina with me as my assistant. She and Vibia Paulina were our youngest members and were only meant to be students for their first ten years as Vestals. Eight years had to be enough. I couldn't do this alone. The three senior Vestals, including Aemilia Cana were suddenly nowhere to be found, and Vibia herself was too emotional to be reliable.

Hortensia Calvina walked close beside me as we were escorted by our eunuch guards through the chilly grey dawn to the circular Temple of Vesta. Modelled on the wooden huts of our Etruscan ancestors, it was made eternal in marble. Already a crowd had gathered in front of the temple steps; it parted politely as we approached. Hortensia leaned in and asked me if I thought it was suicide.

“Whatever makes you say that?”

“Because if it wasn't suicide, then it must be murder, mustn't it? At least, that's what Vibia says. Vibia says that Cornelia Quinta had a lover and they were about to be found out, so rather than be buried alive, she --”

“Killed herself,” I finished. “I think that is highly unlikely. Besides, where would she find the poison?” Cornelia Quinta was possibly the least likely of any of us to have a lover. Her mannish features, blunt and heavy, made one wonder why the fates should form the rest of her as a girl. It is true she did have a gentle, almost musical voice and her every action and gesture was possessed with a delicacy which was not without its attraction, even if it were only cultivated to compensate for the masculinity of her appearance. But Cornelia was so very proper. It was hardly credible that she should find a lover, let alone arrange secret trysts, when she felt it barely appropriate to appear in public outside of the performance of her duties to the goddess. Truth be told, I've seen her completely abashed into an awkward silence when merely addressed by a member of the opposite sex. No, our Cornelia Quinta could not have been on the verge of discovery in the arms of a man. It was impossible.

“Until Aemilia Cana has given us instructions, I think it wise not to discuss the matter at all.”

The relighting of the flame and the sacrifices that followed proceeded well. Since Cornelia and Hortensia were much of a height, and Vestals are heavily veiled in public, I don't think anyone even noticed the last minute replacement. I admit that had been one consideration when I selected Hortensia to assist me over the diminutive Vibia. It would never do to upset the populace and produce all kinds of rumours of heavenly disfavour on an auspicious day. The augurs would never hear the end of it and certainly our movements would be curtailed. Better to wait for Aemilia Cana to give us instructions.

I raised my arms to the sky and prayed to the goddess, while Hortensia expertly relit the flame. Its smoke floated through the vent in the roof. As the expectant hush was relieved by exclamations of joy and general rejoicing, I felt a familiar tremor of pride. I was proud to be able to serve the goddess and the Roman people in this way. They looked to me for assurance of their safety and prosperity. They prayed to me for guidance and succour. For a moment I quite forgot the events of the morning and, caught in the drama of ancient ritual, gazed triumphantly on the crowd. One of the temple slaves led the two white cows to the small stone altar at the foot of the steps. Their throats were quickly slit and Hortensia and I held silver bowls up to their spouting wounds, another offering for the goddess.

Soon it was over and the large fire at the temple steps was roasting the goddess' offering and the afternoon's feast. The acrid smell of burning flesh rose through the cool spring air. Without warning the memory of the morning returned and a lump of bile rose to my mouth. I could imagine in a very short time inhaling the same furls of smoke, this time emanating from a funeral pyre. Fortunately a Vestal's veil can obscure many things.

When we returned, Aemilia Cana solemnly led us into the dining room. She was quiet in a way that checked our own desire for talk. Small fragrant dishes of dainties had been prepared and presented on the two circular tables, a tradition on the sacred day and a contrast to the plainer fare we normally endured. At any other time they would been quickly demolished by our mob of hungry women, but today they remained untouched.

The Chief Vestal spoke. The thickness in her voice from this morning had been washed away, replaced by grim determination. “I have received word from the emperor.” That got our attention. Even Hortensia and Vibia, who had been eyeing the fragrant dainties on plates, looked up sharply. The emperor was also by virtue of his office the Pontifex Maximus and as such bore the responsibility for the priestesses of Vesta. Replacing our fathers, he was our sole earthly authority. “He is on his way home from the campaign in Britain and has already re-entered Italy. He is concerned and deeply saddened by the death of our sister, Cornelia Quinta. He is also concerned by the possible ramifications of her death. If it was accidental, he would like to know and have the possibility of future accidents removed. If it was suicide, he would like to know that as well.”

“What if it was murder?” Of course, it was Vibia who had piped up. Aemilia Cana stared hard at the girl, who wilted only slightly under her glare.

“Do you have reason to believe it was murder, Vibia Paulina?”

Vibia shook her head mutely.

“Well then I would thank you not to add the possibility of scandal to our personal tragedy. We shall all feel the loss of our sister very deeply.” Oh yes, I thought drily, glancing at the two senior Vestals, Fulvia and Laelia, who now whispered together at one end of the far table. Very deeply, I'm sure.

Aemilia Cana did not stay to eat with us. Which was just as well, considering the gossip the others girls were dying to indulge in before the emperor's arrival.

“Herminius Gallus returned today,” announced Vibia, her blue eyes gleaming.

“How do you know?” I couldn't help asking.

“Thetis said her sister saw him in the Forum.”

“Do you think there is any truth in the rumour?” Hortensia said.

“You mean, him and Cornelia? I should hardly think so. But then, it is a bit of a coincidence that he should have returned today. Or possibly late last night.”

“That's quite enough, Vibia.” I couldn't keep the sharpness out of my tone. Hortensia's eyes widened, but Vibia simply smirked.

“You're quite right. We wouldn't want such evil tales polluting the ears of Aemilia Cana's favourite, would we?” Before anyone else could interject, Vibia flounced out of the room.

Laelia leaned in toward me confidentially. “It could be murder though. We shouldn't rule it out.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Don't you remember? Six years ago, when Numeria Publia dropped the lamp containing the sacred flame and the old emperor was furious. He whipped her. The old pervert. It happened right here, in this room.”

How could I not remember? It had been a horrific sight. He attacked the poor woman with the beaded leather whip used on slaves and criminals, spittle flying out of his mouth. His eyes glittered with perverse excitement. At least the current emperor, Claudius, with his stammer and his limp, seems, if not harmless, at least less ruthless. Quietly exiling criminals to the furthest reaches of the empire seems more his style. Like Augustus sending Ovid to Tomis on the Black Sea.

“What's that got to do with Cornelia?”

“Why, she informed on Numeria. Aemilia Cana wanted to cover up the mistake. It was a private ceremony, nobody needed to know. But that Cornelia was such a stickler for doing things by the book. Didn't want the improper observance of ritual to anger the goddess and endanger the city, or some such nonsense. As if the goddess cares about a silly mistake like that. She insisted the ritual be performed again and when Aemilia Cana refused, she informed the emperor. Went right over Aemilia Cana's head. Neither Aemilia Cana nor Fulvia fully forgave her.”

“Are you saying one of them --”

“Shhh. I'm not saying anything. Just that I haven't seen Fulvia Petreia shed a tear. Or look all that surprised when the alarm was sounded this morning for that matter.”

“But she's dotty. She wouldn't --”

“She might. They were very close, Fulvia and Numeria, remember.”

* * *

We Vestals are not so secluded as many would think. Not that we are able to walk freely down the street or attend the more licentious satyr plays on state holidays. But we do have our own special boxes at the Circus, opposite the Imperial boxes. We have our own litters and slaves ready to take us, as long as we return before curfew. Many noble matrons are honoured to have one of our number drink tea with them and their friends in the afternoons. Even attending dinner parties, as long as Aemilia Cana gives her permission, is not unheard of. If a lover were desired, an enterprising Vestal could find a way to manage it. Hortensia's suggestion was perhaps not so far-fetched, if it weren't for considerations of Cornelia Quinta herself. No doubt this is why the punishment for an unchaste Virgin is so severe. Live interment near the Colline Gate. I shudder when I think of it. Being led down rocky steps to a small room dug out of the hill, left with a small amount of food and oil for the lamp, enough to last maybe a day or two. Enough that her judge and jury, the emperor and senators, could pretend they weren't her executioners as well. And then to have the entrance closed up with earth. The small mound would be made smooth so no one could ever tell where the entrance had been. I used to have nightmares of being trapped between earth walls beneath the city, gasping for breath, forgotten.

I had no lover, nor wanted one. These nightmares were not the product of a guilty conscience. But I did regret having to refuse my invitation to dinner at the house of Rufus Calvinus. Calvinus had chosen his wife well and the dinner parties she gave were lavish affairs and often advantageous to their guests in ways they couldn't at first guess at. There was a lot of frivolous conversation, fine food and political back-scratching at these gatherings, and a Vestal properly on the outside of such wheelings and dealings had a fund of amusement provided for her in the antics of others.

There were to be no antics that night. We were still within the nine days of official mourning and the boughs of cypress nailed to our door had not yet begun to wilt. The hush within the walls of the House of the Vestals and the muted sounds without made it difficult to believe there was anything but mourning in all of Rome. I couldn't stand the silence beating on my ears any more. I sought out Aemilia Cana.

I found her in her room, gazing through the narrow window toward the temple, as still and vigilant as the marble statues of previous Chief Vestals that watched over the flame from the long courtyard outside. The flame glimmered palely in the inky darkness. She was perched on the old curule chair. Only a few members of society had the honour of sitting in a curule chair, a symbol of authority; the emperor, consuls, senators, the Chief Vestal. Aemilia Cana had appropriated this one, with its flaking gold paint and faded importance, for personal use after Senator Vibianus, Vibia's father, had donated a new one last year.

“Mother,” I began respectfully, keeping my head bowed, “I seek permission to leave the House of the Vestals.”

“Yes,” she sighed, turning to me. “I expected this. This is about your brother?”

“He hasn't got long left.”

“No, he hasn't. These are special circumstances. Under no other would I allow anyone leave for visiting during the period of official mourning. You may go tomorrow. You will return within two hours and take the plainest of the litters, so you don't draw attention to yourself. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Aemilia Cana.”

She got up slowly, carefully closed the door I had left open, poured us each a small glass of wine and returned to her seat. Age seemed to have caught up with Aemilia Cana very suddenly. Her hand trembled as she sipped.

“I've just learned that the Emperor has returned to Rome. He is concerned about the current state of affairs and what, if anything, can be done to limit any rumours that could be detrimental to the House of the Goddess. I would like you to come with me to the Palatine the day after tomorrow.”


She looked hard at me. “You've always been a bright girl. Level-headed. I'm sure your contribution would be welcome. And,” she said, softening, “you've been such a comfort to me since Numeria Publia was taken from us last summer.”

I was speechless. I had been invited to a private consultation with the Emperor himself.

* * *

* * *

My mother held herself stiffly, as if she could repel any intrusive word or touch simply by the stillness of her posture. Her voice at first sounded forced, but even that could not disguise its soft, vaguely musical cadence. I noticed that despite the official period of mourning after Cornelia's death and the precarious fortunes of the family at the moment, my mother had not neglected the elegantly styled and absurdly tall wig that was the height of fashion just now. Her make-up was also flawless, her green eyes outlined in kohl with a steady hand, her face properly paled with white lead. As if being perfectly coiffed could stave off disaster.

“Have you seen him? How is he?” Her body barely moved as she reached forward and tightly grasped my hand.

“Not yet. I'll visit him after I leave here. I wanted to see you first.”

“Yes,” she said absently. “Yes, that's nice of you, dear. I'll send a basket with you, some bread and sausage. He loves my Lucanian sausage. Do you have any news?”

“I do. Because the city is in official mourning, no executions can take place for nine days. We have some time.”

She allowed a ripple of relief to lighten her features before they hardened again, this time with resentment. “My poor boy. And what did he do to deserve this? Merely quash a rebellion of dirty barbarians and save Roman lives. This is how Rome thanks him.”

“It wasn't quite like that, mother.” I tried to correct her gently, but her attitude was beginning to irritate me. Titus was no more a hero of Rome than I was. Heroism does not run in our family, I think. Though I would like to think there was a streak of pragmatism in there instead.

My brother, Titus Valerius Fulvius, always had an uneasy relationship with his commander in his posting in Gaul. No doubt his commander distrusted Titus' pragmatism. He would rather get things done, usually by doing them himself, than jump through the necessary bureaucratic hoops. In order to facilitate the delivery of certain necessary supplies, Titus told me he often made deals with the locals. That way they didn't have to wait months for requests and replies to make their way through the official channels. Forms written in triplicate sent to Lugdunum or Rome for approval. In one such deal, he caught wind of an uprising, took some men with him, threw their muscle about in a local tavern, roughed up a few malcontents. It was a small skirmish, as these things go, but the commander, his pride wounded, and possibly more than a little afraid of Titus, had him arrested for insubordination and mutiny. There was only one punishment.

Generally such things are executed with despatch, but my mother has powerful friends. She managed to have Titus brought to Rome, but no more. She couldn't prevent or downgrade his sentence, although she had already spent a fortune on lawyers trying. If only Titus had had a greater respect for protocol, we wouldn't be in this mess.

I stood up and pecked her on the cheek.

“Can't you do something? Run him over in a carriage or something? Isn't that how Vestals achieve pardons for criminals? Can't somebody do something?”

“Mother,” I sighed. “I have to go.”

From my mother's formal and fashionable house on the Esquiline, I turned back toward the Palatine Hill, heading to the Tulllianum prison.

Titus' face had a grey cast, as if part of him had already begun its journey to the underworld. A dusty marble statue, not yet adorned with the garish colour we Romans seem to like so much. I kissed his cheek but it raised no answering colour. He gripped my hand, but, unlike our mother's, his grip was not strong. He clung to my hands as if they could stop his from trembling. Skin hung slackly from his cold fingers.

“I was hoping you would come. Tell me, what is happening?”

“One of the Vestals, Cornelia Quinta, is dead. The city is in mourning, so you have another chance. We've got nine days.” I whispered into his cheek as we embraced. Always mindful of who might be eavesdropping.

“Poor Cornelia. I knew her brother. This is not how things were supposed to turn out, is it? I don't think it's worth it. You should just leave me be.”

“Have you ever heard about anything between Cornelia and Herminius Gallus?”

“No,” he said, surprised. “That would be suicide, wouldn't it? Herminius is far too ambitious for that. Why? Was there something?”

“No. I don't know. It's not important. The important thing is we have another opportunity to get you out of here. Wait for word from me. I'll send it the usual way if I can't visit you myself.”


I nodded. “Don't lose hope.”

“Lollus might need something extra this time.” He gestured to the closed door, behind which I had no doubt the guard was listening to every word he could.

I sighed. More money.

“I'll take care of it. Don't worry. Just wait for a message from me.”

* * *

The following day passed slowly. There was more sun and warmth that we usually had in March and we were all glad of the chance to sit outside in the garden for a few hours after being cooped up in small rooms, made stifling by braziers and smoking lamps, while we waited for the cypress boughs to wilt. Laelia Longina brought out cushions for the stone benches that we used for dining in the summer. The angle of the sun meant that we had to squint at each other but our bodies were gently and evenly warmed. The breeze was soft and sweet, wafting away any lingering plumes from this morning's pyre. I stretched out like a cat and watched from the corner of my eye the industrious spinning of Hortensia and Laelia Longina. By the nimbleness of their fingers and the grace with which they pulled the long thread from the wooden spindle, the difference in their ages seemed to melt away. Vibia was as idle as I was and Fulvia Petreia, our oldest member, was snoring gently in the far corner. But slowly the relief elicited by the sun was overtaken by the needling irritability that had plagued all of us for days.

“How many brothers do you have, Valeria?” Vibia, again.

“Just one. Why?”

“You seem to be visiting him a lot then.”

“What are you talking about, Vibia?” Hortensia seemed to be as tired of Vibia's malicious tongue as I was.

“Nothing. Just that Valeria seems to be going out all the time. All these little trips by herself. We are supposed to be mourning. I don't know why Aemilia Cana allows it.”

“You're just jealous. Your family is quite happy not to receive any visits from you.” She turned back to her spinning.

The sun passed over the tile roof of the peristyle and the caress of the early spring breeze became colder.

* * *

The first thing to go wrong was the litter Aemilia Cana selected. Vibia Paulina had asked permission to dine with Geminus Gallus, who was celebrating his son's return from studies in Athens, and the Chief Vestal had allowed her the use of her own highly decorated litter. Mourning or no, Vibia usually got what she wanted. No doubt she was trying to ferret out any truth to the rumour about Herminius and Cornelia. Another possible complication. Aemilia Cana told me she preferred to travel discreetly, in one of the plain litters that looked like a thousand others in the city. It was quite late and the ban on wheeled traffic within city walls had been lifted for the night. The narrow streets were echoing with the thunderous rumbling of wooden wheels dragged heavily over cobblestones. I kept peering out of the gauzy yellow curtain, hoping to see Titus. He should be somewhere on the Clivus Capitolinus, near the Basilica Julia, which lay between the House of the Vestals and the prison.

“I had a visit from Cornelia's father this morning. He was beside himself, poor man. He thought I had been concealing her illness. As if I would, after the fuss he kicked up the last time she was ill. Do you remember, Valeria?”

“I remember.”

“It was only a bad cold. But only his doctors were good enough, only his slaves could nurse her properly. I had to swear then on the spirits of my ancestors that we would take her to his house if she was ever taken ill again.”

“But there wasn't time.”

He would be looking for Aemilia Cana's trademark litter, with its figures carved in relief and painted and its multicoloured drapery billowing from the windows with each sway of the litter, not this nondescript box. I had to give him some sort of signal. If I could see him.

“No, there wasn't time. I think we're passing the road to his house now. Have there been any more thefts, Valeria?”

“Hortensia mentioned a pair of earrings, and I lost some ivory hair pins the other day.”

“Not the ones I gave you? With the heads of the Graces carved on them?”

“Yes, I'm afraid so.” It was impossible to see anything. The traffic, the unevenly lit street. I didn't even know which side of the street he might be on.

“I hate to say this, but I think we'll have to get rid of Thetis. You girls trust that slave far too much and left temptation in her way. Never trust a Greek.”

“Yes, Aemilia Cana.”

“Are you even listening to me, Valeria?”

We might have already passed him.

“Of course.”

Then, suddenly, there he was.

“Valeria, replace that curtain at once. Do you want all of Rome to know our business?”

I waved a hand quickly, jerkily, in his direction before pulling it in and folding it on my lap. I couldn't be sure he had seen it. All he had to do now was cross in front of the litter before being recaptured by the guards. Oh, they were being patient tonight, I must reward them doubly in the morning. Worth all the jewellery and hair pins in Rome, because when Titus had crossed the path of a Vestal, he would have to be pardoned.

The noise outside increased. There was shouting, a scream. Our litter stopped.

“What is it?” I was anxious now. “What's happened?”

“Ask one of the litter bearers. He would be able to tell you better than I.” Aemilia Cana sounded irritable. I stuck my head out the window, the soft curtain attaching itself disagreeably to my hair.


“There's been an accident, my lady. Someone's been trampled. Some tramp, it looks like.”

Up ahead in the dim light, almost obscured by a crowd of gawkers closing in on the sight, I saw a heap of dirty tunic and over-long hair lying pathetically in the middle of the street. He should be alive, if he was trampled he could be seriously injured, but still alive. Still alive. Why wasn't he moving?

A man was berating the crowd. “What was he doing in the middle of the street like that? Idiot. My horses didn't have time to stop. Wagon rolled right over him. Someone pull him to the side of the road. I have to get a move on or I'll be late with my deliveries.”

Having justified his actions to his own satisfaction, the driver and another man began dragging the body, one on each end, out of the way of the backed-up traffic. I don't remember even leaving the litter, or Aemilia Cana's protestations, though knowing her there must have been many. It was all so improper. I was just there, at his side, holding his dirty face between my hands, trying to wash it with my tears. His torso had an oddly crushed look and his legs were bent at an unnatural angle. He wasn't moving. He didn't breathe.

For a long while, neither did I.

* * *

Someone handed me a beaker. It was warm, steaming. Borage tea. I didn't want it but held on to it anyway. I lacked the thought processes necessary to find a table in order to put it down. Its heat began to scald my palms. There were murmuring voices of a man and a woman on the far side of the room. It was an enormous room, lavishly frescoed. Good acoustics. I recognized one of the voices. My own voice leapt from my throat to accuse her.

“You killed him, Aemilia Cana! You took the wrong litter and you killed him. My brother!”

“I?” Aemilia Cana turned from her interview with the Emperor to look at me. “I did nothing. Perhaps it was you, doing rather more than you should. What was Titus doing on that road?”

I couldn't answer her. Where I thought there was one man, I realized there were two. They were both familiar, one from the coinage and one from countless dinner parties.

The Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus spoke. “Valeria Fulvia. My friend Rufus Calvinus has told me about some interesting acquaintances of his wife's. Herbalists, some of them. They enjoy a good dinner party, these herbalists, though I can't think I would enjoy a meal as thoroughly if I were sharing a table with them. Would you, Valeria?”

I said nothing. I wondered if I could now sip my tea and not appear rude; I was starting to shiver.

“It was very imaginative of you to have planned for your brother to cross the path of a Vestal this evening in order to achieve his pardon. I'm sorry it didn't work out quite as you hoped.” His voice was gentler than I expected. So different from his predecessors. Tears pricked my eyes and I looked deeper into the brown tea. Small dark flecks, pieces of borage leaves, circled in its murk.

“It wasn't the first attempt, I am given to understand. Was Cornelia Quinta supposed to have crossed paths with him first?”

I said nothing. I couldn't speak.

“She had an unfortunate and, I hope I may say, unplanned reaction to the drug you gave her. Mandrake, wasn't it, Rufus? Enough to make her feel ill and want to return to her father's. Where Titus would be waiting to cross before her litter.” He paused and I looked up. His expression held such sadness.

“And now, what are we going to do with you, Valeria?”

I sighed; it was all finally over.

Vesta would need two new attendants for her flame.

* * *

Jennifer Falkner’s stories have appeared or are forthcoming in THEMA, The First Line, OneTitle and Flashquake, among others, and last year she received the Reader's Choice Award from Fiction Fix. She lives in Ottawa with her husband and daughter.

What inspires you to write and keep writing?

The best way I can answer this question is by quoting Kurt Vonnegut. “The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”


by A. Miller

The first thing I did was steal my dad’s gun. I needed one because I knew there’d be soldiers at the racetrack, and Dad’s got an old Colt from when he was guarding a bank back in Stillwater. He says he never killed anybody with it, but I figure that’s just modesty. I figure the only person tougher than my dad is Joe Louis, and even then you never know.

Anyhow, the next thing I did was take a Red Car trolley all the way past Pasadena to Arcadia. It was Saturday so I had to leave from Sixth Street, and that’s where I fouled up the first time. One of the conductors came walking up in his uniform and asked me where I was headed, calling me “little fella” and all that. Well, I was so keyed up I said right out:

“To the racetrack.”

Now everybody knows Santa Anita’s been closed since the war started, so he kind of squinted and looked at me funny.

But I handled it all right. I told him my aunt lived right by the track and I always went to see her on Saturdays. “On account of she’s dying,” I said, and that did the trick: the conductor gave me a real serious nod and patted me on the head, and then I was on the trolley and we were chugging east into the mountains.

I can’t remember when I first got the idea of breaking Mike out of prison. I guess it was when he sent me that letter about how he had to leave but he’d be back in no time and we’d go find the gold. The truth is we’ve been friends pretty much forever--six months, at least--and he’s the only person at Calvin Coolidge who isn’t an idiot.

Calvin Coolidge is full of idiots. I always thought Mike was an idiot too till the day Bobby Healey pinned me down on the concrete for insulting his girlfriend, who’s a big tall girl who looks just like a horse except no one will ever say so since Bobby Healey’s so mean. Anyhow, there I was getting the skin rubbed off my face when Mike walks up and says:

“You better watch out, Bobby, because Mr. Symes is coming and he looks mad.”

Well, as soon as he said that Bobby jumped up and let me go, only Mr. Symes wasn’t even at school that day--it was all a lie, and I knew right then that Mike wasn’t an idiot. After that we were best friends. What we both like most of all is history, and we always go to a little table in the corner of the library and look at books together--big old books that Mike picks out because he’s got the best eye for books I’ve ever seen.

Anyhow, one day Mike brings this dusty old book over to the table and sets it down real careful, like it’s made of jewels. And what do you think was inside? Maps. Probably the oldest maps ever made, all about the early days of California, when the Spaniards had an empire and they were always sending priests and other people up through Los Angeles and other places to build towns and convert the Indians, who were heathens.

Well, Mike and I knew something about Spaniards. What they liked best of all was gold, and they sent it all over the world in these big old ships called galleons, and these ships were always wrecking on rocks and cliffs and things and then people had to go down and pick up all the gold that was scattered on the ocean floor. So Mike looked at me and said in that quiet voice of his:

“I bet those priests had gold too, when they came up here. I bet there’s gold buried under all the missions they built.”

Well, you see now what kind of brain Mike has. That’s logical deduction pure and simple, and right then we decided we ought to go dig for gold at all the missions, starting with the one at San Gabriel.

Anyhow, that was our plan, but then one day Mike wasn’t at school, and the next day I got that letter in the mail, telling me where he was and why he had to go, and that’s when I decided to steal my dad’s gun and take that trolley out to the racetrack.

Of course I wasn’t stupid: I got out a few stops before the track and walked the rest of the way. I figured it’d take me ten minutes or so, but do you know what? It took me two hours--two hours of dead walking right along the road with that pistol in my satchel. By the time I finally saw the track I probably had forty gallons of sweat on my body and what I wanted most of all was a Coke; but of course I didn’t have one, so instead I checked my pistol to make sure I had enough bullets to shoot a few soldiers if I had to. And I did: six in the chamber and two more in my pocket, just in case it turned into a firefight.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been to the racetrack at Santa Anita, but it’s a nice place. There’s a big fancy building for people to sit in and watch the races, and then there’s stables and things and a big dirt track and a bright green infield that’s full of the lushest grass that grows anywhere in the world.

Or at least that’s the way it used to be. Now it’s all different. Now they got a big barbed wire fence that goes all the way around the track, and big searchlights up on platforms that they can sweep around at night to check for jailbreakers, and miles and miles of little buildings covered in tarpaper, which is where Mike and everybody else has to sleep, on account of there not being enough room for them in the horse stalls.

But the main thing I was interested in was the soldiers, and there was a heck of a lot of them. Somehow in my mind I’d always pictured just one soldier standing over Mike with a rifle in his hands, and me throwing a rock or something or distract his attention, and then me and Mike taking off for the road before he’d even noticed us, and then me maybe having to murder a few people with my gun if they tried to stop us.

But do you know what? When I stopped there on the road and looked down at the track, I could see thousands of people moving around--just thousands of them: civilians and soldiers and I don’t know many million Japanese. It was like a whole city. And the worst part was, I couldn’t tell where Mike was, or which building he lived in, or whether one of the kids I saw walking around was him or not, because from that distance everybody looks the same.

Well, you can imagine how mad I was. Of course the war’s pretty important, and when a war comes along you have to do everything different and everybody has to sacrifice; but when you think how Mike and I were just about to become millionaires on account of all the gold we were going to discover--well, it made me furious that he got locked up. And anyway I don’t see why it matters if he’s a Japanese. Me and my dad come from Oklahoma, and if you’ve ever been there you know Oklahoma’s just as far from California as Japan is.

Anyhow, that’s another way I fouled up. Because while I was standing there on the road being furious, a car came up behind me and this pretty woman leans out the window and says in a real sweet voice:

“Are you lost, little fella?”

Well, I suppose now I should’ve shot her. But the gun was in my satchel, and to tell you the truth I don’t think you ought to shoot a lady unless you have to, especially if she’s pretty. So I just kind of mumbled something and started walking again, but she drove along real slow beside me, asking me who my parents were and what my address was and all that kind of thing.

And do you know what happened? I got kidnapped. Somehow that pretty woman convinced me to get in her car, and the next thing I knew I was in some office at the racetrack and the woman was telling some sergeant or something how I was a lost little boy and then all these people were asking me more questions than I’d ever been asked in my entire life.

I was so mad I started to cry. I’m not ashamed of it. I was mad at myself, mostly, because I saw how I’d gone about rescuing Mike all wrong. What I should’ve done is come at night, and we should’ve worked out some kind of signal between us, a bird call or something, so that I could give a squawk and then he’d give a squawk, and that way I’d know where he was and I could go straight to him instead of getting kidnapped.

Well, you can probably guess what happened after that. That sergeant got real serious and made me tell him my phone number, and then he called my dad, and then about an hour later my dad came bursting into the office all covered in sweat and looking like he was just about nuts.

Now you’ve never heard cussing till you’ve heard my dad. I figure if there was some kind of cussing competition he’d win it every time, and he did pretty well there in the sergeant’s office, going on and on for about ten hours and saying things like “I damn near had a heart attack” and “Don’t you know how goddamn worried I was about you?”

I said I didn’t care if he was worried or not because I was on a rescue mission, and rescue missions are more important than anything else; but he didn’t care about that. Nobody cared except that pretty woman, who was a secretary or something.

“Now who was it you were planning to rescue?” she asked in that real sweet voice.

Since she asked so nice I told her all about Mike, and how we were going to find the gold, and how I don’t mind sacrificing things for the war but the one thing you shouldn’t have to sacrifice is your friends, because you only get so many friends at a place like Calvin Coolidge, especially when you’re small.

Well, I guess that finally made them think, because after that they all got kind of quiet and the sergeant told the secretary she ought to look up Mike’s name and see where he was.

So she went through about a thousand pages of this big book, looking at names and dates and who knows what, and then she got real sad and said she was sorry, but Mike and his folks had only been at the track a few days, because the track’s only kind of a holding station, and eventually everybody gets sent up north to a place called Manzanar.

“The Nakashimas left on Monday,” she said.

“But you don’t have to worry about them, son,” the sergeant put in real quick. “They’ll be just fine up there. We just have to keep an eye on their kind and make sure they don’t do any spying for the enemy.”

At least that’s what I think he said. The truth is I was so mad and crying so much I didn’t even know where I was. If I’d remembered that pistol I probably would’ve massacred the whole bunch of them, but then Dad picked me up and threw me over his shoulder and carried me out to the big old Packard he’d borrowed off Mr. Newhall to come and get me.

Anyhow, we drove home after that. I figure that was probably the worst car ride in the history of the United States. Dad talked straight through the whole time, telling me how bad I was, and how if I ever did anything like that again he’d whip me till I died, and how the sergeant and the people at the track were just good folks who were defending our country and that’s why they’d locked up Mike.

Well, I couldn’t take that. I knew he’d whip me for it, but I told him only an idiot would lock up somebody like Mike, who was probably the best treasure hunter I’d ever met, and I said one day I’d break him out of Manzanar and we’d go dig up the gold in those missions and be millionaires, and if that sergeant ever came up to our mansion we’d tie him up like a bandit and have him shot.

And I meant it, too.

* * *

* * *

A. Miller lives in Los Angeles and has stories forthcoming in Kaleidotrope and Big Pulp.

What do you think is the most important part of a historical fiction story?

For the writer, I'd say that finding the right balance between historical accuracy and vivid storytelling is the most important part of a historical fiction story.

His Lover's Keeper

His Lover’s Keeper
by Brenna L. Aldrich

“Matthew!” Rick felt he screamed the name, but couldn’t distinguish his own voice above the cacophony rattling the air. Sound was a beast standing over the trenches, chewing metal and spitting mortar. Rick’s ashen lungs wheezed, and he imagined he was exhaling smoke. His once rich baritone was hoarse, his blue-eyed vision blurred, his sharp hearing clogged, but his purpose was clear. It was the clean, cold terror of loss that drove him on; a splinter of ice in his consciousness that sharpened to a brilliant stab of premonition: he would not die today. Not before he found him.

* * *

A painful blaze of camera flash cast the room into a dingy rainbow of ghostly figures. Rick pinched the bridge of his nose and laughed as Matthew wiped trails of moisture from his eyes.

“Your mothers are gonna’ love that one, gentlemen,” cooed the photographer. Rick didn’t doubt it. He knew from a life-long stream of compliments that he was photogenic, and the uniform only increased his clean cut, all American brand of appeal. His blue eyes would still glitter in the black and white print, and his features would arrange themselves pleasantly. Glancing at Matthew, he knew the camera would be less kind to the boy: soft bone structure, slicked curls that refused to yield even to obscene amounts of pomade, and an awkward posture born of timidity. Nevertheless, Rick would have liked to have a copy. It was probably the only photograph of the two standing side by side, holding one another, which would ever exist.

“Now let’s get the happy couple!”

Rick stepped into the crowd as a short, freckled, young woman with eyes so huge and dark they were too big for her head, looped her arm into Matthew’s. Rick’s throat constricted.

“To Jenny and Matthew!” someone shouted.

Congratulations and a second blinding streak from the camera answered.

The crowd returned to mingling when the flash wore off, allowing Rick to slip back in beside Matthew. Jenny begged off to check her mascara.

They wandered happily until a pot-bellied, bi-focaled relative materialized out of the crowd of party guests.

“It’s darn fine of you boys, joining up so late,” said the relative.

Rick threw his arm round Matthew’s shoulders and smiled.

“Thank you, sir. But heck; we’re only late because Mr. Wilson’s had cold feet for three years.”

The beer gut with glasses patted Rick’s shoulder. “Of course,” he said. “Anyways, it’s a fine thing you’re doing. Why I’d go myself if I was still young enough to raise a little hell.”

As he wandered off, Matthew lifted his glass of punch and muttered behind its lip.

“What’s the count?”

“Five ‘raise’ hells, two ‘give ‘em’ hells and one ‘teach them kraut bastards the meanin’ of’ hells.”

The two battled laughter for a few moments then resumed wandering through the crush of celebrants.

“I’m horrible,” Matthew said at last.

“How so?” Rick asked, refilling his friend’s glass and passing it back to him. A slight tremor gripped Matthew’s hand as he reclaimed the drink.

“I’m poking fun like a spoiled brat. They mean well and I’m…”

“Following my lead?”

“As always.”

Rick smiled. “We can’t break tradition now. We’re about to become inseparable.”

Matthew swallowed the rest of his drink in a single gulp. “Right,” he said, casting a terrified glance at his fiancé.

Rick gripped Matthew’s shoulder, masking intimate pressure in a brotherly pat. “It’s okay,” he said. He raised his eyes to the crowd and continued to flash his perfect smile to keep them reassuredly distracted. “You won’t be alone over there.”

“I’m not afraid of the war,” Matthew answered, eyes still fixed on Jenny’s lumpy figure. “I’m afraid of coming home.” Rick sensed Matthew step closer; so close that he could feel the heat of him and scent the cloying aroma of pomade.

“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of,” Rick said, his voice flat and hollow. “Heck, do you think I’m not shaking in my shoes? I’m just better at pretending than you,” he said, slipping an arm around him. Matthew shrugged gently, just enough to dislodge Rick’s grip.

“I wish I could pretend the way you do,” he said with a sad smile.

Rick watched Matthew wind through the press of bodies, too aware of him for the sight of his frame to melt into crowd. Across the room, Matthew took up the arm of his fiancé and plastered on a brave face. No. Matthew was no good at pretending.

And at that moment, Rick doubted he was either. In fact he was quite convinced that the pain of watching the man he loved pretend to be happily engaged was clearly etched upon his face.

It was the oldest fact his Rick’s life: he loved Matthew. It had the purity of inevitability which cleared the feelings of guilt or shame. Childhood adoration had matured, become shadowed by physical longing, and escaped the horrors of a conflicted conscience, untainted and unquestionable. That Matthew shared the core of those feelings was Rick’s only comfort as he watched him try, and fail, to put on a good show.

Not for the first time, a spasm of regret seized Rick. As naturally as he’d taken his own emotions in stride, he’d understood that Matthew would struggle with the feelings. The two had always been opposites: Rick outgoing where Matthew was shy, athletic beside bookish, and comfortable with a level of necessary dishonesty that Matthew’s candid nature deplored. And even knowing all of this, Rick had rushed him anyway. He inwardly cursed himself and the thirty-year-old scotch he’d stolen from his father a few short nights ago. Animated in part by drink, and in part by the looming agony of the idea war might separate them forever, he had kissed Matthew. It had been sweet and lingering, yet all too brief. When he’d leaned in to kiss him a second time, Matthew had recoiled in shame.

A shift in the conversations around Rick interrupted his thoughts, rendering him stunned to find that the crowd had carried Matthew and Jenny near. A moment more found the pair separated, and Rick in closer proximity to bug-eyed and trembling fiancé. Pity for her shyness swelled to drown his envy, and he crossed to her.

“Left you at the vultures’ mercy, has he?” Rick asked with a gentle smile. Jenny’s large eyes bulged, but she nodded. He offered his elbow. “Then allow me to rescue and return you where you belong,” he added. She accepted the proffered limb with all the enthusiasm of a dishrag.

“Thank you,” she said.

“My pleasure.”

“I can’t believe we agreed to this,” she muttered.

“You mean the party?” he laughed. “I’ll admit, I was… puzzled when Matthew suggested it.”

“He hates crowds as much as I do. That’s why we combined the going away bash with the engagement party. I wish we’d done neither.”

“I’m sure you’d have both been more comfortable. Did he give you any idea why he agreed to the dreaded ‘social soirée?”

Jenny shrugged against his elbow.

“He said he wanted me to have the ‘full show.’ I suppose he was just being sweet, but I wouldn’t have cared regardless. I wouldn’t even mind if we got married before he left. Something small and private,” she sighed, and looked a little tearful. “There’s no time for a big ceremony, you see, but Matthew’s still insisting on having everything ‘traditional.’ He told me he doesn’t want me to miss out on anything. He’s so thoughtful.”

“He is.”

“He gave me a beautiful promise ring. It’s not the same as an engagement ring, he can’t afford that yet, but it’s still pretty.” She held out her hand. A silver, Celtic tangle encircled her stubby finger. “It was part of a matched set. He has the other one,” she said.

Rick paused to take in the ring, then looked hard at Jenny. The pang of envy he’d felt at the beginning of the night was fast receding. Her description of her fiancé’s behavior was pitifully false. Matthew was pretending to give Jenny what a girl should want for her wedding day, but because he wasn’t really in love with her, her real wants were lost on him. But Rick could see in her face and hear in her trembling voice that she adored Matthew. He recognized the emotion to well to mistake it. For the first time in his life, he felt guilty about loving Matthew. Not for his feelings, but for the fact he’d been in such a damned hurry he’d pushed the man into unwittingly making a victim of Jenny. She might not be now, but she would be in the future. Whether Matthew actually married her or no, the fragile creature on Rick’s arm was going to end up with a broken heart.

Matthew suddenly loomed into view. Rick turned to face the fiancé and lifted her hand to his lips.

“You’re a very nice girl, Jenny Philips. You deserve to be happy,” he said. She blinked at him and smiled.

“You’re a lot sweeter than you act in front of crowds,” she said.

He winked. “Don’t tell anyone. It’ll be our secret,” he whispered loudly. That brought a real smile to her lips.

As he moved away from her, he locked eyes with Matthew whose intent gaze hovered somewhere between stricken and puzzled. Rick tried to meet his eyes with a reassuring look, but knew that his emotions had driven his expressions beyond his control.

* * *

* * *

The bullets and shrapnel were coming less frequently now that the retreat was almost over. It made it easier to see and concentrate, but Rick’s panic increased nonetheless; he was nearly out of time.

He retraced the steps he’d taken at the start of the battle, desperately attempting to find where he’d first been separated from Matthew. Stumbling, he fell against a bloody stump.

It took a few moments for weight, texture and scent to attest to the reality of the discovery. Harnessing the urge to vomit as he examined the object, Rick found the stump was indeed still attached to the blackened, oozing, reeking remains of a human being. He caught a glint of silver out of the corner of his eye, looked close enough to see it was glittering around smoking bone, then turned away.

* * *

The Philips family had a pretty living room. It was simple, modestly populated with the kind of furniture that the rich purchase by the truck full and the poor spend a lifetime scrounging to buy. No doubt the whole room was the product of years of saving and careful collection. Rick doubted they could have afforded a large wedding even if Jenny had wanted one.

She was sitting across from him now, burrowed into a leather wingback, and burying her face in her hands. She’d been quietly sobbing for full on ten minutes.

“So he didn’t suffer?” she asked at last.

“No ma’am.”

“And you know it was him?” she asked. Rick swallowed back the knot in his own throat and fished a small ring-box out of his pocket. He extended it to Jenny who took it, opened it, cried afresh and nodded. “Thank you for coming to tell me,” she whispered.

He nodded and watched her cry for a few moments more. She was a dignified weeper, which was unexpected, and he admired her for that.

“I can’t stay,” he said.

“I understand. I think mother wanted you to, but it’s not necessary. I’m just grateful you could be the one to tell me.”

He half smiled. “Being wounded in battle has its advantages,” he said, then choked. “I just wish it had been me instead.”

Jenny nodded. “So do I,” she whispered.

When he had almost reached the door to leave, Jenny’s mother stopped him. She was a stooped, fretful little woman covered in a tight, dehydrated brand of wrinkles. She looked like she’d been steeped to make tea.

“Thank you for coming, dear. God was watching out for my Jenny when he saved you,” she said. She wrung her hands nervously, as if she were unsure of whether or not to speak. She cast an anxious glance over her shoulder at the door of the living room. “You know you can come back and see her anytime you please. I think she’d like that.”

Rick stared at the woman for a long moment, then followed the line of her backward glance.

“Come back” of course was a euphemism for “see Jenny.” Like a thousand mothers of homely daughters before her, Mrs. Phillips was terrified of seeing her one and only confined to the ignominy of spinsterhood. But Rick didn’t think of that. Instead he considered the plausibility of the circumstance. He could come back. He could cultivate, if nothing else, friendship with this bereaved girl, the only other human being who could possibly understand the depth of his loss because she shared it. And, technically, one could argue he was partially responsible for her devastation. Had he not, in kissing Matthew, frightened him into getting engaged to her? Had he not driven that sweet, beautiful star into her the sphere of her drab little world? He didn’t envy her for loving Matthew; how could she fail to love him? And now, how would she ever be able to love someone else? He thought of her living room. Its meager elegance, and the huge wedding the poor girl was to have had and that would forever remain a ghost in her imagination. Could it be he owed her some penance for having unwittingly ruined her life?

He looked down at the wizened, fretful little woman before him and gently shook her hand.

“Thank you Ma’am. I will come back. I promise.”

* * *

It was a small wedding, but the reception was still populated by most of the town, being a small enough town to be accommodated in the high-school gymnasium used for such occasions. Rick had overheard one of the better known gossips comment that they were a fine couple, but the saddest pair of newly-weds she’d ever seen. He’d almost laughed at her perception.

Rick stood beside the radio and listened to the crackling strains of a classical piece so garbled with static that he could hardly recognize it. He had a bourbon in one hand and Matthew’s army photograph in the other. Alternately, he drank and cried, choking on the liquor, but forcing it down anyway.

“Rick?” called Jenny.

He roughly wiped at his eyes and nose with the back of his hand. “Yes, sweetheart?” he said.

“Are you coming to bed?”

Rick fingered the picture in his hand, running his thumb softly along the line of Matthew’s cheek.

“Be there in a moment.”
* * *

* * *

Brenna L. Aldrich says: I am a writer, English tutor, and Alumnus of the Masters in Professional Writing program at Kennesaw State University. My short fiction has been published at Armadillidium Publishing. Though I have written in numerous genres, the heart-line shared by each work is a fascination with stories that confuse, teach, and change me.

What do you think is the attraction of the historical fiction genre?

For me, the attraction of Historical Fiction lies in the fact that history, cultures, and eras may change, but human nature does not. No matter what period the story is set, good historical fiction is peopled by recognizable characters, characters who though constrained by a different set of social strictures, still think and feel as familiarly as our close friends and neighbors. When we as readers can recognize our own struggles across time, we are attracted to the characters within the story, no matter what the era. As a writer, I appreciate the distance Historical Fiction imposes on certain issues. Issues that might be timeless, but perhaps too personal or close to examine via a story that takes place in a modern setting.