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Category: Writing (page 1 of 5)

Enlightened Ancestor: Dr. Benjamin West

I can thank my migraines for Dr. Benjamin West.

When I am anxious or don’t feel well, I often do genealogy research to take my mind off things. I have always enjoyed learning about family history, but really got bitten hard by the bug the first time I had cancer, in 1994. I was at home recuperating, on painkillers and other drugs that made concentrating difficult, and I found message boards on AOL that were all about genealogy. And my ancestors were there! I connected with some very distant cousins and compared notes. I started learning more and more about my origins.

It occurs to me that we are all the products of our parents, who are the products of their parents, who were the products of theirs, and so on. Our parents don’t just pass genetics on to us. Even when we disagree about things like politics or religion or how to raise our children, the values of our parents are distilled into us, just like the values of their parents were distilled into them. We find that professions tend to run in families -a  certain branch of the family may tend to be lawyers, writers, preachers, doctors, architects, artists, military, etc.

An obituary notice in a newspaper from 1822 led me to him. He was named as the father of one of my 5th great-grandmothers, a woman whose origins were completely unknown to me before that moment.  The man was phenomenal, and I don’t understand why every generation after him hasn’t continued to hold him up as the pinnacle of the Enlightenment. This guy’s brain was so huge and active I don’t know how it managed to stay confined in his skull.

benj-west

Benjamin West, from the Brown University Portrait Collection

Benjamin West was born in Bristol, Massachusetts in March 1730. I think of him as the Stephen Hawking of his day. His accomplishments in math and science are truly remarkable because he was an autodidact – his formal schooling lasted a whopping three months of his childhood. He was poor and had to borrow every book he read until about 1758, when he managed to find some backers to open a dry goods store. A couple of years later, he opened the first bookstore ever to grace the commercial avenues of Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to pay for the books he so desperately wanted by selling them to other people.

He married Elizabeth Smith, daughter of Benjamin Smith, in 1753 when he was 23.  They were married for 53 years and had eight children, only three of whom survived Benjamin. The 1822 death notice for his daughter, Mary Smith West (wife of Oliver Pearce), in a Providence newspaper, alerted me to him. The death notice that mentioned her father was “Dr. Benjamin West of Providence.” Mary West Pearce died in Fayetteville, NC. Her daughter, Eliza West Pearce, married Dr. Benjamin Robinson, that guy from Vermont who tested out that newfangled smallpox vaccine on his little brother and his brother’s friends and basically got run out of Bennington for his efforts. The science is strong in my family!

Benjamin West was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. His buddies were the founders of Rhode Island College, which later became Brown University. He loved mathematics and astronomy, and conferred with some truly fantastic minds of his day. He published annual almanacs for Halifax, Nova Scotia and Providence, Rhode Island for nearly 40 years. He didn’t have the formal schooling necessary for good academic chops, though, and before he opened that dry goods and book store, he failed at operating a school. He tutored students privately for all of his adult life.

Astronomical Genius

In 1766, something would happen that ultimately would reverse his fortunes and open some gilded doors for him. A comet appeared in the constellation of Taurus on the evening of April 9. Being a good astronomer, Benjamin took careful measurements. The next day wrote a letter to an astronomer named John Winthrop who was at Cambridge College (now known as Harvard University). He had never met or corresponded with Winthrop, but was so excited about his observation he simply had to share it.

Providence, April 10, 1766

Dear Sir:

For the improvement of science, I now acquaint you, that the last evening, I saw in the West, a comet, which I judged to be about the middle of the sign of Taurus; with about 7 degrees North latitude. It set half after 8 o’clock by my watch; and its amplitude was about 29 or 30 degrees. Nothing, Sir, could have induced me to this freedom of writing to you, but the love I have for the sciences; and I flatter myself that you will, on that account, the more readily overlook it.

I am, Sir, yours,

Benjamin West

He and Winthrop became great friends and continued to write each other. For the rest of their lives they would share observations about the night sky.

1769 Transit of the Planets

Johannes Kepler and Edmund Halley figured out how to apply the theory of parallax to determine the distances between astronomical bodies.  With both Mercury and Vanus predicted to pass between the Earth and the Sun in 1769, astronomers world-wide were anxious to test the theory . Since this was the first really good opportunity to view the transits of both inner planets since Kepler’s original accurate prediction in 1627 of the 1631 transit, everyone in the field of astronomy was excited. Captain Cook would famously observe the 1769 transit of Venus from Tahiti while on his ill-fated circumnavigation and while bringing European diseases and disharmony to the South Pacific. At the time of the last transit of Venus in 1761, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, who had just finished their survey of the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, had traveled to the Cape of Good Hope to observe it. All of these men used astronomy as an important part of their lives – navigating the oceans and surveying the land required precise measurements, and measurements started with the stars.

benjamin-wests-1769-telescope

Telescope used by Benjamin West, at Providence, Rhode Island, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. Ladd Observatory, Brown University

There was no telescope in Providence in 1769. Benjamin West, Stephen Hopkins (the signer of the Declaration and great-grandson of the Mayflower passenger) and the Brown brothers – founders of Rhode Island College, later known as Brown University – were determined to see the phenomenon, though, so they managed to import a telescope from England at the incredible expense of 500 pounds.  They set up on the outskirts of Providence. Transit Street in Providence is named after the spot where they viewed the transit on June 3, 1769. There are photos of the telescope on the Brown University website – the school still has it.

benjamin-wests-diagram-of-the-1769-transit-of-venus

Benjamin West’s diagram of the transit of Venus, 1769, from the Ladd Observatory, Brown University

As was his habit, Benjamin West made careful measurements of the transit. He published a tract (and dedicated it to his friend Stephen Hopkins) about the event. A copy of the tract made its way to John Winthrop at Harvard, and on July 18, 1770, Benjamin West – the man with only three months of formal education – was awarded an honorary Master of Arts from Harvard. Here’s the text of the notification letter from John Winthrop:

Cambridge, July 19, 1770

Sir —

I have the pleasure to acquaint you that the government of this college were pleased, yesterday, to confer upon you the Honorary degree of Master of Arts; upon which I sincerely congratulate you. I acknowledge the receipt of your favour, and shall be glad to compare any observations of the satellites.

Yours, &c.

John Winthrop

 

American Academy of Arts and Sciences: the American Philosophical Society

That same year, Benjamin West was unanimously elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia – the American colonial version of Great Britain’s Royal Society. He would meet another author and publisher of almanacs there: a fellow named Benjamin Franklin.

Benjamin West was still primarily a merchant at this time, and the Revolution was on its way. When full-blown war finally arrived, commerce dried up. He went to work manufacturing clothing for the American troops. He continued his studies and his correspondence with the other great minds, though.

Mathematics was Benjamin’s first love. In 1773 he wrote to a friend in Boston of a theorem he had developed to extract “the roots of odd powers” that was probably his greatest contribution to the field of mathematics. That’s right – he discovered a math formula that I can’t even begin to hope to understand, but other really smart people who could math really well understood it and lauded him for it. When he finally explained his theorem to other math geniuses in 1781, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences not only published it in one of their earliest journals, but unanimously elected him to membership and awarded him a diploma. It was his second honorary academic degree, and he still supported by only three months of formal education. The theorem caught the attention of the European mathematical geniuses, who, giddy with discovery, also published it. Benjamin West, already pretty cool, became seriously hot stuff.

He didn’t stop at math and astronomical observations, though. One of the biographies I found explained a physics problem he cogitated upon for more than two years in conjunction with John Winthrop and a Mr. Oliver. It had to do with the properties of air in a copper tube that was then put into an otherwise airless container. The qualities of invisible gases – basically, the scientific understanding of the very concept of the physical nature and properties of “air” – was in its infancy. Our ancestor speculated about the attractive and repulsive nature of the tiny particles that made up the matter of air – what we now call its molecules – and how they would behave under different conditions. Gravity, matter, magnetism, and ultimately the behavior of the tails of comets played into his understanding of the question. This is stuff my brain simply isn’t big enough to handle.

Benjamin West’s mind was at the peak of its illuminating brilliance as the world around him heaved. His most important discoveries and writings happened as the American Revolution was about to explode.  By the end of the Revolution he had returned to academic pursuits. He tutored students in math and astronomy. He still wasn’t rich; despite his prominence in academics he never became particularly wealthy. The well-endowed founders of what would become Brown University had not forgotten their friend, though. In 1786, he was elected to a full professorship there.

For some reason he did not begin teaching at Brown for a couple of years. Probably because of his honors and his friendship with Ben Franklin and the rest of the gang at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Benjamin West was invited to teach at the illustrious Protestant Episcopal Academy there. The name of that school is familiar to members of my father’s family.  Although Benjamin West was the direct ancestor of my Arkansas-born mother, my dad, an Irish-Italian kid who grew up in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, went to school at Philadelphia’s Episcopal Academy while his dad coached its sports teams. (Insert refrain from “Circle of Life” here.)

Brown University awarded Dr. West his first non-honorary degree, his Doctor of Laws, in 1792. He taught mathematics and astronomy there from 1788 until 1799. Then he opened a school of navigation and taught astronomy to seafaring men. Like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson, this man loved to teach other people the wonders of the universe.

I’m proud of him for another reason, too: Benjamin West was a member of an active abolitionist group in Providence.

I’ve found several contemporary biographical accounts for Benjamin West. They are typical of their time: purple prose and flowery metaphors abound. They all reach one conclusion: Benjamin West was a genius. He was a determinedly self-educated man who contributed considerably to the arts of science and mathematics during his lifetime. He was truly a product of the Age of Enlightenment: a self-educated, self-made man whose gifts and prominence considerably exceeded his bank account.

This discovery of my ancestor Benjamin West is exactly why genealogy research is so rewarding. And given the anxiety-provoking events of November 8, I expect to be doing a lot more of it – in between my stepped-up schedule of political activities, that is.

______

Bibliography:

American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Book of Members  (2016 edition), p. 252. Entry for Benjamin West, elected 1781, Fellow. Residence and Affiliation at election: Providence, RI. Career description: Astronomer, Educator, Businessperson, Book of Members; American Academy of Arts & Sciences, American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Leonard Bliss, The History of Rehoboth, Bristol County, Massachusetts:  Comprising a History of the Present Towns of Rehoboth, Seekonk, and Pawtucket, From Their Settlement to the Present Time (Boston:  Otis, Broaders, and Company, 1836). Google Books

Bloomsbury Encyclopedia of the American Enlightenment, Entry for Benjamin West (1730-1813), pp. 1096-1097. https://books.google.com/books?id=qZ2yBwAAQBAJ&lpg=PA1096&dq

Louise Hall, “Family Records: Newby Bible”, New England Historical and Genealogical Register 122 (Apr 1968):  125-128, 125.

Martha Mitchell, “Benjamin West”, Encyclopedia Brunoniana (1993). https://www.brown.edu/Administration/News_Bureau/Databases/Encyclopedia/search.php?serial=W0170

John Chauncey Pease, John Milton Niles, A Gazetteer of the States of Connecticut and Rhode-Island:   (Hartford:  William S. Marsh, 1819), 331-333. Biographical entry for Dr. Benjamin West.  Google Books.

Unattributed, “Biography of Benjamin West, L.L.D.  A.A.S.:  Professor of Mathematicks, Astronomy and Natural Philosophy, in Rhode Island College – and Fellow of the Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, &c.”, The Rhode Island Literary Repository Vol I, No. 7 (October 1814):  137-160 (337-360), http://books.google.com/books?id=HLQRAAAAYAAJ.  Google Books.

Benjamin West Papers; Rhode Island Historical Society Library, 121 Hope Street
Providence, RI 02906. http://www.rihs.org/mssinv/Mss794.htm.

NaNoWriMo.

Reason in the Rock is over. I’m totally doing NaNoWriMo to unwind.

nanowrimo-2013-calendar

Calendar stolen from Dave Seah

 

I’m going to try to get The Wall finished – if I can stop editing myself long enough to get the last of it down on paper. Exoplanets. Aliens. Heroic kids. Telepathy. Resilience. Survival. The whole world is at stake.

And if I finish The Wall, I’ll revisit Chigger Hollow to see if Bigfoot has won the girl away from the dwarf with impulse-control issues.

My characters are calling me.

I Write

I write.

I sit at a table and I reach for a pad of paper and a pen. I sit at a computer and automatically click to open the word processing program. My empty fingers itch for an good fountain pen or even an antique dip pen and a bottle of ink.

I write.

Sometimes I’m funny. Sometimes I’m serious. I may be disgusted, irreverent, playful, reflective, or melancholy. I can be imaginative or philosophical. I teach. I lecture. I question. I explain. I research. I investigate.

I write.

I have pretty leather-bound journals scattered all over my life, and all of them have writing in them. I write my dreams, my thoughts, my observations. I write my memories to save for my son. I write the news, to save for posterity – if there ever is posterity. I write love notes to whomever I feel love for at the moment. I write letters in those journals – letters to old high school teachers, to friends from the past and present, to family, to grandchildren not yet born. They will never be sent or read by anyone, but I write them anyway.

I write.

No subject is sacred. I have strong opinions. My opinions can be changed by compelling evidence and cogent arguments, but my positions are stated clearly and occasionally even with footnotes. I don’t reach my strong opinions in a vacuum. I want links, supporting evidence, and documentation to support a position.

I write.

The dreams I live at night are vivid. They form the basis for my short stories. I have lots of them. I doubt I will publish very many of them to this blog. They are beyond science fiction and fantasy, sometimes.

I love to write.

So, I write.

I have rules about my writing, and I trust when there is debate in the comments to my blog, others respect these guidelines.

I write to communicate ideas.

But, I can’t abide rudeness. Points can be made without resorting to name-calling, taunting, or other grade-school behaviors. Threats, harassment, and general nastiness never persuaded anyone of anything other than the rudeness of the person threatening, harassing, or being generally nasty. I am literally and figuratively unable to hear someone who uses these techniques to communicate.

I write to persuade.

Pundits, politicians, bloggers, and others who have an “Us vs. Them” mentality when it comes to making their points lose credibility with me in a hurry. I love politics and I love discussing politics. Good political arguments must be as well documented as scientific arguments. It must appeal to logic and reason, not emotion and fear.

I write for respect.

Name calling, stereotyping, finger-pointing, and blaming an opposing political party or some other person irritate me beyond reason. They are as irritating as a fly or mosquito. Their buzz and their whine are not words but an annoyance to be swatted away without much of a thought as to their purpose. I do not respect those who engage in such behavior. I will never do it myself. Respect is critical to real communication.

I write to make a point.

As a lawyer I have to make arguments that make sense to the judge and jury, opposing counsel, and my clients, so I strive to be careful in crafting my arguments. I encourage feisty, vigorous debate, but the arguments should always be backed up with facts and wherever possible with citations. I can be persuaded, but only with facts and a coherent argument.

I write as a craft.

Proper grammar, punctuation, spelling are essential. This is not to say I don’t make mistakes, but I correct them the moment I see them. It’s difficult to proofread one’s own work, and as hard as I try there will be things I don’t catch. Technically good writing is the bare minimum of what I expect of myself. I wish it was as important to others. I am fond of saying that my dream date would be with a guy who would drive me around and carry the bucket of red paint for me to dip my brush into so that I might correct the misplaced apostrophes on all the signs in public places. Does such a piratical Prince Charming exist? And will he carry a ladder tall enough for billboards?

I write to write well.

Style makes good writing great. I want to write with a style that stays with my reader. I want to write with a style that makes my point in a way that inspires reflection. I want to write with a style that inspires a belly-laugh. I want to write with a style that is readable and fun, readable and educational, readable and poignant.

I write because I have to write.

It’s me. My compulsion to write will never go away. It is as much a part of me as the knuckles on my fingers and the gray wisps in my hair. Even if I hide my compulsion to write it is still there, pushing me, moving my fingers unconsciously toward the pen, to pick it up.

I write.

Yoruba Revenge

Ghost Ship under the sea of the Bermuda Triangle

Aboard a Portuguese Caravel
In the North Atlantic, Somewhere
Between Bermuda and Hispaniola
July, 1516

No light entered the hold except when four of the white men brought wooden buckets of thin, mealy mush. Three of them carried two buckets apiece; the fourth carried a whip and a pistol. The shaft of light stabbed the eyes of the frightened men and women of the Yoruba huddled below. Only if the door was left open a crack, enough for the white men to see, and only if it were left open long enough, did Abeni’s eyes adjust enough to make out the shapes of the others around her.

By the second week aboard, the manacle on the left ankle of the young teenage girl next to Abeni had cut into her flesh, and within three more days it had become infected. Monifa’s complaints of terrible itching told Abeni that the wound was festering. After the first week, Monifa cried that her leg throbbed constantly. She begged Abeni to heal her. In the dim light at feeding time, Abeni saw that the maggots were at work. If they could keep the wound clear of the dead tissue, gangrene might not set in. But soon Abeni knew that the infection had entered the girl’s blood before the maggots had done their work. The child shivered with her fever, moaning as the manacle moved against tender, grossly swollen flesh.

Abeni did not have her fetishes, but she chanted almost constantly, beseeching the gods to return them home. She also chanted and prayed for the child’s ankle to heal. She could tell that the girl was not convinced that Abeni had been initiated as a Queen Mother; she knew she appeared much too young for the rites. The elders chose her because she knew the lore and had found frequent favor with the gods. Nevertheless, she wondered if the child’s increasing infection was due to the honor being given her prematurely.

When the sailors came into the hold with their buckets of slop, Abeni leaned over to the girl, her large body already much smaller than three weeks earlier when they had been herded into the hold of the caravel. “Wake, child. Food.”

Abeni helped the girl into a sitting position, moving her left leg carefully, stopping when Monifa gasped in pain. The men gave each person a bowl of the watery mush, waited for them to consume it, the took back the bowl for the next serving for the next person. Monifa collapsed woozily against Abeni when the reek of the foreign men came close. The sailor offered the bowl and Monifa took it weakly and brought it to her lips. Abeni silently urged the girl had to swallow this meal. Nothing else would be given until the next day. She saw the child take the vile mush into her mouth, but she only held it there. Swallow, Abeni willed the girl silently. Swallow!

With an impatient snarl, the man holding the bucket struck the side of the child’s face. Mush went up her nose and the edges of the wooden bowl bit painfully into her cheeks. Helpless to control it any longer, the girl vomited yellow bile, spewing into the bowl, onto the legs of the man, and onto her own naked skin.

“Bah!” Disgusted, the crewman slapped the bowl away from her and dipped it into the bucket. He offered it to Abeni. Abeni did not reach for it. The sailor thrust the bowl at the woman again, but again Abeni ignored it. She turned instead to the sick girl next to her and resumed chanting in a soft sing-song.

Shrugging, the sailor offered the bowl to Bambidele, the man chained next to Abeni. Bambidele also refused the vomit-tainted mush. The sailor thrust it toward him again, but the man turned his head.

With a roar of Portuguese fury, the sailor stomped back to the ladder and out of the hold. His companions laughed, and continued serving the other captives. No other bowls were offered to the sick girl, Abeni, or Bambidele.

In the dark again, Abeni continued chanting until Monifa fell into a restless, fevered sleep. The Yoruba shaman rocked in place, murmuring under her breath.

“Curse them, and I will see that they cannot deliver us,” Bambidele murmured.

At first, Abeni was not certain what she had heard. “Curse them?”

“You are Queen Mother. You are familiar with Voudon?”

“It is forbidden. Voudon is not Yoruba.”

“But you know how to use it.” He said it quietly, firmly. He did not ask; he stated it as a fact.

“Yes,” said Abeni after a few moments.

“I shall take them. Give me three days.”

He could not have seen her nod in the pitch blackness, but she knew he understood her silent assent.

The next day Monifa’s fever was worse. She lay shivering, incoherent. Abeni could tell that the girl’s infection had poisoned her system; without healing herbs and a healing ritual, she would be lost, if she were not too far gone already. Abeni also knew that Bambidele had worked at his manacle all night, and that he was almost free of it. He, too, had lost flesh and no small amount of blood in his effort to free himself.

When the Portugese sailors came to distribute the daily meal, Bambidele hid his manacled foot. The light was dim enough to prevent the sailors from seeing the bloodstains on the wooden planking of the hold, but he did not risk them seeing that he was working to free himself.

They did not bother to feed Monifa. Instead, they called for another of their companions, who examined her. They conferred in their strange language, shrugged, and left.

“She needs healing!” Abeni hissed in frustration to Bambidele.

“She will not need healing for long,” he murmured back.

It took Bambidele four days. He freed himself the second day, but spent the rest of that day and the next freeing the other captives, whispering to them his plan. Abeni was relieved when the distribution of food on the third day went without incident. Bambidele refused to release the fevered teenage girl from her manacle, though. “She lies where they can see her, and they will know if she is freed,” he explained.

The fourth day’s distribution of mush also went without incident. Monifa was unconscious, and Abeni could tell from her breathing that she would die soon. The girl’s entire leg was swollen and blistered, and the swelling had begun to move into her groin and hips. From experience, Abeni knew that once it reached her torso, the girl’s suffering would end.

Hours passed. The noises above them stilled except for occasional footsteps and even less frequent calls among the sailors. It was time.

Bambidele rose, and in the darkness whispered for the others to take the irons that had held them. Some of the captives had rubbed the edges of the irons against other irons, sharpening them for better use as weapons. Bambidele gathered them around him. First he listened silently at the door for several moments, then he opened it.

Moonlight had never shone so brightly.

Abeni remained in the hold with Monifa and with the other ill captives while the healthiest of the Yoruba men and women did their work. Bambidele returned for her in less time than she expected. He freed Monifa at last, and carrying her small body in his arms he led Abeni out onto the deck.

The night was impossibly bright. The ship’s crew, about 40 men, had been stripped as naked as the Yoruba captives. Several had obvious broken bones; even more had bleeding gashes. Abeni stared at them coldly, seeing the stark fear that had replaced their cruelty.

None of the captives spoke the language of the sailors. Bambidele placed the dying girl gently on the deck. Behind Abeni the other ill and injured captives straggled from the hold to stand in a ring behind her and Bambidele.

Bambidele turned to Abeni. “Curse them,” he said.

Abeni had prepared herself for this moment. She raised her arms skyward and began a singsong chant. The Yoruba around her murmured uncertainly as they realized the words she sang were not Yoruban, but from the darker Voudon practice. Bambidele stood by silently as Abeni’s voice rose and fell in the night. Several of the Portuguese began moaning. Good, thought Abeni as she continued the ritual chant. They should be afraid.

Her first chant ended and Abeni turned to Bambidele. He handed her a wickedly curved long knife. Ritually, she cut herself on both wrists, the blood flowing freely down to cover the hilt. She approached the captain of the Portuguese. She cut his face on either cheek, then once across the width of his forehead. Several of the sailors sobbed aloud now.

Abeni caught the captain’s blood on the blade of the knife, then allowed it to drip into the mouth of the dying girl lying on the deck.

Several of the men propelled the four who had fed them every day to the front of the huddled group of sailors. Abeni had them face their companions across the body of the dying child, and she ritually carved each of their faces the same as the captain’s, again allowing their blood to feed the unconscious girl.

She began chanting again, this time swaying to her own music, her own blood dripping over the length of Monifa’s body. She whirled, and the captain’s throat bloomed red, his eyes wide, as he pitched forward. A Yoruban man caught his lifeless body before it fell onto Monifa, then tossed the corpse aside. One of the remaining four men lost control of his bowels and a second fell senseless to the deck. Contemptuously, Abeni slit their throats with two deft twists of her bloody wrists. She turned her attention to the two who remained.

One fell to his knees, apparently praying to whatever ineffectual gods he might have worshipped. Still chanting, Abeni dispatched him and moved to the fourth man. Her chanting increased in tempo and her pitch rose. She danced in front of him, not caring whether he could see her through the flood of blood washing into his eyes from his forehead.

A wind rose. Had she looked up, Abeni would have seen clouds obscuring the stars at a speed that defied nature. She was focused on her task and spared no time for the effects of the evil she called to this sea with the forbidden rite of Voudon. She felt the crackle of electricity in the air and knew that the gods answered her call. Her curse would be sanctioned by them.

At her direction, Bembidele again lifted the dying child into his arms. He followed Abeni among the mass of terrified sailors as she forced each to touch the girl’s eyes and mouth, and as she slashed each face in triple cuts, feeding their blood to the unconscious child. Those who resisted her received a fourth slash, across their throats, and were tossed aside. So did those who fainted or befouled themselves. Half the sailors remained.

The strength of the wind forced a few huge raindrops to slap against the faces of the Portuguese sailors. In the distance thunder and lightning clamored for attention. Satisfied with the attention of the gods, Abeni prepared for the last of the ritual. Her severed arteries still pumped blood over the hilt of the long knife and she felt herself weakening from her loss. Undaunted, her chanting grew stronger, but now she seated herself on the deck facing the remaining Portuguese. Bambidele lay Monifa’s body before her.

Abeni dreaded what she would have to do next. Steeling herself without losing the rhythm of her song, she raised the knife high above her head. Now arterial blood streamed the length of her arms, dripping onto her breasts, belly, and crossed legs.

With a final cry, she plunged the knife downward, striking Monifa’s thin chest almost exactly in the center. As the iron blade stopped the child’s heart, lightning struck a tall mast of the ship and thunder shook all of the people aboard to the core.

Silence.

Abeni no longer chanted. The curse was in place, and the gods would decide fitting punishment.

One of the sailors cried out, pointing to the tall mast. The crow’s nest, in flames, crashed to the deck. More of the white men cried out. Three started for the flames but a gesture from Bambidele sent six Yoruba to stop them. “The gods have decreed it,” Bambidele said.

The wind grew to gale force, fanning the flames. Rain fell only in huge, hesitant drops, flung sideways. The sails on the ship would not be furled before the fury of this storm.

The deck burned through, and the flames fell into the hold where the Yoruba had been kept. With another gesture from Bambidele, the Yoruba men tossed the corpses of the dead sailors into the inferno below.

Then the Yoruba began sacrificing the living sailors as well.

The fire burned on below deck, but the rain finally came and extinguished the fire above. The ship slid lower and lower in the sea, until the seawater drowned the last spark of the fire.

Abeni looked at her fellow freed captives. She felt light-headed, but heard the gods clearly as they spoke to her. At their request, she instructed the Yoruba to enter the water with their legs together. The first to obey her cried out in surprise, then flipped over the side, swimming in delight in the newly becalmed sea.

Smiles and laughter from the sea prompted the others over the side in the same way. Soon nearly two hundred Yoruba swam, dove, and played in the waves delighting in their new abilities. Only Abeni and Bambidele remained aboard with Monifa’s body.

“We, too, shall join them.” Abeni told Bambidele.

“And the child?”

“The child was sacrificed to give us a new life.”

“Will she become like the rest?”

“No. The gods have decreed that she shall steer the ship beneath the waves.”

“Why?”

Abeni looked up. The sails still held the wind, despite the water sloshing gently over the deck. “The ship will continue to sail,” she said. “Its curse will not die.”

Bambidele was silent. Finally, he asked, “And who will encounter the curse? We shall live in the sea, giving birth to new generations of Yoruba with fish tails and gills. We are blessed by the gods, not cursed.”

Abeni nodded toward the charred hole in the deck, where seawater was beginning to find its way above the cinders. “They are cursed forever,” she said. “They, and their kind, and their kin.” Where they encounter this ship, steered by Monifa of the Yoruba, they will feel the wrath of the curse, and will share the fate of those men.”

Bambidele nodded. “But if the ship is sailing the bottom of the sea, how will anyone encounter it?”

“They will encounter it from above. When a ship casts its shadow on Monifa’s ship, Monifa will call it under the waves, just like this one is being called.”

Water nearly surrounded them on the deck. “It is our time,” Abeni said. “I am weak, and will need help.”

Bambidele stood, then stooped to pull her upright. She leaned heavily against him. He helped her to the edge of the water, then lowered her carefully over the side. He felt vitality return to her, and to confirm it she lifted her face and smiled.

“Now you,” she said as she swam a few feet away from the ship.

He carefully kept his legs together as he slid over the side. Then with a sudden laugh he flipped into the water, displaying his flukes to the disappearing stars and the lightening sky.

Ode to Billy Joe

“Hello?”

“Hey, Mattie.”

“Who is this?”

“You know.”

“Billy Joe?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t think I’d ever hear your voice again.”

“I’m taking a chance calling you.”

“Where are you?”

“You know I can’t tell you that.”

“Are you in the country or out of the country?”

“I can’t tell you that, either.”

“Okay, then, how are you?”

“I’m okay. I miss you.”

Mattie snorted softly into the phone. “Then why’d you wait a year to call me? It’s been more than a year. And you didn’t even say goodbye. I had to hear your bullshit suicide story from Mama over dinner that day. I nearly threw up right there at the table.”

“I don’t know how long I can talk. They may cut me off.”

“I swear, even I thought you were dead until Fred Fields brought me into his stupid Star Chamber and started in on me. And I wasn’t real sure until Tom admitted it. Why didn’t you call, Billy Joe? ”

“I couldn’t. If you knew you might have let something slip.”

“You were supposed to take me with you, or had you forgotten that little detail?”

“I didn’t forget. I couldn’t.”

“Why not? That was the plan, remember?”

“I remember. I’m sorry. I am, really.”

“Are you using one of their safe phones?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“After they quit dragging the river for your body Fred Fields decided I might know something. For all I know he still thinks something’s up. At Daddy’s funeral he even said I should call him if I remember anything about you.”

“Your daddy’s funeral?”

“In the spring. He got the flu and it turned into pneumonia and he wouldn’t go to the doctor. You know what a mule he was.”

Billy Joe was silent for a moment. “What did you tell Fred?” he finally asked.

“Nothing.”

“What, you just sat there silent while he was questioning you?”

“No. I told him I didn’t know anything.”

“Did he talk to Tom, too?”

“Yes. Tom had to swear out an affidavit that he’d seen you jump off the Tallahatchie Bridge. Fred said he’d prosecute him if he didn’t. Says he’ll still prosecute him if it turns out not to be true.”

“What does he think was going on if he says I didn’t jump off the bridge?”

“He wanted to know why the FBI might have been interested in you.”

“Oh, hell. The background check. I forgot. Why did he talk to you?”

“Remember that new preacher that came just before you left? Brother Taylor?”

“Uh-huh.”

“He told Mama that I’d been up at the bridge with you a couple days before you allegedly jumped.”

“He saw us?”

“Yeah. And he saw us throw something off it, too, he told Mama. But I don’t think Mama told Fred that.”

“Your mama told Fred? She told the damn sheriff? Why?”

“Because the sheriff let it be known that he didn’t think they were going to find your body in the river. He told me flat out he thought you never jumped off that bridge.”

“Did they look for me in the river?”

“Yes.”

“How long?”

“Four days. Fred didn’t believe you’d jumped, though. He said that more than once, even the day they started dragging it.”

“Then why’d he search the river?”

“Your aunt Susie pitched a hissy fit and threatened to call the governor if they didn’t.”

“Did they ever find … anything else?”

Mattie knew what he meant. “No.”

Billy Joe let out a sigh of relief. “Good.”

“I don’t know what the water might do to ….”

“You know what to do if they ever do find it, don’t you?”

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to forget.”

“You didn’t forget me, did you?”

“Oh, honestly, Billy Joe.”

“You seeing someone?”

“Why do you care?”

“I care.”

“You aren’t going to do anything about it. You can’t.”

“I might come get you someday.”

“Sure. I’ll hold my breath.”

“I might, Mattie. I won’t have to be undercover forever.”

“Right. Just until the freaking CIA decides they don’t need you anymore.”

“Ricky isn’t messing with you, is he?”

“No. But I don’t think he’d take kindly to you showing back up after what you and Tom did to his place. He threatened Tom with a gun and got locked up for his efforts a few days after you left.”

“He knew it was Tom and me?”

“He had a pretty good idea. He said something to Charlie about it, too, but Charlie told him to fuck off. He said he didn’t know what Rick was talking about.

“He shouldn’t have messed with you in the first place. Then Tom and I wouldn’t have had to do what we did. How is Tom, anyway?”

“Mary Lou had another baby a couple of weeks ago. He’s fine. He’s got another mouth to feed. And he’s thinking about running for mayor.”

Billy Joe laughed. “Yeah, Tom’s a born politician.”

“And you’re a born… whatever. Why couldn’t you take me with you? I thought you had cleared it with them.”

Billy Joe was silent. “They said we had to be married. Your daddy wouldn’t have stood for it.”

“My daddy’s gone, Billy Joe, and if I was gone, too, then he couldn’t say much about it, now could he?”

“Well, maybe you could come to where I am someday soon.”

“Where’s that?”

“Not here, not where I am now. You couldn’t come here. But I won’t be here forever. Then you can join me. ”

Mattie’s voice was still bitter. “Where’s that going to be? And when? Anyway, somebody’s got to take care of Mama.”

“Where’s Charlie?”

“He and Becky Thompson got married and bought a convenience store on the highway over by Tupelo. They moved up there to run it.”

“If Charlie’s got a store and your daddy’s gone, who’s farming your land?”

“I am. Dickie Johnson helps sometimes.”

“Is that who you’re seeing? Dickie Johnson?” Billy Joe was incredulous.

“I’m not seeing Dickie Johnson.”

“I hope not. God. Dickie Johnson.”

“What do you care? You left me here. You didn’t even say goodbye.”

“Mattie, I couldn’t. If you didn’t know anything you couldn’t tell anything. You already knew more than you should. You still know more than you should.”

“It’s not like I could forget it.”

“No, I guess you couldn’t.”

Silence again, then, “Mattie, I’m sorry.”

“Sure.”

“I should be the one helping you farm.”

Mattie snorted. “You wouldn’t make much of a farmer.”

“Why not? A farm, a couple of kids. We’d raise them just like we were raised, send them to school up at Choctaw Ridge…”

“Right. Why’d you call, Billy Joe?”

“Because I miss you.”

“Why now? Are you going on some undercover death mission or something? Are you afraid you’re going to die for real this time?”

“I’m sorry, Mattie.”

“Sure you are. Have you decided that the life of a spook isn’t all that great or something?”

“I have to go.”

“Don’t call me again, Billy Joe, unless you’re telling me where to pick up my plane ticket. I already buried you once.”

A tear rolled down her cheek as she cut the connection.

Time/CNN Apostrophe Error!

The bastion of good journalism has failed. An editor at TIME/CNN’s International Desk ought to be reprimanded. How could he let this go by?

I was perusing the international news blogs, minding my own business, eating my Healthy Choice Steamer for lunch, when I was assaulted by an apostrophe.


It glared at me, then it jumped out and demanded to be circled in red and corrected.

So I did.

A Midget Comes to Chigger Hollow

Midget truck drivers didn’t show up in Chigger Hollow every day. In fact, there weren’t any midgets at all in Chigger Hollow, so when one did show up it was momentous.

The semi pulled into the parking lot of the Chat ‘n’ Chew convenience store about 4:30 in the afternoon. Norma Rae started a fresh pot of coffee. Usually truck drivers could be counted on to buy a couple of cups, even if it was late in the afternoon. Hearing the water begin to drip through the grounds of the Biff Brand coffee, she perched herself back on the duct-taped vinyl stool behind the counter and went back to her True Confessions magazine.

Out of the corner of her eye Norma Rae noticed a woman coming into the store. The woman was followed by a child. Norma Rae didn’t take much notice because the State Trooper from up at Possum Grape had told her in casual conversation that women and children don’t tend to be convenience store robbers. Men were the ones to watch out for, and if a man came in alone, followed by another man, and neither one parked where she could get a description of the car or the license in case of their quick getaway after a robbery, she should take special notice and ease the handle of the shotgun close to the edge of the shelf underneath the counter.

Popping the top on another Coke Zero Norma Rae turned the page in her True Confessions. “I Was a Teenage Pasta Wrestler” looked to be an interesting article. The picture of a pretty girl with a pouty mouth, who looked for all the world like Rhonda Sue Ellis, the valedictorian of Chigger Hollow’s Class of 1995, just with blonde hair, was inset on top of a black and white photo of two women completely covered in ragu and grappling with each other to the cheers of abnormally handsome young men who hung on the perimeter of the wrestling ring.

The woman came to the counter with a large cup of coffee and a package of chewing tobacco. Without looking up, Norma Rae scanned the two items. “Four eighty-seven,” she said, holding her hand out and sneaking another look at the black and white photo. Was the woman on the left wearing a top? Was that a mushroom in the spaghetti sauce or were her nipples hard from the excitement of the contest? She took the five dollar bill from the customer and handed her a dime and three pennies. Norma Rae was well into the first paragraph of the article when someone cleared his throat.

She looked up. She didn’t remember seeing anyone come in after the woman, and she had been alone in the store. She peered over the display of breath mints and beef jerky but didn’t see anyone. She went back to True Confessions.

This time a cough made her look up. No one was standing at the pay counter, which stood as high as her ample chest when she wasn’t sitting on her stool. Norma Rae remembered everything Danny Kitchens, the State Trooper from Possum Grape, had told her and she eased the butt of the shotgun toward the edge of the shelf below the counter.

“Hello?” she asked uncertainly.

“How much for two drumsticks and half a dozen biscuits?” a man’s voice asked. Norma Rae jumped.

“Drumsticks are eighty-five cents each and biscuits are five for two dollars,” she said. It must be a short guy, because he was apparently hidden behind the tall display of Slim Jims. She moved off her stool and peered around the display. She didn’t see anyone.

“I want six biscuits, not five,” the voice said.

“Six biscuits are, um…” Norma Rae cursed herself for forgetting where the calculator was kept. She was terrible at math.

“Are they the same price whether I buy five or if I buy, say, three?” The voice seemed to be getting impatient, but Norma Rae still couldn’t figure out where its owner was standing.

“Well, no,” she replied, her tone conveying her obvious opinion of such a dumb question. “Five biscuits are two dollars. Three biscuits are less than that.”

“So are three biscuits a dollar twenty?”

“How should I know?” she snapped. She stood on the foot rest rung of her stool and leaned out over the counter, hitting her head on the cigarette display above the cash register. “Damn!”

A cup of coffee appeared at the check out counter. Norma Rae leaned out again. This time she ducked. The voice belonged to the kid. No, to the midget. The kid was a midget.

“I’ll have to ring it up to get you a total,” she said, staring at the man. Despite his stature he was the most perfect specimen of virility Norma Rae had ever seen. Muscular arms reached up to slide a package of Mentos onto the counter next to the coffee. The arms were attached to a wide chest bulging with well-chiseled pectorals, which were clad in a tight navy blue t-shirt.

Norma Rae could not help but let out a breath of amazement. “Oh, wow,” she said eloquently, her eyes wide with awe.

“What, you’ve never seen a dwarf before?” the man asked. His eyes had narrowed and his lips curled into the manliest sneer Norma Rae had seen since Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” video on MTV.

“No! Oh! I mean, I’m just surprised is all,” she managed to babble.

“Are you going to let me buy chicken and biscuits?” the Perfect Specimen demanded.

“Oh! Yeah! Um, do you want spicy or traditional southern?”

“Southern. And I want six biscuits.”

“Do you want any mashed potatoes or turnip greens with it? Bessie Maydar makes the greens and they are to die for. She mixes in just a little mustard greens and some hot sauce while they’re cooking and they come out good enough to make you feel born again without ever going to church.” Norma Rae knew she was babbling but she couldn’t stop. Now why did she tell this Perfect Specimen of Virility Bessie’s secret ingredients? Bessie had sworn her to secrecy on the back porch while they were each into their fifth margarita one night. And “born again?” Where the hell did that come from? Norma Rae was Seventh Day Adventist, and except for the occasional cuss word she was true to her faith.

“How much?” Evidently this Perfect Specimen of Virility was on a budget.

“Ninety nine cents.”

“Not a dollar?”

Norma Rae shook her head. The power of speech was rapidly exiting her brain the longer she gazed on his biceps.

“My name’s Norma Rae,” she said. Then she realized that not only had the Perfect Specimen of Virility not asked, but that he seemed surprised that she would even share the information.

“I’m Willy,” he said.

“So do you want the greens?”

“Okay, fine. Two drumsticks, six biscuits, and a side order of greens,” said Willy the Perfect Specimen of Virility.

“That’s five forty five,” said Norma Rae after punching the order into the cash register.

Willy gave her a ten dollar bill. She gave him change.

“Are you going to get my food?” Willy finally asked, and Norma Rae realized that she was still leaning across the counter staring at him.

“Oh, god!” she exclaimed, hopping down from the stool. Now she was really embarrassed. She had taken the Lord’s name in vain in front of the Perfect Specimen of Virility and she was acting like a dummy. Shit! She hurried to put the chicken and greens in a Styrofoam container, and put six biscuits in a small paper bag. She climbed back up on her stool and leaned out to hand the container and the bag across the counter and down to those wonderful waiting arms, which she could imagine wrapped around her in a bear hug so tight it would make her groan.

“Can I get anything else for you?” She asked hopefully.

“Nope.” Willy reached for the coffee and Mentos, arranged his load, and headed for the door.

“Wait!” cried Norma Rae.

The Perfect Specimen turned around.

“Come back soon,” she murmured weakly.

Willy the Perfect Specimen nodded solemnly and went out the door. Norma Rae didn’t even realize she had failed to charge him for the coffee and Mentos.

to be continued….

Nagge and Foy

   “Tell us the story of the Hruang, Grandmama!”

The boy’s plea made Ciannait smile. Her great-grandchildren never seemed to tire of her stories, and at every meal they asked for a favorite. Sometimes she was able to remember a new tale for them, or even to create one out of fragmented memories of the tales told to her by her own grandmother.

“The Hruang? That beast that was captured and brought into the marketplace when I was younger than Foy?” Ciannait grinned at the children, then wet a corner of her apron and wiped Foy’s face. “I don’t think you washed up properly before breakfast, young man.  Did you even bathe last night?”

The eight year old boy ducked his head. “I did, but the water wasn’t wet enough to get all of the dirt off,” the child explained.

Ciannait laughed.  “Minna, the boy says water isn’t wet enough to clean him,” she said to her granddaughter, who set a bowl of warm cereal on the table.

“It may not be, Grandmama. I think he paints himself with grime every day.”

“He doesn’t paint himself with it, but he does roll around in it,” remarked Nagge, Foy’s ten year old sister.  She reached for the ladle and filled both her bowl and her brother’s, then sat down at the table.

Foy grinned.  He picked up his spoon and began eating with enthusiasm.

Ciannait filled her own bowl, and one for Minna. Minna came back to the table with a pot of tea, pouring for all four.

“I’m going to the orchard today to help Ben,” said Minna. “Children, you’re to help Grandmama here at home after your lessons.”

“How is Hanh?” Ciannait asked. “Is she getting any better?”

“No,” answered Minna. “And Zocha won’t say so to either Ben or Hanh, but she’s completely stymied. She thinks perhaps the illness is in Hanh’s mind more than in her body.”

“An illness of the spirit,” nodded Ciannait. “ It’s rare, but not unknown.”

“What happens when your spirit gets ill?” asked Nagge.

“You die!” yelled Foy.

Nagge rolled her eyes.  “No, you don’t, silly.  You only die when your body dies, not when you have a spirit sickness.”

“I thought you didn’t know what happened when a spirit got ill,” her mother teased.  “Didn’t you just this instant ask what happens?”

“Well, I know enough to know your body doesn’t die.  What does happen?”

“Spirit sickness is very serious,” answered Ciannait. “The person with spirit sickness wants to die, but cannot.  It makes the people who love her very unhappy, too.”

“Can they catch the spirit sickness?” asked the girl.

“No, child.  Spirit sickness is rare.  It isn’t like a cold or the seasonal ills. It happens when the spirit and the body become separate,” her great-grandmother explained.

Nagge wrinkled her nose, thinking. How does a spirit separate from a body?”

“When you die!” Foy made a choking sound and pretended to fall off his stool.

His sister rolled her eyes. “Really, Grandmama, how does it happen?”

“No one is quite sure. There used to be healers who could call the spirits back to the living bodies they had left, but anyone with that knowledge is gone now.”

“When a spirit leaves a person’s body, what happens?”

“The person gets sick, and sometimes cannot even move or talk.  It depends upon how close the spirit lingers.”

“Can you see a spirit when it leaves the body?”

“You have more questions than appetite this morning, Nagge!  Eat your cereal.  You have lessons today and you’ll be learning about the orchard plants.” Old Ciannait rose from the table. Over her shoulder, she admonished the children,”Eat well, because you’ll get hungry talking about the food plants of the farms.”

The children grinned at each other, knowing that their grandmother would make the lesson fun.

 

* * * * * 

    After their lessons, the children were released to play.  Their great-grandmother’s only requirement was that they bring back one piece of fresh produce from the market for each of the four people in their home, and that each had to be different.  They were told to talk to the market vendors about each fruit or vegetable, and to report to her what the vendor said about it.

The children raced each other to the open market near the great wall that surrounded the city. In the shade of the north wall farmers had stalls from which they distributed their produce.  Crafters such as the potters, weavers, and basket makers also maintained stalls.

Their first stop was for a peach.  Both children loved the sweet, juicy fruits and even when they had not been assigned the chore, in the warm months they might find their way to Momo’s stall where he sweetest, juiciest peaches sat waiting for people to claim them.

Momo’s stall was closed when they arrived, and the bent old woman was nowhere to be seen. The stalls on either side of hers were doing a brisk business, though. Neither vendor had seen Momo and both were too busy to talk to a pair of children. Nagge and Foy visited several other stalls.  Knowing that Ciannait would expect them to bring home four completely different items, they visited the root seller, the bean vendor, and the squash seller. The children were determined not to go home without peaches, and asked after old Momo at every stall.  No one had seen the old lady.

“I think we should go to her house and check on her,” Nagge said after they had exhausted their search of the market for knowledge of the peach vendor.

“She’s probably in the orchard with Ben,” Foy said.  He was unconcerned about Momo herself, but his mouth watered for the sweet peaches. “Maybe Mama will bring home peaches today, since she’s helping Ben, too.”

“Maybe.”  Nagge’s brow furrowed. “I don’t think Momo goes to the orchard much anymore.”

Foy shrugged.  “Then let’s go check on her.  You want to, and you’ll keep talking about it until we do.”

Nagge grinned. “Yes, I will,” she admitted.

Momo’s apartment was east of the marketplace, down a wide street that at night was lined with the barrows of the farmers. The walls of the homes were as white as the wall that surrounded the city itself, and the staggered rooftops of the buildings rose and fell with no perceivable rhythm.  Each rooftop was planted with a garden, a place for the inhabitants within to grow herbs and a few vegetables for quick harvest for their dinner tables.

Interspersed among the buildings were slim towers, some narrower than a man’s shoulders, and some with more that one peak. The towers were made of the same mud-covered stone as the walls of the dwellings, but looked like the weathered remains of brittle, leafless trees, resting for the winter even against the blue skies.

The children made their way across the city’s north side, stopping to speak to the adults who greeted them. They raced each other the last few steps to the old peach seller’s door, but the old woman’s home was shuttered and the children’s calls went unanswered.

“She must have gone to the orchard,” Foy proclaimed.

“Momo hasn’t been to the orchard this year at all,” objected Nagge.

“Where else would she be?”

“How should I know? Maybe she’s gone to visit a friend.  Maybe she’s just sleeping.”

“Sleeping? In the middle of the day?”  The notion of a nap was completely alien to the boy.  Even if Momo were sleeping, it seemed only logical to his eight year old brain that their calls would summon her since their cries always got the attention of  Grandmama, who was older than Momo.  The fact that old Momo might not have Ciannait’s health would never have occurred to him.

“I think perhaps we should check on her.” Nagge’s troubled expression arrested Foy’s attention.

“You think she might really be sick?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

The pair of them looked at Momo’s door, this time with a little trepidation.

“So, open it,” urged Foy.

“Let’s call her again.”  They called. Still there was no answer.

Nagge reached out and touched the door. Just as she put her hand on the handle, Momo’s voice sounded from within.

“Here, now, what’s all the racket about?”  The old woman sounded gruff and hoarse. She pulled open the door and blinked in the sunlight at the two children on her stoop.”Nagge? What are you and Foy doing here? Come in, come in.” Momo left the door open and without waiting for an answer turned and shuffled back into the dark interior of her home.

The children exchanged a look, then followed.

“We looked for you in the market.  We wanted peaches.” Nagge told her.  Foy looked around the apartment, obviously hoping to spot unclaimed peaches lying around loose, waiting to be given to him.

“You’ll not find me at the market today,” muttered Momo. “Nor are you going to find me there tomorrow. Or ever again.”

The children looked aghast at each other.  “Never again?  Why not? Aren’t there any more peaches?” Foy’s high voice wavered with momentary panic.

“Of course there are peaches, silly,” Nagge said quickly.  “But, Momo, why aren’t you going to be in the market?”

The old lady snorted. “Ben says he wants Hanh to take over those duties.  Not that she’s likely to get her lazy backside out of bed long enough to set the peaches out for anyone to see.”

“If Hanh’s going to be in the market, what will you do?”  Nagge liked visiting with Momo, and was glad the old lady was there to give children extra fruit.

“I don’t yet know. I may help with tutoring or with the creche. I may just stay here in my apartment and enjoy my peaceful old age. Hanh won’t last long.  She’ll sleep in the stall, if I’m any judge.” Momo sounded disgusted with her daughter in law.

“Mama went to the orchard to help Ben today,” Foy offered.  “Do you have any extra peaches here?”

Momo raised an eyebrow, twisted her mouth into a grimace. “Ben better know what he friend he has in Minna,” she said.  “Here, boy.  There are always peaches in this house.” She handed both children a plump, firm fruit. “Now what are you doing here and not playing somewhere?”

“Grandmama told us to find four different foods from the market,” Nagge explained between bites of the juicy, sweet fruit.  “We decided one of those ought to be a peach.”

“Oh? And how will she know you found a peach at all?”

“We’ll bring one back, of course,” said the little girl.  Then Nagge’s eyes widened. “Only we’ve eaten our peaches!”

Momo laughed. “So you still need a peach for Ciannait, do you?”  She grinned at the children’s solemn nods. “Fortunately for you I happen to have extras. Here.”

With grateful smiles the children accepted four more peaches and tucked them into the pack with the other food from the marketplace.

“Now get on with you,” scolded Momo, and watched the children cheerfully bounce out of the apartment and into the sunny street. “Mind you, don’t get caught by the Hruang on the way home!” she called after them with a smile.

Nagge and Foy had heard the stories of the Hruang.  Their great-grandmother, who was one of the oldest people in the city behind the Wall, claimed she had seen one many years ago as a child herself.  It was this story Foy had begged for at breakfast.

The beast had been captured by a band of hunters, and had died in the central marketplace from the stones thrown by angry old men and women who remembered the days of terror brought by the Hruang. When she told the story the old lady described the horrific claws and fangs of the beast, its bulging muscles and its naked flesh, but at the same time her tale evoked sympathy for the beast, captured and dying alone, injured, uncomforted, never itself having done wrong to its killers.

The frightening creatures had not come close to the walled city of Gaerwyn in generations. The wall was too intimidating to them, according to Ciannait.  They would never bother, or dare, come close now. According to Minna, the children’s mother, such a beast was the stuff of legend, if it had ever roamed the world at all.

“Let’s go to the orchard,” Foy suggested, his mouth once again full of peach. No one was supposed to go outside Gaerwyn’s walls except on business, and children were never to go out without their parents. Since their mother was at the orchard, though, Foy and Nagge might be able talk the adults at the gate into allowing them to pass.

The rhythmic calls and movement of the people in the market provided the children with cover to slip out the city gate.  The adults nearby were engaged with their bartering and bickering, their gossip and their industry.  None paid attention to the two children.  Nagge and Foy walked confidently near the opening in the great white wall.

They watched the dyemakers and the threadmakers, whose stalls were near the gate. Practiced in the art of sneaking out of the gate, the children asked questions and talked with the spinners who eventually told the children to move on and stop bothering them.  The timing was perfect, as far as the children were concerned.  They had seen the dyers toss their dyes into the boiling pot and knew that they would be shooed away from there, too, as they dyers were busy dipping the fabrics and threads into the steaming cauldrons.

As expected, the dyemakers shouted at the children to move back as they brought bolts of plain cloth over to the big pots for dipping in the hot dye. Nagge and Foy edged around the unguarded opening in the wall, sidestepped around its corner, and once out of sight of any adults ran to the great gray boulders that served as steps down to the valley where the orchards lay below the city.

The boulders had been left there by mysterious giants of the past, in a convenient formation that allowed relatively easy passage down the steep hillside to the fertile river valley below. Small, twisted trees grew amid the granite outcroppings. The stone was worn smooth by the passage of generations of feet.  It was debated among the sagamen as to whether ancient chisels actually carved either the boulder steps or the base of the great wall that surrounded Gaerwyn.

“I am the leader of the Hruang, and I demand treasure!” cried Foy, making his child’s high voice deep to growl at his sister, standing on the boulder above his sister, glaring down at her with his small fists on his hips.

“The Hruang never demanded treasure,” objected Nagge, her status as the elder making her all-knowledgeable.  “They just attacked and killed people.”

The boy stuck his chin out defiantly. “Well, this time I want treasure.”

Nagge grabbed a stick fallen from a nearby scrub tree and waved it at her brother. “Never!  We will fight to the death!”

Foy saw a larger stick lying half on a granite step below in, to Nagge’s left and out of her sight. He made it to the weapon just as his older sister found her way to the side of the boulder where he had jumped.

They sparred with their weapons, shouting, growling, and happily banging their sticks.  Foy had the better, stronger weapon.  Nagge’s scrubby stick was older and drier, and a power thwack by Foy’s fresher weapon disarmed her.  She shrieked.

“Admit defeat!” roared her little brother.

“You have defeated us, oh mighty Hruang!” cried the girl, crouching and covering her head with her arms.

“You must bring me treasure or I will take it myself from every home!”

“Will you attack our people if we give it to you?”

“No.  I’ll take your things and go back to the other side of the mountains.”

“Sure,” said Nagge, standing slowly and assuming the persona of the Gaerwyn City Leader.  “Drop your weapons and come close, and we will give you what you ask for. You have to promise to go away forever, though.”

“Give me good treasure and I won’t have to come back.” The small Hruang-boy’s avarice gleamed in his grin.

“Oh, we’ll give you the best. We promise.  But you have to leave your weapons to come get it because we’re too afraid of you otherwise.”

The boy dropped the stick he brandished as a sword and took two steps closer to where his sister spread an imaginary pile of gifts. The girl bowed low to her brother, hiding her smile. “Please, honorable Hruang, take these gifts and leave us in peace!” she cried.

Foy swaggered closer, holding out the skirt of his tunic so it could be filled with riches. Nagge described each handful of leaves, each rock, each cluster of twigs as another impossibly desirable treasure.  “A crown of silver, sparkling with precious gems. An ivory hunting horn, carved with scenes from legend. A bolt of the finest cloth, worked with threads of gold. An ancient scroll containing the secrets of the ages. Rare medicinal herbs. A vial of delicate perfume, guaranteed to make even Hruang smell pleasant.” Her litany of valuables brought a superior smile to her brother’s eyes as each item weighed more heavily in the stretching fabric of his outstretched pouch.

“Take more!” pleaded the eager treasure giver, piling the small boy’s Hruang arms full of leaves and twigs to represent the choicest of plunder.

When his skinny arms were full of the promised treasure, the Nagge leaped on Foy with a leafy branch, swatting at him with it. Howling, the boy dropped the leaves and twigs and leapt toward his own discarded branch.

“You cheated!” he yelled.

“I did not! I tricked you!” his older sister retorted gleefully, swatting him with a new branch she had surreptitiously retrieved during the treasure collection process and driving him backward along the rocky path.

The boy’s battle cry was another howl of indignation. Being older and stronger, his sister was able to drive him back further, laughing as she did so. The fierce duel of the branches brought them along the path to a flat place that overlooked the valley and led to another hill. Nagge stopped her attack long enough to catch her wind, and Foy ran up the path to the top of the crest beyond.

He stood upon it, throwing out his chest like the bravest hero of battles, bellowing his outraged superiority to the empty land beyond the whipping wind and throwing wide his skinny arms.  His sister laughed and jumped to her place beside him.

She struck a mocking pose with one hand on her hip and a graceful arm outstretched to accept the adoring cheers of imaginary crowds.  She bowed deeply.  This time her brother laughed as well.  The children jumped from the rocky crag to greet the throngs of their admirers.

In sudden panic they seized each other.

To be continued…

Grammar Quiz


I saw this on another blog, and I’m stealing it for my own nefarious purposes.

There is an error below somewhere.  Can you find it?  Eighty percent of UCSD students could not.

Whats wrong here:

AAA
BBB
CCC
DDD
EEE
FFF
GGG
HHH
III
JJJ
KKK
LLL
MMM
NNN
OOO
PPP
QQQ
RRR
SSS
TTT
UUU
VVV
WWW
XXX
YYY
ZZZ

Don’t cheat and check the comments before you find it.

Karyan

Karyan was in a foul humor. He lagged behind the rest of the breck, muttering to himself. He knew they were going the wrong direction. Didn’t he have the best locus of them all? But no, Mauro was leader of the Keary Tynan, and if he said something was black then Mauro was determined to say it was white. If he said go east to get to the Gathering, Mauro would insist the way was southwest. Stupid Mauro.

Stupid Mauro and stupid Brenna. Had she not sided with Mauro the breck wouldn’t be wasting time. They had already traveled two hours under Mauro’s orders, and Karyan blamed Brenna as much as Mauro. Beautiful Brenna, with the laughing eyes and the perfect teeth, the raven hair that tended to slip and slide and shine in the sun…

Now he was going moony over her. She’s moony over Mauro and I’m moony over her, Karyan grumbled to himself. He was getting over his moony feelings, though, the more he saw her simper in Mauro’s shadow. Why was it that the women all thought Mauro was so great? Why did anyone think Mauro was so great, for that matter? He was muscular and handsome, sure, but he was as dumb as a rock. Mauro was only chosen Leader because he acts like he knows what he’s doing, Karyan realized. He doesn’t know any more that anyone else, and he knows less than I do about how to get to the Gathering. Stupid Mauro.

Malina and Tamal were beginning to fall behind the rest of the group, he saw. When they had slowed enough for him to meet them, he greeted them silently and waited for them to speak. The three of them kept walking, but allowed themselves to get slightly further behind.

“We should be there by now,” Tamal said at last.

Karyan shrugged.

“How far away do you think we are?” Tamal was attempting to get Karyan to speak against Mauro’s leadership decision, but after the argument the breck had over Karyan’s objection earlier in the day, Karyan was not feeling cooperative.

“Farther away than we were this morning,” Karyan replied.

“We think so, too,” Malina said.

“Then tell Mauro. Otherwise we’re going to be wandering in the wilderness for forty days and nights and we’ll just keep getting farther away.”

Malina twisted her mouth at his sharp tone. “We think Mauro will just change direction gradually and circle around to get to the Gathering. He won’t admit he made a mistake and turn around.”

“Maybe.” Karyan shrugged again. He hoped Mauro would be shown to be a complete fool in front of the entire breck. He hoped that by nightfall the breck was still wandering and would have to walk back an entire day to get to the Gathering. He hoped that they missed the Gathering altogether because of Mauro’s incompetence. Stupid Mauro.

“You should tell some of the others,” Malina said.

“Me? I tried to tell everyone this morning. No one listened then, including you. Why would they listen now?”

“Because my locus tells me that we’re farther away, too,” Tamal said.

“Right, well, maybe you should tell someone else, then.” Nothing would please Karyan more than to be proven right, but he wasn’t going to insist that the breck listen to him now. He was enjoying his sulk far too much for that.

“We should tell them together. Your locus is better than mine. I’m sure some of the others are also sensing the distance,” Tamal argued.

Karyan stopped. “Why should I tell anyone anything?” he demanded. “Mauro’s the leader. He knows all and sees all and hears all and locates all. I’m just a lowly Tynan, young and unproven, stumbling after my leader hoping someday to have his attention. Maybe he’ll let me repair his boots or something. They’ll need repairing after all this trekking we’re doing without reason.”

Tamal sighed and exchanged a look with Malina. “I know your feelings are hurt because of Mauro’s decision this morning, but…”

Karyan snorted in disgust.

“Really, Karyan!” Malina exclaimed. “You’re angry because of this and the fact is we need to get to the gathering. Mauro’s leading us the wrong way, and your locus is better than either mine or Tamal’s and we know it’s the wrong direction, too!”

Other members of the breck were stopping now, looking back at the discussion between the three of them.

Karyan crossed his arms. “I’ve already said what I think. Repeating it isn’t going to change the mind of the great and infallible Mauro.”

Malina put her hands on her hips. “You’re a mule!” she snapped. “You act like Mauro’s decision was a personal attack on you, and it wasn’t!”

“No, it wasn’t personal at all,” said Karyan agreeably. “When he said he wasn’t going to listen to one voice of dissent he wasn’t talking about me at all. When he said that my concerns were the ravings of a spoiled brat, he wasn’t personally attacking me at all.”

“Karyan, look, you’re acting like a child, just like this morning. You don’t want to do anything unless it’s done your way. We need to talk to Mauro and explain what we sense.” Tamal was trying to sound reasonable.

“I already did that, or did you forget? And besides, I am a child. You heard Mauro this morning.”

The rest of the breck was making its way back to where the three of them stood. Mauro was bring up the rear, the beautiful Brenna at his side.

Tamal and Malina opened the discussion to the rest of the group. A few had the grace to look uncomfortable.

“Actually, I was sort of thinking we were headed the wrong way, too,” offered Siyamak, his dark eyes looking toubled.

Karyan leaned against a boulder, his arms still crossed, still closed to the rest. He looked up, pretending to study the cloudless sky.

The other members of the breck came closer. Tamal and Malina led the discussion, and the Keary Tynan debated their location.

Abruptly, all discussion stopped. The Keary looked over Karyan’s head, their mouths collectively agape. Karyan, still closed to the breck’s discussion, noticed the shift in their attention nevertheless. He looked up, just as the two strangest Tynan he had ever seen jumped directly into the midst of the debating Keary.

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