A Book of Tongues, Vol. 1 of The Hexslinger Series, Gemma Files. Chizine Publications.
Reviewed by Leah Bobet.
The first thing I noticed on picking up A Book of Tongues was that Gemma Files can write.
The prologue to this novel — Files’s first, although she’s had several short story collections published through Prime Books — is two pages long. And by the end of it, picky reader that I am, I was already in love with the precision, the lushness, the hard slice of the language. Files infuses descriptions of the horrific with the same kind of visceral, odd beauty as Caitlin R. Kiernan: you simultaneously cringe back and are drawn closer to the page. Her metaphors are unconventional enough to catch your attention, but not so much as to halt you on the page or confuse. It’s prose you can slide into like a hot bath — okay, a very ominous, apocalyptic hot bath. Even before considering the quick-driven plot, the looping structure, the Old West setting flavoured with Aztec and Maya mythologies and haunted by Aztec and Maya hells, A Book of Tongues is beautiful to read.
But the real triumph of A Book of Tongues is in its characterization. Files takes the three players in her love triangle — less actually a love triangle than one of attraction and insecurity and power — and renders them in terrifically objective but compassionate detail. Asher Rook, Chess Pargeter, and Ed Morrow one and all are betrayers, killers, occasionally truly irredeemable, but the shuffling of perspectives on their deeds and motives as they carve their way through their alternate Old West makes them all terribly human. They’re deeply wounded and confused. They dig themselves in too deep and way over their heads. They try very, very hard. They’re still, after all that, amazingly bad men. But it’s very quickly difficult not to find sympathy for each, no matter how they hurt each other — and just about everyone they meet. Through her three protagonists, Files presents an exquisitely complicated and nonjudgmental view of human nature, which, paired with the traditionally (or stereotypically) white-hat-versus-black-hat Western setting, is twice as powerful as it might be in another genre.
That flat inability to derive bad guys and good guys, to keep one character in the same box too long, might be the true driving force behind this story. Stripped down to the core of the desert landscape, unable to rely on the backing of either the outlaw gang Rook leads or Morrow’s Pinkerton bosses, facing down a deific force that isn’t good or bad, but just has no use for a Judeo-Christian notion of morality, every decision the protagonists make is vital and while they are terribly, terribly alone. It’s the very definition of narrative stakes: every choice matters. Only their choices matter. Every regret will be bigger than the world.
It’s that, combined with the cloud of literal apocalyptic doom that builds, slowly but implacably, throughout the novel, that makes A Book of Tongues very, very hard to put down, and that which has it sitting at the top of my list of best novels I’ve read this year, never mind best debuts. This is a first novel from a writer very much in command of her craft; one both intellectually and emotionally captivating. Highly recommended.
The wind blows down Saint Stephen Street.
It’s been blowing all day and Arthur can’t remember when it started, but he’s been forgetting a lot of things recently. He does remember that he is waiting for someone. It could be his wife, Helen, coming back from the shop with the pint of milk for his tea.
He watches from the window of his tenement flat as a young woman struggles down the cobbled street below. Her dark hair flies like a tattered flag. She wears a filthy white padded jacket and jeans.
There are flecks of yellow swirling in the wind — ribbons of tiny particles the colour of dried mustard.
The young woman stops to spit in the gutter, then looks up at Arthur and waves at him, as though she knew he would be there on the top floor, watching her. He steps back from the window. It can’t be Jessie. No. She’s not supposed to be coming until Christmas.
He peeks out the window again and the young woman is gone. He looks to the right, along the sharply curving street, up the hill towards the centre of Edinburgh. Nothing. So he looks to the left, down as far as the entrance to Clarence Street with its step-fronted, Georgian tenements. All he can see is a cobbled street. All he can hear is the ceaseless patter of dust against the windows, like the sound of a floor being slowly, deliberately swept.
Arthur turns, sighs, and shuffles over to his chair.
Somebody knocks on the door.
“Who is it?” says Arthur, hearing his voice as a stranger would. Who’s that old man speaking?
“Let me in!” It is the voice of a young girl — petulant, annoyed. She continues to knock even though Arthur has obviously heard her.
He turns and walks into the hallway then, hesitantly, over to the front door. A memory of his daughter, Jessica, plays in his mind, from when she was younger, still a teenager. It flickers and jumps like an old movie. She sits at the kitchen table, holding a steaming mug of coffee and tells him to be careful; to never answer the door to strangers. “Use the spy-hole, Dad.”
Arthur squints into the spy-hole and sees a distended image of a girl wearing a filthy white padded jacket. From a distance, down on the street, he took her to be a young woman. She can’t be much more than fourteen. Just a slip. What’s she doing here?
“What are you doing here?”
“Let me in!” She is anxious now. Looking over her shoulder as though someone will appear at any moment. You shouldn’t go out on your own at night, Jessie. It’s not safe out there. He turns the latch and pulls the door open with a creak.
The girl pushes past him, coughing, and runs into the living room. She smells of tarmacadam and cigarettes. She is all bones and waxy skin. Her eyes are the colour of tarnished silver and ringed with yellow dirt. The yellow coats her crow-black hair in clumps. It is dusted across her cheeks, like wet sand. She flops onto the sofa and wipes her face with the back of her hand.
“Couldn’t get much today,” she says. “Some chocolate. No tea or anything. I’ll try again tomorrow. Seen a place that looks untouched. Hard to get at, though.”
Arthur stands there, brow furrowed, mouth asking questions, but making no sound. He can’t get over the way the girl sits on the sofa as though she owns it. No manners. Jessie would know better. His sciatica sends sharp, pinching sensations from his hip up into his back. Pain grips his whole body, but it’s the pain of memory as he tries to recall Jessie’s face. His mind can only snatch at an empty space.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Don’t do this again,” says the girl, rolling her eyes. “You must know by now, eh?”
“Kindly explain,” Arthur stammers, trying to remember. He grasps at air, whispers of memories cascading down out of his reach until a memory of Helen appears. Just a flash in the darkness. A moment. Helen gazes out of the window, at pillars of rain and a boiling sky of pewter-grey cloud. Her hand is up at her mouth, squeezing her cheeks in a motion of worry Arthur has seen a thousand times. It always looks as though she is trying to massage her head into accepting a truth she cannot grasp yet. She turns and looks at him. A tear spills over her cheek, filling the cracks and folds of skin.
The girl jumps to her feet and stomps up to Arthur. Her pale features turn a hot shade of pink. She reaches into the pockets of her padded jacket and pulls out four large bars of Dairy Milk chocolate. She throws them onto the coffee table.
“Two weeks I’ve been coming here and you still can’t remember me! See how you get on without me then, eh!”
The girl stamps out and slams the front door after her. Arthur hears her sobbing all the way down the stairs.
There is no tea in the cupboard. Damn woman. She knows to buy two boxes so we don’t run out. The other cupboards are empty: some rice; an empty packet of oatcakes; a blackened lime, dried to a husk. He turns to leave the kitchen, but stops, staring into space for several minutes. He tries to make sense of the rush of memories, but they all come so fast his heart races.
Helen pots a hydrangea on the kitchen table, compost spills onto the floor; Jessie, four years old, plays with her plastic farm animals; Jessie, sixteen years old, slams her bedroom door.
The images whirl in Arthur’s head like a torrent of leaves in the throat of a storm, almost impossible to discern one from another; or new from old. The underside of a dense black cloud swallowing the light above the street; Helen down on the pavement, looking tiny in her green coat, buffeted by wind; lights flickering in the hallway as someone knocks insistently on the front door. Arthur doesn’t know who it can be.
The memories are gone before he can catch them; flushed away by the sound of the wind and the soft hail of dust against the windows. He is left standing.
What was I doing? Cup of tea. That was it.
Arthur jumps at the sound of someone knocking on the front door. He lies on his bed, in his blue pyjamas. It could be dark outside, but the torrent of yellow dust creates an eerie glow that penetrates the double-layered green curtains. The bedside clock has stopped. He clicks the lamp switch back and forth, but nothing happens. There is a cold cup of tea next to the lamp. The milk has curdled in it long ago and floats on the surface in a cloudy swirl. Mould, like green wool, has formed around the edge of the liquid.
Still, the knocking on the door and a girl shouting, “Arthur? Are you alive?”
Arthur tries to remember what day it is, but only feels the vertigo of panic when he can’t. Where’s Helen? Perhaps she’s still out at the shops, but…
Panic escalates with an erratic drumming in his chest; his heart palpitating. He grips the bed covers, scans the room for something familiar. The sensation brings an acidic taste in his mouth. It washes through his head and, for a few seconds, he can’t even remember his name or where he is. The room around him is a fragmented jigsaw of mismatched pieces. Instinctively, he reaches out to the side table for his mug and is instantly calmed by the smooth, cold, familiar surface.
He drinks. The tea is greasy, bitter and makes him want to spit.
The room slots back together again: the impressionist seascape hanging on the wall – the one with the vermillion sky that Helen bought from the Randolph Gallery on Dundas Street; the heavy green curtains, roped back, framing the double window; Helen’s sea-green dressing gown, hanging from a hook on the bedroom door.
He slides carefully off the bed, allowing his left leg to land first. The pain in his back is a constant. Something he wishes he could forget. Trying to straighten up, the snap of sharp glass in his sciatic nerve brings a memory of hospital, padding through the ward at night in his slippers. The pain in his back then was like a network of thorns. His bladder full, he moved as fast as he could, but it was too late. The ward sister was livid with him, brandishing a cardboard urinal bottle in her hand. Arthur couldn’t find any words as the nurses came to wash him down. He had used the last empty bottle from his locker.
Arthur shakes off the memory and tries again to recall something from the last twenty-four hours. A blinding rush of images speed past like a distant train in the night, but the carriage windows are fogged and he can’t distinguish any faces.
He limps to the front door.
Through the spy-hole he sees a young girl — padded white jacket, ripped up one side. A bruise darkens her right cheek. She carries an orange Sainsbury’s bag. Arthur opens the door.
“I was right,” says the girl, stuffing her hand into a packet of smoky-bacon crisps. “The place was stocked to the roof. Must’ve been a storeroom or something.”
Arthur feels the tang of prawn-cocktail flavour sizzle on his tongue. She’s not wee Jessie. I know that.
“Marie,” says the girl. “You want to know my name. It’s Marie.”
“How did you know that?”
“Because you do it every time I show up. I get it. You’ve got Alzheimer’s or something.”
The heat of shame burns Arthur’s face as the realisation comes. He’s known it all along. He remembers Helen holding his hand before he went in for the CAT scan; how they laughed when he couldn’t remember his address — we’ll need to fit you with a homing device.
“What do you remember?” asks Marie nonchalantly, greasy crisp fragments drifting down on to her pink T-shirt.
“I… I’m not sure. Bits and pieces. Sometimes nothing. I do remember that it isn’t Alzheimer’s. They didn’t call it Alzheimer’s.”
“Yeah,” she says, munching, behaving more like a ten-year-old, “but, like right now. What do you remember?”
“You shouldn’t speak with your mouth full.”
“Sorry,” she says through pursed lips, rolling her eyes to the ceiling.
“My wife, Helen. The first time we met. We were both in Holyrood Park; there to see the royals visiting. All the dignitaries, you know, The Queen, The Lord Provost of Edinburgh. All the ladies like peacocks, made up to the eyes in all their finery, but none of them held a candle to your mother.”
“Umm… you know I’m not your daughter, right?” Marie scrunches up her crisp bag and reaches for another.
Arthur pauses, not hearing her, lost in reflection and enjoying the scenery of a memory he can stroll around in. Taking his time, smelling the lavender bushes, hearing the murmur and bustle of the crowd all around. Seeing his wife, then just a stranger, in her white dress and summer hat.
“Arthur,” says Marie, “what do you remember of the last two months?”
The sun-washed memory dissolves, is blown away in a funnel of wind and yellow dust. He tries to remember, but all he can recall is the pain in his head that comes with this process; an endless memory of being unable to remember. His brain is a useless muscle in spasm — flexing and contracting. And then he can’t recall anything. He is caught in the moment, in a strange room, with a strange girl sitting on a sofa eating crisps. He wonders how she got the bruise on her face.
Outside, the wind blows and the dust hits the building like a swarm of flies.
Helen will be back soon. I know she will. She never takes this long at the shops. I’m bloody starving and there isn’t a bite in the whole house. Would you believe it?
Arthur paces the hallway, occasionally peering out of the spy-hole, expecting someone to arrive. The hunger in his belly is a claw twisting his guts into a ball. He tries to remember what he had for lunch, but isn’t sure he even had any lunch at all. Memories of Helen’s roast rib eye of beef. Medium rare, with horseradish, roast potatoes and red wine gravy made from the juices. Jessie complaining about the poor defenceless cow. Are you happy, Dad? It’s still bleeding.
“It’s not blood, Jessie,” says Arthur out loud. His voice echoes. He sees reflections in the varnished floorboards of Jessie charging around from room to room, playing at show-jumper. She makes tackety hoof-sounds with her tongue against her teeth.
Arthur looks around the gloomy hallway. All the doors are open. Jessie’s bedroom is silent and dark.
Bedtime, Jessie. Got to go to sleep now. Tomorrow we’ll fly kites in Holyrood Park. There’s a good wind for it.
The girl at the door says her name is Marie. She says she has been coming to see Arthur for nearly three weeks now, bringing him food and drink. Something about her is familiar: the silvery lustre of her eyes, the thin, hopeful smile. He thanks her, accepting the bag full of tin cans. Baked beans, sweetcorn, Young’s beef stew, pear halves, bottled water.
“Let me give you some money for the messages,” says Arthur, poking around in his empty pockets.
“It doesn’t matter.”
“No, no. I’ll not see you go short on my account.” Arthur stops, hands still in his pockets. He stares at the girl. Something familiar.
“What’s happening?” he asks, feeling weightless and insubstantial, as though he is descending from a great height. The girl looks at him, her expression showing concern. She takes his hand gently and leads him into the living room. They sit on the sofa together and Arthur’s old memories appear in flashes. He clutches at them, trying to hold on — Helen’s face in low, blinding March sunshine; Jessie aged thirteen, leaving for school, closing the front door.
“Where is everyone?” asks Arthur. “Where have they all gone?”
“They all left,” says Marie. She looks ill. Her skin is waxy and yellow, the bruise on her face a rotten shade of black. “When the storm came, they all said it wouldn’t last. On the TV they said it started in the east; in China. But it got worse. It all happened so fast. It was just wind and thunder and rain at first. It wouldn’t stop. And then the dust started blowing. Everybody left.”
“But you’re still here. I’m still here. There must be others.”
Marie casts her eyes down and away, looks out into the hallway, and then at Arthur. Tears slide down her cheeks, and her hand flies up to her bruise.
“There are others,” she says. “But I try to hide from them now. You’re the only nice one I’ve met.”
Arthur puts his arm around her and draws her in. “Aw, sweetie. It’s all right. Don’t cry, Jessie. Don’t cry.”
“Marie…” she sobs, “my name is Marie.”
“Where’s your mum and dad? Are they not looking after you?”
“They’re gone.” She sits back and wipes her eyes, smearing a dirty mark across her nose and cheek. She winces as she touches the bruise. “They were out when the storm got really bad. Trying to get to the supermarket, but so was everyone else. I think they got trapped somewhere. They never came home. Only people who stayed indoors survived.”
“If it’s a storm then it’ll pass. They always pass.”
“Not this one.”
Arthur stands up, disbelieving, alarmed by what Marie is saying. He walks over to the window and looks out. The scraping and swishing of dust against sandstone continues unabated. The wind casts it against every surface. The ledge outside is pitted all over with tiny craters and tributaries, snaking around the sides of the building. Tiny sandstone particles from the window ledge are caught in the stronger gusts and stream out into the air with the rest of the dust. A slow trickle, like an egg timer.
“You can’t go out in that,” he says. “It’s dangerous.”
Arthur searches in the kitchen drawer for a tin opener. Where on Earth does that woman keep the damn thing? Half of this stuff is useless.
He hears retching coming from the toilet and is momentarily afraid, but manages to remember the girl with the bag full of shopping. What’s her name again?
The tin opener is hanging on a hook by the tea towels. He takes it down and opens a tin of sweetcorn.
Marie comes into the kitchen sheepishly. Her face is bone white and running with perspiration. The bruise is a pit of black and purple. “I’ll need to find some water to put in the toilet. Don’t go in there yet, okay?”
Arthur twists the cold tap, but the only sound is the squeak of the washer as he loosens it.
“You’ve none left in the tank. I’ll need to get some from another flat, if there’s any left and I can get in.”
“You’re going to break in?”
“Most of them aren’t even locked. People left in a hurry. You got a bucket?”
“Don’t worry,” says Marie. “I’ll find one. Back soon.”
“Be careful.” Arthur worries as she heads out the front door. He feels her absence as soon as she is gone. The lack of warmth.
He tries, and succeeds in recalling Helen’s face. She puts on her green coat, gathers up her shopping bag. The shiny beige one with the cat pictures on it. She fusses with her coat and her face crumples with worry. Arthur puts his hand on her shoulder.
I don’t want you going out in that wind and rain. A roof tile came down the other day. Smashed on the cobbles.
“I’ve got to get to the shop, Arthur. We’re running out of food. I’ll only be five minutes, but if I don’t go now it might get too dangerous to go outside.”
“Don’t be long,” says Arthur, standing in his doorway, looking out into the cold, grey stairwell. He knows he’s waiting for someone. That much he can remember.
“How long have you lived here for, Arthur?” Marie sits next to him on the sofa, drinking from a bottle of water. She sips it gingerly. Her face is chalky and veined; her breathing shallow.
“About thirty years, I think. I’m not sure.” Arthur shuts his eyes and counts. Helen is there, pasting a sheet of green and gold wallpaper, but he can’t think past the year Jessie was born.
“It’s all right. It doesn’t matter, Arthur. It must be nice, in a way. I wish I could forget the last few weeks.”
“All I remember are old things. Many years ago now, Jessie. Before you were born.”
“Aye, sorry. Marie. It’s all still there, but I’m not sure how much longer.” Arthur stares down at the packet of digestive biscuits in his hands and wishes he had a hot cup of tea to dunk them in. Helen would make him tea and biscuits every morning after she came back from the shops. She’ll be back soon.
He looks up at the girl sitting next to him. Her face is bruised right across the cheek, up the side of her head to the temple and around behind her ear. It covers half of her face like a shadow.
“That looks sore. That bruise. How did you get that?”
“I told you already, Arthur.” She looks away from him, pulling her lank hair over her face in a vain attempt to hide.
Arthur tries to remember what she said, even though he fears the result will be the usual squint into thick, impenetrable fog. He searches for the answer in her face; in the sloping angle of her nose; in the bloodless line of her lips. But she is just a girl — all bony limbs and grubby fingernails. He doesn’t know her and, with an ache in his chest, he wonders where his own daughter is. She was always rushing out the door to school or to meet her friends in town.
She never came home with bruises on her face. At least, I don’t think she did. When was the last time she visited?
Arthur takes her hand and says, “Sorry. I’m a daft old man.”
“If I’m not here, do you remember me? I mean… what if I stop coming? How will you remember me, or what’s going on?”
“You could write me a note.” Helen used to leave notes pinned to the kitchen cupboard. We need tea and biscuits, Jessie. And a loaf of white bread.
“What I really need is a hot cup of tea. That’ll do no end of good. It’ll do you some good, too. You don’t look well.”
“Next time I go out,” says Marie, “I’ll see what I can do about that.”
Arthur wakes from a dream of falling. He is lying on his bed in his pyjamas. It is dark outside, but the relentless flood of yellow dust creates some residual light — a gentle glow like candlelight.
Amongst the hiss of the dust and the howl of the wind, he is sure that someone is screaming. There’s no such thing as ghosts, Jessie. They’re just daft tales made up to scare wee children. Now, go back to sleep.
He sits up, his head a whirl of panic. He can’t be sure of what he heard. The panicked slap of running feet on the cobbles? For several seconds all he can do is cast his eyes around the room to get his bearings. He instinctively pats the bed to his left.
“Helen?” he shouts into the empty flat, knowing it to be empty as he does so. He slides off the bed and pads over to the window. Peeling the curtain back, he peeks out into the street. None of the streetlights are working. It is like staring into a bottomless canyon.
Arthur stands at the open front door, but nobody is there. I’m sure I heard knocking. It’s nothing, Jessie. Just your mind playing tricks on you. Go back to sleep.
The pain in his back is worse than ever. The veins and nerves feel solidified, but still as brittle and easily damaged as dried twigs. Each time he moves it feels like they may all snap. He looks around for his walking stick, but it is nowhere to be seen. Where’s that damn woman put it? Never where I left it.
He slides one foot at a time across the polished floorboards to his armchair in the living room. He lowers himself into it with a groan, tensing up at the knots of pain forming all around the base of his spine. His eyes mist over as he finally settles into the spot of least discomfort, but he is startled by a noise.
He turns around, gritting his teeth at the pain of such a simple manoeuvre. The front door is wide open and the faint shuffle of footsteps echoes up the stairwell.
Arthur’s heart tightens as he peers through the door, wondering who it might be. Hoping.
A young girl in a white padded jacket appears at the top of the stairs and walks through the front door.
“You know your front door’s wide open?” she says, but stops and stares at him. She smiles at him with yellow teeth. Half of her face is darkened by a bruise. She looks skeletal; almost transparent. Her smile fades into a thin line as she takes in the expression on Arthur’s face. Tears spill and she turns and runs back out of the flat and down the stairs.
Arthur wants to follow, to run after this person, find out who they are, what they mean to him, but the pain in his back roots him to the chair.
After the resounding clunk of the downstairs door closing, the only sounds left are the scraping and swishing of dust against the building.
A milkpan full of water bubbles on a camping stove. The water has boiled right down and sizzles against the sides of the pan.
Arthur stands in the kitchen, a box of teabags in his hand. How long have I been here? He opens the box and tears off a teabag, drops it in the cup and twists the gas burner off. The water hisses and spits steam as Arthur pours his cup of tea.
He limps into the living room and takes a seat in the armchair. The coffee table is littered with empty crisp packets and balled-up pieces of paper. On the arm of his chair is a scrap of notepaper with a message rendered in angular capitals. He doesn’t recognise the handwriting.
He reads, sipping his tea, finding it bitter without milk. The note is brief, just a few lines. It has been written by a girl called Marie. She says she is thirteen years old.
I’LL KEEP COMING BACK AND BRING YOU FOOD AND WATER AND TEA FOR AS LONG AS I CAN. THOUGH YOU WON’T REMEMBER. DON’T GO OUTSIDE. IT’S TOO DANGEROUS. PLEASE DON’T FORGET ME. MARIE.
The wind blows down Saint Stephen Street.
Arthur watches the swirls of dust trail out from the walls of the building, joining the enormous yellow blooms that form in the wind, still at first, frozen in the moment. Then they rise up and rush forward like jellyfish moving through water.
The street is almost unrecognizable with yellow dust coating every surface. He looks along both ends of the building, straining to see around the curve, but something in his lower back pops and tightens. Sit down, you old fool. You’re not going anywhere. She’ll be back soon.
He takes one last look at the view before retreating to his armchair. The same view he always sees: an empty, cobbled street and sandstone tenements, being slowly turned to dust and swept away by the wind.
Ilan Lerman lives in Edinburgh, and by day sells expensive shiny things to old ladies. By night, he writes fiction in an Ikea lamp-lit corner of his living room. He has fiction published recently in Hub Magazine and The Absent Willow Review. He occasionally updates a blog with some gibberish at http://ilanlerman.wordpress.com. He says:
Every morning, I walk up the real Saint Stephen Street in Edinburgh, on my way to work. The wind howls down it like a canyon. The story’s first line came to me one morning and I couldn’t get it out my head. I started to imagine an old man peering into the storm from his top floor window, seeing the world being slowly blown away like his own failing memories.
Our June 2010 issue focuses on questions of histories, real and imagined: what happened, what we would have liked to have happened; how we imagined things to have been.
Lon Prater’s “The Atrocities of King George” tackles the question of revisionist history head-on — in a slightly revised history of its own. Ilan Lerman’s “Saint Stephen Street” remixes, rejigs, and recurves around a history that its protagonists would rather not remember. Finally, Megan Arkenberg’s “The Copperroof War” shows what happens with the histories nobody wants to tell, and what happens when history itself, dusty and stored away, becomes deadly indeed.
Our poets this month — Larry Hammer, Stephen M. Wilson, Jennifer Crow, Amal El-Mohtar, and Jessica P. Wick — take us from the lofty heights of Alexandria to the more mundane historical questions of he said, she said.
We hope you enjoy this quarter’s issue, and if so, please consider dropping something into our tip jar. Ideomancer relies on reader donations to pay its contributors for their excellent fiction and poetry, and even five dollars makes a big difference.
Vol. 9 Issue 2
“The Atrocities of King George” – Lon Prater
“Saint Stephen Street” – Ilan Lerman
“The Copperroof War” – Megan Arkenberg
“Kassandra” – Larry Hammer
“Tasting Books on her Lover’s Hands” – Jennifer Crow
“Imagined World” – Stephen M. Wilson
“Courting Song for Selkies” – Amal El-Mohtar and Jessica P. Wick
Gemma Files’s Book of Tongues – Leah Bobet
Michelle West’s City of Night – Marsha Sisolak
“We began a contest for liberty ill provided with the means for the war, relying on our patriotism to supply the deficiency. . . [W]e must bear the present evils. . . .”
~George Washington, 1781
Outside the thick canvas of General Washington’s tent, the snow was piled high and the soldiers–weakened by hunger and too near the end of their enlistment–were losing fingers and limbs to the bitter Valley Forge cold. Will, His Excellency’s mulatto valet, shifted the basket of breads and wax-wrapped cheese to his other hand long enough to work open the tent flap.
A blast of dank, warm air greeted him, bringing with it the out-of-place smell of freshly turned earth. Within, Washington knelt beside the makeshift bed where Miss Martha lay, pale and still, just as she had lain for the preceding two and a half days.
“I told her not to come,” the large man said, his voice almost too soft to be heard. He shook his head. “And I know what needs to be done, but God help me, I cannot bring myself to do it.”
Will said nothing, placing the basket of bread on an upended wooden crate covered by a scarlet cloth. He stamped his feet and moved closer to the coals. These will need freshening soon, he thought. He burrowed one hand within the pockets of his great fox-lined coat and withdrew a letter sealed in yellow-green wax.
Washington noticed his valet’s presence and stepped away from Martha, taking the letter from Will’s hand and moving his large frame toward the basket of bread and cheese. He withdrew a knife and slit the seal apart, then carved some of the food before he seated himself on a wooden stool and began to read.
Will set some water to boil over the bed of banked coals and gently removed the cloth pressed against her neck. The twin wounds had not bled, just as her chest had not moved with regular breathing, since the scouts who found her body had brought it to the camp. Yet there had been no stiffening of death; Miss Martha’s flesh was still peach-supple and milk-smooth. Will knew what this meant, and so did Washington; but the master had blocked out the grief.
The sun would be going down for the third time since she was attacked, and Will Lee was nobody’s fool. Miss Martha was going to be waking up soon. Thirsty.
His thoughts were interrupted as Washington rose from the chair and set the letter onto the coals. It smoldered in an instant, leaving an unreadable blackened curl in its place.
“Do you remember Boston Harbor, Will? The poxy men I sent in first?” Washington put a hand to his own cheeks involuntarily, fingers exploring the marks of his own brush with the pox years before in Barbados.
Will nodded at the great man. Despite their long association–Will had been bought at auction when he was but seventeen–Will found that Washington was warmest when Will said the least. “Them redcoats took on like they never been ill in their life.”
Washington stared upward, absorbed by the peak of the tent. Will feared he had said too much. He glanced at Martha’s body, glad to see that there hadn’t been any change in her condition.
Washington put both hands behind his back, began pacing in the half-bent manner of a large man accustomed to much higher ceilings. His long ambling strides carried him back and forth across the tent. Three paces one way, three paces the other.
“If she–” he began, then stopped, changing his tack entirely. “Do they know? The troops?”
“They know whose valet I am, so don’t say much to me. But I still got ears.” He knitted his thick brows together. “I don’t think they know. The scouts brung her in after midnight, and you sent them running a packet for Philadelphia within the hour.”
Washington’s long straight nose bobbed. “Do they–the soldiery, I mean–Do they realize how dire the Continental Army’s plight truly is? What bodies the winter doesn’t take from this poorly trained rabble, the end of their enlistments will. If King George doesn’t get to them first.”
Will moved to where the water was bubbling and just beginning to wisp steam. He prepared a cup of tea for Washington with practiced hands grateful for the warmth. The master accepted it distractedly, then dropped it to the frozen earth. Washington’s mouth hung agape in a rude manner, his eyes shiny with held-back emotion. Fearing what he’d see, Will twisted his head to look over his shoulder.
“She’s risen!” Will heard Washington exclaim dimly, just before he felt cold, soft hands pulling the scarf from his neck. “My Martha is risen!”
“[L]iberty must at all hazards be supported. We have a right to it, derived from our Maker. But if we had not, our fathers have earned and bought it for us, at the expense of their ease, their estates, their pleasure, and their blood.”
~John Adams, 1765
Will was feeling weaker every day, but knew that he was providing the utmost service his master could ever ask for. He kept the marks on his neck covered and despite Washington’s orders of a double ration of meat for Will, the stores were low this late in the winter. A double portion was barely enough to fill a man up. Especially one who was losing so much of his life’s blood every time the stars came out.
Stubbornly, Will refused to let his other responsibilities go untended just because he felt lightheaded and fatigued all the time. Even this afternoon, at a special meeting with Washington’s immediate subordinates, he managed to wait on all in attendance. What he heard there chilled the scant blood still in him.
“Traditional tactics will not go in our favor, I’ll grant you that,” said one rounded man with an upturned nose.
Arnold, a soft-handed druggist-turned-general rumored to curse like a sailor when not in the company of gentlemen spoke up. “The pox in Boston was one thing,” he said, making a point of not looking at Washington as he rushed on. “But this. . . This is something else entirely. And to call it ‘special conscription’ merely masks the villainy! Liberty will be bought with the blood of patriots, but not in this manner.”
“So instead you’d rather watch as our serfdom–our slavery–is purchased by English gold and Hessian lead. Need I remind you, sir. . .”
There was more, but in the end, each of Washington’s top men acceded to His Excellency’s proposal. Not one of them seemed to realize what–or who, rather–lay within the oblong crate they used as a table.
Will couldn’t say that he was qualified to debate the right or wrong of what Washington wanted to do, but he knew one thing: If his master won this rebellion and gained Liberty for his countrymen, Will himself would have a much brighter future than if Washington’s forces were overrun by the Redcoats. But there was another, more personal reason he found himself supporting the General’s plan. Miss Martha would have others on which to feed, and to her heart’s content. Will Lee would be left with the energy he needed to take care of his master in a proper manner.
Whereas I once said ‘Give me liberty or give me death’, I now know these two are not mutually exclusive. The greatest patriots of our time are those whose love of Liberty does not flicker out at the approach of mere death, but instead burns all the more brightly, bringing the torch of everlasting Freedom to these United States.
~Patrick Henry, 1779
A large second tent had been staked up adjacent to Washington’s own, and Martha’s quilt-lined crate brought into it. On Washington’s orders, any man who fell ill was to be brought there immediately, and ordered to spend the night there. Elsewhere in the camp, the din of carpenters making man-sized crates could be heard day and night.
Will Lee marveled at how fast the army of special conscripts grew. Where there was at first one or two consumptives and frostbitten soldiers turned over to Martha’s ministrations, there were now nearly sixty of them, all bursting with pride at having cheated death and being given a chance to put British control of the colonies to a rest more final than their own.
Word had gotten out through the camp and some of the healthy men had even been whipped for malingering. It seemed like everyone wanted to be one of the new breed of patriotic soldier. Washington had his leading men read aloud orders that “should any man be judged to have intentionally placed himself at death’s door, he would be denied entrance to the conscription tents.” Will wasn’t sure how many took him seriously, but nonetheless, the tents and the boxes within them continued to multiply.
By May, the Continental Army under Washington numbered 9,600 living men and enough special conscripts to form a small regiment. Support units had been established to move the special conscripts by day when needed, huge wagons stacked with the most patriotic of soldiers.
It was not long before the Continental Army found itself engaged with a large British contingent en route from Philadelphia to New York. The fighting had begun near noontime and within hours, it was clear that the Continental Army was taking the worst of it. Will attended Washington as best he could, riding just to his master’s left as the various reports came in.
“What is that fool doing?” Washington screamed, dashing his spyglass to the ground. Will unsaddled and rushed to slip the glass back into the loop where it normally hung. One of Washington’s aides-de-camp cleared his throat.
“Retreating, sir. He’s ordered his entire regiment to retreat.”
Washington kicked his heels into his mount, narrowly missing Will’s fingers, and galloped in the direction of the retreating troops, saber flashing. Will rushed to his own horse and hurried after, watching out for any threats to Washington as the great man bellowed orders and gradually stanched the flow of Continental soldiers from the battle. The tongue-lashing that regiment’s commander received in the middle of it was one of the worst Will had ever heard–and he had heard many, for Washington tended to find clear thinking in short supply among his lieutenants.
“But your orders have always been to avoid risk and general actions–“ the little man sputtered once from behind a wispy black beard as cannonades arced across the meadow and a soft breeze made the snake on the Don’t Tread on Me flag writhe back and forth.
Near the end of the day, as the British withdrew for the night and the patriots did likewise just over a hillock, Washington assembled all of his officers in a formation and rode his warhorse back and forth in front of them as his booming voice carried across the entire camp.
“Henceforth,” he said, “The Continental Army shall not surrender, shall not retreat, and shall not be guided by anything, apart from the certainty that God has granted us a great boon in the guise of our undying special conscripts, the greatest patriots of all, who will be put to their first martial use tonight.” He glared with steely eyes at the rows of uniformed gentlemen and beyond them, the common soldiery he knew to be listening. “Any man who shall retreat, or desert, or fail to give his all in the name of this Great Endeavor; I say to you that any man such as this is no Patriot at all. Tonight, men, Americans, we unleash the fury of God upon those who would enslave us, make us bark at their leash and beg at their tables to share in the bounty which we provide to them.
“These are my orders: When the special conscript regiment awakens, the first and second battalions will attack the British camp directly. The third battalion will attend to those patriots near death in the infirmaries and throughout the field. The living men of the support details, begin constructing more wagons and crates for our newest conscripts. And ensure that you have adequate stakes and mallets at hand, for on the morrow, we must deny the British even one special conscript of their own. General officers, meet me in my quarters with your reports two hours hence.”
With that he rode off, leaving the officers to buzz about what they had heard and get to work on their orders. Will met Washington at the tent, helped him dismount before sending the horse off with a stable boy as the last feeble rays of Pennsylvania sun began to wane.
Inside, Martha was already pushing open her now cushioned and well-carved quarters–Washington refused to let anyone refer to them as coffins. She smiled at her husband as he came into the tent, eyed Will hungrily.
“There will be plenty for you, my love,” Washington said. “In the infirmary.” He strode toward her, leaning down to kiss her. Will admired his master even more for the way he could bravely kiss a woman with such fearsome appetites.
“I think it would be delightful to exercise the horses tonight, George. I hear there will be much excitement.”
Washington raised a brow. “You heard?”
“Your voice is not one meant for keeping secrets.” Her eyes flashed. “Let’s ride together.”
“I cannot abide the thought of you being injured, lost to me again, Martha. What will be happening across that field tonight makes it no place for as fair of a creature as you.”
She pressed her lips together, smiling at Will as he tried not to stare at the way her longer teeth pushed out against them. “If not for me, you would have no ‘special conscripts’. But I suppose all the musketry and bayoneting would become tedious. I will find something to wet my throat among the injured.”
With that, she flipped open the tent flap and stepped into the night, leaving it open behind her. An owl hooted somewhere in the distance. The evening mist crept into Washington’s tent, bringing with it the smell of cookfires.
Washington stood there with his hands clasped behind his back, saying nothing. Outside the tent, officers and sergeants shouted orders. Will Lee saw the first special conscript race silently across the darkening field. Then another and another. In the British camp, the Redcoats fired a few surprised, almost half-hearted shots before the sounds of melee and dreadful, confused screaming rose and eventually faded to nothing.
“What those patriotic soldiers do this night,” Washington said, “secures for the American States all the blessings of Liberty which our Creator intended. Though I wonder at their treatment after the war, when they still hunger and only fellow citizens surround them.”
Will took his master’s powdered hairpiece and set it on the dressing table, trying not to remember the first few nights when Martha fed upon him. Even now, he knew she was in one of the nearby tents, draining the life and blood from some wounded soldier who, three days hence, would arise a conscript in the Continental Army. Soon Miss Martha would return and practice her embroidery or read Tom Paine by moonlight, talking with Washington and his generals late into the evening until they retired. She took care to always re-enter her quarters well in advance of the sun’s deadly rays.
“It scares me,” Will ventured, then continued despite Washington’s warning glance, “to think that sooner or later their kind will demand more war just to be fed.”
Washington looked away. “Our nation is too small and new-born to go seeking troubles, Will.” He added, as an afterthought: “Though I suspect some of the stronger black laborers will find themselves well treated in the service of these great patriots.”
Will suppressed a shudder, forcing himself to think of something, anything else. His reeling mind settled on the one granite-sure facet of his life: his responsibilities to the man who led the fight for Continental Independence. “Should I get a special wine from the purser for your meeting with the general officers?”
Washington nodded his head briskly, as if he were trying to convince himself of something appalling. “Fine idea, Will. I think that would be most appropriate. Though their training of the junior officers is lacking, they are all good men, and true. A special vintage would be called for.”
“Which would you prefer?”
“Tell the man to send whatever wine comes closest to the taste of sweet Freedom, for tonight the air is thick with it.”
Will hustled off to obey through the clamor of backslapping patriots and sated conscripts already returning. He saw Martha, ministering in her own way to a man whose cannonaded waist was wrapped in dirty, red-stained bandages and quickened his step.
He took a deep draught of the night winds to steady himself as he approached the purser’s carts. It neither shored up his nerves nor settled his stomach. To Will, the air tasted not at all like his master’s freedom; it was thick with blood and sawdust from the new conscripted “quarters” being built. Lingering behind those scents, making the rest somehow easier to pull into his lungs, hung the smell of meat roasting over campfires, a victory dinner for those lesser patriots not yet given the chance to die for their country.
Lon Prater is an avid Texas Hold’em player, occasional stunt kite flyer, and connoisseur of history, theme parks and haunted hayrides. His short fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future XXI, Frontier Cthulhu, and the Stoker-winning anthology Borderlands 5. To find out more, visit www.lonprater.com. He says:
The Atrocities of King George was inspired by rendition, torture, and the elaborate web of rationalizations some have used to justify such behavior as patriotic and “American”.
City of Night, Vol. II in the House Wars series, Michelle West. DAW.
Reviewed by Marsha Sisolak.
Michelle West (aka Michelle Sagara) is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read a number of her series, but my favorite book by far was her first in The House Wars series: The Hidden City.
City of Night is the second in that series. I ordered it the second it was available, and the tale continues with Jewel Markess and her den’s adventures. Some of their journey takes place in the undercity referred to by the title of the first book; quite a lot of it takes place above ground, between the twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth holdings. In the opening book, the city of Averalaan was dangerous, with the undercity appearing somewhat less so. In this book, the threats for Jewel and her den increase. Lack of money and another den ready for revenge are only two of them, and there is no place to hide now. The undercity paths have turned treacherous and no one—not Jewel, not her fellow den members, and certainly not Rath, her protector—find safety below.
Michelle Sagara makes a reader care about her characters. Jewel’s young, perhaps twelve, and Rath is significantly older and more experienced. He takes her under his wing and trains her (and then members of the den as they arrive) against his better judgment in the first book. I fell in love with Jewel and Rath then, and could not wait to continue reading about them when I’d finished.
But the long prologue to City of Night introduces Angel, an orphan and soon-to-be member of Jay’s den, and his father’s mission that Angel might choose to take on: to find a worthy lord. It took me a few pages to get over my disappointment that I was not immediately thrust back into Jewel’s Averalaan and its hundred holdings that I’d remembered.
Still, the author’s ability to make me care won me over long before that almost sixty-page prologue ended. And, even though it wasn’t Jewel on the dock waiting for the ship from the North, I was immersed in the port and the Port Authority, a section of Averalaan I had not seen in the earlier book. For another thing that Michelle West does exceedingly well is world building and setting.
I believe in this city, the peoples that fill it, lords and mages, the poverty-worn lower classes and vicious dens that populate the holdings, and the demons that walk its streets.
Although there is a lot to love about this book—including the expansion of character points of view with Angel’s and the other den members’—it’s definitely a middle book. While Jewel and the remnants of her den are able to reach Rath’s sister for protection, a demon follows her to the Terafin’s manse and attacks the Terafin.
The conflict between gods and demons and humans has begun. It will take another book or two to resolve that.
Don’t begin the series with this book unless you are prepared to read carefully. The number of point of view characters might baffle some. My recommendation is to read the first, fall in love with Jewel and Rath, Jewel’s den and their world as I did, and then read the second.
Currently, I think this one falls a little short in comparison to The Hidden City, which was a phenomenal read, but I’m perfectly willing to hold my final opinion until the next book comes out.
And I’ll let you know how well it succeeds after I gulp the third—which simply can’t be published fast enough for me.