Our June 2011 issue is full of summer travels, both physical and of the mind and soul and heart.
Cory Skerry’s “Rendered Down” sets us off to sea, and across the thin line between one world and the next. Alter Reiss’s “A Letter from Northern Niaro” narrates a trip into the country, and the distance grown between the person one is and the person one used to be. Finally, Anatoly Belilovsky’s “Chrestomathy”, with the misfiring of a bullet, crosses continents and builds a dizzying and breathtaking new history.
Poetry from repeat contributors Megan Arkenberg, Mike Allen, and W.C. Roberts and first-time contributor Shannon Connor Winward rounds out the issue, taking us out to distant, devastated planets; deep into our own skins; back in time, and forward. And our staff reviewers survey a quartet of modern-style mysteries that cross into the Arthurian and the mimetic, and hop across the Atlantic.
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. 10 Issue 2
“Rendered Down” – Cory Skerry
“A Letter From Northern Niaro” – Alter S. Reiss
“Chrestomathy” – Anatoly Belilovsky
“Redcap Repast” – WC Roberts
“The Conqueror of Mars, To His Beloved” – Megan Arkenberg
“Splendours To Devour” – Mike Allen
“Beansidhe” – Shannon Connor Winward
Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho – Liz Bourke
Richard Matheson’s Other Kingdoms – Maya Chhabra
David Bledsoe’s Dark Jenny – Maya Chhabra
4 Old Orchard Street, Room 14.
Niaro the City, Northern Niaro Province
32nd of the 7th, 410.
My beloved younger brother Lian,
In recent months, I have been working as a bodyguard for my friend Huang Ba, as he conducts his business in the countryside to the north of Niaro the City. It might seem odd for a former captain of the infantry to work as a hired bravo, but Ba pays as well as the army ever did, and allows me a freedom that my orders never did.
During the autumn, Ba’s business took us to Deep Spring village. Deep Spring’s prosperity depends on its orchards of walnut and butternut, and for its ailanthus silk, which the locals here use extensively. It is not so fine as true silk, but it is stronger, and longer-wearing. The women of Deep Spring weave the silk into coats and blankets, which they fill with goose feathers and corn husks, and richly embroider.
We arrived at Deep Spring near dusk, when the reds and golds of the leaves were as bright and clear as the reds and golds of the sunset. There was a chill in the air that night, so there was a great stamping of feet and shedding of coats as we came into the home of the Widow Li, a prosperous old lady who was in some distant way related to the Huang family. Ba’s coat had a collar of tiger fur, and it was that collar which attracted the widow’s attention. She didn’t say anything about it, but I could see it drawing her eye, and her fingers reaching out toward it, as the servant girl took it to the closet.
“She’s lost pigs to a tiger,” I murmured to Ba, as we went up into the main house, for our dinner. “See if I’m wrong.”
Ba shrugged, and soon our minds were so occupied with real pork, marinated in wine, that we forgot all about any hypothetical pigs that Widow Li might have lost.
The next morning, as we sat down to breakfast, I was proven to have been, if not exactly correct, not entirely wrong, either. “Huang Ba,” said the widow. “I was wondering if you, or any of the men with you, have a fondness for the hunt?”
“Some fondness,” said Ba, laying down his chopsticks. “When the press of my business is not too heavy.”
“Ah,” said the widow. “Perhaps with the harvest, you do not have time for this sort of thing.”
“I imagine,” I hazarded, “that there is much fine hunting in the hills.” Our morning meal was of wild pigeon fried with pepper and onions, so I did not risk much in that assertion.
Ba shot me a foul look, remembering what I had said the previous night.
“Fine hunting indeed,” she said. “Deer and bear, and the black wild dogs, along with less noble game.” She hesitated. “There are tigers, as well.”
I am a man of many faults, younger brother, one of which is that I enjoy being right more than is dignified. “Are there?” I asked. “I had not heard.”
“There was a child killed by a tiger, two months back, and one of my servants . . . perhaps he ran off, or perhaps he was drowned, but I do not think it was any of these.”
I had been smiling, anticipating a tale of lost pigs. That smile disappeared; this was a more serious business.
“Well,” said Ba. “Perhaps when . . .” he trailed off. There were three other men with us: Two other guards, and Huang Showen, one of Ba’s younger cousins, who was along to learn the trade. “Perhaps I will take the day to see if we can rid the county of this menace. That is, if you think that you are capable of inspecting the harvest yourself, Showen?”
The boy colored, his back straightened, and he looked from side to side. Such a mixture of excitement and pride and fear is seldom seen in adults. I think we have all seen too much, our joy and fear blunted by too frequent use. Seeing those emotions on Showen’s face reminded me of my own youth, before the wars. “I believe that I can, elder cousin,” he replied.
“Good,” said Ba. “I will leave Dansien and Big Yang with you; they have seen the work done many times. Be guided by their judgment.”
I could not help but chuckle. Well, I had pressed for details about the tiger; now it was going to be my task to hunt it down.
Widow Li hesitated again. “Perhaps I am a superstitious woman,” she said. “But if you will wait for a few moments there is a thing I will get for you. Also, I shall borrow for you my cousin Yidong’s hounds. They are very good hounds and have hunted tiger before.”
“Thank you,” said Ba, and turned his attention to his plate of pigeon and peppers.
I did the same. Hunting has never been a consuming passion of mine, but it is a pleasant way to spend one’s time. Besides, the weather was clear and crisp, and I could think of few finer ways to spend the morning than in tramping up and down in the hill forests.
By the time we finished our meal and the servants had cleared away the dishes, Widow Li returned. I could hear the dogs barking outside; they seemed spirited, but perhaps not as well trained as I might have hoped. “Please,” she said, approaching us with an oaken box, set with garnets. “Perhaps it is a superstition, but it would be best if you were to use these.”
She put the box on the table before Ba; he opened it, revealing a collection of ammunition, all of which gleamed silver, rather than the usual copper or lead. Some of the bullets were of the appropriate diameter for rifles, including the one that I carried, others were larger, others smaller.
“I am not certain I understand,” said Ba.
“There are stories,” said the widow. “I should not credit them, but I have heard them all my life. Of tigers and wild dogs who can take the shape of men. They say that silver is particularly potent against them.”
Showen and the others had already left to see to the inspection of the walnut crop; Widow Li looked from one of us to the other, tension on her face. Perhaps there are some who might have laughed at her, but it was not a statement that struck either Ba or myself as humorous. We had both seen too much to laugh at stories of that sort, and beside, the Widow Li reminded me of our own mother, who I left behind, when I could no longer bear to live in the Home Provinces.
“I see,” Ba said, and took the box with him into the hall, where we made busy putting on coats and boots, and preparing our weapons for the hunt. Then it was out to make acquaintance of Yidong’s dogs, a pair of powerfully built, droop-faced scent hounds, who were overjoyed to meet us. The Widow Li had also acquired somewhere a musty old tiger skin, whose scent we showed to the dogs. They went over every inch of the skin, tails wagging so hard that their hindquarters shook back and forth in their enthusiasm.
There is something sincere and infectious about the joy of a dog, so despite the gravity of the task we had taken on, we left the village in good cheer, the dogs dragging me behind them. It was not long before we were beneath the spreading boughs of the forest, and little longer after that before we left the sounds of the village behind.
I had little hope that we would succeed in bringing down a tiger, despite the enthusiasm of the dogs, and the precious metal that we had been given. Tigers are shy creatures, and clever enough to avoid most hunters. So, I was prepared for a less serious sort of hunt, and soon brought down a pair of green-head ducks, a goblin cat, and a snake as long as I am tall, whose rattle scared me nearly half to death.
The highlands north of Niaro the City are rolling hills, cut by streams and narrow gorges. The trees were still in fine color, though it was late in the fall, and the fallen leaves made a cheerful din as we walked along. Mostly, we kept to the old roads; the surfacing is long gone, but the grading remains, making them an easy way to climb hills or cross gorges. In addition, they lead to old places. Those are little more than low hummocks, or depressions in the ground, but they make for good places to flush game.
We were just leaving one of these places when the dogs started barking at a patch of underbrush, up on a slope. Ba had kept his rifle charged with silver ammunition, and he raised his weapon at the same time as I raised mine, prepared to fire if the tiger should show itself. There was a flash of movement, and I put my hand on Ba’s shoulder. “No,” I said, and he cocked his head at me, with a questioning expression.
I am a grown man, and a veteran, but I have not yet eradicated the streak of mischief that ran through me so wide when we were children. I raised my own rifle, and fired at a pin oak tree that stood a few feet above those bushes.
My aim was true, and the oak shuddered with the impact, shedding leaves and acorns. From the bushes, a man burst forth, his mouth a wide circle of surprise. He wore the flat-brimmed hat and satchel of a mushroom hunter, and he held a collecting knife in one hand, and a broad orange bracket mushroom in the other. Those mushrooms are deservedly sought after here, and a single large, fresh “chicken” could be sold for more than a laborer might make in a day. Fortunately, I had prevented the mushroom he held from earning him a hastily fired bullet!
For the next few hours, Ba and I mocked each other, promising a mushroom hunter’s pelt for a blanket, or perhaps a steak of mushroom hunter, to give us bravery, or, if his knife was his “claw”, perhaps we could have ground it into a medicine for the eyes. It was, perhaps, the lesson of the mushroom hunter that held our fire, when the dogs led us to the canyon of bones.
It was a narrow-sided canyon, little longer than a ball pitch, and perhaps twice as far across as I could leap, where the rapid course of one of a mountain stream had cut through the rock. It was piled up with bones; mostly deer and goblin cat, but also some that looked human to my eye. Some were fresh, and some were crumbling with age and the action of the stream. Amidst those bones, there was something alive.
At first, I took it for a tiger, and I had my pistol ready, rather than my rifle, because that was the weapon I had charged with silver ammunition. Ba had his rifle lined up as well. But we held our fire, and soon saw that what we had taken for a tiger was a woman lying beneath a tiger skin. Ba made as if to descend into the canyon, but again, I put my hand on his shoulder. This time, rather than making my point with my rifle, I gestured him back from the edge of the canyon.
There was no way we could pass unnoticed. The smell of the canyon was indescribable; decaying meat, the sour tallow scent of the bones, and over it all, the heavy reek of tiger. The dogs were kicking such a fuss that they could probably be heard back in Deep Spring. Still, it was a conversation that I wanted to have out of sight of that canyon, so I backed away, pulling the dogs along behind mr.
“What do you think of this?” asked Ba. “It is like nothing I have ever seen.” He looked at me, and then he glanced away; I had seen more bodies in one place, more human bodies, during the war. The canyon had put me in mind of those scenes, and perhaps that could be seen on my face.
“I think,” I started. The problem was that I had many thoughts, but I had no organization for them. “This is not a killing field. The bones were of different ages, or so they seemed. It is also not a tiger’s lair. Tigers have no more love of decay than men.”
“Perhaps a demon tiger,” said Ba, “loves things that natural beasts do not.”
“Perhaps,” I allowed. “If the woman below is capable of turning into a tiger, why did she not charge?”
Ba shrugged. “Perhaps she is injured,” he said.
“So many perhapses make my head spin,” I said. “If she is injured so that she cannot fight, why is she not better hidden?”
“True,” said Ba. “Animals hide well, when they are hurt. Who then, do you think she is, and what was she doing in such a place?”
“I think that we were meant to kill her,” I said.
That alarmed him; I could see it in the widening of his eyes. It did not so much alarm me, as enrage me, but I fought back my emotion; if I wanted to convince Ba of anything, it would not do to lose control. “Who would . . .” said Ba, “well, I suppose the Huang are a threat to some of the other trading concerns–”
“That may be it,” I said. “But it may also be that anyone who set out from Deep Spring in search of a tiger was meant to find this woman, and kill her.”
“Hunh!” replied Ba. “I do not understand this at all.”
“I don’t pretend to understand it completely,” I said. “We know that someone, someone rational, has killed a child, and a servant, and others, and brought their bones to that canyon, and laid them amidst animal remains. I think it likely that they wish for the woman to take a bullet and the blame for those crimes. That looks like no tiger lair I know of, despite the smell of it.”
“They thought we would kill a woman, and think it a tiger?”
“They thought we would kill a woman beneath a tiger skin, and because we would wish to have killed a demon rather than a woman, that we would convince ourselves that she had been a tiger when we had shot her.”
Ba shook his head. “This is a confused plot,” he said.
“It is a confused situation,” I replied. “I do not understand why the woman would remain beneath a tiger skin, waiting for someone to come and kill her.” I had seen things that Ba had not, so I understood why the woman remained, but I had a different answer which I hoped that he would provide.
“It is possible,” he said, “to convince someone to act against their own benefits. Perhaps she does not know what he intends, or perhaps he holds some threat against her parents, or a lover. The simplest way to answer these questions would be to go down, talk to this woman, and take her away from this place.” That was the answer I had hoped to hear.
Still, I did not wish to go down and talk to her. “Perhaps it would be wiser to return to the village,” I said, “and make no mention of this. We have business here for a few more days, and if this woman is to give testimony, I would not want to keep her in the village where the murderer doubtless lurks, and whose identity we cannot guess at.”
“At least we should talk to her,” said Ba.
“We could.” I hesitated. “But the woman must have heard us, must have seen us, and yet did not choose to cry out. Perhaps she is being watched.”
Ba scowled at that, and looked up and down the slope of the hill. There were large stones, and trees, and patches of underbrush where trees had been taken by loggers. “Perhaps,” he said. “Or perhaps it is merely that you do not wish to return to that canyon, for fear that your bones will join the others there.”
“It is an eerie place,” I replied, “I fear it, and I fear the woman beneath the tiger skin. But it is not merely that. There is a killer in the village–are you agreed that there is a killer in the village?”
“I can see no other explanation for those bones, and for the presence of that woman.”
“He is the one I truly fear,” I said. “I do not wish to know his name. When I lay down to sleep, when I bow my head to eat, I do not want to know who it is that wishes to see me dead.”
“You would rather fear everybody than have one man to fear?” asked Ba, incredulous.
“I would,” I said. “Because if I had one man to fear, he would smell the fear on me.” Ba didn’t seem to understand. “This man. He will know that we went out to the forest to hunt tiger. He will know, when he checks, that the woman is not dead. So, he will watch us. He cannot kill everyone who leaves the village and returns. But if we show any sign that we know his secret, we will have to die, if he is to live.”
There was a long pause. My reasoning was, if not entirely sound, at least sufficiently sound that I hoped it would convince. In the end, it did. “I suppose you are right,” he said. “If she has survived this long, she will survive a bit longer.”
We returned to Deep Spring Village soon after; the joy had gone out from the hunt.
The remainder of that day, and the whole of the next, Huang Ba was engaged in the buying and selling of chestnuts and blankets. Some of the wheat and sweet corn that we had purchased earlier in the season had been turned to flour, and would be shipped to some of the families of Deep Spring. Other of the sales were conducted in specie, others in goods that would be delivered at other times. As a general rule, he would linger over business longer than he did on that occasion, but Ba did not rush things to excess. He couldn’t. There is a manner in which business is done, and if he attempted to rush these people, they would have suspected him of sharp dealing, regardless of how good a price he gave them.
We spent another night in the Widow Li’s home. Ba returned the majority of the silver ammunition which she had provided to us, but we both kept a supply for our pistols. If she noticed, she did not say anything.
The mattresses we slept on were filled with sweet corn husks and horse hair, the blankets were finer than any the village ever exported, and I have often found the night air of the country to be more conducive to sleep than the finest mattress or blanket. All the same, I slept poorly. Someone had set that woman out there, and someone had slaughtered the people on whose bones she rested.
If it had been a simple tiger or a snake who had killed the missing servants and children, I would have been dreaming in moments; these are the dangers of living in the countryside, the price of the fine night air. Even if I were to grant that it was a demon tiger that was haunting Deep Spring, it was not a question of the potency of the killer. If it was an ordinary man, I would feel the same way: when a man kills, there is a malice to it which tigers and snakes lack, and it was that malice which kept me awake.
Not that I had much cause to worry, inside the Widow Li’s house. Thus far, the killer had limited himself to people who were not much missed–servants and so on. As the honored guests of a wealthy widow, we did not qualify. The only reason why the killer would strike at us would be if he thought we had penetrated his secret, and I did not think he did. He might suspect hunters who went out and came back with nothing more than animal game, as having seen his trap. But that could not be enough to make him kill us in the Widow Li’s house.
When we were on the road, perhaps, but then we would be five armed men, and alert. That was a thought that led to another thought, and as the hours of the night passed, I came up with a plan of action. It was probably a foolhardy plan, and it was certainly a dangerous plan, but it suited my inclinations.
The reason we chose that week for our visit to Deep Spring was because of a long-scheduled wedding. Li Hua, a girl of the village, was to marry Chen Jiang, the son of Chen Chao, the Inspector of Roads of Northern Niaro. It was a marriage that was considered most advantageous for Deep Spring, and its celebration was to be a grand affair.
The festivities were held in the schoolhouse, a square old building, built in the ancient style. The bride was arranged on the dais just at noon, wrapped in the customary outfit of red and yellow silk; the colors of the costume were brighter even than the leaves on the hills, and she wore a fine jade brooch in her hair, and another at her neck. When Chen Jiang finally arrived, I could see him stagger at her beauty, swallowing, with his eyes wide.
But I am getting ahead of myself. As in the home provinces, the groom does not arrive until sunset. There were trifles of food brought out for those of us who were waiting with the bride; pastries filled with paw-paw and glazed with sugar, pieces of pumpkin and spiced meats served on beds of fried sweetcorn silk, and other such things.
There were musicians and dancers, and a quantity of the clear and potent apple cider that is produced at every occasion in rural Northern Niaro. My plan called for me to be seen drinking to excess, which was not hard to do. The difficulty lay in drinking little enough that I could still be capable of putting my plan into action; the cider of Northern Niaro is a fine thing.
By the time the groom was brought in, with the blowing of trumpets and the clashing of cymbals, not all the lightness in my step was artificial. I stepped out of the building, ostensibly to ease my bowels. The night was cold and dark, and a few flakes of snow were drifting down from the leaden skies. The lights from the wedding were very bright, and made a mournful comparison to the empty landscape beyond, where a few flecks of snow had started to fall.
The grounds beyond the school was cut by a gully, where I had seen children at play, hiding their head when the teachers came out in search of them. There they would catch minnows from the stream, and fry them on little fires, or splash about in the shallows, or engage in all the other mischief of children.
I squatted down, facing that stream, but I kept my pants fastened, and slipped my pistol out from inside my vest. Here I was, a stranger who might know too much, as helpless as a man could be. If I were to fall into the stream, and crack my head open, it would surprise nobody. Not even Ba, I don’t think; he had seen me dancing like a bear, with a bottle of cider clutched in either paw. At a minimum, I was plump enough to make a good meal.
There was a step on the grass behind me; a light step. I turned, stood, all in one motion, my pistol coming up.
I knew that I was not faster than a tiger. But I also knew that tigers like to strike from behind. There was that moment of hesitation on which I had relied, and my gun roared out in the night, five times.
The body that lay on the ground was that of man, not a tiger. It was Bald-Headed Ban Cao, the village head. As members of the wedding party poured out of the school, to seek the cause of the noise, I prepared myself to face a trial for murder.
“Look what he has done!” said one of them. “Ban Cao,” said another. “The village head! He has slain the village head!” cried a third. Then the voices fell silent in shock, and I looked down to watch the corpse shift and melt–first Ban Cao, then a great Niaro tiger, twelve feet long, from whisker to tail-tip. Finally, it settled as Ban Cao, or a man with the features of Ban Cao, who was nine feet tall, twisted up in his death agony.
I had taken a grave chance, but I had not been wrong. Who other than a murderer would interrupt a man while he is defecating?
The wedding quickly became a double party. I hated to take the joy of the new couple and spread it upon myself, but there had been a shadow in the hearts of the people of Deep Spring, which had been lifted by the Widow Li’s ammunition. If Huang Ba did not do well in his dealings on the next day, I would have been very surprised.
I did not remain in the village to observe those transactions. With an aching head, I slipped out of the Widow Li’s house, and returned to the canyon of bones, where the woman waited. She was awake this time, the tiger skin over her legs. She wore nothing else, and was stringy, though I did not think that she was starving.
“Good morning,” I said, crunching down on the bones, as I made my approach.
She said nothing, merely looked at me, with eyes that were a shocking green.
“We were here before, my friend and I, but we left without coming into the canyon. My apologies for that, but there were things I did not wish my friend to see.”
Still, no response.
“The village head, Ban Cao, is dead,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “And now?”
“That,” I said, clearing a rib-cage from a rock, and sitting down upon it, “is a question.”
“You see, the thing I did not wish for my friend to see was the trap biting into your leg,” I said.
“You have good eyes.”
“I do,” I replied. “My father did not have good eyes, but my mother did. Her cousin was a spotter for the army, and a famous marksman, because of the excellence of his vision. Not only did I see the trap, I saw that the teeth were black, rather than the brown of iron, and that there were welts in your leg near those marks, which looked like you had been splashed there with acid.”
“I do not think,” she said, “that there is anyone, even among my people, who could see that clearly.”
“I saw,” I said. “What I was looking to see.”
“What have you come here to do?” she asked.
I sighed. “I don’t know,” I replied. “The wise thing to do would be to call in hunters, and dogs, and kill you from outside of this canyon. Tigers are dangerous, to people and to pigs.”
“I have done no harm,” she said.
“So you say. Ban Cao did a great deal of harm. What is your relationship with him?”
“He left the scent marks at his border,” she said. “I came looking for a mate; and found . . . I found that we were not mates.”
“I see,” I said. “And why did you remain silent, the last time I visited this place?”
She was silent for a time. “I was afraid,” she said, finally. “Of the guns, and also . . .”
“Also the dogs,” I said.
She nodded, ashamed. It is a difficult thing, to admit to fear of something weaker than oneself.
I leapt off my rock, and stepped forward. “If you’ll allow me to look at the leg?”
She made no objection, said nothing, just sat, stone still, as I moved the tiger skin out of position. Some of the links were flattened slightly, as though pounded by a stone, but the iron of the chain was too heavy to break in that fashion. I had brought with me a screw-driver, and it was the work of moments to dismantle the mechanism.
She jerked her leg back, as the teeth released it; those marks were deep and ugly; I doubted if they would ever completely heal.
“Why?” she asked.
I returned to the rock I had cleared, and sat back down. “Perhaps you were telling the truth, that you have done no harm. Or perhaps Cao had been covering for your crimes as best he could. And if I had you killed, I would certainly have been applauded for it.”
“And yet?” she asked, rubbing at her leg, and wincing in pain.
“And yet, I have no evidence to say that you have done any harm. Perhaps the Widow Li was a confederate of Cao’s, who had fallen out with him. Perhaps Huang Ba brought me here to kill Cao. I will not kill you on a supposition.”
She turned, looked up the side of the canyon. “If I may be permitted a word of advice?” I said.
“Stay away from villages. I, myself, would never give up roasted pigeon and stuffed dumplings for raw meat and cold streams. But if you–”
“Thank you,” she said. “I had reached the same conclusion myself.”
She leapt up and out of the canyon, shifting into a tigress as she moved. I had kept my pistol loose in my pocket, with the last of Widow Li’s bullets loaded in the chamber, but I had been deluding myself. There was no way that I could have reacted in time. If Ban Cao had not been so confident in his kill, if he had been a tiger when he came at me, I would have died outside of that school.
For a long moment, she stood there, up on the rock above the canyon. Then she left, trotting off into the forest with a hitch in her back leg. The snow started falling again, flecks lodging among her fur, like silver dropping on a living flame, and standing unconsumed.
If any of the locals had known that I had freed a tiger woman, all the credit I had earned by killing Ban Cao would be lost, and worse. A villager cannot but see a tiger in his hills, be it a natural one or a supernatural one, as anything other than a menace. I brought the skin she had been covered with back to Deep Spring, and told Ba that the canyon had been empty when I arrived.
It is true, what I said to her, but I am not certain if it was wise. Perhaps there will be dead villagers in the hills, whose shades will haunt my dreams, for letting their killer live.
It is true, what I said to her, but I am not certain if that is the entire truth. My time in the army cost me many precious things. I cannot be the son that our mother needs, nor the older brother that you deserve. I have left my station, and the future which waited for me, and left you to have them, because of what the war has taken from me. I learned some things as well, as a captain of the infantry. I learned which loads I could bear, and which I could not, and shooting a woman bound up for the slaughter is a load which I can not bear, be she tiger or no.
I did what I did, Lian, and I do not regret it. I write this letter sitting before the fire in my rooms, wrapped up in the fine Deep Spring blanket that was given to me. Here, the fire leaps, caged in the fireplace. In the distant hills, the fire coughs and roars, free and fierce.
Your loving elder brother,
Alter S. Reiss is a scientific editor and field archaeologist. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife Naomi and their son Uriel, and enjoys good books, bad movies, and old time radio shows. Alter’s work has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere. He says:
This is a story that I’ve been making intermittent progress on for almost a decade, so I have to admit, I’m no longer sure where it started. I can say that post-war stories are something that I’ve always been interested in, as well as cultures which are in flux, rather than stable. I can also say that I’m not yet finished with Shen Xa-Xhu or Northern Niaro, though I have no idea what I’ll do with them next.
February 1837, outside St Petersburg
The bullet had no will, only a purpose, and it could not fulfill it alone. There was an eye that sighted along the barrel of the gun (if the bullet could see, it would see the same dark silhouette framed and reflected in the polished smooth bore), a finger that tightened on the trigger, a flint poised above the pan, and a trail of black powder from the pan to the chamber. Above all, there was a man who held the gun, who felt like a god wielding, for the moment, awesome power. Awesome, but not supreme.
The bullet felt no exhilaration (but the man did) as the trigger broke, as the flint fell toward the striker, as the sparks fell to the pan, as the powder caught and flared and burned its way into the chamber, just behind the bullet.
The bullet felt no disappointment as the trace of moisture in the powder slowed its combustion just enough so that the bullet was already moving before the last of the powder flashed into incandescent gas.
The bullet felt nothing at all as it fell to the ice moving just fast enough to bounce a few times, then roll and come to rest inches in front of the boot of the dark man it was meant to kill. It felt no apprehension as the dark man fired back; it felt no guilt as its late owner collapsed into the snow, his blood a scarlet stain that no one saw because a second later it melted through the crust and hid itself from sharply slanting sunlight.
The survivor, oddly, felt nothing for the longest second of his life; then something like pain, as life with which he made his farewell returned like blood to thawing hand, and with it all the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. Of the two men, the survivor was by far the better read. His name was Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin; he was thirty-seven years old; he spoke six languages; he was Russia’s greatest poet; and he wanted to go home.
That was the other surprise (a smaller one, to be sure, than the sheer astonishment of finding himself alive): he did not want to go to to a tavern or a gaming house where at this hour, barely past sunrise, games of hazard would still be going strong amid cups of wine constantly refilled, and other kinds of revels would be just beginning. He did not want to celebrate with old friends or new-minted acquaintances, with long-time mistresses or starry-eyed girls with whom his dark deep hooded eyes, brooding hawklike face dark even in the dead of winter, and quick sardonic wit had irresistible success. He did not have a clever quatrain or a sophisticated sonnet ready to commemorate the occasion.
He only wanted to go home to his wife.
— The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
Ulysses-like, the world he wandered,
As his heart ached and his soul bled.
On roads, his horses’ hooves had thundered,
On seas, wind whistled overhead.
The Pantheon, the Tow’r of Pisa,
The Sphinx, the Pyramids of Giza,
The stately palaces on Rhine,
The snow and ice in lands Alpine —
He looked without really seeing,
Another sight stayed in his mind:
How Lensky looked at him and died,
As bullet’s strike had set him reeling.
— A. S. Pushkin, The Journeys of Onegin, London, 1844
Do you not, with each word, each embrace, create a monster? Not only the child of your body who may destroy you with unkind words or unjust deeds, but do you not see the monster looking out at you from the eyes of every man you kiss? Do you not hear his roar in the words of contrition from every servant you upbraid? I curse Frankenstein not for creating me; I curse him for being a man, for men create things, and women beings. Were I of a woman created, no one could call me a thing.
— Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Heir of Frankenstein, London, 1846
“What I will tell you, no one yet knows,” Pushkin said. “In truth, there’s much I do not understand.”
Gogol shrugged. “There’s very little in life of which I can claim comprehension. Tell me if you wish; I will not judge.”
“The night before the duel I went to the Kazan Cathedral,” said Pushkin, “I thought a prayer there might help me as it helped our soldiers before they faced Napoleon’s horde.”
Gogol nodded, recalling the oft-repeated tale.
“There was a beggar on the steps,” Pushkin continued. “A ragged, mad, old Gypsy woman. She seized my coat; I felt her shiver and reached for a kopeck in my pocket. She took it and looked into my eyes. ‘I see your fate,’ she said, and sang:
‘Muscina, zhenscina, svinets,
Ot nih pridet tebe konets’.”
“Bozhe moi,” exclaimed Gogol. “My God! ‘Man, woman, lead/Of them you will be dead?!’ To hear this before a duel — you must have…”
“I felt no fear,” Pushkin interrupted. “Fear is for those who have doubts. I knew I would die, there was no reason to worry; even the little hope I had that caused my heart to flutter now and then when I considered D’Anthes’ reputation — even that was gone. Fear is a colt by Doubt out of Hope, and neither had been present in my stable by the morning.”
Pushkin’s words came quickly, as if untold the memories fermented to a pressure such as no champagne cork ever held back. In giving memories voice he also gave them leave:
“The sleigh ride to the river, the seconds’ words, the pacing off — these I do not remember; but I will never forget the black, malevolent eye of D’Anthes’ pistol erupt in fire. Yet nothing struck me. I raised my pistol and fired at once. For a moment I thought I missed too; then D’Anthes sank slowly to his knees.”
Pushkin paused to regain his breath.
“The homeward journey took me along Nevsky Prospekt, past the same cathedral. The mad beggarwoman was gone; the morning light suffused the cupola, sparking off the gilded dome, and, though undoubtedly alive, I could not rid me of the thought that the prophesy was true, and so remained.”
Gogol crossed himself, a quick Ukrainian gesture rather than the broad, slow Russian one.
— The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
I have many times attempted to write my great-grandfather’s story, yet its plain facts are so fantastic as to seem a delirious dream when plainly put down. Now in exile I face my private tragedy, which cannot, and indeed should not, be anybody’s concern: along with my beleaguered country and my faithless wife, I have had to abandon my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English, devoid of any of those apparatuses — the rhyme, the music of the language, the clever pun, the reversed word order that in Russian gives a phrase a subtly altered meaning but in English turns it into gibberish, the implied associations and traditions — which the native author can magically use to transcend the heritage in his own way — having, as I said, surrendered this advantage, why do I now embark upon this endeavour? Perhaps it is the distance from my ancestral home that makes me see more clearly its builder; perhaps it is my own homeless peregrinations that are akin his own; perhaps it is my own loves lost and loves found that makes me see his — that I may now write the book of his life.
My great-grandfather, a Negro named Abraham Hannibal, whose born name and true ancestry are forever lost, was given in his youth as a gift to Tsar Peter the Great during his journey to Constantinople. The Tsar arranged for his education, in arts, sciences, languages, and military affairs. Abraham first married a woman who loathed him, at the command of his Sovereign, then a German princess who loved him at the command of his heart. He rose in the military service to the rank of General-En-Chef, and was given a patent of nobility and a village of serfs by the Empress Catherine as a reward for meritorious service. At his death, one of his sons was an admiral. In my native country, the story is known to everyone and would surprise no one; but as many times as I told it in English I have received wide-eyed looks that I am certain were reserved for Bedlamites.
At Invalides in Paris I found the records of his education as an infantry officer; the fortress of Narva stands as he built it on Russia’s western border; on the island of Navarone, his son’s daring landing in the Turkish wars is remembered; my great-grandfather was not imagined by me, as Onegin, the Russian everyman, had been, and yet only now am I able to write his tale.
— A. S Pushkin, The Moor of Peter the Great, London, 1845
July 1838, Via Sistina, Rome
“I can never go home again,” said Pushkin.
Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol nodded with understanding. “I have heard… Letters, traveling acquaintances stopping by… Your wife, running to D’Anthes’ deathbed, crying in public at his funeral…”
“I opened my door,” Pushkin said. “Natasha ran to me. She was frightened. I thought she was frightened for my safety. She searched my face, and then I watched as her own face — melted and recast itself into a mold I’d never seen before, a mask of — hatred, and anger, and — of disappointment. She threw on a coat and started pulling on her boots. I don’t know why I felt I had to apologize. I muttered something about having better luck while he was the better shot. ‘He was the better man,’ my wife shouted, slamming the door. Later in the day, friends came. The Tsar was heard to mutter something that amounted to ‘Will no one rid me of this tiresome blackamoor?’ And here I am, a blackamoor who no longer has a home. Warsaw, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris — all places are the same to me now. Rome, too; perhaps a better place than most, since you are here.”
“If there exists a country in the world in which suffering, sorrow, death and one’s own impotence are forgotten, that place is Rome: what would become of me elsewhere?” said Gogol, waving his arms as always when making a pronouncement, hyperbole attending his speech as subtlety his writing. “Italy is mine! No one can take it away from me. I was born here. Russia, St. Petersburg, snow, scoundrels, teaching the theatre: that was all a dream. I woke up anew in my homeland.”
Pushkin turned to look about the room, its window facing west catching at last the rays of setting sun. Gogol’s squalid, airless chamber belied his praise. The smallest gap between the shutters let in a shaft of light that, having sparked the plentiful dust suspended in the air into a faerie incandescence, struck the papers on Gogol’s desk like a frozen thunderbolt. Unlike the rest of the room, hidden in murk, the half-completed page shone with reflected light as Gogol’s words upon it, in cramped Cyrillic hand, shone with his brilliance.
“Dead Souls,” Gogol said. “You gave me the idea to write it, back in St Petersburg, but it has since then taken a life of its own. I see the characters, speak to them, they answer back; it is like The Inspector General all over again, but I’m afraid no one will ever read it. I don’t know if it will get past the censors; it was a close run for Inspector, and it hardly even mentions souls — slaves, that is. Sometimes –”
Gogol stood motionless, his sad wet eyes looking at Pushkin, arms at his sides as when he told the bare unembroidered truth — “Sometimes I despair. And I have no wish to return. It is not possible for beautiful souls to live in Russia, only pigs can keep their heads above water there,” he said, raising his hands. “But, mostly, I am happy. In Rome, my soul is luminous. I am working and I try with all my strength to bring my book speedily towards its end. Life, life, a little bit more life!”
“A little bit more life,” Pushkin said slowly. “What words can be more fitting for my own device?”
— The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
With that Plunkett donned his spectacles, and once more started to rummage in the cupboard, and to smother his guest with dust as he untied successive packages of papers — so much so that his victim burst out sneezing. Finally he extracted a much-scribbled document in which the names of the deceased slaves lay as close-packed as a cloud of midges, for there were a hundred and twenty of them in all. Chester grinned with joy at the sight of the multitude. Stuffing the list into his pocket, he remarked that, to complete the transaction, it would be necessary to return to the town.
“To the town?” repeated Plunkett. “But why? How could I leave the house, seeing that every one of my servants is either a thief or a rogue? Day by day they pilfer things, until soon I shall have not a single coat to hang on my back.”
“Then you possess acquaintances in the town?”
“Acquaintances? No. Every acquaintance whom I ever possessed has either left me or is dead. But stop a moment. I do know the banker. Even in my old age he has once or twice come to visit me, for he and I used to be schoolfellows. Yes, him I do know. Shall I write him a letter?”
“By all means.”
“Yes, him I know well, for we were friends together at school.”
Over Plunkett’s wooden features there had gleamed a ray of warmth — a ray which expressed, if not feeling, at all events feeling’s pale reflection. Just such a phenomenon may be witnessed when, for a brief moment, a drowning man makes a last re-appearance on the surface of a river, and there rises from the crowd lining the banks a cry of hope that even yet the exhausted hands may clutch the rope which has been thrown him — may clutch it before the surface of the unstable element shall have resumed for ever its calm, dread vacuity. But the hope is short-lived, and the hands disappear. Even so did Plunkett’s face, after its momentary manifestation of feeling, become meaner and more insensible than ever.
— Dead Souls, by N. V. Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe. Richmond, Virginia, 1850
The fear in the man’s eyes was a sight familiar to me; yet, where others had fled with this fear, or attacked me with it, the black-skinned man did neither. He fell to his knees before me. “Oh, help me, help me,” he cried, over and over. In the woods there appeared first a straw hat and a musket tip, and presently a man bearing both appeared from behind the briars. The black man turned; the fear was obviously directed at the newcomer. The latter unslung his musket and aimed at me. I looked back, unafraid. Having been wounded before, with less reason, the musket-ball tearing my flesh held no terror for me.
— Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Frankenstein Unchained, Richmond, Virginia, 1849
1848, Bronte household, Branwell’s funeral
Upon the curate a frightening change had come. He held a hunting gun with hands as firm and as implacable as his face, his stance speaking of intimate familiarity with the weapon. It occurred to me that, as targets, we were far larger than grouse, and far less mobile.
“Next one who moves is dead,” Mr Bronte said. “I buried my son today. You’ll not be taking my daughters.”
We stopped. We stood in silence for what seemed an eternity. Then Pushkin raised his hands and stepped forward. “You only have one shot, Patrick,” he said gently, “Yet with it you could take four lives. Look, sir, at your daughters. Look: what pale, thin, barely living wraiths they have become upon these pestilent moors; they’ll not survive the winter. If slake you must your anger, shoot me, sir; I’ll gladly join your son in Yorkshire ground, if such is my destiny, but I pray, sir: let thy daughters go. I see in every one of them such greatness as few dream of. Shoot me, and let them have…a little bit more life.”
I stepped forward at these words. “Pushkin speaks wisely, Reverend,” I said. “Mark his words, I pray.”
“What can he do?” said Mr Bronte bitterly. “Set against Fate, what can one man do?”
“What if it’s Providence,” I said, “that brought us here?”
The longest second of my life was spent in contemplation of the levelled gun ere its barrel descended.
— Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley, Journeys and Peregrinations, Richmond, Virginia, 1850
“Everything has been carried through in due form!” he cried. “The man whom I mentioned is a genius indeed, and I intend not only to promote him over the rest, but also to create for him a special Department. Herewith shall you hear what a splendid intellect is his, and how in a few minutes he has put the whole affair in order.”
“May the Lord be thanked for that!” thought Chester. Then he settled himself while the Colonel read aloud:
“‘After giving full consideration to the Reference which you had entrusted to me, I have the honour to report as follows:
“‘(1) In the Statement of Plea presented by one Paul Chester, Gentleman of Virginia, there lurks an error, in that an oversight has led the Petitioner to apply to Revisional Slaves the term “Dead.” Now, from the context it would appear that by this term the Petitioner desires to signify Slaves Approaching Death rather than Souls Actually Deceased: wherefore the term employed betrays such an empirical instruction in letters as must, beyond doubt, have been confined to the Grammar School.’
“The rascal!” Calhoun broke off to exclaim delightedly. “He has got you there, Mr Chester. And you will admit that he has a sufficiently incisive pen?
“‘(2) It shall therefore be recorded that in the county of Gorman there now reside 10,124 slaves owned by Mr Chester, whether Approaching Death or Otherwise; for the reason that all Negroes shall be counted as three fifth of a white man, according to Article 1 Section 2 sub 3 of our Constitution, the population of the County of Gorman now stands at 7,143 for the purposes of the Census of 1840, the said County has not enough persons to become a Virginia Congressional District.”
“Why did you not tell me all this before?” cried Chester furiously. “Why you have kept me dancing about for nothing?”
“Because it was absolutely necessary that you should view the matter through forms of documentary process. This is no jest on my part. The inexperienced may see things subconsciously, yet is imperative that he should also see them consciously.”
But to Chester’s patience an end had come. Seizing his cap, and casting all ceremony to the winds, he fled from the house, and rushed through the courtyard. As it happened, the man who had driven him thither had, warned by experience, not troubled even to take out the horses, since he knew that such a proceeding would have entailed not only the presentation of a Statement of Plea for fodder, but also a delay of twenty-four hours until the Resolution granting the same should have been passed. Nevertheless the Colonel pursued his guest to the gates, and pressed his hand warmly as he thanked him for having enabled him (the Colonel) thus to exhibit in operation the proper management of a census. Also, he begged to state that, under the circumstances, it was absolutely necessary to keep things moving and circulating, since, otherwise, slackness was apt to supervene, and the working of the machine to grow rusty and feeble; but that, in spite of all, the present occasion had inspired him with a happy idea — namely, the idea of instituting a Committee which should be entitled “The Committee of Supervision of the Committee of Management,” and which should have for its function the detection of backsliders among the body first mentioned.
— Dead Souls, by N. V. Gogol and Edgar Allan Poe. Richmond, Virginia, 1850
April 5. — I am almost devoured by ennui. Pundit is the only conversible person on board; and he, poor soul! can speak of nothing but antiquities. He has been occupied all the day in the attempt to convince me that the ancient Amriccans governed themselves! — did ever anybody hear of such an absurdity? — that they existed in a sort of every-man-for-himself confederacy, after the fashion of the ‘prairie dogs’ that we read of in fable. He says that they started with the queerest idea conceivable, viz.: that all men are born free and equal — excepting the Negro slaves, of course — this in the very teeth of the laws of gradation so visibly impressed upon all things both in the moral and physical universe. Every man ‘voted’, as they called it — that is to say, meddled with public affairs — until, at length, it was discovered that universal suffrage gave opportunity for fraudulent schemes, by means of which any desired number of votes might at any time be polled, without the possibility of prevention or even detection, by any party which should be merely villainous enough not to be ashamed of the fraud. A little reflection upon this discovery sufficed to render evident the consequences, which were that rascality must predominate — in a word, that a republican government could never be anything but a rascally one. With this Pundit readily agreed, saying that after only fourscore and ten years of such foolishness Amriccans lit upon another scheme of government, to wit: each slave owner would elect a slave and send him to the government; and the slaves would govern, and each week all free white men would vote on whether the governors would be rewarded, with molasses cakes and whisky, or whipped; at which I wondered aloud why we see no evidence of Amriccans in the world today, for a government so organized should last an eternity.
— Edgar Allan Poe, Mellonta Tauta, Richmond, Virginia, 1851
There is no question but that slavery is enshrined in our Constitution; yet the intent of our Founding Fathers is clear from their injunction against slave trading after 1808. Slavery had been an economic necessity in those difficult times, but the Founding Fathers foresaw, indeed desired, its end.
The Founding Fathers did not usurp to themselves the infallibility that, by rights, belongs to Providence alone. The falsehood of their opinion of the Negro as an unfortunate race fit for slavery and no more has been amply demonstrated. There are, indeed, persons for whom slavery as a way of life is the only reasonable condition, but this can hardly be determined either from the circumstances of their birth or from the color of their skin.
It is the opinion of this court that, by his actions, Mr Dred Scott has amply demonstrated his intelligence and his respect for the law. It is therefore clear that he does not conform to the definition of slave; that, indeed, the word “slave” had been to him erroneously applied. Thus he does not require manumission. Furthermore, only those persons, of any race, who desire to enter, or remain in, the condition of slavery, may be said to be in the condition of servitude. It is beyond the intent of the framers of our Constitution for us to expound on the equitable means of revision of their status, and we shall leave that to the several States of this Union.
— Chief Justice Roger B Taney, Majority Opinion in DRED SCOTT vs SANFORD, 1856
“In this enlightened age, there are few I believe, but what will acknowledge, that slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country. It is useless to expatiate on its disadvantages. I think it however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, there are many whom I counted among our friends who abhor the recent Ruling of the Supreme Court to the point of inciting Rebellion. However, there are, in addition to myself, many among the formerly staunch advocates of slavery who will now readily affirm that an end to this Institution is necessary in order to form a more perfect Union.”
— Lt Col Robert E Lee, in a letter to his wife, 1856
“Come in, Senator,” said Custis. “Father should be glad to see you.”
I had never before been this close to a man who survived an apoplectic fit. I had seen tears, pain, wounds, but it was the sight of Robert’s half-smile, and his good left hand cheerfully waving to me, that reduced me momentarily to tears. I walked over and sat at his side. I clasped his immobile right hand, as friends do; his left swept over to cover and squeeze mine. The stroke, it seemed, made of him two men: the left side of his face was flaccid, its features hanging in a mask of profound sadness, left eye, unable to close, leaking tears that tracked into his beard. Custis came to the other side of his wheelchair — Martha’s wheelchair, now carrying its second rider — and carefully wiped the trail of tears. He then swept his hand over the General’s eyelid, closing it to spread the tears over the whole eye.
General Lee, never a voluble man, was silenced by his malady.The right side of his face carried on its campaign of welcoming me, even though no help from the left flank or the tongue in the center could be expected. He was too good a soldier to give up while any strength remained at his command.
“You knew, General,” I whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Custis nod. “You knew, and planned accordingly.”
Custis cleared his throat. “Father divested from all of his stock in steam companies a month ago. I heard you did, too, Senator.”
Steam companies. What wonders have they wrought! I had been for some time aware of a cool breeze in the room, quite startling on a sultry September afternoon in a house with all windows tightly shut. It did not quite surprise me, as in my home in New Orleans I had a similar device. One shovels coal and pours water in one end; and cold air blows from the other. Robert, a soldier-engineer, could in better days have explained its workings to me; I, a mere lawyer, was content to use it without much thought. The steam train brought me to Washington in a day and a half; the steam car took an hour’s drive to Arlington; steam tractors drew harvesters through the fields on both sides of my route; steam ships waited in the harbors we passed and floated under bridges we crossed; steam engines turned generators that made the electricity on which our telegraphs ran; steam armored chariots defended our borders. As for the stocks — they soared as money chased after every inventor who purported to find new use for steam or new method of its generation, till a hundred years of dividends would not buy back its purchase price. This was the state of affairs that ended but a fortnight ago. Smart money divested first; the market crashed as other money followed.
“When you chose me for running mate,” I continued, “I was among those who questioned your sanity. So many good men — Davis, Seward, Grant… With any one of them you cold have had a fighting chance at the White House, even against Fremont and Lincoln, popular incumbents in the midst of great prosperity in which this country found itself after the first four years of their Presidency. Yet you chose me. Now I understand. You knew of two things that could not last another four years: your health, and the prosperity. You did not wish to be remembered for infirmity in office and and a disaster in economy. Yet there was one thing more you wished to add to your distinguished legacy: one more race for which you would win acceptance and full rights in law and in everyday life. And every vile slur that was thrown at us, was by their perpetrators remembered, and rebounded upon them this very month.”
“So you understand,” Custis said, and Robert once again squeezed my hand. “Father knew you would.”
I shook my head. “He thought too highly of me. As I left New Orleans I was still unenlightened. It was only as I stepped off the train in Washington that my epiphany came, and I knew that undefeated General Lee’s final battle plan had borne its fruit.”
The General’s hand fluttered once again, the half-smile grew, bidding me to continue. I drew a great breath and continued:
“I passed a man sitting on a bench, reading the NEW YORK POST. His clothes spoke of former affluence, now much reduced. As I walked behind him I heard him mutter: ‘I should’a voted for the Jew’.”
— Judah Benjamin, Memoirs, New Orleans, 1874
New York, 1876
My dear Emily,
Man, woman, lead…
I think at last the prophesy is coming true. Having outlived my friends, and reached the age of seventy-seven, and finding myself somewhat enfeebled, I sought counsel of a physician. He sent me to a colleague to be “scoped”.
I cannot tell which was the greater wonder: the scoping machine, buzzing and crackling with power, a screen that glowed when power was applied; or the doctor — the woman doctor! — who, having donned a coat that appeared so heavy I could hardly credit her staying upright under it, proceeded to turn me this way and that, seeing on the screen my ribs, my heart, and — the disease of which I will die. I am the man, the doctor is the woman, and her coat is made of lead, to protect her from the power of her machine. Man, woman, lead…
I am ready; there is, at last, no question of escaping fate, through still I have ‘a little bit of life’. I have had my forty-year reprieve; I lived as best I could; I but regret how little I accomplished. As for what time remains, I plan to spend it well. First, a stop at Mary’s grave — oh would she were here to see these wonders!; then — you know me well enough. If only you were here…
— A. S. Pushkin, letter to Emily Bronte, 1876
The melancholic Gogol, the alcoholic Poe, the consumptive Brontes, the grieving Shelley: all acknowledged a debt to Pushkin for bringing them back from the brink of death; all are acknowledged to have written their finest works under Pushkin’s influence. And each became a voice in the Great Reflection, an awakening of the American national conscience, a renewal of the American spirit.
My own homeland is not only the source of this renewal, but also its beneficiary. I am of the opinion that it was under the influence of American events that Tsar Alexander II abolished serfdom and established constitutional monarchy on the British model, all within barely a year of his coronation. Were the monarchy still absolute at Alexander II’s death, one shudders to think what Alexander III, his demented son, would have done to my beloved country.
The dour, humourless Marx is surely sneering at these words from his grave: he who believed that slavery died a natural death, of industrial impotence and economic inefficiency. To which I say: were any institution’s life measured by its economic efficiency, we writers should have long become extinct.
— The Reluctant Revolutionist, by Vladimir Nabokov, St Petersburg, 1937
On D’Anthes’ coffin lay and sobbed my wife:
She cried for me as much as for her love:
One lay below ground, one walked above,
And happy never would be either’s life.
I was condemned to walk the Earth and grieve
Till I could him, her, and myself forgive.
— A. S. Pushkin, For Mary, Richmond, Virginia, 1876
1877, New York
You have asked me, Your Honor, if I am sorry for what I done, and to that I must answer, without a doubt, yes. I am indeed most powerfully sorry. You heard, as did the gentlemen of the jury, my attorney as he recounted my humble origins and my need to feed my family when I was but a child myself. Grown up on a farm, I knew from boyhood all there is to know about livestock, and my first fortune I earned in the slave trade. I bought and sold and bought and sold until I have some thousand and more prime field hands, and then one day wasn’t nobody wanting to buy them no more on account of it was not done in the high society to own slaves and everyone was selling theirs. So I turned them all loose, gave them their freedom even before Damned Scot, didn’t keep but three house wenches as I was broke — and damme to hell if all three didn’t up and run off the minute they found out slavery wasn’t no more.
So, like I said, sorry I was that I ever traded slaves as this got me poor and nobody wanted anything to do with me for a long time after. But I did know horses and mules, could ride them like the wind and had the eye for colts and fillies that’d be worth something growed up and all, so I went into the horse trade and pretty soon had me a thousand head or more and an order for all them to be paid in gold by the United Goddam States Goddam Army — and then Washington decides not to chase Redskins around the Territory no more and to keep to the Indian treaties and all my horses are of no use to nobody and I turned them loose on the prairie, same as my slaves. Powerfully sorry I am that I ever believed the US government would deal straight with a man like myself.
Then, seeing as all the things horses and men used to do, steam is doing now, I invested in steam company shares, and y’all know how that came out, no need to tell.
So I went to New York and started a nice business selling fake British passports to Irishmen, seeing as the quota favored the English and they would have an easier time of it immigrating with papers from a civilized country, had myself a thousand or more of the best quality fake passports made, when Washington repeals the quota and lets the Irish into the country like they was white people and I got no buyers for the passports and I’m broke again.
And I sure don’t do much reading — hardly any, past what I need for my business — but I hear from people how there are these writers writing books that make fun of right-thinking white Americans like myself and making us like the demons and the Abolitionists like the angels, making things all upside down in peoples’ heads till they don’t know which end kisses and which end pisses. I don’t know who these people are, but I surely do know who my wife is, she’s the girl that was sixteen when her family gave her to me in trade for a stack of passports they hadn’t any money to buy and is now twenty and the purtiest Irish redhead you ever — sorry, Your Honor —
Anyhow, Your Honor, when I came back to my rooms after a day of seeking employment fit for a white man of fifty-five years old, and found my wife in my bed and not with me and not alone, neither, you can’t expect me to be sorry for taking out my Colt and plugging whoever don’t belong in there. But sorry I am, and powerful sorry I am, that I did not know who that was who turned to me and smiled all sweet when he saw my gun on him; for if I had known that gray old man was a Negro and if I had known he was one of that nest of troublemakers that ruined my life at every turn, I would not have put the first bullet between his eyes, no sir; I had a six-shooter and most sorry I am that I did not use all six to make it more entertaining, and that’s the truth, Your Honor, so help me God, or my name ain’t Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Anatoly Belilovsky came to the US from the USSR in 1976, learned English from watching Star Trek reruns, worked his way through Princeton as a teaching assistant in Russian, and ended up a pediatrician in an area of New York where English is the 4th most commonly spoken language. It is perhaps unwise to expect from him anything resembling conventional fiction. In addition to “Chrestomathy,” he has stories awaiting publication in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, 10Flash, and the Immersion Book of Steampunk. He says:
Pushkin is impossible. His great-grandfather, Abraham Hannibal, is impossible. His descendants, scattered throughout a dozen or more of the European royal families, are impossible. If I made them up, the rejection letter would read, “Go on, pull the other one, it’s got bells on it.” Does one need more inspiration? Well, as it happens, I also find the evolution of ethics to bear great similarity to changes in clothing fashions and for many of the same reasons, and Pushkin wrote the book on trend-setting. Several, actually. I have no doubt he could have influenced his admirers quite thoroughly, and through them, the world.
Alice found a mirror on the table
dusted with a white powder and his prints,
things to be taken in as evidence
of foul play, with the pearls and the sable
snatched away to the South Side to be fenced
the Red Queen/white rabbit in a fable
under a cream sauce, with garlic minced
WC Roberts lives in a mobile home up on Bixby Hill, on land that was once the county dump. The only window looks out on a ragged scarecrow standing in a field of straw and dressed in his own discarded clothes. WC dreams of the desert, of finally getting his first television set, and of ravens. Above all, he writes.
| They say I lure men to their deaths here.|
The enchanted wake to find that flesh is bone
my lips, my tongue the gentle lap
of lilies taking root in the throat
as they drown.
But they are lies, Love.
What tales they invent,
This place used to hold me prisoner
My rosy flesh grew rigid
They say I haunt these shores
I watch the owls sweep like phantoms.
I had so much to say
Your penance turns these marshes cold
but sometimes the dead struggle
Shannon Connor Winward is a Delaware writer of speculative poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in such venues as: Pedestal Magazine, Flash Fiction Online, This Modern Writer [Pank Magazine], Vestal Review, Witches & Pagans Magazine, Basement Stories, Illumen, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, and Dreamstreets, and the upcoming anthologies Jack-O’-Spec: Tales of Halloween and Fantasy (Raven Electrik Ink) and Twisted Fairy Tales Volume Two (Wicked East Press). Her current projects include haunting the open mic, converting young readers to magical realism, and pimping her first novel. To read her accounts of writing, mommyhood, and general sassiness, stop by her blog at http://ladytairngire.livejournal.com/.