WHEN THE TIDE IS HIGH
By Ken Green
A freighter had run aground on the sandbar, its great iron bulk resting on the oyster beds.
Olivia stood with her papa, and with all the other oystermen and their wives and their daughters, blinking in the light of dawn.
“Well, that tears it,” Papa said, spitting on the wet sand, “We’ll not be going out today.”
“But what will we do, Papa?” Olivia asked, gazing at the beached behemoth that loomed above them. She was used to the wooden skiffs and peeling dories used by the oystermen, but this beast was a different species altogether, like something from an ancient myth. Freighters were something she only saw from a distance, dots on the horizon. To see one up close like this was a glimpse at a different world.
“She must have been blown there by the storm last night,” Big Darla said, as she walked over to Olivia, “The boys say she’s Russian. Can you see the flag? I can’t make it out from here.”
“You girls should be doing something useful, not making idle chatter,” Papa scolded, “And if you can’t be useful, at least be quiet. Men are talking.”
“Yes, sir, Mister Barnes,” Darla said, and took Olivia’s hand, leading her away.
The men formed their council on the beach, pulling out their hip flasks, and passing them around. They had deciding to do.
Olivia smiled and glanced up at Darla.
“Did you see Tommy Whitaker last night?” she whispered.
“Tommy Whitaker,” Darla said, “Is the devil, and I have nothing else to say on the matter,” she laughed her big, easy laugh.
“Where are we going?” Olivia asked, “Shouldn’t we join the other women?”
“Those old biddies will just tell us to be quiet while they decide what to do, then they’ll tell us to make sandwiches or something. Screw that. I want to go look at the ship.”
So they walked, and their galoshes made squick, squick, squick sounds in the wet sand.
Off in the distance, one of the men yelled, “Hey! You two, get away from that!”
Darla muttered a very bad word, and Olivia laughed. They kept walking and the ship kept getting bigger. The sun was higher now, and Olivia could just see the ship’s name painted in letters taller than she was.
“What does it say?” Darla asked.
“The Lucky Leddy,” Olivia said.
“Not so lucky today, was she?”
“Lucky for us,” Olivia spoke in hushed tones, as if afraid of waking the beast. Its hide was studded with barnacles and scored with rust. She held her hand inches from it and gazed in wonder.
“Where do you think she’s been?” Olivia whispered.
“Everywhere,” Darla whispered back, “She’s seen the world.”
The world. Olivia’s world was oysters to shuck, the stink of high tide, and the back of Papa’s hand. Oyster Bay was her universe. This ship was proof of a bigger one. So many things she would never see.
She took a breath, steeled her nerve, and touched it. Her fingers traced along its cold, hard…
“Boo,” Darla whispered into her ear.
Olivia jumped back, and they both laughed. Olivia threw her arms around Darla, and they hugged, laughing some more.
“Do you think we’ll ever sail the seas?” Olivia asked.
“No,” Darla said, letting go, “We’re oystermen’s daughters. We’ll be oystermen’s wives, and one day we will be oystermen’s widows, and we will be old and bitter, and boss young oyster girls around.”
“But there’s a world out there, beyond Oyster Bay.”
Sally Fuller came running to them, stopped to catch her breath.
“Hook-Hand Mary says we all have to go to the church hall. We have to make sandwiches.”
In the church hall, wives and daughters stood at tables, making sandwiches. Hook-Hand and the other widows patrolled, alert for signs of idleness. Since they arrived late, Olivia and Darla were set to wrapping duty, wrapping each sandwich in newspaper and binding them with twine. Hook-Hand scowled and kept her good eye on Olivia.
“Stop reading the wrappers, Miss Barnes, the only lesson you need to learn is obedience. I’ll turn you over my knee right here and now, don’t think I won’t.”
Olivia bent to her task and worked faster. Soon all the sandwiches were wrapped and stacked in baskets. All the other women were done, and stood around chatting.
“Right, you two,” Hook-Hand said, “You can take those baskets to the men. And be quick about it. They’ll be hungry by now, so don’t keep them waiting.”
“Why do we have to do it?” Olivia and Darla whined in unison.
“Because,” Hook-Hand pointed at Olivia, “You are trouble. And you,” she pointed at Darla, “Are a bad influence. Now stop mouthing off, and get out of my church.”
They waited till Hook-Hand glanced away, and smiled at each other. Then they gathered the heavy baskets and schlepped them out of the hall.
By the time they got to the beach, the council of men had resolved to fetch shovels. Once again they passed flasks around, to fortify themselves for the next round of decision making.
Olivia and Darla walked among them, heads bowed in proper respect. They passed out sandwiches, but when they were done, they still had a full basket.
“What do we do with these?” Olivia asked, holding the heavy basket.
“How hungry are you?” Darla asked.
“I couldn’t eat this much in a month,” Olivia said.
Darla turned her eyes to the freighter.
“Let’s take them to the crew, then. Either that, or throw them in the sea.”
She set off toward the ship.
“But…” Olivia hurried to catch up, “Can we? They’re…Russians…”
Darla did not pause or slow down.
“Aye. For sure, they’re Russians. But even a Russian knows what to do with a sandwich. Maybe they’ll give us money.”
The sailors had already let down a rope ladder and were inspecting the damage. Another figure climbed down the ladder. The sailors stopped their talking and snapped to attention.
“That must be the captain,” Olivia said.
Darla stopped in her tracks.
“The captain is a woman!” Darla said.
Olivia squinched up her eyes and took a good look. It was true. Despite being dressed in a tunic and trousers, the captain was undoubtedly a woman.
“Come on,” Darla said, “I want to meet her.”
The captain must have had a similar idea, for she took long strides toward the two.
“Hey!” she shouted as soon as she was in earshot, “Clear off, you two! My men have work to do, and no time for whoring. Come back after sunset and take their money.”
Darla, unfazed, said, “But we’re not whores, Mam. We brought sandwiches.”
“Sandwiches? What is this nonsense? Oh.”
Olivia had unwrapped a sandwich to show her.
The captain laughed, “So, who are these bold girls, these kind angels, who bring my men food?”
“I’m Darla,” Darla said, “And this is Olivia.”
“And I am Captain Leddy Dosvedanya, mistress and commander of that glorious pile of rust,” she gestured to her ship, “Would you two brave girls like a tour of her?”
“Would we!” Darla exclaimed.
“I don’t know,” Olivia said, looking at the rope ladder as it swayed in the breeze, “It’s terribly high.”
“Oh, don’t be so timid,” Leddy said, “Without adventure, life is just work and pain and boredom. What’s the point of living if you don’t scare yourself sometimes?”
“But…” Olivia glanced past the sailors, toward the oystermen. It seemed the council had run into an impasse: most likely, the flasks were empty. As a group, they were making their unsteady way in the direction of the tavern.
“Come on, Liv!” Darla urged, “While they’re not looking! Our dads would whip us if they knew what we were doing, and we’ll never get a chance like this again!”
Olivia took a step toward the ladder. Darla was right. But it was so terribly high.
“Courage,” she whispered, and started up the ladder.
Darla started up after her, and Leddy held the ladder steady. Soon they all stood on the deck.
“I can see the church from here!” Olivia gasped. The village looked so tiny.
“Welcome to the Leddy, my ship and my home,” Leddy said, “Come on, I’ll show you around.”
They wandered around the ship, a big dirty maze of cargo holds and mysteries, winding up in Leddy’s quarters. Unlike the rest of the ship, Leddy’s stateroom was tidy and clean, an island of order in an ocean of chaos.
“What’s that?” Olivia asked, pointing at the far wall.
“That’s a map of the world, child. Have you never seen one before?”
Olivia shook her head. What use do oystermen have for maps or sea charts? They never left the sight of land. She walked as if mesmerized to the map, staring at it, for it was a thing of beauty, wondrous to her eyes. She stood on a chair and spanned it with her arms.
“So big,” she whispered, “Where are we? Where is Oyster Bay?”
Leddy stood beside her, and squinted.
“This is the east coast, this is New York, you can’t really see it on this map, the scale is too big, it’s roughly there.” Leddy pointed at a spot.
Olivia leaned closer, till her nose was inches from the map.
“All my life,” she said, “Everywhere I’ve ever been, everything I’ve ever seen, doesn’t even add up to a drop of ink.”
She got down from the chair and took a step back.
“Where are the places you’ve been to, Captain?” she asked.
“Perhaps this was not such a good idea,” Leddy said.
“Please,” Olivia said, “Please show me.”
Leddy’s hands took a quick but extensive tour of the world. From the Black Sea to the Aegean, to the Mediterranean, to the vast Atlantic, under the horn of South America, to the Pacific and across it, stopping at a hundred different ports.
“I thought half these places were myths. Captain,” Olivia asked, “If a woman can become a sea captain, can a girl become a sailor?”
“Oliva!” Darla gasped, “What are you thinking?”
“I want to see something before I die. Something more than the inside of an oyster. More than a dot on a map. Could I be a sailor, Captain? Could I join your crew?”
Leddy shook her head.
“I don’t see how, child. Look at yourself. You’re a tiny thing. How could you shovel coal with those skinny arms? I’m afraid you would cripple yourself rather than give up.”
“But, there’s other jobs on this ship,” Olivia said, “I can cook, I can clean…”
“I already have a cook. And you’ve seen my ship. It’s a pig sty, do you think it’s ever been cleaned? Why start now? What else can you do?”
“I… I don’t know…”
“What good is a girl that doesn’t know anything?” Leddy asked.
“She knows her letters!” Darla shouted, “She can read, and she can do sums, stop being mean to her, she’s the cleverest girl in Oyster Bay!”
“Is that true?” Leddy asked, “Can you read, and do sums?”
“Yes,” Olivia said, “I can read, and I can cypher.”
“Can you read a ledger? Can you tell if I’m making a profit? Can you read the stars? Can you point a sextant at the sky and know your latitude and longitude?”
“No,” Olivia said, looking down at the deck, not wanting Leddy to see her cry, “I don’t even know what those things are.”
“Then what good are you to me?”
“I can learn,” Olivia said, still looking down.
“What? What did you say? I can’t hear you, I’m not a little mouse on the floor. Look at me and say what you said.”
“I said I can learn!” Olivia shouted, “I can learn anything you care to teach me, and I’ll work as hard as any ten men, if you’ll just give me a chance, you horrible Russian witch!”
“Good. You have a voice, and you can stand up to me, even when I’m being a horrible Russian witch. Those are qualities I look for in a first mate. This ship leaves at high tide, whether you’re on it or not.”
Olivia’s jaw dropped, “Do you mean it? Could I be your First Mate?”
“No,” Leddy said, “Don’t be stupid. You don’t know the first thing about being a sailor. You could be my cabin girl. You would fetch my tea, keep my quarters tidy, shine my boots, and do a hundred other tasks. And every minute you’re not doing that, you will be learning navigation, accounting, and whatever other crap I think of to teach you. Your hours will be long, your pay will be tiny, and your boss will be a fire-breathing tyrant. Do you still want the job?”
“What about Darla?” Olivia asked, “Can my friend Darla come too?”
Darla shook her head. “No, Liv, I can’t.”
“Oh, crap. Here come the waterworks,” Leddy said, heading for the exit, “You two need to work this out. I’ll be up on deck, seeing if those idiots have freed my ship yet.” She left the stateroom.
“You could come with me,” Olivia said.
“No, Olivia, I’ve got Tommy Whittaker’s bastard swimming in my belly, and the sea is no place to raise a baby. And even if it was, I can’t leave Oyster Bay. I’m not brave like you.”
“But I don’t want to leave without you.”
“I know, and it breaks my heart to see you go, but you have to do to do this. If you stay in Oyster Bay, you’ll spend the rest of your life looking at the horizon and wishing you were on the other side of it. Go. See the world. It’s what you’ve always wanted”
“I don’t need to see the world, I need you!” Olivia cried.
“You’re wrong, Liv, you need to go. You have a wandering spirit, you always have. If you stay here, you’ll just grow old and bitter and mean, like Hook-Hand did. Like I will. I don’t want that. Go, Liv. Go have an amazing life. For both of us.”
Olivia found the Captain at the stern of the ship, watching the oystermen and crewmen dig a channel for the big screw to turn in so it wouldn’t foul when the tide came in and floated the ship.
“Is your friend gone?” Leddy asked.
“Yes,” Olivia said.
“Is your heart broken?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“That’s a relief.”
They stood silent and waited for the tide.
By Ken Green
Olivia didn’t permit herself to cry at her mother’s funeral, not with the widows watching. She stood, dry-eyed, and gazed down into the casket. In a stuffy church in a squalid village, Lily Barnes lie in her pine box, in her Sunday dress, looking a bit puffy, for she had drowned, Her once beautiful face was now ashen gray, as Lily had died an oysterman’s wife, and there was no money for an undertaker’s trickery. Even if there had been, Papa would not tolerate such vulgarity, nor would anyone else in the village. Such things were for city folk. Shore folk take care of their own.
Olivia had done the best she could, washing her mother’s hair, and brushing it out. Goodwives Dotty and Clair had come over to help, laying her out in the kitchen table, cleaning her up, dressing the body. Dotty had brought Darla along, and Darla had made herself completely useless, crying and bawling and carrying on. Eventually, they had to make her go sit in the other room, and take her crying with her.
“Why are you putting those on her?” Dotty asked, as Olivia fumbled with Lily’s church shoes, “She won’t be walking anywhere.”
Olivia looked at the shoes in her hands. Dotty was right. They had come all the way from Boston, and were far too fine to put in the ground.
“Will they fit you?” she handed them to Dotty.
“No,” Dotty said, looking down, “I’ve got feet like canal boats. You try them, Clair.”
“Are you sure?” Clair asked. She was new to the village, having been born somewhere else, “I wouldn’t want to…”
“Try them on,” Olivia said, “She’d want you to.”
But that was last night.
Olivia glanced at Darla, who was watching the widows, jaw set, fist clenching and unclenching.
Father McGinnis droned and droned till he ran out of words, then Papa and other men put the lid on the box and lifted it. They headed out the door, and Olivia followed, leading the procession, as was her right and duty. Without looking, Olivia held out her hand, and felt Darla take it. The widows fell in behind her, and the rest followed them on the long walk to Sorrow Field.
“What do you think she was doing in that boat, with that man?” Widow Stevens asked, just loud enough for Olivia to hear.
“I think we all know the answer to that question,” Hook-Hand Mary said.
Oliva felt Darla’s hand jerk as her arm stiffened.
“No, Darla,” she whispered. We are not fighting at my mother’s funeral. For shite’s sake, we’re Irish, but we’re not that Irish.
“I heard,” Widow Casey said, “That she was naked when they found her.”
Darla started to turn. Olivia squeezed her hand, squeezed it hard enough to hurt. “No, Darla.” She whispered, “Not here. Not this day.”
“It wouldn’t surprise me in the least,” Hook-Hand said, “But ladies, let us not speak ill of the dead.”
They made it to the field and planted the box. Father McGinnis found more words to say.
Papa tossed in his handful of dirt and wept. Somebody patted him on the shoulder.
Men have it so easy. He’ll go to the tavern, everybody will buy him a drink, and he’ll tell stories and cry and probably fight. He’ll come home in a drunken rage, and it’ll be up to me to clean him up, tend his wounds, and put him to bed. Like Mom always did.
The crowd began to scatter.
“Lily, we’re all going to your house,” Dotty told her, “To set up the spread.”
“Thank you, Missus Connor,” Olivia said, “I’ll be there soon.”
“Aren’t you coming with us?” Dotty asked.
“No, Ma, we’re not,” Darla snapped, “Liv needs some quiet time.”
“But…there’s going to be guests…”
“Then take care of them! Sing a song, dance a jig, or just piss off. We’ll be there when we get there. Let’s go, Liv.”
Darla walked Olivia to the beach. They left their boots by the high tide marker, and walked on the sand.
“Those biddies,” Darla spat, “Those…witches! It wasn’t right. They had no right to say those things.”
“Why not?” Olivia said, “It was all true. She was naked. In a boat. With a man.”
“Well, maybe she didn’t want to be. Maybe her made her come with him.”
“She was wearing lipstick, Darla. I had to wipe it off her. Nobody wears lipstick to get…kidnapped.”
They bent down, gathered pebbles, and threw them into the sea, one by one, as far as they could. The sea didn’t seem to care.
“She was a good woman,” Darla said.
“She wasn’t a good wife.”
“She was better than your dad deserved.”
“She was better than I deserved,” Olivia said, her voice cracking, “She was better than anybody deserves.”
She waded into the surf, up past her ankles, her skirt dragging in the water.
“You took my mother!” she screamed, “Do you want me as well? I’m right here!”
She waded in further, up to her knees,
“Liv!” Darla shouted, “What are you doing?”
“What are you waiting for?” Olivia screamed, plunging into waves, “Come and get me!”
“Damn you, Liv, I’m not losing you!”
Darla waded in, grabbed an arm. Olivia spun around and punched her jaw.
Darla’s head snapped back, and she lost her grip on the arm. Eyes blazing, she threw herself on Olivia, in a flying tackle. They both went under the water.
Darla stood, gasping, and reached into the water. She grabbed Olivia by the collar and dragged her to the shallows.
“Let go of me!” Olivia shouted, and shook herself loose. She rolled to her feet and threw another punch, but Darla was ready and dodged it, then got her in a bear hug, lifting her off the ground. Olivia screamed and cursed and kicked, raining blows on Darla’s ribs with her free arm.
Darla stood there and took it, squeezing Olivia till her fury was spent, then stroking her hair till she was cried out.
“Are we done, Liv?” Darla asked, “Are you ready to act like you have sense now?”
“Aye,” Olivia said, limp as a doll.
“Good, because you have house full of guests waiting for you.”
“Well, then, it’s a good thing I got all prettied up for them,” Olivia said, brushing her soaked hair from her eyes.
They laughed, and Darla let her go. They walked back up the beach. Darla stopped at one of the dories lying inverted on the sand. She crouched down and reached under it.
“What are you doing?” Olivia asked, “That’s Tommy Whitaker’s boat.”
“Yeah, well, Tommy owes me. There it is.” When Darla stood, she had a bottle in her hand. She gave it to Olivia.
“For the chill,” she said, “Drink up.”
Olivia took a sip.
“Ugh,” she said, “It’s like drinking fire.”
“Yeah, that’s the idea. Warm your innards. Come on, let’s get out of the breeze before we catch our deaths.”
Walking to the high tide marker, they grabbed their boots. Darla headed for the broker’s shack.
“Darla,” Olivia objected, “I need to get home. I have guests.”
“Aye, a house full of them, chirping like sparrows,” Darla sat, next to the shack, on the wind-shadowed side, “Let them talk themselves hoarse, get bored, and go home.”
She patted the ground next to her.
“Sit with me, my bonnie lass.”
“I’m sorry I hit you,” she said.
Darla touched her lip, “You got one good shot in, but you still got noodles for arms.”
“Your mom will be waiting for us. She’ll be sorely pissed.”
“Mom is always pissed,” Darla said, “She’d be disappointed if I didn’t vex her.”
“Enjoy her while you can,” Olivia said, taking another sip, “My mother is dead, Darla, what am I going to do?”
“Get over here, you,” Darla said, holding her arms outstretched.
Olivia skooched over and let Darla hug her.
“We’ll figure it out, Liv.” Darla said, “We’ll figure it out.”
THE LEAN MONTHS
By Ken Green
Olivia was appalled.
Olivia was aghast.
Olivia crouched in the tall salt grass, her mind spinning, trying to make sense of what she saw.
It was warm Sunday in May, which had presented Olivia with something rare and puzzling: leisure time.
May marked the end of oyster season. The oyster boats lie beached, and would stay that way till September. The oystermen had scattered, to find what work they could.
Lily Barnes had told her loving daughter that she would be cleaning the Rose house this day. Olivia had offered to come along and help, but Lily had refused.
“What is she doing?” Big Darla asked, squinting at the scene below.
“Shh!” Olivia shushed, “I don’t know, but it doesn’t look like cleaning to me.”
Olivia had felt lost. She was accustomed to spending her days with a bushel of oysters in front of her, and a take bucket at her side. Church had let out, no school today, what to do?
Nothing for it, no use moping around the house. She took a walk. She’d met up with Darla, and they’d decided to go to the beach, to throw rocks at seagulls. But when they reached the high tide marker, they saw some boys were already there, already doing it, so that made it a stupid idea. So, instead, they decided to walk the ridge view, by the high road.
“Where did she get that robe?” Darla asked.
Where indeed? Lily Barnes stood in the garden area, behind the Gilly house, wearing the most beautiful robe, deep green with a broad floral pattern. A fancy lady robe. Who would wear such a thing while cleaning?
Lily turned and smiled as a man emerged from the house.
“Who’s he?” Olivia wondered aloud.
“Well, he’s the renter, for sure,” Darla said, “I heard he’ll be here all summer. He must be rich.”
He sure wasn’t dressed like a rich man, in his dungarees and work shirt. The two exchanged words, too far away to hear. Lily nodded, turned, and pranced for him, moving like…a dancer.
Olivia gasped, “She’s flirting with him!”
“No,” Darla said, shaking her head, “She can’t be.”
Lily turned her face to the sun, and smiled her sweet, lazy smile. She untied the robe’s belt.
“No,” Olivia whispered, “No, Mom, no.”
With languid grace, Lily eased the robe off her shoulders, and let it drop.
She stood, bathed in sunlight, naked as the day she was born.
Olivia covered her eyes.
“Liv,” Darla said, “Your mother is a beautiful woman.”
“No she isn’t!” Oliva hissed, “She’s my mother! Stop looking at her!”
She tried to cover Darla’s eyes, but the bigger girl brushed her away.
Lily draped herself on a bench and presented herself to the man.
Olivia started crying.
“What are you carrying on about?” Darla asked.
“Darla, can’t you see? My mother’s a whore!”
“Well,” Darla said, “If she is, she’s not a very good one. She’s going about it all wrong.”
“What? What do you mean, she’s doing it wrong?”
“If they were whoring, he’d be naked too. And they’d be much closer together. He’s not even touching her.”
“Darla, why do you know so much about whoring?”
“Never you mind why I know things,” Darla said, “Now be quiet. I’m enjoying the show.”
“The show is over,” Olivia said, standing, “I’m going down there, and putting an end to this…”
Darla reached up, grabbed Olivia by the collar, and pulled her back down.
“No, Olivia. Your mother is a good woman, and whatever she’s doing, she’s doing for you.”
“Well, I can’t watch this. I can’t see her like this.”
“Then take a hike,” Darla said, “I’ll just stay here.”
“Stay? Why would you stay? What are you going to do?”
“Nothing,” Darla said, blushing, “Absolutely nothing. I’ll just stay here…and make sure she stays safe.”
“You are so strange lately,” Olivia said.
“Strange? No. I’m not strange…You’re strange.” Darla said.
“Well, if you’re staying, I’m staying, too.” Olivia flopped herself onto the sandy grass.
“Ugh. Fine. Suite yourself.”
The sun was warm, the breeze was gentle, and Olivia fell asleep.
“Wake up, Liv,” Darla whispered, rubbing Olivia’s back, “I figured out what they were doing.”
“Huh? What? Why are you in my room? Wait. Where are we?” Olivia blinked in the light.
“Welcome back, sleepyhead, I figured out what the man was doing with your ma. He was drawing pictures of her!”
“Mom!” Olivia shouted, now fully awake. She turned and looked. Mom was gone!
“Where is she? Where did she go?”
“They’re done. She put the robe on, she went in the house, came out dressed in her work dress, and he paid her. She headed home.”
“Why didn’t you wake me earlier?” Olivia asked.
“I tried. You sleep like dead people. Listen, Liv, I haven’t told you the best part. When he paid her, he paid her in paper money.”
Paper money? We’re rich! Oh, no…
“Well that tears it,” Olivia said, “If he’s paying her that much, she’s whoring for sure.”
“No, Liv,” Darla said, “Whores don’t make that much money.”
“How would you know…”
“Never you mind that. We’re talking about your mother. Listen. When she left, he did too. He drove away in a motor carriage.”
“I didn’t see a…”
“It was parked on the far side of the cottage. He left about ten minutes ago.”
“Ten minutes…What time is it? Darla, I need to go home.”
“No, Liv, you’re not listening. He left. In a motor carriage.”
“So what?” Olivia asked.
“So he’s rich, and he isn’t home. Let’s go.” Darla stood and started down the hill.
“Wait!” Olivia hurried to catch up, “Darla! What are we doing? We can’t just walk in to his house!”
“You’re right,” Darla nodded, “I’ll probably need to kick the door open.”
“That’s not what I meant! We can’t go in there, it’s not right!”
“Why not?” Darla asked, “It’s not even his house. He’s just renting it. He has no more right to it than I do.”
Olivia tried to work through that bit of moral calculus, but Darla was walking fast, the hill was steep, and her skirt was snagging on things. She struggled to keep up.
The back door was unlocked. The cottage was dark and smelled like the boatwright’s shop.
“That’s strange,” Darla sniffed, “It smells like linseed oil.”
“Is he making furniture in here?” Olivia asked, “Widow Gilly will have some words about that, at summer’s end.”
“Widow Gilly always has words,” Darla said, “Look at this.”
She held up a drawing pad. Olivia’s eyes were still adjusting to the half-light, so she couldn’t make it out at first. It was a drawing of her mother. It looked just like her, but somehow, it didn’t. It looked like a goddess.
Darla set the pad back on the table, gently, with reverence. Olivia’s frowned. In the years they had known each other, Darla had never done anything with reverence.
“He did it with this,” Darla said in hushed voice, holding up a bit of willow, “A burnt stick. A sheet of paper, and a burnt stick, and he made this amazing…”
“Give me that,” Olivia snatched the stick from Darla’s hand, and descended upon the drawing, to mark it out, to destroy it.
“No!” Darla shouted, and seized Olivia’s wrist. Olivia struggled, but it was no use. Darla was far stronger.
“This is wrong, Darla!” Olivia cried out, “She’s my mother, and he’s making naked pictures of her! I can’t let him do that!”
She tried to yank free, But Darla tightened her grip till it hurt.
“He’s paying her good money,” Darla said, her voice low, “We can’t spoil the deal. She’s making your eating money. For the lean months. You know how August is. Right and wrong don’t matter when your belly’s rumbling.”
“But, he’s making her get naked,” Olivia said, “Who knows who he’ll show this picture to?”
“Give me the stick, Liv. Please don’t make me take it from you.”
Olivia gave up the stick.
“That’s better,” Darla said, putting the stick out of Olivia’s reach, “He’s not hurting her, she’s helping him make something beautiful. It would be a sin to ruin something this perfect. Look at her, Liv. Look at her smile.”
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Olivia said, “It’s a drawing. Her could have drawn her face any way he wanted. He just drew a smile.”
“No, Liv. Look again, that is your mother’s smile. He couldn’t have drawn that without seeing it.”
Again Olivia looked at the picture. Darla was right. It showed Lily’s, pure, unaffected, moment of utter joy smile, the smile that only ever appeared briefly, and more rarely every year. But he had captured it, and made it immortal.
“But…that means she likes doing this. Why would she like this?”
“I imagine it makes her feel beautiful. Your mom needs that. She deserves to be appreciated.”
“She’s happy,” Olivia whispered, “Doing this makes her happy.”
“Yeah,” Darla said, “You can’t take that away from her, let her have her summer of happiness. Who knows when she’ll see another one?”
“I guess you’re right.”
“Hey,” Darla said, “Do you want to look and see if he has any money laying around? We could split it.”
“No, Darla, we need to leave everything the way we found it. He can never know…”
In the distance, they heard the sputter of a motor carriage.
They ran out the back door.
THE SEA WITCH
By Ken Green
“Help you?” Sophia laughed, “Why on Earth would I help you?”
Below decks, by the light of his lantern, Captain Lambeth regarded the woman in the cage. Although he knew she was a demon, he could not see her as anything other than a woman. Not a hag, nor a crone, but a moderately attractive, middle-aged woman. Is she beguiling me with her magic? Surely not. She is surrounded by iron, and iron is sovereign from magic. Everybody knows that.
“If the French sink us, you will sink with the rest of us,” he said. The Aurora, a supply ship and Lambeth’s command, had been playing hide-and-seek with a French man of war all afternoon. It had taken every ounce of Lambeth’s sailing skill to stay out range of the French ship’s guns. A de facto truce had been imposed by the setting of the sun. Lambet had hoped to slip away under cover of night, but that hope had died with the wind. The Aurora was becalmed. In a few scant hours, the sun would rise, the French would find her, and guns would roar, reducing her to matchsticks. Unless this damned witch could help.
“Why would I care about that?” she asked, “If this ship survives it will take me to Plymouth, where I will be tried and hanged. Do you think hanging is a better death than drowning? Either way, I’m just as dead. If you want my help, make me a better offer.”
“I can offer you freedom,” Lambeth offered.
Sophia folded her arms.
“You don’t have the authority to pardon me,” she said.
“No,” he said, “But can give you a whaleboat, food, and water…”
The witch laughed.
“You’re going to dump me in the middle of the ocean…”
“…the English Channel…” Lambet corrected.
“You’re going to dump me in the middle of the English Channel, in a rowboat? No thanks, I’d rather take my chances with the French. Who knows? Perhaps they’ll board this ship and take it as a prize. I could sell my services to them.”
“The French are Catholics. They burn witches, I believe.”
“Oh,” she said, “Yes, I imagine they would. In any case, better the devil you know than some snail-eating papist. Very well, let’s make a pact. Get in here.”
“Get…” Lambeth stammered, looking at the cage, “…in there? With you?” Once he was in the cage, with no iron between them, he had no protection from any magic she might cast.
“Yes,” she said, smiling, “You’re are asking me to trust you with my life. I am demanding you do the same. Open that door, and come into this cell. Or stand there, cowering behind that damned iron, and we’ll both die come the dawn.”
Lambeth stood, torn by indecision. The witch was his only chance, but at what cost?
“Captain, this grows tiresome,” the witch taunted, “Will you not risk your soul to save your men?”
Lambet thrust the key into the lock and turned it.
“Damn you, you witch,” he cursed.
“Redundant and redundant,” she chided, “Stop being a child and get in here, before I change my mind.”
He swung the cell door open and entered.
“There’s my brave boy,” she cooed, stepping toward him, “You’re quite a handsome man, Captain Lambeth…”
“Stay back,” he said, “Stay back, or I’ll…”
“You’ll do what?” Quick as a wink, she had one hand on his shoulder, and one on his chest. He gasped as her icy grip held him in agonized paralysis. He could only watch as her hand moved over his heart, then pressed, harder and harder.
“Witch,” he hissed, through clenched teeth, “I knew you’d betray me.”
“You’re wrong, my captain,” she whispered, her voice strangely sweet, “I am not killing you, I merely seek assurance.” She looked at his face, and her eyes were filled with kindness, “And I’m truly sorry, but this is going to hurt.” She pushed harder, and his flesh parted. Her hand was in his chest! Her ice-cold grip encased his heart. He threw his head back, but could not scream, though the agony was beyond measure. After an eternity of torment, she relented. Her hand left his chest, the pain ended, leaving only a cold feeling.
“What have you done?” he gasped, looking at his chest. He had expected to see a gaping wound, but there was none. Even the shirt he wore was undamaged.
“A binding spell, my love. Our souls are now entwined. Our hearts are one. Neither of us can suffer a hurt without the other suffering also. It’s the only way to be sure. Neither of us can betray the other.”
“Why do you speak to me in lover’s words?” he asked, confused. The ache in his chest seemed to change, from ragged cold to a sweet warmth.
“Because I love you, my sweet captain, my brave champion. And if you take a moment to sort out your feelings, you’ll know that you now love me.”
“I do not,” he said, but even as the words escaped his lips, he knew they were a lie. He looked at the woman in wonder. Minutes before, he was ready to put a musket ball in her head if needed. But, under the effects of the spell, he could no more hurt her than he could cut off his own arm. He looked at her. In the flickering light, she glowed. He wanted to protect her, keep her safe, but most of all, he wanted to touch her.
“For how long?” he asked, “How long will this…binding last?” he asked.
“Love is eternal,” she said with a smile.
Hearing the words, he knew they were true. He knew he was damned. This whore, this slave of Satan, had taken his soul. He knew he should hate her for that, but knowing changed nothing. He wanted nothing but to hold her, to be in her arms…
“There will be time for that later, my love,” she said, her voice so soft and melodious, “After we escape the French.”
“How will we escape them?” Lambeth asked.
“You could start by letting me out of this cage, she said, smiling.
“Of course,” he said, and turned to lead the way. They stepped out of the cage. The cargo hold echoed with their footsteps. Pale moonlight streamed through the hatchway above. He led her to the ladder and extinguished the lantern.
Sophia glanced up the ladder.
“I’ll let you go first,” she said, “I’d like to keep my head.”
Lambeth ascended. On the darkened deck were Bosun Scully and First Mate Haveluck, both with swords drawn.
“How’d it go, Cap’n?” Scully asked, “Did she say she’d help?”
“She did,” Lambeth said, and stepped aside. Sophia emerged from the hatch.
Scully and Haveluck retreated a step. Haveluck crossed himself.
“You let her out, sir?” Scully creaked.
“He had to,” Sophia said, “I couldn’t do anything in that iron box, could I? Relax, boys we’re all friends now.”
The fresh sea air seemed to invigorate Sophia. She took a deep breath, ran her fingers through her hair, and smiled lustily.
“Now tell me about this wicked French ship that troubles you so,” she said, as she walked to the railing, her hips swaying in rhythm with the sea.
“She’s a sixty-gun frigate, with a first-rate crew…” Lambeth said.
“I see her,” Sophia said, her voice now cold, “Do you see that tiny dot of light in the distance?” she pointed, “They have their lanterns lit, the arrogant bastards. Have they no fear?”
“Why should they fear us?” Lambeth asked, “They have sixty guns, I don’t have any. They have a hundred men, I have but twenty. So work your magic, and get us out of here. Let us escape before the dawn.”
“No,” Sophia said, “These men mock my captain. They must be taught a lesson. We will take that ship, and put them in irons.”
“Are you mad?” Lambeth asked, “Did you not hear what I said? We cannot fight them, the odds are too great…”
“You shame me, Lover,” Sophia scolded, “How dare you show cowardice in front of your men?”
“Lover?” Haveluck asked, “What is she talking about, Captain?”
“I’ll explain later,” Lambeth said, “Sophia can’t you just…summon a wind to take us away?”
“Summon a wind?” Sophia laughed, “Is that how you think magic works? Do you think I can just wiggle my fingers and whistle up a wind? Do you have any idea how big the sky truly is? Do you think Aeolus owes me any favors?”
“I don’t know, I just thought…”
“You thought nothing. You are a man. Wait,” she sniffed the air, “The French have more than guns and men. They have a wizard,” she laughed, “That is why we’re becalmed. The fool sought to speed their journey, and offended the Anemoi. Such is the arrogance of men.”
“Could you…summon a whale to tow us away?” Scully asked.
“No, you spineless little man, And I wouldn’t if I could. That ship is the enemy and its captain has insulted my lover’s honor. We will not run this night. We will take that ship, you will sail it to Plymouth, and the prize court will fill your pockets with bounty.”
“She’s right, Cap’n,” Scully said, “The reward would be substantial.”
“But we’ll never collect it,” Lambeth said, “The odds are five to our one. It’s impossible!”
“With love, nothing is impossible,” Sophia said, “Gather your men, we’ll make a plan.”
The men were gathered and stood in a circle, Sophia and Lambeth at its center. Sophia demanded a barrel of pitch, and sailors lifted one to the deck. She had them strip to the waist, and painted sigils on their faces, arms and chests.
“This night,” she told them, “You walk in two worlds, half in this one, half in the next. The symbols you wear will confuse your enemy and put fear in his heart. Musket balls will not find your flesh. Blades will not cut your skin, as long as you remain brave. This night you are not sailors. You are assassins, you are beasts, cold and cunning, with hearts of ice. Move quickly, in silence, and show no mercy. Your enemy will fall like wheat before the scythe.”
“But what about their wizard?” Lambeth asked.
“Leave the wizard to me, my lover,” Sophia said, kissing him, “You have your war, I have mine.”
The men lowered the whaleboats and rowed with muffled sails toward the frigate. Sophia stood, spread her arms and spoke low in a blasphemous tongue. A fog arose to conceal their approach. She continued her chanting. The men seemed to change. The sigils on their skin seemed to move. Their teeth grew longer, their arms more corded. They chuckled and growled, and bit at the air, anticipating the taste of blood.
Reaching the frigate, they threw themselves upon it, climbing its hull with the sure grace of monkeys. As they vaulted over the railing, a French sentry cried out an alarm. The men echoed his cry, mocking him, as they fell upon him with fists, daggers, and teeth. Other Frenchmen ran to his aid, but were met by Lambeth’s men, now more beast than human, who ran the decks like foxes in a henhouse. Sophia chuckled as she watched two Frenchmen scramble up the rigging, hoping to find safety above. She raised a hand, and chanted. The only words Lambeth could make out were “…ropes become vipers…”. They screamed and fell to the deck, where they lie broken.
More Frenchmen boiled up from the hold. The British remembered they had swords, and used them with savage glee. Soon, the deck was awash with blood and littered with limbs. The French routed, and holed up in the aftcastle.
“The ship is yours, my glorious captain!” Sophia called out, beautiful and terrifying in the yellow lantern light, “The French request to surrender! Hear how they beg!”
Victory did nothing to calm Lambeth’s men. Robbed of an enemy, they growled and snapped at one another. It seemed another brawl would begin.
“The French can wait,” Lambeth said, “What about my crew?”
Sophia sang to them, a strange lullaby. From God knows where, she produced a rag and a jug of turpentine. She went to each man and, smiling sweetly, wiped the sigils from their faces and blessed them with a kiss. In turn, each man came back to his senses, gazing in horror at what he had done. A few wept. Fewer seemed proud.
Lambeth accepted the French’s surrender. He detailed men to escort the prisoners to the brig.
“Wait,” Sophia said, “Give me the wizard.”
The French seemed all too eager to hand over their ally, for all the good he’d done them. He put up a token struggle, but soon they forced him to his knees.
“Mr. Scully,” Sophia said, “Do be a lamb, and strike this man’s head off for me.”
“Sophia!” Lambeth objected, “The articles of war clearly state…”
“You are fighting your war, and I am fighting mine,” Sophia said, “Please, Mr. Scully.”
It took three tries, but the deed was done. As the head fell to the deck, the sails rustled. A fresh, chilling breeze stirred them. Sophia bent to claim her trophy, stood and held it away from herself, as it was still dripping.
“You have your prize, and I have mine, Aeolus is appeased, the wind has returned,” she said, her smile radiant, as she strode to the frigate’s railing, “And now, I fear it’s time for us to part, my captain.”
Lambeth rushed to her.
“Part?” he asked, in a panic, “What are you saying? Where would you go?”
“To the place I always go,” she said, her smile wistful, “Anywhere I want,” She turned to face the water, “Poseidon, I offer this as my fare.” She dropped the severed head into the water. The water boiled, and from it emerged a strange chariot, drawn by a very large fish.
“I thought you said you couldn’t do that,” Scully said.
“Lovers lie, Mr. Scully,” she said, as she straddled the railing.
“No, Sophia, do not leave me,” Lambeth begged, “I cannot live without you.”
“How did you think this would end?” she asked, “Did you think to marry me, and build a cottage on the beach? Then put babies in my belly for me to raise while you sail off to adventure? No, thank you, my captain. I am a witch. I dance in sacred groves and howl at the moon. I am no man’s wife, not even yours.”
“But, I love you,” Lambeth pleaded.
“Yes, and I love you, and always will” she said, tears in her eyes, “But this is the way it must be. You walk in your world, I walk in mine. It can be no other way.”
With the grace of a dancer, she swung off the rail and stepped onto her strange sea-chariot.
“Fare well, my love, and know that part of me will be with you always.” The fish twitched his tail, and the chariot sped away.
Scully raised his flintlock and took aim.
“No,” Lambeth said, “Let her go. She kept her bargain, and more. Let her go.”
Last week,this experiment passed the six month mark, so it's lasted about six times as long as I thought it would. So hooray for me, or whatever. I don't want to sound boastful, but I think my writing is getting better, I want to believe it is, anyway. Here's this week's offering:
INCIDENTS OF WAR-PART ONE: EXODUS
By Ken Green
“Hurry, Meg, we have to go now!” Jenny McGill shouted. There was no time, the Yankees were on their way.
Meg ran as fast as her little legs would carry her, burdened by the bundle in her arms. Jenny took the bundle and tied it onto Blinky as best she could.
“Come on, Blinky, we’re going for a walk.” She tugged on the mule’s halter.
“Move, you damned mule!” Jenny yelled, pulling harder. Blinky wouldn’t budge. His ears were set back, his eyes were rolling, and he would not move.
“Give him a carrot!” Meg yelled.
“I don’t have a carrot! When’s the last time you saw a carrot? When’s the last time you saw any kind of food?” It was a cold December day, and the ground was covered in snow. Any carrots lurking beneath it would stay there till the thaw, and the damned Yankees would probably be there to eat them.
“Then give him a sugar cube!” Meg cried to her older sister.
“A sugar cube?” Jenny laughed, “Meg, I would sell your virginity for a sugar cube!” And the rest of you for a loaf of bread. God forgive me, I’m that hungry.
Pa had gone off to war, Ma was God knows where, and truth be told, the McGills had never been very good farmers.
“Try rubbing his ears!” Meg suggested.
“Good idea,” Jenny said, as she glanced around the barn, looking for a good beating stick, “Meg, go open the door.”
Meg ran to the door, and threw it open. In the distance, a gunshot rang. Something whooshed over Meg’s head, and whizzed past Jenny’s ear. A ragged hole appeared in Blinky’s forehead. His legs gave out, and he collapsed.
“Blinky!” Meg cried, and ran to him.
“Meg,” Jenny said, with a calm that surprised herself, “We need to leave. The Yankees are here.” What can we carry? We won’t need the pots and pans, since we don’t have any food. The blankets, we’ll need those…
Meg grabbed Ma’s sewing kit, the fancy wooden one with the embroidered lid.
“What are you going do with that, Meg?” Jenny asked, “Make gowns for us? We’re not going to a cotillion, leave it.”
“It was Ma’s favorite thing!” Meg cried, “It’s all we have left of her!” She clutched it to her chest.
More shots rang out. The Yankees were shooting at the house, perhaps to see if anybody was home. No time to argue.
“Fine,” Jenny said, “Take it then. We need to go.” She grabbed the blankets and headed out the back door.
“Bye, bye, Blinky,” Meg said.
Outside the barn, Jenny wrapped a blanket around Meg, and one around herself, then stole a glance around the corner. Some of the Yankees were at the well, filling their canteens. Others were entering the house. Two were approaching the barn.
“Run, Meg,” Jenny said, “Run now.”
They ran across the barren field to the woods beyond. No more bullets came after them. They made it to the forest’s edge. Winded, they crouched behind trees and looked back at their home.
“What will they do if they find us?” Meg asked.
“The same thing they’re doing to the rest of the South.”
The two watched as the soldiers torched the house and the barn.
“That’s our home,” Meg said.
“Not now, it isn’t. We don’t have one anymore.”
“What are we going to do?’
“I don’t know, Meg, I need to think.”
“Meg, I think better when you’re not talking.”
They huddled in the cold and watched the enemy troops. Guards were posted, a perimeter was established, and wagons appeared. Camp followers unloaded themselves. Wives, daughters, sons and whores went about their tasks, or merely loitered. Campfires were built, rations were distributed.
“They’re cooking,” Meg said, “They have food. Where did they get food?”
“From our neighbors, you silly thing.”
The wind shifted.
“Bread,” Meg said, sniffing the air, “They’re baking bread.”
“Yes,” Jenny said. Her stomach rumbled.
“Onions,” Meg said, “They’re grilling onions.”
“Yes,” Jenny said, her mouth watering, “Hush now.”
“Stew,” Meg said, “Jenny, they’re making stew…”
Jenny clamped her hand over Meg’s mouth.
“Please, Meg. I have lost my mother and my father. It would break my heart to lose my sister as well. Hush now, or I shall be an only child.”
Meg’s eyes grew wide with comprehension. She nodded.
The two sat quiet and watched.
The troops had their meal, then the cooks dumped out the stew pots on the ground. The soldiers scraped their plates, leaving bread crusts and remnants in piles. The followers loaded themselves back into the wagons, the troops formed up, and the regiment moved on.
Jenny watched the rear guard disappear over the hill, waited as long as she could, then stood.
“Let’s go,” she said.
The girls half walked, half ran across the field, drawn by the smell of the discarded food.
They heard a growl.
A dog, half-starved and mangy, had smelled the food, too. It held its head low and growled, daring them to move.
Jenny cast her eyes about her, searching for a weapon, but there were none to be found. McGill farm was cursed with stony soil, but its stones were hidden under snow. Oh, Lord, what am I going to do now? How can I fight this dog? For all I know he’s rabid, I can’t risk getting bit. First things first. Must get Meg to safety. But if she runs, he’ll chase her. I need to keep him busy while she gets away. If I can work my way to a fire pit, I can grab a stick to hit him with.
“Meg,” Jenny said, “Don’t move. Don’t run unless I tell you.”
Jenny slipped the blanket off her shoulders, wrapping it around her left arm, to use as a shield.
“Hey, puppy, puppy,” she taunted, her voice low as she could make it, “Look at me, keep looking at me.” She stepped sideways, trying to catch the nearest campfire in the corner of her eye, not daring to turn her glance from the dog.
“That’s right, puppy, keep looking at me. I have treat for you. A nice, warm…”
She stepped on a patch of ice and slipped. She fell onto her back.
The dog leapt, and was upon her! She swung her arm to ward it off. Snarling and snapping, it clamped its jaws on the blanket and shook.
“Run, Meg!” she yelled, “Run for your life!”
Meg ran out of Jenny’s sight.
Jenny flailed her right arm, trying to find a stick. The campfire was just inches away, but just too many inches away, just out of reach.
Enraged, eyes blazing, the hound shook the blanketed arm, pressing toward Jenny’s face. It took all her strength to press back.
“Get off my sister!” Meg yelled, coming into Jenny’s view, brandishing a smoldering rod as if it were a broadsword. Its tip still glowed, and as she swung it, it grew brighter.
“Bad dog, go home!” Meg screamed, beating the mutt.
“No, Meg!” Jenny cried out.
The dog leapt from Jenny’s chest, to face its new tormentor. It snapped at the stick, then howled in pain as it bit down on glowing charcoal.
Jenny rolled on the ground, found a stick of her own, and stood. She threw herself at the dog, fighting with neither art nor mercy. Facing two tormentors, the dog turned and ran.
“That’s right, keep running!” Jenny yelled.
The girls collected bits of bread crusts and gathered drops and gobs of stew, now frozen in the snow. After two days of nothing, it tasted like heaven. Bits of carrot, bits of potato, even the rare bit of meat. Such a feast! They roamed from campfire to campfire, snatching dropped food from the ground like birds in a field.
“What are those?” Meg asked, pointing to a pile of strange iron canisters. The two went to investigate. Jenny lifted one and sniffed it.
“Peaches,” she said, her voice hushed with wonder, “These had peaches in them.”
Meg grabbed a canister for herself.
“Mind the edges,” Jenny cautioned, “It looks like they hammered these open.”
They dipped their fingers in the cans to get the sweet sticky syrup remaining. Some of the cans still had bits of peach in them, one was still half full.
“Crazy Yankees,” Meg said, licking her fingers clean as best she could, “They have so much food, they throw it away!”
“Yes,” Jenny said, “So much food.” She looked down at her tiny companion.
“Have you eaten as much as you can?” she asked.
“I think so,” Meg said.
“Good. Fill your pockets with as much bread as you can find. We have a long walk ahead of us.”
“Why?” Meg asked, “Where are we going?”
“That way,” Jenny said, pointing in the direction the army had headed.
“Why would we follow the Yankees?” Meg asked.
“We’re following the food.”
Next: Where will the food lead them? Are they walking into the jaws of death? Or something even worse? What cruel fate awaits them? Find out in next week’s installment of THE INCIDENTS OF WAR!
INCIDENTS OF WAR-PART TWO-PSALM 23:5
By Ken Green
In last week’s thrilling episode, Brave Jenny McGill, and her plucky sister Meg were driven from their home by the cruel and rapacious Union army, led by General Sherman on his demonic quest to destroy the South. Cold and starving, the girls pursue the invaders, seeking not vengeance, but sustenance. Can they steal enough food to live one more day? Or will they fall into the hands of their enemies, and suffer the cruel lust of the Yankee aggressors?
“Why are they stopping here?” Meg asked, “There’s not a farm in sight.”
Jenny paused, puzzled by the change in the routine. Since noon, the girls had followed the Union army, staying just out of sight of the rear guard. They’d had little difficulty in doing so, as tracking a mounted army is easy. One merely follows the trail of horseshit. Besides, the army followed a predictable course. They stayed on the road, going from farmstead to farmstead, stopping at each one. The baggage train would halt, the rear guard would surround it, the wives and daughters and sons and whores would step down from the wagons to stretch their legs or have a pee.
The soldiers would go about a more sinister task. The would form up their ranks, and descend upon the farm. Often, they met no resistance, as most of the farms were deserted. In cases where resistance was offered, it was quickly dealt with, for the Yankees possessed superior weapons and greater numbers. In either case, the outcome was the same: The Yankees secured the farm, took everything of value, and left it a burning ruin.
Jenny and Meg had witnessed the process five times that afternoon.
“The sun is getting low,” Jenny said, “They must be setting up camp for the night.”
Meg and Jenny found a spot to hide, wait, and watch.
“The sky’s clearing up,” Meg said, “It’s going to be cold tonight.”
“It’s already cold,” Jenny said.
“We can’t stay out here,” Meg said, “We’ll freeze.”
“I’m thinking, Meg. Let me think.”
The wagon drivers unharnessed the draft horses. The camp followers unloaded themselves. Sons gathered firewood. Wives and daughters built campfires. Victualers handed out rations, supplemented by plunder.
Soldiers stacked their rifles. Those that had brought their families found them. The others sought company as they liked.
“We’ll wait until dusk,” Jenny said, “Then we’ll slip into the camp.”
“We can’t go to their camp,” Meg said, “They’re the enemy!”
“They have food, and they have fire,” Jenny said, “And those are two things we need. We’ll just slip into the camp, quiet as bunnies, take what food we can, and… I don’t know, we’ll find shelter somehow.”
“It’ll be alright,” Jenny said. Please Lord, let it be alright. I’m doing the best that I can here.
They waited till sunset, then walked to the camp. They had almost made it when a sentry stopped them.
“Who goes there?” he yelled, then “What are you two doing?”
Jenny froze. Oh, no, what now?
Desperation begat inspiration. Wait. We’re not wearing uniforms, for all he knows, we’re a couple of Yankee brats.
“This little idiot ran off,” Jenny said, grabbing Meg by the arm, “And I had to go find her.”
“What?” Meg protested, “Did not! I mean…”
The sentry chuckled, “Well, you’d go better find your daddy before he tans both your hides. And you should keep better watch of your sister. I could have shot you both.”
“Come here, you,” Jenny dragged Meg away. Thank you for not killing us, Mister Sir.
They walked in the half-light of dusk. Families and groups of men gathered around fires to prepare their evening meals. The girls walked like ghosts between the islands of light.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, please, God, please don’t let them hurt us. At least let Meg be spared. She’s just a child.
Walking toward them, a man shouted, “Girl, get over here!”
Jenny froze. What to do? Run! Run where? We’re surrounded, nowhere to run! If he raises an alarm the others will grab us. I’m so sorry, Meg. I have failed you.
The man, a Union officer, as big and scary as any they had seen, strode to them. He pointed to Meg’s sewing kit.
“What do you have in that fancy box, girl?” he demanded.
Meg’s eyes were wide with terror. Her lip quivered.
“Uhh…” Meg said, “Needle, thread, scissors…”
“Good,” the officer said, and took off his jacket, “These damned buttons are working loose. Fix them, and have this back to me by sunrise. I’ll give you a dime.” He threw the jacket at her.
“Yes, Sir,” she said, “How will I find you?”
“The big tent at the far end of that row,” he said, pointing, “Bring my jacket to me by sunrise, or I’ll ride into battle wearing your hide instead!” He turned and stomped away into the darkness.
There’s going to be a battle tomorrow!
Meg giggled, dropped the blanket, and put the jacket on.
“What are you so happy about?” Jenny asked her.
“I’m going to get a dime!” she said with glee, “Besides, I outrank you now,” she pointed at the insignia on her arm, “I’m a Sergeant Major. So, now you have to do what I say!”
She pointed at the blanket on the ground.
“Girl, pick that up, and be quick about it!” Meg ordered, laughing.
“Hunger has driven you mad,” Jenny said.
“Insubordination!” Sergeant Major Meg bellowed, and pointed to the ground, “Drop and give me twenty!”
Jenny raised her fist.
“I think I’ll stand and give you five instead.”
“Ugh. You’re no fun at all,” Meg bent to pick up the blanket and wrapped it around her shoulders, over the jacket.
“Let’s go find a fire to sit by,” Jenny said, and started walking.
Somewhere in the half-light, somebody played a fiddle, and was joined by a concertina. Perhaps they sought to dispel the gloom, but to Jenny’s mind, they only made it worse.
The two came upon a group of women sitting around a fire, having their dinner.
“Are you lost, Honey?” One of the women asked, “Are you looking for your mama? I don’t think she’s here.”
“We lost our mama,” Meg blurted out.
“Oh. Well, sit down before you fall down, you two look more than half dead. And huddle up. It’s going to be a cold night. I’m Darla, by the way.”
The girls sat.
“I’m Jenny,” Jenny said, “This is Meg.”
They fished the bread crusts from their pockets and started eating.
“Is that your dinner?” Darla asked, “That won’t do.” She handed them the bowl she was eating from. Chicken soup, fresh from some rebel’s henhouse.
Another woman stormed over to the trio, to tower over them, hands on her hips.
“What ees theese? I turn my back for ten meeneetes, and you are cheating on me?” Said the woman, in her thick, foreign accent.
“Olivia, give it up. You are not French.”
“Ooh eese these O-liv-ee-ah you speak of? My name is Valise, I am from Pah-ree.”
“God help me,” Darla muttered.
“Valise,” Meg said, enchanted, “That’s a pretty name.”
“Mer-cee Beucoup, sweet child. And you are a very pretty girl, all things considered.”
“You grew up in Oyster Bay, you lunatic!” Darla shouted.
“Ignore her,” Valise said, “She is, how do you say it, Koo-koo. It is the syphilis, it has taken her mind. Very sad. Bunch up, my feet hurt.”
She sat next to Meg.
“Why are you sitting with us?” she asked, “Where is your ma-ma?”
“We don’t have a mama anymore,” Meg said.
“Oh! That ees so sad! I weel be your ma-ma!” She threw her arms around Meg, and hugged her as if she were a long-lost daughter.
As the evening wore on, men would approach the periphery of the group. Different women would stand and walk off with them, only to return later. Jenny tended the fire. Meg mended the sergeant major’s jacket.
Sometime after midnight, Darla came back from a date, yawned, and tapped Jenny on the shoulder.
“Come on, sweetie,” she said, “Let’s go.”
“Go? Go where?” Jenny asked.
“To the tent. You can’t sleep out here, you’ll freeze.”
Meg snored. She had passed out hours ago. Darla scooped her up like a sack of grain and carried her to a big canvas tent. Jenny, too tired to protest, followed. Several women were already asleep there, and Darla found a space between them. They were soon joined by Valise, who hugged Meg like a child hugs a cloth doll, and fell asleep.
Jenny lie awake, sandwiched between Darla on one side, and Valise on the other. More women entered the tent, and everybody shifted, bunching up, getting closer.
Isn’t there a psalm about this? Something about being in the presence of enemies? These women don’t seem like enemies, they…
Jenny fell asleep.
She woke to the sound of a bugle, pried herself from under Darla’s arm, and yawned. Morning sunlight filtered through the tent’s canvas walls, casting a warm light on the women still sleeping. Standing, she almost tripped on something between her feet. She looked down, and saw Meg’s sewing kit.
Where is she?
She wasn’t in the tent.
Oh, no! What has happened to Meg? Was she taken by the Yankee soldiers? What are they doing to her? Will they come for Jenny next? Find out in next week’s thrilling installment!
INCIDENTS OF WAR-PART THREE: REVELATIONS
By Ken Green
Brave Jenny McGill and her plucky sister Meg, orphaned and made homeless by the fortunes of war, found refuge in the most unlikely of places- the camp of the enemy! Reduced to begging, the girls are befriended by a pair of camp followers: kind-hearted Darla, and mysterious, exotic Valise, who give them food and lodging. Clever Meg finds employment as a button girl- mending the uniform of one of the soldiers.
Exhausted by the day’s trials, Jenny falls asleep. The next day, she wakes to a terrible truth-Meg is missing!
“Meg, where are you?” Jenny cried.
Where was Meg?
Frantic, Jenny looked about her. Soft morning light filtered through the tent’s canvas walls, casting a warm golden light on the sleeping women, a calm sea of flesh and cotton. Meg was not among them.
Jenny crouched, shook Valise awake.
“Huh? What? What do you want?” Valise blinked in the morning light.
“Where’s Meg?” Jenny asked.
“Who?" she rolled onto her back and squinted. “Oh, the little one. Is she gone? She probably went to go take a pee.”
“How could you let her go?” Jenny demanded, “You were watching her!”
“I wasn’t watching anything. I was sleeping.”
“Well, we need to find her, she could be in trouble.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. Come back to sleep, lie with me,” Valise held her arms out to Jenny, “You know, you’re a very pretty girl, all things considered. Come lie with me, Jenny, sing me back to sleep.”
“Please,” Jenny pleaded, “She’s my sister, and she’s just a little girl.”
“Oh, alright, alright,” Valise said, standing, taking care not to step on anybody, “We will find your sister.”
“What about her?” Jenny nodded to Darla.
“Forget it,” Valise said, “You could hit her with a shovel, and she’d stay asleep. I know, I’ve tried. Let’s go.”
Jenny frowned at Valise.
“Wait. What happened to your French accent?”
Valise narrowed her eyes.
“Eees theese bettair? Weel speaking like theese help find your seestair?”
“You’re right,” Jenny admitted, “Let’s go.”
Jenny pushed past the tent flap and stepped out into the cold sunlight. In daylight, the camp looked even more squalid than it had the previous evening. Was this the mighty Union army? This city of ragged tents, flapping in the breeze?
Anxious, Jenny roamed the muddy lanes of the camp, calling Meg’s name. Valise followed, asking passers-by whether they had seen the girl. Nobody had any information. Meg didn’t answer Jenny’s cries.
Where is she? Where could she have gone? Is there a creek nearby? Did the little idiot fall in and drown? Did the soldiers take her? Would they…no, do not think it. It is too terrible to think of. Please, Lord, protect her, as she is so little and so very stupid.
Damn Valise. Damn her, for not keeping watch of Meg. Damn her…
Damn me. Meg is my sister, my responsibility, and mine alone. Whatever has happened, the blame is mine.
Eventually, Valise put her hand on Jenny’s shoulder and pointed.
“Is that her?” she asked.
At the end of the row, Meg was leaving a tent.
One of the men’s tents.
“Meg!” Jenny shouted, and ran to the girl, grabbed her by the shoulders, “Where were you? Why did you sneak off?”
“I didn’t want to wake you,” Meg said, “I had to give the sergeant major his jacket. Why are you crying?”
Jenny drew back her hand to slap Meg, but Valise grabbed her wrist.
“Whatever happened, it’s not her fault. Don’t punish her when you’re angry with yourself.”
She squatted down so she was eye-to-eye with Meg.
“Meg, Honey, you gave your sister a scare, running off like that. You should say you’re sorry. Now tell us the truth. Did the sergeant major hurt you? Did he do anything bad to you?”
“No,” Meg said, “He didn’t even skin me like he said he would. He paid me my dime, and he gave me toffee.”
Valise turned to Jenny.
“I believe her. Sergeant Major Stevens is a bastard to his men, but I’ve never seen him hurt a woman or child.” She stood, took Meg’s hand.
“Let’s go get some breakfast in you two. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
“Why?” Jenny asked, “What happens today?”
“Today,” Valise said, “Savannah burns.”
She walked away, taking Meg with her, back to the whores’ circle. Someone had added to the fire, and Darla was making cornbread in a skillet.
“Where have you three been?” she asked, “The little one had a gentleman caller.” She handed Meg a folded pair of trousers.
“Those are split up the bum. I told him you charge double for rush jobs. You’d best get to it. He’s waiting over there.”
In the direction Darla pointed, an artillery officer stood, shivering, holding a blanket around his waist.
Meg went to the tent, collected her sewing kit, and went to work.
Darla cut the cornbread with a jackknife, gave a portion to Jenny.
“Thank you,” Jenny said, “I don’t know how I’ll ever repay you for the kindness you’ve shown us.”
Darla studied Jenny’s face for a long moment.
“If I demanded repayment, it wouldn’t be kindness, would it?”
“I don’t know,” Jenny said, “I just…”
“Sit down and eat your cornbread.”
Again, Jenny sat with the circle of women. They passed food around and ate, mostly in silence.
Men came to the circle. Women stood and walked off with them.
“One last ride to glory,” somebody joked. A few women giggled, others shushed them.
“Should I go?” Jenny asked, her voice hushed and small, “Should I take my turn like the others?”
“Do you want to?” Darla asked.
“No,” Jenny said, “But I feel I should earn my keep.”
Darla took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“I’m not going to tell you to go. I’ll not compel you to do anything. But I’m not going to stop you. What you do this day is your choice.”
“I don’t think I can do it,” Jenny shook her head, “I don’t even know how to do it. I’m scared, Darla.”
“Then sit and eat your cornbread. And don’t start crying. There will be time for crying later.”
Meg emerged from the tent with the newly mended pants. She gave them to the officer, and he gave her two dimes. He dropped the blanket. The women of the circle hooted, made comments, and laughed. He put the pants on and left.
Meg joined the circle, reached into an apron pocket, fished out a square of toffee, and handed it to Jenny. Jenny bit it in half and gave one to Darla.
Officers collected their men, formed up their units, and marched them away. Teamsters hitched draft horses to wagons and drove them off. The whores banked the fire. Some went back to the tent to take naps. Others wandered the camp. Wives kissed husbands goodbye and tried to look brave. A quiet settled over the camp, broken only by the sounds of children playing.
Jenny looked to the horizon.
“What are you thinking, girl?” Darla asked, “Are you thinking you should slip out of camp, and go warn the people of Savannah? Do you think they don’t know what’s coming to them? Do you think they don’t see the fires, coming closer each day?”
“How did you know I’m a southerner?” Jenny asked.
Darla laughed, “Because I’m not deaf. The whole camp knows. You betray yourself with every word you say. Sit with me. You’ll accomplish nothing, and probably get yourself killed. Then where would Meg be?”
An hour later, the first of the wagons returned.
“Do you still want to want to earn your keep?” she asked, offering Jenny a hand up, “Come with me.”
“Why?” Jenny asked, accepting the hand, and following Darla, “Where are we going?”
“Hell,” Darla said, “We are going to Hell.”
Next: What does Darla mean? What is in the wagon? What horrors await? Find out in next week’s thrilling installment of The Incidents of War!
INCIDENTS OF WAR-PART FOUR: APOCALYPSE
By Ken Green
Brave Jenny McGill and her plucky sister Meg, orphaned and made homeless by the fortunes of war, have found refuge in the most unlikely of places- the camp of the enemy! Reduced to begging, the girls are befriended by a pair of camp followers who give them food and lodging.
The mood of the camp grows suddenly grim as the troops form into ranks and march off to battle. A mere hour later, a lone wagon returns from the front, and Jenny is led to it.
Jenny followed Darla to the wagon, her feet growing more leaden with every step. What was Darla leading her to? What new ordeal awaited?
At twenty paces, Jenny heard the moans and the whimpering.
At ten paces, she caught the smells of filth and sepsis.
At five paces, the orderlies opened the back of the meat wagon.
“Darla,” Jenny said, “I don’t know if can…”
Darla whirled to face her.
“What you do this day is your choice,” Darla said, her eyes hard and expression grim, “I have no pity to spare you. They need it more.”
Orderlies unloaded the grim cargo. Women, wives, daughters, and whores alike, spread blankets on the ground. Surgeons sorted the living from the dead. Orderlies deposited the living on blankets, then took the dead to the side and stacked them like cordwood.
Everybody set to work. Women with scissors cut garments away from wounds. Women with pitchers brought water to help clean wounds, surgeons cut and sewed. Everybody knew their task, and performed it.
Everybody but Jenny. She stood, inert, gazing at the obscenity arrayed before her. Bodies, torn, naked and bleeding, writhing in pain. She heard the sound of hoof beats. More wagons were on the way.
I should be doing something. I should be helping. Why am I not helping? There’s so much, I don’t know what to do. Nobody is telling me what to do. What can I do? It’s so much!
It’s too much, and I am not enough.
She stood, motionless, her eyes darting from one horror to the next.
She saw Meg, eyes wide with fear walking toward her, with the damned sewing kit in her trembling hands.
“No!” she shouted, running to the girl, “No, Meg, you can’t see this, get out of here.”
“But,” Meg said, tears running down her cheeks, “I want to help.”
Look at her, Jenny. Look at your little sister. She’s terrified out of her mind, and still she’s walking toward her fear, not running away from it. How can someone so tiny be so brave? And how dare you be less?
“You already have, Meg.” Jenny crouched, opened the kit, took out the scissors.
“Now, listen to me. Go help somewhere else. Help carry water, or help the cooks. I don’t want you near the wagons. Do you understand me?”
“Don’t lose those scissors,” she said, “I’ll need them in the morning. I have a business to run.”
Yes. Tomorrow you’ll have a brisk trade, shortening sleeves and hemming trousers.
“Girl!” someone shouted, “Are you here to work?”
“Yes, Sir,” she said, and turned back to the carnage, “I am.”
She went to the nearest unattended man, and knelt beside him. Stealing glances at the other women, she tried to imitate their actions. Her corporal had a gunshot wound in his thigh. The bullet had torn a hole in his trousers, and dragged the ragged edges into the wound. Jenny tried to pull the threads out as gently as she could, but he thrashed and screamed every time she touched him.
“Mon Dieu!” Valise cursed, as she knelt next to Jenny, “Are you trying to save this man, or make love to him? This is no time to be gentle, mon cher!” She pinned his thigh with her left hand and ripped the cloth away with her right.
“You cannot worry about hurting them. They are already hurting, more than we can know.”
“I’m sorry,” Jenny said, “I didn’t know…”
“Do not waste time on ‘sorry’. I am not scolding you, mon petit. Watch me and learn.”
Valise showed Jenny how to clean wounds, how to tie tourniquets, how to hold the men down when they fought. As the day wore on, they went from man to man, always getting out of the way when the doctors told them to, or assisting when they wanted that.
“Girl!” the doctor roared, “Get over here!”
Jenny ran to the makeshift table, with rolls of bandage in each hand.
“What do you think you’re going to do with those?” the doctor asked, “Hold his leg down, and mind your fingers, if you want to keep them.”
His leg. What leg? Not wanting to, Jenny forced herself to look at the man, a private. He was stripped from the waist down. She put her hands on his exposed thigh, well above the knee, and put her weight on it. He recoiled at her touch, and she pressed harder. Gentleness would not save this man. Perhaps nothing would.
The doctor raised his saw.
God, give me strength, because mine is not enough.
It began. Jenny closed her eyes, but she couldn’t block out the private’s screams or the sound of the saw biting through flesh, then chewing its way through bone. Nor could she block the smells: blood, meat, both rotting and burnt, of infection and dirt and [crap] and fear. The private bucked and fought, and she pressed still harder, raising on tiptoe, and resting her forearms on him, putting all her weight on the limb.
The people of Savannah were putting up more resistance than expected, and the meat wagons where delivering casualties at an alarming rate, turning the camp into a charnel house. No, not a charnel house. A butcher’s shop.
The screaming stopped, and then the sawing did, too.
“This one is done,” the doctor said, “Orderlies! Get this out of here!”
Orderlies lifted the corpse to carry it off to the stack.
Another carcass replaced him, this one with a chest wound. She stared in it in horror, hearing it wheeze with every breath it took, a ragged, bubbling, bleeding crater that seemed to mock her horror.
Jenny found herself staring at it. She couldn’t move. Her mind cowered from the sight, and her body was in mutiny.
“Girl? Girl? Girl!” the doctor shouted, “Don’t just stand there, if you won’t help, then get out of the way!” He shoved her with a bloody hand, and set her sprawling. She got back on her feet, only to find herself in a sea of maimed and dying men, all screaming for help or moaning their pain. She felt as if a curtain had dropped in her mind, or something had broken inside her.
I can’t do this, I can’t be here. It’s too much. I don’t have the strength, I am not brave.
She discovered she was walking, her feet seeming to move of their own volition.
“No,” she heard herself saying, “No. No more.”
She felt hands on her shoulders, hands steering her. She went where they directed, grateful to be freed of the burden of choice. She was led to a table. The hands left her shoulders, and found her face. She discovered she was staring into Valise’s eyes.
“Jenny? Jenny? Look at me. You’re going to roll bandages now. You’re going to stand here with me, and you’re going to help me roll bandages.”
Jenny’s head turned. See could see the men, their torn and bleeding bodies forming a writhing hellscape.
“Don’t look at them!” Valise ordered, “Look at me, no. Look down at the table. We have this bolt of cotton, we’re cutting strips of bandage, a hand’s width wide, and we’re rolling them, like this. I’m going to stay with you, and we’ll do this together. Just look at what we’re doing. Don’t look anywhere else, don’t hear anything but my voice.”
For hours, Valise cut the cloth, and Jenny rolled bandages. Another woman stacked them neatly, others came and took them away. Standing between the two women, shoulder to shoulder, Jenny felt armored from the horror, the repetitive work seeming to cast a spell driving it away.
Night fell. After an eternity, Jenny noticed they were creating a surplus of bandages, as demand was lessening. There were fewer screams from the men, as they were dying faster than new casualties were being delivered. In time, the meat wagons were parked and the teams unhitched.
“Is that the last of the men?” Jenny asked, “Have they collected them all?”
“No,” Valise said, “But it’s too dark to look for them. The rest will die in the field, or be found tomorrow.”
The doctors continued to work by lamplight, giving up one by one. When there was nothing useful left to do, Darla found Jenny and walked her back to the women’s circle.
“Hold out your hand,” Darla said.
Too spent to do otherwise, Jenny held out her hand.
Darla dropped coins into it.
Even in the half-light, Jenny knew it was more money than she had held in her life.
“What is this?” Jenny asked.
“That, my bonnie lass, is your share. You earned it.”
“But…Darla, where did this money come from?”
“From men who no longer have use for it. Mostly.”
“Darla!” Jenny whispered, “That’s stealing! Stealing from the dead!”
“We’re whores, Jenny. Do you think we work for free?”
“I didn’t earn it. I walked away. Valise had to rescue me.” Jenny tried to hand the money back.
Darla’s hand closed around Jenny’s.
“You tried.” Darla said. “You did better than most girls do, the first time. Besides, you’ll have your chance to redeem yourself tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Jenny asked, “Is the battle not over?”
“No, girl. The rumor is, Savannah is digging in for a siege. It could last for days.”
“Days?” Jenny asked, “How many days?”
“Too damned many. Take the money. Think of Meg. She can’t eat pride, and she can’t eat your guilt. You’ll need money, when this war is over.”
Jenny put the money in her apron pocket.
“Does this make me a traitor?” she asked.
“Don’t ask me to judge you,” Darla said, “From where I stand, I see a girl trying to stay alive, and keep her sister whole.”
“What will I do, Darla? When the war is over, I mean. We have no home to go back to.”
“You could prentice Meg to a seamstress. The girl is clever, and deft with the needle. In ten years she could have a shop of her own.”
“And what about me?” Jenny asked, “What will my fate be?”
“You could ride with me and Olivia. We’re heading out west to the frontier.”
“Olivia?” Jenny asked, “Who’s Olivia?”
“Sorry. Valise, if that’s what she’s still calling herself. Last week, she was Siesta, Marquissa of Madrid. The woman is as mad as an otter, but she always keeps me laughing.”
“I don’t know that I could be a whore,” Jenny said.
“There’s worse ways to spend your life,” Darla said.
“Really?” Jenny asked, “What could be worse than being a whore?”
“Being a wife, in my experience.” Darla said, “Although I did enjoy being a mother.”
Jenny’s jaw dropped.
“You’re a mother?” she asked.
“I was,” Darla said, “For almost an hour. I had a little boy. He died.”
“Oh, Darla,” Jenny said, “I’m so sorry.”
“What’s done is done, and sorry won’t change it,” Darla said, “Maybe you’ll be luckier than I was. Maybe you’ll meet a kind man with soft fists, and he’ll build you a fine house.” She tilted Jenny’s head up and studied her face.
“You’re a pretty girl, Jenny. Maybe you’ll be lucky.”
She leaned in and kissed Jenny, a long, slow, tender kiss.
“But I’ve learned not to rely on luck. In my experience, the only free women in this world are whores and widows. Ride with us, Jenny. We’ll show you how to seize your fortune, make your own luck.”
“Do I have to decide right now?” Jenny asked.
“No,” Darla said, pulling Jenny to her breast, hugging her, “But think about it.”