Issue 123 — Six Poets & Three Artists
In this issue, work by
Amirah al Wassif
Nominated for a 2021 Pushcart Prize
according to nature’s rules
50 barefoot men carrying
their empty pots
their facial bones
tell you about long ages of bitterly
shabby dresses, fearful eyes
ancient faces full of pimples
and shaky hands
50 barefoot men bearing their pain
looking for a way
to protect their feet
but the shattered glass
the dispossessed people died
and the rest were alive around the river
laughing, jumping, drinking
but the river has a sense of justice
so, it made a good decision
according to nature’s rules
and, dried up!
Copyright © 2019 by Amirah al Wassif
a woman looking for a tongue!
they said your voice should not be heard
we need a woman without sound
then I asked my god
o lord, do I count?
and he answered me in short
raise your voice and shout
they said we need a perfect doll
walking and stopping when we want
but I am totally tweety bird
so, I whispered: no, I cannot
they said the good girl knows how to
close her mouth
she always pretends to ignore seeing
revolutions in the north
or in the south
the good girl used to crawl
she must hide the bright side of her soul
good girl hasn’t any right
or even fight for her vote
the good girl could not contemplate the faint light
in the middle of the road
they said we need a plastic woman
but, I act like a real woman
so, they cried “be shy”
but, I insisted to fly!
Copyright © 2019 by Amirah al Wassif
as an African child
As an African child
I crawled on mama’s arm
Searching for an imaginary house
Which bears me with a fancy view
Of the coming clouds upon my head
As an African child
I jumped many times for seeing the clown
Who laughs and cries
Acts an excellent spy
With many children in their bed
As an African child
I saw the bitterness on mama’s face
And tried to chase
Her shadow before her cheek was wet
As an African child
I drew my plan on the clay pot
I insisted to fly
Asking my sun to let
The charming of justice light
And asking the darkness to rest
Copyright © 2019 by Amirah al Wassif
About the Author
Amirah Al Wassif is a freelance writer who hails from Egypt. She has written articles, novels, short stories poems and songs. Five of her books were written in Arabic and many of her English works have been published in various cultural magazines such as Praxies Magazine, The Gathering of Tribes, Credo Spoir, Reach Poetry, Chrion Review, among others. Her books in English include: For Those Who Don’t Know Chocolate and The Cocoa Boy and Other Stories.
Where is our ark?
Our place of refuge?
Where can we go when the earth shifts
When the mountains are moved to the seas?
There is a peaceful village
Close within our hearts
And to that quiet place
We bring our thoughts and fears.
We flee to the sacristy that rests inside,
Everlasting, beyond thought or understanding,
Copyright © 2019 by Elsa Bonstein.
If there is a value in America, it is ideals and philosophies,
not wealth and power. We will not keep those ideals here,
locked in our land.
When we say “Give me your tired, your poor,” we mean give us
your old, patriarchal, backward, non-functioning mores
and let us show you what liberty and freedom can do for your people.
Give us your masses of oppressed men and women and
let us teach them to read, to think and to reason, for we know
that goodness exists in the core of every human being.
If we do this, the beauty, the excellence, the giving
and helping healing heart of all people will grow, and
we will have a new world: free, abundant, kind, and caring.
Copyright © 2019 by Elsa Bonstein.
About the Author
Elsa Bonstein has been a feature writer for various publications and magazines. She has written two novels, Find Edsell, which received the “Mark of Excellence” from Writer Digest and Footes Creek, which is available as an ebook at Inkitt or at Bonstein’s website, www.elsabonstein.com.
Time of death was 11:56.
They broadcast the vitals of the men they were killing,
as if those failing heart beats were news stories,
as if those flickering lifelines were tabloids,
and their mothers and daughters watched them die
alongside a horde of slathering spectators.
Time of death was 7:20.
And the next morning,
the headlines told of their arching backs
and gnashing teeth,
they told of the drugs that we knew didn’t work,
that they used anyways, poison in vials set to expire,
like canned soup must be eaten before the date stamped into the tin,
except this was not tomatoes and cream,
it was life—
and this is what we call freedom.
Time of death was 10:33.
Killing men to teach them not to kill,
state sanctioned murders in sterile rooms on clean white gurneys,
and the men who write the laws insist that it is painless,
they insist that it is moral, that this is justice,
they say there is no pain,
but if they truly believed those hollow words,
they would not paralyze their victims before they stopped their hearts.
That three-injection cocktail that they call protocol
was not mixed for the sake of the man being killed,
it was mixed for the sake of the men invited to watch
Time of death was 11:05.
And this—this is what we call freedom.
Copyright © 2019 by Alyssa Cooper.
From this distance,
I can see things that were not clear,
when I was so close that your sweat was
clouding my vision,
condensation on my windows,
blurring out the details—
I can see the things that mattered more
I can see the things that mattered more
and from this distance,
I can see the things that stood between us like
precarious and unsteady,
the things that drove us apart, like nails
hammered into flesh,
I can see those columns of real life,
and it is impossible to navigate between them
and make my way to you,
it is impossible to find an end to the maze
that lands me in your arms, and that is
This is not a story.
I am no swooning heroine.
There is no neat and braided plot line
that leads me back to you,
no breadcrumb trail to bring me home,
there is no home at all, and that is
Copyright © 2019 by Alyssa Cooper.
Twin Sister to Elation
Tonight I press my fingers into
bruises, just to feel the ache; on
days like these, pain is twin
sister to elation, because at least
it is something, and bruises are
just blood learning to rot, learning
to walk, liberated from my veins
and building galaxies, just beneath
the surface of my
I am looking forward to the days
when I can greet the sun without
wondering why, when my hands
will not spend quiet moments
itching for elation, when I will
know that I am built of dying stars,
without having to be
but more and more each day, this
future seems like fiction, like fantasy,
like one of the books I always seem
to be writing.
The curve in my spine was put
there by hardship, and how can I
expect anything less from
the rest of me?
I am a bruise in the shape of a girl,
a monument of rotting blood,
begging for fingers to introduce me
to elation. I am a galaxy spinning in
flesh, I am soft white scars that were
were once open,
were once nothing,
I am nothing,
this is nothing,
the sun that begs me to wake each morning
And on these days, I would
give anything for something.
Copyright © 2019 by Alyssa Cooper.
About the Author
Alyssa Cooper is a Canadian author and poet currently living in Kingston, Ontario. First published in 2008, she is the author of four novels, a short story collection, and two poetry collections, as well as having her work included in various local and international publications. An active spoken word performer, she currently holds an executive position in the Kingston Poetry Collective and the Queen’s Poetry Slam planning committee. Visit: www.alyssacooper.ca
Ann Wore Her Lucky Red Cape
Acrylic, 36" x 48".
Copyright © 2019 by Phyllis Green.
About the Artist
Phyllis Green is the author of 16 books for young people, these include Nantucket Summer, Eating Ice Cream with a Werewolf, Bagdad Ate It, to name a few, as well as over 50 stories in literary journals. She has had 26 paintings of Women and Flowers at Beaverton Oregon City Hall during the last Christmas season and this coming season she will have five large paintings of European royalty from the years 1100-1800 on display. Ann Wore Her Lucky Red Cape is her first painting in a literary journal and she is delighted.
Today, and Italian right-winger attacked some migrants.
I don’t know any of the people involved. It happened
in Europe. Theoretically, I’m glad. It’s the only way
the Identity Movement will be effective at ridding
our societies of these invaders. Untheoretically,
I feel sorry for the victims.
Nate made his first notation in February, a month made for worrying, and worry he did. The optics were bad. He called Faustina Purdy.
“Sure, it’s a good sign, we don’t want a failure, Purdy. It demoralizes the rank and file.”
“You talk like a union boss. I think it shows the invaders we mean business. I say good for the guido. The rank and file need to know we mean business too.” He imagined her lips moving as she spoke the words.
Maybe she was right. So many people got fed up with inaction. When are we going to start fighting back, they always asked? I’m almost thirty! Yes, by the time people get thirty, most peoples’ lives get complicated. He kept his life simple. Clarity, he called it.
He listened to his recorded speech at last night’s meeting he’d just posted on U-tube. Self- congratulation was a bottle of twenty-dollar wine.
“Extravagant,” Purdy had said when she saw the check she’d promised to pay.
“I delivered a great speech, for Christ’s sake,” he’d defended.
“It ought to be great, it’s the same one you’ve given for ten years.” She was spot on, but how many ways and how many times can you say the government stinks? If they’d kept the pregnancy, their kid would be old enough to answer that question.
“Nate? Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here. Listen, can you check out a guy named Chambers? He ordered a t-shirt we don’t sell anymore ⸺the one that says ’Politics are great but I’d rather be revolting’ on the front.”
“So, shoot him an e-mail and tell him.”
“I’d rather not. I think he’s nuts.”
“Damn it, Nate! You think everyone’s crazy.”
“He sent a check for a hundred-fifty for a thirty-dollar shirt.”
“Alleluia! Ask if he’ll accept a substitute. Find out if he’s married to the slogan, or if it’s just a cover.”
“A cover for what?”
“Infiltration, ya’ goofball. Just because we’re not on a list doesn’t mean we’re safe from prying eyes.”
He saw the conversation heading down a one-way street called Nate You’re Incompetent Boulevard. He needed orange juice. He put her on speaker phone while he battled an inner seal. “Maybe, he’s for real.”
“Okay, then ask him if he wants a topic of conversation or really wants to help the cause. Call him and find out. Movements stand or fall on their funding. Gotta go. Love you.”
They were disconnected in every way since she moved out. Funny how happy she sounded. He should call Chambers. Personal contact was the cardinal rule of recruitment. His college football coach taught him that. But a text was quicker. He settled for e-mail:
Dear Mr. Generous. Requested merchandise not available. Can we keep your money anyway? My car needs new tires. Signed Desperately Flat.
Zap! Suddenly the screen read You Message Has Been Sent.
“Aw, shit!” He composed another:
Situation dire. Bad Joke. I’ll return check ASAP. Truly yours. Mr. Stupid.
Hopefully, Purdy would never know how screwed up he was. Depressingly, he suspected she already knew.
He found ways to avoid signing into his e-mail for Chambers’ reply. Call his mom, wish her a happy something. Sneak a cigarette. Make a to-do list. Polish his shoes. Go to unemployment for recertification. But, by noon, he had to bite the bullet. Purdy would ask him about the t-shirt ’thing’ when they met for lunch. He had to make the truth palatable if he wanted a piece of something for dessert.
Chambers sent a cringeworthy answer:
No wonder the resistance isn’t going anywhere, asshole. Buy the tires so you don’t kill the innocent. No fire arms for dummies like you with quick fingers.
He’d have to tell her. “Good news, Babe,” he said and slid into the booth, his hands laden with burgers and shakes. “I squared things with Chamber and got tires for my car—”
“How’d things go at unemployment?”
“I’m good for another six months. I’ll find something, I promise.” He’d made the same
promise to Helen Marks, his assigned Career Coach Saint.
“I don’t have time for a screw, tell me the truth.”
“I told Ms. Marks I’m a drunk. If I go to A.A. meetings, I’m good for a whole year. I don’t suppose you have time for a blow—”
Did she want him to be unfaithful? Obviously. When she went to the bathroom, he checked his e-mail again. Unemployment released his payment and Chambers wanted a meeting update. Things were looking up. He could pay for lunch. To Chambers he replied:
February thirteenth. 8 P.M. Gonzo’s Pizzeria upstairs meeting room. Bring your own beer. :)
The minute Chambers introduced himself, Nate knew he wouldn’t let Purdy near him. Too damn classy and way too intense. That he looked like a blond Superman made him seem like the movement’s messiah. He probably had a wonderful, lucrative career. Maybe he knew Helen Marks.
“We’ve got a new soldier in the struggle ⸺Princeton Chambers.” He turned to the guy next to him wearing soft linen slacks and a Van Husen with rolled up sleeves. “Do your friends call you Prince?”
“No, they call me Tony.”
“Tony, hunh. Are you Catholic?”
“It’s a long story.”
“So, let’s welcome Tony with a big round of applause!” The night was going to be tedious with Tony sitting near the dais, lounging in a folding chair and listening to every word. Here was a guy willing to donate to the cause but expecting to see results. What’s worse, he’d already told Purdy about him. Why were guys so damn proud of tires? Women were so much more practical. They were proud of scholastic records.
“He won’t last,” he’d told her on speaker phone when she called to ask about the meeting. He’d fishtailed on ice and decided to keep both hands on the wheel.
“Why not? You didn’t act weird, Nate.”
“We’re too radical for him.”
“Bullshit. We’re as radical as Mother Goose.”
“Well, then maybe we’re not radical enough for him.” The image of a dominatrix dominated his brain. How was he supposed to concentrate on politics and ice?
“You mean you don’t like him. Why?”
“Uppity. You know. Snooty. Snobby. Elitist.”
“Employed. Well dressed. Solvent.”
“Okay. What of it? The poor and the slovenly need love too.”
She’d sighed and said good-bye and brought him chocolate cupcakes on her way home from the Kroger bakery. She’d work overtime because some gal couldn’t find a baby-sitter and to make sure the store had enough product for the Valentine’s Day, and still realized he needed attention when he felt like a colossal loser. She deserved better. Daily, he prayed she never seek it.
America is like a big ripe peach, golden pink and as luscious
to the eye as it is to the palate. More tempting than apples, and
sweeter than cherries. Because of technology, people all over
the world have seen her beauty and her promise, and envy
her. Hate her. Look greedily and lustfully upon her. They want
to possess her, rape her, steal her riches and take her down.
It sounded exactly like what Nate had been saying that for years, but when Tony said America was on the verge of extinction, it didn’t sound like a weak warning but a call to arms. Nate stared into the young faces of the Soldiers of Struggle and didn’t recognize them. They’d never looked at him the way they marveled at Tony. Any fool could see America was becoming unhinged, but the attention they paid to this guy told Nate they now believed it.
He should stop their adulation. It was like watching them masturbate. But he was suddenly aware of who he was: the voice of St. John crying in the wilderness. He let Chambers continue.
We must fight, or we will die. The thousand years of genetic
evolution will come to an end, gone forever, unless we act.
What can we do, you ask? I will answer. Our enemies have
fewer resources but more courage than we do. They’re fighting
asymmetrical war and so can we. We must take precautions.
We mustn’t be caught, because there are so few of us now.
But we cannot let that paralyze us. That will change. Those
of like mind will find a way.
Chambers was right. That’s what he was. Paralyzed. Constantly reminding them of a bleak vision of reality while Princeton Chambers was showing them a heroic vision of victory. His words were brazen and beautiful. His plans stark, violent, merciless. Yet, they rang of truth.
We all must die, but it’s what we’ve lived and died for that
makes us magnificent. God triumphed over death to strengthen
our faith and hope so we can triumph over those who seek our
bondage. Rise up, men of America. Smite her enemies. I will
instruct you how when next we meet. Until then, think on this:
if the Founders were not willing to shed their blood for you, we
would still be beholden to a king. Do you want your children
beholden to international communism? Are you so afraid of
mortality that you will sacrifice your freedom for a moment
more of breath?
The room was silent when Tony left the podium, the young men sitting in reverential quietude as they steeled their resolve. The time for amiable socializing had passed. One by one, the twelve men collected their coats and their conscience and left the hall, leaving Nate alone with the usurper. The situation was dire. Nate knew because the men had left their beer behind.
“What will you tell them next week, Tony?” Nate demanded quietly as Tony headed for the stairs. Not that he expected candor, but he did want indications of where the de facto new leader intended to take the Soldiers of Struggle.
“I’ll tell them what they need most of all. Instruction on how to fight an ideological foe.”
“You’re going to ask them to jeopardize their lives?”
Tony had donned his camel-colored wool coat. “And their fortunes and their sacred honor, too,“ he said and walked to where Nate was sitting at the information table. “The SOS men have honest affection for you, but they need a commander not a comrade. Think on that. They will. Next week we’ll discover if they’re real soldiers or simply sympathizers. If they decide to be warriors, they’ll get one of these.“ Tony pulled a small flat white sack from his coat pocket and handed it to Nate. Inside was a 3X3 inch black patch with SOS embroidered in silver thread, and below the letters was a red cross on a white shield.
“And if they come down on the side of sanity?”
“They will have chosen impotence and annihilation and will get nothing because that’s what they deserve.”
Tony left. Nate heard his footfalls on the stairs, and the squeaky door leading outside open and close. He believed he was alone, but Purdy appeared from the dark side of the room. She came towards him, holding her shoulder bag close to her hip with one hand and her keys in the other.
“How long have you been here?” he said grimly.
“Long enough to understand that you fear Chambers more than you fear the Marxists, and why you should.”
“You know he means to blow something up, Purdy. A building, a courthouse, a school. . . ”
“My guess is something big. A mosque maybe, but what do I know?”
“Somebody’s going to get killed.”
“I think that’s the point, Nate. Body counts matter in a war of some against all.”
“We can’t let this happen. We have to tell the Feds. They’ll cast a big net, and I don’t want to be caught up in it when things go south.”
“Nope.” She put her keys in her purse and set it on the chair. There was a table to clear, beer and beer to stash in the ice-box.
“Okay then, tomorrow we call the FBI. Agreed?”
“You do that.” She stacked the brochures and stuffed them in the trash can. He swiped a cookie from a plate he knew was her next target.
“You don’t think we should turn him in? I told you, he’s crazy. Did you see this?” He held out the patch Tony had left on the table. “Weird, right? SOS. The man, the plan, the insignia. They’re gonna think we’re all Nazis, or worse, terrorists.”
“I think there’s no easy way out and no easy answers. There never has been. There’s only winners and losers.”
“No win-win, ever? What happened to all that I’m okay, you’re okay crap we learned in psych 101?”
She had everything in its place except for the tablecloth. “Elbows up!” He leaned back in the chair and watched as she folded the slippery plastic that had Happy Birthday written in script around the edge. They’d go home now. Alone to different addresses, he predicted.
“You’re a wonderful guy, Nate. But Chambers is a guy on a mission. Probably one of the few alpha males left in these parts.”
“You make 2040 Lexington sound like the Paris of 1789.”
She got her purse from the chair. Like a slo-mo sequence in an action movie, she brought it over her shoulder and ten-thousand volts shot through his groin. That was her sexiest move. Covering up after she’d let him have a peek at her. If this was a movie, they’d make passionate love on the table, and reminisce about it on their golden wedding anniversary. She was his goddess, after all. Who knew Venus was alive and well in Kentucky and working in a grocery store bakery?
“This revolution isn’t going to have dress rehearsals. Go ahead and call the FBI. Or the CIA, or DHS, or any alphabet from the ACLU to the UN.”
He hustled to keep up with her. “We have to stop him some way—”
She stopped so abruptly, he almost fell on her. “It’s too late,“ she said without looking at him, “Try to stop him and Chambers will kill you.” She walked on, and he didn’t follow. Her words had the ring of truth too.
Today, the Italian police arrested that neo-fascist who
killed those migrants. Over a hundred-thousand
people demonstrated against his arrest and the cops
used tear-gas to drive them back. The crowd grew to
over two-hundred-fifty thousand —;led by Franco Laganza,
an unemployed tailor. When Pope Francis called for order,
peace and tolerance, the crowd threw tomatoes at him and
shouted Viva Italia!
Nate made his second notation in February, a month made for fear, and fear he did.
He’d recruited new members since Chambers had come and gone. He’d been lots relieved, but a little disappointed that his guys had turned out to be simply sympathizers. On the bright side, A.A. meetings were so anonymous he never had to prove to Helen Parks he ever went.
“How’s it going?” she’d ask every six weeks.
“I’ve got a terrific sponsor.” It wasn’t a complete lie. Purdy stopped buying him beer. Not even she could afford luxuries when the economy nosed dived again. “If things get any worse, you’ll have to move back in with me,” he joked. It didn’t happen, but things got a hell’uva lot worse.
His mother had died from the influenza epidemic in September of ’40. At least the doctors said it was influenza. The only person he still trusted was Purdy, and she insisted it was cholera. “When did you ever hear boil water warnings with influenza?” she asked when they left the emergency room that drizzly Tuesday night.
Before she pulled into his dive-way house, the hospital called and said, “We did all we could.”
“Stay with me, please,” he begged. Four words that really meant he had no idea what to do when anybody died. What happens when you have no money to bury your dead relative? Should he call his ex-step-dad in Montana? How could it happen so fast?
She made him a cup of tea. “Did you notice the streets?”
Was she trying to distract him? “It’d be nice if they collected the trash on schedule once in a while. Yeah, I sort’a noticed.”
“Dead animals, Nate. Strays and little tree critters. Listen.” It was midnight and they could hear trash trucks stop and go down the block. They went to the window and watched the city workers shoveling debris between driveways where the cans stood. “When was the last time you saw garbage collectors in haz-mat suits?” she said.
He’d never seen it. Or maybe he never noticed. Living in a fog had repercussions. Had he forgotten Purdy’s birthday again? He felt his throat tighten.
By Sunday, the obits in the Lexington Times ran two full pages. Lexington’s population of four-hundred-thousand had been reduced by twenty-five-thousand —most of those were UK students. Between out of town parents coming to claim their bodies, and early rain, the downtown streets were impassable for two weeks. Then he got more bad news.
All unemployment appointments have been cancelled
until further notice. You are being assigned a new
career coach. You will be notified.
We mourn the loss of the following. . . Joan Apple,
Helen Marks, and Manny Ramirez.
“Should we leave the city?” he asked Purdy.
“And go where? Louisville? One of us has to work.” So much had changed, and nothing had changed. She still took care of him. Still had sex with him. Occasionally. But the wall was still there too, and it pissed him off.
He didn’t go to the FBI like he said he was going to do. And the guys who did keep coming to Gonzo’s never mentioned Chambers or his speech, and he never saw any of them wearing that stupid SOS patch, either. The guys were over him. Why did he get the feeling Purdy wasn’t? Were there meetings he wasn’t invited to?
He jerked off to Beethoven’s Fifth, proud he’d trained his body to wait for the crescendo, and finished off his stash of protein bars for breakfast. Maybe he ought to become an alcoholic again. He’d have a sponsor to talk to. He called Purdy at Kroger’s. No blubbering, he admonished himself as the phone rang. Five months of grieving seemed like a long time, but he liked his mom. She was a great Yahtzee player.
“Purdy, I’m pathetic, I know but I just wanted to hear your voice,” he said when she answered with a terse, yeah?
“I’m icing a wedding cake somebody forgot about. My customer is waiting at the counter— Nate, watch the news and I’ll call you at noon, okay?”
“All the news is bad. I saw a corpse today. The face was shrunken in and yellow. Twisted. Somebody didn’t want to die.”
“I love you. Watch a movie. Find something interesting to do.”
If only he had something interesting to do, a hobby like building model cars maybe. He wouldn’t have hit the TV ’on’ button. He wouldn’t have heard the ’breaking news’ from the kitchen where he was boiling water for tea.
The death toll is beginning to mount along the Mexican
American border from Yuma to the Salton Sea in
Imperial County, California, despite the Center for Disease
Control’s warning to the entire Southwest to boil all
drinking water. Hardest hit are the migrants crossing
into America after traveling in a hundred-plus degree
heat—the Border Patrol has set up watering stations
along known routes, but the discovery of thirty bodies
near the All-American Canal has sent lightning bolts
of fear through all residents who depend on the canal
water for drinking water—for many the warning has
come too late. . .
He stood in his kitchen doorway and watched familiar scenes of distraught family members in hospital corridors, traffic jams in hospital parking lots, and the gut-wrenching pictures of dying children being taken from their beds to make room for those on the floor. On the coffee table was his journal. Franco Laganza had almost half a million followers, irate Italians who were willing to hide him for a year and pelt the Pope with rotten fruit. Numbers. Body counts were interesting. Crucial, according to Princeton Chambers. Impressive to Purdy.
He downloaded and printed off a map of the U.S. and laid it over a cutting board on the living room coffee table, and stuck cork-board push-pins in the cities that had hit with ’influenza’ epidemics. San Francisco: eighty-thousand dead. New York; almost two-hundred-thousand. Miami: one-hundred-fifty-thousand. Los Angeles: one-hundred-thousand. All big cities. All with historically designated as so-called sanctuary cities. And now the border area where people depended on the Colorado River canal for water.
This was February. Why was he sweating? He hit rewind and slo-mo as the news report repeated, scanning the newsfeed for any dead animals. He didn’t see any, but he did see the graffiti. Mixed in with MS-13 and Crypts and Sinaloa Cartel, and the local street artists who’d marked their territory was the new guy in town: SOS. The authorities must have noticed it. He’d bet money it had shown up in every city where people were drinking themselves to death. Without an addiction.
He ran to the bathroom and threw up the protein bars. Purdy was right. His mom hadn’t died of influenza. She died of cholera. Purdy knew it. He was almost thirty. Just another three weeks and, yes, his life had suddenly become complicated. Purdy knew it. Purdy knew it.
His trembling fingers could barely push the number 9-1-1.
“This is the operator, what is your emergency?”
“People are dead, and I have to talk to someone. Send the FBI.”
“What people are dead, Sir?”
“The people in El Centro and Miami—please! Send someone, hurry! Christ, he’s going to kill me!”
“Who’s going to kill you? Is there someone in your house?”
“No. Just come. I’ll explain it when you get here.” He was sweating again.
“Do you have fire arms in the house, Sir?”
“A hunting rifle. But that’s not it. It’s the cholera. It’s the water. He’s poisoning the water, and she’s hiding him. They all are. I think. I don’t know.” He was dripping sweat but his mouth was dry.
“Just stay calm, they’re on their way.”
“Who? Who’s coming? I don’t need an ambulance. My mom died already. . . the last game we played? Almost a perfect game. She only had to scratch a full house.”
He disconnected. They’d find him. Technology could track anybody down, except people like Franco Laganza and Princeton Chambers. They had to be ratted out by cowards and traitors to the cause. Backstabbers like him who deserved to die. Would it be so bad? He’d be with his mom, if there was an afterlife. We all must die, but it’s what we’ve lived and died for that makes us magnificent, Chambers had said. It’s too late, Purdy had said. There’s only winners and losers. Was he so afraid of mortality that he would sacrifice his freedom for a moment more of breath?
He thought about the arm patch Chambers had made. S-O-S. Save our ship of state. Soldiers of Struggle or Sons of Saints. Had he chosen impotence and annihilation and so deserved nothing? Perhaps, he’d crawled too many miles and it was time to stand up.
“I’m an alcoholic,” he told the police. “I’ve been going to A.A. for about a year. Ask my Career Coach at unemployment. The new guy, Carlie somebody or the other. I just lost it this morning. My mom died in the influenza epidemic. I didn’t drink, I called you. I don’t want to be a loser. Hell, I’m almost thirty.”
They must send guys out in young/old teams. One cop had wrinkles and wore glasses. The other one looked like he’d just graduated middle school. While the Old Guy sat and talked with him, the Young Guy got the rifle from the bedroom closet and checked it for recent fire. He brought tissues from the bathroom, so Nate could blow his nose.
“You said something about cholera to the operator. Where’d you get that idea from?” Old Guy said.
He was smiling, but he was serious. Yeah, they knew the truth. “The night my mom went to the hospital, I heard a CNA say influenza was spreading like cholera. I don’t know what that is but is sounds dangerous. When I heard about the problem at the border. . . it just slipped out.”
“Do you watch a lot of news?” Old Guy was giving him a Santa Claus smile.
“No, actually I don’t. Too old for celebrity drama BS. My hobby’s maps. Look, what I downloaded this morning. See these pins? I’m keeping track of the influenza epidemics. You should have seen me during the elections. Kept track of all the primaries. But my passion is celestial maps. Weird, right?”
“It takes all kinds,” he overheard Young Guy whisper to the Old Guy as they walked to the door. “Pistachios. Filberts. Almonds.”
Let them believe he was an alcoholic, map-loving loser. Let them dismiss him as inconsequential and a harmless nut case. Maybe they’d stop by Kroger’s and buy some glazed doughnuts and Faustina Purdy would give them free coffee. Tonight, he’d tell her he wouldn’t be going to Gonzo’s Pizza anymore, because she was right. The rank and file had needed to know the Soldiers of Struggle meant business. Things had changed. The numbers proved it.
The Old Guy returned to the living room. “Have you drunk any water without boiling it?”
“Me? No. I follow government orders.”
What was this? Outreach in the time of cholera? Nate gave him a half-assed wave good bye. Then peered down at the map. Gonzo’s 8 PM tonight.
The last person he expected to see at an AA meeting was Princeton Chambers, but there he was sitting at the table near the podium, looking as composed and authoritative as last time. Gonzo’s was an equal opportunity hall. Bar Mitzvahs. Confirmation parties. Wedding receptions. Wicca, DAR, NOW —maybe alcohol was a secret weapon against diseases. Most of the audience was older guys in dark clothing. Not a pair of jeans or a t-shirt in the bunch. Old Guy motioned him over to a seat next to his.
Before he could take the seat, Old guy had him cuffed and two other guys had taped his mouth, tied his feet with rope and had jostled him to folding chair next to the podium. All eyes were on him, eyes filled with disgust, hate and recrimination. He hadn’t meant to rat anyone out. He was just confused. Panicked. Everybody was. And there was that book. Panic on the Pacific. The whole West coast preparing for the Japanese attack that never came on December 8th. The big fear was the water supply for the big cities. The dams had just been finished. If they’d been bombed, millions would have died—he’d heard about it on book TV. C-Span. Weekends.
“Now we have him, gentlemen,” he heard Chambers say. “The foolish Christ who saves humanity from its just fate.”
Cilivization is about water. Amniotic fluid. Oceans. Tears. Water basins.
“Yeah, well I think your Christ has cholera,” Young Guy said, and everyone in the room vanished except Purdy.
“I'll stay with you, you damn fool,” she said as she sponged the sweat from his face. “The one time in our lives we agree on something and it has to be when one of us is dying.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jenean McBrearty.
About the Author
Jenean McBrearty is a graduate of San Diego State University. She received the EKU English Department’s Award for Graduate Non-fiction (2011), and a Silver Pen Award in 2015. Her fiction, photographs and poetry have been published over two hundred e-publications, and in print. She lives in Kentucky and writes full time. Her works are available at Lulu.com and Amazon.
Hidden Falls, Patapsco State Park
Copyright © 2019 by Stephanie Sabourin.
About the Artist
Stephanie Sabourin is a photographer, teacher, and nature lover. She draws inspiration from the beauty found all around her. As the owner of Stephanie Sabourin Photography, she is frequently found photographing dogs and other animals, along with their people, in natural settings. Stephanie is a member of Professional Photographers of America, and she has been published in Wonderful West Virginia Magazine and on a number of web pages. She lives with her husband and standard poodle in Columbia, Maryland
When a Certain Age
if you’re a woman be prepared to be called
young lady, sweetheart, honey, dear, and
your first name preceeded by Miss as
terms of endearment; it’s best not to recall
those you used for others not long ago.
Copyright © 2019 by Carol Smallwood.
An American Icon
Blue jeans began in 1871: sturdy pants, duck cloth in brown
for miners using horse harness rivets to add strength necessary
for long wear, developing into eventual popularity world round.
A change to denim (a sturdy cotton twill) became a shakedown
when blue dye began the look we consider being customary;
blue jeans began in 1871: sturdy pants, duck cloth in brown.
A ribbing of diagonal design made a cloth that became renowned:
indigo makes the warp, the weft white, producing the shade vary
for long wear, developing into eventual popularity world round.
By 1960 blue jeans became high fashion, a designer meltdown
and collectors rivaled old gold prospectors in being monetary:
blue jeans began in 1871: sturdy pants, duck cloth in brown.
Then the distressed kicked in—the tattered, holes handed down
and patches haphazard; some mostly threads making them airy
for long wear, developing into eventual popularity world round.
Jeans now stretch but “tend to sag” after walking around town
my daughter said and may shrink when washed—quite arbitrary;
blue jeans began in 1871: sturdy pants, duck cloth in brown
for long wear, developing into eventual popularity world round.
Copyright © 2019 by Carol Smallwood.
About the Author
Carol Smallwood a literary reader, judge, and interviewer. Her most recent book is In the Measuring (Shanti Arts, 2018).
Edward M. Supranowicz
Copyright © 2019 by Edward M. Supranowicz.
About the Artist
Edward Michael Supranowicz has a graduate background in painting and printmaking; he is also a published poet. He grew up on a small farm in Appalachia.
Michael X. Wang
A Fascination with the Useless
That afternoon, when Jean-Philippe Duport returned from his testudine laboratory to his office, he saw his carriage driver, George, standing next to his desk with the Gazette française on a silver plate. The old Englishman was a servant from Duport’s late wife’s family, and he greeted his master by lowering his head and extending the plate. Duport took the paper, sat down, and unfolded it to the section listing future executions. A gust of catkin-filled wind blew in from the window, lifting the pages and scattering them across the room. George walked around the office and gathered them up, and when he set the papers back down on the desk, Duport took out his lucky charm—the shell of a baby leatherback—and placed it on the page of interest. Then he scanned the list for names he recognized.
“Are any of the Marquise’s friends on the list?” George asked, peering over Duport’s shoulder. “Perhaps I can help your honor recognize them.”
“Let me finish first,” Duport said.
A year ago, the Committee of Public Safety had guillotined his wife for being close to Queen Antoinette. Duport and George had received news of Simone’s death in the stables, while they were getting ready to leave for Paris to bring her to Toulouse. The messenger was a young butler-in-training, his earlobes sliced off by a bayonet, and he warned that the sans-culottes were executing people from the First and Second Estates without trial, that Simone was buried in one of many common graves surrounding the Tour du Temple. George cried before Duport did. The old driver had known Simone since she’d been a child, dropping her off at the girls’ Lycée every morning until she turned fifteen. His daughter had been Simone’s playmate, and his wife had refitted the dresses that Simone gave to his family when they were no longer in fashion.
Scanning through the list, Duport was not searching for his wife’s friends. He was not born into the aristocracy, and he wouldn’t have recognized their names even if Simone had ate every meal together with them. A professor of anatomy at the University of Toulouse, he had gained his nobility through his work with sea turtles. Eight years ago, when he was twenty-five, he had presented a male testutine specimen to Louis XVI, and in front of a royal panel, revealed that the reptile cried tears ten to twenty times saltier than human tears—the result of ingesting ocean water. The King had dipped his pinky into a silver bowl and tasted the warm liquid for himself, exclaiming, “Surprenant!” before awarding Duport a knighthood. Now, because of the situation in Paris, Duport’s experiments had to be postponed, and there were even rumors that the Republic might send dragoons to Toulouse and shut down the university.
“Professor Beaurieux,” Duport whispered. He looked up from the page and glanced around the room as if searching for a relative to share in his grief.
“Pardon me, your honor?” said George.
“My old mentor, Charles de Beaurieux, is on the list.” Duport rubbed the spotted shell. “I didn’t even know he was in Paris.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
Immediately he told George to ready a carriage northward. From a steel chest he took out one thousand livres and emptied the bills into an opaque wine bottle—a bribe for the prison guards. Then he changed into clothes his father, an asylum keeper, had passed down to him: an oversized sunhat lacking a fold, ripped knickers, and a patched brown suit with coattails frizzled from excessive shearing. In front of the stables, George remarked that such a uniform did not befit a man of knowledge.
“Good,” Duport said. “I am the last person I want to be.”
“If only the Marquise should see her husband now.“ George removed his hat and placed it on his heart. Then he went into his small room next to the stables and packed his bags, leaving the door open.
“Hurry,” Duport said. “We need to make haste before sundown.” He wrapped the bottle in a wool handkerchief and hid it deep inside the carriage trunk.
“Sir Philippe,” George called from inside.
“Shall I bring a carnation?”
“Since we’ll be in Paris, I was thinking your honor would like to visit the Tour du Temple.” He came out extending the petals of a huge white flower. He cupped it in his hands and held it before Duport. “To honor the memory of the Marquise.”
“A sensible idea,” Duport said. He stepped into the carriage and slammed the door.
The countryside rolled on like a series of hands, treeless hills protruding from lush, dandelion-ed plains. They drove on winding off-roads and through farmland, careful to avoid the thoroughfares where Republican checkpoints and avaricious highwaymen waited for passing nobles. The spring air blew into his compartment and carried with it horsehairs and the scent of manure. When they passed a deserted barn, the reek of old milk burned his nostrils.
“Do you think the prison guards will accept the bribe?” George asked from atop the carriage. “Won’t the risk to your honor be too great?”
“Stop calling me ‘your honor,’ George. Titles mean nothing now. Money, on the other hand, still holds weight.”
“To me, your honor will always be your honor. And the Marquise will always be the Marquise.”
After Simone died, Duport had wandered along the banks of the Garonne for weeks. He didn’t know how to grieve. They had been separated from each other for so long, he told himself, that he couldn’t possibly expect to feel true sadness. Still, it was necessary to make an offering, to commemorate her life through a physical activity, and so from his laboratory tank he took a young, recently matured sea turtle, one that he was planning to use for mating experiments, and freed it into the river. The Garonne flowed into the Mediterranean Sea, and from there, if the reptile survived, it would cross through the Iberian Peninsula and into the Atlantic Ocean, where it would be home again.
George’s grief, unlike Duport’s, was much more public. Duport noticed that the old driver was constantly in tears. Above his armoire, George set a silver locket with Simone’s portrait in front of a wooden cross, and everyday when Duport returned from the university, the first thing George did was walk into his room next to the stables and light a pair of candles so that Simone’s profile flickered like an angel trapped between the inner rings of hell. At first, Duport tried to take comfort in the fact that someone else was there to show the emotions he could not, coming into George’s room at night to hear stories about Simone when she’d been a girl. But after a month had passed and the candles were still being lit, Duport became increasingly embarrassed that his own grief did not match the old man’s, and he found himself harboring an anguished and unshakable derision: How could she mean more to one of her servants than she did to him?
Duport blew his nose into his handkerchief. “In a way, it’s almost a mercy that Simone isn’t here to witness the New France,” he said. “She wouldn’t have known how to live in it.”
“By your honor’s guiding hand, the Marquise would’ve found a way.”
Duport paused to find the right words. “Professor Beaurieux once told me that to understand something too well is to understand boredom. That is why God made the world so complex. Even a creature that most of us think about only a few times during our lives—like the sea turtle—is imbued with as much intricacy as the holy bible.” He wanted to add that people like Simone, those born into privilege, weren’t as complex or interesting as the rest of us, because they knew from birth what their destinies were. Like the angels, given infinite knowledge and perfect form, they lived an empty existence.
“Sir Philippe!” George called out. “Look to your left. Do you see it?”
In the distance, a cloud of vultures circled something hidden from view on the other side of a hill. Duport poked his head out and tried to catch a glimpse. The only thing he could make out was a wooden cross resting at the pinnacle of a stone abbey. He looked up at George, whose arms shook as he turned the carriage away from the hill, and knew that the old driver, from his height, saw something he didn’t.
“God bless their souls,” George said. With the reins in his hands, he crossed himself. “Not even the clergy are spared.”
As they sputtered away, the old driver brought his kerchief over his mouth and advised Duport to do the same. “The smell of death is infectious,” he said. “One could only let a certain amount of it into one’s body before one too starts the process of death. That is why the hangman’s purse is always full.”
Duport stifled a laugh. The pungent odor reminded him of his childhood at the asylum. He cleared his throat and exhaled. Then he breathed in a deep, satisfying lungful of air.
He had never averted his eyes from corpses, human or otherwise. He had grown up with his father at the asylum, often wandering to the outlying buildings where the dead were stored before cremation or burial. The warehouse had blackened windows and iron gates; sunlight came in gray and slanted, revealing dust motes that hovered above the corpse slates. As a boy, he pretended he was a knight-lieutenant and that the bodies were his injured soldiers. “The pain cannot be much,” he told them, kneeling before them and holding their hands. “Your sacrifice was made for the glory of France.” As he matured so did his games. He took notice of the causes of death—suicides mostly—and by the time he was studying medicine at Toulouse, he was bringing along stethoscopes and surgeon scissors. He made tiny incisions along the torsos, pulling back the skin to reveal the muscle fiber underneath, and when he was finished, replaced the skin as if no one had done a thing.
It was in the mortuary that he met Simone. He was sitting by her mother’s slate, his hand buried under the sheets, listening for the gastro-intestinal movements of the former Marquise. He was testing out a theory he had learned a week ago that the digestive system sometimes operated for days after the heart had stopped beating. With the stethoscope in his ears, he didn’t notice Simone until she was standing over him. He jumped out of his chair and took a step back, the figure in front of him so close in appearance to the body that for a second he thought he was seeing a ghost. “What are you doing to her?” she asked, swatting away his arm. The girl was sixteen, pale, and skinny, as hideous as a barren tree limb. Jets and rubies weighed down her neck. She looked as though she could fall through a crack on the ground and descend, like her mother, into hell itself. His father had told him the nobility lived out their limited heaven here on Earth, whereas commoners like them had eternity. When he regained his composure, Duport said, “I’m verifying your mother’s death. In his old age, my father often makes mistakes.” The girl didn’t respond, and he added, “Your mother is very beautiful.” The girl leaned over the body and replaced the sheet over its face. “Too beautiful,” she said. “Her beauty made her crazy.” He took her words for sarcasm, and when she left, he was sure he had offended her.
But the next day a messenger arrived on horseback asking him to be the Marquise’s personal physician. He told the rider he would think about it, adding that he hadn’t finished school yet. “You should take it,” his father told him that night over creamed potatoes and cubed veal. “It’s a very practical decision, very sensible.“ And so, at the age of twenty-one, he took her offer, leaving Toulouse for Paris. It was easy to let the Marquise continue to believe that he thought she was beautiful. She brought him to parties at Versailles and picnics in front of Notre Dame, and she didn’t seem to mind his temerity amongst her friends. She told him that his melancholic disposition made him seem deep and pained, and that the reason few people talked to him was because they respected his privacy. In a year they were married. Not long after, to his dismay, his father took leave from the asylum and traveled to Italy.
Even with the mobs picnicking on the lawns outside Versailles and the hideous wooden scaffold dominating the once majestic Place de la Louis XV, Paris at night still shone like a constellation bundled together by brick and cobblestone. The city’s loudest sections were those with the most torchlights, and as Duport’s carriage drew closer to the Bastille, one of the sans-culottes came up, grabbed the reigns of the lead horse, and escorted them to a wall next to the drawbridge where other carriages were parked. With his rifle he tapped on the door three times.
Duport stepped out and showed the soldier his papers. “I am a student from the University of Toulouse,” he said. “I’m here to see my former teacher, Monsieur Charles de Beaurieux.”
“Good of you to come now,” the boy said, lifting his cap and scratching his head. Duport was certain the boy couldn’t read. “Tomorrow these prisoners will be cleared out for the next batch.”
He returned the papers to Duport and led him across the drawbridge and through the cast-iron gate to an officer dozing under a half-lit chandelier. The officer looked up, weary, and seeing that they were no one he needed to take notice of, pointed to the podium next to him. Duport stepped over, dipped the quill in ink, and signed his name. Then they ascended a flight of twisting stairs, Duport stopping for a moment to glance out an arrowslit, spotting the Cathedral of Notre Dame in the distance, and when they reached the top floor, the soldier halted and told Duport that Monsieur Beaurieux’s cell was the seventh one down.
“I’ll be here when you’re finished,” said the boy. “Take your time.”
The corridor smelled like rust. Mold clung to the ceiling and drooped down the walls like pressed salamanders. His feet crunched straw; occasionally a long-stemmed one poked high enough to stab his stockings. Simone would’ve found such conditions unbearable, especially with her delicate condition. At the very least, he hoped that she would’ve been locked up with one or two of her friends, although that was unlikely, seeing that each cell he passed contained only a single prisoner.
When he got to the seventh one, Duport saw Charles de Beaurieux sitting on the floor, his back against the leg of his bed, feeding a piece of cheese to a rat. To his surprise, his old teacher wore silk knee-breeches and a green cashmere overcoat. The breast pocket was still adorned with the two Medallions of Excellence awarded to him for his work at the University of Bordeaux. A dyed wig sat impeccably on his head, revealing none of his natural hair. He lowered his reading glasses and squinted at Duport.
“Is it time already?” he asked. “I thought it was always held in the morning, when crowds gathered. I will only permit you to take me if there is a crowd.”
“Professor Beaurieux, it’s me.” Duport squatted. “It’s Jean-Philippe.”
“Jean-Philippe,” Beaurieux repeated. He scooted closer to the cell door. “Ah, Jean-Philippe! How have you been all these years, boy?”
On the way over to Paris, Duport had recited some comforting words in his head to say upon meeting his former mentor, guessing the old man would be scared, but now the words didn’t seem appropriate.
“Busy,” Duport said.
“Busy! Why, you sure have! Now a teacher yourself, eh? And a knighthood. What was it for again? Oh yes, turtles. Turtles, turtles, turtles.” Beaurieux laughed. “You’ve always had a fascination with the useless. Haven’t you, boy?”
It had been Beaurieux who had convinced Duport to switch from medicine to anatomy. Renowned for his work in pinpointing the nerve endings on a human body, Beaurieux chose Duport to become his assistant because he told the young man he had excellent hands, the steadiest he had ever seen. Whereas other promising students—even the calm ones—had at least a little trouble dissecting a heart or separating individual muscle fibers, Duport performed those exacting procedures as if he had done so all his life. “Hands like yours,” Beaurieux told Duport, “are not to be wasted on treating patients. Let the clumsy deal with the sick. The gifted should focus on discovery.” When Duport decided to switch from human anatomy to that of animals, he could tell his teacher was disappointed, but later that year Beaurieux didn’t hesitate to use his influence to secure Duport a spot aboard a merchant fleet to the Philippines. “You’re going through a phase,” he told him right before departure. “One day your foolish absorptions will end, and when that day comes, you look for me and we will solve the world together.”
But it hadn’t been a phase. Duport enjoyed traveling by sea. He relaxed to the rocking of a ship, loud Aeolous-charged winds hitting thick sails, and sleeping below deck in a hemlock that enveloped his shoulders. The ocean, the coral, the sand—they were the fingers of God directing him in his research, blocking out all discomforts. He found satisfaction in being away from society, from the rigid French hierarchy, and from Simone whose presence, friends, and demeanor was a constant reminder that he didn’t belong, however much she pleaded that he did. Upon his return, she was the one who recommended he present his findings to the King, and though she assured him that she made no attempt at persuasion to get him his knighthood, that he had earned his title through sheer merit, in his mind there remained a lingering and unshakeable doubt as to whether she was telling the truth.
Duport took out an oval package from his pocket, untied the string, and revealed a baked sweet potato. He slid it through the cell. “It’s buttered,” he said.
“Thank you. Little Louis will love it.”
“Yes, he’s my pet.” He turned around and pointed to the spot he had just sat. The rat was gone. “Well, he’s shy around strangers. I named him after the King. In this new France, they share a similar lifestyle.”
“You need to regain your strength, Professor. We have a long journey ahead of us. I’m here to get you out.”
Growing serious, Beaurieux dusted off his hands, reached through the cell, and patted Duport on the shoulders. “My boy, they’ve closed the University. Bordeaux lies in darkness now, run by peasants who guzzle wine from test tubes. They will come to Toulouse, too, and one by one the candles of France will be extinguished and our nation will be nothing more than a forest for the Gauls.”
Duport stood up, hoping his new height would lend authority to his voice. “I have a thousand livres in my carriage. The guards here are indifferent. My man can drive us all night, until we reach Brussels. There, we can apply for positions at the university.” He paused. “We can solve the world together.”
Beaurieux stood up as well. When they had met last, the two of them had been the same height, but now his mentor’s neck stooped almost perpendicular to his shoulders, and the top of his wig only reached Duport’s eyes.
“In a way I’m glad you’ve come,” Beaurieux said. “Let me tell you about my latest project.” He told Duport that he had come to Paris with a hypothesis. It was commonly believed that the moment of death occurred when the heart stopped, but he was now convinced this wasn’t the case. Before leaving the university, he had witnessed the Dean’s decapitation. The man’s head rolled along the wooden plank and rested next to a straw basket. And then he noticed something strange: The mouth moved for three to four seconds, as if chewing straw. He recorded his observations in his journal. At Paris, he got up every morning for weeks to watch the executions, jotting down notes that detailed eye movement and facial twitch. On one occasion, he heard a high-pitched wail, the woman’s lips opened to a near perfect circle. Confident the heads still felt pain moments after severance, he reported his findings to the Committee of Public Safety, hoping they might alleviate the situation by altering the form of execution, or at least reverting it back to the axe, where the sudden blow often caused unconsciousness. When he gave the Committee his credentials—“Like me, you’re all men of the Enlightenment,” he told them—he was sent here.
“I don’t see what good that would’ve done,” Duport said. “You’d only shave off a few seconds of their suffering.”
Beaurieux nodded, as if he had expected the answer. “When you count the thousands of people guillotined, it all adds up. Anyway, that is not my point. My point is that this is the project I will be remembered for. And there is a way you can help me.” He glanced around the cell, reminding Duport of a corsair about to reveal the location of his hidden gold. “I’ve made an extra copy of my observations,” he continued. “They are in my room at the Hôtel de Tuileries on the Rue de Rivoli. Since I payed until the end of the month, they should still be undisturbed. I want you to go there, find my notebook, and observe me tomorrow when they execute me. You should be at the Place de la Louis XV early to get a good spot at the front. Record whether I am conscious after the guillotine falls, and record the duration that I remain conscious. Afterwards, I want you to travel to Sweden and present your findings to the Academe de Europe, and you will tell them that I believed in my work so much that I let myself be one of the subjects. With my sacrifice, it’ll be impossible for them to avert their eyes.”
Duport shook his head. “Why not present your findings yourself, when we reach Sweden together?”
By this time, Beaurieux had walked back to the other end of the cell. Peering under his bed, he called out, “Where are you, Little Louis? I have a delicious treat for you.”
“Please, Professor!” Duport banged on the iron beams. “You’re not thinking straight. Let me help.” There was no response, and he added, softly, “I wasn’t here when they took away Simone. Helping you is like helping her.”
Waving Duport away, Beaurieux set a chunk of sweet potato at the foot of his bed. “Room 4B at L’Hôtel de Tuileries,” he said. “On the Rue de Rivoli.”
When Duport came out, George was leaning against a carriage wheel smoking a pipe. He asked if they should head to the Tour du Temple now, and Duport told him that his mentor had requested him to gather some belongings at the hotel he had stayed at before his incarceration, and that they should rest there until morning. George nodded, helping Duport up the carriage steps.
The Hôtel de Tuileries was a three-floor building wedged between a pâtisserie and a clothing boutique that sold colorful plumed hats. At the reception desk, Duport signed Charles de Beaurieux and payed for an extra set of keys, telling the innkeeper that he had lost his own while shopping at the market. The man, a veteran with a scar on his cheek and tufts of hair above his ears, stared blankly at Duport before handing him a new set. Duport climbed the stairs, George trailing behind with the bags on his shoulders, and when they reached 4B, Duport held the door open. The old driver set the bags under a painting of seagulls framed in brass.
Duport noticed the journal right away, pages ripped out and spread across the bed, a quill and ink dispenser resting on the pillow. He walked over and gathered up the pages. Then he unlaced his boots, lay down, and started reading. George made a little space for himself at a corner of the room, brushing away cobwebs and unrolling a leather mat. From his pocket he revealed the silver locket, and from his bag he took out the wooden cross. He set both items at the end of the mat, and then lowered his head in prayer.
Duport set the journal aside. He wanted to be able to ask the old man where he had gotten that pendant. He wanted him to move it, the cross, and the leather mat out into the hallway, and for him to sleep there until morning.
“George,” he said. “When Simone was alive, do you think I’ve treated her well?”
The old driver glanced around the room as if there must’ve been another George that Duport was asking. After five ticks from a cherry-oak grandfather clock, he said, “I believe so. If your honor still remembers, the Marquise wove you many shirts, and before leaving for Paris, she told me she wished you would wear them more often. I don’t think she would have expressed such a sentiment if she didn’t believe your honor loved her very deeply.”
Duport nodded. He wondered if it was enough for someone just to believe that she was loved, if the other person’s true feelings made any difference as long as he hid them well enough.
“How long were you married to your wife?” he asked George.
“Twenty-three years,” said the old driver. “But my marriage was one of convenience. She wanted to get away from England and I needed someone who wanted to get away from England. We didn’t love each other in the beginning, and it was only through having children and being cooped up in the same room for a decade and half that we realized it didn’t make sense anymore for us to part.”
Duport had stayed with Simone for three months after their wedding, before telling her that, if he didn’t finish his schooling, he would look back on his life as a failure. She had wanted to stay with him at the University of Bordeaux, but he told her that she would be a distraction. Then there were the trips to the West Indies, and she had wanted to come along as well, and he responded, “Distant lands are no place for a woman, especially one as fragile as you.” So she wrote him letters, and he wrote her back. They made plans to have children when he returned, even giving them names. Sometimes she pretended they were already born: “Monique wants you to bring her a pet penguin. Jean-Philippe the Second demands a shark tooth as big as his thumb. Both want to embrace their father, as does their mother.” In her presence, pretending had been exhausting. Away, he found it easy writing what wasn’t true.
And when he ran out of ways to escape her, she moved to Toulouse, and after two years of being together, he found himself, like a diver holding his breath for too long, incapable of further deceit. She followed him in the hallways, her wraith-like form a curtain blocking him from the brightness of the sun and the blueness of the sky. He wanted to turn around and shake her, wanted to tell her to leave him alone so he could work. She must’ve sensed his desire, because after celebrating her second Christmas at Toulouse, she told him she missed Paris, missed being around other nobility—words that made him hate her even more, since she seemed to have forgotten that he had earned a knighthood. She kissed him on the cheek before getting on the carriage, assuring him that she’d return soon, that she’d leave George here because she didn’t trust him taking care of himself. For the next few months he was again free and happy, about to begin research on testudine mating patterns. He kept a male-female pair in a saltwater tank with coral and sand. Just as he was gathering data, the King called for an assembly of the Estates General—the first in over two hundred years—and Paris descended into chaos.
Now Simone was dead, his experiments were cancelled, and his knighthood was worthless. During his presentation to the King, a pair of Swiss guards had held up the sea turtle while he stabbed the creature’s soft underside twice, inducing it to cry. Then came the flood of saltwater onto silver, followed by a thick, manicured pinky. Surprenant!
At dawn, the sans-culottes marched along the Rue de Rivoli accompanied by music: flute, fiddle, and snare. Dragoons in blue wool jackets and gold collars carried the new French flag—three bland stripes—flanking the procession atop lean, neighing horses. Wooden cages dragged by mules made up the rear, a steady barrage of lettuce, mud, and sour milk flying at them like a horizontal hailstorm.
From his balcony, Duport couldn’t make out the individual occupants, but he was sure his mentor was among them. George had woken up early to buy breakfast at the pacirc;tisserie: honeyed croissants baked with chestnut chunks. After breakfast, the two of them went downstairs, exited the hotel, and pushed their way up the Rue de Rivoli to the Place de la Louis XV, now renamed Place de la Revolution—as a banner hung over the statue of the Monarch proclaimed. A crowd had already gathered.
“Make way,” George yelled, walking in front and elbowing a path. “Make way. Important business. Important business.”
They passed children, beggars, and old men whose eyes were so wrinkled they barely opened. “Excuse yourself,” a woman yelled at Duport. He looked down and saw that he was standing on the sleeve of a sweater the woman was knitting. As they neared the front, Duport felt a strange tickling along his chest, and when he bowed his head he saw a freckled young man reaching into his breast pocket trying to steal his wallet. George pushed the boy down and spat on his face.
It took half an hour to reach the knotted hemp that prevented the mob from getting closer to the scaffolding. Familiar with death, Duport had expected to feel no apprehension before the executions. But at that moment, surrounded by all the people, he realized that he had always been alone when he had interacted with death, save for the times when his father had called him in for dinner and that one instance when Simone had startled him. Even the autopsies he had performed during medical school were done with five or six onlookers at most. He had never been to an execution before, and the public nature of it—the spectacle—contradicted his certainty that death should be a private affair.
Bugles signaled the arrival of the condemned. A magistrate wearing a wig and black velvet robe took his place next to the guillotine. He unrolled a sheet of paper, cleared his throat, and in a steady, bass-filled tone he read out loud: “Ceacute;cile-Aimeacute;e Renault. Age: nineteen. Found guilty of attempting to assasinnate the honorable deputy Maximilien Robespierre.“ He nodded to an unseen man behind the scaffold, and then two guards dragged up a dimunitive girl in a dirty gray bonnet, prompting the snares to initiate their trebble. The mob booed.
“I can’t look,” George said. He turned around. “Tell me when it’s over.”
“I think you’ll know,” said Duport.
One of the guards tilted up the girl’s head. She had flushed cheeks and healthy blue eyes. Her face was more round than oval, and besides her slim figure she did not resemble Simone in the least. Yet her very presence before the scaffold allowed Duport to picture Simone there too— an image, he came to realize, that he hadn’t imagined or even thought to imagine before now. “I have something to say,” the girl said, and the magistrate silenced her immediately. “Who do you think you are, royalty?” The crowd echoed the magistrate’s response, and soon a chant started: “Down! Down! Down!” The snares picked up again, their rhythm getting louder and faster. The girl was laid across the wooden plank, one guard pressing her head still while the second brought down the other half of the neck frame to secure her in place. The magistrate raised his arm. For a moment the mob remained quiet. The snares stopped, and the blade dropped with a whistle. The girl’s head rolled forward, toward Duport, and he tightened his grip on the hemp, holding himself up, to get a closer look. Her eyes stared in two different directions, and after three seconds, her mouth emitted a cough.
There came an eruption of laughter. Duport, glancing at those around him, wished they would all go away. Why were they cheering? Did they receive joy from knowing that a beautiful girl was dead and they were alive? Again, he tried to imagine the day that Simone had been here. He hoped that, because she was far less beautiful, the mob took far less pleasure from watching her die. After all, what other emotion couldn’t be amplified by that penultimate one: jealousy?
“I’m sorry, Sir Philippe, but you must permit me to go back to the hotel,” George said.
Duport nodded. If it weren’t for his mentor’s request, he would’ve done the same.
The magistrate read off the next name—“Lawrence Blanche, thirty-five, treason”—and then another—“Pierre Gouche, nineteen, treason”—and so on, and as execution after execution were carried out, Duport staring intently and making a mental note of how long each head remained conscious after decapitation, it was almost as if they were chopping off his own head, only for it to regenerate, like a salamander’s tail, and be chopped off again. He was a hydra, sent to some inner circle of hell to be tortured for the sins he committed. And he didn’t know the people that surrounded him, people young and old, man and woman, smart and stupid, people who shared nothing in common with each other except for their enthusiastic glee at watching him suffer. By the thirty-fifth execution of the day, he was almost convinced his mentor wasn’t going to show up.
“Charles de Beaurieux,” the magistrate announced. “Age: seventy-three. Treason.” His mentor wore the same clothes as the day before, though they had taken away his white wig and Medallions of Excellence, and he appeared not like a man of knowledge but more like a drunk who hadn’t finished a book in his life. He had a worried expression on his face, searching the crowd until he came upon Duport, and then his brows relaxed and the corners of his mouth curved up to a smile. As the guards laid his body on the plank and clasped the neck-frame over his head, his eyes never wandered from Duport. The grin on his face prompted additional outrage from the mob, and one man jumped up from the crowd and shouted, “Do you have no shame?”
Duport returned his mentor’s smile. From his pocket he took out a pre-inked quill and the last page of Beaurieux’s notebook. The magistrate raised his arm, the snares stopped, and the blade fell. The head rolled three full circles before coming to a halt and resting on its right ear. A dribble of snot hung from the upper lip, but otherwise the grin remained intact. In five seconds Duport counted eleven blinks: the span of several lifetimes.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael X. Wang.
About the Author
Michael X. Wan’s fiction has appeared in The New England Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Prick of the Spindle, among others, and his fiction has won an AWP intro Award and been featured in the Best American Short Stories’ Distinguished Stories List. He is currently an assistant professor of creative writing at Arkansas Tech University and is revising a novel that is set during the Chinese Communist Revolution.