ocean

La Dauphine

They stand at the water’s edge staring at us. Thirty people barely clothed, but unembarrassed. An animal skin circles each hip, and a long plait of grass holds it in place. The wind plays with the pelts that they’ve tied to the belt. The man wearing  a garland of crimson feathers holds a spear out to this side, a signal to the children behind him.

Our ship, La Dauphine, would be one of many in the harbors of London or Lisbon, but here it towers over the ghostly white-barked trees that surround the savages’ village. A shadow in a bright pool. My shipmates and I are ordinary Frenchmen, a few Portuguese. The more experienced men assured me that the work on caravels headed to the New World was no different than those headed for Africa or Cathay, which proved to be true. But our reception in this place is silent and fragile.

Captain Verrazzano points to a group of men on the port side, me included. We are to go ashore. The others scatter to prepare the smaller boat and fetch vessels to collect fresh water, but I am singled out and told to fetch a box of gewgaws. I try not to think about my fear as I pad down the stairs to the hold. Tempted by the boxes of salt cod, I consider staying here until the boat leaves—no one would notice a missing dockhand—but I remembered my goal: to collect stories. These are the days I will tell my village about for years to come. I have already practiced the story of how the captain brought a few of us ashore, let us explore the land with its strange trees and birds. He picked a few red berries and told us to eat. Each man laughed as they made our cheeks pucker.

I trudge back upstairs and load the small wooden box into the boat.

Some of the natives walk back to their village after seeing our approach. The captain’s second-in-command, a man named Leclercq, gestures to the ones who stay. He holds his hands out, then brings them to his chest. He means it to look friendly. A few of the men sitting near me tell a story about the rogue waves that lash this shore. Like a blacksmith pounding iron, they say. Funneling my strength into rowing, I think only of the relief I will feel when I am paddling back to La Dauphine, back across the sea, back to my family. Then I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Boy, swim to shore. Offer them the box,” Leclercq shouts from the front of the boat.

I hesitate only a second, then scoop the box up and dive. The cool water washes months of dirt and sweat from my body. I feel a wave lift me up as I kick and chop the sea. The little box stays tucked in my breeches. Eventually, I can stand on the ocean floor, just my head poking above the surface. Dark eyes watch me. I throw the box toward them, see the small mirrors and bells scatter onto the sand, and turn back toward the boat.

Moments later, a large wave catches me off guard. I swallow seawater. I swim up, only to be pushed sideways and thrown onto sand, sputtering.

I feel hands grab my limbs and drag me onto the beach. A woman tears my shirt and a man pulls my shoes and my breeches off. I am soon naked, still coughing. I hear the whooping of my shipmates some four fathoms off, but I cannot stand, cannot run. I hear stones scraping together; a flame ignites near my head. I hear myself yelp, believing I’m about to be roasted alive, but the woman is talking to me in her strange language. Her words are smooth. The native woman shifts me toward the fire and hugs me to her side. I am shivering; she is warm.

After a while, I stand and wave to the men in the boat. Leclercq no longer stands at the front. They have not paddled closer to save me. The native woman shows me six red berries in her palm. She slips one in her mouth, makes a face. I bow as I put one in my mouth. I am familiar with their bitter taste. I smile back at her.

This story is based on the letters of the explorer, Giovanni da Verrazzano.

garden hose on pavement/gratisography

Evidence

Those glazed over eyes.

You know what I mean: that moment at a party when you realize you can’t remember how long you’ve been talking, and everyone that was listening is now either staring at hors d’oeuvres or smiling politely while internally wording their tweets about that boring guy who droned on for half an hour about the pros and cons of various genealogy tv shows.

It’s not happening to me as often lately, because I’ve taken genealogy off my list of topics to discuss with mixed company.

I know what you’re thinking: Screw that! Talk about what you want to talk about, and if they don’t like it, then they can just walk away.

Yes. But looking at it from the listener’s perspective, I get it. I remember history class, all those arbitrary dates and names. As someone who is not into sports, I have often found myself concentrating on suppressing a yawn at the back of my throat as some person I just met goes on and on about batting averages and World Series and I don’t even know what else.

I’ve realized that me and Sports Person were both making a mistake in presentation. We were trying to engage people with the particulars of our passions and not giving them any inkling as to what’s fueling it. Getting people interested in potentially eye-glazing subjects is all about the packaging:

“Hey, Sports Person, what is it about watching sports that interests you so much?”

“I guess I just really love seeing evidence of what people can do when they pull together for a common goal. I love following the stories of the individual players, knowing where they came from and how they found a place on a team, many of them having to travel to other countries in order to do so. Plus I connect to people when I see them doing something they’re passionate about.”

“Oh. I can completely get behind that. That’s exactly why I like genealogy. Tell me more about this sportsball thing.”

Yeah, that conversation would never happen around an hors d’oeuvres table…or anywhere else for that matter. That’s why I’m choosing to keep the subject in my back pocket except when I’m around other family historians. When I do mention it at parties, I try to keep it short and not bury the lede. But, since I have you here, let me tell you what I have decided to say:

My father didn’t know his parents. I started researching my family to find out more about them. I discovered stories and pictures and documents that filled in the holes of my family’s story. One photo I found was of my father as a little boy, a phase in his life that I’d never seen evidence of before.

Ralph Robert James206278_10150167032337612_6034898_n

I was surprised to find out I actually looked quite a bit like him (a fact that wasn’t obvious when I was a kid and he was a brown-haired and bearded adult).

Then I got a photo of my dad’s mother.

Mary Lou

I saw where my father and I got our blue eyes, and the way we set our jaw when we smile. I was dumbfounded by how obvious the connection was. I realized that the features I see in the mirror are hand-me-downs; they are not mine at all.

I learned that my grandmother lived in southern Missouri, and I read her account of living in the Dustbowl during the Great Depression. It made real those seemingly arbitrary dates and events I studied in high school: My family was there; they lived through it. I wish I’d listened better to those lessons in class, because they very much shaped my father’s upbringing.

That’s what I would say.

Or I might just tell the story of what happened to me last night. I received my paternal grandfather’s Social Security Application in the mail. The information it provides is fairly innocuous, but it is the first document I’ve uncovered that is written in his own hand. His signature ends the form like a period. The distinctive capital R, the serpentine curls of the e and s at the end of our shared last name.

It is my own handwriting.

The man passed away 2 years before I was born, and my father did not grow up in his house. But there it was plain as day: undeniable evidence of my connection to him.

To think that the chemicals in our cells can determine even the smallest details about our lives, like how we write our names. It’s just baffling to me. And these reminders that who I am is not completely in my control are comforting. Destiny, and all that. Making more of those connections inspires me to keep searching through my own history and to listen to the histories of other people’s families.

horseshoe crab

Scrimshaw

I wanted to write you a poem about horseshoe crabs,
how they are born on beaches, how they spend their lives
sheltered, underwater, and only reemerge when they’re old.
They trudge across their grave, their chestnut lives etching
wales into every grain of sand. Every beach is their archive,

but I forget about your summer house—in Delaware of all places.
You must have stepped over them on your twilight walks. I bet
you think of them as army helmets encapsulating the precious history
of the world’s disappointments. Or maybe you thought of them as pins
pushed in a map, marking the exact moment of abandonment.

If you ask them to, they will arrange themselves quietly,
using their tails as compass needles, to show you the way
to me. They’ll point to a tangle of seaweed, then a perfect
stone for skipping, and finally to a knife laid bare in the sand
at your feet. You will pick it up. You will drag the blade

through the center of a belly. No remorse—just think:
it was finished anyway. Just think: even those most protected
can’t avoid their end. You will tip the shell to your mouth,
you will drink the crab’s blood; and it will search your body,
each magnificent cell, to scour away the etchings I made.

Then you will continue walking without me.

(photo: walknboston on flickr.com; no changes made)

 

 

Photo by Ryan McGuire at gratisography.com

The Sponsor

AFTER THE “ALL CLEAR” SIREN echoed through the streets of the town, Zsofia and Piri emerged from a shelter and continued their walk home from work. Piri steered them a different way—down a street Zsofia usually avoided. They found themselves marooned between porches of makeshift halfway homes filled with men and women eagerly smoking. They were soldiers recovering from battles with the Ambassador’s armies. Each of them wore gold headbands, the rebel force’s insignia. The color—of scrum, of corn, of pride—symbolized the reasons for the war. Zsofia felt eyes search her as she passed. Could they tell her secret? Could they see she was not one of them?

One soldier, her hair in tangles past her belt, presided over a low table holding the dismantled pieces of a gun. A chamois cloth skittered like a hummingbird from part to part despite the fact that the woman’s hands remained at her sides. She snarled when she caught Zsofia’s eyes.

Zsofia thought of a wolf and shivered, but maintained her bearing. A reflex. After many steps, they turned a corner and Zsofia burst open: “Why did you take us that way?”

“I forgot they lived there now. I’ll make it up to you.” Piri put her arm around Zsofia’s shoulders and handed her a brown box with a wide, red ribbon. “Here. To celebrate your husband’s promotion.” Zsofia stopped walking to open the gift.

Beneath layers of pink crepe paper lay an elegant pair of shears. The lowering sun highlighted its ornamentation. With the blades closed, the ovals at the ends of the handles formed a lowercase g, as if its purpose was solely for pleasing the eye and not for the slicing of hair. Without thought Zsofia told her friend she couldn’t accept such an expensive gift: food and scrum were scarce, and Piri’s tunic hung so loosely on her frame. Everyone in the kingdom starved, except the people living in the Ambassador’s castle.

“It’s nothing. Mother left us an enormous collection. If this pair weren’t with you, it would be at the bottom of a drawer.”

Zsofia cocked her eyebrows at her friend. Piri reassured, “A beach can’t possibly account for every grain of sand.”

“They’re beautiful, thank you, but I only magic with water. What would I do with them?”

“My sister taught me how to cut hair using these…” Piri wiggled her fingers. “It’s easy once you know how. I thought I’d give you lessons every night after work until you’ve got it.” Piri took the shears from Zsofia. “And when we finish with the lessons, I’ll cut your hair, how does that sound?” She opened and closed the blades. Snip, snip, snip. “I’m told all the women of the Ambassador’s court wear their hair short. Shall we practice a bob so you’ll fit in nicely when your husband finally calls you to the castle?”

“I doubt I’ll even see courtesses when I’m there.”

“Yes, but it’s just a matter of time before you spend your days with them. Soon you and Laszlo—with your specialties—will be at the Ambassador’s elbow, I’ve no doubt.”

Zsofia felt a pang of guilt knowing she will leave behind her friend. Piri would never ask for an invitation to the castle, but Zsofia knew she hoped for one. Who wouldn’t wish to escape ration shortages and warning sirens? Zsofia knew that chanters like Piri were unlikely to be accepted within the walls of the castle. The Ambassador favored specialists. Zsofia failed to see why—they were all conjurors. What difference did it make if some spoke words and others willed their magic?

“Did you notice the witch cleaning her gun back there?”

Piri’s steps stuttered on the cobblestone. “Please don’t use that word. Yes. She could benefit from my lessons as well.”

“Do you think she’s heading back to war?”

“Maybe, or maybe she’s just getting married in the morning.” Piri snapped the shears again.

“She was telekinetic—why would she be fighting for the Rebels?

“No, her lips were moving. She’s ordinary, like me,” Piri said, before tugging a coil of Zsofia’s blonde hair. “Ordinary in magicking, that is. I’m extraordinary with shears. You’ll see. When I’m done with you, your sponsor will think you’ve always lived in the castle.”

 

LASZLO’S LETTER ARRIVED A FEW WEEKS LATER. On the morning of her interview for admission into the castle, Zsofia walked many miles in a storm. The rain squelched any excitement or nervousness she felt; it also drenched her fresh haircut. As she approached the massive wall encasing the castle, she strained to make out the crenelated peak of the tower against the sky. Aside from mountains, it was the largest thing she’d ever seen. Guards met her at the bridge; one verified her name, the other carried her baggage into the gatehouse and set it down next to three chickens. From that point on, Zsofia could not say where inside the castle they took her, except that when their journey ended her wait began.

She sat alone in a cavernous room the color of October wheat. An oak desk guarded her, its face marred with a stain. She wondered about it until the sun leapt into the room through several windows widely spaced along the far wall. A beam shone directly on the stain.

Eventually another guard came and asked Zsofia to stand. After she obeyed, he magicked her chair back and to the side of where it had been, and asked her to take it once more. He positioned another chair some distance in front of her. An ornate throne emerged from the shadows and heeled behind the desk. Then the guard with the telekinetic specialty left for a moment and returned with a man dressed in a purple coat. The coat had embroidered eagles the size of drop cakes stacked talon to head down the front. The man’s face was plump and familiar, his shoulders broad and sloping like flying buttresses. Her Laszlo.

She stood to embrace her husband, but the guard barked for her to sit. Laszlo smiled apologetically and then took the chair closest to the desk. Another eagle eyed her from the back of her husband’s coat.

The guard announced the Sponsor. Doors ahead of them parted and a tremendous woman entered, cape aflutter, and took the stately throne. Her long hair was magicked above her head; it lazily swayed with her movements as if she were swimming underwater. Floating opalescent lights spun and flashed from between the tendrils of her hair—it was the work of a very talented specialist, no doubt.

The caped woman addressed her small court. “You are Lazslo, the newly appointed deputy to the Ambassador’s vizier, yes?”

“Yes, Sponsor.” Laszlo’s voice sounded frail. He looked so different; Zsofia panicked that he was not well.

“And this is your wife, Zsofia of Vischla.” The Sponsor kept her gaze on the papers before her.

“Yes.” Her own voice sounded weak. “Yes, Sponsor,” she added, tightening the muscles in her abdomen.

“You, sir, are requesting your wife be brought into the embrace of the Ambassador. You have paid the three million scrum fee and have successfully petitioned the courts. Am I correct?” A flash of emerald light gleamed from her hair.

“You are. Thank you for your consideration, Sponsor.”

“Very well. Let’s begin. To be your sponsor for immigration,” the Sponsor cast her gaze upon Zsofia for the first time. “I must know a little about you. How did the two of you meet?”

“We met when we were young, Sponsor,” Laszlo said. “Before I was brought to the castle I was merely Laszlo, one of the Ambassador’s accountants for the town.”

“Was it always your intention then to bring your wife through when you had permission?”

“We hoped, yes. We are very lucky that it only took three years to garner the Ambassador’s attentions.”

“I see. And you, Zsofia, I notice you are rather thin. Are you ill?”

“No, Sponsor. Our town has been occupied by the rebel forces for many months. We have little there, but what we have we share.”

“When I last saw her she was glowing with health, Sponsor,” Laszlo said. “A few months within the walls will set my darling to rights.” Zsofia did not like the tallow drips she heard in her husband’s voice.

“Being from rebel territory will count against you, I’m afraid. Do you have any specialties with which to bolster your case?” Another flash of light from the Sponsor’s hair, this time amethyst.

“Yes.” Zsofia’s voice held strength. “I am a Water Specialist.”

“Splendid. We are looking for conjurors like you, to purify our wells. Proceed.”

Zsofia bowed her head slightly and showed her palms to the ceiling. Little by little, she summoned the moisture from the oak desk, the window frames, Laszlo’s chair. The droplets scurried across the expanse of the room to gather just inches from her fingertips. She moved them in circles, zigzags, chevrons, and then into an eagle which she made fly over and give her husband a peck. The Sponsor released one shrill cackle.

“Impressive, my dear. And what do you do in your days with the rebels?”

“I spend them at the bogs harvesting water. I spend my nights tutoring children and learning to cut hair.”

“The tutoring is fine, but aiding the enemy is not a good thing to mention in court. A better answer would be that you were finding ways to undermine their plans.” Flashes of amber strobed the room, matching the paint on the walls.

“The rebels were my only source of food, Sponsor, and the water I harvested also quenched the thirsts of my family, my friends.”

“Yes, of course.” The Sponsor picked up a quill. For a long while the only sound in the room was the scratch of its nib on parchment. Yet another guard came in and bowed to whisper in the Sponsor’s ear. Zsofia could not discern words or tone, but after he spoke the Sponsor set her quill down. “Deputy, it seems cutlasses were found among your wife’s things. Unfortunately, your prestigious position and her specialty will not hold against a conviction of treason.”

Zsofia rose and stepped toward the desk. “What are you talking about? I packed no swords.”

“Guard! Bring the weapons here.”

The whispering soldier returned carrying Piri’s beautiful gift broken in two.

“Those are shears. I told you, I’ve been learning to cut hair.”

“Carrying a weapon of any kind into the gates of the castle is illegal and shall not go unpunished.”

“But if I’d had ill intentions, it would be in my apron or strapped to my thigh, wouldn’t it? Please. There must be an office I can appeal to, a line I can stand in. Please, Sponsor, I just want to be with my husband.”

“There is no office; there is no line, Zsofia of Vischla. There is but one door in the gate, and I am it. It is my responsibility to adhere to the laws of the Ambassadorship which you have clearly violated. Guards! Take her to the holding camps. Keep the evidence.”

Laszlo finally stood. “Surely, that’s not necessary, Sponsor. We can… ”

“Do you question my authority, Deputy?” Crimson lights spun wildly above the Sponsor’s head.

Laszlo sat back down.

 

ZSOFIA VOLUNTEERS FOR THE WATCH. She started a few months after she arrived in the camp. In the daytime, her job is to inform the guards of daily arrivals and departures. It is a job she enjoys. One of the delivery men sings as he comes over the hill with his wagonful of onions and salt bread. His carefree demeanor has deemed him her favorite, though they’ve never spoken. The other prisoners are kind. They talk of the weather, of their families and their towns—but never of their court hearings. Zsofia has yet to see a prisoner leave the camp. When they found out she cut hair, they had someone smuggle scissors in—Zsofia guessed it was her delivery man. She cuts to busy her hands; she is not permitted to use her specialty. Laszlo sends letters she doesn’t read, she’s sure they’re syrupy with excuses. She doesn’t know that Piri has agreed to stand as a witness in her defense. She thinks of her friend fondly: Piri could not have known the betrayal of her gift.

At night, the camp is different. Her job is only to watch for dangers, although when peasant boys from the town nearby throw rotten plums and crabapples and slurs through the gate, the guards turn their heads. Still, Zsofia prefers the watch at night because that is when new prisoners are brought in. She can’t help studying their silhouettes as they trudge up the hill. She resents her searches for the slope of Laszlo’s shoulders among them, hoping, but not expecting, that he’ll come. Every day is the same.

Until very early one morning, Zsofia is surprised by two small reflections of light a little distance from the gates. They are low to the ground and remain the same width apart. The eyes of a wolf. Despite the safety of her position, Zsofia holds her breath and keeps still as the form creeps closer. A few minutes later, she hears a low growl behind her. Just in time, she sees the same wolf break across the camp yard toward some trash cans. She quietly descends the rampart steps and finds a hiding place near where she thinks the wolf entered the camp. She crouches, waiting for it to return. Waiting for it to reveal its secret. Waiting to follow it under the gate and out into the countryside.

**This was my entry to the NYC Midnight Short Story contest. The prompts they gave me were fantasy as a genre; weight loss as a subject; and a newly wealthy person as a character. The story received an honorable mention. I’ve posted the judges feedback here.