Without you, I am a husk of self and covering myself in silk won’t help nor tasseling up to a bright, blue sky. Kettle corn medley ballad slow and unending eat your fill of my misery and you’ll sleep sound tonight.
This is no book of happy endings. All unresolved cliffhangers and bitter diatribes. Jonathan Swift has nothing on me and as one generation passes, one generation rises. Always unsteady, they run headlong to death and everything after.
Here I stand, daughter of the king of the world, speechless, head in my hands. His head in my hands.
There are only so many mountain songs, only so many honeyed words. We’ve used them up, the air is stale with milk curdling humidity, yellow-white algae down deep in our lungs and we choke on every swallow.
The ocean recedes, the sun (the holy ghost) conspires against us. I can only play pretend for so long and then forgetting myself, stumble on a word or two and incite a rage that burns us up like wildfire.
Silence. Like a calm before a storm, before the sky turns grey as cinders, before the clouds break and pour their wrath upon a dusty and parched earth. Her unlined hands and delicate fingers too, customarily moving, over a bit of cloth, over a piece of fruit, over lines on a page, stilled. But then she heard it, deep in her head, growing louder in her ears, the sound of hooves against the plains. Low in the distance like thunder, but there was no mistaking it. A horse and rider riding fast to Grendl Castle.
Epherius? The snow white flanks of the horse and the proud posture of its rider took shape in her mind’s eye. How long since she had seen that stallion in the flesh? Or its rider? She could not answer her own questions with any clarity and opened her eyes.
And there stood Lord Craven, watching her intently from the doorway. She hadn’t heard him come down the hallway, had not felt his presence. Her mind had been too far away and she too clumsy in letting it wander. The expression on her face must have given her away or perhaps the master of Grendl Castle could slip into her mind without invitation now.
“For one once so talented, Mika, you have fallen far. From unimaginable heights. Your mind wanders and I hear it doing so,” he spoke deliberately, with an edge of malice and ridicule behind his words, as if she were a novice once more. He steeled his expression.
Mika felt a burning sensation near her eyes, on the sides of her head, and unbidden, salt water momentarily blinded her vision. And she could think of nothing but green hills, and gilded chambers and grass rolling in westward winds. A solitary hemlock tree stood outside the city walls on the side of a hill. Two little girls, twins, in matching green dresses with black trim, sat beneath the hemlock tree. The first, Mika’s sister Freyja, held a doll with button eyes and yellow hair, the color of wheat fields at harvest. The other, Mika herself, grasped a bouquet of blood red flowers in her fist. Trilliums. The caustic flowers that grew on the graves of their forefathers.
Get out of my head!
A small sound escaped Mika’s lips, the short intake of breath, but she said nothing and did not let her eyes sway from Lord Craven’s, even as two lonely tears marched down the sides of her face. He tipped his head slowly, mocking her with abandon, “Be careful, my dear. Soon you won’t have any secrets left.”
He turned and walked from her private chambers. Mika covered her mouth with her hand and for a moment more contemplated absolute silence. But the thunderous sounds in her head would not stop. Indeed, Epherius, the son of the king of Baerhim, her own nephew, crossed the plains to Grendl Castle. Disgusted by her weakness, she brushed her fingers across her lips, as if wiping a bad taste from her mouth.
Father of my fathers…she rose and walked to the window, looked down upon the steps leading up to the black tower. Save me from myself.
One of my flash fiction pieces has been included in the April 2012 edition of Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine, published by the University of Chester. See above link for more information.
Brave new world with nothing in it, lotus flowers wilt and die screw your savage lust, Miranda do it while the moon is high and no one sees but fool and father, conjures up his thunderstorm with tree sprite lady, virgin fairest sings and winks but will not lie.
WHEN the game began between them for a jest,
He played king and she played queen to match the best;
Laughter soft as tears, and tears that turned to laughter,
These were things she sought for years and sorrowed after.
Pleasure with dry lips, and pain that walks by night;
All the sting and all the stain of long delight;
These were things she knew not of, that knew not of her,
When she played at half a love with half a lover.
Time was chorus, gave them cues to laugh or cry;
They would kill, befool, amuse him, let him die;
Set him webs to weave to-day and break to-morrow,
Till he died for good in play, and rose in sorrow.
What the years mean; how time dies and is not slain;
How love grows and laughs and cries and wanes again;
These were things she came to know, and take their measure,
When the play was played out so for one man’s pleasure.
The Lord said to my lord a penny for your thoughts, he said and wandered up the riverbed dry and droughted, fish all dead an old man bent and white of head dug in the mire, picked out a stone a white and weathered piece of bone dropped in his pocket, took it home said this is what we mend.
Broken men and women make poor companions and there’s no fixing this.
We are done, you and I.
All eternity seems to shudder at the thought, thinking I jump ship too soon.
The infested waters beckon beneath.
I want to be devoured, I want— these damn memories to wilt, pulled out by the roots and left drying in the sun. Maybe then, this page, hitherto stained in my life’s blood will turn white and clean once more— empty, and happy to remain so.
“So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. And there has been no day like that, before it or after it, that the Lord heeded the voice of a man.” –Joshua 10:13-14
The plea of a woman, however…
April 12, 1912
I had such a headache. And the unmitigated midday sunlight streaming viciously through the port side windows only made it worse. Just before lunch, as I made my way down to the dining salon, I felt the first pains of a slight burning sensation behind my eyelids. Now, with appetizers yet to be served, heavy throbbing on the left side of my head heightened the shriller sounds of long-winded diners, fast-moving waiters and clattering silverware against fine bone china. I squinted behind dark tinted glasses and forced myself not to grimace. I almost asked the young man across from me—Mr. Taylor, was it?—if he’d mind exchanging seats, but I restrained myself and was subdued for much of lunch.
The cracking ice in my glass of water proved a soothing distraction. The blue threads forming the seam line on the cuffs of my French day dress were likewise privy to my attention for an extended period of time. As was the lace edging falling back over my small wrists. My hands lay upturned in my lap and I studied them with too much interest. The lace was not nearly as intricate upon close inspection. The repeated pattern had a heavy-handed quality that came together inexactly at the edges. Pious Belgian nuns and their lauded skills at needlework lost most of my respect as I turned my wrists slowly under paining, petty eyes.
They’re sacrificing quality for quantity. I thought cynically, the absurd notion of black clad brides of Christ turning an unrighteous profit at the expense of my particular set of lace edged cuffs enough to lessen the aching deep within my head. I might have pleasantly toned out the surrounding noise of the dining salon. I could have entertained calculations of overhead costs procured by the Sisters of Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy and weighed them against their probable use of cheap labor supplied by the small, nimble fingers of an army of Flemish orphans. This might have kept me sufficiently distracted throughout the afternoon. The assault against my head and eyes might have receded with each passing minute.
But when my brother started talking about his latest vision—his goddamn Acropolis, for all its trappings—I couldn’t help but bring my hand up to my left temple to vainly try and massage away the pain. My head dipped down instinctively, and under the wide-brimmed, elaborately designed hat I wore, with its large but tasteful assortment of blue and grey-colored silk flowers and brocaded black ribbons, I attempted to hide any telling movement. Joseph Callahan, seated in the red velvet trimmed dining chair to my immediate right, noticed nonetheless and leaned his tall frame a few inches in my direction.
“Are you unwell?” he asked discreetly, his soft Irish voice overly familiar in my ears. With a quick nod, I answered that I was fine. I dropped my hand from my head immediately, adjusted my small-rimmed, dark-tinted glasses and forced a smile to persuade the sympathetic Irishman that it was so. To act otherwise would invite questions from him that I’d rather not answer. I was not yet willing to admit, to myself or anyone else, that these headaches were becoming more frequent and that the dimming of my eyesight, hitherto a slow and steady march towards eventual blindness, was fastly approaching its inevitable conclusion. This was not a subject for breezy, superficial luncheon conversation.
Joseph Callahan looked at me skeptically but said nothing more.
“She will be the first of her kind, history in the making,” my brother continued from the head of the table, sharing his most recent and, arguably his most grandiose vision for the company’s future: air travel. In his enthusiasm, he glossed over anything concrete or practical and there was more fairy tale in his conclusions than fair assessments but his charismatic manner was well suited to this sort of discourse and his audience paid rapt attention in any case. The guests at our table, Lord Foster, his wife and niece, Mr. Taylor and Maggie Brown were well entertained. My brother’s business partner, Bruce Ismay, his longtime shipbuilder, Joseph Callahan, and his personal secretary and only sister, yours truly, had heard this all many times over and were much less interested.
John’s well-groomed mustache twitched with a self-assured smirk beneath it. “It’ll be a feat of engineering, much like our Mr. Callahan here accomplished by creating the very vessel we find ourselves in presently.” Joseph Callahan brought his glance up sharply at the sound of his name and he grimaced ever so slightly, uncomfortable with the attention John had just cast his way. A passing resentment flickered across his intelligent face but dissipated quickly like ripples in a pond of still water.
“Well…” Joseph glanced down and adjusted the place setting before him, lining the edge of his butter knife more precisely tangent with the empty plate beside it. He slipped the pressed white napkin from beneath the silverware and unfolded it into his lap. He muttered, “It is what it is. Feat of will more than anything.”
“Feat of finances,” I corrected under my breath, watching his steady hands return to the place setting. He moved the smaller of both plates circularly by a few degrees before returning them to dormancy. My gaze lingered on the unspoiled white faces of the dinner plates, Joseph Callahan’s and then my own. The single silver ring that trimmed the edges of the china used in the dining salon had a simple design, absent in most of the gaudy, overdone trimmings in this room and on this ship. I wondered if this manifestation of understated elegance was intentional or an oversight during the outfitting of the kitchens weeks prior. Considering the tastes of the powers that be, the latter seemed more likely.
“But an airship, John!” Bruce Ismay commented animatedly from the other side of the table, seated at my brother’s right hand, as always. He raised one arched eyebrow, unconvinced, and nervously intertwined his long, pale fingers before him, both wrists resting on the edge of crisp white table linen. He fidgeted in his seat as was his habit whenever John Ashley talked business. “You’re reaching high this time.”
“No other way to reach, Bruce.” My brother John signaled a nearby waiter with a bold flick of his forefinger. The young, uniformed waiter hopped to his side with an enthusiastic two step. The young man was nearly a boy, a gold fuzz where his beard should be. Although granted, the full bearded man had fallen out of favor in the last ten years. A well-shaped mustache showed breeding and a man who took care with his appearance. This is what the ladies’ magazines were printing as gospel. I studied the men at our table critically. John and Bruce Ismay held true to fashion, with an even cut and ends twisted up just enough. The young man across from me claimed a thinner version. The other two, however, were dismal disappointments to those editors of the ladies’ magazines. Lord Foster’s thick, curly side burns and wild mutton chops were a throwback to yesteryear and Joseph Callahan was nearly clean shaven.
My brother held out his empty wine glass without meeting the server’s gaze. The fermented juice of stout-hearted Sicilian grapes sloshed from carafe to glass. With rapt, misplaced attention, I watched from the other end of the long, ornate table and imagined the chilled liquid washing over my burning eyelids.
“It does sound a bit crazy, Johnny,” Maggie Brown admitted, from his left side. “Who ya gonna have captain this thing…Jules Verne?” This elicited hearty, good-natured chuckles from Mr. Taylor and the posture-conscious girl beside him, Lord Foster’s nineteen-year-old niece. Oh God, I couldn’t think of her name either. I was flirting with senility and had yet to turn thirty. The thought depressed me and I forgot to respond to the joke. Joseph Callahan smiled and both Lord Foster and my brother laughed appropriately, placating the American woman as she continued. “If we were meant to fly, son, I think we’d have wings.”
“I’m sure our forefathers had similar qualms about ocean travel, and this—” John waved a free hand at the splendor of first class dining surrounding us. The full reception area sat five hundred at capacity. Wine-colored carpets contrasted against peanut white walls and expensive oak tables outfitted with crisp cream table linens. The ceilings were high and the windows were numerous. That damnable light filtered in from each side, illuminating the entire place naturally although electric lights were equipped throughout and candles were customarily lit at dinner. There were nearly fifty servers, all wearing pressed and fitted uniforms, clean and white, with gold trim piping and polished footwear. They hovered with house wine bottles at the ready. Plates and glasses stayed empty only so long. Steaming, mouth-watering platters drifted by, hefted high in the capable hands of busboys and waiters.
John finished smugly, “This is my answer.”
“And good enough answer, I’d say.” Lord Foster not surprisingly concurred. He was one of my brother’s oldest friends and his steadfast enabler.
“Don’t forget your foremothers. I’m sure they had a few concerns of their own.” Maggie Brown grinned in too good a humor. She hiccupped on too much white wine and took a breath before continuing, “But it gets us from here to there, doesn’t it?”
I spoke then, compelled by a passing impulse and my inherent distaste for Maggie Brown’s very American worldview.
“If the object were merely to get from ‘here to there,’ the shipbuilders”—I met the gaze of Joseph Callahan evenly—“and the ship owners”—my eyes broke their tryst with Joseph Callahan slowly. Over the rims of my dark-tinted glasses, I looked between my brother and Bruce Ismay—“would be no more than artisans on an expensive budget. This is about efficiency in transatlantic commerce and profit. That is…the non-human cargo on this ship.” I was speaking up for the first time that day, and all eyes had swiveled towards me. Now committed, I finished flatly, “The sea is a cruel mistress, Mrs. Brown. Very fickle and very expensive. I see no great leaps in looking to the sky for alternatives.”
I sighed and regretted speaking so frankly as soon as I had finished. Mr. Taylor and Lord Foster’s niece appeared to consent; Joseph Callahan regarded me thoughtfully. I could not see Maggie Brown’s responsive expression because I anticipated my brother’s sneer and had already turned towards it.
“What are you going on about, Mary Catherine?” he said without requiring a response. His dismissal of me was neither uncommon nor unprecedented and the expression on my face remained passive. Twenty-nine years as the sister of John Ashley would turn even the most lively and happy soul sour.
Waiters arrived with heavy cream soups, oysters and salads. I leaned in my seat so that the young man at my elbow could place the bowl of fresh greens before me. I thanked him absently, too focused on John’s incessant voice to offer more.
“You see, my friends, this is luxury. This is what separates us from the beasts of the field.” John was apparently in a jovial mood, grand-staging and making speeches. The wine only loosened his tongue more obscenely.
My fork hovered over the lettuce and sliced beets beneath it. Did he honestly just say that? Another waiter served Joseph Callahan, placing the steaming, hot bowl of broth on the smallest of those elegant plates. The waiter wore white gloves, stained on the forefinger and thumb from sloshing liquids and spilled soup. High and ever impractical fashion is the bane of laundresses everywhere.
“This is what I think, and forgive me if I engage in too much rhetoric,” Mrs. Foster commented in turn. “I know there’s been some discussion about the way you’ve structured the decks and these discussions always seem to drift into serious debates…but I think you’ve done a great service in making this voyage affordable to the less fortunate.”
“One does what one can, Mrs. Foster.” John took a drink.
“Oh, quite,” came a young woman’s honey-sweet voice. Across the table, Lord Foster’s niece (Kate?) shook her blond tresses with an unconscious roll of her mint green eyes. She was being facetious. We all heard the thinly veiled sarcasm in her short answer. I exchanged a glance with Mrs. Foster, whose lips were pursed and whose unnaturally rouged cheeks flushed a deeper pink in passing embarrassment. So her niece had a bleeding heart, one of the modern revolutionaries. I knew Lord Foster and his wife to be of a more conservative persuasion. I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised anyone that the outspoken niece would attempt to find her own way. Nevertheless, I would have expected her to adopt a more fashionable cause. Temperance, for instance. Or the suffragists’ rallying cries. Both had gained prominence over the last decade or so in England and its former colonies. But socialism was still a very German philosophy. Lord Foster confronted his niece with a tasteful suggestion.
“Politics is hardly dinner conversation, Juliette.”
Juliette! Yes, that was it. Romeo’s forlorn lover lamenting on a balcony. No, I won’t forget this time, I promised myself. Juliette retreated bitterly into petulant frowns and grumbled mutterings of which I only half-listened to. I blinked my tired eyes against a renewed onslaught of throbbing, this time at each side of my head. Sounds muffled and my free hand fell to my lap, where I clutched the napkin I found there with vehemence.
“Better than religion I’d say, Mr. Foster.” Maggie Brown laughed light-heartedly. The noise of her laughter and her loud, assertive voice hummed in just such a way that I couldn’t stand it. I clenched and unclenched my fist under the table until the pain receded, which it did soon enough. In the meantime, Maggie Brown turned to my brother, changing subjects dramatically. She was a windstorm masquerading as a woman. “But this is a fine ship you’ve got here, Johnny. You too, Bruce. Never seen anything like it.”
“I should think not,” John answered briskly. What he meant to say was, Of course it is, you American half-wit, daughter of nobody knows who. What did you expect? But my brother, of course, was too genteel for honesty.
“Thank you.” Bruce Ismay was always more humble about these things but his particular brand of humility was a product of his nervous nature more than anything else. His wife, Julia, was an American heiress and the dominant force in the celebrated house of Ismay.
Benjamin Guggenheim and his young French mistress, Madame Léontine Aubart, joined us then, finally, and made appropriate excuses. The Frenchwoman’s china doll face was flushed in the warm room and her companion seemed overly pleased and congenial. They were overdressed for lunch, her gown too encrusted with silk and his waistcoat too primly girded with a jade green sash. These two were show peacocks and delighted in the pleasures of dressing above occasion. They could afford to, their presence sought out and requested by numerous influential figures on board, my brother among them.
John had methodically planned out his preferred dining partners before leaving Southampton. He dictated the list to me in the front parlor of the house in London before departing. I remember leaning over the black walnut writing desk, my chin in one hand, my pen in the other. The inkwell had nearly run dry after his many, impulsive adjustments to the final list. A late winter snowstorm had blown up against the windows, and the howling wind cried with enough melancholia to distract me as I prepared the notes. I noticed gaps in the list when I turned it over to the assistant steward of the first class dining salon on Wednesday afternoon. Together we made some educated guesses to bridge the gaps where necessary. Thus far, I’d had no complaints from John. He was nothing if not predictable.
“Miss Ashley?” Benjamin Guggenheim acknowledged my presence with a slight bow of his head, revealing the dramatic recession his hairline had taken in the last couple years. He was on the other side of fifty and it was beginning to show. I responded with a gentle lift of my chin and a general inquiry after his health and happiness, all too insincere. Only Joseph Callahan, beside me, recognized my tone and with discretion, he acknowledged it with a sideways glance and nothing more. The men at the table rose in their seats until Madame Aubart was settled. Bruce Ismay inquired after the sufficiency of their accommodations and Mr. Guggenheim assured him that they were beyond expectations.
“Plutôt heureuse!” his mistress added, then continued in heavily accented, French-mangled English. “Emma found the size of the staterooms…how do you say? Intimidating, bien sûr.”
“Who in god’s name is Emma?” John sighed impatiently at the end of the table. The interruption of his one-man show was not appreciated and his current dislike of Madame Aubart heightened his irritation. Lately, he didn’t like any French women at all. His long-standing affair with the chambermaid from Marseilles, Inès, had recently come to an abrupt end. My sister-in-law, Victoria, dismissed her before Christmas, with little pretense and no apologies for the severance.
“Emma’s her personal maid, Ashley…don’t concern yourself,” mentioned Mr. Guggenheim, while simultaneously asking the server at his elbow for some brandy, if it wasn’t too early?
“Well, what did your little French maid expect on the Titanic, madam?” my brother continued with heavy disdain. The French woman’s green eyes widened, alarmed by his tone. She had offended him, she knew that, but she did not know how. And to offend John Ashley, one of the wealthiest men in England, the grand seer of London society, a partner of the White Star Line and the face of the company, could easily mean social suicide for any one of the diners at this table. Benjamin Guggenheim was too involved in his brandy selection to notice his consort’s blunder or her subsequent distress. Joseph Callahan was about to answer my brother sharply but I placed my hand on his shirt sleeve gently, restraining him, and spoke up first.
“Her maid is German, John.” This elicited a snort and subsequent rant about Germans generally, their inability to think outside tradition, their useless practicality, and so on. He soon forgot all about Madame Aubart’s maid and Madame Aubart herself. Lord Foster mentioned a German driver he hired in 1907, did John remember? They convinced him to emigrate after a long conversation about the sun-less winters in England and border disputes with a tribe they referred to as the Roaring Jacobites.
“And he ate it up!” John had tears in his eyes, laughing too long and too hard. Lord Foster’s large girth shook with each fit of chuckles. In private conversations, they referred to Lord Foster’s Scottish mistress as the leader of the Roaring Jacobites. This came to mind as I sent a cursory glance down the table and lingered on Mrs. Foster briefly. The elegant woman politely smiled at her husband’s joke, with pursed rosebud lips and a lift of her small, pointed chin.
The conversation twirled around in a predictable manner. Mr. Taylor and Lord Foster’s niece bonded over their multiple glasses of wine. Maggie Brown and Mrs. Foster tried to find something in common but ultimately failed, taking turns commenting on the weather and the food. Bruce attempted to join my brother and Lord Foster in their boy’s club nostalgia and found himself floundering. Joseph Callahan politely asked Madame Aubart if she knew of a café in Paris by the name of Laloux. It was a simple place, he said, with a friendly atmosphere, yellow roses in the windows, green and white striped curtains, in the 6th arrondissement. With a radiant smile, she replied that she knew exactly the one and wondered further, had he visited Paris? Oh, a few times, he answered. Mr. Guggenheim’s brandy arrived in an imported snifter.
I made my excuses after the entrées were served and retreated to the shaded parts of the decks for the rest of the afternoon.
Open and say I was awestruck by his insensitivity to light, drew a lipstick red rainbow that sexed up the sky. Cerulean blues had me sad for a while white salt and pink blush left stains on my dress— ink splattered and wax melted in a hot summer mess.
This ground, this parched and dusty grass burnt yellow and thin bowed down by humid air that takes breath like an old man through lips dry and cracking sick in his bed hand to his head and covered in cotton sheets, clammy.
Nobody makes me cry and give it up—pennies, baby compared to what I’ll give to you, leave with you when it’s done and it will be done I’m no one man woman, son I got a fire burning through a hole— a whole stack of newspapers went up in flames in about two minutes, I blame a middle class childhood and too much time to think, to drink while I’m trying to “find myself” that’s nothing new and I’m not complaining I like the dead end absolution of two people playing at love.
Wired on a little too little caffeine and a natural affinity for stirring up trouble cuddling is not for me, I don’t want the memories later when I hate you and I’ll hate you— the way you swallow and say the words “hey you” if you pour out your feelings on the kitchen table at least I can make us breakfast, unless this is not a mealtime conversation, in which case, you keep passionately declaring your expectations and I’ll flip through a fashion magazine (even though I hate those things) got to wait ‘til the next morning brings another newspaper.
Pretty little maids all in a row throw a winter garden party and the brides-to-be wear white displaying fist-sized rocks beneath blinding spotlights which is a poor choice given the scenery and the ladies-in-waiting try not to cry, when pressed they say (this is nearly universal) that they’d rather die if they must return to cold little pallets and another hand of solitaire but proto-feminists all, shrug it off with irony.
Time is money but I don’t see either of those things floating around my neck of the woods except for copper pennies (too many) cast in as cheap wishes swallowed up by green algae that collects and coagulates thickly on the edge of shallow pools and standing water— the coins settle heads down.