Images Of The Natural And The Supernatural

“Behind the glittering plate-glass windows of the present lies the mystic, stained glass past. Like the silver in an old mirror, it gleams fitfully when the light strikes it right.”

William Manchester

Old mirrors; one can barely use the things. Why does Momma keep the one in the hall, the one kept out of the way where no one will notice the shoddy thing? I suppose once it had been pretty; maybe too ornate for our taste today, but pretty in its way.
The young man bestirred himself from his bed to go into the hall and examine his mother’s keepsake mirror. The glass was streaked and some of the wood veneer had long since fallen off, Some other bits were just hanging on, more by inertia than by the cracked glue. Some of the silvering was entirely missing at the mirror’s beveled edges.
The old thing was long and narrow, intended to hang over some other long-gone piece of furniture. Tom knew how it had been acquired. Some friend of his Dad had given it to them when he’d moved to California. He knew that in those days his parents had little to furnish their first apartment with. The mirror had been old even then but still serviceable. Twenty years in their present dry and overheated house had finished off the work of decay that had no doubt been eating under bits of veneer for decades before. It might have been pretty in the apartment; Tom couldn’t know. He’d been just a baby and had no recollection of the apartment.
His mother had been pretty then too. For a moment Tom imagined her reflection in a corner of the mirror; not her as she was now — still nice looking in a mature way but hardly cute – but as the pretty girl in the short-shorts that Dad kept on his desk. Then the figure was gone. It had just been a rainbow aberration where the afternoon sun struck the bevel. Still, he’d keep it for awhile more.

Old Mister Twilling lived on a hill. He was quite old; so old that he hated the coming of winter. His days of skiing and skating were long past and winter was just cold and snowy. The only really good thing in his life now was Old Furface, his beloved pussycat. They had been together – just the two of them – growing old together for many years. Sometimes he would just watch her in the evening while something soft played on the radio. He liked to watch how her green eyes would slowly close when she sat on the window sill as though lost in meditation or prayer.
But for him there were chores that had to be done. He had to shop for food and he sometimes had to visit his doctor. But how could he do that if it snowed? He had to drive, but he couldn’t drive unless he shoveled the snow from his driveway and it was cold outside and windy; On cold, windy, snowy days he just wanted to lie in his nice warm bed like his cat.
Oh, Mister Twilling thought, I forgot, we need cat food. I must get some tomorrow.
But that night it snowed and to make matters worse the county snow plow came past on the road and piled even more snow at the foot of Mister twilling’s driveway.
The cat looked at him. It wanted breakfast. So Mister Twilling got out of his nice warm bed. He would have to shovel the snow from his driveway and go to the store for cat food. But when he looked out the window he saw that the snow had already been shoveled from his drive. No neighbor could have done it because Mister Twilling lived on top of the hill, far away from his nearest neighbor.
Who would have done that, he wondered? But there was no one around so all that Mister Twilling could do was to be grateful and happy. He put on his warm coat and hat and told Furface to be good and wait for him. He would go to the store for cat food. And he did.
The next week it snowed again at night, and again Mister Twilling had to go to the store because there was very little to eat in the house. When he got up, sure enough, the driveway was clean. Fairies, he thought, or maybe elves did it. So he went to the store and told everyone there of how faeries or elves had shoveled his snow away. They just smiled and thought he was kidding because no one believes in fairies anymore.
The weather report was for more snow that night and Mr. Twilling decided to wait up in the dark and see who it was who shoveled the snow that would pile up on the driveway. By midnight the storm had grown fierce. He tried to look from his window to see how much snow had fallen but the wind was so strong that the snow was just a blur. Mr Twilling returned to his chair by the nice warm wood fire still wondering if the snow would be cleared this night as it had been before. Now the trouble with sitting in a nice soft chair by a nice warm fire is that one falls asleep. Mr. Twilling had not wanted to fall asleep, he just did. He did not notice how, about three in the morning, the wind finally quit its howling and the snow stopped falling and piling up outside his door. He did not see that only the path from his front door to the road was clear, nor how everything but his car was covered in eight inches of snow; nor that Furface was sitting on the window ledge and licking a bit of moisture from her fur.


It was a Christmas eve but not a Christmas card one. There were plenty of colored lights but mostly they’d just been hung without any imagination. It was not cheerful. Night was coming on and Johanna slipped into a deep doorway to get out of the wind for just a moment. She intended to continue when the cold blasts might briefly let up. The doorway was of a small shop in Brooklyn; one of those dingy little places from the twenties or thirties with an address on the transom, Now it was 1963.

There was a little light inside and Johanna could see a clerk fumbling over something at his counter, not even noticing that she was on his doorstep. The display window was nearly empty. There was a lot of dust and a few nondescript books that looked like they had been there forever. Perhaps they had been. Probably a bookie shop, she thought, not intending the pun. Not that it mattered to her. Sure, it was sad that people wasted their kids’ milk money on the horses, but no more so than those addicted to heroin or alcohol. The guy inside finished wrapping something then finally noticed her. He didn’t seem to care though. He took his package and disappeared into a backroom. Johanna still had five blocks to walk and she had better do it quickly, before darkness. Besides, while the doorway gave some shelter from the wind it could not help the temperature which had been falling throughout the day. Out she stepped into the north wind which now blew sleet like flakes of rain into her face. Not yet cold enough to snow, Johanna thought. Just wet and mean.

She tried to hurry but there were slick spots on the sidewalk and she was wearing heels. She should have put on rubber boots that day. She’d foregone the boots, her leg warmers, warm wool pants, and a parka, in favor of the heels which were now giving her trouble, a skirt, and a short tight jacket. That might have been enough at noon before the cold set in, and the north wind, and the sleet, but not now that the sun was setting.

Damn! Five blocks, four in a moment. Damn wind. Damn north wind. No. I must never damn the north wind. North Wind had been Johanna’s favorite book character when she’d been much younger, just nine years old or thereabouts. George McDonald’s North Wind had appeared to a little boy in the form of a wondrous comforting spirit. Johanna’s had read the story over and over and North Wind had become her companion when no one else had wanted to be; when her mom had died and her Dad had disappeared, and she’d gone to live with an aunt who didn’t want her. Of course that was before she’d bloomed. Afterward, every boy she met had wanted to be her friend.

I was such a child, she thought, remembering how she had prayed in a church before a statue of the Virgin Mary. But it had not been the Virgin to whom she had prayed. It had been to her friend North Wind; and North Wind had given her guidance. Be nice to the boys even the clods and nerds but stay away from guys in bars. There was no doubt in her mind where that thought had come from; she was not even old enough to go to a bar. It was not her own thought, for sure it had come from the kind North Wind.

Of course Johanna knew that the whole fantasy was a silliness; but it was her silliness and she’d keep it close to her. She’d once been a pretty young lady with a nice front and an enormous rear. With these she’d made a living off the guys in bars that she’d been warned against. Now the only thing she wanted was to give it all up and be safe and secure again in the arms of North Wind. She had grown up more than she liked and was in her thirties. Sometimes she wished she hadn’t; and if this was North Wind blowing sleet in her face because she’d not obeyed her advice then she must submit. There was surely a good reason for it.

Three blocks to go. The street lights were coming on. Soon other working girls would be out too. Competition but also companionship and safety. They’d been times; there had been dates and parties that had turned nasty. Safe was important. They watched each others backs when one of them “went out” with a new guy. but they still had to play whatever the guys and the weather.

Finally she reached her street. Johanna had a small apartment over a fabric store. It was nothing special; just a little living room, an alcove for her bed, a kitchenette, and an even smaller bath with just a shower, there being too little room for a tub. But that would feel like heaven tonight. She could shower off the chill, change into something dry, and warm up last night’s spaghetti before having to go and earn a living.

This time Johanna did dress warmly. The guys wouldn’t that much care. A blow job was a blow job on a night like this. On a night like this; Johanna thought of what night it was: Christmas Eve. The bars would be full of men with no better place to be. Maybe she’d find a nice one. One of whom North Wind would approve. Not likely in a bar though. The tall lady, the considerate spirit, had warned her of men in bars. Now she lived off of them and their neediness. What else was I to do, North Wind?

When Johanna left her apartment the rain had turned into a sleet-snow mixture such as makes New York a lousy place to be in winter, even on Christmas eve. But at least she had an apartment now. The previous year she’d sought warmth in a church on Christmas eve. She’d wanted to be warm and comfortable with her friend North Wind’s statue. But all the “nice” families had looked at her when she came in. She didn’t have a long woolen coat. She hadn’t had a hat. Her dress was too short and her handbag too big. She’d been wearing high boots that nearly disappeared under the skirt. She hadn’t stayed and when she left an usher had looked at her with an expression that was a combination of pity and disgust as he held the door. There would also be warmth in a bar down the street even if the Christmas cheerfulness was hollow.



Thomas was horny. An after hours holiday drunkfest at the school where he taught had made him half sick too. But whotthehell. Take a few aspirin and hope to avoid a headache in the morning. There was nothing to be done for the rest, the fog and weakness, the dryness, the need for a drink in the morning to clear his mind.

He got an hour sleep but was then awake again. Go out and find some ass, Feel the night air at least. He left his apartment and wandered into the sleety night. There was a girl. She was past the age for tight pants. Really broad in the butt, and probably wears a rubber panty-girdle…. But she didn’t look wrecked yet.


“Outside the barracks,

By the corner light,

I’ll always stand and wait for you at night.

We will create a world for two

I’ll wait for you the whole night through…

For you Lili Marlene… For you Lili Marlene.”


In a few hours it would be Christmas. He’d be able to sleep late in the morning. He was forty-three; feeling a little old and getting cold. One more day and the stupid so-called Christmas music will be replaced with even sillier New Year’s stuff.


“Surely tomorrow you’ll feel blue,

But then will come a love that’s new.

For you, Lili Marlene… For you Lili Marlene.”


Tom stopped in the shadows cast by a tree and such a street lamp, but this one was outside a closed liquor store and the song that was rolling around the back of his mind was from long, long ago when the world had seemed a more romantic place.

He watched the girl. She was of average height and looked to be in her late thirties, just a little worn looking. Business was probably getting irregular. A wide belt above a grand ass drew her waist smaller than natural for someone her age. Eventually she saw him waiting but made no motion to acknowledge it. Instead she adjusted the strap of a huge handbag that hung over one shoulder and moved off down the street in the opposite direction, abandoning her whore-pace for a half-block, then turning in the relative lightness of another lamp to see if he were following.

But Tom was not following. As usual he was drawn between glands and loneliness on the one side and worry and disgust on the other. Drunken sex with a whore that he didn’t even know was unlikely to be a lively affair. Likely it would be pretty mechanical. It could turn out about as friendly as a purchase from a news dealer, but for the price of a show. Should he take the chance that the next half hour could be worth thirty bucks? Nice ass though. I’ll bet her friends call her Big Butt. That thought improved Tom’s mood a bit.

A car came slowly down the street close to the curb. The two young guys inside looked to be joking with each other and their “music” was something loud, throbbing with base, and annoying. Big-butt saw them and without much decision moved a bit closer to the curb.

“Hey Cunt! Aren’t you kind of old for whoring?”

The car sped up. One of the boys whistled a shriek to his world, and laughing, was gone. The girl just bitched “bastards” to no one in particular and started walking back to where Tom had first seen her. Her head wasn’t hanging but her face was blank. The street was empty and ugly despite the holiday decorations. He considered that perhaps she had become impassive to insult. But the childish assholes in the car had decided him. It was Christmas Eve and he was seeing someone as lonely as himself and he’d feel better about himself if she did too. They could at least share their loneliness. He walked directly toward the girl. She didn’t move or change her expression. If she made any gesture toward him it could be termed soliciting. Tom knew that he had to approach her. At least there was no chance of mistaking this whore for someone waiting for a bus.

“Assholes!” he said. She didn’t answer. “Are you working?”

“What have you in mind?” She still showed no expression.

“I want to fuck.”

“Well, you are blunt. Thirty bucks. Have you a place or should we just find somewhere dark?”

“I’ve a place.” Tom took her hand to lead her. For a moment the hand stiffened and he looked her straight in the eyes. They stood looking at each other for just a moment, evaluating each other. It must be admitted that Tom was thinking of diseases, filth, gossip, and self-esteem. He didn’t want to hold that hand; he just wanted to fuck… with protection. He was holding it for her. Then she decided. Her hand relaxed just a little. He thought her face softened just a bit too and they began to walk together.

“Is it far?”

“Just around the corner.”

“Do you want to go in first, alone? I can follow in a few minutes.”

“No. You’re my date for tonight,” he joked, and the whore smiled just a little.

Tom’s apartment was not some sparse bachelor pad. He had his pleasures and not all of them involved his teaching or drinking or sex. He could afford it because the place was rent controlled by the city. It was a palace for a high school history teacher living alone in New York. It had been laid out as a railroad flat with narrow rooms running front to back. Besides the tiny and very dated kitchenette and bathroom in the rear, there were three main rooms. The largest served as a living/dining area that looked out on Flatbush Avenue, There was another, smaller, room that Tom rather grandly termed his study or library, and through it one entered his bedroom. Each room was furnished appropriately, the living/dining area was quite attractive in a beatnik way with some nearly antique tables, chairs, and lamps. What had once been a working fireplace now housed a white porcelain Siamese cat two feet high. On the mantle was a beer stein from college, a green vase bought at an antique store in Connecticut, and his family pictures; plus a precious little blue box that contained his departed mom’s engagement and wedding rings.

The door to the library was open and beyond it was the bedroom. The whore looked about the living room for a trinket to detach when she would leave. She saw the box but Thomas poured them drinks and her attention was diverted.

“You have a lot of books. Are you a professor?

“No. I just like to read a lot, mostly history.” Thomas knew better than to begin a deep conversation but Big-Butt went into the library and began looking his books over. She did not touch any, just looked. Then she came back and took the scotch that Tom held out.”

“Are you in a hurry?” Big-Butt found herself asking.

“Not unless you are.”

“It’s crappy outside. … I liked history in school. Can I borrow one of your books?”

That’s the last I’ll see of it, Tom thought. “Which one?”

Butt walked back to the shelves and drew down Henri Pirenne’s classic Mohammed and Charlemagne. At least it was one which could easily be replaced if he never got it back.

“Sure you can borrow it but you might find it boring.” Tom mentally slapped himself for the unintended insult.

“No, Pirenne was a very convincing writer. It’s too bad so many good historians lack his style.”

The teacher was totally floored; put in his place by a streetwalker. But why not? Two weeks ago he’d been telling his students that if they couldn’t work at what they liked that didn’t mean having to give the thing up entirely. “You’ve read Pirenne?”

“My history teacher wanted me to try college. He gave me a little book on the Pirenne thesis. It had excerpts from Mohammed and Charlemagne and from some other books by guys who didn’t agree with him. I might like to read the whole thing. I’ve sort’a gotten out of practice of reading serious things.

“OK.” Tom was in a new mood. “Here, if you like medieval history you might like this too.” He took down C. D. Burns’ The First Europe and handed it to the girl who browsed the text briefly.

“No. Let me borrow Pirenne. I’ll take the other one when I bring this back.” She put Pirenne’s masterpiece carefully into the enormous satchel that she carried. Full of God-knows-what, Tom thought. Then she disappeared into the bathroom leaving the door barely ajar. Tom was a little nervous. He knew that you should never bring a street-girl home or let her know where you live. It wasn’t safe. There was a flush and then the sink faucet ran for a long time. When she came out Butt was wearing only her panties. They weren’t rubber but rather a nice knit thong. Tom had also stripped and she took him by the cock and lead him to the bed.

“What’s your name?”

“Johanna. What’s yours? If you don’t mind me asking.”


The cold rain / snow mix continued and Butt allowed herself to be convinced to stay for another drink then to climb into bed a second time, this time to rest a little before she’d have to leave. “Would you like me to come back later?”

“I can’t afford it.”

“Do you do Christmas?”

“Not much lately. I did when I was a kid.

“Me too. Do you miss it?

“I suppose. You?”

“It’s not midnight yet, not Christmas yet.” Johanna went to the bathroom again. Trips to the bathroom were a good time to pick up trinkets. The guy would usually leave her alone then. She went to the living room to get her bag. That box on the mantle was pretty and might contain something valuable.

Returning she asked: “Did you enjoy?” rather more seriously than Tommy expected.


“Will I see you again?”

“I need my book back.” They smiled at each other and Tom got off the bed and led her out the door.

Alone, he set a pot of coffee brewing. He was very tired and still a little sick from lack of sleep and all the booze he’d had that night. Now the coffee would keep him awake. He poured a mugful anyway and returned to his living area, picking up The First Europe from where the girl had left it on the mantelpiece. For a moment a suspicion jolted him but a quick shake of the blue box confirmed that his mother’s rings were still there.

There was a knock. It was Johanna again. “It’s really mean outside. There’s a church down the street. Would you like to do Christmas?”



Johanna lay in a warm bed remembering that Christmas Eve. It had all been so long ago. An artist’s sketch of North Wind was framed on a bookshelf next to a small statue of Mary. For a moment she looked at it. Silly? Maybe. Maybe not. On her left hand was an antique wedding ring. I didn’t meet him in a bar.


In the second century of the Christian era, the Empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury.
Edward Gibbon
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what you have in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and with a feeling of affection, and of freedom, and justice; and give yourself relief from all other thoughts. Then you will indeed give yourself relief if you do every act of your life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to you. You will see how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods will require nothing more from him who observes these things.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

The circle of the nations that fronted on the inland sea had competed and clashed and then fallen before the legions of Rome, to become, if not one people, then at least one empire, a nation of nations, combining the will of Rome. the arts of Greece, and the commerce of the East. Then in AD 167 the empire itself came under attack by barbarous horsemen from the north and its future lay in the hands of a frail saint turned general. The war lasted eleven years but Rome was victorious and Marcus Antonious Aurelius could bequeath to his nation another hundred years of life.
His veterans were encamped now, outside eternal Rome itself, at last at peace after years of cold and pestilence and hardship on the Danube. Cohort by cohort they began to form up. Each soldier shouldered his iron-braced shield and placed on his head a crown of victory. Each took in his right hand the tool of his trade a six-foot javelin. This he would stack outside the city to bear in its stead his awards for valor. With the troops would march musicians, priests, and sacrificial animals; carts of spoils, and captive slaves. The Imperator himself, their saint and the savior of the state would ride with his son in a gilded chariot.
“Tell me a story, Terri.”
“Sic transit gloria….Sic transit Gloria mundi.” Terri’s voice was low and her eyes were closed. She had never spoken in Latin before.
“Marcus, your troops await you. Even an emperor should not be late for his triumphal procession.”
“Triumph indeed! A joyful procession over dead bodies, How civilized we are! Friends that I will chat with no more, enemies who died for nothing…widows and orphans and the mutilated. ”
“Will you give yourself a piece of praise, husband. The whole city is glorifying the legions; and you, the greatest general of our age, don’t want to participate in your own parade.”
“Oh I do Faustina. But I shouldn’t. It is not fitting to glory in this dirty work though it must be done. Besides it’s all a lie. The crowd thinks I’m fearless, I’m not. Many times I’ve lain awake all night scared of the battle next day, or of someone killing me in my sleep. The ruler of the world has enemies as well as suppliants. Sometimes they’re the same people. I should not…but I fear the day when I shall be killed…The only good I may make of it all is that I’ve written my worries down. Perhaps it will console our son if he becomes emperor to know that his father, the philosopher, was frightened too.”
“After the triumph we can be alone again. Like in the old days before the Quadi war. I will dance for you then, like the slave girls you won’t let amuse you. You’ll like that. Admit it, my philosopher is a man too and I am pretty.” Faustina dropped onto the floor and swept her auburn hair against her husband’s sandled feet.
“Now stop that, Fau, or it will take hours to get your hair the way you want it again, and we don’t have hours.
“The triumph can wait a quarter hour.”
“All the City knows me as a very serious man. This will not be in my book.” He smiled.
“You are serious, my Lover, and a man. It is I who cannot be serious.”
“I know. You have stolen the hearts of the court…”
“You are my lord, Marcus. Courtiers are courtiers, and courtiers are toys. Yes, I tease them. They are fun, some of them. There is talk. Many people are jealous of my fortune in you.”
“Fools think how great it is to be the emperors wife?”
“No. Not just that. They are jealous because I have Marcus all night as I am jealous because they have Antonious all day.”

“Is that all? Terri. Do you hear more?”
“I want to draw the curtain.” Terri sat up and adjusted herself on the sofa. Her voice had lost it’s music and was flat now. “Besides, I think they’ve stopped talking.”
But Terri knew that there was more. Aurelius had awakened startled when an old friend, the legate Flavius Licinius stepped through the portal.
“I’m sorry, Flavius; I was dreaming of poor Fau. She should have lived to see this day. She’d have been in her element…The great lady and all those marching heroes.”
“No, Caesar. Faustina’s teasing was a delight to everyone. But she had only one hero.” The legate turned away to hide an unmanly blush and spoke very quietly. “You were not dreaming; she has returned to you on your day of triumph that you may fulfill your own wish to share it with her.”
“Thank you, friend. Then my happiness is complete.” With gratitude in his heart Marcus Aurelius, Pontifax Maximus of the whole Roman people, crossed the room to where, as in every Roman home, a small altar was kept to departed loved ones and the family gods.

“Everything is only for a day, both that which remembers and that which is remembered.”
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus

John was dead. Finally the long trek had come to its end. Their lives had been lived and nothing accomplished. John’s body lay in the bedroom that they had shared for thirty years; Mary sat in the next room, on the floor, in a corner, crying and crying, loudly sometimes, very loudly sometimes, just moaning sometimes. After many hours, the widow stood. She was stooped not only with sorrow but with age. She covered her head with a pala and walked slowly to St Irene’s, hardly noticing the people who watched her as she climbed the hill.
Mary had hoped to find peace in the church. There was none. There was no consolation. The church was as cold as the stones with which it had been built three centuries before. Mary prayed for his soul, She begged for his soul. She feared for his soul. She cried tears for his soul. She swore to God that she would never cease to cry until He had forgiven her husband’s many sins. This was the last thing a wife could do for him but as she at last left the holy place, she noticed how brightly the sun was shining Had it been so when she came in? She hadn’t noticed. Her eyes were clear too. A peacefulness covered her own soul and Mary went out into the daylight.


In a chateau. there is a library and an old man. I know where and when, but let me preface the story for you. There is a book. It says something like this:
“Until the fifteenth century European men and women could rarely do more than wonder at what lay outside their own continent and the circle of nations which ringed the Mediterranean sea. Subsahara Africa was blocked by a desert wasteland and the path down the Red Sea to Ethiopia, India, and the far east was the monopoly of Moslem traders. The route which Marco Polo had taken overland to China was expensive and hazardous, itself a monopoly of the Ottoman sultans except where even their strong rule was challenged by bandits.
There was the sea, and the Mediterranean was a rich province of the Italian city states; but the Atlantic was another matter indeed. It is vast and it is stormy. True, Viking longships had sailed upon it, but the galleys of the Mediterranean powers and even the high caravels, gallasses, and galleons of Spain and Portugal were at hazard if they dared it. Few captains would risk their boats for long out of sight of land until around 1450 when two instruments, perhaps known to the ancients and certainly known in the orient were reinvented or brought to Europe. These were the marine compass and the astrolabe. With these devices, the new charts that were then appearing, and a brave crew, discovery became possible.
Hence the Americas. In the following three hundred years that same curiosity which spurred adventurers to the new world also touched men of calmer minds. They avidly read the reports of sea captains and the scientific journals which by the seventeen hundreds began to appear in drawing rooms across Europe. They tried to fit it all together into their own world, adapting new ideas in agriculture and invention to their estates yet holding to the past also. Nation states were developing around the stronger kings. The once powerful lords of former days were becoming courtiers, advisors, and often mere ornaments to the powerful monarchs. For the first time critical analysis replaced repetition of myth in the recitation of history. Edward Gibbon’s massive study of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was the most popular book of the mid eighteenth century. The cloaked anticlericalism throughout that work would blossom in the writing of Voltaire and the philosophes.”


I see a man, Eddie. He is Le Compte Raymond Francois Villehardouir De Champagne and he lives a life of simple loyalty to the crown untroubled by the politics at court, for which reason the King did not require his presence at court but indulged the count’s wish to remain at a small family chateau with his books and his cat. He has spent most of this day in the fields with what he considered his own very extended family. Truly, the children could be bad and sometimes he had to judge and punish petty thieves, lechers, and those who would be bullies if they were allowed their heart’s desire, but with most of the peasants who worked his various estates, and especially this one at Marmande, he enjoyed, and truly they enjoyed, a very familial relationship. Under carefully chosen overseers and a seneschal whom his own father had groomed for his duties when Armand and he had been children together, the farmers and workmen performed in sturdy fashion those duties necessary to keep the estate efficient. In turn the count took seriously his sworn duty to defend and protect his villeins from bandits, to guard the chastity of the girls when they wished it, and, of course, to provide a good blacksmith, miller, and priest. His own needs were modest for with the death of his sons in battle and of his dear wife many years before of the fever, the count had few other wants than to buy a new book from time to time. At his death the estates would pass to his brother or nephews. They were good knights, better lords than many, and his mind was not terribly troubled for the future safety and happiness of the rest of the “family.”
Now it was early evening, late afternoon actually, but the hour seemed later for the count was quite tired and the sun had dropped behind a hill. Raymond got up from the chair in which he had been reading the latest volume of Gibbon to come from the English presses. He stood at the window wondering whether to further strain his failing eyesight by reading under candlelight. No. Mister Gibbon can wait, he decided. That man is very hard on the Church. Perhaps the priests are right in condemning him. Some things are best unexamined. It’s all in the past and cannot be changed. In front of a fireplace his cat sat upon the pillow provided to warm her underside. The two were growing old together.
“What do you think, Furface, ah? You live in the present and are ignorant but contented. I have all my books but really know no more than you about the whys of things.
“But that is not the way for humans, is it? We carry all the wrongs of centuries past as prejudice and whatever good things befall us we make into religion. Ah, Religion? Too often simple superstition. … I’m becoming as much a cynic as Mr. Gibbon, Cat. But truly, religion should not be a matter of rewards and punishments and looking for miracles, but of gratitude for being, ah Cat. I think too much. Enough. Some supper, hum? I believe there is still some roasted rabbit. Enough for us, ah? Where is Marie? No; not to bother her. She’s probably outside. We can eat later, Ah. Be patient. Let Marie enjoy what remains of the day.”
The count picked up the old cat who did not resist and Presently they began to fall asleep upon a day bed that each spring he would have moved from near the fireplace to before a large window whose shutters he now kept open all day and all night. That had been done eight weeks before. The past few days had been more than warm. Summer was upon the estate once again. How many more summers, Raymond wondered, will I survive? Many? He had reason to hope for he was still not very enfeebled. But still, as the holy Bible says, the Lord comes like a thief in the night.
A little of the failing sunlight and a light breeze off some fragrant honeysuckle lay softly on the old knight like a child’s blanket. Outside his window the bees that fed upon the honeysuckle droned softly. Then Marie tiptoed into the room and quietly knelt beside his bed.
“I belong to you as your fields belong to you,” she whispered in the lowest of low voices; A sweet voice so small that the sleeping knight would not have heard it at all were she not touching her lips to his very ear.
“No one has ever said that to me, Marie. Not even my dear departed wife, the mother of our poor sainted boys.” The old man thought for a moment. “Perhaps no one has ever said that to anyone before. It is a beautiful thing you said.”
“I’m happy that you like my phrase though you have neatly changed the subject.”
“I am not so subtle, Marie. I have never been good with words. Plain talk is all I can do. Perhaps that’s why Louis doesn’t want me at court. My talk tends to the plain and the honest.”
“Will you have me?’
“You are so young. It was so good of your father to send you here to care for an old man. …”
“That was a year ago, Milord. Papa sent me to care for an old friend. But I have fallen in love on my own counsel.” Marie stood for a moment, then slipped out of her sandals and lay down beside her lord. She was still dressed in a pale green dress, the color of the great lawn and embroidered by her own hand with wild flowers. Count Raymond wrapped an arm around the young girl and they slept close awhile until his pendulum clock chiming in the great hall awoke him. Furface was looking steadily at the count, sitting on his chest with her paws upon his shoulder. The cat began a rumbling purr and touched her cheek to his.


“Do you like the Greek stories, Sweetheart?”
“The myths?”
“The stories? myths? Perhaps myths. Perhaps truth with a little fiction for excitement. After all life in a Greek village must have been pretty unexciting most of the time. I will tell you one.”

Some sparks dove to earth together and fell to two mothers living not many miles apart.
One was a fisherman’s wife and their child was a girl named Galatea. As lovely as the sun on the sea, and bright and lively as the sea on a beautiful day. She loved the bay below the cliff and I think that the bay loved her for they were as natural together as lovers. The girl was just a toddling thing when her mother first took her into its gentle surf and touched the child’s toes to the water and to the sand that ran out under them with each retreat of the tiny little waves. The little girl laughed and fell and ran about under the watch of her mother and very soon … in fact that very summer … she began to swim, and then to dive off the small rocks that stood up thereabouts as though they too loved to feel the waves’ embrace.
“The other spark fell to a pregnant lass in a fine hut of dried clay and woven grass. This hut was inland from the bay where the salt air did not penetrate unduly and was on a meadow not far from the woods. The meadow was all green grass, with a vegetable patch, and many grazing sheep; for the mother’s husband was rich in sheep and cattle and had herdsmen to watch over them.
“Their child was a boy whom they named Polyphemus to be brought up strong and holy, not in the work of his father, but in the godly work of heating and hammering bronze, for tools, and drinking vessels for the feasts; and forming and tempering the precious iron that foreign traders brought across the sea into swords and axes for war. He would be a smith and all that he would make must be as beautiful as it was useful or the god would not be pleased.
One day the father took his son from his mother and bouncing him on a sturdy arm brought the child to the village hearth. The holy smith tied a leather patch just like his own across the boy’s left eye and sat him near the fire that swelled and flamed. Another, older, lad, worked the bellows. The day was hot already and the fire roared at the little group. Soon all four were besmirched with soot and ran with stinking sweat. Though careful for their eyes and loins, they could not wear much else because of the heat of the furnace and the heat of the day. Therefore they suffered from the many tiny bits of glowing metal that flew at them with each blow of the smith’s hammer.
Yet the child did not cry that whole first morning and his father and the smith marveled at his attention. When later his mother came to bring the boy to home he danced his way there and begged to return and help to form the metal.
As he grew Polyphemus became strong and skilled and the works of his hands would soon match and then surpass those of the senior smith. But the life of a smith, though greatly honored, was not easy and though the things that come from his hands be beautiful, often he himself was not. The lad grew strong but the sparks pocked his face. Then one day when hardly more than a boy the god took his unprotected eye.
He never gave up the forge entire though two brothers now took the greater part of the work that he need not risk his one good eye. Instead he spent more time with the herds that he’d inherited when the rich shepherd died. On those days that he did work the forge he began to think longer on each piece he fashioned, praying over the hot and malleable metal trying to see in his mind’s eye the future of the thing. What he saw was not always good for anger and hate covet tools to do their work. But other visions were good, bright broaches on healthy maidens’ breasts and rings to bind the harness of strong oxen at the plow.
On one of those days when the young smith did not work at the forge at all but went, instead, to sit where his sheep and cattle lay, he began to wonder: Is there more than this. I have fine herds and my hands make things that are both strong and beautiful. Five fathers would give their daughters to me for my wealth though I am ugly. I am needed by all. Yet is there more?
There is the sea on which sailors sail, and lands far off where other smiths labor at their fires making things that may be stronger and more beautiful than my own.
He left the animals to his herdsmen and walked to the beach where fishermen’s boats lay pulled up upon it. Many carried some large or small work of his hands, rings to tie ropes to, hooks, and grates. Some sailors called to him and one drew out and waved a long knife at its maker. The smith remembered it; a fine blade and hilt, wrapped with hide and with a dancing dolphin incised upon the pommel. Such art required quick and even work with an awl-like tool but it brought him a good price and to the sailor pride in ownership. A fair trade.
Then he saw a girl and knew her to be the child of the bay whom he had not seen in more than a year. She came running down the sand from beyond the rocks that marked the harbor’s end. It was perhaps five full minutes before she was close but the smith did not need to discern her face to know the girl was grown lovely and blessed by some god, for as she trotted bare footed and horse-like beside the bay her lashing limbs flung the skirt of her tunic this way and that, while her bosom bounced heavily under the bodice.
Soon the lass drew nearly close enough for Polyphemus to read her face but instead he turned away, seemingly more interested in some detail of the nearest boat than in the beautiful thing that danced the sand and sometimes ran nearly to the surf where she could feel the cool ooze of wet sand under her feet. They’re pretty feet. I know they are. But when I can read her features, so she will mine. The young master of the hearth, who created things of might and beauty and held a thousand cattle his, hid his ugliness and cried a bit inside; then forced his thoughts to matters of work. A sword, Thesius wants a sword. He’ll have a sword; the heaviest and greatest blade I’ve made; all new iron with silver-incised words of hate. Yes, words of hate…No pretense of god wisdom, or the gallantry of heroes. No poetry. He wants a great sword with which to work, not a court-blade. No curled fittings or coiled and entwined beasts. No, it shall be the largest blade I’ve fashioned but simple and ugly with only words of hate upon it.
The young smith looked up again. The girl had passed and was some meters down the beach. That horse’s legs still splaying, and it’s hind quarters bouncing left and right and up and down beneath the white tunic that fluttered over them.
Her feet were pretty.

‘O Galatea, light and fair, why cast my love away?
Sleeker than is the grape unripe, and whiter than the whey,
And gentle as a lamb thou art, yet calf-like, full of play….

Dear maid, I loved thee from the hour
Thou camest with my mother to the hill,
And I did show thee hyacinths in flower;
And I have never ceased to love thee still.
And ne’er shall cease, e’en though I had the power —
But this affects thee not — and never will.

I know, O gracious maiden, why thou dost shun my sight;
It is because one shaggy brow o’erspans my forehead quite;
From this unto the other ear in one long line it goes,
And but one eye is set beneath, and flatly droops my nose.
Yet even I, such as I am, a thousand cattle herd,
And from these do I drink and drain the best of milk and curd…

For thee I’ll rear eleven fawns adorned with collars fair,
And keep four sprawling cubs for thee, whelps of the clumsy bear.

Come with me, and thou shalt find thy pleasures all the more;
Leave thou the billows bright to die a-quiver on the shore!
Come with thy love within my cave and cheer its loneliness;
Thy curtains shall be laurel and slender cypresses
Festooned with ivy dark and vines with clusters richly hung;
There is cool water, down the slopes of wooded Aetna flung,
Poured from the beaker of her snows, a drink divine to me!
Ah, who would choose in place of these the billows of the sea?

But if my shagginess offends, an oak-wood fire I keep
Within whose ashes smoldering glow embers that never sleep.
Come, burn unto my very heart within my hairy breast,
Yea, burn my single eye away, dearer than all the rest!

Ah me, that mother bore me, a funny thing, to glide
Down unto thee to kiss thy hand, if thou thy lips denied.
To thy white hand white lilies would I bring, or soft and red
As are thy dainty lips, the petalled charms that poppies shed –
Nay, these are the harvest and those of early spring,
And e’en impetuous love could not their blooms a-blended bring!

Yea, maiden, if some mariner hither his prow should turn,
Now, here and now, by help of him, right gladly would I learn
To swim within the ocean depths, that I myself might see
Thy dwelling place, and know how dear its pleasures are to thee.

At evening, many maidens gay,
To me to join their night-long pastimes call,
And if I answer, gladly giggle all.
On land, at least, I’m someone, anyway.

“Where did you learn that Dear, and when?”
“The poem is an old one by Theocritus. He thought that Polyphemus was a Cyclops. That’s the myth. He wasn’t a Cyclops and he wasn’t a myth.”
“But did he ‘get the girl’?”
“Yes. God liked his poem … his plea.”
“And did he learn to swim and enjoy the sea?”
“Yes. He did that for her…They were happy together for many years. I don’t know how I know these things, but they’re so. That I’m sure of as I’m sure of my own self.”

Now I’ll tell you about another kind of love. A kind of love that some farmers made with axes.”
“First tell me about Muhammad, my historian. Was he a good man?’
“But the devil was about in Arabia?”
“I think so, yes. In the desert of Arabia the holy man Muhammad heard a voice and believed.
“He united the tribes and they worshiped the one God. Yet under his successors the name of Allah was to justify the slaughter of men, the rape of women, and the enslavement of their children. Omar sent from Hispania to Arabia thirty-thousand virgin children for concubinage after he had killed or enslaved their parents.
“Then Satan laughed a cold hard laugh.”
“Yes, Dearest. Now I will teach you how men make love with axes.”

Along the shore of North Africa rough men put their boats to sea. Three times in ten years they had raided the Aegean
islands and each time escaped before the garrisons of the forts located there could save the tiny villages.
On Karpathos the captain of the guard at a small fort midway up the eastern coast waited. His name was Leontius. The next time the pirates came would be different; he had sworn it to the villagers and to himself.
One village was Elymbos. It was not much; hardly worth the effort of the pirates. Even the church was nothing special with little gold or silver. The only thing of value that Elymbos had to tempt them were its children. Leontius had looked into the eyes of parents whose children were in whorehouses now and seen…nothing. He had children too. A son and a sweet daughter only a two-day journey away on the coast of Thracia. He hoped to see them again.
If warned in time parents could hurry their children to the fort or at least onto the mountain that rose sharply behind the little hamlet. The pirates dare not follow very long there lest they be caught by the hard-eyed troops of the Byzantine emperor. If that happened Leontius would take no captives. A quick death in battle would be all that they might pray to Allah for.
Indeed no pirate would have dared stand against the armored cavalry of the empire but because Karpathos is an awful place for even the rugged mountain ponies of Greece, the garrison troops on it were infantry, less mobile than the pirates but armed with two javelins, a sword, bow, mace, and sling.
Leontius thought about his own children. Honorius would become a soldier like himself of course; and in time, God willing, little Anna would marry the son of Paulo the priest. She was not strong and Leontius worried about her health. Both he and his wife prayed constantly for her both at Eucharist and in their hearts. It was good that Paolo accepted the girl’s weakness, not many fathers would be so understanding. But their children had already been together almost from birth, playing in the churchyard and planting and tending a garden when they were tiny. Even now, when most boys spent hours each day with other boys, the priest’s son would sometimes slip off to be with his Anna and her mother or call the girls to join his coterie in their confabs. That was not right but they did not care. It was all so natural and healthy that, strangely, neither did the elder men seem to care either though some old women always hung reproachfully about the pair.
Leontius missed his family. There was a road, or rather a trace, on Karpathos so that a courier could race the length of the island to alert the forts. For a moment he fantasized that he could take the road right over the mountain, find a boat, and go home. Others had done it and they had not always been punished. It wasn’t like deserting one’s comrades in battle. It was his fantasy but just a fantasy; Leontius was a soldier and an officer of his Sacred Majesty. He would never do it; not really. Reluctantly he dragged his mind back to reality. A figure was approaching along the road, On foot and seemingly in no hurry. The figure grew slowly clearer until in time Leontius recognized the gait of a friend, the monk Thelonius. Thelonius had been nearly the first to greet him when a squadron of Imperial dromons had left Leontius and his troopers at Delfani across the mountain from Elymbos on the opposite side of this long, thin, isle. He had watched with interest and admiration as the captain put his soldiers to work rebuilding weak spots in the old fort. It had been hard heavy work and Leontius had pressed local farm boys into gangs to help raise stones again where an earth tremor had tossed them to the ground. These young workmen were as hard eyed as the guard captain for all had lost childhood friends or sisters and brothers; and although they were neither masons nor carpenters they knew what they were about in the simple job of rebuilding walls and they understood the importance of their work.
In time the walls were rebuilt. Then timbers cut from local pine were thrown across old guard rooms and barracks and new roofs were constructed of fireproof masonry. These were finished only just before winter came down hard upon the island. There could be no raids in such bitter weather but there could be little building either. Instead there had been training. For both the garrison and the peasants there was much marching and practice with weapons. By day they had all practiced archery, swordsmanship, thrusting with the pike, and shattering with the ax. At night when the locals rejoined their families the regulars practiced ambushes and tested each other in near real encounters in the dark. And for them there was more marching, marching, marching; marching over the rocks, sometimes for the whole night. Leontius was determined; Karpathos would not lose one child because his men must wait for daylight. Night would not be a friend of the bastard enemy.
On Sundays those who could rested. The short brutal winter quickly ended and sometimes on God’s day Leontius would absent himself from his men in order to give them relief. He would climb the mountain to the monastery of S. Georgios where his new friend worked and prayed. Today Thelonius was returning the visit and the captain went out from the small fort to meet him on the path.
“Thelonius, my venerable friend. What brings you down the mountain today? What can I do for you?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. We are doing fine. But I have need of rest from rest. May I accompany you for awhile, most excellent of men?”
“Flattery is unbecoming in you, Brother, but yes. Let me show you how well your islanders have rebuilt the fort, and in just a few months too. But don’t tell them I said that; it would destroy my reputation.”
“Truly, we mustn’t have that happen.” Thelonius smiled. “The brothers have been busy working with the farmers. The stables are ready at Elymbos and Avlona. Boys are ready to ride and give the alarum at any time, and if there’s trouble at night there will be the big fires as you ordered. Some shepherd will always stay near the mountaintop to light one there and relay the warning to you. Our children keep piling up mountains of twigs. The littlest are so serious, so sweet and serious.” The monk smiled the littlest of sad smiles, but a smile none-the-less. “We are as ready as possible.”
Leontius could not return the smile though he tried. “Now the waiting begins. If they bring their boats where we can get at them, we’ll use the fire bombs. Ah, but they probably won’t…Still I would like it. I suppose you’ve never seen our fire used. It burns on water and if we had a dromon we could even spit it right into their faces. I was in the capital when the Bulgars attacked. Our ships made a hell for them right there on the water. My place was on the wall, of course, but from there I could see most of the fight. My men never did any work at all. the dromons just burned ’em out and sent them to hell.”
“Rather, may God have mercy on them.”
“Hah, they attacked us. Anyway, they worship devils.”
“It is their way, my friend, and the way of their fathers. Besides we’ve done our share of murdering too, whatever the lords may say. We all need God’s mercy.”
“And the slavers?”
“They’re different. Besides they’re here. I can’t feel as charitable toward them. But I should…I wasn’t in Constantine’s City when the Bulgars attacked it. But…May God have mercy on them.”
“Yes. God forgive them and me…and the heathen pirates too if they die here. But it is not good for a soldier to dwell on these things. I have my duty and that duty is to our Holy Emperor and those who serve him on this island.”
“And to Christ the Ruler of us all, including the Bulgars and the Arabs. Someday they too shall be brought within the fold.”
“I hope the Bulgars bathe first.”
The two men sat down to rest and admire the wall. Leontius wondered. “Why does a man become a monk, brother?”
“Why that depends, my friend. I suppose for many of us its just the chance to get away. Get away from family or responsibility; from temptation, or even from the law. For others it’s a vocation. We hope it’s from God but I think that sometimes it’s from the devil.”
“From the devil?”
“Its hard to tell. Sometimes a man is pregnant with love of God and seeks out a lonely spot to meditate on that love. But others do what they think is holy but for the wrong reasons; and of course a lot of monks are just mad. Surely we must blame the devil for that. God doesn’t make men mad.
“Is there not a holy madness, a madness for God.”
“Sometimes there is a great devotion and a determination. Such men are saints indeed; but the holy madness that fools speak of? No. We must pity those men and women and help them lest they harm themselves.”
“Some men go to great lengths to be holy. Are you saying that they go too far? After all our Lord Jesus died in a terrible way.”
“Yes Leontius, but he died because he was holy, not to become holy. One may wonder why those saints who went out into the desert or up on a pillar worked so hard at it; Jesus didn’t.”
“No; the chaplain often reminds us that God was the most normal of men. But even he went into the desert and fasted for forty days. Still, you are right; he did not fast for forty years or injure his body.”
“Anyhow, the monastery is a way to get away from worries and troubles. When you have nothing you can’t worry about it. I have food and a place to sleep and good friends who never argue because they never talk.” Theolonius bent to hide his face then peeked up smiling. “I have my garden and I have my prayers. I think even the worst monks, like those who take to the cloister to escape something…even they are very serious about their prayers.”
“I would hope so. After all, you’re monks.”
“Yes, and very scared monks at that. Tell me, Leontius, which is better; to die of some disease that a demon brings or even just from the cold or old age; or to die under a heathen battle ax when they attack a monastery? Surely the latter, don’t you agree? We trust that though God may not save the soul of a man who prays when he is sick, surely he will save a man who prays when he is not sick and is killed because he is just a helpless monk defending a gold chalice.”
“So it’s yourself you think of.”
“Of course. One needn’t have a halo to be saved. One only has to be a good man. A saint need not live in a monastery and most monks aren’t saints. I know; many monks think that a monastic life is the only way to be sure of salvation, and they are very worried, They reason that if, indeed, the end time is near than complete devotion is all that they should aim at. For men so concerned about their own salvation though, they are often very loud in their condemnation of those who still live in the world. But Christ didn’t live in a monastery and he did not tell others that they must do so to gain eternal life. He only said that we must keep the commandments, and especially that we must love one another.” Brother Theolonius paused. “Men do God’s will because they are afraid. If they are scared enough and unsure enough of their virtue, or want to be absolutely sure that they will not go to hell; then they become monks.”
“You’re being very hard. Monks do much good for the world.”
“Yes, it helps us to be brave.”
“Then you are no better than other men, at least no better than the priests!”
“Each man must try to reach heaven. It is easier to do that in a monastery. Outside one cannot concentrate on just that. It is easier at S. Georgios and that is all.”
“You say that you are not brave, Theo. I don’t believe you. The slavers will come, if not this year, then next year, or the year after. They might not attack your monastery. It’s so high on the mountain, but even so there are safer places than Karpathos. You could go to Rhodos or even to the City. There are plenty of monasteries in the capitol, though I fear you’d not get along with the other monks there.”
“No. I am not brave but I will not hide. If the children must be here…” He paused a long while to formulate a dangerous thought in an orthodox manner. “If God would forgive me my sins for defending a holy chalice…I don’t care what others say…The cup of Christ’s blood is beyond all valuing but a child is more. Jesus would have said so.””
A voice from the fort interrupted Theolonius and frightened him. “A sail has been sighted! And its not one of ours.”
The monk ceased his brave talk. Leontius ran to the fort, his friend beside him. It was time.
There could be no night ambush. The enemy came ashore at dawn in the northern harbor miles from the nearest fort; and though a boy had ridden his heart out galloping across the mountain on an exhausted mount it was many hours before Leontius appeared with his troops on the heights above Elymbos. Yet the pirates did not have the easy raid that they expected. The farmers and shepherds were no longer the brave but undisciplined mob of earlier years and their weapons were not just slings and farm tools but included pikes that they were trained to parry an enemy’s lance or sword with and then thrust right through his lungs. Outnumbered, they met the enemy on the shore and held him there while their children ran for safety, only slowly falling back and drawing him along the coast away from his boats.
Then the regulars came down the mountain behind him.
Now the battle was short and terrible with axes and maces as the dominant weapons. No songs were written about it, nor stories told in the schools of Constantinople about the heroism that day. There was neither the coordinated beauty of a cavalry charge nor the disdainful slaughter of distant archery. Instead there was the brutal and methodical efficiency of infantry. The imperial troops carried bows but their pirate foe was too scattered for these to be effective and so closely engaged by villagers that an arrow might as likely strike down a parent as a raider. Leontius was not going to make the children of Elymbos orphans by his own attack. He led his soldiers shield-to-shield like their Roman predecessors in close rank down the beach. At one point the men of Elymbos were able to briefly disengage and there the Byzantine squad threw javelins into the pirate mass. Many did not carry shields and they died first. But none escaped. If they faced the heavy infantry they had peasants behind them with hate in their eyes and pikes and farm axes in their hands. Those who turned to face the farmers had Leontius’ killers at their backs. Soon the fight was scimitars against imperial maces while the now-exhausted farmers fell back to give the soldiers room; but with their pikes and axes they continued to block the retreat of the doomed pirates.
That evening Leontius could report to Constantinople that though the pirates had fought desperately to disengage and regain their boats, God had given the field to his Sacred Majesty. It was not necessary in the formal dispatch about a minor police action against an annoying but petty enemy to add how when it was over the women of Elymbos had torn at the slavers’ corpses and defiled them; or how, while still wrenched by hot tears and cold anger, they had gathered their own dead and the parts of their dead. Some had vomited there and added to the stench of the field; others had entirely hid their feelings and under the repetitious prayers that they murmured. The monk Theolonius had been there too, praying over the bodies together with the local priest. For a time anger at the horrid evil men who had come to befoul and rape his island home and those he loved who dwelt upon it had driven charity from him. Anger had made him as brave as any trooper. But now Christ recalled him to duty. Though he still wore a borrowed mail shirt, he had dropped the ax which had made him look every bit the fearsome veteran which he had now become. He prayed aloud for the dead villagers, silently for the deluded miserable men who followed the prophet of Mecca and, it was said, still worshiped a stone.
On the next day the children returned from the mountain. In the church, very slowly and solemnly and without any prompting each knelt and kissed the broken skulls and torn bodies of their heroes. Many had need to cry. For them the dead included fathers and brothers and cousins. But they would live in peace and safety for two generations.”

“That’s a sad tale.”
“Most people have lived lives of tedium only relieved by hard work, my Love. For the farmers that was probably their one great adventure.”

John Briscoll was out for a drive, alone, to take in the autumn scenery as the leaves changed. He was getting older and wondered how many more autumns he’d see. Just a moment before he’d been shaken when some idiot had cut him off. Now, on nothing but a whim and to calm his nerves, he turned off the parkway – shun-piking he’d heard it called – and followed an old road that lead toward a large stand of trees; red and gold leafed maples, but also white birch and, deeper in the wood, some very old oaks which rose above the younger trees.
He neared the wood more and more slowly; the road passing through an enormous field of dead corn stalks that some farmer would soon plow under. Dead and soon to be buried – and maybe to be reborn as something else. John wished he were more sure of the last. Otherwise what was the use of anything anyone did. If there was nothing, then his life was as meaningless as had been that of some dinosaur, whether it had been good or bad, or productive, or not. Mere procreation could mean nothing. Neither could humanity’s pride: its so called progress, if it led nowhere. Then all life would always be nothing but “a searching after wind.”.
In a few minutes his old Chevy entered the wood. The field had been bright sunlit, the sky without clouds. He expected nothing but near darkness here but was surprised at the dappled look inside the little forest. Where the sun shone through the canopy of leaves it was just as bright as the open field had been. There was just a little underbrush and here and there were clusters of wild flowers, not just the little things that could survive without a great deal of light, but real gardener’s flowers whose bright colors competed with the sun.
The ground was not at all flat but bumpy with many boulders left by a long gone ice age, and with tiny hills, none more than a few feet high. Much of the ground was covered in moss; in fact the whole scene reminded John of a Japanese temple garden. Not one of those stone gardens carefully tended by Buddhist monks, but a Japanese moss garden with tall trees like these and an occasional Shishi-odoshi to take the flow from a tiny rivulet and scare the deer with its thud … thud …thud..
No deer would be frightened here however. Nor was this a wild wood. As John drove the winding road which had become not much more than a one lane path of very black and uncracked paving, he came across a house in the woods; then further on, another and another. They were neither very close nor very far apart, perhaps just a few acres. Nor did they abut the road but were at different distances and angles, all large though not mansions, and of different styles. One was white Georgian, several others wore ancient gray or brown cedar shingles, others might have been from some New England post card. All were clean and neat. There was a small pink scooter on the porch of the Georgian that reminded him of the present that he had given his grand daughter on her third birthday, just months before she died. He shook off that memory on this beautiful day as he knew he must. There was no grass and the moss needed no mowing. Perhaps, John thought, that was why no one seemed up and about doing chores or just enjoying the day. He himself would take a moment to enjoy the sunbeams and the calming melody of rustling leaves. Could the sun ever set over such an Eden-like place? Would night here be as splendid? Would there be a dawn? He did notice that there was writing incised on the boulders that lay about and decided to stop the car and read one:


Janet Briscoll
Beloved Daughter
2004 – 2012

John Briscoll
Beloved Father
1950 – 2013

To Beth Christmas eve had long ago become just another night. There was more noise than usual but most of it was from men shouting to be heard in bars, not sweet carolers in a Dickens’ fantasy. This was as far from a Victorian Christmas as one could get. The streets were dark, so dark that any caroler who ventured into them might trip on an irregular sidewalk and fall flat on his jolly face. There were a few street lamps at a factory far down the street but sodium vapor lights on a steel building had none of the prettiness of gas lamps on Christmas cards. Occasionally someone had made a half hearted attempt to recognize the season by stringing a few colored lights around a shop doorway but never on the darkened factory buildings. That would be a violation of company policy to express any notion that the birth of the Christ child was of any importance. Stupid, she thought. Even if you aren’t Christian it certainly mattered. 

The whore continued along Broad street. She could see St. Anthony’s church, a block away. St. Anthony’s would at least have a pretty manger scene if the baby figure had not been stolen again. She walked toward it hoping that she would find some cheer. She could see people arriving for late evening services. There would be some caroling, a nice sweet sermon from the pastor, and midnight mass. Of course she’d not find a customer there but whatthehell. When she arrived she did not go in but looked for a long while at the manger scene. I’ll just hang around awhile and listen to the singing. They’ll be singing real music, not about Rudolph or worse. For most people there had not been a Christ in Christmas for decades. It had become purely a Santa Claus festival and even Santa was no longer Christian, just an advertising character who laughs his fool head off throughout the season.

The whore was certainly not a practicing Christian herself, but Christ was still important to her. He was one thing that made a little sense. For some people he even made life worth living despite its dreariness. The first Christmas had been so long ago and yet it should still be important. It’s about love – so much better than sex. 

But even the good Christians hurrying to get inside the church where it would be warm took no notice of a forlorn cat in the bushes near the creche, Beth did. It was nothing special. It had no collar and certainly no pedigree. But it was a pretty striped animal if no prettier than any other. Beth thought about that and about herself. Much the same as I am she concluded. She stooped to pet it and the cat lowered her head to accept the gesture. Perhaps she felt the same toward Beth or perhaps she was just hungry but she started to rub against the prostitute’s legs.

“No puss. I’m not your mistress. Go home. Get into a nice warm bed with your humans.” But Beth knew that wasn’t possible. 

“Meow.” The cat turned away, rubbing a bushy tail against the plaster Mary with her child. Then it looked back to see if Beth were following. She hadn’t intended to but there was more Christian love here with the creche, the singing from inside the church, and this alley cat than she had seen on that night or any other for a long time. 

“You’re alone too, aren’t you?” Beth stooped to pick up the stray. She slipped it inside her woolen coat. “Now we’re going inside to pray while I decide what to do with you.” 

That, of course, was how Beth got a roommate.

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