Sunday, October 16, 2016

"What Kind of Nation," from 'The Work of Their Hands"

Silas leaves dissent up to others who try their luck—unmarried workers who are willing to be cast out. Word is they think they can do more to help the Christian cause as outlaws, hiding by day and sneaking from place to place by night, preaching in places known only to Christians on the run. But those who left early in the revolt were never heard from again. Nobody knows what became of them. Word is they were captured and placed into the dormitories in the city. But word also is that the dormitories are being demolished; The Seat is shipping unpermitables to other parts of the country. But without the means to know what is happening elsewhere, word lapses into supposition—the guesses that are lies in the absence of truth. The feeling is one of despair.
“What kind of nation have we become?” Ralph Pearson asks one night over coffee and cake. “This didn’t happen overnight. People used to be able to discuss things in the open: politics, differences in religion, different approaches to running the country. Open your mouth now, and a liaison is sure to report you and get you dismissed from your job and kicked out of your home.”
Silas is sympathetic. “I wish the newspapers could do something. Once upon a time newspapers reported on politics, the use of tax money, government projects. Newspapers used to be critical of the misuse of power. They would fight for people who had no one to fight for them. They were the poor man’s lawyer. Now they speak for no one except the state and protect no one except the state.”

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Wasp in the Parlor: from 'The Work of Their Hands,' an alternate history about religious persecutions in Jacksonian America

The Herald’s new home consists of one long room with heavy, roll-top desks for the editor, writers and proofreaders toward the front, and compositor tables and presses behind. The desks and tables were already on the premises, moved from storage in cellars around the works property. The presses are taking shape. Workers tighten screws and check levels as they add piece after piece. Their work shirts and hair cling to them in a paste of sweat and bodily oils. They blink their eyes and arch their brows and shake their heads in an attempt to rid their eyes and minds of the sensory mold of exhaustion. Not even Salton is all here. Despite his rest and sense of responsibility, he too is fuzzy. It hurts to think. He’s irritated by one man’s insistence on examining every single part of the presses again and again “just to be sure.”
His rising impatience may account for his response to the sight of a man and woman stepping through the door. FitzRobert, the works’ head clerk, shows a young woman the presses, declaiming what she herself can see with his usual whiny bluster. She clings to his arm in the wilt of a climbing vine that has just had the trellis cut from under it and is about to fall. Salton wonders if she’d rather be elsewhere; if she’s pretending to be polite and interested because she’s an employee and is expected to act with enthusiasm. He’s seen her on a more natural, humiliating occasion: at the office in the city, when her husband tried to buy a copy of the paper only to find he had nothing but LeFoss’s company scrip in his wallet. She’s Mrs. Silas Clarke, and she writes the women’s column.
FitzRobert escorts her as if he’s showing off a marvelous prize and she, not the press building, is the prize. That’s tasteless but not incorrect. She is a prize, when you stop to think of it. As a writer, she’s the sigil of excellence risen above the iron works’ other chattel. Still, FitzRobert’s airs are indigestible. A man of his stature ought to act with dignity, not like a schoolboy crowing for having bested his peers in a race for the girl.
She’s a Christian, else she wouldn’t be working here, and Salton has no regard for the sect, but he cannot resist giving FitzRobert a metaphorical slap in the face. He accosts the pair with the insouciance of a wasp blown into a parlor. “Mrs. Clarke! Delighted to meet you again. I still owe you a tour of the newspaper. If I may—” He shakes her hand but nimbly pulls her away from FitzRobert and ushers her from press to press and worker to worker, with snippets of introduction like “Bayley here selects and sets the type. And Howarth, over there with the hammer, usually applies the ink with those fat leather things that look like an inflated cow’s udder.” On and on he goes, ignoring FitzRobert, who follows with his hands clasped behind his back, a broad smile fixed on his face. Since the head clerk is not taking part in the conversation, it’s impossible to tell what he’s smiling at. He looks silly. Salton is satisfied.
The girl, meanwhile, smiles or nods or says “Pleased to meet you,” depending on the speed of Salton’s soliloquy. He can’t tell if she’s glad to be relieved of FitzRobert, but he’s certain FitzRobert would like to have her back. He will. Soon. The tour is about to end; Salton has work to do. “Please give my regards to Mr. Clarke,” he says as he hands the girl back to FitzRobert, gracefully, as if dancing a reel. “I’m glad you both had the opportunity to visit The Herald that day. It’s good for contributors to experience a newsroom while the paper is in production.”
What he really wants is to remind FitzRobert that Mrs. Clarke may be a Christian, but she’s still another man’s wife, and he had better mind how he behaves with her. That stiff, silly smile is still on the face of the dandified ass, but his eyes betray vocabulary that no gentleman would say to another, especially in public.
“Thank you so much,” says Mrs. Clarke as her original escort turns her toward the door.
Salton is surprised. He never expected the girl to thank him. There is no need for thanks. He didn’t show her around because it was the sociable thing to do. She was the means by which he could embarrass a fool. But he can’t dismiss her gratitude as a customary mark of a female raised to know her place among the lower reaches of society. She has carried herself amid the noise and roughness of the worksite with a peace and purity that no amount of discipline can instill in a girl. With those four words and the soft, utterly innocent expression of her face, her presence has become as cool water spilling over a burn, carrying away the sting. The desire to harass FitzRobert is gone.
“You’re welcome,” Salton says.
But she is out the door, beyond the reach of his voice.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

The 'Original' Olympics Theme From the Time of Napoleon

No, the Olympics weren't around in the time of Napoleon's French Empire in the early part of the 19th century. But the music was. You know that majestic theme tv stations have used for the games since the middle of the 20th century? It was written by French-American film composer Leo Arnaud (1904-1991) as part of a suite of music Arnaud called "The Bugler's Dream," and it's actually an expanded version of a military fanfare from the time of Napoleon: the Salut aux etendards, or Saluting the Standards. Click here to hear it performed by the Cavalerie de la Garde Republicaine.

Postcard #2: 'Salutaris'

Saturday, August 6, 2016

from 'The Prodigal's Psalm:' "Better to have too much . . . "

THE AIRY slap of bare feet upon a marble floor, the gentle clap of a hand upon naked flesh, the sigh of a gardener’s trowel impaling the earth: all say to me, “Ioannes.”
He’d been the talk of Alexandria long before I knew him. People yawned when the governor of Aegyptus hosted games for victories over minor enemies in obscure parts of the Roman Empire, but they all went mad for the briefest glimpse of Ioannes. I had no idea why. He was a dancer, and I had no interest in dancing. I was a slave—an embroiderer and flax spinner for the wife of an advocatus, a counselor of law, in the Greek Quarter. My concerns, my indulgences, my interests were invested in the desires and needs of those who, at their whim, could get rid of me as quickly as they had bought me. But Ioannes noticed me, and I became the first of many he would call away from lives which, like mine, were renderings of incarceration, with an inventive mess of colors and designs more befitting the tomb of an ancient pharaoh than the dull daily doings of the nameless.
“He saw your embroidery on the wall hangings when he was here this morning,” said my master, his voice and body bent with sorrow. “My dear wife asked if he would like to borrow you to sew clothes and curtains for his performances, but he thought it too much for a slave to serve two masters, and he put the money in my hand without bothering to bargain. It was quite a sum, more than I’d ever think to ask for you, but he said he was sorry because you were worth beyond monetary value. Now gather your things. One of his slaves should be outside waiting for you.”
I had spent nearly half my eighteen years with this household. Both my parents had finished their lives here, and I thought I would, too. Though I was treated as something of an embarrassing poor relative, the advocatus, and his family were my family and my world. They were all I had ever known.
I remember staring at the work in my lap. I had been creating a scene from the Aeneid, the one in which Aeneas carries his ancient father to safety from the sack of Troy. Should I take it with me? Should I leave it?
My master, whose name was Nikodromos, must have sensed my confusion. He was, after all, an advocatus and a clever man. He put his hand over mine and closed my fingers around the needle. “We couldn’t be more shocked or surprised than if we’d been told you’d fallen down dead. But we’re happy for you. Go now, take this with you and send it along when it’s ready, and speak of us with kindness.”
Despite the years I had lived in the household, I had only my clothes to pack up. I never owned the needles I had sewn with and the cloth I had spun. They all belonged to the household. Nikodromos let me take what I needed to complete the Aeneid scene. My new master would have to provide me with more. Having so little, I was packed and out of the house within minutes.
People who have never lived in Aegyptus think the entire land is a desert, furnace-hot and dry. This may be true of the interior, where the pharaohs of times long gone had built their tombs and palaces, but not so of Alexandria. The city founded by Alexander the Great faces the sea. Winds blowing in from the water keep the temperatures pleasantly cool, never cold, in winter, and tolerable, never roasting, in summer. It even rains in Alexandria, especially in winter. That evening as I left the home of the man who had just become my former master, the rain was a mist that hung in the air like decorative texture chiseled on a column. My escort was wrapped in a cloak of heavy linen. He held the hood almost completely closed about his face. All I could tell was that he was tall and slender and moved with grace as well as speed.
“Quickly!” he urged as I stepped around puddles of rain that clumped in the alleyway between the houses. At best, the puddles would dilute the scent of urine that was a permanent part of city life. At worst, they would ruin my sandals.
“Come! Tlepolemus is leaving his shop open so we can choose the fabrics for the next spectacle. We really shouldn’t keep him waiting.” The voice was young.
I was annoyed that this Ioannes would expect me to go shopping with another slave on another slave’s business. No, this was not the best way to begin a new life. I had yet to recover from the shock of being forced out of my old one, and I suffered from the petulance that strikes when fate runs afoul of our liking.
At least the oil lamps in the shop exuded a welcoming, comforting, scent and light. In neat, solid lines in cabinets against the wall were bolts of fabric dyed every color imaginable, and bolts of fabric were piled high on the tables. Entranced, I forgot about the drenched bag I was carrying until my escort pulled it out of my hands. “Here, let me take that! We’ll be dancing the Labors of Hercules, and I was thinking about this for the backdrop. What do you think? Can you work gold thread into it? I’d like it to glitter like the night sky but not be as detailed as the night sky. I want the effect of sparkling stars and moonlight, not the real representation.”
I leaned to examine the length of black silk the shopkeeper held before us, and when I turned to answer the question, I was struck speechless by something I had not expected to see.
My escort had pushed back his hood and was shaking rain from the mass of loose, dark brown curls that was his hair. As he looked up at me from beneath that canopy, I perceived a νεανίας—a neanías, a youth about to shed his boyishness for the next stage in his life, a stage that wasn’t quite manhood. The appearance, for whatever reason, made me think of the sound of the most delicately fashioned bell mistakenly cast in bronze instead of silver.
“Silver, yes silver,” I babbled. “Silver thread, not gold, would be best for the stars.”
“Ah! Why was I thinking of gold, Tlepolemus? Of course, the stars should be silver!”
The shopkeeper’s beard widened as he smiled. “You have better things to do than stand out and stare at the night sky, sir. Will this be satisfactory?”
“If my expert approves.”
The neanías was mocking me because I dared contradict him about the color of the stars. Would he treat me this way in front of our master?
“It’s a lovely choice,” I said politely but without joy.
“Good!” said the neanías, and the shopkeeper promised to send the fabric around in the morning.
“That’s not necessary. We’ll take two bolts now. Just wrap them well, and I’ll carry them. And toss in silver thread too, will you?”
“Certainly, sir. How much?”
The neanías looked at me from the corner of his eye. “A great deal. I’ve a feeling it’s going to be better to have too much than too little.”

from 'The Scattered Proud:' The Debtor's Daughter

IN the spring of 1797, Papa brought me to Philadelphia for what would be my last visit to our house. As we sat over dinner in the garden, he revealed the Church was opening a mission for expatriates in Paris. Because the French government at that time banned Christian denominations, the mission would be discreetly centered at an orphan asylum, which the presiding bishop himself had asked Papa to administer.
For the second time in four years, my father was separating himself from me with what I perceived as a passion that approached willful neglect of his only child. I regarded him as if he had just jumped from a hot-air balloon without a parachute. “Papa, this is your home! This is my home! How can you leave it? How can you leave me?”
Slowly, he cut his meat into tiny pieces. “Sweetie, I’d like you to understand that we who have decided upon this mission are neither pious men who wish to put on a show of devotion to God, nor cowards who wish to run from the city. Remember what the psalm says: ‘A thousand shall fall beside thee, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee.’ No true Christian can deny that we were delivered from death. The time has come to pay the debt.”
As a child and young person, I had been taught and periodically reminded that God was the Supreme Being who made and moved the world. Attending church on Sunday was as ordinary to me as eating and sewing. But I had never truly thought about religion and how it had formed my father and all the other people who had sought to form me either at home or in school. That evening in the garden, I thought about it. My father’s news struck me with the force of a physical blow. I understood that religion was more precious to him than his daughter. We might have been at the table together, but in sentiment and steadfastness of faith, we already were thousands of miles apart.
I wanted to change his mind by saying something Kit might have said, something wise or at least reasonable. But as earnestly as I wished to follow Kit’s example, I could think of nothing appropriate. I was not Kit. I was Janet. I was still the child who must honor her father and respect his wishes. My silence and lack of enthusiasm must signify my dilemma. I watched as flies washed themselves in the cold gravy.
“Janet?” Papa’s voice did more than imply he had no notion of the emotional thrashing my expectations dealt me. It declared that, if he knew, he would have neither the desire not the patience to appreciate the struggle.
To speak was to force air up and around the poker of distress that impaled my throat and hope my mouth shaped that air into recognizable sounds.
“The French execute clergy, Papa. Donatienne told us. Don’t you remember?”
“They execute Papist clergy, sweetie—Roman Catholics who plot to overthrow the Revolution. We’re not Roman, and we have no intention of doing anything to arouse the government’s ire. We will be there for the expatriates.”
“Are there so many expatriate orphans that they need an asylum?”
“If there was one orphan or, for that matter, a foundling, it would be enough.”
An orphan or foundling who meant more to my father than I, who was neither orphan nor foundling, meant to him. I fear I indulged in resentment. “What will become of me?” I asked, replete with bitterness.
“When the mission is open, you will join us in Paris and teach the orphans.”
Perhaps another girl would have squealed and exhibited other tokens of excitement after hearing she was to live in a place prized for its fashions as much as it was feared for its politics. I exhibited nothing. Papa lowered his cutlery, granting me an expression of concern trimmed with annoyance. “You mustn’t worry yourself, Jannie. We’ll be safe. We won’t flaunt our beliefs. Our neighbors won’t even know there’s a clergyman in the vicinity.”
I think I nodded. I know that that was the end of the matter. My lack of affection for the plan was worsened by the prospect of inviting death by shipwreck or accident, or by the many strange diseases that inhabit other lands. I resolved to prepare myself to meet my Maker by attending Mass and prayer services, and by helping Papa put the house for sale.