When nostalgia is misplaced.

Fair warning: I am about to not step on some toes, but stomp on some writing fantasies. So if you’re bothered by such things, you might want to stop reading now.

Now that the warnings are out of the way, let’s get down to business.

Recently, in an online writer’s group I’m involved in, someone asked where they could find a typewriter. Their reasoning for asking was that they were having problems writing because their laptop was randomly failing as they used it. My response was simple: forget about looking for a typewriter and find someone to fix the laptop so they could get on with writing.

For my efforts, I received some pointed negative comments, but I stand by my position: Modern computers, even those in need of serious TLC, are infinitely better writing implements than typewriters.

I do not take this position because I used to work on computers for a living, but because of past experience writing on both computers and typewriters.

For roughly the first year of my time as a writer, i.e. someone who writes material for others to read, I used a typewriter. It wasn’t anything elegant, just an (even then, nearly thirty years ago) ancient Underwood manual. I had been looking for some way to get stuff in printed form, and had picked it up for what I thought was a song at an auction sale. Of course, once I started using it, I found out why it had been so cheap: it needed a new ribbon (yes, it used an honest-to-gods ribbon, one on a pair of spools that had to feed into place by hand), half the keys had their letters crudely painted on, the hammers themselves often stuck, and it was rare event when all the text lined up perfectly.

For all that, it got me started, and until I found a cheap computer and printer (an elderly Kaypro that should have been in a museum even before I laid hands on it and a very early HP Laserjet printer that weighed about as much as a modern Smart car), I was glad to make do with what I had. It wasn’t until I first sat down and worked with a word processing package (WordPerfect, if memory serves) that I realized that writing wasn’t something to suffer while doing. No more lines of text that jogged all over the place. No more pages where the text angled subtly from one side to the other because I hadn’t quite gotten the paper in correctly. No stopping to ‘white out’ an error, or to plaster it on a portion of a page so I could change a sentence completely. No more worrying about pages accidentally getting out of order because I knocked what I’d already typed over.

Since then, I’ve gone through several different computers, many printers, and more than a few word processing packages, but never once have I felt a desire to go back to the ‘good old days’ of using a typewriter. Don’t get me wrong, if a typewriter is all you can afford, then go with one. If you need to sit down in front of a typewriter to get your ‘creative juices’ flowing, more power to you. But please, when you’re talking about them, don’t look at the experience through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia. There’s one universal truth we should all acknowledge: typewriters are a pain to work with. Compared to computers, even the balkiest ones, they’re seriously inferior in usability. So the next time you read/hear some writer expressing an interest in getting a typewriter, especially some young writer who does not know what they’re really like to use, please give them an honest opinion of the beast they are about to tangle with.

BTW, here’s my old Underwood. I keep it around partly because it weighs so much I’m not sure the garbage men would take it if I threw it out, but mostly to remind me of how much better I have it these days.

underwoodx1

The Screaming Tree

It wasn’t that Ciaran and Ciara O’Breoghan were naughty children. No, there were many children who behaved naughtily among the families that made up the The O’Breoghan’s household. What made Ciaran and Ciara truly stand out was the fact that they enjoyed being naughty.

The scarlet-haired twins had heard, again and again, that they should behave ‘properly’. There father, their mother, their tutors and even their servants would remind them that they were The Future Of The Clan O’Breoghan. Ciaran was told how he would one day take his father’s place as chieftain of the clan. Ciara had heard how she would one day marry the son of one of the neighboring clan’s chieftain.

And both of them hated being told what they would do.

At ten years of age, both of them both of them wanted nothing to do with the boring necessities of becoming the people their parents wanted them to be Yet no matter how much they protested, no matter how they tried to avoid it, they’d been told that as the only surviving children of Ruari O’Breoghan, what they wanted was less important than what their clan needed.

So they had settled on gone out of their way to be annoying. In hopes that their bad behavior would cause their parents to reconsider, they made a game of finding new ways to try the patience of their servants. They tormented one tutor after another until they gave up. And as often as they could, they offended guests to their father’s hall.

Of all their acts, this caused their parents the most trouble. In Irish society, the guests of a chieftain were honored before everyone else in the household but the chieftain themselves. So the twins took great pleasure in offering offense to any and all people who guested in Ruari O’Breoghan’s hall.

Tonight’s guest was a traveling shanachie. Both twins loved the stories brought by shanachies, and their resolve to cause trouble wavered when they first heard such an important person would be visiting. Then they saw their father’s guest. He looked nothing like the other shanachies who’d visited. His robes were frayed and filthy, and the skin of his face hung in pale folds around the pale eyes of a blind man. He seemed to hang from the pair of attendants who supported him, not walk proudly to face their father as the other shanachies had. But when he spoke, in a high, squeaky voice, they found it hard to hold in the gale of laughter that arose in both of them.

“Ruari O’Breoghan, son of Rian O’Breoghan, who was son of Niall O’Breoghan, who’s father bore your name, I thank you for your gracious hospitality. May your house and clan know peace and plenty through all the years.”

Both children watched in stunned amazement as their father rose from his seat and embraced the filthy old man. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, son of Daithi Mac Giolla Bháin, who’s fame is know across Ireland, Scotland and even among the English, I bid you welcome. It has been far too long since you have graced this hall. I was but a boy of nine when you visited last, and I hope I may show you as much honor as my father did.”

Taking the old man’s arm over his shoulder, father helped him to a seat servants brought and set beside the fire. There the two of them fell to talking of that long ago visit, a subject neither child cared to hear of. They made to leave, but their movement drew their father’s attention. “Children, come meet our guest for tonight, the greatest shanachie in Ireland, Scotland and England, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

To walk away would anger their father, and earn them banishment from the feast that was to come, so Ciaran and Ciara came forward to address the old shanachie. “We bid you welcome to this hall, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, greatest of all shanachies.” they chorused together.

Diarmuid cocked his head to one side, and an unpleasant smile spread across his toothless mouth. “Ah, I am welcome by you two, am I? I wonder where that welcome was when you were stiffing your laughter at my appearance not a moment ago?”

Ciaran and Ciara spared a quick glance, each seeing the other’s face go pale in response to their father’s face going crimson with embarrassment. Both of them began stammered attempts at apology, but their father’s voice growled out an apology that drown theirs out. “I apologize for my children’s ill manners, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran, Ciara, apologize to Himself, now!”

They’d only heard that tone applied to those who had gotten on the bad side of their father’s temper, and never to themselves. Bowing low, they put every bit of the chagrin they felt into their apology. We are most humbly sorry for have offered offense to you, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.”

They kept their faces down-turned, waiting for the acceptance of their words they expected. Instead, after a long silence, they heard a single sniff before the old man began speaking to their father again of his travels. Both of them wished to leave, but knew that until the old shanachie spoke to them, they could not, in good grace, even stand straight. He kept talking, pointedly ignoring them, and both children went from fear of their father’s reaction to anger at being so treated in their own hall. Worse, father kept up his side of the conversation, ignoring them and their plight as if they were invisible.

It wasn’t until after he’d finished a long, rambling account of his visit to the hall of the King of Connachta that Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin took notice of them. And even then, all he said to them was “Oh, you children may go.” before he launched into a story about his encounter with a Milesian trader.

Together, they raised their heads, hoping to find their father ready to rebuke the old shanachie for his lack of courtesy to them. Instead, they found their father listening with rapt attention to to the old man’s tale of the joys of wine from across the wide ocean. He did not even look towards them, leaving Ciaran and Ciara with no choice but to retire.

The shame they felt, being treated in such a manner in their own hall, felt beyond bearing. But it was nothing compared to the way the servants treated them. Like all great halls, theirs was staffed with many slaves. Some were captives taken from among the English, others people taking in battle and forced to serve those who had conquered them. All of them knew to lower their eyes and act humbly around their master and his children. Now, though, every time the children walked past a servant, there was a moment, just as their gaze slide away from them, when they saw not humbleness, but triumph. Their servant’s faces were no longer studiously blank in their presence, but held the trace of a smile, as they reveled in their tormentor’s discomfort.

That humiliation, with their father’s ignorance of their plight, raised a tide of anger in both of them they fought to contain until alone. The room they shared was the only place they could truly be alone, and once the door had closed, they both began to shout.

How could father let him…”

Can you believe the way that English serving girl looked at us…”

That we could be treated so, by our own father…..”

That old man, how dare he…”

It’s beyond bearing, it is!”

It cannot go unanswered!”

In that moment, as they often did, both children were struck by the same thought. They would find some way to take their revenge, not only on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, but on all those who they thought had mistreated them. But how? No matter how much they debated the problem, neither of them could find a method for exacting their vengeance. They were brooding on the injustice of it all when the nameless old hag who tended them entered their room.

Your father bids me remind you to be clean and properly dressed for the feast tonight. As the other servants are busy setting the table, you should be getting ready.”

Those words sparked the same thought in both of them, a thought they held inside until they were alone again.

If we can make others laugh at that old fool…”

“….then father will have no choice but to forgive us!”

They sketched out their idea as they dressed, laughing at each new addition they came up with. Ciaran stopped in mid-laugh. “But we can’t let them know what we plan to do.”

Of course not, brother. We must be as meek as mice and as polite as can be.”

With those words, they both banished any sign of mirth from their faces and walked side by side to the feasting hall.

Outside, the rumble of thunder told them that Taranis was busy this night, but the feasting hall shone bright with candles and fires. Father and the shanachie were already seated, but enough to the family retainers had yet to arrive that Ciaran and Ciara’s arrival could not be regarded as late. They approached the two men together, bowing low before speaking.

Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, we most humbly offer you our apology. Our ill manners brought shame to our clan, our father and this house.”Ciaran started, and Ciara finished. “We both bid you welcome to our hall and house, and hope you will enjoy our hospitality.”

They’d practiced the speech several times, and both children thought their presentation perfect. It caused their father to smile at them like they’d just recited the epic of Fionn mac Cumhaill from memory. But Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin? His blind eyes stared at them until they as transparent as the waters of Loch na Coille Bige, and he could see their lie as clear as a great brown trout swimming just beneath the surface. Then cheerful smile spread across his face. “Of course, children, and I thank you for your kind welcome. Please, don’t bother yourself over an old man’s ill humors. It’s only natural for children to desire enjoyment. So I hope you will feast and enjoy yourself this night.”

Unnerved but happy to be free, the twins took their place at the long table to await the coming feast. Their wait was short, as all the retainers had heard that tonight one of the greatest shanachies in all the Irish lands was to entertain them. That, and the rich feast such a visit would entail were enough to draw every member of the household with a claim to a spot at The O’Breoghan’s table. When the last had taken his spot, father arose to address them all.

Join me in welcoming our guest tonight, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin.” The crowd raised their flagons in a roar of agreement, even the twins lifted their cups of cider. After a long silence as everyone drank the great shanachie’s health, the old man rose and lifted his own flagon. “I thank you all for your welcome and kindness. But now is no time for speeches by old men like me. Eat, drink, enjoy yourselves. Sláinte!”

An even louder chorus of agreement and laughter greeted this, and as the old man settled himself again, servants began to pour into the hall bearing food. The feast that followed brought food of every type, food in quantities fit to challenge even the greatest glutton. It flowed in such a delightful manner that the twins began to enjoy themselves, even to the point of forgetting their pledge of vengeance against Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. But no feast last forever, and as the last plates were being taken away, every flagon was topped off and their father again rose to address the hall.

My clan, I ask you to join me again drinking the health of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and to ask him to grace us with the telling of one of the great tales.” The shouts that greeted this call befitted the quantity of drink and food that had gone into the assembly. They were by far the loudest of the night, and with the drink on them, the adults called out their suggestions for what tale they wished to hear.

Tell us the tale Táin Bó Cúailnge!”

No, tell us of the forming of the Fianna!

Please, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, tell us the tale of Oidheadh chloinne Lir!”

The old man listened to the cries, quietly smiling, until The O’Breoghan raised his hand for silence. When the voices had stilled, he turned to the shanachie. “Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, you are my guest, and it’s a poor host who demands payment for his hospitality. If you would choose to grace us with a tale, I would count it an honor beyond any I ever looked for. But I will not demand one of you, and if you decide to speak, I will not dictate to you what tale you tell.”

The old man bowed in his seat. “You honor me with your words, Ruari O’Breoghan. Truly, you and your hall know the meaning of hospitality far better than many another chieftain. But it would be a poor guest indeed who felt no need to repay such a feast as I have had this night. If you and yours will indulge me, I would tell the tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his many adventures.” The hall rang with approving shouts that brought a broad smile to the old shanachie’s face, but as they tapered off, his head turned towards Ciaran and Ciara. The smile became less one that of a man swept up in praise, and more like that of someone seeing a chance to do an old foe injury. “But that is a long tale, one that I will no doubt have to interrupt it to drink and ease my dry throat.” The men laughed at the joke, knowing the shanachie would drink many a flagon of beer before he finished. “And I would not expect the young ones here to stay awake through it all as courtesy would require. Ruari O’Breoghan, would it not be a wise thing to allow your children to retire for the night?”

Their father looked at them, then his guest, and the twins saw he had understood what was really being said. The old shanachie wanted them gone so they could not enjoy the telling of one of the greatest stories of all Ireland. Perhaps it was petty, but every chieftain knew how unwise it was to cross a traveling shanachie like Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. “Perhaps you are right. Ciaran, Ciara, it is late, and you should be off to bed.”

Perhaps he expected them to be angry, and the twins were angry at how the shanachie had dismissed them out of hand. But as they rose and made their bows to their father, they also knew this would give them the perfect chance to exact their revenge on Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin. Ciaran and Ciara made their way to the door, but instead of leaving through it, they turned aside and slipped along the wall. They found a spot out of their father’s sight but visible to many of household and waited. They had to wait but a short moment. The shanachie rose from his seat to walk into the center of the hall. With a final bow to their father, he launched into the mighty tale.

Goll, son of Daire the Red, with fame,
Son of Eochaid the Fair, of valor excellent,
Son of Cairbre the Valorous with valor,
Son of Muiredach from Finnmag.

Goll slew Luchet of the hundreds
In the battle of Cnucha, it is no falsehood:
Luchet the Fair of prowess bright
Fell by the son of Morna.”

As he spoke, Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin’s arms swept about in the sort of dramatic gestures every shanachie they’d ever seen or heard loved to use. And as he gestured, the twins imitated his every movement in silence, making their movement even more exaggerated than the shanachie’s. At first, no one noticed their antics. Then one drunk warrior caught sight of them and nudged the fellow beside him. Both of them smiled as the the sad opening rolled on.

By him fell great Cumall
In the battle of Cnucha of the hosts.
It is for the chieftaincy of Erin’s fian
That they waged the stout battle.

The children of Morna were in the battle
And the Luagni of Tara,
Since to them belonged the leadership of the men of Ireland
By the side of every valorous king.

Victorious Cumall had a son,
Finn, bloody, of weapons hard:
Finn and Goll, great their fame,
Mightily they waged war.”

A third man noticed them, and where the first two could contain their mirth, this one watched them for only a moment before chuckling, then bursting into open laughter. No man laughed at such a moment without drawing the attention of those around him. Worse, it drew the attention of Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin, and he paused in mid-stanza, their. When he did, their father came around the pillar that had kept them hidden. Finding Ciaran and Ciara were the cause of the commotion, his face went scarlet. For a long moment, they watched their father’s face as he struggled to contain the anger that filled his voice when he finally spoke. “What mischief have you two been up to? I told you to go to your beds!”

This was not the result they’d hoped for. Ciaran tried to answer. “Father, we….we were just…”

“Enough!” Their father had never shouted at them like this before, nor had he ever looked this beside himself with anger when dealing with their past deeds. He scrubbed his broad hands over his face before shaking his head. “I have tolerated your actions in the past because I thought it caused by your mother not being here to help care for you. Clearly, I have been too lenient in dealing with you. No more. Tonight, now, you will take yourselves to the cottage Cillian Mag Aoidh. You will stay there, obeying his command and helping him with his farm, until I decide you have learned your lesson.”

That stopped both of them. Cillian Mag Aoidh was the oldest retainer of their clan they knew of, a man so old he’d taught their father the use of weapons. For this service, their grandfather had gifted him a cottage and some land overlooking a cove most of a day’s walk from the hall. Did their father truly expect them to make the walk at night?

But father, how can we got to…”

Ciaran had no chance to finish his question. Father cut him off, his voice filled with anger. “You’ve made the walk more than once, both of you. Ill let you take your cloaks, it’s going to be a wet walk, but enough delays. You need to learn that your actions have consequences. If that means walking to an old man’s cottage in a storm, then consider it a small price to pay for the offense you have committed against this hall and your family’s name. Go! Be getting yourselves out of my sight.”

Their father stormed off to retake his seat, leaving them in a circle of shocked, silent faces. Ciarian turned to do as he was told, but Ciara, as usually, would not leave well enough alone. “This is all your fault, you filthy old beggar! Coming into our hall, disrupting our lives, and for what? So we can hear you tell a tale in your silly voice! Who’d want to hear you say anything?”

Such a blatant insult caused even Ciaran to gasp. He grabbed his sister’s arm, intent on checking her, but his words stooped in his throat when the bard turned towards them. His eyes were no longer milky white. No, now they glowed like the center of a forge as he spoke.

And who will ever hear your voice again, disrespectful child? Lugh sees what you children do, and all the gods have heard what you say. My you both repent your words and deeds, for if you don’t, then the gods will curse you to silence from this day forward.”

Whether it was those terrible eyes, or the cold ringing voice that called so ominous a curse down upon them, the twins fled the hall as fast as their feet would carry them. Yet even as they donned their cloaks, Ciara continued to rant about what had happened. “How dare he? Try to scare us with that silly curse, will he? Like I’d be put down by the likes of him!” She was still muttering under her breath as they exited the front door and made their way through the gate. As it closed behind them, Ciaran grabbed his sister’s arm, hoping to reason with her.

Are you mad, thinking his curse hollow? Did you not see his eyes, nor hear his voice? We need to apologize to Himself, we do.”

Ciara stopped, but listen to him? She’d never listened to him, or anyone else, once her blood was up. She shook off his hand, and stared at him for a long moment. Her voice, when she spoke, was like a whip of thorns on his soul. “Is it a brother I was born with, or a sister? Was I the only one born with any courage, or any sense of what’s right? No, we need to find a way to strike back for this insult, we do. For if we don’t, we’ll never be respected as long as we live.”

Her words drove Ciaran’s reason aside, leaving his anger to take control of him. “I’m no woman, and I’ll not have anyone say otherwise, not even you! But what can we do, now, cast out of the hall?”

We might be cast out of the hall, for now, but there’s no one to say we can’t plan our revenge while we walk now, is there?”

With those words, the twins set out through the growing darkness, spinning out more and more elaborate plans for taking revenge upon the shanachie. But with every step they took, the darkness of the storm, until then just a threatening presence on the horizon, came closer. Taranis announced it’s arrival with a stupendous clap of thunder, followed by a roaring wind filled with rain and hail. Their cloaks did little to protect them from the assault, so Ciaran grabbed his sister’s hand and together they ran through the deluge seeking shelter. But no cottage, not even a herdsman’s lowly shelter, did they find. Again and again, Taranis’ mighty hammer struck the heavens, sending lightening down to smote the ground, and thunder to stun their ears.

Hope of shelter began to fail the twins when a huge dark shape loomed out of the rain. Changing course, they found it to be a ruined oak tree, its branches bare even though Litha was but two months passed. Ciara raised her cloak enough to tilt her head back before rounding on Ciaran. “Well, brother, this is a fine discovery you’ve made! Are you next going to lead us to a stream, so we can stay dry by drowning in it now?”

It’s sure you’ve a tongue in your head, but no brains to go with it. At least if we can go to the downwind side, we’ll have a bit of shelter to stand in while we get our bearings. Or do you enjoy being pelted by hailstones?”

That silenced his sister, but the thing that amazed them both was the broad, dark crack they found in the mighty tree’s trunk. Ciaran reached into it, up to his shoulder, and found nothing. “I think there’s space in here for one of us, maybe both. Would you like to try getting in, or would you rather I go first?” Ciara had a deathly fear of small spaces, something her brother knew well. “No, you can go first.”

Ciaran found the crack wider at the bottom than the top, but even there, it was more like he was forcing his body through the solid wood than into an open crack. Slipping his cloak off allowed him to finally get himself into the space behind the opening. It was profoundly dark inside, but it was also dry. Better, when he sat down and stretched his legs out, his feet barely touched the opposite side of the hollow. “Come in, sister, it’s dry and there’s plenty of room for both of us.”

Ciara heard her brother’s shout, but the thought of squeezing through the narrow opening filled her with a fear she couldn’t easily overcome. Another stroke of Taranis’ hammer, this one sending a lightening bolt down on a hilltop in front of her, overcame her fear. Unlike Ciaran, she could squeeze through the crack without shedding her cloak. Her brother helped her settle in next to him, and rather than get his own cloak, they wrapped themselves in Ciara’s. Ciaran could feel his sister shivering, and knew it had little to do with the chill from their wet clothing. “I ask you, is this not better than being out in rain?”

It is, but my heart still quivers with fear at the thought of being here. Does it not bother you, brother, to be in this small space?”

Ciaran opened his mouth, ready to deny he felt fear at all, but some deep part of him feared this place. When he answered as levelly as he could. “It does bother me, but I can set aside my fear if it means I’m not battered by hailstones while being soaked to my skin by rain.”

Ciaran should have listened to his fear. The words had just left his mouth when the crack they’d entered through closed without a sound. The noise of the storm gone, they could hear the great tree creaking, sounding so like a high, squeaky voice laughing at them. For a moment, they were stunned into silence. Then, as one person, they flung themselves at the wood, beating it with their fists, scratching at it with their fingernails. And as they tried to force the crack open, both of them screamed and screamed for help.

#

Ruari O’Breoghan’s head felt fit to burst as he untangled himself from the young Scottish serving girl he’d bedded and threw aside the bed covers. “Am I too old to be at the drink?” It was a question that made him want to prove his vigor. After a quick piss, he crawled back into bed for a morning’s roll with the fine young wench still asleep there. She was quite happy to oblige him, and after a long, breathless ride, she took his seed with joy.

Ruari lay for a while, happy to be resting, as his bed partner dressed and left. Then he rose, dressed himself, and made for the kitchen to find something to eat. There was a fine level of chatter going on, but every voice fell silent when he entered the room. That sudden silence told him something had happened, but he knew asking what would get nothing but silent evasion. “Cook, a bowl of porridge and mug of warm cider. Bring both to the small hall.”

The small hall was the oldest part of the complex that house the O’Breoghan’s. Supposedly it had been build by Ruari’s great-grandfather, but whomever built it, it was a dry, warm space on even a raw wet day like this. Cook brought Ruari’s breakfast himself, along with a spare mug of cider for himself. The two men had grown up together, Caolan being the son of a buanadha Ruari’s father had hired to train his warriors. Alone, they fell back into the informality they’d enjoyed as boys. “So, are you free to tell me what is it that the grand lord’s not supposed to know?”

Caolan took a long draw of his cider before answering. “Well, if you’ll be listening to the rumors flying through the hall, there’s many. The biggest is that when the servants went to ask what Diarmuid Mac Giolla Bháin might be wanting for breakfast, not only was his room empty, but the bed hadn’t been slept in. More interesting is the fact that the guards who were at the gate insist they never saw him leave.”

Ruari nearly choked on his mouthful of porridge. “You’re serious now?

I am.”

Well then, who was that telling us tales last night? Never mind. As my Da said, some things, it’s better to not know.”
“Aye, that true. But what of the twins? Will you be calling them back?”

No matter who our guest was, spirit or flesh, their behavior was beyond bearing. No. Staying with old Cillian for a day or two will do them no harm. In any event, I wouldn’t ask anyone to make the walk on a day like today. Besides, with them out of the hall, I’ll be able to have my breakfast without being disturbed.”

Ruari was good to his word, and it wasn’t until the the Sun rose next morning in a clear sky that he sent a servant off to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s cottage. He was brooding over his children’s manners when the whey-faced servant returned to report that the children had never arrived at Cillian’s.

What do you mean, they never arrived? Think, man! Did you see any sign of them? Any tracks?”

And how could I find any sort of sign or track after the storm we had? The only thing that could have left a mark that survived such a rain would be a herd of cattle, and two children aren’t a herd of cattle, no matter how ill-mannered.”

It was true, and Ruari knew it. Still, where could they have gotten to? “They need to be found. Have every servant, every warrior, follow the track to Cillian Mag Aoidh’s. There’s no cliffs along the path, and I can’t see them just walking into the ocean, so look for any place they might have taken shelter.” When no one moved, he rose to bellow at them “Go, blast you all! Or do I have to lead you in a simple search for two missing children?”

For the rest of that day, and all of the next, every member of the O’Breoghan clan, and every household servant, scoured the countryside. But not one sign did they find of the missing twins. On the third day, a cattleherder’s son came to the gate. The boy carried two things: a child’s cloak like the one Ciaran had worn, and a tale of as terror so profound he could not at first tell it. Several flagons of beer loosened his tongue enough to relate how he’d gone to gather missing cattle, only to find the cloak lying beside an ancient oak tree. It had been dead as long he had been alive, but none of the local people would cut it down because it was held to be sacred. But when the boy found the cloak, the tree had been covered in fresh green leaves, like it was a young sapling. It also had something else new: a pair of burls the boy had never seen before. Two burls like a pair of faces screaming from the side of the tree.

Ruari O’Breoghan followed the cattleherder’s son to the tree. It was well away from the path his children should have been following, but on reflection, he realized that on a stormy night, it might have drawn the twin’s attention. He had never visited it before, but one look at the pair of burls protruding from its side told him all he needed to know. Even with their mouths locked forever in mid-scream, and the faces twisted in terror, he knew the faces of his children.

#

No one ever bothered what became known as the Tree of Screams. Even a thousand years later, when black Cromwell’s men made a sport of desecrating Irish holy sites, none of them would approach the towering oak. When it fell in a cyclone, the people who lived nearby hoped the dark curse that had brought it to be was dispelled. Then a sapling sprang from it’s roots, and no one was surprised to find, on it’s side, the same screaming faces.

In praise of K.I.S.S.

If you’re not familiar with engineering, the above phrase might make you think I’m about to sing the praises of an aging metal band. But in engineering circles, “K.I.S.S.” is short for “Keep It Simple, Stupid”. It means that the simplest solution to a problem is usually the best.

Unfortunately, like every other field of endeavor, engineering has fallen under the siren spell of automation.

Take aviation.

The first aircraft flew by direct control. The pilot pressed on the rudder pedal, and a cable connected to it moved the rudder. There might be a few connecting links in between, but there was a direct connection between the pilot and their plane. As aircraft grew in size, the ability of pilots to move the ever-larger control surfaces meant that it became necessary to add ‘boost’ to the controls. Think of power steering in a car: you turn the steering wheel, and a linkage tells the wheels which way to turn and how much to turn. At the same time, a hydraulic cylinder senses the direction the wheel is being turned and applies force in the same direction, taking some of the load off the driver. But beyond the added pressure to make the action easier to undertake, there’s still a direct connection between the pilot’s (or driver’s) actions and what happens.

Now, however, most modern airliners have migrated to a system called “fly by wire”. Originally pioneered by the military for high-performance fighters, fly by wire has no direct connection between the pilot and the aircraft’s control surfaces. The actions of the pilot are registered as electrical impulses that are interpreted a computer, then transmitted to the control surfaces. For an aircraft like an F-16, which is designed to be unstable so it is more maneuverable, having this interface means that the computer know how much to move the control surfaces without causing the aircraft to go out of control. And because it must know how much a control surface can be moved without causing the aircraft to go out of control, it also means that the computer gets a ‘vote’ in how the aircraft is flown. In other words, if the computer thinks the input from the pilot is too extreme, it will over-ride the pilot and undertake a maneuver as close to what the pilot desires as it deems safe.

Translate that to an airliner, and you get computers that think a pilot pulling back on their control yoke to avoid a terrain feature is too extreme, resulting in the airliner full of passengers slamming into the ground. Worse, if the software is improperly coded, it can even result in a normal control surface input being deemed ‘unsafe’, resulting in a crash. The latter is what happened with the Boeing 737 MAX, and Boeing is still struggling to both fix the problem and regain the trust of airlines.

Unfortunately, the concept of fly by wire is making it’s way into the auto industry. Many modern autos no longer have a direct connection between any of the controls the driver uses and the auto itself. When you push in the accelerator, you don’t move a linkage that feed more fuel into the engine. Instead, your input is read by the auto’s onboard computer, which in turn sends a command to increase the fuel flow to the engine. Even the steering wheel is often no longer connected to the wheels is is supposed to control.

Right now, someone is reading this and saying to themselves “So what? As long as it works, why do I care?”

I’m glad they asked. My sister owns a modern piece of American auto engineering, an SUV I call her personal tank. It has all the modern bells-and-whistles: variable fuel feed to the engine cylinders to increase gas mileage, active traction control, automatic brakes, the works. All of this is controlled by an onboard computer, which also monitors the health of the vehicle and all it’s systems. And in that latter function lies the rub.

The onboard computer recently informed my sister that one of her wheel bearings had worn beyond the design specifications and needed to be replaced. And because the wheel bearings interact with the vehicle’s brakes, this caused her to experience locked brakes if she applied too much pressure too fast. All this happened on her way home from work, but she managed to nurse the vehicle home and drop it off at her favorite mechanic’s shop. A couple of days (and several hundred dollars) later, the mechanic gave her tank back to her, having replaced the wheel bearing assembly.

As I’d been giving her rides to and from work, I was quite happy to drop her off at the shop. What I wasn’t happy about was to learn, later, that her SUV had begun experiencing the same problem before she got home. She took it back to the shop, complained, and the mechanic put it back on the rack and started testing. He could find nothing wrong, the bearing in question reacted like it was in proper order, so he reset the vehicle’s computer and told my sister that a bad sensor might be sending a false signal to the computer.

Back home she goes, only to have the fault reappear.

So, I go on double duty. First, I drive her to work, then, after I return, I take her car out to the mechanic to be tested. It was decent walk back, the air cool and not a lot of wind…but getting the vehicle to the shop was not easy. Because it was convinced that there was a serious fault in the vehicle, the onboard computer was not happy with it being driven. So, no matter how much pressure was on the accelerator, the SUV staggered along at only five to ten miles per hour. As I couldn’t find the emergency flashers, this resulted in many people ‘flipping me off’ due to my slow speed.

But it’s there, and I’m home and happy to have my ‘primitive’ car to drive: manual transmission, direct link between accelerator and engine, and minimal interference from any computing devices. If I could have found my vehicle with ‘crank-up’ windows, rather then the power windows it has, I’d have been even happier, but beggars can’t be choosers, as the saying goes. It is a car that keeps to the idea that the simple solution is often the best, and I think auto makers would be well served to remember that dependability is often valued more by drivers than style or ‘modernity’.

An honest day’s pay

Paullus Lucius Decimus had been on the move, constantly looking for any sort of work, since the day he’d woken up in the abandoned building. He’d faced worse situations, like when he’d been forced to join the masses of humanity fleeing the Mongol army as it swept across eastern Europe. But even then, no one had asked any questions of a man willing to work at whatever task needed doing.

Now, facing a nation increasingly hostile to outsiders, he wondered if it were time to find somewhere else to live. He’d been in America for well over a century, and even in it’s darkest periods of xenophobia, it hadn’t been as bad as this. More than once, he’d gone to construction companies, landscapers, even restaurants, and been asked to show some form or identification. Before that strange reawakening, he’d had a decent set of false ID papers. But they’d not been on him when he came to in the filthy building.

Having been forced to it too often, he hated to resort to begging. So when Paullus heard that a so-called ‘professional’ renaissance fair was looking for help, he’d been glad for the money. He’d spent only a small part of that time in in his native land, finding it far too depressing to see the descendants of Rome taking pride in rediscovering things their ancestors had taken as a part of their daily lives. He’d spent much of that period in Persia, which had been far more interested in building on the knowledge of Rome than on trying to recreate it.

Still, he had spent enough time among the European peoples to know the clothing he was required to wear as he sold mulled wine and other food was more costume than accurate. It made him money, and he told himself that was all that was important.

Then, on the first day of the weekend, a group claiming to be sword masters began to perform. Paullus heard of them from the other workers, who thought they were fascinating. During one of the times he was allowed away from the stand he manned, he wandered down to watch an exhibition of their skills. What he saw made him stifle a belly laugh. None of the people exchanging mock sword strokes would have last a minute against a real sword master. For that matter, none of them would have fared any better against an average legionnaire. Then one man made a thrust Paullus could have avoided in his sleep, but his opponent allowed it through before staggering and falling to the imaginary wound. Shaking his head, Paullus turned away, ready to walk off. As he took his first step, he heard a loud voice behind him call out.

“We, the Swordmasters of the Kingdom of Trakonia, do hereby challenge any swordsman or swordswoman to face us. Defeat one of us, and we will acknowledge you as a worthy opponent. Defeat two of us, and we deem you an equal.” The voice paused, an all-too-obvious device to build suspense before it continued. “Defeat all three of us, and win five hundred dollars cash!”

Most of the people around him gasped, then cheered, clearly hoping to see a true fight unfold. For Paullus, who would make less than half that amount for working the entire event, it was money he intended to win. He pushed his way through the crowd to find a line of people signing their names to a list before laying down five dollars. So that’s how they make it pay, they demand an entrance fee from those who face them, then pay any winner out of the money they take. Paullus had the money to enter, but it would take everything he had. Nothing ventured, nothing gained was an idea he’d known all his life, so when his turn came to sign up, he did so with a smile on his face.

Paullus and the other contestants were herded into a small, roped off enclosure where they were to watch while they awaited their turn. Each challenger was led out of the space and offered a selection of swords provided by their opponent. That by itself bothered Paullus, who’s familiarity with Rome’s gladiatorial games reminded him that offering a bad sword to an opponent was one of the easiest ways to fix a fight. But as he watched, none of the challengers lost due to a blade the broke under an opportune blow, or warped when used.

No, all of the challengers lost because they were fools who had never handled a sword in deadly earnest. Some strove for follow the forms of dueling, and lost to the men they faced who actually knew the basics of such things. Others tried to simply beat down their opponents, and fell to disciplined sword work like any of the barbarians Paullus had faced. Then, it was his turn.

Paullus left the much emptier enclosure and approached the table covered in different styles of swords. He knew all of the classics lying before him: saber, cutlass, broadsword, rapier and many others. Only one sword caught his eye, and as he picked the gladius up from among the rest, he knew someone had put a great deal of effort into getting at least the form right. It was obviously a wooden replica, far too light to simulate the feel of a real blade. But as he gave it a tentative swing, it felt right in his hand.

He’d watched his opponent as he dispatched challenger after challenger. He was a head taller than Paullus, and had the extra reach to go with that height advantage. He was also a swaggering, over-confident fool. He loved to flip his rapier around in broad, useless flourishes, and he never resorted to any sort of footwork, stay flat on his feet through all the matches so far. This is going to be too easy.

Paullus saw his opponent smile as he walked towards him. Motioning towards the sword in Paullus’ hand, he tried to taunt him. “What, did you pick up a sword to match your manhood?”

Holding the gladius in front of him, Paullus looked it over, then smiled. “No, unlike you, I don’t need to carry a huge sword to make up my lack of manhood.” The ugly red flush that spread across the now scowling face told him he’d hit his mark. “I do have one question before we start: What are the rules of this contest?”

The scowl disappeared. “Rules? Why do you ask about…”

Paullus’ opponent didn’t get to finish his response. Two long steps were all it took for him to cross the space between them. The heavy pommel of the gladius slammed into the other man’s stomach, and he folded as the air whooshed out of him. As he fell to his knees, Paullus switched his weapon around and brought the edge whistling down to stop just short of the kneeling man’s neck. “Because I wanted to know if this means I’ve defeated you.”

There was a moment of stunned silence, then the crowd roared out it’s approval as his opponent dropped his rapier. Paullus didn’t care what they thought. He lifted his eyes to the two men standing on the inside of the open area. “So, which one of you is next?”

They were polar opposites. One, a short, stout man in a knee-length coat of chain mail and armed with a sword like the Crusader’s sword Paullus had once wielded as a mercenary in the Second Crusade. The other was tall and slender, dressed like some 16th Century fop and carrying an epee. They looked at each other, and the tall man stepped forward. “I will face you.”

Paullus hadn’t had a chance to watch this man fight, but as they faced each other, his movements made it clear he possessed more skill with his blade than the last man. Between his longer arms and the superior length of his blade, he had even more advantage in reach. But like many epee users Paullus had faced, he tended to commit himself to every stroke. He dodged two thrusts, waiting for the moment when he moved too far off his center to cover himself. As he did, Paullus shifted inside him, driving his knee into his attackers crotch.

Whatever sound he might have made was drowned out by the groan of sympathetic pain that came from the crowd. This time, Paullus didn’t spare his opponent. He drove the pommel of his sword into the back of the other man’s head, dropping him on the spot. Lifting his eyes, he swept the crowd. “This is how a real sword fight is conducted. There is only one rule: win. Win because the only alternative is death.” Fixing his eyes on the final man, he put every bit of his experience in killing into the cold voice he addressed his final opponent in the sudden silence. “So, sir, will you face me, or do you yield?”

The man in chain mail didn’t so much drop his sword as throw it aside as he shouted “I yield!”

The cheers of the crowd didn’t move Paullus at all. The only thing that truly made him smile was watching as the fat man counted out his five hundred dollars, a fine pay day for a sort day’s worth of fighting. Tomorrow, and for the next few days at least, he would not have to worry about food and lodgings. After that? He slipped his hand into the pocket of the jeans he wore under his costume.

“After that will be after that” he whispered to himself as he walked through the crowd that parted before him.

Out cold

Amos Afah stepped out of St. Franicis’ ER entrance to get some warmth. It had been nearly two decades since he’d left his hometown of Ebolowa in the Southern district of Cameroon, but he still found the air conditioned interior chilly. Out here, with the rain pouring out of a warm, humid night reminded him of home. There, the storm that brought flashes of lightening and the occasional strong gust of wind would have been regarded as an ordinary part of the monsoon season. Here, in Maryville, in the northwestern corner of Missouri, it rated a severe thunderstorm warning. The distant sound of an ambulance siren reminded him it also brought him a patent in need of his care.

Lights flashing and motor revving, the huge red cube of an ambulance made the turn up the entrance driveway and came to a stop under the pillared shelter that protected Amos. Two men piled out of the rear doors, then brought their charge out on a gurney. The stocky man under the blanket would have been thought dark skinned by the two pale EMT’s. The smooth face behind the oxygen mask was unlined, giving no hint as to his age. Amos led them through the sliding doors into the ER proper. “What happened?”

One of the EMT’s looked at him, then at the patient. “Don’t know, Doc. Dispatch got a call from a motorist that there was someone lying along Stuart Road, just out past the edge of town. We responded, and found this guy lying on the edge of a patch of scorched grass. His clothing is burned off down his left side, and what was left of his left shoe was lying in the center of the scorched patch. We figured he was dead, struck by lightening, until Pete here heard him moan. So we brought him in for you to look at.”

The portable heart monitor they’d hooked him up to beeped regularly, giving no sign of cardiac distress, and the broad chest rose at a slow, even rate. “Help me get him transferred so I can do a more detailed exam.” Together, the three men shifted the unconscious one from the ambulance gurney to the hospital’s, and Amos removed the blanket to see what the body could tell him.

As they’d said, the left leg of the man’s jeans was a charred mass of shredded fabric. Yet for all the damage to his clothing, the stranger’s skin exhibited none of the telltale signs someone who had been struck by lightening. There was no charring to his skin, no open wounds where blood vessels near the surface had exploded from the sudden heating of a lightening bolt pass through the tissue. Then Amos noticed a pale scar, like a jagged white line that travelled from the top of the left foot, up the leg, across the length of the chest before climbing the neck and disappeared into the damp mass of black hair covering the patient’s head. He also saw the man’s body was covered in scars. Some of the round ones looked like healed bullet wounds. Other, bigger round wounds baffled him, but these were nothing compared to the array of crisscrossing scars that marred nearly ever visible piece of skin. Some looked like cuts from an accidental fall into a plate glass window. Others looked like they’d been the result of being slashed and stabbed by edged weapons. One long, puckered wound across the abdomen could only have been caused by some slash or stab that had opened the abdominal cavity completely. Amos looked at the EMT’s who like him, were looking at the patient as if they too couldn’t believe he’d taken all these wounds and survived. “What the hell has this man been doing?”

Before either of them could speak, the patient’s eyes popped open, and an amazingly strong hand closed around Amos’ wrist.

Nubian, qui es, ubi sum?”

The deep, growling voice had none of the hesitation of someone speaking a second language. No, this man spoke fluently, as if he were speaking his native tongue. Amos didn’t recognize a bit of it, and from the blank looks of the EMT’s neither did they. “Sir, do you understand me? You’re in a hospital, and I need to know who you are.”

The grip on Amos’ wrist tightened as the strange man’s eyes bored into his .“Quod lingua barbara est, quod loqueris?” The eyes flickered to the EMT’s, widened, and the man spoke again.Ego horum hominum captivus?” His eyes shifted back to Amos’, and for the first time, he saw fear there. Hi Gallorum, Germanorum?”

With no clue what he was being asked, Amos fell back on the oldest form of communications. Gently patting his patient’s hand, he said in as soothing a voice as he could. “It’s all right, sir. No one is going to harm you.”

The sentiment, if not the meaning, seemed to get through. The grip loosened, then the hand released him as some of the tension left the patient’s face. Amos looked towards the EMT’s. “I think he’s afraid of you two. He have any reason to be?”

Both of them frowned, their offended honor clear on their faces. Pete, who hadn’t spoken until that point, answered for them. “None I can think of. He wasn’t awake when we found him, nor while we loaded him up. Maybe he had a bad experience with some other emergency personnel.” Pete patted the man, and when his eyes darted to him, he gave him a smile. “It’s okay, buddy, we’re not going to hurt you.”

More tension left the man on the gurney, and he even gave a brief smile. Time to get on with the examination. Amos turned away, opened the drawer holding IV hardware, and withdrew one of the prepackaged ports. Tearing open the packaging, he turned to his patient. “Now, sir, I need to get some blood from you….”

Amos had a moment to see the man’s eyes go wide, then he was off the gurney in a blur of motion that ended with him standing behind Pete with his arm wrapped tight around Pete’s neck. “Mendacibus!” Whatever the meaning of the word he shouted, Amos could hear the anger in his voice, and see the cold, killing intent in his eyes. When Pete’s partner started to shift sideways, Amos raised a hand to stop him. “Don’t. He’s scared, and he’s desperate. I think your best bet is to just stand there and let me see if I can reason with him.” The EMT stopped, and Amos focused his attention on his former patient. “It’s okay, just relax. You don’t like needles? Neither do I.” Laying the port behind him, Amos brought his empty hands out, spreading his arms to show he had nothing that could threaten this desperate man. “He wasn’t going to hurt you, so why don’t you just let him go?” He took a step forward, and seeing the already tight arm muscles stand out more, stopped. For the first time since he’d come to work there, he wished that St. Francis had a security guard. He saw those remorseless brown eyes focus on him, shift back to Pete’s partner, then with a wordless grunt, the unknown man shoved Pete at Amos and bolted out of the ER.

From the shouts and the sound of the entrance door opening, Amos knew the man was gone. Pete’s partner started towards the exit, but Amos stopped him. “Call the police, let them do their job. Help me check your partner to make sure he isn’t injured.”

Pete didn’t give either of them a chance to examine him. Waving both of them away, he rubbed his neck and looked towards the exit. “I’m fine, Doc, seriously. Outside of choking me a little, he didn’t hurt me. But what the fuck was that guy’s story? From all those scars, you’d think he was some cartel soldier or something like that. But that sure as hell wasn’t Spanish he was shouting.”

The mention of soldier brought several things about the stranger’s wounds together in Amos’ mind. What would a soldier who lived forever look like? With no way to know, all Amos could do was speculate about what he’d just encountered. “I don’t know, but I think all three of us are lucky to be alive. I don’t know about you two, but I fear he could have killed all of us if he’d been so inclined.” Amos wasn’t surprised when neither of the other men objected.

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus awoke shivering, half naked and soaking wet in what appeared to be an abandoned building. His last memory was of a rainstorm he’d been walking through as he made his way across Missouri. He’d been walking because bus passengers faced increased security when boarding due to a recent string of immigration raids. Illegal aliens? I wonder what they’d make of me? In his nearly two thousand years of life, Paullus had never held any citizenship but to his native Rome. His duffle bag was gone, and with it his phone and everything else he possessed.

He sat up, and feeling something tugged at the skin on his chest, ran a hand across the spot. Something was stuck to him, and after peeling it off, he moved to a pool of light beneath a window. What he saw was a small metal nub portruding from a sticky pad. While he’d never worn one, Paulls had seen images of things like this: it was a heart monitor sensor. How…? Even as he wondered, fragments of memory came to him. A hard bed in a cold white room filled with equipment. The coal-black face of a huge man in a white coat. Standing in the rain, surrounded by a blinding white light as searing pain washed through his body.

Did Jove strike me with lightening?

Paullus had never been pious, had never even been what moderns called agnostic. Whatever had happened, whether divine displeasure or simple bad luck, he was where he had been many times before: without funds or possessions in a world that prized wealth both. Then he remembered the Roman coin he’d been given by the mysterious prostitute. Yes, it was still in his pocket, along with a handful of modern coins, but could he bring himself to sell it?

No. If a long life had taught him nothing else, it had taught him that there were always those who would hire someone willing to work cheaply. Tomorrow, he would find some store selling used clothing. Then he’d find a menial job and start over again.

The Real Demon

Morag smiled as he watched the girl wandered down the country back lane. Oh, I am so going to have fun playing with her! He’d been stalking the inhabitants of this innocent countryside since he’d killed the sorcerer that had summoned him months ago. Morag enjoyed terrorizing the people he killed before consuming their souls. He had no fixed form, so he could assume any shape he felt like. For this girl, he chose one of his favorites: a wolf, but one ten time bigger than any normal beast. Teeth like sabers, eyes that glowed a fiery red, paws bigger than this girl’s head, Morag became the embodiment of fear.

He leapt into the lane when the girl came within a few steps of him. Stretching lips back to bare his teeth, he let out a snarl that had caused grown men to quake. But while the girl stopped, her face revealed no fear. No, for some reason, she smiled at Morag. Did she not understand she was about to die? He snarled at her again as he crouched down, gathered himself to pounce…and her smile grew wider. Is this child daft? The fact that she demonstrated no fear angering him more than he could have imagined, Morag sprang at the girl, intent on ripping her apart.

His eyes fixed on hers, time seemed to slow as he opened his jaws to grab her…then, she vanished. Morag’s jaws snapped closed as he landed, but they closed on nothing. But at the moment his teeth came together, he felt a searing pain along his left side.

Morag’s head came around and he saw a long, deep gash that ran from just behind his front leg all the way along his huge barrel chest to his back thigh. And there, standing just behind him with a knife in her hand, was the girl.

He rounded on her, but even as he opened his mouth to ask “How?”, she vanished again. And just like before, Morag felt a burning pain spread down his side, but this time, it was his right side.

The question turned into a howl of frustration, pain and rage. How could this mortal child best him? The thought formed in his mind even as another wave of pain came over him and he tottered, his left rear leg useless, it’s hamstring severed.

Now, the girl was before him. But she no longer looked like an innocent. Her face was a blood-covered mask, his blood. Her smile a grin of triumph, her eyes ablaze with hatred, she vanished again, and Morag collapsed as his left front leg’s hamstring was also severed.

Panicking, Morag tried to change shapes, and found he couldn’t.

Terror filled Morag’s heart. And as it did, the girl appeared before him. “So, demon, how does it feel? How do you enjoy terror now? Does it feel as sweet as it did when you inflicted it on your victims?” He would have replied, but the girl didn’t give him the chance.

The knife in her hand was far too small to instill the fear that now drowned Morag. No, the terror that swallowed him whole came from her eyes. He had seen every emotion from blank terror to desperate defiance in the eyes of his victims…but Morag had never seen anything like the all-consuming hatred that filled the little girl’s eyes. She stepped closer, the knife rose.

“For my parents, who you tore to pieces for pleasure.” Those were the last words the demon Morag heard.

The Apology

Cheri Paulsen knew she was lucky. Landing the job of Public Relations Specialist at the Consulate-General of Japan hadn’t been her reason for taking a major in Japanese history at Northwestern. But the necessary fluency in Japanese such a degree required had given her an ‘in’ for this job when she’d found jobs in her chosen field few and far between.

So now she took the Metra every weekday from Glenview to downtown, an experience that left her wondering if that was how Japanese office workers felt getting into downtown Tokyo. Probably not. She’d mentioned the idea once to Goto-sama, the actual Consulate-General, and he’d laughed at it. He told her commuter trains in Japan were standing-room-on on weekdays, the people packed in so tight movement was virtually impossible. And seeing as how Goto Eiji had grown up in Tokyo, he would be an expert on such matters.

Even though she was fluent in Japanese, Goto-sama preferred to speak to her in English. When she’d asked why, his answer reflected the blunt pragmatism that seemed to be at his core. “If I only speak English when I am talking to some visitor, how can I possibly stay fluent enough not to embarrass myself?”

Cheri was at the office coffee maker when she saw Goto-sama walk out of the elevator. His office was on the same floor as hers, so that wasn’t amazing. What caught her attention was the stunned, empty look on his face. Something about it worried her, so she approached her boss to find out what was bothering him.

“Goto-sama. Goto-sama. Is something the matter, Goto-sama?”

His face stayed blank for a moment, like her words hadn’t registered with him. Then his head turned towards her and his eyes focused on her face. “Excuse me, Paulsen-san, but I’ve just had a disturbing encounter with one of your countrymen.”

Someone as important as the Consul-General didn’t usually deal with anyone less than an important corporate types. They weren’t the type of people she imagined insulting or even delivering disturbing news to an important official like Goto-sama. She opened her mouth to ask what had happened, when her boss continued.

“The front desk called me, informing me that an American was there asking for the opportunity to apologize. I couldn’t imagine why they’d called me, but Hiru-san insisted I come down to see the individual.” Goto-sama held out a small package neatly wrapped in cloth. It must have been tied together at the top at one time, for the folds still held the rough shape of the knot they’d been tied in. Now they overlapped, covering whatever was inside. “There was a large, elderly gentleman waiting for me, and he actually managed to introduce himself in quite good Japanese. Then he started a short speech that he had evidently tried to memorize, but he lost his way after the first few sentences. What he wanted to do was apologize for something his father had done.” Pointing towards the package, he continued. “His father had been in the Philippines, one of the soldiers guarding Clark Field after the Americans retook it. His father had helped stop a wave of suicide attacks the Japanese defenders staged one night, and the next morning, he and the rest of the soldiers went out to collect trophies. He brought this back.”

Goto-sama slowly uncovered the package, which consisted of a pair of faded photos, some Japanese money, what looked like an old Japanese medal….and peeking from under all that, a tightly-folded, deeply stained white silk cloth covered in kanji characters. “Is that a yosegaki hinomaru?”

Hai.

The fact that Goto-sama had fallen back into Japanese, even for a moment, told Cheri there was something profoundly disturbing about this relic of Japan’s dark past. Laying the photos and other material reverently aside, he carefully unfolded the cloth. More writing came into view, then, the last fold opened revealing a larger, bolder hand’s writing. It was a name that took Cheri’s breath away.

Goto.

Cheri looked at her boss and saw something she’d never seen before: tears. Goto-sama’s attention was focused on the flag. “My grandfather told me about his older brother, a gunsō, a sergeant, in the Imperial Army. How he’d been part of the Manilla garrison, and how the family never knew what had happened to him.” Goto-sama pointed at a shaky line of characters, so inexpertly drawn Cheri couldn’t make them out. “This is my grandfather’s final wish to his older brother. ‘May your military fame be eternal.’ That’s his name, Goto Eiji, just like mine.”

Cheri knew Japanese families put great emphasis on venerating their ancestors. “I’m glad your family has recovered this, Goto-sama, and that they know now what happened to your grandfather’s brother. I know this means a lot to you and your family.”

Hai. Sheri-san, arigatōgozaimashita.” Goto-sama wiped his eyes before looking at her. “I just wonder how many more families in Japan wait like mine for word of a lost ancestor, and how many American families carry the burden like that man for something their ancestor did.”