The nature (and portrayal) of evil.

Is evil relative?

I ask that question after engaging in a debate of the subject with a couple of fellow writers. They insisted that, yes, evil is relative, and writings that portray certain subjects in a positive light should not be censored.

One writer insisted that, at least at first, the Nazi’s weren’t evil. Another insisted that, because many surviving Nazi’s still view what they did in a positive light, then the actions of that regime were not evil.

Personally, I thought both of them were insane.

The first, who styled themselves as a historian, insisted that the German government didn’t really ‘go bad’ until after the war started. They also said that, because the other European powers failed to intervene, they were either complicit in what happened, of at least initially, agreed with what happened.

I remembered history differently.

I remember the violence the Nazi’s used to gain power, and the swift expansion and increasing brutality of that violence once they had achieved power. I know that they moved swiftly to crush any and all opposition parties. I remember how they rounded up those who opposed them. I also remember that they imprisoned people in existing prisons long before the first purpose-built concentration camps opened in 1933. In short, I remember that the Nazi’s were born evil, and were never anything but evil.

The other person, who insisted that because surviving Nazi’s remember their actions in a positive light, they could not have been evil I found to be laughably naive. Mass murderers, from the ‘Son of Sam’ to John Wayne Gacy, rarely if ever speak of what they did as evil. They also pulled out the “Star Wars” card, quoting Obi-Wan Kenobi’s famous ‘from a certain point of view’ line as proof that evil is all in the eyes of the beholder. This person, btw, was a woman, and I was strongly tempted to ask her how she react to a story that portrayed a woman being raped in a positive light.

Perhaps I am old, but I think there are some things that are simply evil, and that they should never, ever be portrayed as anything else. What subject I feel should be regarded that way is a long list. Mass executions. Genocide. The rounding up of large numbers of people for no other reason than to silence opposition/please a fanatical leader’s ego. Torture for any reason. Sexual violence against anyone. There are a few others, but I write this to ask all of you, the readers, what you think?

How do you feel?

Are there subjects that should not be portrayed in a positive light, or is it ‘anything goes’ and be damned to what happens after?

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Strange cat tales

Something strange happened today, but to understand why it’s strange, you need to know a bit of history.

I’ve had several what I call ‘hang-around-the-fort’ cats. The name draws from the old days of American Indian culture when there were those who tried to follow the traditional ways of life, and those who who took to the white man’s ways. The former often called the latter ‘hang-around-the-fort’ Indians because they regarded those who took the white man’s path as too lazy to fend for themselves. When applied to cats, it means a stray that’s willing to show up and eat food provided for it, while occasionally allowing itself to be petted. Generally, they maintain a facade of independence, a sort of aloof attachment to those who feed them.

A few have moved beyond that to become near pets, venturing into the house for short periods before making their own way towards the door and the environment they’re familiar with. One of these earned the name “No Paws”. She was one of a surviving pair of female kittens born to a terrible mother cat who tended to lie atop her kittens and kill them. The two were identical dark tabbies except for the fact that one of them had four white paws, and the other didn’t. So when a family member picked the name “Snow Paws” for that one, and the other became “No Paws”. Snow Paws disappeared shortly after maturing (some ‘hang-around’ cats are only temporary visitors), but “No Paws” became something of a fixture, becoming as close to a real pet as possible for a feral cat. She would come in the house, wander around, even lie down and watch TV with everyone else. But eventually, she’d head for the door where she’d sit impatiently waiting for someone to let her out. She hung around for a couple of years, then one day, she just wasn’t around anymore. Where she went to, I don’t know. I never saw her wandering the neighborhood, nor did she delve into my or the neighbor’s garbage. She just left.

Other cats followed her, including the current cat who bears the name “Silly” (the name has a long story attached to it, suffice it to say she earned the moniker). Like most of the earlier cats, “Silly” is a female (why I draw the interest of mostly female cats, I have no clue), and she’s been around for nearly three years now. Occasionally, other cats will show up to try to steal her food (she prefers to eat outside, I guess preferring ‘alfresco’ dining to being around us lowly humans), and a few will decide to stick around short-term in hopes of benefiting from the ‘free food’ us humans put out.

So it was no surprise when a dark tabby showed up a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t stick around long. “Silly” is fairly territorial, and I or someone else will usually hear the howling prequel to a full-on cat fight long before actual combat commences. I was the one who broke this fight up before it started, and outside of watching the cat until it had run away, I didn’t think anything of it.

Then I went out to prepare my own lunch today, and saw a dark cat on the back walk. It was facing away from the house, but in hopes of discouraging it from getting into a conflict with “Silly”, I opened the back door and called out to it. Usually, the response to this is the cat sprinting away as fast as it can go, but not this time. No, this cat raised its head, looked at me….then ran towards the back door. It came up, stopped at the bottom of the screen door, and stared up at me while letting out plaintive meows.

That’s when I noticed it’s markings. They were the same as “No Paws”, and the cat was rather large, just like her. And it sat there, staring up at me like it knew me and expected me to let it in.

“No Paws” was a full-grown adult cat when she disappeared nearly twenty years ago, so it’s impossible that this is her. So what’s going on? Is this someone’s pet turned out? Or is this some distant descendant of the cat that went MIA all those years ago?

For those who wander the deep

[An homage to one of my favorite authors, Patrick O’Brian.]

HMS Adder took a sudden, lurching roll that almost threw her commander across the low-ceilings space that was technically his great cabin. Lieutenant Howard Penvesal, Commander only because he commanded the tiny old sixteen gun brig, had been in the midst of fair copying his rough log into the official one when it happened, and even without being on deck, he knew the cause. Adder was beating her way through another in a string of late winter gales the inshore squadron blockading Lorient had endured, trying to find the rest of the Royal Navy. A vicious storm two nights before had blown in just at the end of the last dog watch, dropping visibility so much the bowsprit was invisible to those manning the wheel. When it had cleared, not a light from of the other ships, not even the massive stern lantern of HMS Ajax, command ship of the squadron, was visible. It had been over a week since the clouds had thinned enough for Penseval to attempt to make an observation of even the Sun, and between the cross-grained seas and in-shore currents, his best guess of his location was just that, a guess.

So Adder scudded along under a minimum of storm canvas, her tops filled with man who’s eyes watched for the first sign of rocks that might send her and them to the bottom. They were relieved at each bell, but how long could they, and the ship they manned, feel her way through this ugly weather before their luck ran out? Howard pushed such dark speculation aside as he moved the log back to the center of the shelf he used as a writing desk. “At least the bloody ink didn’t over set.” he muttered to himself as he took up his pen and looked at what he’d written so far.

3 March, 1810, strong gales ENE, seas heavy. Ship working heavy, speed five knots, course three points W of NW. People again employed mending storm damage.”

Should he write about the thing that had taken him on deck at first light? And if he did, what could he say that made any sense?

#

Dawn, if the gradual fading of a pitch-black night into something approaching a dim gray rain swept reality could be called that, came two hours after Howard had cast himself into his hammock. In a small ship like Adder, even the commanding officer stood watch, and with the dirty weather they’d been fighting, Howard had taken the graveyard watch. The night before, Masters Mate Lucas Simmons, his second in command, had taken the same watch, so named because it stretched from midnight to four in the morning. Howard’s exhaustion was so profound he had no memory of throwing off his tarpaulin jacket, nor of climbing into his hammock, but the shout of “Ship off the larbiard bow!” had awoken him as surely as a bucket of cold Atlantic water dumped over his face. He rolled out of his swinging bed, grabbed his telescope from the rack by the door, and charged onto deck.

What he found there was not the motion of a crew moving to either intercept a prize, nor to flee a superior French ship (and nearly every ship the French might send out was superior to the Adder), but a crew staring in dumb amazement to larboard. Simmons stood by the lee rail, eyes fixed ahead and mouth gaping, as if he’d been turned to stone. Howard rushed across the quarterdeck to get clear of foot of the mizzen sail that blocked his view…and found the source of his crews consternation.

It would not have been visible if not for the white bow wave its knife-like bow threw off. The gray shape, easily longer than Ajax, blended almost seamlessly with the sea and clouds. How it moved, Howard had no clue, for not one sail was visible, nor any masts. Yet move it did, with a terrible speed, far faster than even the smugglers Adder often intercepted. Staring at it, Howard realized it was not just moving with great speed, it was moving against the wind. But the thing that froze his heart was the ensign streaming from its stern: the French tricolor.

How could the French have built and launched such a ship with nary a hint of its existence? No gun ports broke its sides, but the fact that the French possessed a ship like this meant it was only a matter of time before they gave it cannons. But how did it move? It clearly was not a clanking steam-powered paddle-wheeler like the one Howard had heard now operated in the Clyde, so what drove it through the waters with such rapidity? The unknown ship and Adder were angling towards each other, and he currently possessed the weather gauge, so Howard decided to see if he could intercept the stranger and find out how it operated.

“Make sail, all hands make sail! Main and topsail! Course five points North of NW. Let’s see if we can take Admiral Cartwright a fine prize to make up for our absence.”

The bellowed command was followed by a moment of silence, as if the crew could not believe he proposed to set about the gigantic French ship, then Simmons took up the cry. “All hand make sail! Top men lay aloft!” The bosun’s brass voice took up the call, his whistle shrilling out its command, and the men sprang to action. The ratlines were soon dark with men, while others gathered to sheet home the lines as the sails came free. Adder was no crack ship, Howard never having seen the need to whip sails out in seconds, but the crew did her justice, casting gaskets off and bringing the lines home to set her sails taught and drawing to their peak.

The old ship responded to the sudden increase in thrust. She heeled slowly over and began to pick up speed, her rigging moaning as the extra strain came on it. But she breasted the waves and took to her task like the stolid old war horse she was. Howard turned his attention back to the Frenchman. He slid through the water, and from the lack of any crew moving about, he was seemingly oblivious to the existence of Adder. Were his lookouts blind, or did he just not regard the ancient brig as a threat? Time to show him the Adder had teeth. “Gun crews, larboard side!”

Howard wasn’t rich enough to buy his own powder like some officers, so his crew had only fired the six-pounders they now swarmed about a handful of times. But he had conducted regular gun drills, running the unwieldy monsters in and out in to memorize the actions needed to service them. Now, though, they ran their pieces in with deadly intent, the gun captain drawing the tompons as others raised the gun port or took up their assigned place. The master gunner moved down the line, placing a lite tub of slow match beside each gun, ready for the moment when the order to fire came. He came to the last gun, then looked across the narrowing line of water.

“Sir, where should the guns be pointed? She ain’t got no riggin’ to shoot away, and if we hull’er, how’ll we prove to the Admiral we done sunk somethin’ like that?”

It was a question Howard hadn’t thought of, but as he glanced at the approaching French ship, he could only think of one place to aim the guns. “Whether we can prove we sank a French man-of-war or not isn’t important. Gun crews, aim for the waterline! A hole between wind and water’s a better argument to surrender than anything else I know of.” Down on the gun deck, men cheered and plied their crows, shifting their aim downward to hammer the French hull where it would do the most damage. Howard watched the last barrel shift and looked at his target. They were close now, well within the range of even the Adder’s meager guns. But they wouldn’t enjoy that position for long. The speed of their opponent was drawing it ahead. Already, its bow was beyond the forwardmost reach of his bow gun. Howard drew in a breath, ready to shout out his order to fire, but a voice like God speaking from the heavens themselves rang out from the French ship, interrupting him.

Navire inconnu, identifiez-vous. »

Howard knew no French, but the challenging tone of the voice made it clear this was no friendly greeting. Time to act. “From the bows, fire as you bear!” The bow gun roared out, and the mist hanging in the air hazing as the ball passed through it, leaving a trail a blind man could follow. He watched as the ball hit, but did not hear the sound of its impact as the the next gun in line fired. Each gun, down the line, discharged its deadly content, and all of them but the Number 9 gun stuck home at or slightly above the French waterline. Number 9 fired as Adder took a freak wave on her bow, pitching the ball high so it struck what looked like a boat stowed on the Frenchman’s deck. That was the only visible damage, the other balls bouncing off with no trace that they had struck beyond a slight depression in the French hull. Could this giant ship be made of metal? The thought flew through Howard’s mind, but he had no time to reflect upon it. They were approaching the stern of the French ship, and even if she were made of metal, a raking fire down the length of her hull would do just as much damage to her as to any other ship. The gun crews were working their pieces, swabbing, loading and ramming. Number One, the bow gun called Old Tom by its crew, was already run out for another shot, and Howard shouted for their attention. “Hold until she presents her stern to us, then kick her in the ass men!”

That drew another cheer from his crew, but their actions had also drawn the attention of the French ship. Men, dressed in strange, bright orange clothing ran exposed across the other ships deck, making Howard wish he could draw his guns and load with grape. No time for that now. The stern of the French ship approached, and the last of Adder’s guns were out and ready to fire. “Helmsman, lay us as close across her stern as you can.”

Again, the mighty, inhuman voice echoed from the French ship. “Cesser vos actes hostiles, ou vous serez tiré sur! »

Howard saw the Frenchman’s wake, a turbulent stream of white water far more churned up than any wake he had ever seen from a ship, then in dark letters, a name appeared as the stern came fully into view: “Prairial”. Adder began her turn, and as she did, Howard saw something move on the French ship. A single man moved it, a long, thin barrel like some immense swivel gun, and it tracked the Adder like a line connected the two ships. Howard was aware of his own forward gun crew, heaving on their piece to bring it to bear, and wondered how a single man could think his puny gun could match eight six pounders. Again, the disembodied voice rang across the water “Armes libres, feu à volonté!”. The gun Howard had been watching bloomed fire, and a steady “Boom! Boom! Boom!”, far faster than any fire he had ever heard, came to him as it did. And with each report, an explosion shook the Adder. He felt her timbers shudder and knew Adder could not take much more of this punishment. “Starboard your helm, hard over! House your guns, man your sheets!” Adder was no racing yacht, but under the urging of her commander and crew, she managed to spin nearly in her own wake. Whether because the sudden maneuver threw their aim off, or they simply didn’t care to press their advantage, the French stopped firing Howard had one final glimpse of the French colors, then a squall swept down, drawing a veil between the two ships.

That chance event saved the Adder. They had managed to plug the ugly holes blown in her side, and splice the shredded rigging. But how could he explain it all in the log? Perhaps the best explanation was the least. Inking his pen, Howard wrote “Encountered and exchanged fire with unidentified French vessel in heavy squall.” It wasn’t a lie, and none of his crew would contradict him, so Howard sanded the page before closing the log on his account of the strange event with a clear conscious.

#

As the frégate de surveillance Prairial sliced through another squall on her way to a major refit at Brest, Capitaine de frégate Pierre Fosse leaned back and contemplate his computer. He had been updating his ship’s log, and had reached the point where he and his ship had had their strange encounter. Their surface radar had been functioning properly, at least as far as any of his crew could tell, but it hadn’t picked up the strange vessel until it was nearly on top of them. And even when it had been reported, the lookout manning the camera had hesitated to report what he saw. Pierre understood his reluctance to speak as soon as he saw the image on the monitor. He remembered once seeing the ship used in filming “Master and Commander” and marveling at the detail that had gone into it. But that was nothing compared to what their surveillance camera had shown them. Filth drooled down what he could only guess were the heads. Men rushing about in rough tarpaulin jackets to haul on ropes. And the cannons, stubby little brutes that would have been comical if not for their jerking tracking motions. Pierre had warned them over the loud hailer, but could not believe the crew of the other ship would be insane enough to actually fire on him. Then, they did, and became a deadly earnest threat.

The Prairial still pumped, her outer hull cracked in several spots where cannon balls had struck, but by luck, none of his crew had been injured. He had viewed the video from the F.2’s gun camera, seen the holes blasted in the mysterious vessel’s side, men sent flying by the impact of large pieces of wood, and had wondered if she’d survived. But the same video also contained an image of the ship’s stern, where her name was clear to read: Adder. The Royal Navy was not as free with its current military information now as it had been before opting out of the EU, but their archives were just a satellite link away. Adder was there, listed as a ‘sloop of war’, but also listed as ‘Sold out of service, broken up.’ in 1815. So what he had seen could not have been a two hundred plus year old ship lovingly restored. Nor could it have been an illusion, a figment of his imagination. He looked in the corner, where a smooth iron ball rested in a cradle of sandbags. It had been recovered from the wreckage of the #1 launch, and that was why Pierre could not simply gloss over the incident.

He had not seen fit to contact headquarters and report the encounter, hoping perhaps to come up with some way to explain what had happened by the time they arrived in Brest. But what could he say that would not make him look insane? What entry could he make in the ship’s log that would not read like fiction? His crew still spoke of the strange event, and Pierre knew they would be calling their families to relay their own take on the bizarre fight as soon as they were in range of shore-based cell service. There was no other way than to report what had happened. Pierre leaned forward and began to type.

“0635, radar reports unidentified contact 900 meters bearing 095. Surveillance camera revealed contact to be unidentified sailing vessel, rigged as a brig and possessing 16 gun ports. Vessel warned to identify itself by loud hailer. Vessel deployed cannons and took frégate de surveillance Prairial under fire. Seven balls struck hull causing minor damage, one ball struck #1 launch, destroying it. Ordered crew to action stations surface and warned unidentified vessel to cease hostile actions. Vessel observed preparing to fire on Prairial again, permission was given to return fire with #2 F.2 cannon. Multiple hits observed, extent of damage unknown due to vessel breaking off attack and fleeing into storm where radar could not maintain accurate fix. Based on markings observed on hull, hostile vessel is believed to have been HMS Adder, a Royal Navy sloop of war reported broken up in 1815.”

Pierre read the entry, then saved it to the onboard server. His chronometer said it was nearly lunch time, so with a final click, he secured the computer, stood and stretched. With a final shake of his head, he left his cabin.

I have given them the facts. Now it is for those higher up the chain of command to figure out what happened.”

Echoes of the past

“…and so, honored mother, I hope you will know that I keep you always in my thoughts and prayers. I hope I remain always in your heart and prayers as well. Your son, Julius Maximius Gabinius”

Claudia Upton looked up from reading the translation to scrutinize the man who had picking it from the mud-soaked, decaying original text. Paul Sanchez had a face that could have been lifted from a Roman mosaic. Dark hair over an unlined, olive-colored face with none of the Mesoamerican features that so often marked those of Hispanic background. Well, the Romans were in Spain and the Iberian for centuries. Perhaps he’s a genetic fluke, a reversion to an ancestral appearance. Those dark, almost black eyes watched her, and she sensed he was waiting for her comments on his translation.

“It’s an excellent translation, Mr. Sanchez. You clearly have a good grasp of Latin. Could I ask you where you studied?”

A smile began to appear on the otherwise impassive face before her. Then it vanished, replaced by the same mask-like appearance that Sanchez always wore when he was around her. “Oh, I studied at home. My father and mother both knew Latin, and they insisted I should be at least slightly fluent in it.”

Claudia knew a snow job when she was being subjected to one, but this wasn’t the time to confront Sanchez about his surprising fluency in a dead language. She was just glad to have someone who could make sense of the badly-decomposed messages Claudia had recovered from a German bog over a decade ago. “Well, you definitely surpassed their expectations. I can read Latin without translating in my head, and even I couldn’t make anything of my find.”

Paullus Lucius Decimus looked across the desk at the young scholar. Needing some extra cash, he’d seen the online ad looking for someone to translate Latin text and been glad for the chance to make money reading his native language. What had caught him off-guard was what he was translating: messages he had written himself over two thousand years ago. As one of the more literate members of his cohort, Paullus had often been asked to write letters home for others. He even remembered the messenger who had been charged with taking the letters home to Rome…and wasn’t surprised to find that they’d been thrown in a bog. Atticus Erucius had been a slippery little shit, more inclined to informing on his fellows than fighting in the ranks. Paullus had never figured out who’s ass he’d kissed to be assignment to carry mail to Rome, but if not for that bit of foresighted butt worship, he’d have been slaughtered like the rest of Legio XIX by the Germans.

Paullus still had nightmares of that time, and they’d gotten worse since he’d taken the translation job. Just the night before, he’d bolted awake from a dream of those dark, stinking bogs so vivid he could have sworn he smelled them in his small apartment. Just reflecting on that moment brought other memories forward, things that made remembering a bog filled with screaming, dying legionnaires seem pleasant.

Are you all right, Mr. Sanchez?”

She was watching him, staring as if she could see the images of death and suffering that hung in front of him. His father had been of the Stoic school, and had enforced his ideas of a proper, impassive visage on his son with a well-wielded switch. To know that he had let himself slip more than embarrassed Paullus, it angered him deeply.

Claudia, watching the man sitting across from her, saw the mask drop away. Sanchez’s face went from its natural darkness to a gray pallor like someone an inch from death. Lines that hadn’t been apparent before became pronounced, giving him the appearance of an ancient. Then, his color returned, but not with a healthy evenness. No, this was the blotchy flush of someone deeply embarrassed…or very angry. Oh, very angry indeed, but why? The eyes that had given away nothing of the inner man were now narrow, hard openings into another person, one that frightened Claudia. Then, like a man forcing a door to another side of his soul closed, Sanchez’s face resumed its calm appearance. Claudia wasn’t fooled by the change, she knew that Paul Sanchez was not someone she would want angry at her.

“I’m fine, Ms. Upton. If I might ask, where did you find the text I translated?”

“I pulled them out of a former bog in Germany. A hiker saw some corroded metal beside a trail and thought it might be part of a bomb intended for Hannover. The German Army EOD team that came to investigate recognized it was too old to be from WWII and contacted the local university. I was studying there at the time and ended up being part of the team that went out to study the find. Turned out to be part of a Roman helmet, and my clump of peat-soaked messages was found nearby.”

Maybe Sanchez sensed her unease, because his body relaxed visibly as he spoke. “So you found a helmet with your mail. Kind of odd to find a single piece of armor, isn’t it?”

“Oh no, we found the remnants of an entire suit of Roman armor…and the person who’d been wearing it too. My German colleagues thought he might have lost his way trying to find his way through the bog. However he came to be there, these messages give us an insight into what life was like for soldiers serving on Rome’s farthest frontier.”

“’And we will know them by the things they leave behind.’ Is that what you’re saying?”

Claudia didn’t recognize the quote, but it was quite apt. “Precisely. After all, until some mad physicist invents a time machine, that’s all we have. I mean it’s not like I can sit a legionnaire down and interview them, can I?” She started searching her desk, digging through the piles of papers and folder before finding what she was searching for. She pulled the battered folder out and extended it to Sanchez. “Now that you’ve shown you can make sense of one of my messages, I want you to tackle this. It’s the prize of my messages, the one I really want translated.”

Paullus took the thin folder of reproductions and flipped it open. He understood her not trusting a stranger with the originals, and he wasn’t sure how he’d react if he had the original documents in front of him. Would they carry the same stink of cold rot he remember so vividly from the bogs? So you weren’t the coward I imagined you were, Atticus? I’ll remember you in my prayers to Mars tonight, and hope the War God grants your spirit rest.

Aloud, he spoke in a different voice, in a language far removed from the plebeian Latin that was his mother tongue. “No, you can’t talk to a legionnaire, can you?” Then his voice caught in his throat. He recognized the scrawled Latin script before him, even if he’d only read it once before. It was the handwriting of Publius Quinctilius Varus, the political hack who’d sent so many of Paullus’ fellow legionnaires to their deaths. Willing his voice to be as calm as his as his face, Paullus continued. “It might take me a little longer than the first letter. I don’t know who wrote this, but their penmanship is terrible.”

“I know! But look at the next page…this is a letter home from Varus, the man who commanded the legions the Germans beat at Teutoburg. I was able to pick that much of it out, but with these eyes,” she gestures at the thick glasses that magnified to huge proportions, “that’s all I can make of it.” She smiled. “I’m willing to pay extra…call it ‘hazard pay’ for dealing with his terrible handwriting.”

Did Paullus want to read the inner thoughts of the man who’s incompetence led to the death of three whole legions, over 16,000 men? Paullus flipped to folder shut. He’d spent over two thousand years wishing Varus resided in the hottest fires in the Christian Hell, but he still needed money. “Well, as a poor, itinerant Latin scholar, I feel I should take you up on your offer of extra pay. Now, how much

extra are we talking about?”

Paullus enjoyed the dickering that followed. In a way, it was comforting that no matter the age, humans always sought the best deal. Now, alone in his rooms, he found himself hesitating. Almost every legionnaire had known Arminius was not to be trusted. The German auxiliaries that had stayed loyal tried to warn Varus of treachery, but neither he, nor any of the other commanders, had listened. What would Varus have to say? Had he been as clueless as Paullus always thought? There was no way to know but to begin reading. The desk he sat at, like every other item in his apartment, as someone else’s cast off. Some bored child had crudely carved “Billie, age 12, 1949” in the upper left corner, but it did the job. He toggled the switch on the magnifier, and its circular florescence bulb flickered to life, bringing the text beneath it into sharp relief. Paullus leaned over it, focusing on the first line and began to read.

“My Dear Wife…”

#

Paullus leaned back, stretched, and scrubbed his eyes. Immortality had saved him from death more times than he could remember, but it didn’t stop his body from aching after spending hours hunched over a piece of paper. Now, after twenty days struggling to understand what was written on those pages, he knew what Varus had meant to communicate. And what he had learned opened his eyes in ways nothing had before. He picked up his notes, the Latin script as neat now as it had been all those centuries before, and ran through Varus’ final message.

“My Dear Wife,

I write you because I know that if we ever see each other again, it will be in Elysium. I wish I could see you again, to hold you and our children one final time, but that is not to be. In my folly, I trusted Arminius, and he has betrayed that trust. I have learned that he intends to attack my legions, hoping he can rally enough warriors to his cause to overwhelm us. He has the advantage of knowing the land, and its people, while all I have is my confidence in the courage and training of my legionnaires. I know that I have no chance to prevailing, but if I were to run, what would become of me, of our family? So I will stay, and fight, to give what honor I can to you and our children.

Know that while I will die looking forward to our reunion, I hope that happy event is many years away. So live, my beloved wife, and keep my memory alive in our children’s hearts. I will not ask you to keep it alive in your heart, because I know it will never die there. Until we meet again, may Jupiter, Minerva and all the gods keep you always in their care.

Your husband,

Publius Quinctilius Varus”

It all made sense now. By dying rather than running, Varus saved his family from the humiliation of cowardice in the face of the enemy. But even knowing why he had done it did nothing to quell Paullus’ anger. No, it made that anger worse. No man’s honor was worth so many lives. But he had the letter copied, and once he’d translated it, he’d be paid…and getting paid was what it was all about. He glanced at the clock, and to his surprised, found it was 3AM.

“Sleep, I think, before translation. Tomorrow will be soon enough to finish. Now, to bed.”

#

Claudia ran her hand across her eyes, wiping tears she hadn’t expected away. Sanchez’s notes, his detailed interpretation of what different words might be, were as good as anything she had seen . What those guesses and interpretations put together was heartbreaking, and the implications of Varus’ letter rewrote one of the most shocking defeats in history. She looked across her desk and found Sanchez watching her. The bland mask was in full force today, not even his eyes revealed what passed through his mind.

“Do you accept my translation, Ms. Upton? I’ll admit some of it’s guesswork, but put together, it all makes sense. Don’t you agree?”

I do. It’s also quite a story, which is why I wonder if anyone will take your translation seriously.” Claudia saw the eyes narrow and held up her hand. “Believe me when I tell you I don’t doubt you’ve done an excellent job translating the letter. I’m just saying that historians are not immune from fearing change, and this letter changes the whole narrative of Teutoburg.” She saw the man’s tension lessen, then with a smile, caught her by surprise.

“Fear of change has always been mankind’s greatest enemy. Perhaps if Rome hadn’t been so focused on victory, if they’d been willing to accept a fighting retreat, Varus might have found a way to bring his troops home instead of leading them to the slaughter.” Sanchez shook his head. “But all humans hate change, don’t they? Well, if you’re satisfied with my work, there is the vulgar matter of my fee…”

Claudia suppressed a chuckle at the old movie reference and opened the central drawer on her desk. She didn’t understand why Sanchez always demanded payment in cash, but she was happy to pay for this sort of quality. She pulled out the fat envelope holding his fee and passed it to him. “As agreed, sir. I’d like to offer you something more to express my thanks for your work. Would you mind if I listed you as a co-author when I submit the paper I intend to write based on this? I’m sure it would bring you more work, if you need more money.”

Sanchez was folding the envelope, and stuffed it into the front pocket of his khakis before responding. “Thank you for your kind offer, but no. I’ve been thinking of doing some traveling, and now I’ve enough money to actually do it. Perhaps after I return…”

“Oh, it’ll take me a couple months just to write the paper, then several more before any journal can do their peer-review before publishing. It might be as much as a year before it hits the in-boxes of anyone who would want to hire you.”

“In that case, I hope you’ll remember my services on the off chance that one of your peers asks for your translation recommendations.” Sanchez gave her a slight bow, not unlike some of her Japanese colleagues sometime would. Then, almost as if he were catching himself in something he shouldn’t do, he straightened and held out his hand. She took it, finding the hand that closed around hers hard, the grip strong. It had nothing of most men’s handshake, that attempted to convey strength without being obvious. No, the fingers that enclosed hers could just as easily close around her throat, or snap her neck, and Sanchez made no effort to hide the fact.

“I’d be happy to recommend you to anyone who needs your services, sir, and I hope you enjoy your vacation.”

Sanchez left, and Claudia began going over his notes, taking in the details of his deductive process. Yes, he’s got an exceptionally detail-oriented mind. Maybe a mild case of ADHD? She picked up another laser-printed block to text, and found something unexpected beneath it. It was a page covered in handwritten notes…notes not in English, but in the so-called rustic Latin. They had none of the hesitation of a person trying to copy a style, no, this was the flowing script of someone who wrote in the language. She saw a letter, then another one, and knew she’d seen them before. That same shape, the way the bar was formed on the “f”, but where? It couldn’t be…. Claudia dug into her notes, found the copies of the first text she’d had Sanchez translate. She rooted in her desk, found the magnifying glass she used these days, and examined the copy. The “f” was the same, right down to that odd little flick on the end of the bar. She examined the rest of the copy, going back and forth between it and Sanchez’s notes, finding more and more similarities with each examination.

Claudia leaned back, letting herself smile even as a chill of pure terror ran through her body. “I guess I could have interviewed a legionnaire…if he didn’t decide to kill me afterwards to keep his secret.” She stared at the door to her office, wondering if Sanchez might have seen the legions march away from Rome to their doom. Did the echoes of that long ago tragedy explain some of what she’d seen?

And what of Sanchez? Would Claudia find him already gone if she went to the address he’d given? No, Sanchez, or whatever his real name was, had lived a long life. She had no doubt that the vacation he’d spoken of was some way to disappear. “Good luck to you, whomever you are. The world must be becoming a much more hostile place for a man like you.”

The Fair Tree

The red squirrel stopped, rose in its hind legs, and scanned its surroundings. Its ears pricked up, it took the scene around it. It saw no predators, nor did it see any of its own kind. Sure that it was safe, and that the acorn it carried would not be stolen, it scraped at the ground. When it deemed the hole deep enough, the squirrel dropped the acorn in, pulled the dirt it had dug out back in place, and took a final look around. Seeing nothing nearby, it bounded away, back to the small grove of oaks it had come from to gather more food it hoped would tide it through the coming winter.

Why the squirrel never returned is unknown. Had the winter been mild enough that it had not needed the acorn? Had it forgotten where the nut lay hidden? Or had it fallen prey to a stray dog, perhaps even one of the new metal monsters the humans had taken to driving? Whatever had happened, the acorn remained, and as it should, it sprouted.

Humans moved around it that first year, but none disturbed it. In the second year of the small oak trees life, a human noted its presence. By then, the trees that had supplied the initial acorn were gone. Humans had felled them to build a fair ground, but this one, growing apart, stood near where a band stand was to be erected. Thinking it a good idea to have shade for the people who would be listening to the bands, the human left th oak stand unharmed.

Time passed. Humans came, listening to the local high school band as it worked its way, generation after generation, through “The Star-Spangled Banner”. The other music changed. Sousa gave way to swing, which gave way to jazz before bands stopped performing at the fair ground. Even after the band stand fell out of use, families picnicked on the grass where their grandparents had once listen to music. Children ran madly about the oak as their parents lounged in its shade. A man, thinking to make his life easier, brought a garbage can into the broad grassy space, hoping the picnickers would not leave trash behind. When they began moving it, he wrapped a chain around the oaks trunk, padlocking the looped ends together in the handle.

The oak, free of shade and competition, grew into a giant. Its massive limbs, thick as a man’s body, spread outward. Its trunk swelled outward to match, swallowing the chain over the years. Men who knew nothing of their predecessors reasoning continued to lock garbage cans to the ends that now dangled from the trunk. But inside, the tree began to feel the effects of that intrusion. Rot began, then spread. Even as the band stand was knocked down, replaced with playground equipment for the children who still loved to dash around the great tree, the defect grew.

Other squirrels, distant descendants of the one that had given the oak life, came and took away the acorns it dropped in the thousands every year. Humans, determined to keep the grass, then the playground clear, mowed and sprays, killing any offspring that might chance to rise. Winters snow weighed its branches down, and Summer storms shook it, but the oak remained. But with every season, unseen within the oak, the rot spread. Slowly, it worked its way downward. When it came to the base, it found a small opening and joined up with it. Together, they ate away the oaks connection to the soil. The roots still drew nutrients from the dark soil it stood in, but these now flowed up an increasingly narrow band of living wood to feed the leaves.

Finally, a storm came that shook the oak, bringing gusts of wind that twisted it so that a crack opened. Parents noted it as they tried to gather their rowdy children, snapping photos of it on their smart phones. It caused them some concern, but they had grown up with the tree, like their parents and grandparents before them. It had always been there, and like a mountain, it would always be there. But inside the oak, the final act had begun. The rot had so weakened the tree that little held it to the ground. Winter came, and with it ice from melt water. Ice that grew, spreading the crack like a wedge, further weakening the tree. Spring came, and as they always did, the children ran in circles about the oak. Its leaves sprouted, the ground beneath it knew the shade that had graced it many years before.

Then a storm came in the night. It wasn’t a truly violent storm. It had no mighty gusts of wind, no torrential downpours. But what it had was enough. The oak, now held in place by only a few narrow roots, toppled and fell upon the playground equipment. Children who came the next were shocked to find the giant tree fallen. Some of them were angry that their favorite swings, the slide they’d enjoyed just the day before, were now smashed wreckage. But others walked to the trees base, saw the rot now exposed, and touched the trunk with reverence. It had shaded them, entertained them, hidden them, and in the end, it had given up its existence when none of them were around. In the end, the Fair Tree, as everyone for ages beyond end had called it, had saved them.

Image may contain: tree, grass, outdoor and nature

Accidents

Rolling up to the scene of the accident, I was sure we’d be doing nothing more than hauling a body away.

Have you ever heard that phrase “wrapped around a telephone pole”? That’s what I saw. How it happened, I couldn’t guess, but a delivery truck had missed it’s turn at an intersection, had missed it going the wrong way, and had slammed into the steel upright holding the traffic signal. Rather than sheering off as it should have, the upright had remained steadfast and the delivery truck had folded. Now, the body forward of the front doors was folded around the upright. The engine was still affixed to the one side of the frame, but the upright had threaded it’s way neatly along the other side, slicing it loose and peeling it away.

To look at the body,you’d sweat nothing could have survived in the tangled mess that had once been the cab. But a man sat on the back bumper of the truck, watching us pull up in the ambulance.

“Hey, I wonder what his story is?”

Saul Lebowitz, my partner for the run, had the sort of black humor a lot of veteran EMT’s pick up over time. He brought the rig to a stop just past the wreck before continuing.

“How the hell he walked away from that, and managed to to do it without a scratch, is going to be one for the record books.”

“You won’t get an argument out of me, Saul. Then again, we won’t find out how he survived, unscathed, if we don’t go ask him. So….”

We grabbed our gear, dismounted, and walked up to the stranger, who rose as we approached him.

“Sorry to disappoint you, guys, but I’m fine. Don’t suppose either of you have a cell I can borrow? I managed to walk away from this without a scratch, but my phone’s in the cab…in a few million pieces.”

I looked towards Saul, and found him looking towards me. He gave me a shrug, and we turned back towards the stranger.

“We’ll let you borrow a phone in a minute, but first, we’ve got to check you over to make sure you’re as ‘unscratched’ as you think you are. So how about you have a seat and let us do our job?”

The stranger settled back onto his truck’s bumper with a rye smile. “Hey, all you’re keeping me from doing is calling my boss and tell him I wrecked one of the company’s trucks…strangely enough, that’s not something I’m in a hurry to do.”

“Yeah, I can understand that. Saul, why don’t you get some vitals while I get his information?” I pulled out my tablet and opened the accident report app. “Okay, while my partner makes sure you’re really alive, I need your personal information. What’s your name?”

“Paul Sanchez.”

“How old are you?”

There was a tangible pause before Paul continued. “Thirty-five, why?”

“Just information I need for the paperwork…or it’s electronic equivalent. Date of birth?”

Paul answered that question, and all the rest I asked, without any delay as Saul took his blood pressure and took the rest of his vital signs. He finished before I did, and interrupted me to give his verdict.

“He’s fine. BP, heart rate, pupil response…all normal. I haven’t examined him in detail, but unless he real good at hiding bruises, cuts and other wounds, I think he’s managed to accomplish a miracle: walking away from a wreck like that without a mark.”

“Okay, Saul, thanks.” I finished asking the last few questions, closed the app, and looked at Paul again. “Well, my partner thinks you’re going to live, and I’m inclined to believe him. That said, I think you should let us do a more complete exam. Internal injuries, concussions and a lot of other things you don’t want to experience without a medical professional nearby can’t always be detected by the sort of examination we’ve given you so far. I honestly think you should let us take you to the Carswell’s Corner General ER for a more complete check-up.”

Paul gave a slow shake of his head. “No, I’m going to be in it deep enough as it is, I don’t need to add keeping my boss waiting for the accident report to the pile. I’d rather just make my calls, and hope the grief isn’t already too much for me to deal with…if you two are willing to cut me loose, that is.”

I spread my hands. “We can’t make you seek medical advice, we can only advise you to seek treatment. If you decide you don’t want any further tests or treatment, you’re free to do so.”

“In that case, you and your partner can be on your way. Sorry to make you two come all this way for nothing.”

Paul held out his hand, and I shook it. “As long as you’re sure…well, I guess we’ll be on our way.”

“After, I hope, you let me make that phone call…”

#

Paullus Lucius Decimus watched the ambulance drive off, thanking every god he could recall from his long memory that they were leaving. He’d been lucky to get his arms in front of him when the truck had hit the metal pole. They’d suffered most of the damage, and he’d been able to change into a spare shirt before the police had arrived to find him in a shredded, blood-stained shirt…and ask him where the blood had come from. The wounds had closed already, as had every wound he’d suffered over his two thousand years plus of life. It would be another day or more before the scars disappeared, and those were something else he didn’t want to explain.

That was why he’d refused the suggestion that he go for a more extensive exam. He’d had to explain his way out of far too many experiences just like this in his life…ever since that day he’d pulled himself out of a pile of corpses after the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. The Germanic tribesman who’d seen him rise from that stinking mess had run away, sparing him from explaining how he could be alive after one of his fellows had slashed his belly open.

It had gotten harder to explain himself to others since that first realization that he was immortal. Now, with digital records of everything, making a new identity was infinitely harder.

“Oh well, fortunately that’s something to worry about another day…..”

Family

Kathy hated cleaning, and she especially hated having been ‘nominated’ to help clean out her grandfather’s flat. Grandad MacKenna had always been Kathy’s favorite relative. He’d always indulged her fancies, encouraged her when she’d felt like a failure, and supported her when the rest of the family had shunned her after she’d ‘come out’. His sudden death had hit her hard, and standing here, in the middle of his possessions, brought the profound sadness she’d felt back with a vengeance.

“Damn you, you old fart, why did you have to go and die?” Kathy muttered as she drew the back of her hand across her eyes to wipe the tears she’d been fighting all morning. This had been grandad’s unofficial library cum study. The room’s walls were lined with shelves, but they were all covered, and the excess books, papers and notes lay scattered over the tables, chairs and floor. The one chair that wasn’t buried sat beside the one reading light in the room, an ancient brass thing with a shade that looked as though a stiff breeze would blow it to pieces. She had many memories of him sitting there, reading some book or clipping, and the warm, broad smile that would always spread across his face whenever he saw her. The small table that set beside it was equally clean, having only one book on it: a family Bible her grandfather had always kept close at hand. Of all the things she knew the family would want saved, Kathy knew this beat-up old book would be the first priority. She picked it up slowly, remembering the feel of it’s worn cover from all the times she’d sat in her grandfather’s lap demonstrating her latest advancement in reading. She had never presumed to open it herself, merely reading the passage or page her elder had selected. She turned it spin-down in her hand, relaxed her grip on it, and let the old book open where it would. Her father had that habit, a way, he once told her, of finding out what God wanted you to know or pay attention to. Now, rather than fall open to a passage, the book opened to reveal an envelope.

Kathy drew it out, turned the envelope over, and in her grandfather’s firm handwriting was a simple note: “How the MacKenna Family came to Glasgow”. Now intrigued, Kathy turned the envelope over again and looked at the flap. It was unsealed, so she laid the Bible down and opened it. Inside was a sealed plastic bag, and within it was a single sheet of folded paper covered in what looked like a child’s blocky printing. Kathy had to know what the paper said, so she opened the bag and drew it out. The page was of rough, obviously cheap paper, and from the way the ink on it had begun to fade, she guessed it must be extremely old. Unfolding it carefully, she found herself staring at a letter, and as she read it, one that she had trouble continuing to read. The writer must have had only a limited education, for not only was the text printed, it was riddled with misspelled words that she struggled to translate. Slowly, she worked her way through it, and found a tale of sorrow that made her own seem insignificant.

14 September, 1845

Grosse Isle, Canada

My Dear brother Kevin,

I pray to God that this letter find you still alive, and still in Ireland, for if it does, I must tell you, do NOT follow me across the Atlantic. For all the misery now in Ireland, for all the suffering and death, it is better to endure the hardships there than to attempt the voyage I have just survived.

You will remember, when last we met, how sickly our Kevin was. Through the help of kind strangers, he had shown signs of improving before we boarded the “Fair Cathline” in Galway harbor, but that did not last. Within a day of our departure, a storm overtook the ship, and all the passengers were forced to remain below in the hold. There, we learned that the “Fair Cathline” was anything but.

Even on the first day of our confinement, the hold where we were forced to reside was a nose-some place, and each passing day made those conditions worse. Water seemed to constantly leak, often jet, into the hold both through the hull around us and deck above us. The necessary functions cared not for the weather, or our confinement, so the waste of eighty confined souls mixed with the water, forming a tide of filth that swept and heaved with every motion of the ship. It was in these conditions, in a place no honest farmer would confine a swine, that Kevin passed. He died in the night, and when I awoke, he was already stiff and cold. He was a brave lad, complaining not once during the five days he lived in that hellish place, and passed as quietly. The crew, in response to our calls, opened the hold and offered help, but it was to no avail. I was on deck with Martha as the captain hurriedly read the words and Kevin was put over the side, then we were bundled below. Would that Kevin were the last, but that was not to be the case.

Within a day, three more passengers were sick, and before five days had passed, they were dead, and others were following their path. Death became so common that the crew simply came for bodies, and heaved over the side without even the hurried rites Kevin had enjoyed. Within a week, both our twin daughters, Moyra and Sarah, began to show signs of the sickness that was claiming our fellow passengers. Martha and I both labored to tend to them, but it was for naught. They passed from this world within hours of each other, just as they had entered it.

Perhaps it was seeing all her children die that broke Martha. She never demonstrated any of the signs of sickness the others exhibited, which makes me wonder if when she died, it was of grief. The why is unimportant, only the fact that she passed from this life three days after our last child was committed to the deep.

Thus I was alone now, my family dead and gone into the trackless wastes of the sea, leaving me not even a grave for me to pay my respects at. I fear, Kevin, that I gave up on life, and I have confessed to the priest here that I wished, no, I prayed for death. But for whatever reason, God did not chose to take me as he did my family. I remember little of the time after Martha’s passing. I remember praying over her body with the few passengers still strong enough to attend. I also remember the sailors coming for her, and my fervent request to them that they would take me too, but after that, my memory is blank. Mr. O’Donnell, a good man of Donegal descent and one of my fellow survivors, tells me I raved madly for several days after Martha’s death. He also tells me that one of the crew took pity on me, and perhaps from that, that the crew in general took pity on the few survivors, for they were let out of the hold and given food from the crew’s table. I was taken into the crew’s quarters and tied into a hammock. There I was fed broth by Mr. O’Donnell and the crewman who interceded on my behalf for several days until I quieted and began my recovery. It is that tight confine that is my next memory, of the ropes binding me into a swaying, swinging piece of quiet and tranquility.

The crew sighted land within a day of my faculties returning, and while the winds and storms had hampered our crossing, they now bore us swiftly up a river that seemed almost as calm as the Corrib passing through a broad meadow. So it is that I came to this place.

The English (for there are no Irish here except fellow survivors of the Atlantic) tell us that Grosse Isle is a way station, one we will be released from soon. I fear the only release for many of us will be the release of death. There is food here, and housing after a fashion, but both are in far too short supply, and many who had endured the terrible crossing have already perished on this godforsaken piece of Canada. The “Fair Cathline” landed but 23 souls out of the eighty that had left Ireland in her filthy hold, and already, five of those have been buried in the cold soil of this isle. Mr O’Donnell, the man who helped me survive, has taken ill and the doctors here are not sure he will live. He has already confessed to the priest here, and has taken the Last Rites. I do what I can for him, in debt for his efforts to save me, but he has made me promise him that I will write his family and tell them of his passing should it occur. I pray God it will not, for I have seen enough of death to last me until my own time comes.

Now you see why I write you, my dear brother. I do not know how things are in Ireland, not with so much sailing time between here and there, but I cannot imagine that things are worse than what I have endured. If they are so terrible that you must leave, please, please, me beloved brother, go to England, or even Scotland. But I pray you do not follow my path, for I fear it will bring you nothing but the misery.

I must close now, for the priest tells me Mr. O’Donnell has passed, and I promised to see him buried properly.

May God keep you and your family, and may God one day allow us to meet again, if not on this Earth, then in Heaven. Until that meeting, know you have my love and affection.

Your loving brother,

William MacKenna

Kathy slowly laid the letter down, remembering something her grandfather had once told her. After she’d announced that she was a lesbian, Kathy had come to the one person who’d always supported her. While everyone else had shunned her, Grandfather MacKenna had listened to her tale of woe, then given her a hug before telling her “Katherine (he was the only person she allowed to call her that), you are a MacKenna, and we’re made of tougher stuff than the average person. We have survived far worse than this, and I know you will too as long as you never give up.”

Kathy looked towards the ceiling, knowing beyond it lay the sky. “Grandfather, I promise: I won’t give up. I’ll make you, all the MacKennas, proud to have me as part of the family.”