Hubris

by

“You about finished writing, Major? The men is chafing to get this next stretch over with.”

“Just a moment more.” Powell dipped his pen into the inkhorn and scratched away at the page.

“I don’t think them Howard boys and Dunn is coming back, Major. Yesterday scared out their Jesus.”

“Yes. Can’t be helped. Some men will desert.” Powell glanced up at the man. “And you, George? What are your feelings on this matter?”

Bradley pulled himself straight and looked the major in the eye. “My word’s my bond, Major. Even if it kill me.”

Powell nodded and went back to writing, the boiling white foam clear in his mind’s eye, the sickening drop as the barge plummeted down and down between the towering granite walls.

He knew at that moment the extent of his hubris, the incredible arrogance of thinking this expedition was possible.

And now to learn his mapmaker had deserted.

Hubris.

 

What Pegman Saw

 

August 14, 1869

As we proceed, the granite rises higher, until nearly a thousand feet of the lower
part of the walls are composed of this rock. About eleven o’clock we hear a great roar ahead, and approach it very cautiously. The ground grows louder and louder as we run, and at last we find ourselves above a long, broken fall, with ledges and pinnacles of rock obstructing the river. There is a descent of, perhaps, seventy-five or eighty feet in a third of a mile, and the rushing waters break into great waves on the rocks, and lash themselves into a mad, white foam. We can land just above, but there is no foothold on either side by which we can make a portage.
It is nearly a thousand feet to the top of the granite, so it will be impossible to carry our boats around, though we can climb to the summit up a side gulch, and, passing along a mile or two, can descend to the river. This we find on examination; but such a portage would be impracticable for us, and we must run the rapid, or abandon the river. There is no hesitation. We step into our boats, push off and away we go, first on smooth but swift water, then we strike a glassy wave, and ride to its top, down again into the trough, up again on a higher wave, and down and up on waves higher and still higher, until we strike one just as it curls back, and a breaker rolls over our little boat.
Still, on we speed, shooting past projecting rocks, till the little boat is caught in a whirlpool, and spun around several times. At last we pull out again into the stream, and now the other boats have passed us. The open compartment of the “Emma Dean” is filled with water, and every breaker rolls over us. Hurled back from a rock, now on this side, now on that, we are carried into an eddy, in which we struggle for a few minutes, and are then out again, the breakers still rolling over us. Our boat is unmanageable, but she cannot sink, and we drift down another hundred yards, through breakers; how, we scarcely know. We find the other boats have turned into an eddy at the foot of the fall, and are waiting to catch us as we come, for the men have seen that our boat is swamped. They push out as we come near, and pull us in against the wall. We bail our boat, and on we go again.
The walls, now, are more than a mile in height.

-From the Journal of John Wesley Powell

The Note

by

Daughter


You will have questions I cannot answer except to say that reality is but an illusion, a projection of our expectations.  We are taught to make our eyes glide over the world, to create symbols and labels so that we can more easily dismiss them.

We are trained to turn our awareness inward, towards the illusory self which we can never know because we inhabit it. This is our madness.

I cannot suffer this condition any longer.  I leave you this tree as remembrance of me.

 

Friday Fictioneers

 

S-21

by

How long am I here?

An eternity.

There is no time but now, and now lasts forever.

There must be hundreds in this place, though I never see anyone.

I know from the screams that come through the walls.

I see only the guards when they come for me. 

Sometimes I am hooded and led to the gymnasium because my cell is too small for more than three or four of them at once.

In the center of the gymnasium is a cold steel table.

Shafts from the skylight bathe it with a silvery glow, like something from a dream.

A man on this table will confess everything he ever did, name everyone he ever knew.

A man will lie, bargain, beg.

And scream.

Giving information is something only beginners do.

The screaming is the only important thing, the thing they most want and need.

I believe it feeds them.

What Pegman Saw: Cambodia

S-21 was a former high school turned into the Tuol Sleng prison by the Khmer Rouge.
The Cambodians called it “konlaenh choul min dael chenh” (the place where people go in but never come out).
Nearly 20,000 people are known to have entered Tuol Sleng.
Only six are known to have survived.

A Game With the Doctor

by

I placed my finger on my king and gently toppled him. Dr. Tartov studied the board.

“You revealed yourself in your opening,” he said. “The Latvian Gambit is almost never employed by black because it allows such an early advantage for white. I was surprised to see it because it is always reserved for tournaments, and only employed then to display contempt. You are not a tournament player and could not, of course, know this. It is an arrogant opening, one I had not seen in many years. But, as you found out, I know how to deal with it.”

Friday Fictioneers

This is a brief passage excerpted from a yet-to-be published novel.

The Beast

by

As always happens when a dictator falls, there were rumors that he had escaped. Conflicting reports of the exeution, confusing photographs, a lack of a gravesite. He had held us in his wicked grip for twenty-five years. Countless victims arrested and tortured, thousands shot or merely vanished, Romania turned to a nation of informers leaping at shadows.

As the dust of history settles, certain things are always revealed. Secrets seldom die with their keepers. A chance meeting in Paris fifteen years ago had started me on this quest, and now I stand before him at last, this infamous tyrant consigned to the history books as a mere footnote to a crumbled empire.

He has asked me here to help confer a different kind of immortality than the one he now possesses, to write a story so fantastic it will be widely read, yet never proven.

Even in the candlelight I see he has not aged a day since 1989.

What Pegman Saw

Note:

Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania with an iron fist from 1965 until the collapse of Eastern Bloc communism in 1989. Ceausescu and his wife Elena fled, but were captured and shot by a hastily assembled firing squad on Christmas Day at an army base near Targoviste. 

The bodies were buried without fanfare, causing many Romanians and remaining family members to doubt whether the graves in Bucharest actually contained the dictator’s remains, or any remains at all.

Is it just me, or does this man look like a vampire?

A Dawn Interview

by

The dew lay heavy on the grass, the lowering clouds a harbinger of afternoon thunderstorm.

As previously arranged, the boatmen and surgeon turned their backs to the principals, for these affairs were now a prosecutable offense.

Van Ness produced the walnut case, a fine set of Wogdon & Barton’s finest pistols.

Pendleton selected one and carried it over. “Alexander, I urge you to reconsider,” he whispered. “Burr is in earnest.”

“You know my convictions, Nathaniel. Murder is a mortal sin.”

Van Ness brought out the coins and Hamilton won the toss for first shot.

He fired his pistol into the sky.

 

Friday Fictioneers

 

On July 11, 1804,  the most famous duel in American history was fought between Vice President  Aaron Burr and former Secretary of the Treasury Alexender Hamilton. The meeting took place on a New Jersey cliff overlooking the Hudson River.

Eyewitness accounts vary. Pendleton, Hamilton’s second,  said his principal fired deliberately into a tree, but Burr’s second said it was merely a misfire. They both agree that Burr remained upright while Hamilton fell, clutching a .54-caliber wound to the abdomen that shattered his liver, diaphragm and spine. Thirty-six hours later he was dead.

 

 

 

Ghos’ Ward

by

I cruised the Lower Ninth in my rented Ford, first time back since Katrina. Everything was gone.

When I found it at last, Jeffus sat high on his porch sipping julep from his big tin cup. House looked much the same, though the boards was new and the paint fresher. “How was your house spared so?” I asked.

He cackled up. “Child, this ain’t the same house. This here the Rodney’s place from down the street, there on the corner. My old house got knocked atumble and floated off. This here one stayed upright and floated close, so we jacked her up onto the footings and set to fixing her. Took nigh three years, but we got her done.”

“What the Rodneys say?”

Jeffus took a long swallow, then gave me his squint. “All them Rodneys is gone. Kilt or lost, but not a one of them ever come back here.”

 

What Pegman Saw

In the 2000 U.S. census, 98 percent of Lower 9th Ward residents identified themselves as black, and of those, a little over half lived in households that earned $19,999 or less per year. It was a place rich in culture and heritage, home to musicians and artists who often inherited the small four-square houses from relatives. The Lower Ninth was a place apart, cut off from the city proper by a shipping channel.

During Hurricane Katrina, the Industrial Canal’s flood walls gave way and water surged through the neighborhood and pushed hundreds of houses off their foundations. Water up to 12 feet deep stood in some areas for weeks. It was the last neighborhood to have power and water service restored, and the last to be pumped dry. 

Today, there’s a feeling of desolation on nearly every block of the predominantly African-American neighborhood. Block after block of empty lots, jagged foundations and tangled brush where there had once been one of the great Amercian neighborhoods. Less than 37% of its residents had returned a decade later.

Closing Forever

by

George greeted me with his usual smile, ushered me up onto the shoe bench as he got out the tin and rag, his long fingers deft and surprisingly unstained.

“You still got any shoes with me?” he said, peering up. “I know I had those oxfords.”

“No, you finished them last month.” I looked at the wall crowded with pictures, framed clippings, awards. George and the mayor, George and the governor, George and the chief of police. Everybody came here for a shine. “How long has it been again?”

“I been doing this seventy years,” he said. “Long enough.”

Friday Fictioneers

This story is inspired by George Manias, who has run a shoeshine and hat cleaning store in downtown Peoria since 1948. Unlike this story, George’s is still open. He wants to make 75. I think he’ll make it. 

The First Morning

by

She’d been awake for a long time when the knock came.

“Come in,” she called.

“I’m sorry to wake you, ma’am. We haven’t yet set a schedule––”

“Please. Stop. No apologies.” She threw back the covers and stood, surveying the room as the orderly opened the curtains to let the January sunlight spill through the tall windows. “So much history,” she said.

“Yes ma’am,” said the orderly.

Dressed and breakfasted, she walked into the Oval Office and stood for a moment. So many years to get here, the arduous forever campaign that really started, if she was honest, in grade school.

The Chief of Staff opened the side door. “Good morning, Ms. President.” He held a clipboard.  “Before we get started, somebody important is waiting to meet you.”

A most unusual man came in, seven feet tall with a gray oblong head and tilted obsidian eyes. He extended a long hand. “Ms. President.”

 

What Pegman Saw: Roswell

 

Alone in the Spring House

by

The walls and floor are of fitted stone, the elm ceiling beams adzed from trees long perished. In a corner is a basin chiseled from river rock. An iron pipe juts from the wall and drips into the basin, each drop a musical note in the stillness.

The silence is immense except for the basin’s drip and the sometime  whisper of a snake moving across the floor.

The boy knows from books that snakes are creatures who wish only to be left alone. They will not trouble him here. This has become his place. He will tell no one about it.

 

Friday Fictioneers