Work In Progress: "In Jerusalem's Fire."

 

 

Chapter One

 

By the time Lieutenant Chase told them to run, the loggers couldn't hear him over the howling of the wind.

They'd been felling a stand of spruce mixed with fir and hemlock on the crest of a ridge near Wessel Creek. The spruce grew thick here and the crew had been working the ridge for a week. Through the gaps they'd cut in the forest they could see the Pacific a few miles off, blue as lapis under the May sun.

After spending the first part of the day inspecting one of the loggers’ camps near the Siletz road, Lieutenant Austin Chase had come up to the logging operation late in the morning. He judged the men were in good spirits and working steadily. They knew their jobs better than he did, but it was his duty to keep an eye on things and make sure the work went well. So he limped around the site, leaning heavily on his cane, adding a word of encouragement here, asking a question there, mostly staying out of the way.

About midday a sudden gust of wind blew across the ridge, cold and hard, causing the trees to sway and the men to stop their work and look up. They were soldiers first, mostly draftees of the army hastily raised after America’s entry into the war. Whatever claims or misunderstandings or fates had put them in the forests of Oregon with axes and saws in their hands rather than in the trenches of France with rifles and bayonets, too few of them had enough experience in the woods to understand the message carried by the wind.

When the errant gust blew itself out, the men returned to their work, smiling and shaking their heads. None of them remarked on the strange silence that succeeded the wind, a stillness that lent an eerie clarity to every sound, from the thonk of an ax to the asthmatic pocketa-pocketa of the steam-driven donkey engine that hauled the felled trees up the slope. Nor did the men notice the birds gradually falling silent, no longer gliding through the trees but hopping from limb to limb in the rapidly thinning air.

Only Private Hakkonen continued to glance uneasily into the cloudless sky. When a corporal told him to get back to work Hakkonen shot him an agate-eyed frown and muttered something to himself before again taking up his end of the two-handled saw he'd been partnering with another soldier. But the stillness of the air ate at him and he soon stopped again. This time he walked away from the saw, ignoring the other soldier's puzzled look. When the corporal again told him to get back to work Hakkonen ignored him too and crossed the logged-over clearing to where Lieutenant Chase stood leaning on his cane.

“I think we oughta get out of here.”

Hakkonen never said “sir” and didn't give a damn about the hard looks most of the officers gave him for it. Chase, though, didn't seem to care. Maybe getting burned that bad changed you, Hakkonen thought. The scars down one side of his face and neck and God-knew-what-others hidden by his gloves and his uniform—that had to do something to a young guy.

His gloved hands resting on the neck of his cane, Chase cocked his head, turning the side less scarred toward Hakkonen. “Get out of here?” he asked. He didn't add “private” because he didn't give a damn about that kind of thing either, not anymore.

Hakkonen nodded toward the treetops. He was older than the other men, past thirty, his dark face creased from years of working outdoors.

“I don't know the Oregon woods,” Hakkonen said, “but if I was still logging up in Michigan I'd figure there was a bad blow coming.” The sharp whistle of the donkey engine cut through the air, warning men to scramble out of the way as it dragged a log up the slope. “I know you're new here and the ground seems dry, but it’s rained hard all spring and the ground's soft underneath.”

Chase looked into the sky, but knew he wasn't seeing what Hakkonen saw. He liked Hakkonen, blunt, square-headed, hard-working. He'd heard that before the war Hakkonen had been with the International Workers of the World—Wobblies, they were called—practically Communists. The civilians who supervised most of the logging in the are spoke his name with that peculiar contempt born of fear, and warned the Army he'd be trouble.

For some reason, maybe the fact that, in their way, they were both outsiders, the broad-shouldered Finn had, in Chase's case, suspended his habitual antagonism towards authority. When the Lieutenant first came to inspect the work site a couple of weeks earlier, Hakkonen had shown him how to tell if the men were being treated right and whether the civilian supervisors were doing what the Army needed them to do—cut spruce—and not felling the other timber the lumber bosses wanted for the open market. Most importantly, he impressed on Chase that logging was dangerous work, on most days more dangerous than soldiering, and taught him how to see which men knew what they were doing in the woods and which ones might get somebody killed.

Still, Chase shook his head. “I'm not in command here, Hakkonen, just inspecting the operation. It's up to the civilian supervisors to—”

“Well, they ain't here. And their loggers ain’t here neither. I don't know what got screwed up, but it’s just us soldiers today. You’re the only officer here right now. The men will listen to you.”

Chase nodded toward a short compact man with blond hair standing over near the donkey engine. “Sergeant McElroy—”

“—won't take a piss without some officer's by-your-leave.”

Again, Austin Chase looked into the sky, felt the stillness of the air. High above, a freshening west wind pushed a thin scrim of clouds across the sun.

He thought of other mornings like this, taking off from the dirt airstrip in France into the cool, quiet air, finding strong winds aloft that made him fight with the controls of his biplane as it danced across the sky like a butterfly.

He had promised himself not to think of that anymore.

“I don't know what you want me to do, Hakkonen. A little wind isn't going to hurt anyone.”

Hakkonen looked over his shoulder as if thinking he might go back to work. Instead, he stepped closer to Chase. He was a big man and looked down at the young lieutenant. “I know you ain't no woodsman, but you're always square with us. And I don't care what them bastards tell you. I'll work hard and honest, whether it's freezing or raining—even when there's snow coming down. But when it gets to blowin' hard it’s time to get out of—”

It came like the impatient “whoof” of a great bear, an exhalation of air followed by a deep groan as the wind rolled into the trees.

Again, the men stopped and looked up. This time none of them smiled.

Hakkonen heard it too and looked into the sky. When he turned back to Chase, the intensity in his face told the lieutenant everything he needed to know.

His eyes still on Hakkonen, Chase cupped his hands around his mouth. “Men, I want you to pick up your tools and head down the ridge to the plank road.”

The soldier-loggers turned their eyes from the sky and looked at him, but the moaning of the trees and the rush of the wind through the limbs drowned out his words.

A crack like a rifle-shot pierced the sighing of the wind and a thick limb fluttered down onto the forest floor, scattering the men below.

Chase froze, his eyes wide, gaping at the falling branch.

Hakkonen could see something had happened to Chase but didn't understand what it was. He shouted at the young officer, “We gotta get outta here, Lieutenant!”

Hakkonen's voice startled Chase back into the present. Fighting a headwind in his mind stronger than the one in the trees, he again brought his hands to his mouth.

Before he could speak, a deep boom rocked the air and the top of a tall hemlock snapped off and crashed to the ground like—Chase couldn’t run from the image—an airplane falling from the sky.

The men jumped away, looking to him for an order, unable to see that he was no longer really there.

Another limb fell—to Chase's mind, it too like the fluttering dive of a crippled fighter plane. From the crevice in his soul where they always lurked, flames danced to life. He imagined the smell of burning gasoline, felt the vise grip of panic in his chest. His breath came in strangled gulps as it had on that morning in France when he had struggled not to breathe the fire engulfing him.

Mustn’t let the men see me like this, he thought. He shut his eyes, choked down the fear, tried to breathe slowly, fought to control his damaged legs, which wanted to run.

Puzzled by the officer’s sudden inability to speak or even move, the Finn spun around and swung his arms toward the other men, waving them off the ridge and down toward the plank road. Some of them took a few steps, unready to follow the lead of an enlisted man like themselves, especially Hakkonen.

Ripping an act of will from deep in his gut, Austin Chase beat down the impulse to turn tail in front of the men and run. Leaning on his cane with one hand, he waved the men toward the road, shouting, “Go! On the double!”

Like the soldiers of a routed army throwing away their weapons, the men dropped their axes and saws and ran. The horse handler released his team from the log they were hauling and whipped them down the skid road. Above them, the tops of the towering trees reeled like drunks. Ominous cracking punctuated their groans.

Hakkonen shouted at Chase. “You better get going, Lieutenant. I don't think you can run so fast with . . . ” He nodded at Chase's cane.

“I'm not going to run,” Chase said between clenched teeth, more to himself than to Hakkonen.

Within moments the last of the men had dashed across the clearing and down the lee slope, their doughboy hats flying off in the wind. Leaning on his cane, Chase cast a last glance around and started to follow them.

At that moment two men scrambled into the clearing from where they had been working on the windward side of the ridge. Hakkonen waved them on, at the same time grabbing Chase by the arm, nearly yanking him off his feet to drag him toward the protection of the plank road.

With a crackling that started like the sound of a wood fire but quickly built into the thunder of a house tumbling down, the upper forty feet of a lone fir snapped off and toppled toward the ground.

One of the two men who had come up from below the ridge froze, staring at the treetop's gathering rush. His companion shouted at him to keep running, and showed him by example. But the first soldier, a thin, short fellow with his hat in his hand, appeared mesmerized. By the time he turned to run it was too late. With an earth-shaking “whump” the treetop hit the ground and the soldier disappeared under it.

Chase jerked his arm from Hakkonen’s grip, but as he tried to run toward the fallen soldier his cane slipped in the uneven soil and he fell headfirst onto the ground, dirt in his mouth.

“Dammit,” Hakkonen shouted over the wind, “you got to get outta here!”

Chase felt the Finn's hands under his shoulders, pulling him to his feet.

“No! Let go of me! We can't leave him here.”

“Half the damn tree fell on him. He's dead!”

Scrabbling for purchase with his cane, Chase rose and staggered across the open ground.

“Can't . . .  leave . . . him.” The sight of the crashing tree had put him back in the cockpit of his falling plane. He felt the rush of wind, the flames rising higher, his uniform starting to burn. “Save him! Save him!” he cried, knowing he was talking about something more than the fallen soldier.

Hakkonen shouted, “I'll check on him! You get down to the road!”

A deep tearing sound rumbled across the clearing as a hemlock tilted over, pulling up its roots as it went, falling slowly toward the treetop that had trapped the soldier. Even as Chase and Hakkonen braced for its impact, the hemlock's crash stopped as it caught in the branches of another tree.

Chase stumbled forward, fell again, cursing. He shook off Hakkonen's grip and again pulled himself up.

Hakkonen gave up trying to turn Chase around and instead dashed ahead of him across the clearing and began to pull at one of the branches covering the pinned soldier, ignoring the tilting, precariously caught tree overhead. Chase caught up and dropped to his knees beside Hakkonen, tugging at the same branch, to no effect.

Through the limbs of the fallen tree he could see the trapped soldier, just a kid—eighteen, maybe nineteen—his face dirty, his eyes closed. Pulling together, he and Hakkonen tried to lift the branch against the dead weight of the tree.

The trapped soldier moaned.

Chase shouted, “He's alive!”

Hakkonen pointed at the hemlock suspended above them. “Get out of here! That thing’s going to give way.” But they both knew neither of them was leaving.

The Finn scrambled to his feet, grabbed a discarded ax and attacked the branch halfway along its length.

Pulling hard on the limb, Chase glanced up at the tree hanging over them, then looked at Hakkonen.

The Finn shouted “Shut up!” at the unspoken order to hurry. Relentless as a piston, he swung the ax again and again, the half-conscious soldier crying out at each blow. Finally he called to Chase, “Now, give it a try!”

Calling on what strength he could draw from his damaged legs, Chase braced himself against the ground and pulled. The limb didn’t move.

Throwing down his ax, Hakkonen jumped in beside Chase, pulling and cursing.

Caught up in the incantatory power of the woodsman’s oaths, Chase started cursing too, shouting every vulgarity he knew. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Hakkonen bite his lip.

With the injured solider groaning under the limb, the wind howling over the ridgetop and an enormous tree threatening to fall on them, the big woodsman, hearing his officer swearing like a schoolboy, was struggling not to laugh.

Chase tried to force a frown but, like a bubble rising from his lungs, he laughed, cursed himself for laughing and laughed again.

Hakkonen gritted his teeth, trying to force himself to keep quiet, but couldn't hold back and snorted out loud, laughing through his nose.

Furious at themselves, the two men shouted an enormous “Hah!” that galvanized every fiber of muscle they possessed.

The branch cracked and broke.

Ignoring the wounded soldier's cries, Chase grabbed him by the shoulders, yanked him out from under the tree and struggled to throw the young man across his shoulders.

“Here, let me get him, Lieutenant. You can't—”

Chase shoved Hakkonen away and staggered to his feet. Bent nearly double under the soldier's weight, he lurched across the clearing.

Hakkonen grabbed the lieutenant's cane and tried to hand it to Chase.

“Screw the cane,” Chase muttered, stumbling forward.

After a few uneven steps, Chase's legs gave out and he fell to his knees. Hakkonen thrust a shoulder under the injured man and tried to take him from Chase's shoulders.

Chase elbowed him away. “I've got him,” he grunted, trying to rise to his feet. Though he would not give up the wounded soldier, he allowed Hakkonen's shoulder to slip under his own and lift him up.

With Chase carrying the young man across his shoulders and Hakkonen half-carrying Chase, they advanced like a broken insect, struggling to get out from under the shadow of the half-fallen tree. Neither of them looked up. There was nothing they could do about the danger of being crushed except to drop the kid and run, and that question had already been settled.

Wondering at every step if they were to be smashed beneath a falling hemlock, they reached the shelter of the trees on the far side of the clearing. Even then, Chase refused Hakkonen's pleas to give up the injured soldier. Together they scrambled down the lee slope, Chase by turns carrying, pushing and dragging the kid toward safety.

With a last tumble down the hillside, the three men slid to the edge of the plank road. A few of the waiting soldiers came up to meet them and Chase finally surrendered his burden to them.

Gasping for breath, their uniforms black with sweat, Chase and Hakkonen leaned back against the road cut. Above them, the trees rocked in the wind, but here the slope protected the men.

Resting against the cool dirt, struggling to catch his breath, Hakkonen turned toward the officer who had carried the injured man to safety on his own wounded legs.

Unable to speak, Chase flicked his hand toward Hakkonen, letting him know he should look at something else. Slowly, the terror that had proved a heavier burden than the injured soldier eased its grip and he blew out a long, free breath.

Hakkonen managed a smile. “Damned if you're not some lieutenant, Lieutenant.”

Chase tried to smile, but with the stimulant of danger receding, the shadow of melancholy from which he could not extricate himself, once more settled over him.

Work In Progress: Masks

 

Chapter One

 

The masks began to speak.

Lying on a dining couch in his parents’ villa, sluggish with wine, Marcus blinked at the littered table before him. Flickering oil lamps dimly lighted dirty plates and overtipped cups.

“Must have this all cleaned up before mother and father return,” he muttered.  It struck him that he was talking to himself. Where had his friends gone?

“Ah, right,” he said woozily to himself. They had left more than an hour ago. They’d be halfway back to Ravenna by now, the villa’s great hall empty but for himself.

Marcus half-rose from the couch and nearly fell over, the room spinning around. Must tell the servants to clean up this room—order them to say nothing to his father about the mess he and his friends had made, the drunkenness.

Weighted with dinner and drink, he fell back onto the couch.

How much time passed before he heard the first murmur of voices he could not say. Barely piercing the curtain of his slumber, the voices seemed to come from the entry hall where the terra-cotta masks of his ancestors hung.

A vision of the masks, hanging from their hooks, passed through his mind. He knew their faces as well as he knew his own, perhaps better. Over the last few years his had changed rapidly, losing its boyish roundness, the fair hair turned darker, the nose and jaw stronger.

His ancestors, though, were unchangeable, the stern faces of the grandfathers he had never known and the grandmothers but barely, the faces of their parents before them and theirs in turn, generations so deep into the past as to slip from memory into myth. Each mask bore the individual features of its subject—so eerily real, even to the fleshly colors painted by forgotten artisans, that they had frightened him as a boy.

Whatever their differences, each mask shared the relentless strength of character and firmness of purpose that had first won and then maintained the family’s position in this most distant part of Italy. His mother's ancestors, the Julians, a storied Roman family, hung on one side. On the other side were his father's, the Scaevolas, Romans too, but long ago come north, almost beyond the writ of the Senate and the shield of the legionnaire, to found their estate in the Po Valley when barbarians still roamed its plain.

Unable to keep his eyes open, Marcus fell into a doze on the couch.

The unhappy murmuring increased in strength, the voices drawing nearer. With a great effort he opened his eyes—and felt his heart stop in horror.

Before him, as if conjured by his thoughts, the masks of the ancestors were gliding above the atrium floor, winging toward him like a flock of angry ravens.

He shook his head, trying to clear the cobwebs that clouded his thoughts. But he could not banish the vision of the masks before him. Like unhappy spirits fleeing their tombs, they hovered in the air, floating in ragged ranks across the atrium.

With a shiver of horror, he realized the voices he heard came from their throatless mouths. Though he could not catch the sense of their words, Marcus heard them calling his name, their voices murderously angry.

He tried to rise, to shout for the servants, make them come and send these masks back to their places. But neither his voice nor limbs obeyed his will.

As he struggled to cry out, the masks underwent a macabre transformation. Beneath their shadowy features, living flesh began to materialize. Simulated colors took on the warm hues of life. Terra-cotta mouths began to move, brows to furrow in anger.

Anger at what? Marcus searched his conscience for some heedless act of impiety that might have so offended the ancestors that they would leave their places in the shadow world and return to their earthly home to judge him.

Like swirling smoke freezing in place, the ghastly forms took shape, dressed in men's togas and matron's gowns, their owners shouting, some with violent gestures and upraised fists, all speaking in the veiled language of the dead.

The spirits crept closer, gathering around the couch on which Marcus lay. For the length of a deep breath, the encircling shades looked down on the young nobleman with their fathomless eyes. Then they knelt, took up his couch, slowly raised it onto their shoulders, and began to bear him away across the atrium. The sense of their words became clearer to him: betrayal. Betrayal of the genius of his family and of its gods. Betrayal of a promise made long ago but left unfulfilled.

What family obligation, Marcus asked himself, should have passed over his parents and waited for him to keep? It made no sense. Yet the spirits insisted he had in some unknown way neglected his duties, betrayed his very Romanness as negligently as if he were of another race, another people.

His mind disordered by terror, Marcus could not at first see in what direction the spirits were taking him. Then he saw the entrance hall, its bare walls studded with the empty hooks from which the masks had wandered. Beyond it, the villa’s front door opened into the annihilating darkness.

Before him, just beyond the door, stood a formless shadow—Janus, the two-faced god of comings and goings, beginnings and endings. Behind Janus appeared another figure, his father, reciting a funeral oration, his face lined with anger and grief.

Marcus struggled to speak, to appeal to this stern man he knew so well and yet hardly at all. He tried to cry out, could make no sound.

He understood now, the ancestors were carrying him out the door of his home, bearing him in the traditional manner of a corpse, feet first, so that his wandering spirit could not find its way back.

In the shadowy realm beyond the courtyard, Marcus caught a glimpse of another figure—no, two figures. A boar snuffled in the distance, as if waiting for him. And a woman, beautiful beyond words, with long black hair and lips red as plums.

With a final effort he struggled to call out, "No! Please! I will keep the promise. Only tell me what it is." But he could produce nothing more than a strangled cry.

 

 

Marcus sat bolt upright in his bed, the echo of his shout fading in the dark room, his heart pounding, sweat running down his face.

“Marcus, you’ll frighten me to death.” In the dim light he saw Pompeiia beside him in the bed, clutching the bedclothes to her neck. She put an arm around his shoulders and let the bedclothes drop. The aromas of her perfume and the warmth of her flesh eased his terror. “You’ve had a bad dream. Here, come closer.” She patted his head as if he were a child, unmanning him. “You’re all right now.”

Still possessed by his nightmare, he could not reply.

Pompeiia smiled. “I know how to make bad dreams go away.” She drew his hand to her breast.

Marcus fought to slow his breath, tell himself that it had only been a bad dream. But in his heart he knew that nothing was more real than a dream.

“Is it morning yet?” he asked.

“It’s almost dawn. But we have time.”

Marcus shook his head. “My father must have come back hours ago. You have to go.” He staggered out of bed and threw a tunic over his head.

“But how will I get back? It’s miles to town.”

Marcus plucked some coins from a bedside table. “I’ll tell my slave to come up. He’ll take you out through the kitchens. Once you’re on the road someone will be happy to take you into Ravenna for this.”

He tossed the coins beside her on the bed, but the young girl’s mouth turned down.

“I didn’t make you happy,” she said.

Marcus thought she might cry. “No, Pompeiia, don’t …” He gave her two more coins and kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll tell Calpurnia that you please me and that I’ll visit her place again when I’m in the city. I’ll ask for you particularly. I promise. But now you have to go.”

He dashed downstairs, knowing he was late. His father would already be outside, angry and waiting for him.

As he staggered out of the villa, he knew that the terrifying vision of his ancestors had been no mere dream, but a visitation, as real in spirit as it was shadowy in form—its purpose wholly obscure to him.

 

 

 

A small altar stood in the ancient oak grove beyond the villa, only a few paces from the marble tomb in which generations of Scaevola bones were interred. The carvings on the altar's sides had turned green with age and its base lay buried under layers of humus so thick that the two hooded observing rites at the altar needed to stoop slightly.

The two men turned as Marcus approached, pulling back the folds of their togas with which they covered their heads during religious ceremonies. His father's close-cropped graying hair, his lean, stern face always appeared to Marcus as grave and purposeful as the masks of the ancestors. He half realized that the unease he felt when passing the masks reflected the unease he felt in his father’s presence.

Lately, the deep lines that creased his father's face, the sagging flesh under his eyes and the paleness under his tan had carried a message of mortality that Marcus tried not to think of. For now, though, the anger in his father's blue eyes was proof enough of his vitality.

"You've interrupted the rites, Marcus. The gods no longer attend us. You come here late, dressed in a dirty tunic rather than a toga, your face unwashed.” He turned away from his son, but his anger drove him back. "It's not for my marriage we're enquiring of the gods, but yours—"

"Father—"

"Be quiet!” With this shout his father's shoulders sagged and he closed his eyes. When he opened them again the anger was gone. His voice was calm, almost relieved. "The auspices can't be read now. Go back inside. Put on clean clothes and go see your mother.” His father turned to the priest. "I'll see that you're taken back to town."

The old priest bowed his head. "As you wish, Atticus Publius."

The two men turned their backs on Marcus and walked toward the villa, their breath steaming in the morning air.

Marcus walked over to the altar, puzzled that his father's anger about the interrupted rites had so quickly cooled.

A wisp of smoke rose from the smoldering grain in the center of the altar. Next to the grain lay the body of the sacrificed lamb. Though the sheep’s flesh was pink and fresh, its shrunken liver was black with disease.

These were the auspices for his marriage to Cornelia, the daughter of his father’s closest friend. By arriving late and unclean he had, to his father’s relief, negated the rites. The lamb and its ominous message meant nothing now.