Category Archives: Short Story

Elysium

Elysium2

Precursor

Chapman describes, in blank verse, how Odysseus, washed up on the island of Calypso, and finds where:

”A grove grew
In endless spring about her cavern round
With odorous cypress, pines and poplars, crowned,
Where hawks, sea owls and long tongued bitterns bred,
And other birds their shady pinions spread.
All fowls maritimal: none roosted there
But whose labours in the water were.
A vine did all the hollow cave embrace,
Still green, yet some still-ripe bunches gave it grace.
Four fountains, one against another, poured
Their silver streams and meadows all enflowr’d
With sweet balm-gentle and blue violets hid,
That decked the soft breast of each fragrant mead.”

John Keats wrote his poem ‘On Looking into Chapman’s Homer with a similar leap of the heart’

Now my story…

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Elysium

Leading Seaman Johnson’s ears were roaring when he recovered once again from the stupor of days adrift on a life raft. His ship had been torpedoed by a Japanese submarine east of the Philippine Islands ten days before. The emergency rations and water lasted three days and he lasted two more days in the blazing sun before losing consciousness.

He had been recovering degrees of consciousness and slipping back into oblivion so often that he had lost all sense of time except that he was aware of the rotation of light and sunburn, and cold and darkness. He was in one of the states of unawareness when he realised that the surging and crashing noise he could hear was the sound of breakers. He let go and slid back with profound relief on the raft into the slumber of utter fatigue.

He half awoke to find himself being carried in somebody’s arms. Before slipping back again into a wave of nausea he thought that at least he hadn’t landed on this tropical shore only to be eaten by a komodo dragon. What might have been hours later he began to perceive light through half-opened eyes and felt the warmth of soft flesh on his face. He felt like a baby, perfectly secure while energy seemed to pervade every cell of his body. He breathed deeply and slept.

When he next woke he found to his astonishment that he was being suckled by a woman. He withdrew his mouth not knowing whether to continue or pretend to be sorry for a misdemeanour.

‘I feel like a baby’, he said. The woman had been waiting for him to speak. ‘Don’t worry’ said her soft voice. ‘You need sustenance, take it from me’. The speaker was the most beautiful woman Johnson had ever seen. Golden red hair, pale skin and clad in a loose white robe; she shone with kindness. He dropped into sleep again.

This infantile pattern continued for some days until Johnson could stay awake and look at the woman and at his surroundings. He was in a cave hung with flowers and strewn with herbs just above the beach.  He was lying on a raised bed, nothing more than a ledge protruding from the rock wall. He asked ‘Where am I?’ The woman who had been watching him came over and knelt beside him. ‘You are safe here on my island. Slowly you will get better as you imbibe from me. Like ambrosia it will give life to you’. And so it was to be but there were a thousand questions that Johnson wanted to ask. ‘All in good time’ said the soft voice.

The daily suckling continued and Johnson felt better than he had ever felt in his life and he made some exploratory steps in and around the cave. One morning she said to him, ‘I have to leave you for a little while I go to bathe. You will be perfectly safe but when I am away you must never follow me’. At this time Johnson knew that he was not yet strong enough to follow even if he wanted to. He contented himself with wandering around the area outside the cave and kicked around in the leaves and bushes there. One day he found a long bone and with horror recognised a human femur, then scraps of blue cloth, a couple of tarnished brass buttons and more bones.

He hurried back and fell on his couch full of apprehension and fear. Who was she, what was she, and what did she live on? When she returned she sensed, with that unerring instinct inherent in women that something was wrong. She sat down beside him and said ‘I need to tell you about myself. My name is Miomene and I am an immortal nymph of the woodlands. Aeons ago, longer than your human mind can envisage I was exiled to this island by our father Zeus’.

Johnson was mystified. ‘Olympian gods! I thought they were just myths, things that mankind made up’.

‘They have always existed since before the world, even the universe began’, she said, ‘It’s just that mankind constantly reinvents them in shapes that suit the particular age’.

‘But why so cruel as to exile you here. What did you do wrong?’

‘I must not tell you why but I have been here on this tiny island ever since and nobody except unfortunate sailors have ever been my company. I have nurtured them, and cared for them over the years’.

‘But why did you breast-feed me?

‘You would have died without it. I imbued you for a short while with my immortal nature, a rescue remedy against your intense fatigue. Soon you will crave for human food and you will forage and find it here on my island’.

‘And the bones in the undergrowth out there?’ he asked.

Miomene paused and pensively replied ‘There were others before you. Being mortal they could not live forever even with my divine nourishment. I can restore a fading life and give a little longer time than is permitted to mankind but I cannot make them immortal’.

Johnson’s curiosity was not completely satisfied and the desire to find out the place where she went came upon him so that one morning he determined to follow her even though he felt disloyal. Keeping her at a distance he saw her walking until she disappeared from his sight long enough for him to creep upon her. First he saw the robe thrown carelessly over a bush. He could see no sign of Miomene only a creature like a huge amoeba bathing in a stream. He ran back to the cave frightened beyond measure.

Miomene returned now in her former beautiful form and knew he had disobeyed her. ‘You have followed me. Are you satisfied now that you have seen me as I really am? I shall not harm you’, she breathed.

‘But why the disguise?’

‘How could I do differently?’ she asked. ‘You were dying and you needed me and I brought you back to life in the only way open to me. If I had appeared to you in my true form, would you have accepted nurture from me then?’

‘But this Greek god business. I thought all the gods on Olympus were supposed divinely to be divinely beautiful as I see you now.’, said Johnson.

‘Ah, the gods! It is in their nature to manifest themselves in forms that you humans would like them to have. Your Jehovah-like god would appear as a burning bush because that was what Moses had been taught by his culture to expect as a divine sign. Sometimes they have manifested themselves as great warriors, spirit animals, rivers, and eruptions from volcanoes’.

He thought about this carefully and asked ‘Well, what about your manifestation to me?’

‘There is in every man’s deepest mind an ideal of perfect womanhood. You are simply seeing the perfect form that you have in your mind. You are seeing what you would like to see. I have done nothing except draw it out of you as I did when I divined your language’.

‘What about the other castaways, the human remains out there?’

‘My sea husbands come, I love them, they die and I mourn them.

‘Don’t they ever get’ he paused to get the right word, ‘don’t they ever get er, rescued?’

‘Sometimes ships passed by and they would light a fire to attract attention to the island and so be rescued as you put it. When they are safe on board they look back and see nothing of me and the memory of their stay with me fades. Yet in later life, perhaps while sitting alone in a pleasant garden on a summer evening, they will look up pensively as if trying but never succeeding to recapture a beautiful dream.

There were some who hid from the ships choosing to stay with me until they died. You may perhaps have to make the choice yourself one day but until then you will find yourself living in complete happiness with me’.

‘But what about you, Miomene, when they were rescued? What if I should go away or die as I must?’

Miomene gave a long sigh.

‘I have no choice but to exist until Zeus should relent’.

Harry Wells

Comments and critiques welcome

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Herr Bauer’s Holiday

Devil's Footprint

Foreword
Herr Bauer’s Holiday is about two people who, by force of circumstance, were obliged to be far apart and to keep silent over decades in ignorance of each other’s continued existence.
However, good fortune brings them together in a way the relationship might be reborn.
It is a work of fiction sprinkled with some events in my life mentioned in the prologue below.

Prologue:
There is a town called Oisterwijk in Noord Brabant, a region of the Netherlands. It was occupied along with the rest of Holland in 1940 after the Germans bombed Rotterdam. The catholic convent, Catharinenberg, is still there in Poirterstraat and during the occupation it was used by the German army as a field dressing station and medical supplies depot. The Leather Factory was commandeered by the Germans from the Jewish owners, Adler and Oppenheimer, for use as the Wehrmacht Food Office, called by its acronym, WVA.
Stationstraat, Dorpstraat and Kerkstraat are streets in the centre of Oisterwijk. I remember Oisterwijk fairly well as I was seconded there for a couple of months during my days in the Royal Air Force in Germany.
The Frauenkirche, Our Lady’s Church, in Munich, is one of the largest catholic cathedrals in Bavaria. There is a legend that when the Frauenkirche was being built in the 14th century the devil made a contract with the master mason. He would not blight the church so long as there were no windows in it. He stood on one leg to watch the building take shape. The mason cheated the devil, hiding the windows by cleverly placing columns along the sight line from where the devil watched. When the devil found out about the deception he disappeared in a plume of flame leaving a burning footmark in the tile where he had stood. This can be seen today and is known as the Devil’s Footprint. I used the name of my Dutch friend, Albert de Groot, for the hotel but all other names of characters are imaginary.
Herr Bauer’s views on religion reflect my own.

Herr Bauer’s Holiday
Lorenz Bauer had always promised himself a holiday if his father should die. A more than modest inheritance in the old boy’s will was now enabling him to take it.

He alighted from the train at Station Oisterwijk in Brabant, Southern Holland and reminded himself that this was to be a holiday in pursuit of nostalgia not penitence. ‘Just history chasing’, he called it. It wasn’t as if he had a lot on his conscience about the war days anyway. He’d just been an ordinary soldier, a Wehrmacht corporal driver in the Transportkorps attached to the Wehrmacht Verpegungs Amt, the Headquarters of the Army Food Office in Oisterwijk.
‘I neither killed nor maimed’, he often told himself though sometimes he felt that he might be guilty of having abetted those who did because of his role in supplying and feeding them. But ‘befehle ist befehle’ was his watchword. ‘Orders is orders’, to use the common military colloquialism.

As he walked down Stationstraat towards Dorpstraat he knew he shouldn’t expect to be familiar with the town after all these years but he was surprised at the extent to which the town centre had changed. This would be the result of post war reconstruction made necessary by the allied air raids. However he found the Hotel Albert de Groote in Dorpstraat had resolutely withstood the bombs though not a change in ownership. There had been just a few superficial changes to the exterior and the place gave him its old feeling of physical and mental comfort living beside the sad knowledge that old Moshe, whose hotel it was, must surely have perished in the holocaust and his daughter Rachel with him.

The hotel lobby had that redolence so typical of hotels in Brabant, an ambient aroma of cigars and gin. The reception desk was unattended when he arrived. He thumped the brass bell for attention and within seconds the manager bustled in. ‘Ah, good morning, Herr Bauer. I’m sorry. You’ve caught us on a change of shift, the afternoon receptionist hasn’t got here yet’, he said. He examined Bauer’s passport very carefully, flicking through every page and thought ‘Here’s another Bosche soldier come to glory in his military misdeeds’.

‘I am Jan Deboik, the manager. Did you have a good journey?’ and without waiting for an answer he went on ‘Your room is number twelve on the first floor and here is your key. I hope you will be comfortable. Please let me know if you have any problems. Dinner is at seven’. Bauer thought Mynheer Deboik had been rather cool with him.

After a shower and a change of clothing Bauer went downstairs to speak to the manager. He noticed that the receptionist was now on duty in the shape of a young man whose appearance struck Lorenz forcibly. Tall, with blonde hair he looked the archetypal Aryan; a member, Bauer thought, a little ashamedly, of the Herrenvolk. But then, everybody knew that the Dutch were a superior racial type to the rest of Europe excepting only the Germans. Even the Reich hadn’t wished to alienate the Dutch too far. Some father must be very proud of such a son.

Brooding on his own childless state he thought of Ulle, unhappy Ulle, he used to call her, his protestant wife of two years. After his disgrace in Oisterwijk and his repatriation to Germany during the war Bauer met Ulle on the rebound after Rachel and contracted a marriage that made them mutually unhappy without there being any throwing of knives at each other. Their union started on the crest of a wave that receded leaving too many incompatibilities on the matrimonial shore.

Bauer, the good catholic even if a lapsed one, wanted children and thought he had a duty to be a father. Ulle said, ‘Times times are too uncertain to bring up a child.’ He didn’t blame her and he never saw her again after she went to live with her sister in Berlin. He didn’t blame himself either and the divorce gave him no problems. He cynically reminded himself that Catholics don’t mind divorce. It’s remarriage that brings the threat of burning and in any case he didn’t want to start any new liaisons.

Failing sight ran in the family; Bauer himself was at that time already beginning to show the early symptoms. His father’s blindness had been increasing. He had known that he would be fully occupied in looking after his old man as time went by. He would have no time to seek a new wife.

As Bauer sat in his hotel room reminiscing about the old days in Oisterwijk, he knew that he must go and see the old leather works, the huge building requisitioned by the Reich where he worked at his post with the army food office and where he had first seen Rachel Pereira, a Jewish woman who was called in when a translator was required. If an urgent translation was necessary he’d be detailed to collect her in his lorry. He had been surprised to note that she was fair and blue eyed and totally unlike the stereotypes of Jews portrayed in the Fatherland. ‘Jewess or not she was she was pretty’, he told himself.

Rachel had, of course, no reason to trust any German though this was before the real crackdown on Jews in Holland began. Bauer found her attractive and gradually wore down her withdrawn behaviour. He thought about her constantly, looked forward to seeing her and realised with a shock that he had become infatuated with her. He would invent trivial ways to call for her language abilities, her native Dutch and almost perfect German.

Lorenz Bauer knew he had to take great care, however. Orders were that troops were not to fraternise even with Dutch women and with Jews it was unthinkable. The trouble was, he thought, they make them so damn beautiful and he was young, single and away from home. His lorry was often seen around the town on official duties and drew no attention when he began to call at the Hotel on errands of a private nature.

She was, she told him, the daughter of the owner of the Hotel Albert de Groot in Dorpstraat. Like all civilians she and her father were finding the times hard because of food and other shortages imposed by the Germans. They felt they were lucky in still retaining the ownership of the hotel especially as they had heard that in Germany Jews were forbidden from any business activities.

In wartime Oisterwijk there had been, from the beginning of the occupation, a flourishing black market operation. Lorenz Bauer’s official job of transporting goods from the railway station to the convent and the Leather Works put him in a perfect position for wheeling and dealing with the civilian population.

Medicines and food were in short supply in Oisterwijk. Bauer was able to do a good deal of unauthorised fetching and carrying in this lucrative triangle. Mainly his role was one of doing favours, a quid pro quo between soldiers who then sold essentials to civilians for whatever they could offer in the form of jewellery and gold not excluding services of a more personal nature.
Even the CO was not averse to a sweetener from time to time. Lorenz found it easy to get a few essential supplies for Rachel and her father. After all it would do no harm for him to ingratiate himself with a woman he fancied. Rachel never asked for anything and the old man showed no acknowledgement of these gifts. He did something far better as far as Bauer was concerned. He turned a blind eye to a member of the Bosche canoodling with his daughter.

Bauer’s motives in seeking the company of Rachel were not at first laudable but as time went on he found himself falling in love with her. ‘Me’, he thought, ‘falling for a bloody Jewess’. It was shortly after he had fallen into this state of grace that became a truly reciprocal love, that Bauer met with his undoing. His black market activities were discovered by the military police though there was no mention of favours to the Pereiras in the charges made.

Hauled before the commandant Bauer found him very reasonable about it all. Of course he had to be. He’d received too many cases of champagne and other high class sweeteners through Bauer’s good offices to be anything else.

‘Well, Private Bauer!’ barked the commandant. Bauer thought it unwise to tell him that he was a corporal though he had guessed the commandant’s drift. ‘We live in difficult times subject to the stress of being here away from the homeland and family. So, I’m going to forgo the formality of a court martial’. Bauer thought, ‘Well, you would, wouldn’t you? The Commandant went on, ‘However, I have to show that justice seems to be done. I am sending you back to Germany for infantry training. Now get out of here and pack your kitbag.. The troop train leaves in twenty minutes. Make sure you’re on it’.

Bauer thought ‘Oh, God! The bloody infantry!’ Still, it was better than he’d expected. He been thinking he was likely to get an immediate despatch to the Russian front. Who knows, the war might be over before his footslogging course was completed. Well, it could be if he could swing the lead a bit while he was on it. What worried him far, far more was leaving behind his beloved mistress.

Back in war torn Munich Bauer was assailed by that weapon of the Catholic Church: the early implanted but ever glowing ember of guilt. This time it was about Rachel with whom there was no safe method of mutual contact. He went to the Frauenkirche where he made confession to Father Brandt.
‘We live in difficult times’ the father began. ‘Here we go again’ thought Bauer. The father continued, ‘My son, the temptations of the flesh are hard to overcome and concupiscence is the usual result for a young man. Here is your penance. You must put this woman out of your mind and you must block memory of her by saying ten Hail Marys every time you think about her. But remember, my son, she is only a Jew’.

After leaving the confessional Bauer stood in the church, one foot in the devil’s footprint, a foot in both camps so to speak, stunned by the Father’s last words. He just could not reconcile himself to them though he knew they were typical of the German catholic attitude towards Jews in Nazi Germany. Here was the beginning of his apostasy.

At the Hotel Albert de Groot Bauer left his room and made his way downstairs. The appearance of the young man in reception again drew his attention. ‘That’s a smart young fellow you have in reception’, said Bauer to the manager masking his interest as a throw-away remark. He looked at the youth thinking that to have had such a son would have been so good. Tall, strong and fair, such a Teutonic appearance. He was too good for that job.

‘Yes. He’s bright alright; I’ll be sorry to lose him. He won’t be able to do that job much longer though’, the manager told him. ‘Surely not a management problem?’ a surprised Bauer asked. ‘No, nothing like that. He’s losing his sight’ said the manager.

A thought that was not yet a thought, not yet formed into words, an almost unnoticeable oscillation of a memory cell, stirred in Bauer’s mind. He shrugged and pulled himself together, ‘What I wanted to ask you about was the old leather works and the convent in Poirterstraat’; he told the manager, ‘Are they still there?’ The manager replied, ‘Oh, see the lad in reception. He studies these old buildings’. Lorenz Bauer turned away towards the reception office and heard the manager call out ‘Lorenz!’ Bauer spun round in astonishment and faced the man.
In Germany people are very touchy on the use of first names. Only long-standing friends would do so and even then the more senior in status would have to make the proposal to refer to each other in this way. However, he saw immediately that the man was not addressing him but was looking at the reception desk. ‘Lorenz! There’s somebody here wants to ask about the old buildings’.

Bauer met him half way, ‘So, you know about the old places then’ he said. ‘Yes, I do’ said the boy in his stilted German. ‘You see when I am boy during the war Mother tell me how my father in the German army work in the Catharinenberg. Always she tells me she is still loving him very much after all these years and Mutti never married. He was kind man who loved her but I never am meeting him. You see my father is sent back to Germany and it is never possible to hear from him again. The war, you know’.

Bauer felt as if his head would burst, his heart beating fast like a drum. ‘Lorenz, please tell me your family name’, he said in a hoarse whisper, ‘Oh, it is not common now in Nederland. It is Jewish name and is Pereira’. Bauer was hit by realisation that he had come here to chase his past and his past had chased him and won the race.

He grabbed the back of a chair for support before almost falling into it. The last cog in the wheel had slipped into place. ‘Lorenz, I have many questions to ask you, many things to share with you and your mother’, he whispered in anguish. Father faced son and though this was no confessional box, no smell of old incense pervading a musty curtain, Lorenz Bauer prepared himself for his annunciation.

Ginny Tickler

Rose Petals on Water
England. Nineteen forty three.

She had a wheelbarrow
A plain square box
With long wooden handles
And bicycle wheels.

She had a beautiful face and a woolly hat
Fourteen, sweet, innocent and mute.
In the words of the era,
She was not all there.

She collected vegetable parings
A war-time measure to feed pigs.
When she saw children playing
She would stop and wait and smile.
Always on the edge, looking through
An invisible barrier at a fairy story.

Boys would tease though not hurtfully
The girls would say, ‘No! Leave her alone’.
They understood more.
Once only, I touched her finger tips
As through a sheet of glass.
And loved her across the divide.

She went home one dark afternoon,
Taking a short cut by the canal towpath.
They found her body face up in the water
Surrounded by floating potato peelings
That should have been rose petals.

Will she be there with other angels
In a place where the curtain has been lifted,
The haze removed and clarity reborn
I hope so. There are things I need to tell her.

Harry Wells

Comments welcome

A Fable

 Rowan Tree

The Covenant

The rowan tree stood between a gnarled apple and an errant hazel in what had been, at one time, an orchard. Later, left to its own devices, the orchard tried its best to revert to the wild but in time became appropriated into part of the large back garden of a small stone house. The rowan, the mountain ash, had been planted by Alan’s grandfather and was now surrounded by a wooden seat built by Alan in his youth as a first project in woodworking.

His granddad, now nearly at the end of his term of life had advised him, told him the about the joints and the most appropriate wood to use. Alan fifteen and full of strength expected to finish the job in a day and became irritable if things didn’t go right straightaway. Granddad advised caution.

‘Alan’, he said ‘You’ll never make a good job this way. You must address yourself to the materials lovingly. You see, this piece of wood never wanted to be a seat. It was quite happy being a tree. And yet such is the nature of trees that it will have no resentment against your use of it. But let it know that you have none either and it will co-operate with you’.

Alan had thought his granddad was going a bit dotty and didn’t think too much about what he’d been told and got on making the seat.

‘Anybody would think the tree was a person’ he thought. Yet, somehow he never forgot what Granddad had told him. From time to time he would sit under the rowan and often Granddad came to mind.

‘It’s funny! Here I am sitting under the tree like I did with Granddad so many years ago’. He closed his eyes and it came to him that they were like three old friends, Granddad, the tree and him.

‘Hold on’ he smiled, ‘Who’s going dotty now?’

When he married, Alan told his new wife about the tree in that almost forgotten part of his garden, told her with affection and reverence about the seat.

‘It’s a lovely story’ said Alice, ‘Let’s go and sit down on your seat now’. And sitting there became the habit of a lifetime. On warm summer evenings they would talk about how they had each spent their day and plan for the future.

Five days after the birth of their daughter they took her down to be introduced to the rowan. They laid her small palms against the trunk and, unbeknown to each other, made a wordless prayer on her behalf, a communion of togetherness and mutual respect. They were silent, walking back to the house, each feeling a little embarrassed yet fulfilled.

As she grew, Silva, for this was the baby’s name, played around the rowan and sometimes danced a slow gavotte bending and casting old dry leaves into the air, singing a ditty and looking upwards through the leaves. At other times she would talk, half to herself and half to the tree, about school, her friends and little problems such as occur to teenage girls. One day, while doing her homework under the tree she leaned back against the developing trunk and wondered what the rowan’s personal name might be. His leaves rustled and murmured a name to her only. He was called Luis he whispered, one of the ancients’ names for the rowan tree.  And at that very moment the tree chose her; chose for him to be her spirit helper through life.

One year the rowan bloomed early. At first the blossom was no more than a trace, a delicate shade of pink that later became a flush of warm red among the foliage. There, one soft summer evening under the canopy and beneath a sliver of crescent moon, the maiden felt the first stirrings of womanhood within her.

There came the time when Silva, now a young woman, took her new husband to introduce him to Luis and he smiled gently and understood. They sat together under the canopy and held hands as they did most evenings that first summer. Sitting there one evening Silva looked up just as a gibbous moon found a window in the cloud cover. She placed her husband’s hand on her belly and together they felt the first kick of a new life that was to come a few moons later.

Wrapped in a linen shawl embroidered by her grandmother Silva took her baby to the tree, like her mother had done, and renewed the covenant. As she walked back to the house a green shoot from the rowan’s last year’s fruiting that had been blown a zephyr’s breath away burst out of the soil. Luis opened the leaves of the canopy and let through the moonglow and the seedling opened its tiny leaves to the soft light.

The cycle of regeneration was complete until the next turn of the great wheel of birth, renewal and growth.

Harry Wells
Comments welcome