Monthly Archives: February 2016

105. Leap Boy For President

After a month and a half of seriousness, it’s time to celebrate with a bit of total nonsense, and what better time for it than a day that only comes every fourth year.

Once upon a time – 1952, I think it was – there was a kid who was born on Leap Day.

His Dad was named Alan Hed, and he wanted to give his son the same name, but his wife had a quirky sense of humor. She told the nurse to call the boy Leap, as in Leap Alan Hed. When he was really young, his dad called him Alan and his mother called him Leap, but when he got old enough for school, his kindergarten teacher – who was a mean bastard, anyway  – called him Leap A. Hed. That brought about a sudden parent conference and after that the dad got his way, and the boy tried to forget that his first name was Leap.

People wouldn’t let him forget, and finally he gave in and refused to answer to a Alan any more. He went further. He decided that if he was going to be the boy with all those nicknames:

Leap Boy
Leap Frog
Leap for Cover
Leap Forward
Leap Back
.  .  .  and of course, still, interminably, Leap Ahead  .  .  .

.  .  .  if he was going to have to put up with all those stupid names, he was going to go all the way. I refused to celebrate his birthday on the twenty-eighth of February or the first of March. He only celebrated it on February twenty-ninth.

Worse, he counted his age by birthdays. When he was sixteen, he started putting his age down as four. He spent a lot of time talking to the principal about that, but they finally got tired of the whole business. You might say he out-stubborned them.

He couldn’t out-stubborn the draft board. When they said he was eighteen and he said he was four, they didn’t buy it. He claimed discrimination under the Civil Rights Act. He might have made it all the way to the Supreme Court, but when the 1969 draft lottery was held, February twenty-ninth drew number 285, so the draft board dropped the case.

After that his life calmed down. He never married (he claimed he was too young) and the IRS was indulgent. They figured he would regret his claims when he wasn’t eligible for Social Security until he was 260 years old.

Unfortunately for Leap – or Leap Boy, as the media started calling him – some joker heard about his claims and put him up for President in 2016. It caught fire. Saturday Night Live had a field day with the notion. Blogs sprang up all over the country in his name. The Leap Boy Theme Song (set to the tune of the old cowboy song Take Me Back to Texas, I’m Too Young to Marry) had eight million plays on U-tube.

Donald Trump denounced him. He said that if Leap claimed to be sixteen years old, that made him ineligible to be President.

Unfortunately some jokes get out of hand. On November eighth, after a massive write-in campaign by people who surely didn’t really expect to succeed, Leap Alan Hed was voted in as the forty-fifth president of the United States.

Oh, well. Could he be any worse?

I guess we’ll never know. At last report, he has fled to Canada, where he is seeking asylum under an assumed name.


Voices in the Walls 23

Chapter four, continued

Sayer had built a stone boat, a stout wooden sled that the mule would pull. He hitched the beast and we set out across the stubble of the wheat field, picking up all the stones from the size of a grapefruit to twice the size of my head. Those bigger or smaller we left behind. After three loads, Sayer sent me on my own while he stayed behind to build another section of the foundation using the stones we had gathered.

I was glad to be alone. Ben Sayer was about fifty, but he had done heavy work all his life and he was as fit as the mule was. He hardly talked at all. I was trying to keep up with him, and trying to keep him from seeing how hard it was. The double burden was killing me.

When noon came, I was glad to knock off. Sayer had built a quick fire out of chips from the timbers he had squared earlier, and was heating coffee in a tin can. It went down well with cold ham and corn bread. While I was eating, I looked at the job Sayer was doing. He seemed to be a first rate mason as well as a carpenter.

It was a long afternoon. Ben Sayer stayed at the site, building up the foundation while I brought him stones.

I was tired from travel and tired from my labors. More than that, I was feeling lost. I had been ripped out of my carefully planned life, to find myself working like a field hand under a negro who would have been a slave if he had been at Waterside. Logically, I could plot every step of the change; but emotionally, it made no sense to me. I was disoriented and angry, and there was no one at whom I could aim my anger.

That was about to change.

When I returned with my last load of stones, Sayer said, “It’s getting too cold for the mortar to set right. Let’s unload and call it a day.” It had been clear and cold, but now clouds had gathered and November was really showing its teeth.

We started up the road toward Aunt Rachel’s house, with Sayer leading his mule. Off to our right I could see a substantial house and barn that Sayer said belonged to a family named Trostle. Aunt Rachel’s barn site was at the edge of the timber, but here the road passed between open fields. Two horsemen were coming from the Trostle house across those fields, riding at a proud trot to cut us off. The lead rider jumped the shallow ditch at the side of the road and stopped in the road in front of us; his companion came up behind us. They were both dressed in rough clothing; the one in front had a sheepskin jacket, standing open, with a revolver in a holster belted high up on his side. The one behind us had a carbine in a saddle sheath.

The man in the sheepskin jacket said to me, “We’re looking for some escaped slaves. You seen ’em?”

I shook my head. “We’ve been working on that foundation back there all day, and haven’t seen anybody until you came along.”

He turned to Sayer next and said, “How about you, Boy?”

“No, sir. Just been working all day. Didn’t see nobody.”

“You got papers?”

“Don’t need papers, Mister,” Ben Sayer replied. “This is a free state and I’m a freeborn man.”

“How do I know that?”

104. Mud 3

Here are the last two of six installments of the novel Mud.

Could I walk away from Renth a thousand miles, and become fully a man? And if I died trying, how much worse could that be? There was nothing to tie me to Renth. My last sibling had died of the cough, I never knew my father, and my mother was a walking skeleton who would not last much longer.

I would become a warrior, secretly. I would train my body. I would find a hiding place in the swamp where no one would see me and practice at arms as I has seen the warrors do.

It was not easy, and it did not procede quickly. At twelve, I was responsible for a full day of work every day, in the streets night and morning, in the fields most days, and cleaning out my master’s cesspit every third day. Chamarana are not slaves, exactly, but the difference from a slave’s point of view, or a Chamarana’s point of view, would be too small to notice. It took weeks of time snatched from sleep to find a clearing in the swamp that was far enough away to be hidden but close enough to reach quickly when I could find a free hour.

My body responded slowly. I was young and strong, but to become stronger requires effort, and effort requires food. A hungry warrior is a weak warrior, and I was hungry all the time. I could not steal food from non-Chamaranas – for a Chamarana to touch food that has been blessed by a priest after leaving the fields where the Chamarana grew it would pollute the food. That affront to the dignity of non-Chamaranas was punishable by death.

I was too proud to steal from my fellow slaves.


I learned to hold a wooden sword as I had seen warriors in the common. I learned to swing it; then I weighted it, to be more like a sword of steel. My forearms screamed in pain. I sweated, and panted for breath, and at times fell to my knees too exhausted to rise.

I vented my anger on unoffending reeds and on the knotted limbs of the rybhal tree. I learned of the shock to the joints that comes with every blow. Then I would stagger back to my sleeping rags under a tree on the Renthian side of the Renal. The next morning I would force myself awake and go through my day’s work with gritted teeth, unwilling to show any sign exhaustion.

Three years passed and I had gained some skill when I was discovered.


Here the story ends, for now. Unlike Voices in the Wall, over in Serial, I can’t tell you what will happen next because I don’t know.

Some stories come from the head, some from the heart. This one came from the gut. I only feel what will happen, I do not know. I have ten single spaced pages of notes which may become an outline, but I don’t know yet which of several paths the novel will take.

If that seems strange to you, so be it. It is part of the reason it takes me so long to write a novel.
Monday, some silliness after six weeks of serious posts.

Voices in the Walls 22

Chapter four, continued

Father put me to work in our shipyard for a couple of months one time. I wasn’t there long enough to become very skillful, but I swung axe and adz long enough to develop some callouses.”

Aunt Rachel smiled and said, “I have been wondering how to let you earn your keep. There aren’t enough chores around here to keep you busy this time of the year, and I am sure that Sarah is all the help I will need in the house. How would you like to help Mr. Sayer build that barn for me?”

Sarah didn’t look like she relished the idea of being left alone with Aunt Rachel to work all day, and I didn’t much like being paired off with Sayer. Since he wasn’t a slave, I really wouldn’t know how to treat him. I said, “I’m not sure I know enough about building a barn to take one on by myself.”

Aunt Rachel’s eyes were dancing with mischief. She said, “Oh, no, you wouldn’t be. Mr. Sayer is a master carpenter. He will teach you everything you need to know.”


The son of a true southern gentleman would have been so insulted that he would have stalked out of the house. The trouble was, Father was not a true Southern gentleman. For three generations – I would have made it four generations – the men of my family had gone to sea, and the sea widens a man’s horizons. The local customs which seemed like God’s word to our neighbors, were less holy to us.

The upshot of it was that I couldn’t think of anything to say. Saying nothing let Aunt Rachel have her way, and an hour later I was walking along the road, dressed in work clothes two sizes too big for me that had been Uncle Alan’s before he died, on my way to build a barn with a negro as my boss.

(No reader would buy this if groundwork had not been laid.)

I wondered what Father would have said.

The place where Aunt Rachel had chosen to build was on the edge of a wheat field about a half mile east of the main house. I could see the rocky prominence of Little Round Top across Plum Run Creek. 

Ben Sayer had already done a good deal of work. He had dug a trench for the field stone foundation, and had completed more than half of it.


I grew up on a farm, where you built anything you couldn’t afford to buy. It might not be professional; it might not even be that good, but if it didn’t fall over, it was good enough.

I took shop class in high school and eventually became a pretty good self-taught woodworker. I’ve lost track of how many bookcases I’ve built. I’ve never had the opportunity to build a house, but my wife and I rebuilt a shed into the heated and insulated building I’m sitting in as I write this post.

Decades ago, I discovered the Woodwright’s Shop on PBS and spent a lot of time studying old fashioned building techniques, including timber framing.

My point? Nothing is ever wasted to a writer. If you haven’t written about it yet, you will eventually.

103. Mud 2

Here are the second two of six installments of the novel Mud.

Merchants never came to the common; the diversions of that place were beneath their station, but their soldiers, herdsmen, clerks, and servants flocked there every evening to take their crude and colorful pleasures. A grown Chamarana would be beaten if found there, except after midnight when they went to clean the grounds, but Chamarana children hung from the trees and hid in the bushes to watch the excitement.

Mostly, I watched the women.

I could always look at Chamarana women, working, always working, in their thin, torn clothing, washing themselves naked in the Renal, or relieving themselves in the bushes. There was no part of a woman’s body that was not familiar to me.

This was different. These women were soft and rounded. Their breasts were not flat. They were clean, powdered, and perfumed. They were beautiful; more important, they knew they were beautiful, and showed that knowledge in every graceful movement. They walked across the common, swaying their hips with a half-smile that said, “I know you are looking. Go ahead. Enjoy.” It was a pleasure to watch them walk. It was a burning torch in the heart to watch from concealment as they shed their clothing and opened their legs to their lovers.

As a child, I could look. If one of the men caught me they would kick me and laugh and let me run away. But in a year or so, when I was just a little older, they would beat me unconscious for daring to look at a woman who was not a Chamarana. So I looked, and looked, and then looked again.


When I was surfeit with watching the women, I would watch the warriors at play. It was practice, of course, with blunted weapons. Often enough it left them bruised and bloodied, but they enjoyed themseves so hugely, that it looked like play to me. And why not? They were powerful men, with bulging thighs and masses of muscle in their arms and shoulders. Their bodies spoke of plenty of exercise, plenty of food, and plenty of rest. Our lean, slat-like Chamarana bodies spoke of little food, unending work, and rest that rarely came.

If I had a body like that, I thought, I could have women like that. But it wasn’t true, because I was Chamarana.

If I weren’t Chamarana . . . but that was a dream that couldn’t even be dreamed.


In the summer of my twelfth year I quit going to the common. I had been beaten twice in one month, and the second beating had left me unable to move for three days. Clearly, I had grown too old to be tolerated there.

Never again to look upon a beautiful woman – it was too much to bear.

The world is wide, and only Renth has Chamarana. I had heard this from the mouths of foreign sailors in the common, when I was young enough to listen from hiding. If I were a sailor, I could sail away. If I were a warrior, I could ride away. But I was Chamarana, and all I could do was carry away the waste too foul for a man to touch, grow food for others to eat, become leaner every year, and die.

Voices in the Walls 21

Chapter Four

I woke to the smell of coffee. The room was cold; the chimney to the kitchen fireplace passed up my wall on its way to the open air, but no one made a fire in it any more. The water in the basin by my bed was like ice. I splashed my face and dressed hurriedly in the darkness, determined to be up and about. I did not intend my Aunt to think I lay in bed all day.

When I got downstairs, she was nowhere in sight, but I could hear her speaking softly to her chickens outside. I joined her; she was feeding them by the light of a coal oil lamp. The sun was just beginning to stain the eastern sky with faint pink. We spoke softly in the pre-dawn darkness and our breaths boiled like smoke in the chilly air. When she moved to the barn, I offered to milk her cow, but she said the old girl would give more milk to a familiar pair of hands.

Sarah was sitting at the table when we came back in, but I couldn’t really say she was awake. She was staring at the wall with her chin in her cupped palms. Aunt Rachel put her to frying bacon, and this time she watched over her shoulder and caught her before she burned it.

Breakfast was a quiet meal. Sarah was in a bad mood. Aunt Rachel’s thoughts were far away, and I felt like an intruder in her home.

We were clearing the table when I heard the sound of slow hooves outside the kitchen window. It was a negro leading a mule. Aunt Rachel went to the back door and invited him in. He paused in the doorway when he saw Sarah and me, and Aunt Rachel told him who we were, then said, “This is Benjamin Sayer. He lives down the road south of here.”

She told him to have a seat and set a cup of coffee in front of him. It gave me a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. For the first time since I had met Aunt Rachel, the North seemed like a foreign country to me. I knew that there were free blacks in the North – in fact, there were a lot of free blacks in the South as well – but to see one sitting down at the table like this, and to see Aunt Rachel serving him coffee just like he was white . . .; well, it just did not seem natural.

Since I was a guest in Aunt Rachel’s house, I tried to hide my feelings. The negro seemed pretty uncomfortable himself.

Aunt Rachel fell into a conversation with Sayer about a barn he was building for her on an outlying piece of property. She noticed that I had taken an interest in what they were saying, and asked, “How much do you know about building barns?”

“Father had me spend a week with the overseer one summer watching one go up. I know how it is done.”

“But you couldn’t swing an axe or adz yourself?”

“I didn’t say that. Father put me to work in our shipyard for a couple of months one time. He said I needed to know ships from the keel up. I wasn’t there long enough to become very skillful, but I swung axe and adz long enough to develop some callouses.”


And so we begin Matt’s education into new ways of thinking.

102. Mud 1

Here are the first two of six installments of the novel Mud.


They call me Mud, but don’t be fooled. It is a greater insult than it seems.

The word is Wauk and its symbol is embossed on one of the counters of the runeboard. As it is from the Godtongue, it has entered every language. In the Inner Kingdom, so a traveler once told me, it means the basic stuff from which all the world is made. Not so in my city.

In Renth, mud is that stuff into which all foul things come to rest. Blood and feces, urine and menses, all come back to the earth at last. A Renthian merchant will not say the words for those things – he hardly admits that his body produces them – and so he says wauk, thus staining a good word.

My people are Renthian, but outcasts. We are the Chamarana, who live in the swamp, and carry away those unpleasant things that the nobles will not speak of. I was born in the mud and of the mud. The smell of the mud was the first thing in my nostrils. My mother smelled of mud; most of my siblings died of the mud’s contagion.

The Chamarana breed freely and die early. It is a joke to the merchants. But those of us who survive, grow strong. And angry.



The river Renal curves sharply just as it nears the Inner Sea. Renth is built on the high right bank between the river and the sea. Overflowing waters in spring cover the lowlands off the left bank, forming a vast inland swamp. We Chamarana live at the edge of the swamp, and enter Renth only to do our work.

Every morning the tichan are driven out of their pens down the main avenue of the town to the swamp to graze. Every night they return to the safety of the pens, and twice a day we Chamarana with our crusted buckets and wooden scoops go out to clean the road after their passing. Dumped onto the fields at the edge of the swamp, and composted carefully into the stronger waste from the merchants cesspools, it fertilizes the crops we raise to feed Chamrana and merchant alike.

When I was five years old, I was given a scooop and put to work alongside my mother. When I was eight, and could lift a bucket, I began to work alone. But no one works the day round, not even a Chamarana. My mother had only enough energy for her work and to care for my little sister. She had none left for me, so I was free when my work ended to head for the common.

The land which stood above the highest floods was packed tight with warehouses, dwellings, barracks, and shops belonging to the merchants. On the land which flooded yearly, we planted our crops. Above the fields, we built our temporary huts, and rebuilt them every time the Renal rose higher than ususal. Between merchant’s houses and Chamarana huts lay the common.
more tomorrow

Voices in the Walls 20

Chapter three, continued

I held in my hands a piece of family history. My great grandfather had fought in the Revolutionary War on board a privateer out of Charleston, and his part of the prize money had made him wealthy. Afterward, he had never quite trusted the ability of the new American government to keep order, so he had had this pistol made by a Williamsburg gunsmith as a wedding present for his bride. It was .36 caliber, small for the day, and he had required that it be compact enough for a lady to conceal in a purse or in the folds of her skirts. It had been built as a flintlock, with twin, side-by-side barrels.

When their son, my grandfather, entered the Navy, Great-grandmother Williams gave it to him to carry. It was two carefully aimed shots from this pistol that had stopped a charge by Tripolian pirates during a small boat action off North Africa, saving my grandfather’s life and the lives of his crew.

After Grandfather married and retired to Waterside, he gave the pistol to my grandmother. She had carried it with her whenever she went riding in the countryside, and when her son, my father, had gone out in the coasting schooner Eva, she had had it converted to percussion caps and had given it to him.

It had gone from husband to wife to son for three generations until my mother, with her Quaker repugnance for guns, had refused to take it from Father. He had taught me to shoot using this gun, and now he was passing it on to me for the protection of my sister. It was more than a weapon. It was a touch of my father’s hand across the miles, and a trust passed now into the fourth generation.

With reverence, I took the pistol out of its place in the box and examined it. As always, it was in perfect condition. I took the horn and filled the measuring cup with powder, poured it down the right barrel, then again down the left one. Two bullets wrapped in greased patches of cloth went into the barrels and were rammed carefully home. Two percussion caps went onto the nipples and I lowered the hammers carefully to half-cock.

I closed the case and put it into the bottom of my carpetbag, then hid the pistol at the back of a small drawer of my dresser, behind paper and pens where Aunt Rachel was unlikely to look.

I was asleep within thirty seconds of hitting the bed.


My interest in all things maritime led me to read the Hornblower books when I was young. My interest was captured by the sailing of the ships, the strategies, and issues of leadership, but I also had to put up with sea battles and all the unpleasantness that makes up the reality of war at sea. I never cared for that part of the books, although if it had not been there, they would have sounded quite hollow.

In Lord Hornblower (as I remember; I don’t have a copy handy), Hornblower’s new wife gave him a pair of double barreled pistols fitted with then-new percussion caps. As he examined them in his cabin, he realized that that they might mean life itself in the coming conflict.

I was intrigued by the idea of the gift of a firearm as a gift of life. Later, when I was writing Voices, I dredged it up and placed in into this multigenerational context.

Voices in the Walls 19

Chapter three, continued

“Oh,” she said, “you do have your Father’s temper after all! No, Matt, I don’t feel that way any more. I hate slavery as much as I ever did, but not slave owners.”

“Father has always been a moderate. He would see the slaves returned to Africa, if there were a way to do it. His attitude has almost cost him his seat in Congress several times.”

“I know that. I know and respect your father, but he still holds human beings in bondage and I don’t hesitate to tell him that he is wrong. So we fight, whenever we see each other. So we avoid seeing each other, because we don’t want to fight.”

Aunt Rachel broke off the conversation, and suggested that I look around a bit outside. I took the hint. Her home had been invaded almost without warning by two strangers, and she wanted to think things over in private.

I wandered around for a few minutes, peeking into the chicken coop, locating where she kept her tools, and finally paying a visit to the two horses she kept in a small corral beside the house. Then I returned to the barn, pulled the handcart up to the back stoop, and began the task of taking Sarah’s trunks up to her room. She lay under a quilt, snoring softly, and did not wake though I made four trips.


Sarah was still sleeping at supper time. I had to shake her awake, and she went right back to bed after the meal. I think the tension of being moved to a new home once again, right after she had gotten used to Mrs. Davison’s school, had hit her as hard as the ride north.

The second story of Aunt Rachel’s house was split by a hallway, with two bedrooms on each side. Aunt Rachel slept at the front of the house and used the room opposite hers to store blankets and out-of-season clothing. The remaining two rooms were given to Sarah and me.

I stored my clothing in a battered chest-of-drawers and shoved my carpetbag under the bed. If I was going to stay here where I would have to do farm chores I would have to buy some rough clothing in Gettysburg. I had taken only a minimum of clothing to Mr. Harding’s house in Baltimore because I had expected to be in uniform within another month.

Finally I opened the paper wrapped package I had laid on the bed. Inside was a small mahogany box fastened with brass. I opened it and looked at the pistol in its velvet lined resting place.

I held in my hands a piece of family history.


I have spent a lot of words describing Aunt Rachel’s farmhouse, many more than I normally would. The shape of the house and the placement of the rooms is of importance for events that will occur a few chapters from now, when Sarah hears voices in the night. They are the voices of escaping slaves, hidden in a secret room in the basement of the house, which is a station on the underground railroad.

Those voices are part of a double-barreled crisis that will catapult Matt into a new and massively changed life.

101. Mud, prolog

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I don’t claim to be an Emerson, but I am going to shake things up. When I began this website, I intended Serial to be a presentation of my writings and A Writing Life to be mini-essays. This will be my largest deviation from that intention, because Serial is tied up with the fragment Voices in the Walls.

For five weeks I have been writing posts on issues that began with race in America and morphed into a consideration of world wide hierarchies based on race, gender and caste. I’ve written enough essays on that subject, but I have some more fiction to share.

I spent five years studying caste in India and overseas Indian colonies, and wrote my first master’s thesis on the subject. That is the kind of deep knowledge that informs everything I write, even when the subject seems to be something else. While writing a dragon short story (The Best of Lies), I needed a description of the city of Renth. Renth was part of the back-story of three novels I have written, but had never been fleshed out. This is what fell out of my keyboard.

As we went on up the mountain, I thought of Renth. I remembered how she spread out on both sides of River Renal from the crowded waterfront to the first fingers of the great inland swamp. I remembered how herdsmen drove in their herds of tichan every evening to keep them from the night predators. All of the sidewalk vendors would close up shop and congregate on the rooftops until the sound of passing-bells carried by the herdsmen proclaimed the streets safe again. Then the chamarana would come out with their crusted baskets to clean the streets and haul the manure to fertilize their rich gardens.

There are temples in Renth where Encaritremanta is still worshipped instead of the bloodless Septs, and where the ritual dancers proclaim to the world that the Fern of the Deep Forest is still fertile and ripe. There is Bread Street where the bakers from the whole city congregate and the smells are sweet beyond description.

In the morning, the sun falls slantwise on the whitewashed houses, catching the sleepy merchants in their rooftop boudoirs. The boys from the waterfront crowd onto the high roofed warehouses to look across the city at first light when the women take their baths. And some of them look back, insolent and insulated by their station, posturing and laughing and waving.

The chamarana in this bit were Chamars, borrowed whole from India. Later, when I needed a long story to flesh out a too-short novel, and needed it to be set in Renth, I began to consider writing from the viewpoint of one of these outcastes.

This was just before I began this website, when everything was fluid. I considered writing the story and publishing it in short segments as they were written, in Serial. It was a foolish idea, completely out of step with my writing style. I wrote the first six short segments, fell in love with the story, and decided to write it in a more normal fashion. It is on my short list of what-to-write-next.

Here are those segments, to be presented two per day for the rest of the week. It isn’t Black History, but you’ll find that it tastes a little like black history. The novel is tentatively titled Mud.