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Essay | Peas by Alice Dunn

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Peas

One of the stand-out gardens at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show appeared to replicate the pea in its structure. ‘The Seedlip Garden’ had a circular pool, round stepping stones, and a ‘Peavillion’ housing a collection of articles about peas. This garden got me thinking about, well, peas, and the little-observed role they’ve played in our culture.  

One of the most historic vegetables, the pea probably originated in Asia and was grown as far back as 7000 BC. The Greeks had ‘pisoi’ and the Romans introduced ‘pisum’ to Europe. Peas were widely used in Roman cookery: there are nine dishes which call for peas in Apicius’ fifth-century Roman cookery book.

But it is Catherine de Medici we must thank for rekindling a popular affection for peas in the sixteenth century. When she married Henri II of France in 1533, she is said to have brought her favourite foods from Italy with her to France. These included peas, or ‘piselli novelli’. Dried peas soon fell from favour and everyone began to eat petit pois. Garden peas may also have been introduced to Britain through a royal connection: Charles II would have known petit pois during his exile in France and their appearance in British kitchens post-date the Restoration. Indeed, such was the pea’s continued prevalence in France that King Louis XIV is recorded to have observed that: “The young princes want to eat nothing but peas!” And neither, it seems, did he. Petit pois were his obsession.   

The pea has also played a pivotal role in science. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian monk, discovered the laws of genetic inheritance by crossing yellow peas with wrinkled peas in his garden in Moravia and experimented on more than 28,000 pea plants over seven years. His results were published in 1866 and laid the foundations for our understanding of genes and the way they are inherited (he coined the terms ‘recessive’ and ‘dominant’).  

Just before that, and on the other side of the world, US President Thomas Jefferson was busy with his own, non-scientific experiment with peas: he regularly competed with his neighbours to grow the first crop. He decided to stagger his planting so that he would be able to enjoy 15 different varieties of fresh peas from May until July. 

Peas scuttle through literature and art. A pea is the focus of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale ‘The Princess and the Pea’; Edward Lear sent ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ to sea ‘In a beautiful pea-green boat.’ When under the spell of the love potion in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, Titania dotes on Bottom (who has the head of a Donkey) and offers him nuts to eat, but he replies, ‘I had rather have a handful or two of dried peas’. In the Brothers Grimm story, Cinderella’s step-sisters ‘did their utmost to torment her – mocking her, and strewing peas and lentils among the ashes, and setting her to pick them up.’ 

Shelling peas, in contrast, is the tender subject of paintings and sketches by Whistler and Van Gogh. The Mannerist painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo used peas in his famous vegetable portraits of people; his work ‘Rudolf II as Vertumnus’ has peas in a curved pod serving as eyebrows. 

Less beautiful, but no less worthy of discussion, are London’s pea-souper fogs which once swallowed our city. The Oxford English Dictionary cites Herman Melville for first using the term ‘pea-soup’ to describe the weather. He wrote in November 1849 in his ‘Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent’: ‘Upon sallying out this morning encountered pea soup London fog.’ Henry James found the smoke in London particularly depressing and noted that when he looked out at ‘The pea-soup atmosphere of Piccadilly, I feel like taking to my bed.’  

Incidentally, should peas pop up in conversation, a lexicographer will probably tell you that a pea (the use of the word has been recorded from 1666) is an example of a back-formation (‘a word that is formed from an existing word which looks as though it is a derivative, typically by removal of a suffix.’) of the older word ‘pease’ which also meant ‘a pea’ but was understood to be the plural. When John Lyly penned the phrase ‘as lyke as one pease is to an other’ in a novel in 1580 he probably did not predict that it would still be widely used today in the form of of the favourite expression: ‘like two peas in a pod’.  

Chasing the last few peas around the plate is enough to make anyone feel pea-brained, but perhaps reflecting on their history can make the process slightly less maddening.  

By Alice Dunn.

Fiction | The Sinners’ Corner by Mark Sadler

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I returned to work on a dismal Tuesday morning, emerging from the main entrance of London, Fenchurch Street, railway station under opaque grey skies. During my extended absence, the shopfronts of the old city had been divested of their brightly-coloured festive decorations. Gone was the red tinsel foil and shiny burgundy-coloured baubles garnishing the window display of Charlie Davies’ Tailory in Leadenhall, where a fortnight before they had rekindled the glare of the spotlights in the warm emulsified tones of a log fire, dimly reflecting in the contents of a wine glass. Absent this brightening influence, the winter streets, and the overcast faces of those who paraded up and down the cold grainy pavements, appeared to have been permeated with the stark greyness of a new year that was yet to form an identity of its own.

I walked the full length of Eastcheap, easily matching my pace with that of a large truck that crawled along beside the curb. Men dressed in florescent jackets were hauling dessicated Christmas trees from the lobbies of office buildings and pitching them into the bin that occupied the back of the lorry, where they piled-up haphazardly, like a small, densely-wooded hill.

The working day was marred by the sounds of a demolition that was underway in the churchyard of St Mary’s, across the road from my place of business. Every so often, a chorus of men’s shouts, emanating from the site, would build to a collective heave, heralding the imminent crashing of one of several large, and already fractured, panels of glass, as they were dropped into the yawning mouth of a skip. The sound grew more jarring on the nerves as the day wore on, and elicited alarmed inquiries from clients on the other end of the phone, who assumed that it had originated in our office.

The object of the ground clearance was a glass-walled building which had briefly occupied a disused corner of the churchyard, before collapsing suddenly during the early hours of Christmas Eve. In the short time that it stood, it had vaguely resembled a small chapel with a sharply-peaked, spired roof that incorporated a slight twist a few feet below the tip. The modernity of the design made it an incongruous neighbour to the medieval place of worship that it shared common ground with, which was a square-towered, 14th century stone church, belted around the midriff with a dark band of knapped flint.

The purpose of the new structure was altogether less sacred. During its fleeting existence it had housed a small shop, the purpose of which was to raise funds for the church. Space had also been made on the premises for three pop-up retail units that were intended for rental. Prior the collapse of the building, these had accommodated a stall selling resin-cast snowman-shaped lamps, another specialising in cushions embroidered with expressions of seasonal goodwill, and a refreshment stand, peddling Christmas cake and a non-alcoholic mulled beverage that was ladled from a large cauldron.

As a further addition, some narrow wooden sheds had been erected temporarily along a new fixed-gravel path, leading from the gate to churchyard, up to the entrance to the chapel. These were occupied by Christmas-themed shops and were liberally decorated with blue fairy lights.

When the weather is good, I will sometimes eat my lunch on a south-facing bench in the churchyard. A few months after the demolition of the glass chapel, I happened to make conversation there with one of the volunteers who help to manage the grounds; a man named Gordon Booth. Before his retirement, he had worked as a stockbroker in the city.

It was early March and I recall that clumps of daffodils had sprung up against the walls of the old church. Booth sat down next to me and made an appreciative remark about a large tree close-by, with a broad spread of branches that were speckled with emerging bright-green foliage.

“William Blake claims to have seen angels roosting in the boughs,” he said. “There is a short walk called the Angel Path that you can take through this part of the city, that visits all of the places where he witnessed the heavenly host watching over London. We have a pamphlet on it in the church foyer if you are interested. Occasionally, on the weekends, one of us will provide a guided tour for small groups. The next one is on the fourteenth. If you would like to come, I could add your name to the list.”

I passed some comment about avoiding London at the weekends. This seemed to ruffle his feathers a bit. I attempted to mollify him by asking whether he had ever laid eyes upon any angels during his comings and goings at the church.

“Ha! It was Dickens, wasn’t it, who described London as a city of devils. But I have seen some strange things,” he said.

I steered the conversation towards the glass chapel. The business around it seemed to be of interest to him and he became a great deal more animated.

“That whole enterprise had the air of money lenders in the temple. It upset a lot of the established congregation, myself included. A handful of people who had worshipped here for years left in protest and haven’t returned.”

He leaned forward and fixed me with a milky blue-eyed stare.

“The problem is that we do need the dosh.”

I asked him whether the cause of the collapse had been identified.

“It was very odd. Nobody knows quite what to make of it.”

After I pressed him for further information, he furnished me with a recent history of the church. The area of the grounds where the glass chapel stood had not been a part of the original churchyard. The plot had been expanded, during the 1860s, to incorporate adjacent land to the south. The additional space was required to accommodate human remains disinterred from nearby churchyards, that had been cleared to make room for the Midland railway.

The newly acquired land had previously been occupied by illegally-constructed dwellings that were in a dilapidated and tumbledown state. After the slum housing was cleared and the ground had been reseeded with grass, all but a small part of it was consecrated by the Bishop of London. The exception was an area in the southern-eastern corner. It seems that, following the removal of the old buildings, an excavation had uncovered elements of an unholy altar; something ancient and pre-Christian. A man from the British Museum examined some carvings on one side of it and passed on his report to the church authorities. Evidently what was written down in this document was sufficient for that part of the site to be deemed an unsuitable spot for Christian burials. It was instead designated as a place of final rest for those who had been executed at Newgate Prison. These unfortunates were buried in unmarked graves and any record of who they had been in life was withheld from the parish ledgers.

“Murderers I suspect. Wicked men,” surmised Booth.

He reached into the pocket of his jacket and removed a package of sandwiches, so tightly-wrapped in cling-film that they had been rendered oddly shapeless. He carefully opened it on his lap.

“When we eventually managed to wrangle planning permission for the new shop, one of the conditions was that it be located a fair distance from the church – I forget the exact figure, but it effectively banished the building to the sinners’ corner.

“Well, all of the marked graves in that part of the yard were cleared after the war so that wasn’t a problem, but nobody had ever investigated the Newgate plot. We hadn’t the faintest idea of what was down there.

“The church commissioned an archaeological survey. They uncovered twelve bodies in total, all adult males, all apparently buried without coffins. Given these circumstances, there was some interest as to how their skeletons had remained intact and had not been scattered throughout the soil.

“We re-interred the bones in a single grave on the north side of the yard and marked the spot with a simple memorial. The reverend Cowcher said a few words over it. Something about restoring long lost souls to the sight of God.”

He took a thoughtful bite from one of his sandwiches.

Construction had commenced on the glass chapel in July. I remember watching from my first-floor window across the street, as small protests assembled on the pavement adjacent to the church railings. Placards bearing bible quotations jostled for prominence, and occasional choruses of My Faith is like an Oaken Staff and Onward Christian Soldiers would rise above the background traffic noise, commencing with great fervour before gradually thinning out, only to recover some of their earlier strength in the final verse, at the behest of whoever was leading the group.

“Things started to go funny after that,” said Booth. “Not ha-ha funny. Just unusual.”

When he was not immediately forthcoming I prompted him:

“What kind of things exactly?”

“It was small at first. One of the ladies who helps to clean the interior of the church tripped on something in the yard and cracked her skull on a headstone. She said, as she fell, she thought she saw something like a blanched tree root protruding from the soil. We had a good look around, but we never found anything.

“Then there was the elderly gentlemen who jogs in the area every morning and used the churchyard as a shortcut between King William Street and Woodengate. On one particularly foggy day he swore blind that something that felt like a set of bony fingers had gained a tight hold on his ankle. He said that it spread a chill up his entire leg. When he reached down to free himself, there was nothing there. He still goes out for his morning run, but he goes around the churchyard now.

“The worst of it was one of the pupils from the convent school. She arrived at the school gates one morning, quite beside herself. Something in the graveyard had absolutely terrified her. They could never get from her exactly what it was. The police were summoned and the entire area was searched without any success. In the aftermath, we held an emergency meeting to discuss whether criminal background checks should be made on the builders who were working on the chapel, and how best to broach the topic with the contractors. In the end there was a lot of dithering and nothing was done.

“While all of this was going on, the churchyard was undergoing subsidence. The first we knew of it was when one of the old stone vaults tilted a full six inches on one corner, apparently overnight. This continued until, after a few weeks, it looked as if some large creature had rampaged across the yard on a diagonal course, starting from the north side and heading towards the chapel, knocking the grave markers askew as it went . We contacted the council and asked them for details of any underground works that were in progress. Of course there were none. We had a man come to survey for foxes or badgers. He found no surface evidence of any animal activity but suspected some form of tunnelling.

“A few days before the glass chapel collapsed, the ground under one of the temporary sheds abruptly sunk down a few inches and the whole thing toppled over. It pulled half of the fairy lights down with it. I suspected that the chapel was listing slightly, the day before it fell, but I didn’t say anything. Thankfully it happened at half past one in the morning when nobody was inside.”

“It seems to me that your resident angels have been remarkably lax in keeping unquiet spirits at bay,” I said.

“Well that’s the thing. In January we had some surveyors visit from the insurance company. With them came a few of the people who had worked on the original survey. They dug down around what remained of the chapel. A few feet beneath the turf they began to uncover the skeletal remains of twelve adult men. If that wasn’t a chilling discovery in and of itself, it was their positioning that was truly strange. They were standing upright, crowded together, with their arms stretched out and raised above their heads. The bones of their hands were pressing under against the underside of the concrete foundation. One of the archaeologists recognised a distinctive in crack in one of the skulls. She swore that it was identical to an injury on one of the skulls that she had helped to exhume the previous Summer, and then witnessed being re-interred on the opposite side of the churchyard. There was some very reluctant talk of unsealing the new vault where we had buried those remains. In the end we called a vote on it. Everyone was in agreement that it was best to leave things as they were.”

In the wake of this revelation a stillness seemed to fall across the churchyard.

“Anyway,” said Booth after a long pause. “It seems that the occupants of the old plot, whoever they may have been, were rather attached to their quite corner of the churchyard away from the sight of god, where the soil was steeped in their own wickedness. They resented their eviction from it and wanted it back. They clawed their way across the graveyard and came up underneath the chapel like sharks intent on capsizing a small boat. Old Cowcher has taken to referring to them as the jury; twelve angry men, unanimous in their judgement.

“I have to visit that part of the yard every so often to clear away the weeds. I always feel distinctly unwelcome there, as if there are multiple presences lurking just outside my field of vision, glowering at me with barely-restrained malice. I do not linger any longer than I have to. There is something very strange about the way the shadows fall there. Some have no physical counterparts while others seem to be portmanteaus of objects that, as far as I can ascertain, do not exist.”

His gaze settled on the stiffly swaying boughs of the large tree ahead of us, where the poet, William Blake, had once borne witness to a gathering of the heavenly host.

St Mary’s church has returned to drawing revenue from more restrained fund-raising activities. No attempt has been made to reinstate the glass chapel. The corner of the yard where it stood is a gloomy, unattended quarter, cast into permanent shadow by the surrounding buildings. Since hearing Booth’s tale I have given the area closer scrutiny and have noticed that very few people set foot there.


By Mark Sadler 

Short Story Competition 2017

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UPDATE: EXTENDED CLOSING DATE 
The competition will now be open for entries until November 15th.

Autumn is just around the corner, which means The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2017 is upon us.

The London Magazine has published short stories by some of the most well-respected literary figures over the course of long history. Our annual Short Story Competition seeks out new voices to join them. Established to encourage emerging literary talent, the award provides an opportunity for publication and recognition, as well as rewarding imagination, originality and creativity. The London Magazine is looking for unpublished short stories, maximum 2,500 words, from writers across the world. The story that wins first-place will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine. The second and third place stories will be published on our website. Prize winners will also be invited to a reception in early 2018.


Information:

Entry fee: £10 per short story (there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st September 2017
Closing Date: 31st October 2017

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200


Judges:

Supplied by Tibor Jones

Jason Cowley became editor of the New Statesman in 2008.
He has also been editor of Granta Magazine, the Observer, and staff feature writer on the Times.
He is the author of a novel, Unknown Pleasure (Faber & Faber, 2000), and a memoir, The Last Game: Love, Death and Football (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
In 2009 and 2011, he was named editor of the year in the Newspaper and Current Affairs Magazines category at the British Society of Magazine Editors awards.

 

 

Robert Peett studied Philosophy at University College London, then undertook postgraduate work in Political Philosophy at the London School of Economics. After a brief spells abroad he then worked in the art world for many years, dealing primarily in British works of art on paper.
He returned to researching, writing, and teaching and eventually set up Holland House Books in 2012.

 

 

Richard Skinner is a writer working across fiction, life writing, essays, non-fiction and poetry. He has published three novels with Faber & Faber, three books of non-fiction and two books of poetry. His work has been nominated for prizes and is published in eight languages. Richard is director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy.

 

 

 


Submission:

As of 1st September, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable here:

submit
Alternatively, you can download the Short Story Prize entry form 2017 to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)

Important:
Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
If you have any questions, please contact Emma at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.
To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter.
Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

Short Story Competition 2016

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This competition is now closed.

Thanks to all who entered. The longlist, shortlist and winners will be announced over the next few months. Keep checking our ‘Competitions’ section and sign up to our newsletter for updates.


Autumn is here, which means The London Magazine‘s Short Story Competition 2016 is upon us.

The London Magazine has published short stories by some of the most well-respected literary figures over the course of long history. Our annual Short Story Competition seeks out new voices to join them. Established to encourage emerging literary talent, the award provides an opportunity for publication and recognition, as well as rewarding imagination, originality and creativity. The London Magazine is looking for unpublished short stories under 4,000 words from writers across the world. The story that wins first-place will be published in a future issue of The London Magazine. The second and third place stories will be published on our website. Prize winners will also be invited to a reception in early 2017.

Entry fee: £10 per short story (there is no limit to the number of entries you can submit)

Opening date: 1st September 2016
Closing Date: 31st October 2016
Deadline Extended To: 14th November

First Prize: £500
Second Prize: £300
Third Prize: £200


Judges:

Erica Wagner is an author and editor. For 17 years literary editor of The Times, and twice a judge of the Man Booker prize, she is now Lecturer in Creative Writing at Goldsmiths, University of London, a contributing writer for the New Statesman and consulting literary editor for Harper’s Bazaar. She is the author of Gravity: Stories; Ariel’s Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of Birthday Letters and Seizure, a novel. Pas de Deux/A Concert of Stories, co-written with storyteller Abbi Patrix and musician and composer Linda Edsjö, tours around the world. First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, has just been published by Unbound, and her biography of Washington Roebling, chief engineer of the Brooklyn Bridge, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2017.

Max Porter

 

Max Porter is an editorial director of Granta and Portobello Books. His authors include Han Kang, Eleanor Catton, Ben Marcus, Sarah Moss and Caroline Lucas. His debut novel Grief is the Thing With Feathers was published in 2015. It won the International Dylan Thomas Prize and will be translated into 23 languages. He lives in South London with his family.

 

Angus CargillAngus Cargill is Editorial Director at Faber & Faber, where he was worked since 2000. He edits and publishes writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Sebastian Barry, Jane Harris, David Peace, Nadeem Aslam and Lucy Caldwell, as well as non-fiction authors Peter Pomerantsev, Nick Kent and Barney Hoskyns. He also runs Faber’s crime list – which includes Peter Swanson, Chris Pavone, Laura Lippman, Stav Sherez and Alafair Burke, among others – and has published a number of graphic novels, by Emily Carroll, Craig Thompson and Adrian Tomine.

Read The London Magazine’s interviews with the judges here.


Submission:

As of 1st September, you’ll be able to apply via Submittable here:

submit
Alternatively, you can download the Short Story Competition 2016 Entry Form to fill in and post with your entry. (N.B. There is no need to complete an entry form if entering via Submittable)

Important:
Please read our competition rules carefully before entering.
If you have any questions, please contact Abi at competition@thelondonmagazine.org.
To receive competition updates and all the latest news and offers, sign up for The London Magazine‘s Official Newsletter.
Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates!

 

The Daylight Comes With Me by John Darwin

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Jay Mantri

Leave the world alone and close the door,
seal this room from everything outside,
nothing else exists but these four walls;
we have eight hours and five minutes to decide

Drape your charm around me and yourself,
chide and choke the past and stop the clock,
charm and calm the chaos from my mind,
the terror. What we’ve started cannot stop;

Catch the tears and salt sweat from my brow,
clasp each moment’s passing, breathe it in,
the stomach churns as daylight comes with me
and I go back to her

and you to him.

 

By John Darwin

Poem provided courtesy of Write Out Loud  www.writeoutloud.net 

The Veil by Manash Bhattacharjee

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She walks past the wave
Of curious glances
An apparition eluding
Light and desire
Everything she hides from
Trembles in her body
She remembers the lures
In every street
But no street will ever
Remember her
Only the walls and the mirror
Engrave her silence
Her memory remains buried
Among blind objects
Certain mornings she discovers
Eyes with no face
Or a face wearing someone
Else’s eyes
Certain afternoons she wonders
Why custom demanded
That her body be torn from
Its glare
One night she picks up the pen
To draw alphabets
Appearing to her as eyes

Manash Bhattacharjee
New Delhi

Syria by Ghayth Armanazi

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SUFFER THE COUNTRY

Suffer the curled up corpses of the tortured
Suffer the cluttered ranks of the bound and the beaten
Suffer the pleading eyes of those to be slain
Suffer the insanity of the bullet, the tank, the gunship
And the firebreathing jet
Suffer the shredded streets and the destroyed dreams
Suffer the stretching legions of the bereft and tormented
Suffer the terror-stricken and the destitute massed into heartless refuges
Suffer the geostrategist heads of abattoirs seeking their pounds of flesh
And their share of the carcass
Suffer the unpitying despot and the holy warrior
Suffer the theft and wreck of an eon’s inheritance
Suffer the cowardly soulsearchers and the mendacious handwringers
Suffer the glib wordiness of the actionless purveyors of sympathy

TAKE HEART THE COUNTRY

Yet, take heart from the millennia of priceless History
Take heart from the passing of countless invaders and tyrants
Take heart from a nation sewn from a galaxy of threads
Take heart from a people forged in the conquest of adversity
Take heart from a heritage of inclusion and embrace
Take heart from the majesty of Palmyra and the spirit of Zenobia
Take heart from ageless Aleppo and eternal Damascus
Take heart from those who gifted humankind the alphabet
Take heart from the builders of Canaan and the founders of Carthage
Take Heart from the saga of St Paul and the glory of the Ommayads
Take heart from the rise of the Phoenix from its fabled soil.

Ghayth Armanazi

Child of Vengeance by David Kirk

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Excerpt from Chapter One

The battle was over, but still Kazuteru ran. He had duty to fulfil. The young samurai ignored the howling of his lungs and the ache within his muscles and bore forth his sacred burden: a dagger the length of his hand. His Lord awaited it at the top of the valley.

It had rained all day yesterday and most of the morning too, an anomaly in the high summer. The sun shone bright now, but too late. Hundreds of feet and hooves had trampled the sodden slope and churned it into a swamp. Kazuteru’s armour and underclothes, which had once been a brilliant blue, were now a mottled grey, and his legs were heavy with plastered clay and turf.

His hands alone were clean, protected as they had been under gauntlets and gloves. Bared, the flesh had remained immaculate enough to hold the dagger. But the humidity and the layers of metal, cloth and wood he wore had made his entire body slick with sweat. It stung his eyes and he could taste it on his lips, and when the ground gave suddenly beneath him as he ran, he felt it on his hands also. His wet palms fumbled, and the dagger slipped from his grasp.

The blade caught the light as it fell. It winked white once at him, and then plunged into the slimy dirt and vanished with a sad little sound. Kazuteru let a smaller, sadder whimper escape him. His waiting Lord had a thousand swords and spears with him already, but they would not suffice. They were not ceremonial and pure. The dagger, which had been, was now sullied.

He fell to his knees, and plunged his left hand into the muck. It vanished up to his wrist. He began to grope blindly, hastened by desperation but slowed by fear of the blade’s edge.

Something to his right moaned suddenly, a pained voice so pitiful that it stopped Kazuteru. He saw a man twisted where he had fallen, one leg so shattered and bent that his toes almost touched his hamstring. The samurai had no mind left for words; his eyes pleaded Kazuteru to kill him, and for a moment he thought to oblige.

But then Kazuteru realized that he wore the red of the enemy, and for that he left him. The man’s agony was but one voice in dozens.

Hundreds.

His fingers touched blunt metal. He pulled the dagger free, and filth came with it. Kazuteru tried to wipe the blade clean as best he could. Once when he was a child – too young to know about sacrilege – he and his friends had hidden a small cast-iron Buddha in an ox’s feed just to see if the beast was too stupid to notice. It had been, and three days later they had found the Buddha again. Looking at the dagger now, he was reminded of that serene, shit-smeared face.

Water. He needed water.

But there was none here, save for that which had soaked into the ground; this was where the fighting had been. There was no time to return to their distant camp, where he had just run to collect the blade in the first place. The only place he could look was up the slope, towards the valley top they had stormed not one hour ago.

He began to run towards the hilltop once more, skidding and stuttering in the mud, dagger in his filthy left hand with his right hand held high and free of any contamination. Ahead of him, overlooking the entire valley, Lord Kanno’s castle burned. One of the smaller curved roofs groaned loudly, and then collapsed inwards. A ragged cheer carried on the distant breeze, and a fresh billow of black smoke erupted into the sky.

There, in the corner of Kazuteru’s eye – a mangled man lying against a barricade of bamboo stakes, seemingly drunk as he fumbled about himself. His numb hands were trying to put a canteen to his lips. Clear water dribbled from the mouth of the ray-leather bladder, catching the light.

Kazuteru hesitated, his conscience caught, but it was clear the man was beyond any help that water could possibly bring. He squelched to his knees beside the samurai, and tried to take the canteen. The man held on stubbornly.

‘I need that water, friend,’ said Kazuteru gently.

‘W’tr?’ mumbled the man, his eyes distant. Still he tried to remember how to drink, still his hands corpse-tight upon the canteen.

‘Our Lord Shinmen requires it,’ said Kazuteru.

‘F’r Lord Shinm’n,’ the man said. Out of instinct alone, he obeyed that name and released his grip. His eyes closed, some- thing that wasn’t blood or water bubbled out of his mouth, and then he died.

Kazuteru muttered his thanks to the man’s departing soul as he began to slowly pour the water on the dagger. It was not quite enough, one clod of black mud remaining. There was nothing else to do but stick his tongue out and lick it clean, and then he knew the taste of the battlefield. He spat, and then the dagger was as clean as it was going to get. Back it went into his pristine right hand, and then he ran once more.

Child of Vengeance by David Kirk is published by Simon & Schuster in hardback on 7 March 2013.

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