April 29, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/37)

The description of Sokou at the beginning of the chapter conjures up the image of an other-worldly Venice of the North.

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April 26, 2023

Serpent of Time (excerpt)

Chapter 1

The Gilded Cage

The Emperor of Japan, hallowed as a direct descendant of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, was little more than a prisoner of the state.

Since the fall of the Fujiwara and the rise of the samurai in the year 1185 (according to the Christian calendar), the emperor’s only real duty was to anoint as Sei’i Tai Shogun the warrior who had defeated all contenders, and then each of his chosen descendants as long as the clan held onto power.

Aside from the occasional holiday to a provincial castle town, he might spend the entirety of his life within the walls of the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. As first defined by Prince Shôtoku, his “occupation” amounted to studying the Confucian classics and patronizing performances of traditional court music and Noh. And fathering heirs.

An emperor who wished for more freedom could always abdicate. But whatever his status, he depended on the financial support of the shogun to make ends meet.

The first shogun, Minamoto no Yoritomo, moved the political capital to Kamakura, far from Kyoto and the waning influence of the court. The Kamakura shogunate lasted until 1333, when a triumvirate of warlords led by Ashikaga Takauji overthrew the regime and briefly reinstituted imperial rule in the person of Emperor Go-Daigo.

Almost from the start, disenfranchised samurai campaigned to reinstate the status quo. Tasked to put down the festering revolts, Takauji instead captured Kamakura and declared himself shogun. In less than a year, he eliminated his two co-conspirators, seized Kyoto, and installed Go-Daigo’s cousin on the Chrysanthemum Throne.

Emperor Go-Daigo refused to surrender. He fled south and established the “Southern Court” on Mount Yoshino. For the next sixty years, he and his three successors reigned (though only nominally ruled) in defiance of the “Northern Court” pretenders.

Finally in 1392, Ashikaga Takauji’s grandson forcibly reunited the two imperial houses, eliminating this ongoing challenge to the legitimacy of the Ashikaga shogunate.

No sooner had that fire been quenched but a long-simmering feud between the Ôuchi and Ashikaga clans erupted into open hostilities. From his stronghold in the port city of Sakai, Ôuchi Yoshihiro raised his battle standards and reached out to past supporters of the Southern Court.

The year was 1399 and Ashikaga Yoshimitsu was not about to let history repeat itself.

Chapter 2

Serpent in the Storm

Princess Ryô traveled by palanquin to Hikone Castle on Lake Biwa. She was accompanied by Sen, her lady-in-waiting, a handful of attendants, and a company of mounted samurai.

The soldiers were not there to protect her. They were there to remind her that she was the last child of the last emperor of the defeated Southern Court. She could go nowhere and do nothing without the permission of the Ashikaga shogun.

In the past, her escorts were only annoying. This year she felt like she’d flitted from one luxurious prison cell to another. She came to Lake Biwa to escape the stifling Kyôto summer nights. There was no escaping the stifling presence of Hatakeyama Koreya, the captain of her guard.

He shadowed her every move like a surly babysitter, telling her where she could go, what she could do, and when she could do it—in a manner suggesting that she should be grateful for his firm and guiding hand. Even shackled with bells and bewits, a falcon could fly free for a spell. Ryô sought every opportunity to do the same.

One day in the early afternoon, her retinue having retreated to the cool of the castle keep and the soldiers sleeping off the boredom, Ryô snuck down to the dock. The main pier was reserved for the castle lord’s junk. The elegant craft was finely trimmed and finished with polished paulownia wood that shimmered in the noonday sun.

A single skiff was moored to the adjacent pier. She’d never piloted a one-man skiff before, but, really, how hard could it be?

Ryô untied the bow line and climbed down from the dock. After an unsteady moment balancing herself against the thwarts, she sat in the stern seat and pushed off with the paddle.

“Ah,” she said aloud, more than a little pleased with her getaway.

The skiff glided across the water. The pine forests blanketing the mountains painted a landscape mural across the far horizon. A true Zen moment. She was at one with the world and the world was totally leaving her alone.

To the north she could make out the green knob of Chikubu Island. The island was home to Hôgon-ji temple, devoted to the worship of Benzaiten, the goddess of good luck. Ryô could use a bit of good luck these days. Perhaps she could importune the castle lord to ferry her and Sen there on a day trip.

It soon became clear that keeping the skiff going straight required oaring skills she wasn’t going to master anytime soon. Rather than fight her incompetence, it was easier to let the boat turn a wide arc through the bay and back to the dock.

A dark shadow swept across the lake, chasing a cool breeze. Ryô pulled the paddle out of the water and stared at the towering cumulonimbus rising above her. The crests of the billowing spires were snowy white. The flat base of the anvil cloud was almost black.

She watched with wide eyes as it narrowed into a funnel. “Look!” she said, forgetting that Sen wasn’t sitting there behind her.

A flash of lightning. Thunder shook the air. Ryô clapped her hands over her ears. The paddle plopped into the water. Without thinking, she reached for it. The skiff tilted far over. Water sloshed over the gunwales. She rose to a shaky half-crouch, grabbed the sides of the skiff, and leaned hard the other way.

Princess Ryô!

Despite her bobbing, precarious perch, she looked up. Her scream vanished in a gasp of wonder. A pair of waterspouts swirled down on top of her. One was muddy gray and cruelly inanimate. The other corkscrewed gracefully around it. This one had red eyes. And fangs. And shimmering silver scales.

Transfixed, Ryô forgot to counter the sway of the skiff. It flipped back hard. With a helpless shriek, she pitched over the side. The dragon caught her in mid-air by the back of her kimono—a cat grabbing a kitten by the scruff of its neck—and plunged into the lake.

A muffled thud and crack resonated in her ears as the waterspout smashed the skiff to splinters. Her kimono tore away. She was sure she heard the dragon equivalent of “blech” as it spit it out.

And then—silence.

Ryô floated in the liquid blue ice. Shadows stirred in the depths. The dragon rose up in front of her, ruby eyes gleaming, steam hissing from its nostrils. It slowly coiled around her and stared into her eyes.

“Princess Ryô,” the dragon said again, its voice reverberating like a Buddhist temple bell. “The time has come for us to conclude our covenant.”

“What covenant?” She should be frightened but thought it odder she could see and hear everything as if they were standing on dry ground.

The dragon brought its snout up to the end of her nose. “The great diviner Abe no Seimei impressed me into the service of your family. His disciples sealed me within these shores. The authority to remove me courses through your veins. To do so was your vow.”

“I didn’t promise anything. Besides, what authority? My father is cloistered. The Southern Court neither rules nor reigns.”

“For centuries your ancestors have bargained with me for what they felt fate denied them, and when I refused, used the compass circle to force my will. Confined though I may be, I am a creature of the law. Every favor exacts its price. Your mother understood that much when she pled for your life in exchange for her own.”

Now Ryô bridled. “I never knew.” She didn’t doubt that the dragon spoke the truth about a covenant with her family—she felt it in her heart and bones—but was no more prepared to trust a dragon than the shogun or his lackeys.

The serpent’s torso tightened its hold even as it wavered and began to grow indistinct. “Twice I have brought you back from the grave—at your birth and today. The debt has been repaid. Your third life is mine. When the time comes, you will deed it back to me.”

“What would I gain from the exchange? My father restored to the throne?”

The serpent glowered at her. “Do not bore me with your trivial wars and your piddling politics. I am Kala Sarpa, the Serpent of Time. I am eternal. My patience is not. But if persuasion is what you desire then persuasion you shall have.”

With that, the creature dissolved into a billion bubbles of turquoise light. The iridescent column shot upwards, catapulting Ryô out of the water like a spinner dolphin breaching the surface. She tumbled through the air and splashed down on her back.

Ryô floated there, stunned but conscious, gazing up at the dark blue and coal-gray sky. Bright rays of sunlight burned through the clouds and flashed across the water.


Sen’s cry was follow by a louder commotion from the shore. Koreya’s scarred face glared down at her. The water came up to his waist. The dragon had thrown her halfway across the bay.

Koreya seized her by the front of her under-kimono. Ryô grabbed hold of his wrist to keep from choking as he dragged her to the dock and tossed her onto the deck. The impact drew from her an excruciating groan. Her back was on fire.

Sen ran down the dock. “Damn you!” she shouted, hitting him hard enough to knock him on his heels.

He rocked forward and sent her sprawling. He was barely taller than the lanky Sen but weighed half as much more. “The little bitch is your responsibility! Much worse things are bound to happen if you don’t bring her to heel. I will not spare the rod when she resides under my roof!”

Sen sprang to her feet. Before she could throw herself at him again, Ryô gasped, “Sen, what’s a compass circle?”

The incongruity of the question stopped them both in their tracks. The tension broken, deprived of the fight he was itching for, Koreya cursed under his breath and stomped down the dock.

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April 22, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/36)

In this chapter we learn that the army encircling Kouka at the end of chapter 27 in Book 4 was commanded by Eishou.

The technical name for the color referred to here is orpiment (雌黄), a "deep-colored, orange-yellow arsenic sulfide mineral."

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April 19, 2023

Silver Spoon (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Are you positive she’s a member of our family?” queried Donna’s client.

Donna gazed across the table at Mr. and Mrs. Walter, a middle-aged couple with matching sweaters, eyeglasses, and gray hairdos. They leaned towards each over the padded arms of their conference chairs. The intent question came from Mrs. Walter.

An oil portrait of a colonial woman lay on the glossy mahogany table between the Walters and Donna. The colonial woman wore what could pass for a twenty-first-century gown. Shiny material clung loosely to her shoulders. A frothy tucker emphasized and covered her ample cleavage. Like so many colonial subjects, she challenged her modern audience with lidded eyes and a faint self-congratulatory smile.

Donna said, “The picture was painted in the mid-1700s by John Smibert. He was a Scottish émigré to the colonies. He settled in Boston where he opened a shop and painted portraits. Some of his works are owned by Maine’s Bowdoin College. The woman in the portrait is Frances Conner.”

Mrs. Walter straightened, clapped, and beamed. “I told you! Didn’t I tell you?!” She alternated her gleeful grin between Donna and her husband.

Mr. Walter chuckled and patted his wife’s shoulder.

“I’ve wanted to know her identity for years,” Mrs. Walter told Donna. “All this DNA talk in the news inspired me. The Human Genome Project, that murder case where scientists matched DNA to a killer’s nephew—obviously, I don’t want to discover I have a murderer in the family! But it made me think, ‘There has to be a way to find out more about this portrait!’ Frances Conner was my four times great-grandmother, and I can see it. I really can! My sister Lizzy has her nose.”

Donna rather thought that most colonial portrait sitters had that particular nose. But she nodded and placed a document on the table.

“An expert on Smibert works at Bowdoin. The college has an archive of Smibert documents, including a daybook. A notation in the book confirms that your ancestor sat for a painting by the artist. This is a photocopy of the page—the book itself can be viewed on location.”

“Of course. This is more than we expected. Thank you, Donna.”

“Mr. Gregerson arranged for me to meet with the expert.”

“But you’re the one who put the pieces together.”

Donna smiled placidly. She didn’t mention how she’d put the pieces together.

Three weeks earlier, Paul Gregerson asked Donna to find out more about “a painting for clients with a genealogy obsession—I swear these people are nuts. Why not say, ‘We’re all related to John of Gaunt’ and be done with it?”

Donna remonstrated with Paul as usual and took the painting home. Two days later, she walked into the house to find a thin-faced, energetic man with receding hair and large brown eyes peering at the painting with the critical eye of its creator.

Once she identified him as John Smibert (1688–1751), the next steps fell into place. She researched experts on Smibert and found one at Bowdoin College. Paul pulled a few strings, and Donna dropped by Bowdoin for an interesting afternoon of “shop talk” about history, art, artifacts, and provenance.

She didn’t tell the Walters about her historical visitor. Some of her clients knew of her ability to see the no-longer-living, but Paul Gregerson was paying Donna’s fee (for which he would later bill the Walters) and he preferred physical corroboration. The Walters would likely assume that Donna had spent hours comparing colonial paintings at the Portland Museum of Art, which gave Donna far too much credit. Still, these were Paul’s clients, and Paul never minded a little prevarication.

She followed Paul’s clients into the hall and ran into David Gregerson.

“Oh!” she cried, startling the Walters, who glanced back, then beamed when they saw Donna hugging the lanky young man.

“I swear you’ve grown another two inches,” Donna exclaimed.

David was over twenty now, past his last growth spurt. But Donna first met him when he was thirteen going on fourteen, scrawny and short, though with the same tangled black hair and impudent grin. She was allowed to tease him about his near six feet.

Donna was a cheerful five foot three. “A diminutive brunette Kate Winslet,” her best friend Theresa called her. “I am shorter and older,” Donna pointed out, but she wasn’t surprised when David laughed and swung her off her feet like she was a girl of twelve. She patted his shoulder.

She said, “Are you done with classes?”

David was in his second year at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where he was getting a Juris Doctor and a Master’s in Computer & Information Technology. Donna’s brother Chester said David’s life path proved the Parable of the Talents: The rich keep getting richer.

“Back for the summer,” David said. “To New England at least. Are you, uh, finished with those people?”

“The Walters,” Donna said. “I gave them good news about a painting. Why?”

“I might have another case for you—” David began, then faked a frown as Paul clapped him on the shoulder.

Paul had raised David since David’s mid-teens. David liked to pretend that he didn’t look up to Paul as a father figure while Paul liked to pretend he wasn’t ridiculously proud of David. Donna didn’t think they fooled anyone.

Paul said, “Another case for Donna? I’m not paying for this one, David. The firm can only handle one wackadoo consulting expense a month.”

Donna planted her hands on her hips as the two Gregerson brothers—almost equal in height now—sent her seraphic smiles. She knew from experience how misleading those smiles could be.

Then Paul leaned forward, hand outstretched, and said, “Thanks, Donna. The Walters are thrilled. They’ll be strolling in here in colonial dress next time, just like good old Grandma Frances.”

Donna shook his hand and her head. “People enjoy finding out about their roots,” she said primly.

“I never saw that series all the way through.”

“I watched the Geordi La Forge parts,” David offered.

“He wasn’t Geordi La Forge then.”

David shrugged. Paul focused on Donna. “When are we going to dinner again? Now that you’ve kicked the latest boyfriend to the curb?”

“I’m still settling into my parents’ house.”

“Donna. Donna. Donna.” Paul moved away, shaking his head sorrowfully. “I’ll catch you next time,” he called over the cubicle walls. More than one of Paul’s employees swiveled to smirk at Donna.

Paul was—Paul. He was good-looking in a blunt sort of way, like those classic movie stars who played gangsters. His clothes were finely tailored, and he wore them with careless grace, managing to appear comfortable and elegant at the same time.

He and Donna dated but weren’t dating. They both had less than stellar relationship records. Theresa called Donna and Paul “gun shy.” Donna called her ambivalence about Paul “not being foolish.”

The fact was, she and Paul weren’t compatible. After two non-compatible boyfriends, she didn’t want another “women are from Venus—men are from whatever Pluto used to be” disaster.

She wasn’t even sure if Paul was serious—it was hard to tell between all the teasing. Theresa said Paul’s teasing was his way of flirting while keeping himself safe, especially after Donna moved in with her second long-term boyfriend.

That was about the same time that Paul was dating an attorney from Boston. “Did he expect me to stay available?” Donna said, surprised, and Theresa said, “Sure he did. He won’t hold that you didn’t against you. He’s too objective for that. But at some level, yeah.”

Even David got in on the matchmaking act. Guiding Donna to a smaller conference room, he said, “You know, Paul thinks the world of you.”

David was more than fifteen years younger than Paul. He didn’t unnerve Donna. She raised her eyebrows and he held up his hands in an I’m backing off gesture.

“What’s this new case?”

“Just a sec.” He leaned through the doorway and called, “Jane, you available?”

Ducking back into the room, he said, “You know my mom’s second husband has several kids. I try to stay in touch—with the kids at least. Family, ya know. Larry—he’s my stepdad’s oldest—his girlfriend Jane is a law student. Not at my school. She’s at Stetson University in Florida. But I got her an internship here—”

He broke off as a young woman entered the room. She had a lightly freckled nose and curly hair currently moussed into a sleek bob. Donna, whose “day job” was co-owner of a hair salon, guessed that Jane’s curly hair was the type that frizzed at the earliest opportunity and had to be sternly manhandled into obedience. Donna could recommend some products.

Jane shook hands with Donna and sat at the circular table. “Donna Howard? David told me about you.”

“We were discussing the kind of evidence lawyers can bring into court,” David explained as he also sat. “Admissibility and all that. I pointed out that court rules can’t stop a lawyer uncovering information in less traditional ways.”

Jane said, “Then David mentioned you. He said you did a job for Paul.”

David choked on a laugh. “The guy in Falmouth,” he reminded Donna. “Oh, man, was Paul ticked about that!”

While working out a resolution between a church and a Falmouth homeowner, Paul loaned Donna an old deed. That night, she dreamt of two men in breeches and tricorn hats moving a stone to indicate a boundary.

It turned out later—through letters and maps and the discovery of the stone—that the property line was far closer to the homeowner’s side than the church’s side. Since Paul was representing the homeowner, he was less than thrilled.

Donna told Paul, “You shouldn’t be harassing churches in the first place.”

Jane continued, “My sister and her husband collect antiques. You know, treasure hunting and all that. They picked up this one item, a silver spoon from colonial times.”

“They want to establish its provenance, where it came from?”

“I guess. Yeah. Probably. Maddy likes history. She used to work in an antique store. But—this is going to sound weird—it’s more like she feels haunted.”

“I don’t do ghosts!”

What Donna did was glimpse images of historical persons long dead. Sometimes the personage was tied to a place. Sometimes, like John Smibert, the personage was tied to an object.

“I know how crazy it sounds,” Jane said quickly. “Maddy is a sensible person usually. Level-headed. But she’s got this spooky feeling, which she thinks is linked to the spoon. Maybe if you checked it out, she would feel better. I’d feel better,” she ended softly.

Donna broke off another refusal and studied the young woman across the table. Like David, Jane was in her early twenties, at least ten years younger than Donna. Her face twisted into a half non-smile. She ran a hand through her bobbed hair before Donna could stop her.

She said, “I totally get why you might be reluctant. But I think Maddy has a lot on her plate right now. She and Seb have a great marriage. They really do. But they’re starting a new business—it’s very stressful. Even if you tell her that she’s not sensing anything, that it’s all in her head, I think she would be grateful. And you’re—you know—a historian! You two could discuss digging up and dealing with the past.”

Amateur historian,” Donna said. “What’s her phone number?”

“Thanks,” David said as Jane departed down the hall, her hair frazzling. (Personally, Donna thought an overexcited hairdo invited pleased glances, but she supposed it wasn’t entirely professional. The next time she visited Gregerson & Gregerson, she’d drop off some products.)

“I’ll talk to Jane’s sister,” Donna said, refusing to commit herself to anything that might potentially involve a séance.

Assuaging a client’s troubled feelings sounded more like therapy than research. Except David was asking. In an indirect way, Jane and her sister were related to David. Plenty of family losses dotted David’s past. It made sense that he would hang onto the ones that worked. Donna could help.

“Great.” David rubbed his neck. “Uh, so Paul’s got a meeting tonight—” He trailed off.

“I suppose you want to come to dinner?”

“Sure!” David said as if Donna had extended him the invitation without being prompted.

She watched him saunter away to hassle Paul, then glanced back at Jane’s retreating figure.

I don’t do ghosts, she reminded herself. Or séances. Or exorcisms. Or anything remotely like what the boy did in The Sixth Sense.

In fact, Donna didn’t entirely believe in ghosts, which people found odd.

“You see them,” Theresa said once.

“I see people left over from the past. They don’t show up with tasks for me to complete, such as asking me to speak to their descendants. They’re simply there. And most of them don’t care about the rest of us.”

In other words, the dead had better things to do than linger in mortality and harass the living.

Jane knew her sister was upset. She knew her sister wasn’t okay. She seemed to believe her sister’s marriage was in trouble.

Things other than spirits can haunt a person.

Chapter 2

Jane’s sister, Madeline Carlisle-Smith, didn’t sound haunted when Donna called her that evening. She did sound stressed.

“My husband Seb and I are starting a new business,” she explained. “We’re antiquing!”

She said the last word extra-brightly, the way mothers did when their children had to get shots and the mothers wanted the “trip to the doctor” to sound so fun.

“Jane told me you might call,” Madeline said. “Come see our spoon any time.”

They set an appointment for Donna to visit Newburyport that Saturday.

“What do you know about Jane’s sister, Madeline?” Donna asked David when he strolled into the house without knocking, the way he had since he was a teen. “Have you two met?”

“Once when she was visiting Jane in Florida. I was down there to see Larry and we all met up. She kept saying how remarkable I was to get two degrees at once.”

“Nice, then?”

“I guess.” David slumped into a kitchen chair, then straightened and grinned when Donna brought him a slice of cake. “I’m not getting two degrees to impress people. I actually want to. I thought she was a little tactless praising me around her sister, as if a single J.D. isn’t good enough. But Jane didn’t mind.”

“You got Jane the internship at Gregerson & Gregerson. What about an internship for you?” Donna filled David’s milk glass.

David snorted. “Paul insists on outside experience. I’m interning at a Boston firm.”

Donna heaved a theatrical sigh at yet another example of Paul’s dictatorial nature. He would never accept David into the family law firm out of sentiment or trust or good faith. Of course not. David must meet Paul’s standards, his professional standards, that is. Donna had doubts about Paul’s moral standards.

“You’ll do great in Boston,” Donna told David. “It was nice of you to help out Jane.”

“Larry works for whale watching outfits, so Jane was looking for an internship in a seaport. It helps that she’s smart. Paul complained about us taking advantage of his good nature—you know how he is—but he’s not disappointed or anything.”

He grinned at Donna’s long-suffering look (Oh, Paul).

With a wink, David added, “I bragged to Paul about eating here tonight. He’s got a meeting with that lawyer who uses those Robert Vaughn spots, the ones with the tag line, Tell them you mean business! I’m pretty sure he’d rather be here with you. And, ah, Sammy. Will Sammy be here?”

“He should be,” Donna said.

Sammy was Donna’s youngest brother by five years, which meant that he still had to dare the big thirty (a few more months). Like Donna, he was living temporarily at home while he completed a project for the Portland Museum of Art.

Chester, her other brother and the middle child, lived with his girlfriend of three years by the University of New England (once Westbrook College). He often popped in for free meals but he wouldn’t tonight. Wendy, the girlfriend, had persuaded him to take her to see Shrek 2, which Wendy said was “okay” because it was “PG.” Wendy faithfully attended church every Sunday.

David said, “You know Paul would rather spend time with you, Donna, than with his clients.”

“He’d rather be making a deal,” Donna said tartly.

David laughed a little hollowly. “That shyster act is a front,” he said. “People aren’t always good at saying what they want, you know? Jane talks a lot about how her sister has this perfect marriage. Madeline and her husband finish each other’s sentences, that sort of thing. Do you believe in that? The whole soulmate idea?”

“I’d like to.”

“Yeah.” David frowned, then leaned back and cleared his throat as Sammy walked in.

“Hey, David,” Sammy said at the same time David said, “What do you have there?”

Sammy smirked and handed over his latest ThinkPad laptop. David lifted the screen.

“Semester finished?” Sammy said.

“Yeah. I managed to keep my 3.8 GPA.”

“You didn’t tell me that,” Donna said.

“I sent you an email about it,” David said without heat. “Don’t worry. I know you barely check your Yahoo account.”

“If you had a real crisis, you would call,” Donna pointed out reasonably.

Sammy laughed. “The Millennium was three years ago, Donna.” (Sammy was one of those people who argued that the Millennium started in 2001.) “Email is here to stay.”

“Tell me about it,” David said. “I just signed up on a new service called Google.”

Donna said, “The detectives on CSI use cell phones.”

“They use email on NCIS.”

“Gibbs doesn’t,” Donna said.

Mark Harmon as Gibbs on Bellisario’s new show was the purveyor of all that was cool, so Sammy gave up arguing—temporarily.

He said instead to David, “So you’re here to mooch a meal?”

David hesitated, and Donna said, “He recruited me for a job.”

“Good idea,” Sammy said, opening the refrigerator to rummage. “I’ve gotten a few pointers from Donna myself.”

David’s eyes flicked towards him. His brow creased as if he were on the verge of asking the kind of question that stopped people rummaging. At first, Donna thought that maybe David had crashed the laptop and was worried about Sammy’s reaction. But his expression was more wary (and David was never wary). After his third glance, Donna contemplated Sammy herself.

Sammy had the same sparse ranginess as a younger Kevin Bacon. He wore his blond hair rather disheveled these days. Donna wanted him to come in for a cut, but he kept putting her off. The shagginess looked rather good on him, Donna conceded.

He was wearing khakis and a button-down long-sleeved shirt despite the warmer weather since he worked in air-conditioned rooms. He looked, in sum, much the same as usual. She refocused on David as Sammy turned back with a pitcher of lemonade. David was fixated on the laptop.

He said, “You’ve only got half a gig of RAM in this thing! C’mon, max it out.”

He and Sammy talked “computer” while Sammy poured a glass of lemonade. Donna ignored them and began to contemplate sides for dinner. She knew how to use the computer at The Beauty Cut and how to check and send emails when she absolutely had to. She didn’t need to know about the beige box’s inner workings.

Sammy said, “I have one of those free AOL mailers. You youngsters probably like all those seizure-inducing flashy designs. I’ll get it for you.”

Carrying his half-empty glass, he strolled out of the kitchen. This time, David’s eyes followed him.

He said to Donna, “He thinks I’m still fourteen, doesn’t he?”

“Yes,” Donna said.

During dinner of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, leafy green lettuce, and apple pie (Donna believed in the culinary classics), David plied Sammy with questions about his current project at the Portland Museum of Art. Sammy was a consultant on museum cataloging and inventory and had a growing reputation as an expert.

“It’s similar to the project I worked on as an intern,” he told David (Donna already knew all about it). “Except instead of hauling boxes, this time I’m creating an online archive for local researchers on Colonial New England.”

“Witches and whatnot.”

“You must be a lawyer in training—you think in clichés.”

David grinned without umbrage.

“Yea, witches,” Sammy conceded. “It’s impossible to do an exhibit on Colonial New England and not mention Salem and witches. But the museum wants to do more than that. The Martha Ballard special that came out in 1997, the one on PBS? It inspired a lot of interest in everyday colonial life.”

“Was that the show about the midwife in Maine?” Donna said. “I watched that.”

“You see history,” David said. “Why bother with television?”

“I like to get context,” Donna said. “Education,” she added pointedly.

“And what did you learn from PBS?” David said in the pedantic tones of an unctuous professor, causing Sammy to spit up a mouthful of lemonade.

Donna said, “I’m very grateful for modern medicine, plumbing, and heating.”

She didn’t mention the other truism she took away from the Martha Ballard special: No matter the time period, relationships are difficult. Martha Ballard’s oldest son got a hired woman “in trouble.” Martha confirmed her son was the father when she questioned the wife-to-be during the baby’s delivery.

Sometimes Donna thought that history wasn’t a tragedy or a comedy—it was one long soap opera. During her antique investigations, she often had to untangle interwoven strands of desire, greed, pride plus honest affection and wishful thinking.

At least the couple from today—the genealogy-obsessed Walters—left Donna’s consultation happy, which wasn’t always the case with Donna’s clients. After she told Sammy about the Walters, she and David told Sammy about the case of the silver spoon.

“It sounds like a Bellairs novel,” Sammy said.

It did rather. Donna said, “Jane’s sister thinks the spoon is haunted.”

“You don’t do ghosts!” Sammy said. “Besides, aren’t spirits or spooks supposed to be place-centered? Rattling about in old houses and cemeteries and what-not?”

“Now who’s speaking in clichés?”

“The historical people Donna sees around town never follow her home.”

Donna agreed. “Not unless I’m carrying an antique that’s connected to a particular personage.”

David said, “And that particular person stays with the object, right? I mean, they don’t get to a house like this one, go, Yuck, suburbia, and move on. They stick around. Hey, there’s a good definition of a ghost—an entity that sticks around.

Sammy said, “An entity that sticks around could apply to you, David.”

David grinned and ducked his head. “Okay. What’s your definition?”

“A ghost is a being with purpose; it has someone or someplace to haunt. But Donna’s historical people aren’t looking to achieve anything—not in the living world anyway.”

That was true. The personages Donna encountered willingly discussed their circumstances and conditions but always in reference to past events or routines, usually in connection to a specific object.

Sammy said, “Donna’s spirits are like endless promotional material.”

Donna objected. “They don’t try to sell me their objects—well, not all of them. It’s more like a particular object carries their strongest memories.”

“That you know of,” David said. “If a tree falls in the forest—”

“It makes a sound!” Donna said.

She hated metaphysical questions that treated reality like a game. Things happened. History had. Life wasn’t a big con taking place in some alien’s imagination.

She knew David and Sammy agreed with her, but they didn’t mind the metaphysical questions. They started debating “subjective reactions to sensory input,” which led to how people reacted to images versus sound, which led to a discussion of the Nixon–Kennedy debates.

They were two seconds from debating the upcoming election, George W. Bush versus John Kerry. As usual, Sammy was backing the Libertarian candidate while David liked to choose a candidate “who actually stands a chance of winning.”

Donna found politics even less interesting than metaphysical questions. She said, “I saw this NOVA special about how sleep paralysis explains alien visitations.”

David said, “I saw that. When we sleep, the body numbs or paralyzes us. To keep us from sleepwalking,” he explained in response to Sammy’s querying eyebrow.

Donna said, “But sometimes our minds wake up before our bodies un-numb. We can’t move, and the brain overreacts, imagines someone is in the room with us or sitting on our chests.”

“Like aliens,” Sammy said. “You know, I’m pretty sure that happened to me once. I didn’t think aliens. I thought, Bad dream. Go back to sleep.”

“Ah, that’s because the aliens wiped your brain,” David told him in an X-Files voice.

Sammy laughed and glanced at Donna. “What are you thinking?”

Donna said, “During sleep paralysis, the brain creates a, ah, ghost in the bedroom.”

“It compensates,” David agreed.

Sammy nodded. “The way people who see half a picture think they saw the whole thing. There’s a decent definition for a ghost: an entity created by the brain to explain away confusion.”

It was a good definition. Donna wondered what stress or fear or guilt or confusion could push a person like Jane’s sister to imagine a ghost.

Or maybe attract one.

After dinner, Sammy and David settled in the living room to watch The Matrix and criticize the bad science. Donna put away the leftovers, left the plates for Sammy to wash, and looked up “Spoon” in the World Book Encyclopedia set that her family still owned. She preferred print, no matter how often Sammy extolled online encyclopedias.

Spoon took her to Knife, Fork, and Spoon. The passage started with a discussion of child development; a spoon was a child’s first utensil. Hence, the passage argued, the spoon was the first manufactured utensil. Forks weren’t common until the 1500s.

There was nothing about antique spoons in the American colonies.

Sammy and David entered the kitchen, oddly subdued, and Donna studied them anxiously. They never argued, not to the point of actual dissension.

Before she could ask if something was wrong, Sammy said to David, “I’m getting more memory for the laptop. But I’m not like you young guys. I don’t need the equivalent of a PlayStation to play MMORPGs.”

“Still fourteen,” David muttered as he let himself out the kitchen door. He didn’t even pause to badger Donna about Paul. Instead, he said over his shoulder, “Remind your brother, Donna, that one of these days I’m gonna to make way more money than he does.”

Donna didn’t bother to relay David’s message—Sammy already knew that David was destined to be the kind of guy who could buy a house overlooking Back Cove.

Instead she asked Sammy for directions to Newburyport where Madeline Carlisle-Smith and her husband lived. Sammy looked up the area on MapQuest but that got too frustrating, so they capitulated and used an old-fashioned McNally’s Road Map to locate the couple’s address.

“Be careful,” Sammy told her. “Remember, on the highway, you have to drive the speed limit or over.”

Donna would have to tell David that Sammy sometimes saw her as fourteen too, even though she was five years his senior.

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April 15, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/35)

I borrowed a line from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred Lord Tennyson, his 1854 poem about the disastrous British cavalry charge against a heavily defended Russian artillery battery during the Battle of Balaklava.

Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.

Kirin are susceptible to two potentially lethal diseases. The shitsudou (失道) is caused by imperial wrongdoing, especially involving violations of the Divine Decrees. The esui (穢瘁) results from the kirin's own actions, often from being exposed to blood in the environment or his diet.

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April 12, 2023

Coin (excerpt)

Chapter 1

Donna’s work day had not gone well.

“It was the hair spray,” she told Reggie as she tumbled Tasty Chicken Bits from an oven pan onto a plate. “I only used a little, enough to give her hair some bounce. She had a pretty face. Thin, but that’s okay. Fuller hair would give her face a rounder appearance.”

Reggie wasn’t listening—or rather, he’d listened just enough to start a spiel about hair products on sale at Kmart. He wasn’t mentioning hair products for Donna’s benefit, wasn’t pointing out a brand she might want to try at work. He was telling Donna so she would know about his day. Reggie believed that every aspect of his day, from the cornflakes he ate to the jacket he bought, from his recent squabble with his boss to his Kmart shopping trip, should be of great interest to his girlfriend.

Donna let Reggie’s monologue trickle over her and stared unhappily at the Tasty Chicken Bits.

What are you doing?” the girl had shouted. “I didn’t ask you to put that stuff on my hair! Don’t you know it’s killing the ozone layer? Don’t you care?” These questions were followed by a discourse on the perils of “CFCs” that sounded like an indignant sixth grader reciting a Stranger Danger pamphlet.

Theresa ran over while Donna gazed bewildered at the vehement face, her hand clasped loosely around the hovering spray can. She didn’t have a chance to say that she knew about the ozone layer, she read the news, but this was her job, and did the girl want her hair to be flat?

“I guess you should have asked,” Theresa said under her breath.

Theresa was the owner of The Beauty Cut. She tried to give the girl a free coupon “for next time.”

“I won’t be back,” she said, almost pleasantly. Donna thought maybe she made a fuss to avoid paying or tipping, but she paid and she tipped.

“Because I know how hard it must be for you to find work,” she said. “But I believe in using only environmentally friendly products.”

“College kids,” Theresa quipped after the girl left and laughed.

Another customer added, “They lose their minds until they’re forty.”

Donna ducked out of the conversation and swept up the girl’s hair ends. She didn’t mind that the young college student believed in the environment. People believed in anything and everything. Donna listened to women who believed in aliens and women who claimed they’d met celebrities in grocery stores, and women who swore they knew a surefire way to lose ten pounds in two days.

Donna never minded what they said. She liked the smooth, effortless chatter while she clipped and cut and washed.

Why such anger? At her? She wouldn’t have sprayed the girl’s hair if she’d known how she felt. Her job was to do what the customer wanted. Imagine if a woman asked for a perm and Donna bobbed her hair instead.

She checked the hairspray can later when Theresa and Lily, the other regular employee at the salon, were busy. They would laugh at Donna caring so much what a pushy college student thought.

The list of ingredients included “Butane” and “Isobutane” and the entire thing was “EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE,” which sounded far more dangerous than a depleted ozone layer.

As her brother Sammy liked to point out, humans were good at adapting to all kinds of environments. Sammy believed human beings could live on Mars. Donna knew that people adjusted to conditions everyday despite wars and floods and disease.

A person on fire couldn’t adapt to anything.

“And then,” Reggie said, reaching over Donna’s shoulder for a Tasty Bit, “I went out to the parking lot and my car had a scratch. Can you believe that? People are so careless with shopping carts.”

“Reggie,” Donna’s other brother Chester maintained, “is the only twenty-six-year-old I know who takes Abe Simpson as a role model.”

“Only Reggie is less interesting,” Sammy muttered.

Chester and Sammy weren’t being entirely fair. Reggie wasn’t senile, for one thing. He had a good job as a manager at Spencer’s in the Maine Mall. Chester thought Spencer’s was hilarious. Sammy thought it was trash. Donna didn’t much like it and preferred shopping at Hallmark. She didn’t see the point of suggestive gag gifts, like playing cards with people’s privates printed on them. She was grateful Reggie didn’t think highly of the store’s raunchier products, though he would tell Donna in detail how much everything cost and when and why it was going to be marked up or down.

Even Sammy seemed to think that revealed something about Reggie.

“Sammy and I think you could do better,” Chester said when he picked her up from The Beauty Cut to drive her to her WordPerfect class. “You’ve dated him since high school, Donna. Give the guy the heave-ho.”

Donna didn’t know if she agreed that she could do better. “Doing better” was the sort of thing that Lily’s friends were always telling Lily about the guys she dated. Wasn’t it best to find someone and accept that person, flaws and all? Wasn’t it best to deal with what life offered?

She didn’t want to argue with Chester about Reggie, so she told him about the customer with the fear of hairspray.

Chester laughed. “What do you want to bet she and her friends hang out in air-conditioned hippie stores? All those chlorofluorocarbons!”

Donna immediately felt less silly. Chester was like that. He was kind and calm. He was the one who picked her up for her evening class even though Reggie had a car. Reggie thought that computer classes were a waste of time. He once held forth for nearly an hour—at least Donna thought it was an hour (she wasn’t paying close attention)—about the need for Donna to focus on learning dictation so she could become a paralegal.

Sammy insisted that Donna take a WordPerfect course instead, and Sammy knew more about technology than Reggie.

Donna hadn’t wanted to go to school, sacrificing two nights a week and her clothes money, except she had a vague idea that she was entering a more unsettled time of life and things were getting ahead of her. She knew Theresa wanted to open another salon someday, and she would ask Donna to manage it. As The Beauty Cut’s owner, Theresa had a cell phone, the only person Donna knew who had one. Someday soon, Theresa wanted to get a computer for the salon.

Donna finally agreed to let Sammy register her for a Continuing Studies course at Southern Maine Technical College, despite it being a historical location.

“A computer course will expand your skill set,” Sammy said. “In case Theresa decides to start a hang-gliding business or move to Hong Kong or something.”

“Theresa is very dependable,” Donna told him.

Still, Sammy had a point. After all, Chester worked the late shift at Portland International Airport as a cargo handler. He was aiming to become a ramp crew chief and had earned all the relevant machine certifications. Sammy was aiming for a degree in museum studies. He attended the Maine College of Art Extension Program at Westbrook College and already had an unpaid internship at the Portland Museum of Art. “Scut work,” he called it but a job at a museum was classier than anything Donna or her friends had ever done.

In fact, Sammy had his entire life planned out. After he got his degree, he was going to move out of their parents’ house, go to Boston, and get another degree. Donna couldn’t understand such certainty—wasn’t it better to take each day as it came? How did Sammy know what might happen to him next?

The girl today at the parlor was like Sammy in a way, so sure of her right to be offended by the universe. Except Sammy was a libertarian, scornful of “it’s my religion, and I’ll cry if I want to” environmentalists. He believed in computers, space travel, and Microsoft.

Chester, the middle child, had no convictions at all. He focused on his car, his girlfriend, food, and football. He also had a penchant for quirky British television shows on PBS. From a hyper-evolved cat on a derelict mining spacecraft to the high-strung manager of a seaside hotel on the English Riviera to the crazily eccentric sales staff at a London department store—Chester recited his favorite lines from memory, occasionally with a passable British accent.

Que sera sera guy,” Sammy called Chester.

In sum, Chester preferred the present to the past. That didn’t mean he didn’t appreciate history. Driving Donna to Southern Maine Technical College in South Portland, he said, “See anyone today?”

Chester didn’t mean the present-day pedestrians strolling along Broadway’s sidewalks, walking their dogs or carrying baskets and gear for an outing at Willard Beach. He meant the living dioramas only Donna could see, the historical persons climbing onto a nineteenth-century trolley at Ferry Village or ambling into an old-fashioned grocery store, which looked both old-fashioned and fresh and new to Donna’s eyes.

“Oh, the usual,” Donna said.

Donna was what her mother called a “sensitive.” Even Sammy—who poured scorn on the supernatural and paranormal abilities like ESP—admitted that Donna could discern the “aura” of a place. “Aura” was Sammy’s concession to Donna’s ability to hear and see people long dead as well as fragments of their original surroundings, to literally feel their time period with her physical senses.

As far as Donna was concerned, her ability was an unfortunate quirk to be worked around—like being short meant she needed step stools to reach things on high shelves—not a quality to be embraced and enhanced.

“I see workers going back and forth from the 1940s shipyards,” she admitted, which was true and made Chester happy.

World War II was one of Chester’s historical interests, especially anything to do with the Battle of the Atlantic. When Donna was preparing to attend SMTC, he told her all about that part of South Portland so she would know what to expect (and avoid).

“That whole area near the college was devoted to the shipyards, including the stretch near Bug Light—you know, the breakwater lighthouse. Some groups are planning to reactivate it before the Millennium. In the 1940s, the land was covered with warehouses. The shipyards bussed people in from Redbank and Portland. SMTC was still a fort with barracks.”

Donna knew that for herself now. The building she met in Tuesday and Thursday nights, Preble Hall, had been one of those barracks. Donna occasionally sensed young men from the 1940s and earlier from the Civil War. Now and again, she spotted them around the campus. Inside Preble Hall, she heard faint echoes of their jokes and teasing and “rough housing.” She enjoyed it. It allowed her to ignore the sad nights of uncertainty, homesickness, and worry that also pervaded the barracks. A young man had been hung for desertion on the campus during the Civil War. Donna resisted the anxiety and sick terror that accompanied that event, the voices that whispered, That could have been me.

Donna might have no choice but to see history. She was an expert at ignoring it.

Chapter 2

Whenever Donna encountered a historical venue or landmark, she focused on contemporary things. Of course, every place was technically “historical.” But some locations attracted more history than others.

Despite Preble Hall’s historical-looking brick facade, the building was filled with the slightly damp linoleum tiles and fluorescent lighting common to all institutional places. Donna gave the light switches a nod; she found modernism, however bland, a relief.

She entered the classroom, which faced the ocean. The students faced the chalkboard. Large, hulking computer monitors lined the inside wall. At this time of day, soft afternoon light filled the square space.

Early-arriving students lounged in the back row nearest the open windows (the building either had no air conditioning or air conditioning that hardly worked). Donna smiled at them—they seemed friendly enough—and sat in the front row to the side. She shifted in her chair, which was hard and a little uncomfortable, and unhinged the curved desk arm, which she secretly rather liked even if it reminded her of desks in elementary school. It made her feel official, a real student.

She settled her textbook on the desk and turned to the chapter on function keys. Sammy read everything at top speed while Chester read magazines carelessly, transferring his gaze from the page to the television to the page. Donna preferred audio cassettes, such as Jane Seymour reading Linda Carrey’s latest, Heart’s Agony.

Most textbooks, unfortunately, were not available on audio cassette or even CDs.

Donna slid a finger down the page and murmured, “Press Alt-F3 to reveal codes—”

“Good evening, Donna.”

Donna looked up with a smile at Mrs. Gregerson, an older, well-coifed woman with a classy and well-to-do aura. She reminded Donna of Blanche on Golden Girls, only Mrs. Gregerson was more soft-spoken and modest. She wore upscale pant suits accompanied by light pastel scarves and non-flashy gold jewelry.

Some of the other students knew her. The Portland Museum of Art was paying its staff members to take this course and Mrs. Gregerson was on the Board of Trustees. She volunteered part-time in the museum’s offices. The other students, all women in their thirties and forties, were actual employees, and Donna knew they considered Mrs. Gregerson a little la-di-da. They weren’t openly rude, despite whispering together. Donna didn’t think Mrs. Gregerson could ever be rude.

Mrs. Gregerson said politely, “How was work today?”

“I had three haircuts and a perm,” Donna said. She didn’t mention the angry hairspray girl.

“I’ll need a haircut soon,” Mrs. Gregerson said, patting her smooth Princess Di cut (from Princess Di in the 1980s, but it looked good on her).

Donna didn’t recommend The Beauty Cut. She assumed that Mrs. Gregerson went to a place like Crystalline’s, where the beauticians looked like their customers and said things like, “Darling, just a tweak and you’ll look bootiful.” Chester and Sammy laughed about Crystalline’s, but Donna wouldn’t mind seeing ladies like Mrs. Gregerson everyday: soft and genteel and poised.

“How are you?” Donna said, using a formula that worked for her and Mrs. Gregerson.

To Donna’s surprise, Mrs. Gregerson’s brow creased. Usually, she said, “Fine,” and then asked an equally unobtrusive question about Donna’s day or interests.

Instead she said, “My sons—you mentioned you have brothers?”


“You get along?”

“Yes. We’re lucky,” Donna said since she knew people who didn’t get along with their siblings at all.

“Do your sons get along?” Donna said.

“With each other,” Mrs. Gregerson said.

That made Donna uncomfortable. Sometimes her customers told her private things about their lives. Mrs. Norris was always telling Donna about her latest fight with her husband. Mrs. Jacobs liked to detail the trials of menopause for Donna’s future benefit. Mrs. Gregerson didn’t strike Donna as that candid. She would regret telling someone like Donna—whom she only knew from class—about a family argument.

Mrs. Gregerson seemed to agree because she tightened her lips.

“My youngest lives with my oldest,” she said abruptly. “He’s young. He’ll be fourteen soon.”

That surprised Donna. Her youngest must have been born when Mrs. Gregerson was near forty. Teenagers usually lived with their mothers, divorced or widowed like Mrs. Gregerson. Donna knew from another classmate that Mrs. Gregerson’s husband died a year ago.

“Paul—my oldest, the lawyer—lives in a good school district.”

And Mrs. Gregerson didn’t? Most Greater Portland schools had first-rate reputations.

“I worry about him. All of them. Even if they think I don’t.”

“My mother worries about us,” Donna said reassuringly.

That wasn’t strictly true. Donna and Sammy and Chester’s mother mostly worried about their father. He was a service manager for a manufacturing company and traveled up and down the East Coast on a regular basis. Their mother liked to go with him and assumed her children could take care of themselves.

“Benign neglect,” Chester called it and liked to tell the story of when he and his friends were fooling around in a vacant lot and accidentally burst open a can of red paint. “I was COVERED,” Chester proclaimed. “I went home and said, ‘Look, Ma.’ It could have been blood. She didn’t even waste a second, just told me to go wash up.”

Donna knew that Chester, and Sammy sometimes, thought their mother was too detached. But Donna thought it was sweet when their mother flew off at a moment’s notice to see their dad at his current location.

“Yes,” Mrs. Gregerson mused. “My youngest, David, is so active. Lots and lots of energy. Typical teenage boy. It’s good that he has initiative. It will help him get on in life. But it’s best for him to live with his brother—”

Her voice petered out. Donna thought Mrs. Gregerson expected her to agree. Donna couldn’t. She didn’t know the situation, so how could she judge it?

Finally, Donna said, “Teenage boys are a handful. My brother Chester was always up to something.” Like blowing up paint cans. “My brother Sammy got secretive when he turned fourteen, quieter than usual. We could barely get him out of his room. He’s better now.”

Mrs. Gregerson nodded absently. She seemed less distressed so Donna continued, “I think teenage boys have probably always been the same.”

She was thinking of the young men who had occupied Fort Preble’s barracks over the years. Granted, they called each other nicknames like “good egg” and “pal” rather than “dude” and “dawg” the way young men did now, but the sentiments were the same. She didn’t tell Mrs. Gregerson what her senses told her about the past. People like Theresa and Lily didn’t care that Donna was a “sensitive.” Theresa checked her horoscope daily for a laugh and Lily paid phone psychics for advice. People like Mrs. Gregerson seemed less willing to believe in supernatural things.

Donna didn’t need to come up with more to say since the teacher arrived, full of bustling good cheer about how to draft letters in WordPerfect. “So, class,” he bellowed, “how many of you know how to use spellcheck?”

Donna figured she and Mrs. Gregerson would go back to talking about shopping and the weather and subjects that Donna considered important to the smoothness of conversation. Mrs. Gregerson seemed to agree. When class broke up at eight o’clock, she didn’t mention her sons again.

Instead, she made one of her usual non-pushy comments about hoping Donna’s work went well the next day and how she, Mrs. Gregerson, must come by some time for a haircut. Mrs. Gregerson regularly said, “I must come by some time for a haircut.”

She never would. Donna didn’t mind. She knew Mrs. Gregerson was trying to be kind.

In the car, Donna told Chester—and Sammy who’d come along so they could see a movie together—about the barracks. They laughed and agreed that teenage boys had always been teenage boys.

Sammy said, “Some historians think the medieval world was such a mess because it was run by people between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. Edward IV was leading armies when he was eighteen.”

Chester protested that politicians didn’t need to be young to be stupid.

Donna hated talking about politics, so she mentioned Mrs. Gregerson and how she didn’t think that Mrs. Gregerson was the type of person to believe in “auras.”

“Rich people believe in paranormal phenomenon,” Sammy said. “They simply dress it up more. Instead of saying, ‘I go to fortune tellers,’ they say, ‘I consult my spiritual advisor.’ ”

“Maybe she wants future stock tips,” Chester said.

“I wouldn’t help people do that if I could, Chester. People spend too much time worrying about the future.”

“Speaking of which—what do you prefer, Donna? Nine Months, Clueless, or Waterworld?”

Donna wanted to see Nine Months, starring Hugh Grant. But her brothers protested, so they ended up seeing Clueless, which even Donna thought was kind of silly. But sweet.

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April 08, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/34)

The Hall of Supreme Harmony was once called Fengtian Hall (奉天殿). To avoid confusion, I'm only using the former name.

During the Han Dynasty, the Huben (虎賁) was an elite imperial guard unit. The name means "Rapid as Tigers."

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April 05, 2023

The Space Alien (excerpt)

Chapter 1

The Flying Saucers

The flying saucers first appeared in the United States. Before long they were being observed all over the world. Although Japanese newspapers had published reports about their presence in Japan for some time now, their increasingly frequent visits around this time breathed new life into the story.

The large, round, saucer-shaped objects shot through the air at high speed and high altitude. More than a few people wondered if they were new surveillance aircraft launched by a foreign country. Others speculated that they came from a star somewhere in the galaxy to investigate conditions on Earth.

But most scoffed at such notions.

“A bunch of tall tales!” they exclaimed. “Sure, we could believe it if everyone in a major metropolis looked up and saw them. A couple of guys up in the mountains or out in the countryside—they’re just seeing things. Big meteors can appear saucer-shaped. And there are optical illusions like mirages. The headlights of a car driving up a steep road and flashing across the sky look like saucers. In any case, no strange aircraft like that exist anywhere. Where’s the hard proof? Where’s the evidence that one of those flying saucers ever landed on solid ground?”

Serious people didn’t give the subject any serious thought.

The flying saucers themselves ignored the gossip, appearing in country after country, and showing up more often in the skies over Japan, where observances had once been rare. Yet because so few witnessed these appearances, the larger number of people who hadn’t seen them questioned such accounts, even when printed in the newspapers.

As far as society was concerned, these “witnesses” had merely mistaken one thing for another.

And then came the day when a startling incident gave the doubters second thoughts and made the skeptics catch their breath. What sort of an incident was this? Before we get to that, let us introduce a young man by the name of Ichiro Hirano.

Ichiro Hirano was an elementary school student in the sixth grade. He lived in a sparsely populated area in the outskirts of Setagaya Ward in Tokyo. The house next door belonged to one Kitamura-san, a young man of twenty-five with a keen interest in the sciences. For the past month, Ichiro had taken to visiting him often. Ichiro liked science too, and was fascinated by Kitamura-san’s discourses on the subject.

Kitamura-san’s small house was a ramshackle structure with only three rooms. He lived with an aging, half-deaf housekeeper. Shelves stocked with dense science books filled the rooms, along with technical equipment like microscopes and telescopes. Ichiro loved observing the Moon and Mars through the telescope.

One day Ichiro asked him, “Kitamura-san, do you think flying saucers are real?”

Kitamura-san didn’t need to be asked twice. He launched into a detailed history of the flying saucer phenomenon, how UFOs had first been observed here and there in the United States and then here and there in many countries around the world.

After listing various theories held about flying saucers—similar to those laid out above—Kitamura-san concluded, “As for my own thoughts on the subject, I would refrain from making too much light of the gossip and rumors. Even if people are mistaken in what they are seeing, I find it no less intriguing that so many people in so many places would be equally mistaken about the same thing.”

It was human nature, he pointed out, to not believe everything at first sight.

“The acceptance of new inventions is no different. The airplane, for example. A century ago, no one had seen a human being fly. Long before that, though, many dreamed about being able to fly like a bird. Even during Japan’s Edo period, some people attached big, bird-like wings to their bodies and attempted to soar through the air. People called them crazy. Who could imagine such a ridiculous thing? It was a laughable idea.”

But who was laughing now?

“Nowadays, planes carrying fifty or sixty people can soar through the skies and circumnavigate the globe in two or three days. That’s why we shouldn’t be too quick to ridicule the idea of flying saucers. What is unimaginable to us may be perfectly commonplace to the inhabitants of another world.”

“The inhabitants of another world?” asked Ichiro, a wondrous look on his face.

“Other worlds beyond our own planet. There must be innumerable civilizations in the universe grander and more expansive than our own.”

Ichiro said, his face flushed, his heart pounding, “Oh, you mean like Mars? The aliens came here from Mars?”

“Maybe. And perhaps from a different star entirely. Either way, it is not unthinkable that beings elsewhere in the universe should come to investigate our planet.”

“That means there could be people from another world inside those flying saucers?”

“It is possible. But even unoccupied, the instruments and mechanisms could conduct the reconnaissance on their own. Consider the wireless aircraft we are building on this planet. There must be worlds orbiting other stars with far more advanced technology. An unmanned vehicle could be controlled remotely and sent to photograph conditions here on Earth.”

Listening to Kitamura-san speak aroused in Ichiro feelings of both trepidation and delight.

“What would beings from another star look like? Martians have lots of rubbery tentacles for legs. Like octopuses. Real scary monsters.”

“Ah, yes, the inventive stories of the British writer H.G. Wells. In fact, nobody knows what form they might take. Nobody knows if there are any living things on Mars. These flying saucers need not come only from Mars. More likely they are from bigger planets much farther away.”

“So creatures creepier than an octopus?”

“Who can say? Maybe those rubbery tentacles make them look like jellyfish. Maybe they look like clanking machines. And maybe they look just like us.”

“That sounds even scarier. What if you ran into a guy like that walking down the street?”

Kitamura-san chuckled. “I have no idea what I would do. But who’s to say we won’t cross paths one day? If there are aliens from outer space inside those flying saucers and one of those flying saucers lands somewhere on Earth—”

Kitamura-san fixed Ichiro in his gaze. Ichiro felt a shiver up his spine. For a moment, his vision blurred and Kitamura-san himself took on the form of a fantastic monster.

“What is it, Ichiro-kun? Why are you looking at me with a scary expression on your face?”

“Oh, no, it’s nothing.”

Nothing but his imagination. Kitamura-san grinned back at Ichiro in his usual calm and kindly manner.

Chapter 2

A Million Eyewitnesses

On a Saturday afternoon, two or so weeks after Kitamura-san and Ichiro had their conversation, Ichiro and his father went to a big theater near the Ginza shopping district in downtown Tokyo to see an animated movie. It was around five o’clock in the evening when the movie ended.

Not yet ready to call it a day, the two of them exited onto Ginza Avenue and made their way on foot toward Shinbashi Station. The store windows along Ginza Avenue were lit up. The neon signs glimmered. The night had not yet fallen. The electric lights and the sky above glowed with an equal brightness.

It was that bewitching hour of the dusk, when everything felt slightly off, when even people passing by on the sidewalk grew indistinct and faded into the shadows.

As on any evening, the Ginza shopping and entertainment district was thronged with pedestrian traffic. So as not to get lost in his thoughts and wander off on his own, Ichiro kept a tight grip on his father’s hand. But then he was struck by the overwhelming feeling that something unexpected was about to happen in the skies above. So he tore his gaze away from the store windows and looked up.

Undisturbed by even a wisp of wind, the clear skies appeared heavy and gray. Here and there a star twinkled in the twilight. Ichiro couldn’t help thinking about those flying saucers. What star, what different world so very far away, had sent them here?

“What’s the matter?” his father scolded and gave his hand a gentle squeeze. “Let’s pick up the pace.”

That’s when it happened. Ichiro started. His heart leapt into his throat. Was he seeing things? Directly above his head, shining with a pure white light, a round, saucer-like object shot across the high dome of the sky.

“What’s going on, Ichiro?” his father pressed. “What are you staring at?”

“Dad, look! There’s another one! Two of them. Three. No, four! And one over there. Five of those flying objects! Do you see them, Dad?”

Startled by this unexpected outburst from his son, Ichiro’s father turned his attention to the sky as well. It was all a blur until his eyes could find a point to focus on, but Ichiro kept saying, “There! There!” His father looked in the direction he was pointing and caught sight of the strange spectacle.

One, two, three, four, five of them, flat and round and shining with a silver light, shot over Ginza Avenue and flew off toward the west. Ichiro wasn’t imagining things. His father could see them too.

The father and son standing stock-still in the midst of the crowds thronging Ginza Avenue soon drew the attention of other pedestrians. First one, then two, then they all stopped and looked up.

“Balloons!” a boy yelped.

A young man shouted back, “Those aren’t balloons! Balloons wouldn’t shine that bright. Those are flying saucers. Flying saucers!”

His words ran like a wave through the crowds. People froze in their tracks and raised their eyes toward the sky. Movement along the Ginza ceased, as if thousands and tens of thousands of its inhabitants had suddenly turned to stone. A truly strange spectacle.

As drivers and riders noticed what was going on around them, automobiles and bicycles stopped as well. Such was the uproar that even the trams and trains ground to a halt.

Except not all of the pedestrians had seen the flying saucers. In the time it took to call out, “Where? Where?” the five silver saucers crossed the Ginza skyline and disappeared from view.

“There! There!” came the responding cry, as people rushed toward Sukiyabashi Crossing and Hibiya Street like a surging tide. But human beings on foot couldn’t keep pace with the flying vehicles. The fleetest of foot among them soon lost sight of the saucers.

Then they noticed the dark silhouettes dotting the rooftops along Ginza Avenue, where store employees and customers had gathered, trying to figure out where the flying saucers went. The pedestrians clambered up to the rooftops to stand with them. But flying like arrows shot from a strong bow, the saucers were already gone.

“Phone the papers! Send a plane after them!”

There was no need to call the press. Reporters were already on the story, crowding around the counter telephones inside the stores and shops. In fact, it soon seemed as if the entire press corps had perched atop the roofs of the newspaper offices in Yurakucho, shouting and scanning the skies. Quick-witted photojournalists aimed their cameras in the direction of the flying saucers as they flew away.

Of course, their editors thought of sending up chase planes too and reached for their phones to make arrangements. But they soon abandoned the effort, realizing that in the time it’d take to ready a plane for takeoff, the saucers would be another ten miles away.

A better idea was to phone their news bureaus in locations where the saucers were headed. Leapfrogging from one bureau to the next, they planned to thus discern the whereabouts of the saucers. The police had the same idea, and called ahead to set up an air cordon and pin down the coordinates of the mysterious aircraft.

Ichiro and his father stood there in a daze, observing such a commotion that the Ginza had never experienced before. But just standing there accomplished nothing, so they boarded the train at Shinbashi Station and returned to their home in Setagaya.

On the train platform and in the train, the talk around them was about nothing but the flying saucers.

“They’re spy planes from a hostile nation. Another war is right around the corner.”

Such rumors and speculations were par for the course. Any theory the imagination could concoct was treated as the cold hard truth, except nobody opined that the saucers might be emissaries from a distant star.

They’ve all got it wrong, Ichiro thought a bit smugly. Nobody knows what’s really going on but me.

When the train arrived in Setagaya, a crowd had already gathered around the radio store in front of the station, listening to a broadcast about the flying saucers. According to the news reports, the five jellyfish-shaped saucers arrived from the direction of Tokyo Bay, flew over the Ginza, crossed through the skies of Toranomon, Aoyama, and Meiji Jingu into Setagaya Ward, and from there followed the Koshu Highway towards Hachioji.

The reports said that, as in the Ginza, every town along the route was thrown into an uproar.

That night, every radio in every house in the city remained on in anticipation of the next update. The next morning, newspapers flew off the stands as readers devoured every story about the saucers. Papers devoted their entire local sections to the subject, along with photographs and artists’ renderings. Alas, such was the altitude of the unidentified flying objects that photographs captured them only as five indistinct dots.

The papers published the thoughts of astronomers and university professors. The “experts” prattled on about the history of the flying saucer phenomenon and what their American counterparts had to say on the subject. None of them ventured forth with their own opinions.

So where had the saucers gone? On that matter, the newspaper and radio reports proved anticlimactic. They’d flown for sure over Setagaya Ward, but after that, the darkening skies made them impossible to see. Hachioji was the biggest city in the area. The police and newspaper reporters had camped out there, ready and waiting.

But the flying saucers never arrived. Based on their speed, they should have appeared over Hachioji at twilight. They never showed up. They simply disappeared.

Unlike in the United States and other countries, this time as many as a million people in the Tokyo metropolis had seen them. Hardly unfounded rumors or tall tales. A million people weren’t simply “seeing things.”

Nevertheless, no one had the slightest idea where the silver jellyfish-like saucers had gone. The newspaper articles and radio broadcasts speculated wildly. After passing over Setagaya, the saucers might have climbed to a high altitude and disappeared from sight. Or passed out of view over the fields and mountains and turned back to the Pacific Ocean. Or flew over Honshu altogether towards the Japan Sea.

All anybody knew was that one of these options had to be true.

Except every single one of them was wrong. In the evening papers the following day came astonishing news that rocked the whole country back on its heels.

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April 01, 2023

Hills of Silver Ruins (4/33)

In Greek architecture, the multilevel platform that forms a building's foundation is called a crepidoma. The uppermost level is the stylobate (基壇).

The Sumeru Throne (須弥座) is an architectural feature of Chinese pagodas. The elevated base or first story is designed so that the pagoda appears to be rising out of a lotus flower, with petals circling its circumference. The Sumeru Throne itself is a symbolic representation of Mount Meru, the center of all of the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual universes.

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