Excalibur meets the World People Project

  1. Excalibur Books is proud to announce that next week, we will be taking part in a collaboration with the above mentioned web site! For more details –

GO HERE! 

The Editors.

 

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Japan’s Artistic Genius Gets His Own Museum

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There are two things that haunt you everywhere you go in the Tokyo district of Sumida. One of them is the Sky Tree, dominating the skyline and casting its shadow across your path. The other is the painting of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” affixed to walls and traffic signs: the iconic work of the artist Katsushika Hokusai.
Hokusai, along with other artists such as Hiroshige and Utamaro, was an exponent of the art form known as ukiyo-e. This is the style of woodblock print and painting that flourished during the Edo period (1603-1868), a style that has become one of the most immediately recognizable forms of traditional Japanese art around the world. A new museum has opened in Shitamachi (the oldest part of Tokyo) dedicated to Hokusai, creator of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”
Whether Hokusai was the ‘best’ ukiyo-e artist is purely a matter of opinion. It would be fairly safe to say, however, that he was a creative genius who transformed the way ukiyo-e was perceived. He was also a true man of Shitamachi, born in the teeming hive of artisans, merchants, priests, prostitutes, gamblers, crooks and beggars that made up the Low City of Edo. He shared their values; he knew what it was like to struggle for money to live, and although he spent time traveling across Japan he lived, ate, drank, fought, and partied in the Low City that he eventually died in. The people of the city loved him for it; he was a celebrity of his time, and his residences were frequently visited by acolytes hoping to learn from his experience.
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The Shitamachi Low City area spread from what is now central Tokyo through Taito, Sumida and Arakawa wards into Katsushika ward on the eastern edge of today’s capital. The Sumida Hokusai Museum is located a short walk from Ryogoku station, past the huge Edo-Tokyo Museum. In fact, the street it’s on is also named after the artist; the Hokusai Dori stretches from the Edo-Tokyo Museum to Kinschicho station, and the Museum is easy to find. Its post-modern, slightly controversial architecture (designed by award-winning architect Kazuyo Sejima) is set back from the road, past a small park and children’s playground.
The Museum is comprised of four floors. The first is the entrance and gift shop, the second is the office area, the third is a special exhibition space, and the fourth is the permanent exhibition.
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The permanent exhibition is not exactly large, but it contains the essential information on Hokusai’s life and times, and copies of the artworks he has become globally renowned for, and there are interactive touch screens in several languages. There is a family tree near the entrance, outlining where he was born, who his adopted parents were, and mentioning his connection to the 1702 Ako Roshi military raid (known globally as the story of the 47 Ronin). The exhibition’s interior explains his early life as an apprentice to a mirror-maker, his entry into the world of ukiyo-e, and the different stages of his artistic career, showing how his techniques changed as well as the themes he depicted. Until Hokusai appeared, ukiyo-e was a genre restricted to portraits of famous samurai, courtesans, and actors, because that’s what the public wanted. Hokusai was the first artist to attempt landscapes and depictions of nature in ukiyo-e, and despite initial misgivings, they were a huge success. Hokusai won acclaim not only for painting vistas of natural beauty such as the views of Mt Fuji, but also the working lives of the common Low City people, around the Sumida river where he lived.
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For those interested in the Yokai – those supernatural creatures that inhabit the rich and varied world of Japan’s mythology, folklore and urban legend – there is not much you haven’t seen before, unfortunately. One exception to that is a large reproduction of Hokusai’s ‘lost’ painting, “Susano-o no Mikoto Making a Pact with the Spirits of Disease”. This was a large votive tablet that Hokusai painted in 1845, depicting Susano-o no Mikoto the Shinto God of Storms, and donated to the nearby Ushijima Shrine. This painting was destroyed in the fires following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the restoration is based on a single black-and-white photograph taken not long before the disaster struck.
As this is a blog post for Excalibur Books, I declare a vested interest in Hokusai Katsushika; he is a major character in Voice of the Mirror and Voice of the Jewel, books 2 and 3 of the Sword, Mirror, Jewel trilogy. The series gives a fictional explanation to some of the great unsolved mysteries surrounding the artist. Why did he change his name so many times? Why was he constantly on the move, changing residence 93 times during his life, but always to houses within the Sumida area? What was the story behind the strange disappearance of Hokusai’s contemporary, the artist Toshusai Sharaku? What secrets are contained within Hokusai’s most celebrated work, the hypnotically fascinating “The Great Wave off Kanagawa”?
For answers to those questions, click here …
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   To visit the museum …
Address: 2-7-2 Kamezawa, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
Opening hours: 9:30 am – 5:30 pm (Closed Mondays)
Entrance fees: ¥400 (Adults),¥300 (High school, university students and seniors). Free admission for pre-schoolers, elementary school and middle school students.
Official website here (English version)!
Once you’ve been to the exhibition – don’t forget the shop! We can recommend the Hokusai Rice Crackers (salt and prawn flavor). The cookies are in a nice decorative tin, but are sadly not all that tasty.


IMG_9612 Scenes from Hokusai Dori …

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The Official Kappa of Kappabashi Image Gallery (sort of)

On a beautiful day in Spring (April 12) I decided to count and record the Kappa statues in the Kappabashi area of Shitamachi, Tokyo. If I missed one or two … please let me know in a comment!

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 IMG_9620IMG_9621IMG_9623IMG_9624IMG_9625IMG_9626(This guy looked a bit worse for wear. He had a wound in his right side, so I photographed him from the left.)

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(Not sure of the story here. A young boy … carved in wood … wearing a Kappa on his head. Can anyone help?)

Posted in Japan, Mythology | 1 Comment

Japan Writer’s Conference 2017

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The Japan Writers Conference will return to Tokyo this year at the Ekoda campus of Nihon University College of Art, October 8 & 9, 2017. This will be on Sunday and Monday – Monday being “Health and Sports Day,” a national holiday. Excalibur Books hopes to give a presentation on aspects of writing and publishing at the Conference, and we hope to be able to confirm the time and date very soon!

What’s the topic of our presentation?

WELL …

To get news and reports of the conference, as well as access to exclusive contests, giveaways and promotions, why not SUBSCRIBE to the Excalibur Books mailing list? Send an email to albionjpc@jcom.home.ne.jp with ‘Mailing List’ in the title, and you’ll receive our premium newsletter twice a month!

You can find out more about the Japan Writers Conference by clicking HERE! 

 

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Aspects of Steampunk # 2: The Eiffel Tower

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Ah, the symbol of Paris, and even France itself! The Eiffel Tower is the most popular human-made monument in the world, with approximately seven million visitors every year (almost 250 million people have visited it since it first opened).

It also contains a rocket, a whole bunch of weapons, and the undead cyborg corpse of its creator, Gustave Eiffel. Wait, what??

This is the second article in the “Aspects of Steampunk” series, and here we look at the cultural legacy of the aforementioned tower.

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The Victorian Age was a revolutionary period in terms of technology, when engineering marvels were bringing about the greatest social revolution that the world had ever seen, and transforming human society into what was intended to be an industrial Utopia.

The Eiffel Tower was one of the symbols of the triumph of human endeavor. As such, it could also be a potent symbol for Steampunk – a genre occupied with engineering wonders, mad scientists, genius gadgeteers, gentleman and lady adventurers, historical domain characters, sky pirates in airships, spirited young ladies, action girls, bold explorers, corsets, top hats, goggles, and gorgeous period dress studded with rivets and gears.

But first, here are some vital statistics regarding the Iron Lady of Paris!

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The first level (which contains a post office) is 57m (187 ft) high, can be reached by lift or by 360 steps. From there it’s 700 steps (or lift) to the second level, which holds the wildly popular Jules Verne Restaurant. After that, it’s double-decker lift only to the third and top level, and the Viewing Gallery. This is 274 m above the ground and can hold 600 people at a time. On a clear day it’s possible to see for 72 km (45 miles), with a possibly a distant view of Chartres Cathedral.

The Tower is open every day and includes two restaurants. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 12:45 a.m. It gets a fresh coat of paint every seven years, which requires 40-60 tons of paint, 1,500 brushes, and a team of 25 painters. 20,000 lightbulbs illuminate the structure every night, and 43 technicians are employed to change them. It sways two to three inches in the wind, and when the temperature drops, the height can contract by almost six inches. The complex and innovative pattern of pig-iron girders came from the need to stabilize the tower in high winds.

There are more than 40 replicas, imitations and homages around the world, including a half scale version in Las Vegas and the Tokyo Tower in Japan. For 41 years it was the tallest building in the world, but lost that title to the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.

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The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 to celebrate the Paris Exposition (AKA the World’s Fair) of the same year, and also to mark the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. It is of course named its chief designer, the French civil engineer and architect Gustave Eiffel, who worked alongside Maurice Koechlin, Emile Nouguier and Stephen Sauvestre of the Compagnie des Etablissements Eiffel.

Eiffel was born Gustave Bonickhausen in the Cote-d’Or region of France, a child of German immigrants. The family adopted the name Eiffel as a reference to the Eifel mountains in the region from which they had come.

In 1885 he was awarded the honor of overseeing the design and construction of the Tower, and read a paper on the project to the Société des Ingénieurs Civils. He finished his talk by saying that the tower would symbolize “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.”

There still exists an apartment of the top floor originally created for Gustave Eiffel as private quarters for entertaining, and now used as a museum holding lifelike wax figures of Eiffel, his daughter Claire and fellow technological luminary Thomas Edison. The decor remains largely the same since 1900, with floral wallpaper, oil paintings, upholstered seating and wooden furniture.

300 workers spent two years assembling the lattice tower with 18,000 pieces of puddle iron and 2.5 million rivets. A brick chimney built to assist the construction efforts is still hidden amidst the trees just near the West Pillar. Despite the scale of the operation, the Tower was not meant to be permanent! The original plan to dismantle it after 20 years, but city officials decided to keep it since it had become a valuable radiotelegraph station.

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During World War Two, while Paris was under Nazi occupation, the German troops hung a sign from the tower proclaiming their victory over France and established a military bunker below the South Pillar, which today is used as a mini museum open to small tour groups. Despite the Nazi domination, they could not dampen the Eiffel Tower’s potency as a symbol for the spirit of Free France. When Hitler visited Paris, members of the French Resistance cut the lift cables so that he would have to climb the steps if he wanted to reach the top. In Spring 1944, a P-51C Mustang flown by American pilot William Overstreet Jr. dramatically flying beneath the Eiffel Tower’s arches to follow and shoot down a German ME 109 aircraft, a sight which lifted the spirits of the entire city and fueled the tide of anti-Nazi resistance.

Toward the end of 1944, Hitler ordered General Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, to “level” the city and destroy the Eiffel Tower by blowing it up. Choltitz ignored the order, stayed and eventually surrendered his small force to the Free French Forces. He later asserted that his defiance of Hitler’s direct order stemmed from its obvious military futility, his belief that Hitler had by then become insane, and his affection for the French capital’s history and culture, There is a plaque on the Eiffel Tower relating the exploit of a group of Parisian firemen who managed to hoist the French flag on the Tower before Paris was finally liberated

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It also occupies a cherished place in popular culture; it has played the role of “symbol of Paris” in numerous films, books and comics. The destruction of the Eiffel Tower is also seen as a symbol of how bad things have got for the entire human race, for example in “Independence Day”.

Superman stopped it from being blown up by terrorists in Superman II: May Day (Grace Jones) escapes from 007 (Roger Moore) by taking a parachute jump off it in “A View to A Kill” (and the band Duran Duran get up to some spy-related shenanigans in the music video for the theme song). The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Romana (Lalla Ward) stood on it and gazed lovingly over Paris in the classic Doctor Who serial “City of Death”.

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You would have thought the Eiffel Tower would appear in a great deal of Steampunk literature, wouldn’t you? Well … not so much. Not yet, anyway. Tangentially related is the historical novel “Murder on the Eifel Tower: A Victor Legris Mystery” by Claude Izner, and “The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” (French: Les Aventures extraordinaires d’Adèle Blanc-Sec), a historical fantasy comic book series written and illustrated by Jacques Tardi.

But for something that resembles Steampunk … we would recommend “The Umbrella Academy,” published by Dark Horse Comics, a comic book and graphic novel series by Gerard Way (of the band My Chemical Romance, and drawn by Gabriel Bá. The first issue of Volume One is entitled “The Day The Eiffel Tower Went Berserk”, and reveals that the Eiffel Tower is really a weaponized spaceship piloted by the undead cyborg corpse of its inventor. Yes, you really have to read it for yourself.

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For the second Steampunk example, I hate to mention Disney here, but … the film version of “Tomorrowland”, directed by Brad Bird and starring George Clooney, is worth a look. Although the concept of the movie and original Disney attraction as a whole belongs to the sub-genre of Raygun Gothic (more of this in a separate post), “Tomorrowland” includes a fascinating concept right out of the Steampunk aesthetic. In the film’s mythos, the clandestine cabal of Gustave Eiffel, Jules Verne, Thomas Edison, and Nikola Tesla has left a secret at Monsieur Eiffel’s tower. The monument is none other than a gigantic Victorian-era launch gantry, and enclosed within it is a Steampunk-style, rivets-and-girder-work rocket ship. The rocket comes complete with an interior full of polished leather, dark wood and brass – and it’s in full working order. It blasts off, taking Clooney and his companions on a Vernesian orbit of the Moon before setting off to the titular “Tomorrowland”.

 

If this sounds awesome to you, the only problem is that there is too little screen time devoted to it. The good news is, however, the Disney hardcover book “Before Tomorrowland: The Secret History of the World of Tomorrowland” by Jeff Jensen, Brad Bird, Jonathan Case, and Damon Lindelof acts as a companion/prequel to the film. It is also on Kindle, but be aware that it is just a short graphic novel section of the longer print book. It is also only available on select devices (presumably, ones able to display color graphics).

COMING SOON: ASPECTS OF STEAMPUNK # 3 – JULES VERNE AND THE CITY OF NANTES!

 

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David Bowie is – in Tokyo!

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Preview: “A Coffin Full Of Stars” – part 2

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This is part two of the alternative-history Wild West short story. If you haven’t read part one yet, go here. 

All of them jumped up in alarm, their chairs toppling backwards with a crash.

Four new figures had entered from the back yard, and stood warily, eyeing the four in the hotel lobby.

One was a giant of a man, obviously Mexican, who stood perhaps six feet six in his sandals and stained farm laborer’s clothes that were little more than rags held up by a bullet-belt. Burning eyes glared out of a broad, swarthy, mustached face.

The other was almost as large, as well as broad and barrel-chested. He was clad in aged buckskins and high-topped boots, and his face was obscured by a bushy grey beard and a broad-rimmed campaign hat. His skin – what little Jakes could see of it – was tanned almost the same color as the buckskin jacket.

The third was lean and wiry, just over six feet tall, with a fleshy prominent nose, dark brown hair, and fierce black eyes. Even, tobacco-stained teeth glinted beneath a thick moustache as he scowled at Jakes and the others. He brandished a kitchen knife in his hands, like he knew how to fight with it.

The fourth was a marked contrast to the others. He was a rail-thin man of about sixty, in funeral black, bloodshot eyes behind wire-rim spectacles perched on a long bony nose. His threadbare and frayed black suit was beginning to take on a silvery shine. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he announced in a strident, scholarly voice. “Please forgive the uncouth appearance of my … er … new friends. We’ve been walking around this town all morning, except it feels like forever.”

The huge Mexican ignored the speech and pushed open the door to the kitchen. Jakes edged forward to follow his movements. The big man put down the saddlebags he was carrying and started to open cupboards and barrels. He pulled out small bundles wrapped in cloth, sniffed at them, and began to stuff them into the bags.

“Hey, you!” shouted Maxwell. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“What does it look I’m doing, gringo? I’m taking food and canteens of water. I’m getting out of here.”

We’re getting out of here,” corrected the man in buckskins.

The Mexican ignored him and stood up, leering at all of them from inside the kitchen. “There are no horses. We checked. We looked all around the town this morning.”

“Why don’t we all wait here?” Belle said suddenly.

The lean-faced man grinned at her mockingly. “Wait for what?”

“Wait for someone to come by.”

“There ain’t no-one coming by here, lady,” said the lean-faced man. “Maybe not ever.”

“We cannot stay here,” growled the Mexican. “We cannot ride. I’m going to walk out of this town. Walk until I reach the next town, or until I drop dead.”

“Now hold on a second,” said the man in black. “We agreed to discuss this thoroughly before we -”

“You stay and talk all you want, senor. As for me, I have to move, and keep moving. That is my way. That is how I have kept alive.”

“Maybe so, but you ain’t taking all that food,” said the lean-faced man threateningly. “We share it.”

The Mexican continued scavenging along the shelves. “You want to share my food, then you walk with me, amigo.”

“Why, you -”

Jakes saw the lean-faced man reverse his grip on the knife, and pull his arm back to throw it. Before Jakes could shout a warning a long dark cord lashed out from the kitchen, uncoiling like a steak of lightning and finding its target in the attacker’s hand. The lean-faced man screamed in pain and dropped the knife. He hunched over and almost fell.

“You son of a bitch!” he yelled.

In answer, the huge Mexican held up the whip in his hand and chuckled. “I gave you a chance, capullo. Walk with me, and share my food. But you chose to attack me with something that looks like a small cheese knife. Perhaps you should learn to control your temper, and restrict yourself to cutting cheese.”

Jakes looked at Maxwell in surprise. The Sheriff was laughing too. “I’ll be damned,” Maxwell said. “It all fits. Mexican … about six foot six … skilled with a whip … I should have guessed when I first saw you!”

“Guessed what?” asked Belle.

“You’re looking at Jose Zamora, otherwise known as El Cougar,” said Maxwell, with more than a hint of wonderment. “Mexican rebel and freedom fighter. Last I heard, you were somewhere between El Camino Real and San Diego de Alcala. What’re you doing here?”

The man known as El Cougar stared coolly at Maxwell. “I wish I could answer you, senor, but none of us know where ‘here’ is.” Then he turned back into the kitchen.

“My goddamned hand!” gasped the wounded man.

“I suppose I could help him,” said Martha timidly. “I know a little about medicine …”

“Hear that, feller?” Maxwell said firmly. “This angel of mercy is going to tend to your wound. I suggest you accept graciously and mind your manners, because if you don’t, then I’ll be the next one who attacks you, and I’ll attack more than just your hand.”

The lean-faced man grimaced, nodded, and sat down at a back table. Miss Harvey picked up her bag and walked nervously over to him. “I do believe I have some lotion in my bag,” she said. “My handkerchief could do as a bandage, I suppose …”

“I feel that we’ve got off on the wrong foot,” said the preacher, walking over to Maxwell. “The least I can do is introduce ourselves. It seems like you’ve met Mr. Cougar already. This wild gentleman in the furs is Hank McGrath, the man with the injured hand is Jeff Bagley, and my name is Jedediah Ives, minister of Ellsworth, Kansas.”

Jakes introduced them all, finishing with Maxwell. “This here’s the Sheriff of Kosse, Chet Maxwell. He says he’s gonna get us out of here.”

McGrath snorted with laughter. “You ain’t in Kosse any more, lawman.”

“It don’t matter,” said Maxwell, glaring at McGrath. “I’ll still get you out.”

“Estoy listo!” the giant yelled from the kitchen. “This is the last you have seen of El Cougar. Vete al infierno, ustedes!”

He walked out, pushing the doors open dismissively, and began trekking down the street. Everyone followed him out. Maybe nobody wanted to be left alone in the hotel lobby.

“Are you going to let him leave with all that food?” Belle asked angrily.

“If that’s El Cougar, I’m not gonna be the one to tell him to stop,” Maxwell said with a faint smirk.

“I saw through to that kitchen when the door was open,” Jakes said placatingly. “It looks like there’s a whole lot more food in there.”

“What for?” Martha said, looking pained. “I’m not staying. I’m not going to stay in this horrible place.”

“He said there were no horses,” Jakes told her.

“You gonna take his word for that?” Belle demanded.

“Whether he’s lyin’ or not,” said Maxwell hastily, “I reckon we should all stay together.”

“Are we being punished by the Lord?” said Martha quietly wringing her hands. “Why? I’ve tried to live a good life, I have never done anything to deserve this!”

Belle put her hand on the other woman’s shoulder, offering words of comfort. Feeling even more helpless, Jakes looked upward into the shimmering sky, his hand shielding his eyes.

“It’s past noon,” Bagley said from behind him.

Jakes turned round. “Guess it was that obvious, huh?”

“I was thinking the same thing myself,” Bagley said, keeping his eyes on Jakes. “Wondering how long exactly we’ve been here. I guess I missed breakfast. Lunch, too.”

“Well, don’t you worry none,” guffawed McGrath. “Mr. Lawman here reckons he’s gonna get us home for dinner.”

“Dinner,” said Belle longingly. “Speaking of that, I could do with some lunch.”

“I reckon I could do a lot more on a full stomach,” said the Preacher wistfully.

“Amen to that,” said Jakes, his stomach rumbling and his nausea returning.

The group entered the hotel kitchen that El Cougar had raided and busied themselves emptying cupboards. To Jakes’s surprise, it contained a huge iron wood-burning stove with a Dutch oven and a skillet placed on top. The grate was already stacked with kindling, and a pile of chopped dry hickory stood in the nearby corner.

The larder contained salted pork, beef and venison jerky, sourdough biscuits, cornbread, onions, potatoes, fresh cobs of corn, apples, and a pan full of soaked pinto beans.

“Somebody made darned sure we won’t starve to death,” observed Maxwell.

An hour later they were eating pork and beans, succotash and cornbread on relatively clean china plates. They ate mostly in silence, letting the visceral pleasure of a good meal distract them from what they were afraid to think about.

Maxwell wiped the last of the gravy up with a hunk of cornbread, then cleared his throat. “Now that our bellies are happy, maybe we should nourish our brains by finding out more about each other. Like I said, I’m a lawman. What about you, Jakes?”

Jethro closed his eyes and thought. He hated talking about himself; there never seemed to be any point in talking. It was work he preferred, the simple mechanics of moving his body around, doing something productive. If there were a Lord above, Jakes hoped that was what he would be judged on.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said, opening his eyes but keeping them downcast. “These days my wife and I just run a small farm in Lakeside, near San Antonio.”

“These days?” said Bagley. “What’d you do before?”

Jakes frowned. Should I tell them? he asked himself. Feeling the heat of so many eyes upon him, he kept talking, the words tumbling out. “Served a stretch in the 9th Cavalry. After that … when I came home, a couple of years back, I had to sort out some trouble. A syndicate of railroad and mining companies had set up a sawmill to the west and built a dam to divert the river. That flooded some of the Lakeside farmlands and made them worthless for growing. The townsfolk complained to everyone they could find but, well, the courts would listen but then nothing would happen. The bankers and railroaders would pay them to look the other way, of course. Things got so bad that … a group of persons unknown took some powder up there on night and blew up the mill, then the dam.”

“Is that so,” said Bagley, chuckling quietly. “Of course, you had nothing to do with that yourself, did you?”

Jakes shrugged. “Makes no difference now. Everyone in Lakeside is trying to forget it, but they can’t get rid of the rumors that big business is going to get its revenge on us one day.”

Maxwell grunted, then turned to McGrath. “So what about you?”

“I hunt buffalo,” McGrath said through a mouthful of beans.

Maxwell frowned. “I thought there weren’t any more buffalo. We’d killed ’em all off.”

“There’s one left.” Maxwell stared into the distance as if he were looking across the prairies, the knife and fork suddenly forgotten in his hands. “There’s one left. A white one. And I’m gonna be the man who takes it down.”

Maxwell turned his head to Jakes, and rolled his eyes. “What about you, Ma’am?” he said to Belle.

She fluttered her eyelids and looked coy. All she needed was an Oriental fan to complete the pantomime, thought Jakes. “Well, I don’t rightly know. I’m a musician, a singer, and a dancer, born on the Missouri frontier but for the last few years, based in New Orleans.”

“You’re an entertainer,” sneered Bagley.

She stared back at him defiantly. “Well I may be, but I ain’t a saloon girl. And I sure ain’t never worked in a cathouse. I’ve met some pretty rich and powerful people backstage at my theater. You might be surprised to hear some of their names.”

“Is that right?” Maxwell narrowed his eyes. “Yeah … I reckon I might be surprised, at that. What about you, Martha?”

The blonde woman leaned forward to make her point more emphatically. “I’ll have you know I am a perfectly normal, respectable, post office employee. I am the town telegrapher of Rita Blanca, with a loving husband Bill, a younger brother who has made quite a name for himself as a deputy sheriff, a young daughter Nellie, and …” Her voice caught on the words. “Baby Andrew …”

Jakes nodded in recognition. “Deputy Sheriff of Rita Blanca? What’s your brother’s name?”

“Larry. Larry Ainsworth. That’s my maiden name, of course.”

“Well, I’ll be!” Jakes sat back in his chair, looking at the slightly built woman in a new light. “He was the man who took down the Estleman gang all by himself, unless I’m mistaken?”

“Oh, you read the pamphlets!” Martha beamed at him and then looked around the table to explain. “Larry and I had some printed up with the machine in the post office. I had to fight tooth and nail to stop him exaggerating the fight, because he did have the sheriff backing him up, but what you read in the pamphlet is … mostly correct. I’m so glad they got as far as San Antonio, Mr. Jakes!”

“Hmmph.” Maxwell brushed a few cornbread crumbs from his lap. “What about you, Bagley?”

The lean-faced man shrugged. “I’m just a cowhand.”

Maxwell shifted position in his chair, setting his shoulders back to take a long look at Jeff Bagley. “Well now, there’s no need to go hiding your lights under a bushel, Mister. They – whoever they are – came into our houses, took us away, and spirited us through the night to put us down here. So there’s gotta be something special about you. There’s gotta be something that gives you an edge.”

Bagley glared back at him. “I’m just an Arizona cowhand. That’s all.” He pushed back his chair and stood up. “And I need a smoke. At least I’ve still got my tobacco – they didn’t take that away.”

“I gave up smoking years back,” Maxwell said to all around the table, a little defensively. “What about you, preacher?”

Jedediah Ives spread his hands and grinned. “As I said, I tend the flock of the town of Ellsworth, Kansas, and help their sins to be forgiven. I do not wish to be as taciturn as Mr. Bagley, but there is simply nothing I can add to – ”

“Wait.” Maxwell held up a hand for silence. “Sorry to cut you off, Padre, but do you hear something?”

Jakes listened, his senses alert. Yes … noises, carried on the wind. A shout. More shouts, followed by curses, the scuffing of dirt, and the jangling of spurs.

They stood up from table and moved as one to the door. Jakes was first out, joining Bagley on the boardwalk, who was staring intently down the street, a rolled cigarette cupped in his hand. The noises were coming from the other side of town; the direction opposite to the one El Cougar was taking.

TO BE CONTINUED … 

FOR MORE INFORMATION ABOUT “THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO”, GO HERE. 

 

 

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Preview: “A Coffin Full of Stars”

this is the opening chapter from “A Coffin Full of Stars”, the ninth story in the Futurist Manifesto series. For more information about Futurist Manifesto, go here. 

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The hotel room was silent, apart from the buzzing of flies at the window, the wind blowing outside, a door banging open and shut in the distance, and the deep, labored breathing of the man on the bed.

He lay on his back with one arm crooked defensively across his face. His breathing caught and he coughed, his chest jerking upwards as he returned to consciousness.

He moved his arm and opened his eyes. For a few moments he stared blankly at the cracked plaster ceiling above him. He frowned, turned his head, and saw his pocket watch lying on a wooden stool by the bedside.

He picked it up, shaking his head to find his way out of the fog of sleep. The hands said five minutes to ten, but the watch had stopped. He shook it. No movement.

He lay peering at the watch for a few seconds more and then sat up convulsively, jerking his head around in alarm. He wasn’t at home. His wife Anne wasn’t lying next to him. He was in a room that he had never seen before.

His heart pounded like a runaway horse and he looked down at the off-white longjohns he had been wearing in bed. Calm down, he told himself, you’re dreaming. Just lie back and go back to sleep, and you’ll wake up back in your own bed at Lakeside.

He grunted with anger and twisted over the bed, feeling for the chamber pot. He pulled it from under the bed, threw aside the unfamiliar bedclothes, unflapped his longjohns and did his business.

Maybe I had an accident, he thought afterwards, as he stood and looked around himself. Maybe I got taken to some mission hospital …

His memories and his bodies told him otherwise. He felt the nagging grind of the pain in his lower back and the tingling of the scar on his leg, but that was nothing new, only the relics of the War. As his head cleared, he remembered going to bed last night with Anne, lying with her face against his chest and feeling her breath cool on his skin. It was the time of day he prized above all others, the two of them, holding each other tight.

She had been taken from him. No, he had been taken from her.

His hands clenched into fists and he started pacing the room like a caged coyote, running his hands through his hair, his eyes searching for any clues. No pictures on the wall, no calendar, no ornaments of any kind. Basic hotel furniture, with oil lamps and candles for the night.

He noticed something heaped on the chair, and he recognized his own clothes – with his holster. Three paces took him there; the holster was empty. His Colt .44 was missing.

He stood completely still, and he now noticed the sweat oozing up from his brow, his armpits, the palms of his hands. The room was hot. It was the cloying heat of summer, but he wasn’t sweating because of the heat.

A sound came to him, not carried by the wind but instead by the fabric of the hotel. Not a sound; more a vibration. The walls thrummed and the plaster creaked, and glasses jangled on the washstand.

He put his hands to his face and roared – a full-throated, incoherent cry of rage.

He crossed to the washstand. There was a full porcelain jug of cold water and he filled the basin then plunged his face into it. He straightened up, rubbing his face vigorously with the towel, trying to rub the confusion out of his head.

He forced himself to breath deeply, and he closed his eyes, listening to the reassuring sound of his own voice.

“My name is Jethro Jakes. I’m not an outlaw, or an alcoholic. I’m just a homesteader, and I’m going to get back home, ’cause that’s where I should be.”

He dressed quickly and sat back down on the bed. Despite his efforts to steel himself, his fingers were shaking, and he sat, waiting, until the trembling had passed. Then he walked with slow paces to the window.

With a few strong pushes, he heaved the sash window upwards; it felt like it hadn’t been opened in a long time.

He looked out into the dry dirt track of a main street empty of life. His room was on the third floor of a wooden-fronted hotel with a bare porch and weathered boardwalk below. The street was filled with other two-story buildings, all aged and anonymous, like the hotel. A harsh desert sun glared mercilessly down upon the scene.

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A flicker of movement made him look to his right. The wind was blowing a lump of tumbleweed the size of a dog across an intersection, further down the street. The sight filled Jakes with nameless despair.

He stood at the window, listening to the wind. Could he hear voices? If he listened, there seemed to be something human, along with the relentless banging of a door or a loose shutter somewhere … Prayers? Pleading? He leaned further out of the window, feeling the hot breeze on his face. Now the voice didn’t seem to be English at all. Was it Spanish?

Had he gone insane? Was this all the curse of a brain fever, and he was really lying in bed somewhere, Anne weeping at his side?

“Hello?”

He twisted around in shock, his hand going to a gun that wasn’t there.

A woman’s voice. Clear and unmistakable.

“Anne,” he muttered, then heard a man’s voice joining her.

“Hey! Anyone up there? Anyone in the rooms?”

He crossed to the door. He recognized his own boots immediately inside the entrance, and jammed them on. Preparing himself for anything, he walked out into the dusty air of the hallway and looked for the stairs.

He saw three people staring up at him as he stood at the landing and stepped slowly down the bare wooden staircase.

One man. Two women.

He studied the man first, searching for any potential threat. His skin was chestnut brown, a black mustache covered his mouth like crow’s wings, and his eyes had the black shimmer of strong coffee as he studied Jethro intently.

He wore an aged duster over a white shirt and denim pants. Like Jakes, he had a holster, but no gun.

The women looked like studies in contrast. In front of a bare wooden table stood a Negro woman dressed like an East Coast saloon girl. Her low-cut bodice had no sleeves to hide her bare arms, and her bottle green ruffled skirt stretched down to her kid boots. Wide eyes stared in surprise at Jakes from beneath a mass of frizzed hair and above full, shapely lips.

Next to her stood a white woman who looked like she was doing her best not to cower in fear. Her long blond hair was pulled back severely from her brow, and wire-rimmed reading glasses perched on her thin nose. She wore a two-piece gray floral jacket over a calico top and long flounced skirt. She could be a schoolteacher, Jakes thought. A prim schoolma’am standing next to a saloon girl and a gunfighter.

“Are you alone up there?” the man called.

“As far as I know,” Jakes replied.

“Where is this place?” the Negro woman asked angrily.

“I was kind of hoping you could tell me,” Jakes said.

By now he had reached the foot of the stairs. The four of them stood in a rough circle, eyeing each other with caution, distrust … and fear.

“Who are you?” the other man asked.

“Well, who are you?” Jakes replied.

“Boys,” said the Negro girl, “be civil. I guess things would be a lot easier if we knew each other’s names.”

The other man looked shrewdly at the woman, then Jakes, and said, “Name’s Maxwell. Chet Maxwell.”

“Jethro Jakes.”

“Belle DeRosa, out of Louisiana,” said the Negro woman.

The schoolmistress looked at them all shyly. “You can call me Martha Jessup.”

“Well, Miss Jessup, what do you think we’re -”

Jakes froze in mid-speech. Over the other side of the saloon, a face appeared above the swing doors. Another Negro face, sharp eyes under short cropped hair. There looking in for a second, then gone.

Jakes strode over to the swing doors, pushed them open, and stomped onto the boardwalk. The whispering wind blew dust along the empty street.

“I hate this place,” he muttered.

“Hey, what you doing?” Maxwell called.

“I saw someone.” Jakes walked back into the saloon. “We’re not the only ones here.”

“Okay,” said Maxwell. “Why don’t we all just sit down and try to figure this out?”

He pulled up a straight-backed wooden chair slowly and waved everyone else to a seat. They sat around one of the round tables, staring at each other.

“So who goes first?” asked Jakes.

“Why don’t we all say the last thing we remember?” countered Maxwell.

“I had dinner last night at home, had a couple of whiskies to settle my mood. That’s all,” Jakes told them. While speaking, he felt the despair return to claw at him. Anne! he thought. I can’t stay here jawing. I’ve got to get back to her …

“Same here,” said Belle. “I went to bed after a show in New Orleans, and woke up here.”

“The country dance,” said Martha clearly, “and beef stew for dinner. Oh my lord,” she said, pulling out a lace handkerchief, her voice breaking. “My poor babies! My poor husband! They’ll be looking for me, what will they think? They can’t … I’ve got to …”

She stopped, choked by a fit of sobbing as he covered her face with the handkerchief. Belle looked embarrassed. Maxwell got up and stood behind Martha’s chair, placing a hand gently upon her shoulder.

“Now, now,” he said, aiming for a soothing tone of voice that didn’t quite work. “Don’t you go fretting like that. I’m a Sheriff. I’ll get you out of here.”

“Sheriff of what?” asked Jakes.

“Sheriff of El Paso, Texas.”

“I don’t see your badge.”

Maxwell flashed a warning look back at Jakes. “It’s probably the same place my gun is. Yours, too.”

Martha clutched her nose, wiping the tears out of her eyes. As she visibly made an effort to calm down, Jakes felt it again, over the noise of the young woman’s ragged breathing.

The walls rattled. The chandelier above them chimed and tinkled as the glass vibrated. Beneath their boots, the ground trembled, and Jakes heard the faint, distant swoosh of displaced air.

“What the hell was that?” said Belle crudely.

“Earthquake?” asked Maxwell.

“There ain’t no earthquakes around these parts,” said Jakes reflexively.

“We have no idea where these parts are,” Miss Harvey said.

    “Why don’t we all go out and take a look?” called a new, loud voice from the back door.

All four jumped up in alarm, their chairs toppling backwards with a crash.

Four new figures had entered from the back yard, and stood warily, eyeing the four in the saloon.

TO BE CONTINUED …

STAY TUNED FOR MORE NEWS REGARDING THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO, COMING SOON! 

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