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I enjoy reading the fantasy novels of L. E. Modesitt  Jr. In the Recluce Saga which covers one thousand eight hundred and fifty five years, an entire world, and nineteen books, the stories tend to be told in one or two book stand alones not published in chronological order, although the chronological order of the novels themselves is obvious, and world shaking characters and past events are referenced in novels based in their future. Two matters that I find fascinating about the Recluce Saga is that there are no Blue Meanies, even the villains warrant a few sympathetic books, and secondly that there is little sense of social progress. Things change, but the lives of most people don’t improve significantly because the world is based on the balance of order and chaos, which rhymes with good and evil, but isn’t quite the same thing. There are loopholes built into the system in the form of those entities who use both order and chaos — the Great Forest, the druids,  and the gray mages. They don’t count against the balance, tend to align with order, and their influence has increased over time. I often wonder about the mundane follow-on lives of various favorite characters and hope that at least on the small scale of their lives progress is being made. I find that when I reread his books I look forward to the quiet domestic scenes that reveal everyday life. The epilogues seem far too short. The Wellspring of Chaos and Ordermaster comprise a self-contained two-book story that doesn’t ripple through the history of the saga, and features intriguing characters that as of yet haven’t reappeared. Therefore I’ve decided to peek in on their follow-on lives. Of course I realize that the potential audience is limited. However as a fan I would enjoy stumbling across something like this. Maybe somebody else will too. I hope Mr. Modesitt doesn’t mind.

Lord Karl gazed out over the harbor from his recently expanded front porch, his wife Jeka nestled tight to him on their bench swing. In the fading light even his enhanced vision could no longer make out the Cantyl ensign at the end of the pier, three staggered hunter’s green and black crosses on an ivory background. No one knew what the demesne ensign was supposed to represent. The crosses were elongated and stylized, not at all like the cross of the one god believers. Jeka had changed the crosses to Lord Karl’s colors, but otherwise had left the demesne flag unchanged. Coopers didn’t have colors, so Jeka had chosen the green and black and designed his tartan, the same pattern which now upholstered much of the furniture in the Great House. Karl liked the tartan pattern and colors. He found green and black restful. When he’d fled Brysta, Karl had asked Gharan the weaver to hide and shelter Jeka until he could come back for her. That had taken some time, during which Karl’s fortunes had improved greatly. According to Gharan, Jeka had more than earned her keep weaving. The upholstery cloth in the Great House came from Gharan’s shop in Brysta, via Hagan’s ships.

In the fifteen years since he had been ennobled and awarded Cantyl by the then young Lord Ghrant, much around him had expanded, including his waistline he noted, no doubt a result of Adelya’s superb cooking. The porch had been the former ship’s carpenter Tarkyn’s last project, a simple straight forward job, finished just a year back. Karl had loved the old curved porch, so Tarkyn had changed nothing except the size. Now they could hold dinners and small ceremonies outside when it was nice. Tarkyn had passed away peacefully the past winter, after nine years as Cantyl’s Chief Carpenter. At first a high sounding position for a part-time job invented for him by Karl in gratitude for his own treatment as Tarkyn’s second back in the day aboard the Seastag. However the position had grown like everything else around Cantyl. Now a busy carpentry workshop stood next to the also enlarged sawmill.

Bannat, Chief Forester Dorwan’s son, managed the sawmill. Other than some pines for ship masts and related spars, Cantyl shipped very little timber anymore, using nearly all of it for its own furniture and building materials. Karl still had some difficulty thinking of Bannat and Fianna as consorted with two children, one entering his teens no less. Little Rona who used to run messages around the grounds and back and forth down to the pier had consorted Tod, one of Demyst’s city patrollers. Adelya’s daughter Heldya was the head cook at the inn and Enelya’s principle assistant. Heldya had consorted Fargen, the Second Mate on the Seastag. Since the consorting he had become First Mate on the Seamouse. That was only a slight promotion, since serving on an ocean freighter was more prestigious than serving on what was essentially a port-to-port passenger ferry. That his consort lived in one of those ports counted in the equation. Also sometimes Heldya made the tendays round trip for procurement purposes.

Lord Karl himself had built Heldya’s consorting chest at Adelya’s request not long after coming to Cantyl. Then Speltar, the steward, had mentioned that Glyan, the vintner, had mentioned how his betrothed daughter Fianna admired Heldya’s chest. The first two of many, and considered propitious, they had become a Cantyl tradition. Even Meyena, Lord Arynal’s daughter no less, had asked Jeka if she could commission one, a simple one just like all the others. “Lest it lose its magic,” Jeka had teased him with a smile. It had been Karl and Jeka’s consorting gift of course. Jeka still treasured the memory of the look on Karl’s face when she had mentioned that the owner of Cantyl’s consorting shop had asked if Karl would mind making some consorting chests for sale, even suggesting that Cantyl consider offering consorting packages which would include one of Lord Karl’s magical chests. Actually Jeka had thought that that  wasn’t a bad idea, as long as the chests were clearly marked carpentry shop copies. Karl had roared that if it was his fate to make consorting chests, by the Fallen Black Angels, he would know every recipient. Karl’s own betrothal and physical consorting had been instantaneous. Jeka had seen to that. As he remembered it, no wood chests had been involved. They did have a later ceremony at Cantyl. When he’d asked if she missed having a consorting chest, Jeka had laughed and told him that she wouldn’t have traded the voyage from Brysta to Cantyl for all the wooden chests in the world, even magical ones.

He employed one other master cooper, Turnal, two journeymen coopers, and a varying number of apprentices to make the red oak barrels for common use, including for the booming salted and pickled fish business. Turnal helped some with the white oak barrels when magely affairs took precedent, although Karl insisted on doing the finishing work on every barrel made from the rationed white oaks in the New Forest, as well as the few trees added by Lord Arynal whenever he cleared land, barrels used exclusively for Cantyl’s wine. The forest in Lord Ghrant’s original Cantyl land grant had contained only a few white oaks. At Lord Hagan’s prompting, a secondary grant of a small adjacent forest had added several stands of them. The New Forest to the north and inland was not to be confused with the New Property along the coast to the west that Jeka had purchased, which became the site of the mushrooming town of Cantyl. According to Glyan, Cantyl’s Chief Vintner, the provenance of the barrels probably added half a gold to the price. The number of barrels required had increased over the years along with Glyan’s increasing of vines on the Old Property. Karl doubted that he would be able to keep up with the coopering when Rona’s new vines started bearing in a few years, and then they would have to either import white oak or acquire more forest. Jeka was exploring the latter option. Moving the work that others did from his original cooperage on the Great House grounds to the Cantyl Administrative Center made sense. At some point he would probably be reduced to symbolically finishing a stave or two per barrel. Some of the oldest and smelliest white oak barrels bearing his mark had turned into collector’s items. Jeka had laughed out loud when Karl had stared in bewilderment at a prominently displayed stained and battered barrel in a Cantyl antique shop.

Jeka had reserved a large area of their land about one kilometer inland from the town. There she’d had built an immense rambling administrative compound, actually a series of mostly connected buildings, with offices for all the logistical and management functions, even those functions which had yet to function, as well as warehouse space for building materials, supplies, and marketable produce. A construction crew that varied in size depending on the ongoing jobs operated almost continually from there. The main building, the Cantyl Town Hall,  held a jail, justice chamber, patroller office, and an infirmary with two connected rooms with beds, as well as financial offices and a small bank with vaults. Adjacent were a training ground, barracks, and stables for the Cantyl Home Guard, all of which used only a few times per year by Arms Commander Demyst for training exercises for the Home Guard Volunteers. The exception being the stables which permanently housed some fifty mounts, the associated costs of which were partially underwritten by Lord Ghrant who wanted a mounted force not housed in Valmurl close by. Since there were no paid officers with the exception of Arms Commander Demyst, and only a few permanent troopers who filled in when necessary as city patrollers, the costs of stable hands, a few maintenance staff, and a cook were manageable. The volunteer troopers were given a nice year end bonus of two golds each, and more if the levees were called up by Lord Ghrant.

That had happened just once in the last fifteen years, when some traditionalist northern lords felt that Lord Ghrant was further weakening male primogeniture rights by allowing Lady Ananda and not her violence-prone younger brother to assume the lordship of Vertuil, a prosperous demesne east of Cassock on the Valmurl River.  A Hamorian fleet had briefly blocked the harbor at Valmurl in support of the rebels. Cooler heads had prevailed when the young man in question had died from severe brain injuries. Excessively drunk he had fallen off his horse and struck his head. One of the advantages of living in Cantyl was that Lord Karl’s movements could not be tracked easily. If a few eyebrows had been raised, they had been raised quietly. The young Lord Ghrant in a private moment with Lord Hagan would have made a veiled reference indicating suspicion, possibly with a soupçon of exasperation. Apparently the older and wiser Lord Ghrant didn’t have a clue. Hagan rightly saw that unrest as masking other issues, namely the growing dominance of the southern lords — Ghrant, Hagan, and Karl. After that Hagan had prompted Lord Ghrant to appoint a series of northern lords as Prime Ministers. That had calmed the waters long enough to permit the power and wealth discrepancy between the two regions to become so overwhelming that any rebellion would be futile. That Lord Grant ruled with a light hand helped.

When called upon Cantyl could field a hundred men immediately, a full company. Fifty would embark on the Seamouse and be furnished mounts in Valmurl. Valmurl was a two or three day pure sail away, weather depending, but pushing engines usually the Seamouse could do it in one long day. The remaining troopers would either embark with mounts on a larger cargo ship sent for that purpose, or more likely ride up the rough coast road for five or six long days to Valmurl, down at least a day due to recent road improvements. In such a case, even assuming that Lord Karl had been summoned, Cantyl would not be defenseless. Some of the informal Gray Guards would take the opportunity to beat each other up with staffs and wooden sabers and shoot crossbows, thus earning free meals and a few silvers. And there was often an order mage or two around with some abilities that might prove useful in a fight. Julien’s ordered iron crossbow darts came to mind. The earthmage who had largely built Cantyl’s new roads, and who had since returned to Recluce, Jeffrin, would have been a formidable foe. Karl always found employment for peaceful order mages. He had never forgotten the blackstaffer Jenevra. The fact that Cantyl had benefitted greatly from its policy of hospitality had not been lost on some of the more open minded Austran lords.

The carpentry workshop was currently being run in an acting capacity by Adlenta and Julien, two betrothed blackstaffers from Recluse. They had arrived separately five or six years back. Adlenta had a strong order affinity for wood. She produced fine furniture, works of art really. The wardrobe she’d made for Jeka for their tenth anniversary, featuring thirty-one (Jeka’s age at that time) different carved flowers, all common to Cantyl and each to scale, was considered priceless. Julien worked with both wood and metal, but not with Adlenta’s fine skill. Karl and Jeka had offered Adlenta and Julien permanent positions. However heeding advice he had received from the druids, Karl always advised blacks to return to Recluce before making a final decision. Julien split time at the forge and could order the iron used for Cantyl’s crossbow darts and arrow heads for potential use against white wizards and their chaos touched troopers, although none had seen battle. In fact Cantyl had no archers in the Home Guards, since crossbow use required far less training. The arrowheads were sent on to Lord Ghrant who had one company of archers.

Once the stockpiles of darts were sufficient for a multiyear siege, an unlikely occurrence,  Julien had taken an interest in ship building. He’d spent a great deal of time with old Tarkyn. The ships of Recluce were said to be made entirely of ordered iron, the armored Hamorian warships had machine tooled thin iron and/or copper plating, protection against at least the glancing blows of cannonballs, probably at the costs of some speed and maneuverability. Plating with mage labor intensive ordered iron being out of the question, Julien had invented a technique for blasting planks with bits of ordered iron. Planks soaked in a copper solution had been used for years to prevent sea worm infestations. It had taken him working fulltime, and Karl working whenever he could, three ten days to produce enough ordered iron just for the hull planks below the water line of the Tarkyn. It was doubtful those planks would stop even a glancing cannonball. So then, what good were they? Would they divert or diminish the impact of fireballs? Nobody knew, however Karl could sense a miasma of order surrounding the Tarkyn. Karl could draw on that order in battle if needed, but few other mages could. There might be consequences though. When he had drawn on the natural order in a rare and valued red pear orchid, he’d turned it to ash. Maybe a better solution would be just to take some actual ordered iron along if a sea battle loomed. Karl thought the best solution was to avoid sea battles where ship and mage numbers and the range of chaos mages gave Hamor the advantage, with the notable exception of rare black weather mages. A talent Karl lacked.

Four years in the water, so far no chaos wizards had tested the Tarkyn, but the frequently checked hull had shown no corruption, never a barnacle to be seen. That had value in itself. In that period, Cantyl had supplied treated planks for the rehulling of Lord Ghrant’s yacht below the waterline, and stockpiled at Hagan’s shipyard enough pulverized ordered iron to provide planks for the complete hulls of two schooners. Chaos wizards were not as adept at sensing order as order mages. With water being a source of order, sea water more so, that made detection of the enhanced submerged planks on the two boats unlikely. That wouldn’t continue once they started using treated planks on cargo ships with changing water lines depending on the load. As far as they knew, the Emperor of Hamor was not yet aware of this innovation. They still didn’t know exactly what they had, but they welcomed any advantage.

The former Cantyl Chief Steward, Speltar, had retired to a small cottage just around the harbor headland, still on the old property, where he spent most days fishing with a few old sailors and when available paying vacationers in the Tarkyn, a lovely sloop with a cabin that could seat ten on cushioned benches, and it even had a two-cot bed chamber below. It was all sail powered, steam engines being too cumbersome and dangerous for boats that size. Hamor did have steam powered messenger and tug boats. It was moored at the south harbor pier. There was a fine fishing ground for majestic lancefish about three Ks northeast of Cantyl’s harbor, a day trip that lordlings paid handsomely for, and close enough to scurry back when weather threatened. However trolling for leaping lancefish required a steady brisk breeze. When the winds failed or frequently shifted, they would anchor and bottom fish for grompen, a delicious large white meat fish much prized by Cantyl’s restaurants, but without the fighting spirit of lancefish. Anchored boats in open seas tended to turn non-seafarers green, much to the amusement of the old sailors in Cantyl. “As sick (or green) as a Tarkyn lordling,” was a common phrase. At least once every summer, Karl and Jeka, Demyst and Enelya, often Meyena, a few of the older kids, Speltar, an artist who could draw, and a deckhand or two would sail up and down Cantyl’s coast mapping it out and looking for signs of erosion or other problems. They’d find a scenic spot for a picnic. Usually Speltar could get the Tarkyn in close, but sometimes a little swimming was necessary. Those who could would swim and wade ashore. Anybody who couldn’t swim would row ashore with the provisions in one of the two tiny one person row boats temporarily attached to the stern, with others swimming alongside just in case the little boat showed signs of capsizing. Speltar insisted on staying onboard with his crew, but they never turned down a share of the picnic food.

Tarkyn, Speltar, and Jeka had jointly financed the Tarkyn, with Jeka/Cantyl picking up the lion’s share. The hull had been laid at Hagan’s shipyard outside of Valmurl, where Tarkyn had painstakingly overseen the construction. Jeka’s funding had taken the form of an advance payment on a long-term lease for emergency use. The boat was large enough to sail the open sea for short distances, theoretically all the way to Valmurl in anything but a severe storm, but severe storms happen. Jeka had insisted that the boat be christened The Tarkyn over Tarkyn’s objections. He’d suggested The Weaver Girl in veiled tribute to Jeka. Unlike Karl the cooper, although she’d remained interested in fabrics, she had evinced no desire to weave anything.

Some old sailors with smaller sail and row boats took people fishing in the harbor and sold fish to the town’s eating establishments. There were usually four of five boats beached in the rocky sand down by the south harbor pier. Jeka discouraged clutter on the old property, which included the harbor area, so she’d sought Karl’s advice about the boats. Karl had said to allow it. He owed many of Hagan’s old sailors for their kindness to him. Jeka had recently given permission for a bait and tackle shop to open on a seasonal basis, but within the town proper on the new property. Except for the harbor and the breakwater walls area in front of the town, the ocean was too rough for light fishing from a boat. Although some people fished the surf. Except for the summer run of redfish, catching anything edible from the surf except for the odd crab was cause for celebration.

The Cantyl Inn had become renowned for seafood, although the supply was fickle, often boom or bust until Enelya had discovered a cook in Valmurl who was an expert at smoking, salting, and pickling fish. That had grown into another profitable enterprise. Austra’s merchant fleets bought quantities of the salted and pickled fish, both for use and commerce, packed in barrels made in Lord Karl’s cooperage. Considered a delicacy, any excess smoked redfish was sold on consignment to Lord Ghrant and other favorites of Karl and Hagan, and then to the finest eating establishments in Valmurl. That Karl still had time to make the wine barrels himself was due to Jeka’s management of Cantyl. He intervened rarely. However when he’d discovered that Jeka had reserved all the shellfish (crab, lobster, clams) from the harbor proper for the Lord’s table, he’d questioned her about it. She’d told him that they were not going to allow crowds of people to work crab and lobster traps, climbing all over the piers, and digging up clams everywhere in the harbor area. Rank hath its privileges. Live with it. People were allowed to sein and work traps in the breakwater area of the new property except during the peak hours of the swimming season. Continue reading




I’m a baseball fan. Several myths have developed about baseball that need to be challenged. Baseball announcers and sports media personalities in general tend be bandwagon hoppers. One guy says that the average age of a baseball fan is somewhere in the fifties (pick a number, it changes), and that becomes a Greek chorus. A recent poll asked people what sports they were fans of. The NFL led with 60%, then MLB with 47%, then college football, ice skating, and the NBA. So baseball is still a very popular sport. What is true is that the average age of a person who watches a baseball game on TV is in the mid fifties. You can tell that by the Viagra commercials. I’m an old retired guy. I potter around in the garden or run errands most mornings, and then watch baseball in the afternoons and evenings. There are about 20 games per week on my TV, and maybe I watch 10 of them. A kid in school with tons of homework or a young professional with a full time job, a wife, and young kids, might be able to watch a game or two per week. Yet we are each one fan. I’m not ten fans. All you have to do is watch the camera pan the stands at an MLB game or a spring training game. There are a lot of kids there, even babies and toddlers. Half the stadium would have to be occupied by people well into their eighties to average out in the mid fifties. Another point often made is that baseball fans, presumably we are still talking about TV watchers, are skewing older. When I was a kid there was one game per week on TV, often watch by the whole family back when most people had Saturdays off. The number of games has increased steadily over the years. So the same logic applies to that as well. I think the number of games has probably reached its max at about twenty. So the skewing older should level off.

Another myth is that fewer blacks are playing in the majors. There are far and away more black players in the majors than there ever have been, just most of them are Hispanic, which isn’t a race last time I checked. And yes I know many Latinos are not black. It is the participation of African Americans that has declined dramatically, and that is a real shame, but it is not a race thing per se, but rather the result of socioeconomic factors and the difficulties of evaluating and predicting talent development. It will not be solved by allowing home plate shimmy dances or any number of crazy ideas to make the game more attractive to young African Americans. However they could speed things up some by conducting the play review process on site with an official in the booth. That official should start reviewing any close play immediately and not wait for a challenge. If there is no challenge, he/she doesn’t interfere. If challenged, she/he is already half way there. Another idea is reduce the number of relief pitcher changes by making a rule that if a pitcher is changed in the middle of an inning after facing only one batter, then that pitcher is ineligible for the next game. The manager could still do it but not without penalty, and I doubt he would do it three or four times in a game. It would be an added element of strategy.

Predicting whether a kid fresh out of high school will be a star in the majors is a total crap shoot, more than any other major sport. There are big fat guys and five foot two guys that are stars in the majors, guys drafted way down there who are in The Hall of Fame, and many a can’t miss guy who missed badly. There is rarely a sure thing player at the age of eighteen. Also potential injury is a larger concern in baseball than other sports. A kid right out of high school might take four or five years to reach the majors, if they reach it at all. Those are all non-remunerative injury risk years that the NFL and the NBA don’t encounter. I believe the NBA does have a development program for younger guys, but we are still talking a year or two with a far greater degree of certainty. So it is hard for kids just out of high school to demand huge signing bonuses from major league teams. That organic uncertainty makes baseball a less attractive choice for top young athletes who are now specializing in one sport at a younger and younger age. Frankly there is no solution for this problem that I can see. It is just the nature of things.  For the Latino players from the Caribbean, Mexico, and the northern rim of South America, baseball and in some countries soccer hold the only tickets out of poverty.

Because of the uncertainty factor in signing young kids, as well as great improvements in the quality of college baseball, increasingly the majors are signing players out of college. They are more mature with their talent further developed, and they are playing against high level completion in college these days. Baseball in the better conferences has been compared to double-A minor league baseball. It is at the college level that the majors could make an impact. Back in the sixties when I went to college, baseball was a sleepy side sport with rudimentary facilities. It was viewed as a summer sport which didn’t really fit the college agenda. Since then it has grown by leaps and bounds to become a big time college sport, but one still hampered by its small time past. The average college football team has 114 players and is allotted 85 full time scholarships. The average baseball team has 34 players and is allotted a maximum of 11.7 scholarships. Percentage wise quite a difference. As a result full time scholarships in college baseball are rare. Scholarships are divided up into halves, thirds, and even smaller proportions. It is not uncommon for the best player on a team to be a two-sport athlete with a scholarship in the other sport. It is easy to see why a great athlete pressured in junior high or even earlier to pick a sport to concentrate on might give baseball a pass. A half scholarship to Vanderbilt doesn’t do a poor kid any good. The initiatives undertaken by MLB to increase participation by inner city youth are commendable, but absent a solution to the scholarship problem, they will have limited impact.

Historically the majors have enjoyed a maximum participation rate among African Americans somewhere in the 15-18% range. Currently it stands at around 7.5%. Baseball will probably never again be the most popular sport among African Americans, but I have an idea that I think over time would restore that rate to historic levels. Baseball should negotiate a match grant program with the NCAA that would work as follows. Get the NCAA to increase its baseball scholarships to 13.7 per division one school. That works out to four additional half scholarships, which is the most common form for college baseball. Those four half scholarships would be match granted by the majors so as to provide full scholarships that would be limited to incoming freshmen and continuing as they matriculate. There are 240 division one baseball teams. The scholarships would be staggered in, one a year for each team over the first four years. After that you would just keep filling slots as they become available. Staggering would guarantee that each year there would be a pool of full scholarships available. The schools would administer the program. I estimate the cost at $5,000,000 – $6,000,000 the first year, increasing by the same amount each of the next three years until reaching a fully vetted total of $20,000,000 – $24,000,000 per annum, which is not peanuts but certainly doable by major league baseball, around $800,000 per team per year. The scholarships should have a need based qualification, not race based. Nevertheless, the certainty of 240 full scholarships available every year over time would attract the participation of some top young African American athletes and their parents.  Baseball does have some career advantages that should appeal to a growing African American middle class, such as less serious injury risk than football, and the contracts are guaranteed. Also longevity is a positive factor. You can collect big money into your late thirties and even early forties in baseball. I’m convinced that this or a similar program would make a difference over time in African American participation and interest in baseball. It would certainly be excellent PR, well worth the investment.






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“It is my foible, one among a great many, to be a devotee of the niceties, of the overtones, and of the precision of very often rewritten and suitably colored prose.” (All JBC quotes are in italics)

This is not a scholarly essay, but rather a reader’s and in a small way fellow writer’s homage to a unique American literary figure who deserves better than to lie almost completely forgotten, at least by the general public, in a Richmond grave. Perhaps with the exception of his home state, since VCU has a James Branch Cabell Library. In the 1920’s he was one of the most popular authors in America. The decadence and desperate frivolity of that era suited him; however his star quickly faded in the pregnant gloom of the 1930’s. In the words of Alfred Kazim: “Cabell and Hitler did not inhabit the same universe.” I have been unable to find the source or the exact quote, but someone wrote that he painted exquisite miniature portraits in an age of industrial murals. Twain and Mencken were fans, and Heinlein consciously patterned Stranger in a Strange Land after Jurgen, himself calling it “Cabellesque.” Mencken disputed the common belief that Cabell was a romantic, claiming that Cabell was the ultimate anti-romantic: “Cabell’s hereos hunt dragons … as stockbrokers chase golf balls.”

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Tell the rabble my name is Cabell.” The first Cabell settled in Virginia in 1664, and the family remained prominent throughout the history of Virginia. James was born in 1879 and died in 1958. For an American his blood was the bluest of blue, a true southern aristocrat. At the age of fifteen he matriculated at William and Mary, and later still as an undergraduate he taught Greek and Latin there, until he was suspended for having a “too intimate” relationship with a professor. He was later readmitted and subsequently graduated in 1898. In 1901, the year in which his stories were first published, he was suspected of murdering a prominent Richmond man, John Scott, who was rumored to be romantically involved with Cabell’s mother. Whatever his other proclivities, and as vividly indicated by his writings, it is evident that he enjoyed women. In addition to rumored escapades, he married and when his first wife died in 1949, remarried within a year. Between 1905 and 1955 he published some fifty books. He is often described as an author of satirical fantasy fiction and belles lettres. I confess that I’ve only read six or seven of his books, the reason being that, although well written, for a modern reader the novelty of his once shocking sexual innuendo wears a bit thin after awhile and his themes become repetitive. And I’ve only reread two of his early novels, the ones that I and most people consider his best and most important works, Jurgen, A Comedy of Justice and Figures of Earth, A Comedy of Manners. Also noteworthy are The Silver Stallion, a sort of sequel to Figures of Earth, and The Cream of the Jest: A Comedy of Evasions, both of which I intend to reread un de ces beaux jours.

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If we assiduously cultivate our power of exaggeration, perhaps we too shall obtain the Paradise of Liars. And there Raphael shall paint for us scores and scores of his manifestly impossible pictures … and Shakespeare will lie to us of fabulous islands far past ‘ the still vex’d Bemooths,’ and bring us fresh tales from the coast of Bohemia. For no one shall speak the truth there, and we shall be perfectly happy.”




A genetically inclined iconoclast, Cabell described WWI as having been fought “to make the world safe for hypocrisy.” The setting for most of his novels is the Province of Poictesme,  inexactly located in the south of a France that never was in a world that never was. His protagonists tended to be solipsistic, morally ambiguous men who, having made largely implied Faustian bargains, set out on fantastic quests, some of cosmic scope, to renew their youth or gain fame and fortune, goals which they usually obtained in one form or another. However,  they also sought the eternal love of the perfect woman, which being unobtainable, of course they never obtained. “The transfiguring touch was to come, it seemed from a girl’s lips; but it had not; he kissed, and life remained uncharmed.”


Some few there must be in every age and land of whom life claims nothing very insistently save that they write perfectly of beautiful happenings.” And after the subdued receptions for his first few books, that seemed to be his preordained fate. However he also wrote: “Time changes all things and cultivates even in herself an appreciation of irony.”  Time’s sense of irony was evidently at play when Cabell published Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice in 1919, and the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice moved quickly to block publication, seizing the printing plates in January 1920, which resulted in one of the first famous court cases concerning free speech and the definition of obscenity. The Society was a private institution which became charted by the state, and whose members in almost Taliban-like fashion were granted broad powers of search, seizure and arrest, also receiving 50% of any subsequent fines levied by the state. They are most famous for the many books they had banned, including Ulysses. Members patrolled the streets making sure the newsstands didn’t sell girly magazines. They devoted particular attention to the suppression of anything concerning homosexuality or birth control. They were fond of raids on bath houses, which was a bit ironic too, since The Society’s founding members were prominent in the YMCA movement. The case went on for two years, eventually being decided in Cabell’s favor. Interestingly the prosecutor seemed more incensed by the book’s mocking of papal infallibility, several popes were guests of the Devil, than he was about the book’s alleged obscenity. In his ruling Judge Charles Cooper Nott, Jr. said: “It is doubtful that the book could be read or understood at all by more than a very limited number of readers.” Of course in that he was wrong. The publicity surrounding the case made it a favorite in ladies’ drawing rooms. It was the Fifty Shades of Grey of its day. When Cabell published a revised edition in 1926, he exacted the perfect author’s revenge. He added  a chapter in which Jurgen is put on trial by the Philistines and the prosecutor is a giant dung beetle. Later in a book he thanked The Society for the publicity.


Another thing that made Cabell’s novels popular, especially with the ladies, at least once they wet their beaks with Jurgen, is that his novels are filled with sexual innuendo, double entendres, wordplay, anagrams, puzzles and codes, all of which made for fun group discussion. Many of the strange names he gives people and places are anagrams. The castle Storisende in Poictesme is a simple anagram for “stories end.” The decipherable Sigil of Scoteia is a prime example of one of his codes.


The optimist believes this is the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true.”  I was not a literature major, so I am uncertain as to where the border between satire and allegory lies. To me Jurgen is decidedly Swiftian, and I believe that it is as allegory that it has true literary merit. In it Cabell assails the cultural, religious, and political beliefs of his time. Jurgen, who considers himself “a monstrous clever fellow,” regains his youth via a not clearly described Faustian bargain and sets out on grand adventures to find, not for altruistic purposes of course, the true creator and ruler of the universe, seducing women all along the way. He first stumbles through a twisted version of the Arthurian Legends, while greatly entertaining The Lady of The Lake and Queen Guinevere. Throughout the book there is a lot of him unsheathing his long gleaming sword for various ladies to admire. He visits Heaven and Hell. Heaven turns out to be an exact replica of an elderly church lady relative’s vision of what Heaven should be — a place of strict rules and no freedom governed by a despotic patron God. When she died, she never stopped complaining that the afterlife was simply not up to snuff, so the Powers That Be created Heaven just to shut her up. By contrast Hell is a democracy with the Devil as President. However Hell is engaged in an eternal war with Heaven to make the world safe for democracy, and during the duration of the war, namely all eternity, democratic privileges are suspended. And of course Jurgen seduces the Devil’s wife. Eventually Jurgen discovers the true ruler of the universe, Koshchei The Deathless — a disheveled, overworked and underappreciated bureaucrat in a small, document strewn, windowless office, whom Jurgen is quick to flatter.

Good and evil keep very exact accounts … and the face of every man is their ledger.”


When I was fresh out of college and very pleased with myself for “discovering,” with the assistance of Ballantine Books, several great fantasy authors, including Cabell, I wrote in simple rhyming verse a synopsis of Figures of Earth that cherrypicks a couple of the plot lines. It has no literary merit, and I had no intention of including it here, but I chuckled a couple of times while rereading it, and that is good enough to conclude with. Please note that Manuel the pig tender later became Dom Manuel, also known as Manuel The Redeemer.


Young Manuel in his sty,
he seemed so free of care,
and the odd squint in his eye
gave him an impish air.
But his dear mother was firm
before she passed away,
charging him to make for her
a fine figure one day.
Manuel pondered her geas,
just how best to take it,
then he went down on his knees
to sculpt a statuette.

A fine self-image he formed,
from the clay around him,
with but a single small flaw,
a shortness in one limb.
Now there were those who counseled
that he had missed her gist,
but he would squint and tell them
she'd meant precisely this.
Now some thought the boy insane,
while others thought him sly,
because how could someone so inane
sport such a squinty eye.

For in day a warm sun shone on him,
and at night the stars above,
and although his life was easy,
the boy still longed for love.

Then a stranger came to visit
with aim to titillate,
asking him to quit his pigs
and chance a greater fate.
Manuel just shook his head,
displaying soiled attire,
claiming one from his estate
should not aspire higher.
Then the black clad man stared
deeply into his soul;
then smiled a secretive smile,
a glimpse of something droll.

"Once a cradled babe squalling,
now a boy drowsing in the sun.
Soon you'll be a young hero;
there's a fair maid to be won.
Miramon, The Lord of Madness
And The Nine Kinds Of Sleep,
abides in a mountain mansion
and emprisons her in his keep.
I'd undertake this quest myself,
but the prize, you see, is her hand,
and I already have a wife
who would not understand."

For in day a warm sun shone on him,
and at night the stars above,
and although his life was easy,
the boy still longed for love.

"Fair Gisele pines for justice,
pacing those dream misted halls.
My magic sword will suffice.
Take it boy! Destiny calls!"
So Manuel took the magic blade
and climbed up daunting tracks,
where he braved perilous falls
and mythic beasts' attacks.
When he reached the castle high
and faced his foe with steel,
it looked to be the same guy
who'd set up the whole deal.

The wizard seemed delighted,
as he wore a toothy grin.
Then he bowed with regal grace
and invited Manuel in.
"No one can best that blade.
By now that must be plain.
So then, I concede. You win!
A fight would be in vain.
A point I failed to mention,
fair Gisele is my wife,
and it is my intention
to try the single life."

They lead shadow-haunted lives,
these fashioners of dreams.
Once you dip your hands in fantasy,
then nothing is what it seems.

Then Manuel understood
the motives of the man,
but wondered why he'd formed
so intricate a plan.
"Lord, you're a famous wizard,
Yet before Gisele you balk,
helpless before this mere woman
whose only barb is talk."
Miramon stroked his forehead,
as on his magnificent throne he sat.
Then gazing downward at Manuel:
"Yes unmarried men do wonder about that."

Miramon sat deep in thought,
then spoke most plaintively.
"For all the husbands that were
and for all there ever will be,
where is the girl I married,
bright of smile, flowing hair,
and who is this woman beside me,
meddling in my affairs?
Love of a sort I have still,
but not that magic state
that transformed her might to will,
once touched that dissipates."

Young Manuel in his sty,
he seemed so free of care,
and the odd squint in his eye
gave him an impish air.






















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I enjoy writing these little fables. With gratitude I acknowledge the use of the wonderful photo of that magnificent tree, courtesy of AngelOakPhoto.com. I grew up less than a mile from Angel Oak, a short walk through the woods. In those days the tree wasn’t protected, and we kids used to play tag on it, the rule being that you couldn’t touch the ground. For the high school kids, there were many kisses exchanged beneath its branches.

Quersica thought that she was the last of her kind in eastern North America, and maybe all of the continent or even the world, but she supposed that there could be one or two dryads left out there in the far west among the redwoods or some other far place. She had her own name for creatures like herself which neither you nor I could pronounce without difficulty, and it would be meaningless to us. To the Greeks she was a hamadryad, a tree spirit or nymph partial to oak trees. The Greeks had gotten a lot of things right about dryads, but not everything. Quersica had coalesced within the vaporous cocoon of the great primeval forests when plants not animals had dominated the earth. As far as she knew, dryads were not part of some organized pantheon of gods. She had never met an entity that she would consider a god, but in the early days of the earth other creatures more or less like herself had abounded on the earth and in the seas. Yes they had some limited powers and they lived a long long time, but none were immortal or possessed godlike attributes. Quersica had the power to protect herself and her trees if necessary, and she could enhance the health of plants, and to a far lesser degree animals, but she never considered herself or her kind gods. Nevertheless she had witnessed the patterns of life, an evolutionary dance that had passed the dryads by long ago, and she chose to believe that there was a guiding hand somewhere. Many of her friends had chosen the final joining because they believed that they would begin anew on a higher plain of existence. It was a comforting thought, but she knew that sometimes things just ended.

The Greeks had believed that hamadryads died when the trees they inhabited died. It was more complicated than that. Quersica had existed for ages before she’d achieved true self-awareness, and additional ages after that before the non-denominational dryad had felt herself drawn to bond with the live oak trees and become a hamadryad. She supposed that that choice, if it was a choice, represented a dryad’s coming of age, the end of her youth. In that youth she had visited all the great trees of the world: the redwoods, the baobabs of Africa, the towering evergreens of Siberia, the tropical mangroves, the eucalyptus of Australia, and the magnificent bald cypress that were her close neighbors in the swamps of the low country of what would become South Carolina, before she had chosen the live oaks. Her closest dryad friend, Disteechia, had chosen the nearby bald cypresses. Her friend had joined her tree in a moment of elation as the festively festooned canoes of the local Kiawa sub-group of the  Cusabo tribes, celebrating a royal wedding, had paused in the water near her to seek her blessing. Such moments of spiritual elation often precipitated a joining, more so as the passing ages had begun to wear on the dryads. That tree had lived on for over three hundred more years, a tribute to the strength of her friend’s spirit. Quersica had inhabited countless live oaks, and absent that final joining dryads survived their trees. They lived on until they chose to join a tree and surrender their separate identity. From that point on their lives were entwined with the life of the tree. Absent natural disaster or outside intervention, how robust and long the tree lived after that was dependent on the strength of the dryad and her spiritual transcendence at the moment of joining. It was their final gift.


When Quersica had chosen to inhabit her present live oak, it was already two hundred years old and a magnificent specimen. She had lived within its knotted trunk and gnarled branches for nearly a thousand years more, and largely due to her, it was still in excellent health. Several subgroups of the Cusabos, most notably the Stonos and the Kiawas, had venerated and protected that tree because of her presence, and Quersica had saved it from flood and fire time and time again. She allowed the local tribes to gather some of her tree’s acorns to extract a cooking oil used for special feasts, and gather some of the leaves to mix with those from other trees to make a rug for a newborn infant, as well as the bark that her tree shed naturally to make a royal dye. On occasion she had appeared in the flesh before those early Americans, usually to forestall abuse of her tree, but sometimes on festive occasions. Dryads were not nearly as promiscuous as the Greeks had portrayed them, but she had had a few dalliances with handsome young warriors along the way. However all that was far in the past. The utter destruction of the Cusabos by the colonists had cast a depressive pall over her world. She had resolved to join with her tree when the next worthy opportunity presented itself. Therein lay the rub. To the demise of the Cusabo was added the horrors of slavery and warfare, and suddenly, for a Dryad suddenly, there was no room left for great moments of spiritual elation. She was trapped.

Quersica never revealed herself to the colonists, except a couple times as a ghost to frighten away would be teenage vandals. She never forgave them for what they had done to the Cusabos, but she was not a vengeful spirit. She observed with interest when Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, had his ragtag troops rendezvous beneath her tree, but she frankly didn’t care who won that war. However she felt great sympathy for the slaves, and appeared on occasion to do what she could to help a sick child through an illness. Most of the slaves had come from Africa via a few generations on the islands of the Caribbean. Some of them continued to practice their old religions when the colonists weren’t looking, usually at night, and often under her branches. They viewed her and her tree as sacred. Along the way the tree had acquired the name Angel Oak, which the colonists attributed logically to the fact that one of the owners had been named Angel. However to the slaves, she was the angel that lived in the oak.

In July of 1863, the Union Army occupied Johns Island in preparation for an attack on Confederate positions on neighboring James Island, which were part of the fortifications defending Charleston, as recounted, with Hollywood’s usual cavalier attitude toward historical accuracy, in the movie Glory. Colored soldiers bivouacked under Angel Oak, and a young officer had some of his men gather the local slaves. When they had assembled, sitting high on his horse, he read The Emancipation Proclamation to them. When he shouted the words, “Shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free!” there was a tremendous upwelling of joy and celebration. In that great moment of spiritual elation, Quersica joined her tree.

Angel Oak now belongs to and is well protected by the City of Charleston. It was severely damaged during Hurricane Hugo. Normally a tree that old wouldn’t recover from that kind of injury, but to everyone’s amazement Angel Oak recovered fully. Perhaps Quersica had something to do with that. There is no charge for visiting Angel Oak, considered one of the world’s great trees now and the oldest living thing east of the Rockies. If you do, say hi to Quersica.

Author’s Note: In addition to my fondness for and familiarity with the tree, the seed for this story was born when I read an account of a young Union officer, a passing mention really, who on one of the sea islands south of Charleston, gathered the local slaves under the branches of a massive oak tree, and read The Emancipation Proclamation to them. The account didn’t say which barrier island, give a specific date, or identify the tree.  My search for additional information proved futile. Frankly it was more likely one of the islands further south in the neighborhood of Hilton Head, which were under Union control for much of the war, including on January 1st, 1863 when The Proclamation was issued. But it could have been Johns Island during that brief Union occupation in July, certainly the tree would qualify, and that is close enough for a storyteller.  






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There are a bunch of scientific formulas about increasing entropy. They are all way over my head, although I think they suggest that everything will disintegrate (or be ripped apart if you’re a fan of the macabre) into tiny little nothings drifting around in near absolute zero un de ces beaux jours. The kind of ending the Norse gods would have appreciated, gloomy gusses one and all. Recalling Twain’s adage that knowing you are to be hanged in the morning focuses the mind wonderfully, there is a slim chance that if people are around billions of years from now, they will have figured out some solution, having increased their intelligence exponentially, no doubt without increasing their wisdom one iota. So instead of getting bogged down in real science, I will use a lay definition of the term “increasing entropy” (namely this lay person’s definition). I cite two impeccable sources to justify this. Back in the day (if you think I’m going to actually research this for dates and stuff you’re nuts) a NY produce importer appealed a tax case all the way to The Supreme Court. NY taxed fruit and vegetables at different rates. The importer claimed that botanically tomatoes were fruit and should be taxed at the lower rate. The Court ruled that the science didn’t matter. If commonly tomatoes are considered vegetables and eaten like vegetables, then they are vegetables. For my second impeccable source, I will quote Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean — nothing more nor less.”

Therefore increasing entropy is the process of moving from the one to the many, from a state of unity to a state of division, from three television channels to three hundred (all filled with reality shows featuring people I wouldn’t hire to clean my pool), from the harmony of Mozart to Pink Floyd (unless you’re stoned), from pure fresh snow to polluted slush. Speaking of which, Tullulah Bankhead once said that she was as pure as the driven slush, which is neither here nor there, well maybe mostly there. It certainly isn’t here. I don’t think I’d want Tullulah here. Her reputation was worse than Joan Crawford’s, and we know what Bette Davis said about Joan Crawford: “I wouldn’t sit on her toilet.” But I digress. Anyway, I consider increasing entropy to be the quantifiable (but not by me) manifestation of evil in the universe, the festering hand of Satan at work, and nowhere is this more evident than in the proliferation of frivolous choices. We all have a friend who dithers forever over a menu or a wine list. This is the mark of someone who has been touched by evil. They should be banished from civilized society. Fortunately most of those lost souls move to Florida and manage homeowners associations, where they can foreclose on some poor guy who has neglected his lawn because his little girl has cancer.

imageWhen I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Chad, Africa, on the southern border of the Sahara, where it’s very hot and dry, we used to play volleyball at the Ambassador’s Residence, and then say five or so of us very dehydrated PCVs would head to a bar. We’d sit outside at tables. When the waitress approached, before she even got to the table, in Chadian Arabic I’d order five cokes and five Galas (the excellent local beer brewed by Heineken). I wasn’t going to permit individual ordering until I’d quenched my thirst. We’d drink the old-fashioned fully loaded cokes first to rehydrate, then the beers. And yes there was usually some grumbling about my high handedness, but I wasn’t going to sit there dying of thirst while some nimrod decided whether or not he/she wanted an orangina. Plus the more complicated the order, the more likely to get screwed up. Nothing was ever left undrunk. Now I just know that there is some self-styled expert out there right now screaming that cokes have caffeine and therefore are not good for rehydration. Nonsense. In Chad you could actually feel your body rehydrating when you drank a coke, and don’t get me started on the proliferation of experts on everything, another sign of increasing entropy. Go to any hot dry place in the world, and you’ll find people drinking lots and lots of tea, usually really strong tea. I’ll give you a gallon of water and a Chadian a teapot full of his strong super sweet tea, send you both out walking in the Sahara, and we’ll see who drops first. But once again I digress.

Now I’m not saying that choices don’t matter. Some do. In the words of Patrick H. T. Doyle, “If Pavlov had tested a cat he would have failed.” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “We are our choices.” Think about that the next time you order a decaffeinated almond vanilla latte. Perhaps the most troubling satanic abomination to plague the earth in recent years are those ridiculous individual cup coffee makers. I want to pull a Belushi every time I see one. Not only do they create litter with every cup, but they represent the ultimate example of frivolous chaotic self-indulgence, in other words increasing entropy. A good cup of coffee is a beautiful thing, a natural work of art. Making a thousand variations of it, none of which taste as good as the original, is an act of spiritual disintegration.

“You can’t be a real country unless you have a beer and an airline — it helps if you have some kind of football team, or some nuclear weapons, but in the very least you need a beer.” (Frank Zappa) And finally I come to beer. Finally I always come to beer. To paraphrase and totally abuse a couple of speeches from Kennedy I think, for someone out on the cutting edge of freedom engaged in the long twilight struggle against increasing entropy, it is disheartening to see respected beer brands like Leinenkugel and Sam Adams brag about all the different kinds of beer they brew. My reaction is to resolve never to drink any of those again. I have this vision of their most experienced brewer working on the vats of their signature beer, when a boss approaches. “Frank, it’s summer, we need you down on the shandy vats. You know, where we dump lemon juice and sugar into the beer. Mergatroid will take over for you here.” I don’t even like the concept of light beer, but I lost that battle long ago. One man can only do so much. Me? Heeding the immortal words of Willie Nelson, “There are more old drunks than old doctors,” I’ll just have a Beck’s. Gotterdammerung y’all!





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As always with these traditional fables, I acknowledge the Congolese storytellers, Pere Lepoutre who gathered them and published them in Lingala, and my gifted translator, Stan Hotalen, who has lived most of his life in the Congo. Quality translations from one language/culture to another always require a certain amount of retelling and editing. I have not shied away from that, but I believe that the end products are true to the original stories. The booklets in Lingala have some fun illustrations by an artist named simply Kalundi, a rather common name down that way. The consensus opinion in the murky world of copyright law is that folktales cannot be copyrighted, unless someone pretty much photocopies the text and then claims it for their own. However the same is not true for original artwork. I wish I was a competent illustrator, but then I also wish that I’d played first base for the St. Louis Cardinals. If any of you folks out there are wannabe illustrators and would like to join in on these folktales, leave a comment.



A young man named Lombo forged metal to make things for the local community. His forge was located near the forge of an elderly smith, since in villages similar businesses tended to be located together. After the old smith had watched Lombo work, he approached him: “Look, you are not casting and forging metal the best way. Let me teach you how to do it right.” Lombo replied: “How is my work any of your business? I don’t want your help. You do things the old fashioned way. We young folks have our own way of doing things.”

Everyday the old man approached Lombo again and offered to teach him, and everyday Lombo refused, while becoming more and more annoyed. Finally Lombo demanded why the old man kept bothering him. The smith replied: “And I must continue to do so. You are young and inexperienced.  You would benefit greatly from my knowledge. You see it is important to me that the work is done properly. You will never become a good smith without my help.” Lombo said: “Fine then, if you won’t leave me alone, I will move my forge out near the jungle where I can work in peace.”


So Lombo took  his wife and child out to the edge of the jungle and built a house and forge. One day as Lombo worked the forge, eight gorillas approached carrying a dead gorilla. The gorillas stopped: “Lombo, you must forge us eight strong hoes and eight strong axes, so we can bury our friend properly. If you refuse we will kill you right here and now.”

Lombo knew that he was not skilled enough to produce the quality hoes and axes that the gorillas demanded. So he sent his child to the smith to see if he knew how to forge those tools. The elderly metal forger replied: “I tried my best to help that young man and he insulted me. Forget it! Go tell him that I will not help him now that he has gotten himself into trouble.” The child returned and told Lombo what the old man had said. Lombo considered his problem, but he just couldn’t come up with another solution. So he instructed his wife to go and beg the smith to relent and teach Lombo proper metal working. The smith could not refuse Lombo’s distraught wife. Since he was all too aware of the poor quality of Lombo’s work, he told her to tell Lombo to send the gorillas down to the creek to fill eight of Lombo’s pots with water and bring them back. Lombo told the gorillas that he needed the water for his forging. The gorillas went down to the creek, but the water kept leaking out of Lombo’s pots. They tried and tried with no success. Of course that gave Lombo and his family the opportunity to escape to the village. Once they were safely back, even hard-headed Lombo realized that he should have accepted the experienced metal forger’s help in the first place.

MORAL: The neck cannot surpass the head.

I love the cryptic symbolism of that moral and didn’t want to alter it, so I conferred with Stan about its meaning. I was headed in the right direction, but I wanted to make sure. He explained that in the Congo traditionally a young man shouldn’t own land until his uncle owns land. And if they both own land, the young man shouldn’t build on his land until his uncle builds. Also back in the day young men were expected to walk a pace behind their elders, perhaps they still do. So as the neck follows the lead of the head and turns as the head turns, so the younger generation must always follow their elders and bow to their wisdom. He also felt that it was likely that the moral was a well-known proverb or possibly part of one, and that the meaning would be obvious to the Congolese.





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In the far far past a tribe of squirrels lived in the great forests of the north in what we now call North America. It was a warm time in the history of world, and they fed well on chestnuts, acorns, and pine nuts. They were fat prosperous squirrels. Somewhere along the line they decided that fatness was a sign of prosperity, and prosperity was a sign of superiority. Naturally the fattest squirrels became the leaders, and married the fattest wives, and had the fattest children. Oh they had enemies like owls, hawks, and eagles, but their gray fur blended into the forest nicely and made them hard to find. Also the thinnest squirrels were always the ones that had to do the most dangerous food gathering, and therefore were the ones most likely to be eaten. So over the long passage of years being fat was no longer something that happened after they were born if they ate too much. They were born to be fat. We call that genetics. Eventually they became so different from squirrels in other places that they became their own special kind of squirrel. We call that differentiation of species.

Then over the years the weather became colder. For a long long time the change was slow. Gradually some animals developed white fur or feathers so they could hide in the snow or hunt without being spotted. Those that did survived, but those that didn’t like the squirrels began to dwindle. Many animals moved southward where it was warmer, but not the squirrels. The oak trees and the chestnut trees began to die too, leaving mostly the cold hardy evergreens, which reduced the available food. Then somewhere in the world a narrow part of the ocean froze solid and completely blocked the great ocean current which brought much of the warmth to the north. Then things became much colder, and huge mountains of ice, called glaciers, began to push into the forest, knocking down even the tallest and strongest trees.

For ages the squirrels resisted moving, even as they grew fewer and food became ever harder to find. But now they had no choice but to move south and look for a new home. Over many generations they kept moving south, but other animals had moved there long before them, leaving no place for the squirrel tribe. Over time, as they traveled they changed. The fattest squirrels were no longer the most likely to survive, because they were slow and easy prey for the hunters. The squirrels were often near starvation, and oddly, although they all lost weight, their skin did not shrink. It just became kind of loose and flabby, like a big wrinkly overcoat. To tell the truth, bedraggled, starving, and wrinkled, they were not a pretty sight. They became known as the ugly squirrels, and were chased out of forest after forest.

Finally they came to the swamps and thick forests of the South Carolina low country, and they settled on Johns Island, one of the many barrier islands along the coast. That was not an ideal place for the squirrels to live because it was filled with mosquitoes and ticks  and snakes, and many other dangers. However there were lots and lots of rotting trees with old woodpecker holes that could be easily enlarged to make shelters. Anyway by that time the once-fat-squirrel-now-wrinkled-squirrel tribe was desperate for a home, and Johns Island had room for them.

Most of the other animals shunned the squirrels. However the equally ugly possums welcomed them. That is how a young male squirrel named Abrandadorenta, which in the classical fat squirrel language meant he who climbs trees quickly, became a close friend of a possum named Steve. The squirrels had lost all of their past grandeur except for their grandiose names. So they clung to those. Maybe their pride had supported them through all their troubles. Different things prop us up. However when it came to names, the local possums weren’t so highfalutin.


So one day up high in an old oak tree, Abrandadorenta hunted acorns while Steve hunted insects. Steve’s favorite food was ticks. There is no accounting for tastes. Suddenly a bobcat started climbing up the trunk, trapping them, a bobcat named Bob. All male bobcats are named Bob. That’s how they got the name. Bobcats liked to keep things simple — hunt, kill, eat. Abrandadorenta ran to the thin outer branches. Steve thought about playing dead, but playing dead high in a tree is not recommended. So he tried one of the other possum tricks. He started shaking all over and foaming at the mouth. Bob took one look at Steve and decided to go chase the squirrel. He’d never cared much for possum anyway. That gave Steve his chance to escape.

Unfortunately for Abrandadorenta, Bob was a very agile young bobcat, and thin branches or not, he kept working his way closer and closer. Finally there was no where else for Abrandorenta to go, and Bob was approaching striking distance. Although he was certain he would die from the fall, the brave squirrel leapt from his branch. As he fell he instinctively spread out his four legs. The wind caught his open flabby coat and he glided lower to the trunk of next tree and escaped. Once the rest of the tribe learned that trick, it greatly improved their ability to escape predators. From then on they flourished in their new home. Instead of the ugly squirrels, they became known as flying squirrels. A much nicer name don’t you think?

Moral: Not all gifts come gift wrapped, and sometimes they open themselves.



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I have a great memory, but fifty years ago is a long time. If some of the people mentioned have different memories, then that is to be expected. I also depended on the valuable memories of my old friend Dicky Strozier and my brother Charlie. Charlie’s differ a bit from mine, but not in any significant way. 

At times I look back on the sixties in the deep south and see a foreign place. I think that sense of alienation may have been enhanced by the fact that I joined the Peace Corps in 1975, and except for a year or so living in DC and a few extended visits, I lived and worked in Africa until the early nineties, and only returned to live in the south in the mid-nineties. When change happens gradually you can adjust almost unnoticed, but after a twenty year absence, I experienced culture shock. In Columbus, Ga. the elderly husband of my neighbor had been rushed to the hospital, a very sweet couple. A few neighbors, including me, had gathered around her when we saw her outside to give her our best wishes. One of them said something about bearing witness for her husband. She started dancing around, flailing her arms and chanting, “He’s been bathed in the blood of the lamb! He’s been bathed in the blood of the lamb!” It reminded me of the time I had inadvertently stopped my truck in the middle of a female circumcision ceremony in Chad. This was alien to me, strange ritualistic stuff. Things had changed over the years. There has been a great deal of mythology and revisionist history written about the sixties. Perhaps one personalized account can reset reality for those who read it.

I was born in Charleston, but spent years 2-10 in the outer suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri being my father’s home state. Then we moved back to the Charleston area, to Johns Island, in 1959. Distance wise Johns Island is not far from Charleston, but in those days it was still mostly rural with a 70% black population, many of whom spoke Gullah. Blacks lived right down the road, any road, but there was no mingling of the races. Black kids and white kids never played together, or went to the same churches, or attended the same schools. Blacks and Mexicans harvested the produce, and white kids worked the sheds packing it. There was a palpable sense of arrogance bordering on animosity shown by all white people toward black people. The n-word was commonly used. The only pro civil rights whites were “northern agitators,” often Jews. There were no Jews on Johns Island that I ever heard of; they all lived in downtown Charleston; and I only knew of one Catholic family. As I would learn later, most of the Jews in Charleston shared the prevailing prejudices. In fact some had ancestors who had fought for the Confederacy. I don’t think there were any white liberals on Johns Island. If there were, they kept a very low profile. I remember asking my father why he had voted for Kennedy. He replied, “Because Lincoln was a Republican.”


I’m going to tell a little anecdote here that I have included in another story, because it provides some insight into the times. My mother grew up on a farm in St. George, SC. She had a limited education, sixth grade I think, but she was literate and enjoyed reading newspapers and such. She was ignorant of many things, but she wasn’t stupid. She had a bevy of strange beliefs and superstitions. Now the point of this is not so much the tale itself, but her absolute unawareness that there was any sexual component to it. Of course as a precocious teenage boy I saw the sexual connotations, but I never mentioned them. That was ground best not trod on.

You see there is an actual long, slender, nonpoisonous black snake in the SC low country called the coachwhip. My mother believed it would lie in wait for a young woman to walk by. Then it would rise up, head waving back and forth, and make a perfect wolf whistle, just like a brash construction worker might. When the woman looked toward the sound, the snake would stare into her eyes and hypnotize her. Then it would crawl up, wrap around her, and squeeze her to death.

The black culture on Johns Island and adjacent Wadmalaw Island was quite different from the white one. Many blacks spoke the Gullah dialect, although almost all of them could and would speak something much closer to regular English to white people. They had their own music and superstitions. I remember the shack like houses with blue panted doors, window trim, and porch ceilings. That color was called haint blue. They believed that ghosts (haints) wouldn’t cross water, so the blue would keep them from entering their homes. One of my great regrets is that I never immersed myself in such an interesting culture. That was impossible for me at that time. I had evolutionary miles to go.

I was a product of my environment. I was just as prejudiced as the other white kids, used the n-word, and generally tried to fit in with everybody else. There was one difference though, I loved to read. No one ever read bedtime stories to me or even encouraged me to read, so I started out reading comic books. I later branched out to kid’s adventure stories, then sports books, and soon I was reading anything I could get my hands on. My one year younger brother and I thirsted for knowledge in a wasteland. How I envy the children of today. In those days encyclopedia publishers would send the first book, the “A” book, to people free, hoping they would go on to buy the set. We could never afford a set, but Charlie and I memorized the “A” book from cover to cover. I still have a warm place in my heart for aardvarks. Also it probably explains why I haul two old encyclopedia sets around with me every time I move. I just like looking at them.

The small sexually censored, but surprisingly philosophically uncensored, school library was my only source of literature. I read anything and everything, Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, just to name a couple. These days I would probably be put on a watch list. What I discovered from reading those books was that even the most abhorrent philosophies have some appealing truths at their core, which are then warped and twisted into something evil. There is an Arabic proverb: “That which is learned in youth is carved in stone.” However, thanks mostly to my voracious reading, gradually, very gradually, I began to question my own beliefs.

Because of the association of the Republican party with Lincoln, as well as being the party of blacks during Reconstruction, almost all whites were Democrats. I never heard of a white Republican on Johns Island. That would have been a curiosity like a two-headed calf. Since blacks were kept from voting by one means or another, that meant that in South Carolina the Republican Party only existed on paper. Oh every now and again some guy with a big ego would run for office as a Republican simply because he could, but it was just token stuff. For all the statewide offices, the general election was a joke. The Democratic primary was the only real election.

During the Kennedy Administration, southern whites became increasingly alarmed and angry with the progressive tendencies of the Democratic Party. The solid south held together one last time for Johnson in 1964, only because he was a fellow southerner. Johnson’s relentless support for civil rights was the killing axe blow among whites to the Democratic Party in the south. Oh the tree didn’t fall immediately, but it was doomed. On the other hand the Republican Party was a blank slate, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled. And fill it they did. The Republican Party in the south was reborn as the party of racism and intolerance. That didn’t mean that the whites who remained in the Democratic Party weren’t racists too, most were, just of a more moderate variety, some of whom were capable of adjusting their beliefs. Also a few hardcore racists remained Democrats for seniority or other personal reasons.

The exodus to the Republicans continued over the years, particularly as the Republicans began to tone down the racist rhetoric. The fight over integration and voting rights was over. They began to couch their policies in terms of states rights, limited federal government, and the pro-life movement. The last time that I looked, around the turn of the century, less than fifteen percent of registered white voters in South Carolina were Democrats. It well might be less today. Even with the exodus of the hardcore racists, it was still difficult for blacks in the sixties, seventies, and eighties to win Democratic primaries. This was the era of Clinton, Carter, the Gores, etc. White Democrats were more progressive than white Republicans, but it was still tough for them to vote for a black person, especially one who had never held a major elected office, and almost none had. Eventually this led to the tacit acceptance by southern blacks of Republican gerrymandering, which assured that fewer Democrats would  be elected, but most of those that were would be black. Also it meant that Republican candidates in gerrymandered districts did not have to moderate their positions in order to get elected, in fact quite the opposite. Continue reading



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First let me acknowledge once again the Congolese storytellers, Pere Lepoutre who preserved these tales in Lingala, unfortunately increasingly archaic Lingala, and my great translator Stan Hotalen who has dedicated his life to missionary and community development work in the Congo. With these authentic fables I prefer to use a light editing touch, but I wrestled with this one. There was some gratuitous violence that in my opinion marred the story and was not germane. So after going back and forth in my mind, I decided to do some creative editing. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the text is unaltered in any significant way, and I believe the original storyline and moral comes through as intended.


When the Tortoise’s wife became pregnant, the Tortoise did everything he could to please her. One day she said: “None of the foods you’ve brought satisfy me. I have a craving for the heart of a chimpanzee.” Wow, the Tortoise thought, that’s a tall order. How on earth am I going to get one of those? However the Tortoise was a strong animal, much stronger than he looked, but more importantly he was also very very smart, having a great amount of hidden wisdom in his shell. So he thought long and hard until he came up with a plan. He dressed himself up in a costume just like a great and powerful witchdoctor might wear and headed off into the forest. It so happened that an elderly Chimpanzee was very ill, near death, and his sons were out searching desperately for a witchdoctor. The Tortoise and the sons met, and they took him back to their family’s little village. Earlier that day they had moved the sick Chimpanzee from the hot mud brick house and placed him out back on a small bed in the cool shade of a banana tree.


This is perfect the Tortoise thought. The Chimpanzee is dying anyway and can’t put up a fight, and he is already outside where I can slip away quickly. He took the entire family back into the house and instructed them to sing and beat on drums as loudly as they could, never stopping until he was finished tending to the family patriarch. Then he went back outside and quickly cut out the Chimpanzee’s heart and disappeared into the forest with his prize. When the family finally tired of singing and beating on drums, they went outside and saw what had happened. They were stricken will grief. They quickly buried the body and placed a marker on top of the grave. In addition they all vowed revenge against the fake witchdoctor, but they didn’t know where he lived.

As was their custom, the family would mourn for several months, at the end of which they would hold a grand celebration to honor their deceased family member. When the time came for the grand party, everyone was invited, even the animals way out in the countryside, far beyond the Tortoise’s village: the Elephant, the Antelope, the Buffalo, the Leopard, the Squirrel, the Hippopotamus, Snakes of every kind, Crickets, the Porcupine, the Wild Boar, Bees, Mosquitoes, and even the Hyena, just to name a few. And everyone planned to go, except the Tortoise of course, for obvious reasons.

So on the day of the party, the tortoise stayed behind in his village. His best friend, the Eagle, saw him and asked why he wasn’t going to the party. “I can’t go,” the Tortoise replied. “My pregnant wife wanted to eat the heart of a chimpanzee, so I’m the one who killed the father Chimpanzee. If I go, they will see me and kill me.”

“Let’s take a walk and think about this,” the Eagle replied. “I don’t want to leave my good buddy behind.” Now this Eagle was famous in those parts for his magnificent crown of feathers. After they had strolled around the little village, the Eagle announced: “I’ve got a great idea. You can hide in my crown of feathers, and every now and then I will pour some palm wine on my head for you to drink.” At first the Tortoise was doubtful, but the Eagle convinced him that it was a good plan. “Don’t worry so much,” the Eagle said. “It will work out fine. You’ll see.” So the Tortoise climbed up and hid himself in the Eagle’s feathers.

When they arrived, the party was in full swing, and it was clear that several of the animals already had had quite a bit to drink. The Eagle found a place to sit and began drinking. The Eagle loved palm wine. Some of the animals noticed that every now and then the Eagle would pour some on his head, and they asked about it. The Eagle told them that his witchdoctor had recommended it to keep the feathers in his beautiful crown nice and fluffy. “Seems like a waste of good palm wine to me,”  someone growled.

Everybody at the party was drinking nonstop, including the Eagle. Because he was no longer thinking clearly, he grabbed a drum and began pounding on it. The Eagle was an accomplished drummer, and the other animals often asked him to send talking drum messages for them. At first the Eagle was just pounding out rhythms, but without even thinking about it he began to drum words. “You … animals … will … never … guess … what … I … have … hidden … within … my … crown … of … feathers.”

The Eagle and the Tortoise were lucky, because talking drums are not that easy to understand even when you are sober, but the other animals became curious and asked what message he was sending. Of course the Tortoise was terrified. Embarrassed by all the attention and realizing what he had almost done to his friend, the Eagle went outside for some fresh air. Once outside and by themselves, the Tortoise said, “Are you trying to get me killed? You’re drunk. I’m going back to my village. You can stay here if you want.” The Eagle apologized and said that he wouldn’t do any more drumming. He pleaded with the Tortoise to stay just a little while longer, and then they would go back together. Perhaps the Tortoise was feeling the palm wine too, because he let the Eagle talk him into staying.

So they went back inside, where the Eagle apologized and explained that he had drank too much and was just pounding out nonsense words. The Eagle began to drink heavily again and soon became restless. Suddenly he jumped up and began dancing and singing loudly, much to the amusement of the other animals. Then he grabbed a drum and began pounding away again. This time the oldest Chimpanzee son, who as the host had drank less than the others, was paying attention. Before long the Eagle was pounding out a message: “Hey … all … of … you … chimpanzee … children … the … Tortoise .. who … killed … your … father … is … hiding … in … my … crown.” Of course the Chimpanzee host yelled for his siblings, and they searched the Eagle’s crown and found the Tortoise.

“It is you, the fake witchdoctor who murdered our father,” all the chimpanzees screamed. “How dare you come here to the scene of your crime and drink our palm wine. You will die today. We will cut off your head.”

“I am guilty,” the Tortoise said, “but I wish no further harm to come to your family because of me. If you take me down to the river and let me stretch my neck out on a log, my family will know that you gave me a traditional tortoise death, and they will not seek revenge.”

That seemed like a good idea, so that is what they did. When the Tortoise stretched his neck out on the log, the other animals moved back a few paces so as not to get splattered by blood. The Chimpanzee raised his knife and slashed downward. At the last second the Tortoise zipped his head back inside his shell. Tortoises can do that very quickly. The knife sank deeply into the log and became stuck. In the confusion, the Tortoise slipped down the river bank into the water and escaped.

Moral: If you are smart, and use your brains, you can get away with a lot.



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I wish to acknowledge the wonderful Audubon paintings, which thankfully are in the public domain.

Harriet was a marsh hen. That is the common name, but in the books marsh hens are called clapper rails. The males in her family liked that because for them being called a marsh hen was embarrassing. You know how guys are. Rail sounded cooler, kind of macho. “Hi, I’m Fred, a rail, glad to meet cha.” As the name marsh hen implies, Harriet was about the size of a small chicken. She lived in the endless miles of salt water marshes on the coast of South Carolina, some bordering the numerous tidal creeks and rivers, others surrounding the non-beach sides of the many barrier islands. Harriet lived in the marshes between two islands, Edisto, a large island, and Botany, a much smaller island. She had a long, slim, downward curving beak, designed to winkle out small shrimp, crabs, and other yummy critters from the pluff mud. Pluff mud is the fluffy shoe-stealing sink-deep mud of salt water marshes. Oysters make their homes in it. I wonder if they live in the lost shoes.


Now Harriet had a special friend, Muriel, a sea turtle. One dark night Harriet had been sleeping in her bushy nest in the marsh just across a little tidal creek from the Botany Island beach, when she’d heard some strange grunting sounds. At first she’d thought maybe it was Alfred and Ida and their kids, the wild goat family that lived on the island, but it would have been unusual for them to wander the beach in the middle of the night. She went to the edge of the marshgrass and peered out. Huge sea turtles were lumbering out of the surf to lay their eggs in the sand. The nearest one, which turned out to be Muriel, had just dug a hole in the sand and settled in. Harriet waded across the creek to the beach and struck up a conversation. Marsh hens like chickens seldom fly, and never very high or far. So inbetween Muriel’s grunts they chatted away and became friends. They agreed that whenever her wanderings permitted, every full moon Muriel would come back to visit. Now Harriet had snapped up a baby turtle or two when they’d hatched and made their frantic scramble to the ocean, but she never ate one after she became friends with Muriel, a simple matter of courtesy.


On a night of the full moon Harriet went down to the beach to meet Muriel. Muriel hadn’t arrived yet, but there was something on the beach. It turned out to be Bill, a bottlenose dolphin, all wrapped up in a fishing net. The locals often called them porpoises, but bottlenose dolphin is the correct name. Bill preferred dolphin, but he wasn’t crazy about the bottlenose part. Anyway Bill had barely managed to save himself from drowning by beaching himself. The weight of the net and the fact that it limited his movements had made it more and more difficult for him to surface for air. The tide was going out, and when Harriet found him he was a good ways from the water. Bill was very weak from his struggles. Harriet immediately began to unravel the cords with her long beak. Harriet worked for an hour, maybe two, until she had unraveled a good bit of the net. Fortunately Muriel arrived just in time to tug the rest of it off of Bill and roll him down the sloped beach to the water. Bill just rested in the shallows a bit. Then when he felt strong enough, he thanked them and swam off.

About a week later as Bill swam down a tidal creek, he saw Harriet probing the pluff mud on the creek bank. At the same time he saw a school of small mullet swimming by her. On an impulse he swam quickly toward her and scared a couple fish into flipping up on the bank where Harriet ate them. He tried that again from time to time when he spotted Harriet, not always successfully because the fish didn’t always panic and flip themselves up on the bank, and it was hard for one dolphin to generate a big enough wave to wash them on shore. Also they weren’t always in the perfect spot. Still it was fun to try and Harriet appreciated the effort.

Then one day Bill was swimming with his cousins, Al and Edna, when he spotted Harriet. He talked his cousins into helping. There were no fish right in front of Harriet, but working together the three dolphins managed to herd a school of fish to the right place. Then they surged forward at the same time, creating a bow wave that washed a whole lot of fish up on the bank, many more than Harriet could eat. Al was hungry, so he flipped himself up on the mud bank and began munching away. Soon the other two dolphins joined him. With practice the dolphins became better and better at that style of fishing, whether Harriet was around or not. It became known as strand feeding, and for some years only South Carolina dolphins did it. Then some of Bill’s relatives visited, those odd Geechee dolphins from down Savannah way. Soon Georgia dolphins were doing it too. And if you ever visit Botany Island or Edisto or any of the other barrier islands in the South Carolina low country, you’ll have a good chance to see dolphins strand feeding. All thanks to the kindness of Harriet the marsh hen.