Monday, January 23, 2023

The First Mother of Paris

Greetings and Salutations,

My newest short story is another new one inspired by this week's prompt in my short story group: "Paris". As usual, I went in a slightly different way than most of the people did with the prompt but I liked the idea. I hope you will enjoy the story too. Feel free to send me some feedback and let me know what you think!


The First Mother of Paris

by James J Meadows III

A queen owes a responsibility to her people and her family. She must protect them against all threats, especially when enemies encircle her kingdom on all sides like rabid wolves, sniffing the air for the slightest trace of blood to pounce upon. Any vulnerability, weakness, or opening which might provide her foes the slightest edge becomes a beacon of dark light hailing the doom of her kingdom and those who dwell within its walls; all of whom will die should those walls fall.

She knew it. And she knew she needed to act. But some actions were easier spoken than taken.

Hecuba stood staring at the face of the small baby lying in the cradle before her. Beautiful blue eyes looked back, gleaming sapphires surrounded by a milky white ocean whose mesmerizing depths drew her in until she could hardly bear to remove her gaze from them. With an effort, she wrenched her face away from the innocent stare of the little child and turned her eyes instead to the knife clutched tight in her hands as though it were the only cord binding her to reality in this otherwise surreal situation. She took another look back at the little one. Hecuba knew it must die. Still, how could she kill her own son?

Darkness settled upon the room as the fire in the distant hearth momentarily dwindled. She glanced into the open flames. A collection of long wooden logs provided the fuel for the only source of warmth penetrating the cold night air flowing through the open windows. There was nothing particularly unique or impressive about the logs. Yet, somehow, as she watched, they seemed to alter in shape, taking the form of tall stone battlements and houses, all burning beneath the fiery torches of rival armies.

One of the logs, roasted by the flames building within its interior, broke apart, releasing a fresh burst of heat. The fire rose again, growing taller as its flickering strands swept over the embers, greedily consuming every trace of life that once lingered within its shattered hull. The snaps and pops mingled with the sound of distant human screams and cries which, though muffled, seemed to reach her ears from the depths of the flaming inferno. She knew it was all in her imagination. Still, the visions refused to let her be. They were dying. Everyone was dying.

Hecuba spun away from the fire and toward the window on the opposite side of the room. Tears blossomed in her eyes as she gazed at the quiet homes of the city beyond. Were they all destined to be destroyed? Was every one of her subjects, friend and foe, adult and child, master and slave, noble and pauper, all destined to die because she didn’t have the strength to save them?

She gave another look at the baby. Its eyes began to close as it drifted into a quiet slumber within the shelter of its crib and the warm blankets around it. It was so small, so helpless, so sweet and beautiful.

The knife rose in her hands as her footsteps carried her closer and closer to the wooden bed. She could kill it while it slept. It would never even know that something was happening. One swift, well-aimed strike could forever end the danger he posed to the kingdom and ensure the safety and welfare of her people for generations to come. This was the moment to strike. This was the time. This was the moment of truth for which all the successive generations throughout all of history would judge her. The knife rose. It didn’t fall.

For nine months she had carried this baby snug within the warmth of her womb. For nine hours she had labored through the day and well into the night to grant the first sweet breath of glorious life to the lungs of the tiny infant who relied upon her for the protection, love, and affection which every child is supposed to receive from its mother.

How could she betray the trust and faith of motherhood? How could she destroy the gift given to her by the gods and forsake the responsibility to nurture, provide, and adore the little one placed into her care? At the same time, how could she betray the trust, faith, and responsibility owed to the hundreds of children and babies not belonging to her, which had also been placed into her care by the gods, who had made her the daughter of one king and the bride to another?

She had to protect her people! Still, the knife did not fall. Hecuba spun around in frustration and humiliation. A tray covered with apples rested on the table beside her and she swatted it with all her might, releasing her rage and self-loathing upon the helpless fruit with the furious scream of a tortured soul, unable to endure its suffering for another minute.

Apples flew into the air, scattering in all directions, as they bounced against wall, table, and floor, propelled into a chaotic retreat from her violent outburst. One of the apples, the largest, roundest, and easily most beautiful prize of the bunch, struck the top railing of the crib, bouncing inside where it landed within reach of the tiny babe, whose precious little fingers stretched out unconsciously to grip the small brown stem and cling tightly to it like the comforting hand of a beloved friend.

 Her head drooped against her chest in defeat. She lifted it again to stare out the window. A small light shining in the distant temple revealed that the priest Aesacus was still awake and milling about its halls. She had gone to see him early the previous day, before going into labor. She had sought his advice regarding a series of bizarre nightmares that had haunted her sleep. He had told her the dreams were a prophecy, foretelling the doom of all of her people and her kingdom, a fate which would be brought upon them by this child. The kingdom could only be spared if her baby were to die.

The peaceful hum of the baby’s snores interrupted her reflections. Maybe the priest was wrong. True, he was the greatest prophet in the whole kingdom. And, true, he had never been wrong before. But maybe this time; perhaps this once, if only this once, he was wrong. The gods often revealed their secrets in riddles, and it was possible, however improbable, that the meaning of their message was confusing and the insights misunderstood.

Even as she reflected upon this seemingly reasonable argument, she knew there was no truth to it. The prophecy wasn’t wrong. The words weren’t confused. Her vision wasn’t a lie. She knew all of it was true. She also knew she couldn’t do it.

The door to the chamber creaked open and the queen’s most loyal confidant, the priestess Herophile entered the room.

“Is it done?” She asked.

“No, it isn’t done,” Hecuba snapped. She threw the knife with all her might against the floor, where the point buried itself into the wood. “And if you want it done so badly, you can do it yourself. Otherwise go tell his father that I couldn’t do it, either. We’ll just have to find some other way to fix this mess.”

Though the priestess gave Hecuba a derisive look, Hecuba noticed the priestess made no attempt of her own to harm the baby. Instead, she turned around and hurried from the doorway. Hecuba turned her eyes back toward her baby, fresh tears blooming as she struggled with the horrible curse overshadowing what should have been a joyous occasion for the whole kingdom.

She reached out to pet the head of the sleeping baby, then, quickly withdrew her hand. She feared growing too attached to the beautiful boy. It was torture not to touch the one thing every atom in her body wanted, more than anything else in the world, to hold tight against her bosom and never let go. Instead, she turned her back to him and crossed to the door. She took one last look over her shoulder at the crib and wiped away a tear.

“Good night, my sweet Paris,” she said.  With these words, the queen of Troy left the room, the apple, and the baby behind in the warm glow of the firelight.

Monday, January 9, 2023

A New Beginning

Hey Everyone,

I thought I would start the New Year with a short story from last week's writing prompt, "New Beginnings". To make it more fun, I also borrowed the first few lines from a book my son got me for Christmas called "Complete the Story". It is a fun little book that gives you the first few lines of a story and you are supposed to write the rest. Some of the suggestions are pretty "blah" but I thought I would give it a try.

The premise of the following tale is based upon a supposedly true story one of the students in my class told me about. Let me know what you think.



The Family Photo

     All at once, and in a matter of seconds, three things happened that changed my life forever. Turns out it’s true what the books say: that a single moment can change your life forever.

     First, I raised my camera toward my wife and children. They were standing a short distance away, leaning against the rail above a several hundred-foot drop. Behind them, the snow-covered Grand Canyon glittered in the bright winter sunlight.

     This was supposed to be our dream trip. My wife and I had talked about coming here for over twenty years. We had never made it until now. Some other trip or location always ended up coming first. Some other responsibility, some other place to go, or some other thing to see had always caused us to push off this location. Now, we were finally here; and, it was perfect. There was no way I could have anticipated what was about to happen.

     The second thing that happened seemed equally innocuous: my children squeezed tightly against their mother and everyone smiled. It was a perfect picture - an image that remains forever fixed in my memory. My entire family standing together.

     I met my wife shortly after the worst traffic accident of my life. I had been struck by one of those reckless drivers. You know, the kind who weave through traffic at twenty miles above the speed limits, like inconsiderate jerks, not caring a lick about the safety and welfare of anyone else on the road. It was a disastrous moment.

     There I was, driving along about five miles per hour over the speed limit. Not exactly slow. But, apparently, it wasn’t fast enough for those drivers who are so impatient that they probably shouldn’t be allowed behind the wheel at all. The next second, some speed demon comes zooming up beside me so quickly that I barely even register the black color of the sports car before they whip into my lane to pass the car in front of them. The rear end of their car struck the front of mine and we both went spinning.

     I remember very little afterward. I screamed, of course. And I briefly recall the image of the car behind me smashing into my own. I remember flashes of light, the explosion of an airbag, and a lot of pain. The next thing I knew, I was lying in a hospital, staring up into the face of the most beautiful, kind, and intelligent nurse I could ever imagine meeting. Two years later, that nurse and I would stand at the altar and pronounce the words, “I do.”

     The two children standing on each side of my wife were no less miraculous. After trying for children for almost five years, my wife and I were convinced we would never have any. Yet, one warm summer’s day, after years of trying, my wife and I finally gave birth to our daughter. Four years later, we would give birth to a son.

     They weren’t babies anymore. My daughter was now almost a teenager and my son was in elementary school. They were old enough to have heard us speak about taking this trip many times. They were also old enough to appreciate it. 

     It was there, at that moment, as they leaned against the rail smiling at me, that the third thing happened - the thing that changed my life forever. A bright flash of light, coming from the snow-covered mountains behind them, struck my eyes, momentarily blinding me.

     I blinked against the light and attempted to lift my hand to my eyes. When I did, I found that I couldn’t move my arm. It felt weak and heavy. I tried looking up to see what was happening but the light was so bright that everything was a blur. Finally, after about a second, things came into focus. What I saw didn’t make any sense.

     My family, the Grand Canyon, and everything else was gone. The blinding lights above me weren’t coming from the sun. They were coming from white fluorescent fixtures in a ceiling.

     I tried turning my head. It responded sluggishly but enough for me to look around at my surroundings. I was lying in a hospital bed with a variety of cords and equipment attached to me. There was some tube down my throat and there were IVs in my arms. I could hear the sound of beeping and various electrical equipment running.

     I wasn’t sure where I was or what happened. Had there been an accident? Did I have some sort of amnesia? Where was my family?

     It wasn’t until a few days later, when all of the equipment was finally detached and I was able to speak, that I learned the disturbing truth. It was one month since I had gotten into the car wreck. I had spent the last month in a coma.

     My children never existed. No one with my wife’s name had ever worked at the hospital. The last twenty years of my life had never happened.

     For a long time, I had difficulty coming to grips with the information. At first, I assumed I was on some TV show or something. Any minute my family would pop out from hiding. They never did.

     Next, I became convinced I was dreaming. The only problem was that I never woke up. Later I started to wonder if it was a conspiracy. Soon, however, after many attempts to track down my family, hiring detectives, and even receiving therapy, I was forced to accept the facts. Everything I had known and experienced in twenty years of my memory was a lie.

     It was a tough realization. Even with accepting the truth, it took years of counseling to reach the level where I could effectively interact with the world around me. Not many people could understand. How could I mourn the loss of people who never existed? How could I weep for a wife who wasn’t even real? But to me, it didn’t feel like a dream. Everything felt real. It still does.  

     The scary part is: how do I know it wasn’t? If a coma could make me dream twenty years of events that never happened, how do I know it isn’t happening again? How can I know if this experience is real? How do I know the other experience wasn’t real? How do I know anything?

     The truth is: I don’t. And I have to live with that.

     Some people tell me I should be glad. They tell me I have gotten a chance at a new beginning, something many people dream about. They tell me I should be grateful. I’m not.

     I move forward anyway. Each day, I struggle on, working to rebuild the life I lost. Still, I constantly think about those last few seconds when everything changed. And that one picture, that was never really taken, is burned forever into my mind.