All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a freelance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio.

Blood Lines Chapter 3

By Ed Staskus

   Seen from outer space Prince Edward Island can hardly be seen. The solar system is a speck in the galaxy. The earth is a speck in the solar system. Prince Edward Island is a speck on the earth. When the sky is clear and the sun is shining, it is a red and green pastoral speck surrounded by blue, except when it is cloudy and stormy. Everything then goes hazy and gray.

   The land formed hundreds of millions of years ago. Creeks and rivers deposited gravel, sand, and silt into what is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Before the last ice age, Prince Edward Island was part of the mainland. After the glaciers melted it wasn’t a part of it anymore. It went its own way. The Northumberland Strait became what separates it from the rest of Canada.

   It’s one of the country’s Maritime provinces, the others being New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Newfoundland and Labrador were on their own, the way they wanted it. It is 225 kilometers from one end of the island to the other. It is 3 kilometers at its most narrow and 65 kilometers at its most wide. It is almost twice as far from the island to Walt Disney World in Florida as it is to the Arctic Circle. Walt Disney World is for pretend. The Arctic Circle is for real.

  There are farms from stem to stern. There are so many of them the province is called the “Million-Acre Farm.” When the French ruled the roost it was called Île Saint-Jean. Jacques Cartier discovered it in 1534 and Samuel Champlain claimed it for France in 1603. The Micmac’s tried to explain they had been there for more than 10,000 years, but all they accomplished was to make themselves hoarse. They switched gears and tried singing some of their Top 10 songs. They sang ‘The Eagle Song’ and ‘The Honor Song’ and ‘The Gathering Song.’ Samuel Champlain finally said, “Try singing ‘The Giveaway Song.’ You know the words.” 

   The Micmac glowered. The French reached for their swords. They were more savage than the savages and were hell bent to prove it.

   When the British took over they changed the name to St. John’s, then changed it to New Ireland, and again on the eve of the 19th century to Prince Edward Island. It was named after Prince Edward who later became the father of Queen Victoria. He visited the island five times, even though it took eight to ten weeks to sail one way.

   It became a separate colony in 1769 and the seventh province of Canada in 1873. The capital is Charlottetown, named after the wife of King George III. Charlotte barely spoke English and never visited the capital city. She stayed home in Buckingham House and played her harpsichord. She stuck to chartbusters like Bach’s ‘Concerto in the Italian Style in F Major’ and Handel’s ‘Keyboard Suite No. 5.’

   “She ain’t no beauty, but she is amiable,” George said about his wife.

   The slender crescent of sandstone is the smallest and most densely populated Canadian province, although outside of Charlottetown and Summerside where half of everybody lives it is spread out far and wide. It is more secluded than it is crowded. Forest once covered all the island. By 1989 trees still covered half of it. The red oak is the official tree. There are pine, maple, beech, and spruce. There are no deer, moose, or black bears. There are many skunks, weasels, muskrats, and plenty of foxes. The red fox is the official animal. In early summer pink and purple lupins, weeds that are an invasive species, line fields and ditches. The Lady Slipper, an out-of-the-way orchid that grows in damp shady woodlands, is the official flower.

   Farming is the number one way of life, followed by fishing, and some tourism. There are cows everywhere in sight, their snouts in the turf. There are a boatload of herring, tuna, clams, mackerel, lobsters, scallops, mussels, and oysters to be had. Tourism was growing and Flynn Murphy and his Japanese girlfriend were building cottages on family land to get in on the summer trade. They stayed at Sandy’s Surfside Inn most of the time. Flynn was one of William Murphy’s descendants, 130 years after the triggerman from the Old World landed on the island, his Beaumont-Adams revolver tucked into a sailor’s bag. 

   In 1989 the pickings were good for the Liberals, and they swept the elections. Andrew, the Duke of York, and Sarah, his once wildly popular duchess, visited, flying in on a Canadian Armed Forces Boeing 707. George Proud, one of the new Liberal members of Parliament, stood on a bench for a better view of the royals as they were driven up University Ave. “We’re the commoners, and they’re royalty, and I think people in a strange way must secretly like that,” he said. “It’s a great day,” declared John Ready, the mayor of Charlottetown. A woman in the crowd groused, “I was talking to a friend this morning who said, ‘I don’t know why we should have to curtsy to a person who a few years ago was living with a race-car driver.’”

   The duchess climbed over a rope barrier to talk to a group of senior citizens. “What are these ropes for?” she asked. “I can’t believe you’re penned in.”  

   Scouts Canada held their annual jamboree on the island that year, honing their outdoor skills and running riot in the woods. They had a rousing early summer week. The TV series “Road to Avonlea” went into production. The last train on Prince Edward Island made its last run, coming to a dead stop in living time. The tip-to-tip railway had been operating for one hundred years. One minute later it was done for good.

   “Look Away” by Chicago was the top song of the year with Poison’s “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” hard on its heels. Malcolm “Monk” Kennedy was the thorn on the island that year, but nobody knew it until the Boy Scouts had all gone home. They were always prepared, it being the scouting motto, but nobody was prepared for Monk, or Jules and Louise, the Montreal killers who came to the island looking hunting for him.

   Jules and Louise didn’t know they were going to end up paddling upstream. Monk Kennedy didn’t know two million dollars was going to wrap him up. They didn’t like it when they found out, but by then they had picked their poison. The Crick was going to flow into the ocean, no matter what. They were going to have to find that out for themselves. They weren’t prisoners of fate. They were prisoners of their own minds. Monk couldn’t change fate because he couldn’t change his mind. Jules and Louise wouldn’t change their minds, no matter what.

   Hunkered down on a rock shelf at the bottom of the ocean not far from shore, Louie the Large sized the three of them  up. Monk was scrawny. He was off the dinner table unless there was a famine. Jules looked better. He had some meat on his bones. Louise looked the best. He wouldn’t mind getting his claws into her, not at all. They shared a name. He liked that. He would like it even better if they shared some flesh and blood for real.

   Louie loved the ocean, deep and blue, the tides rising and falling, where life came from. He had a high regard for it. And the fear of it, too.

Excerpted from Blood Lines at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Getting a Groove On

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Born to Travel, but except for Sally Steiger, the office secretary, and my sister, they were either full to the brim or getting close to it. Sharon Karen and Vivian were in love with the feedbag. Gino had a strong hankering for the beefy. Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker had fallen into the trough a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The travel agency was in Beachwood, a far east side suburb of Cleveland. The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of six had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the two boss ladies.

   Everybody except Rita and Gino were Jewish. Gino was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sandy and Sima. Even so he was there before Rita started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline tanker truck flipped over and she had had enough.

   Rita was the immigrant blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Born to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract whitish waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sandy and Sima were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if need be. They came to the United States when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sandy was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Rita a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Rita could hardly believe it and said so. Sandy didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim cigarette and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sandy and Sima’s world revolved around food. They loved the buffet. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up now. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sandy would rush home right away and make a batch of potato latkes.

   Sima had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sandy had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sandy’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. When they started hunting for husbands all three got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight by the boat load.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Sima went to Weight Watchers for a month. She kept a journal and wrote down what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she explained.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Rita said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Gino didn’t believe she was going to lose any weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. He chewed his cud about it. Rita encouraged her to keep it up, but Sima didn’t lose any weight.

   Sandy went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into it every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like fried meat for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Rita said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sandy said. “I’m allowed to eat as much of it as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Gino. Everybody looked the other way. Sandy didn’t lose any weight, the same as Sima.

   Whenever Sandy had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. She could have used a crane. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and groaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sandy and Sima went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, so long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating chuck wagon with one-armed bandits.

   Rita went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was creaky old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sandy and Sima spent every waking minute eating and betting. Rita got sun poisoning at the pool the first day and couldn’t sit there after that. The rest of the trip she had to stay on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started showing up on computers, Sandy started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk and made Sima do all the work. She bossed Sima around most of the time, anyway. Sandy was the older of the two, although Sima was the harder worker, so Sandy could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at department stores. Catalogs came in the mail to the office every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sandy and Sima were both top-heavy, even though both had skinny legs. Sandy talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Sima got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing nearly enough. She was in pain for months because of the new teeth and hardly ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet had gotten skinnier, and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sandy wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Sima losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Sima started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sandy lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, arguing about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Rita. Sima went back to blazing. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the office, they bought devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Rita’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Rita asked.

   “No,” she said.

   “OK then.”

   Gadi Galilli, Rita’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they are well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Gino’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head most of the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sandy wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Sima was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing. They were a pair of choo-choo’s.

   Sandy’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked a butt into it instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Blvd., turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Gino Sally and Rita grabbed their coats.

   Sandy leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Sandy and Sima wrestled themselves up to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping, and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sandy pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Virginia Slims Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sandy’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sandy gave it to him. She was furious but didn’t say anything. Rita thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sandy and Sima turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Rita realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sandy and Sima couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s, and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Rita had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, although she had a strawberry frosty. Sally had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed the menu up.

   Sandy called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s, and he came and picked them up in his family van. He deposited Sandy and Sima at home, drove Gino to his apartment, and dropped Rita off in Cleveland Heights.

   While parked in front of Rita’s up and down double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute but took it like a man.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sandy’s husband drove away, she thought, “I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.”

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Gadi, peeved. “They don’t even pay me hazard pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she was saving every spare penny to get ahead.

“I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Gadi after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon I need. These boots are made for walkin’. I’ve got to go.” 

   Gadi waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Songs of the Season

From our friends Under the Spire Music Festival – don’t miss original music and classic holiday favourites featuring Tim Chaisson and a few of his friends, on Fri 25 Nov.

Tim Chaisson is a JUNO, multiple East Coast Music and Music PEI award winning musician from Bear River, Prince Edward Island. Along with having three successful solo albums, he sings lead vocals and plays fiddle, guitar and percussion in the internationally acclaimed group, The East Pointers

Book your tickets here: https://underthespire.ca/events-2/songs-of-the-season/

Theatre PEI

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Christmas Spectacular in Chains

Jacob Marley in chains? ✔️

The Semi -Amazing, Sort-of-Spectacular, Almost Unbelievable Christmas Spectacular has something for everyone at the Kings Playhouse!

Joins us December 9,10,11th for this ridiculous, over the top, brimming with joy community production.

You’ll leave filled with all of the Holiday Spirit you could wish for! ❄️🎶🌲🎅🤶🧑‍🎄

#KingsPlayhouse2022#ThreeRiversPEI#ChristmasSpectacular#CommunityTheatre

Theatre PEI

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Blood Lines Chapter 2

   By Ed Staskus

   William Murphy was a shrewd clear-sighted man who knew how to get things done. It was why Prince Albert sent him to Prince Edward Island on the American-built clipper ship Antelope of Boston to kill the man who had tried to kill his wife. It didn’t matter that he was an Irishman sent to drop the hammer on an Englishman. When it came to killing each other the Irish and English were good at it.

   “Either bring the evil-minded blackguard back to be hung or put him in the ground where you find him and spare us the trouble,” the consort to Queen Victoria said.

   He nearly lost his chance when he stepped out of the long boat landing him on the north coast of the island too soon for comfort and almost drowned. The water was deeper near the shore of the cove than anyone thought. He sank to the bottom not knowing how to swim and only made it back up on the back of one of the sailors who knew how to dog paddle, at least.

   The evil-minded man he was after was Thomas Spate, a disgruntled veteran of the Crimean War. When he was awarded the Crimea Medal, he threw it away. When he was one of the first soldiers to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery in action during the Battle of Balaclava, he thought about throwing it away, too, but kept it. He wore it every day pinned on his coat over his heart.

   During the war Queen Victoria knitted woolens for the troops and inspected military hospitals, wearing a custom-made red army jacket. When the war ended, she threw a series of victory balls in her new ballroom. Tom Spate watched from the outside, driving himself crazy. He was alone and down on his luck. He blamed everybody except himself for the bad things that happened to him. He walked incessantly, from one end of London to the other. He goose-stepped up and down Hyde Park. Small groups gathered to watch the performance. The queen saw him often enough to become familiar with him, although she never approached or spoke to him.

   During one of his walks around London he spied Queen Victoria and Prince Albert outside Cambridge House. As their carriage left, it came to a stop outside the gate. Tom Spate had taken to carrying two old-fashioned flintlock coat pocket pistols. They were always loaded. He walked up to the carriage and pulled them out. He straightened one arm and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He brought the other pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. It misfired. He had just enough time to strike his monarch on the head with the butt of one of the guns before Prince Albert lunged at him, shoving him away from the carriage. Men on the walk swarmed the would-be assassin and beat him almost to death.

   Queen Victoria stood up in her carriage and proclaimed in a firm voice, “I am not hurt,” even though she was gushing blood from a deep gash on her forehead. The blood was a violent red on her yellow crocheted shawl.

   Tom Spate was arrested imprisoned tried convicted and sentenced to transportation and twenty years hard labor in the penal colony on Tasmania. There was no appeal. There was no changing anybody’s mind. In their calculation he got what he deserved. “I would have had the rascal drawn and quartered,” Prince Albert complained, speaking his mind about crime and punishment.

   When he escaped his jailers and disappeared, Prince Albert summoned Bill Murphy, a mercenary who it was said always got his man. He told his monarch’s consort as much. It took more than a year, but in the spring of 1859, he was making his way soaking wet up the hill from the cove to the village of North Rustico. He knew where Tom Spate was and knew he could take his time. He needed to get out of his sopping clothes. He needed a hot cider and dinner. He needed a good night’s sleep in a feather bed on dry land that didn’t heave-ho all night long. He found the only boarding house in North Rustico and took a room.

   Bill Murphy’s man was living on the far side of the Stanley River, nine miles northwest up the coast. The Irishman grew up calling miles chains. His man was 720 chains away. It would take him about three hours to walk there on the coastal footpath. He had no intention of dragging anybody back to England. The voyage itself took months.  “Jesus and Mary chain,” he grumbled. He had every intention of collecting his bounty.

   Tom Spate lived in a rough-and-ready hut he had thrown together, living in it with his new wife and new baby. He had no land to farm and no craft to make his way. He made his way by operating a ferry service from one side of the Stanley River to the other. In the winter he closed it down when the water froze, and folks either walked or ice skated across. In January the ice got thick enough that horses and wagons could cross. He bought ice skates, carved sticks with a curve at the bottom, and made homemade pucks. His wife rented them to youngsters with eggs, butter, salt cod, and potatoes to trade for playing shinny on the ice. It was a game of fast skating and trying to hit the puck between two sticks of wood marking the goal.

   Most of North Rustico was Acadian French, and Catholic like Bill Murphy. The north coast was the religious center for the church. St. Augustine’s had been built twenty years earlier. It boasted an 80-foot-high tower. A man could see everything from the top of it. The harbor was filled with boats and the fishing was good. There were cattle and horses grazing and fields of turnip and cabbage.

   Piles of mud dotted the fronts of fields. On his way to introduce Tom Spate to his maker that day, stopping to rest, he asked a passing man what it was.

   “It is mussel mud,” the man, a farmer, said. “The land needs lime to breathe new life into it. We use the mud from bays and riverbeds. It’s filled with oyster shells.”

   He didn’t ask why they called it mussel mud instead of oyster mud. “Do you dig it up?” he asked.

   “We go out in canoes at high tide and dam up a small space so we can dig it from the bottom. When we are full, we go back and unload it at low tide.”

   “It sounds like a great deal of work.”

   “It is, but without the mud we would starve on the farms, both man and beast. I couldn’t keep one horse but for it. Your cow needs at least a ton of hay to survive the winter. We have been doubling our harvests with the mud. We will have more of it soon.”

   “How’s that?” 

   “We have got a man engineering a mechanical digger to harvest the mud in the winter through holes in the ice and carry it across the island by sleigh. There’s talk that we will be able to increase our crops of hay five and ten times. And then there’s the ice besides. We cover it in sawdust and put it into an icehouse, and we can preserve foods that go bad in the summer’s heat.”

   Bill Murphy parted with the farmer, shaking his hand. He liked what he heard about mussel mud. It was a sunny day and the uplands looked fine to him. When he got to the Stanley River, he rang a bell hanging from a post. Tom Spate’s face appeared at a window on the other side. He waved and the next minute was guiding his flatboat across the water, using a rope anchored to oak trees. He pushed with a pole along the riverbed. Bill Murphy paid him his two pennies and put his back to a pillar as Tom Spate pushed off.

   Near the middle of the river the Irishman felt for the sidearm in his pocket. He carried the new Beaumont-Adams percussion revolver. The cylinder held five rounds, just in case, although he knew he wasn’t going to miss his man with his first shot. He intended to be standing face to face with him when he dispatched the villain. He walked up to Tom Spate.

   “Thomas Spate, I have a message for you from your queen,” he said.

   Tom Spate’s face went white as the bones of a carcass when the barrel of the gun pressed into his chest, pressing against his Victoria Cross.

   “For God’s sake, I have a wife and child.”

   “For crown and country,” Bill Murphy said and pulled the trigger. The bullet rocketed out of the barrel, slamming and driving the medal into Tom Spate’s heart, ripping the spirit and strength out of it, and putting an end to the unhappy war veteran’s life.

   Bill Murphy stood over him and decided in a moment of insight that he was going to stay on Prince Edward Island. There was nothing in Ireland or the rest of the United Kingdom for him other than more killing and waiting for the day he would be the one killed. He had neither wife nor family. He would find a colleen here, he thought. He would have sons. He would raise horses fed with abundant hay grown in the good graces of mussel mud. He didn’t love his fellow man, but he loved horses. 

   He bent a knee and using both hands pried open the hole in Tom Spate’s chest. He stuck his fingers into the man, feeling for the bullet and the medal. He couldn’t find the bullet at first but found the Victoria Cross easily enough. He yanked the medal out . It had been cast from the cascabels of two cannons captured from the Russians at the siege of Sevastopal. He searched for the bullet until he found it. He washed the blood on his hands off in the water. He pushed the body off the ferry with his boot. It bobbed in the river and started floating out to the ocean.

   He poled the ferry to the side he had come from and walked back to North Rustico. In his room he packaged the bullet the medal and a letter in a stout envelope. The letter didn’t have a word in it about what he had done, only asking for land on the shoreline where he had landed, and the right to name the cove “Murphy’s Cove.”

   He posted the letter in Charlottetown, paying an extra penny to make it a “Registered Letter.” It would sail on the Gazette to Liverpool the next week. He hoped to have a reply by the fall. In the meantime, he would start building a house on the western side of the cove. The land might already be owned by somebody, but it was nearly all forest. Whoever the landlord was, it was still waiting for a tenant, or the man in the moon. When and if he showed up, Bill Murphy was sure he could set him straight.

   He sat in his room and fired up his Meerschaum pipe. When he was young and poor, he smoked spone. It was coltsfoot mixed with wild rose petals. Now he carried good tobacco in his purse. The smoke curled up from the Irish clay. The kitten he had brought back with him from the no-contest on the Stanley River watched the smoke, avid and curious.

   “All the old haunts and the dear friends, all the things I used to do, the hopes and dreams of boyhood days, they all pass me in review.” It was a song they still sang in military barracks. He had been dragooned into the army while a lad after being plied with drink by a sergeant in a pub. He took the “Queen’s Shilling” and there was no going back, especially after he deserted and went to work for himself, plying his trade. 

   The one window of his room faced west. The setting orange sun slanted in, warming his face. When he was done with his pipe he would go downstairs for haddock, potatoes, and beer. Until then, he would smoke and let his plans unwind themselves from the back of his mind.

Excerpted from Blood Lines at http://www.redroadpei.com.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Stalking the Ukraine

By Ed Stasku

   Even though Ukraine wasn’t Ukraine in the 14th century lots of folks called it that so that is what it was. The word itself means borderland. The Lithuanians visited every summer. They did it for their health, if not for the health of the natives. When they did they had good times marauding and looting and drinking too much whenever the devil got the better of them. They didn’t control the land so much as take advantage of it. The less governance the better is the way they saw it. “We do not change old traditions and do not introduce new ones,” they said.

   They were freebooters who became empire builders. The boyars rode fast horses, big and fit, were outfitted in chain mail, wore conical metal helmets, were armed with lances, swords, and knives, and carried a black shield emblazoned with the red emblem of the Columns of Gediminas. They weren’t draftees or recruits. Those who were, walked and died where they stood. The boyars were tough men who could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. The Golden Horde warned would-be enemies of them, “Beware the Lithuanians.” That was all they ever said.

   They had to be rough and tough. When they went to war they didn’t launch cruise missiles and kill their enemies at great distance, checking the body count with drones. They hacked their enemies to pieces with long swords face to face and watched them bleed to death in the mud at their feet.

   By the end of the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Today it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. When they were growing fast and furious they didn’t do it by being soul brothers or good trading partners. They did it by getting on their horses and taking what they wanted. They didn’t bother explaining.

   The Grand Duchy got started in the early 13th century when Prince Mindaugas united his Baltic forest clans, swamp tribes, and fiefdoms into a feudal state. They were desperate times. The Teutonic Knights were on a rampage. They wanted to incorporate all of Lithuania into the Teutonic Order. They never stopped trying. Between 1305 and 1409 they launched 300-some military campaigns. They slaughtered more peasants than anything else. The Lithuanians beat them back time and again. Finally, in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald the Lithuanians and Poles destroyed the Teutonic Knights. Most of the order’s leadership was killed or taken prisoner. The Grand Master ran away. They never recovered their former power. When the carnage was over, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance became the dominant political and military force in the region.

   When I was a kid almost everybody called the Ukrainians Russians. We didn’t call them that because we knew what was up with the Reds. They had done the same thing to Lithuania, enslaving the country, and reaping something anything everything for nothing. Both of my parents came from there after WW2, so we knew what was up. We didn’t have to read between the lines of whatever Washington and Moscow were forever saying.

   Even though Ukraine didn’t become a nation-state until 1991, after getting their feet wet for a few years after WW1, it was extant in the 14th century, and well before that. We all knew about the Ukrainians when I was growing up, The first Ukes came to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1880s. They settled in the Tremont neighborhood. Their idea was work hard in the factories of the industrial valley, get rich, go back home, buy some land, and live happily ever after. Between the world wars lots of former freedom fighters came. They were goners if they had stayed. Stalin was itching to get his hands on them. Most of them settled in Parma, a southwest suburb, where they built churches, schools, and started their own aid associations and credit unions.

   We didn’t live in Parma, but on the east side along the lake. Nevertheless, among the Poles, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenians, and anybody else who could sneak into the country when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t looking, there were some Ukrainian families in our neck of the woods. One of them operated a gas station on St. Clair Ave. not far from where we lived. One of their handful of sons who was our age messed around with us summers, when we had three no-school months to mess around in. His name was Lyaksandra. It sounded like a girl’s name, so we called him Alex.

   We played pick-up baseball at Gordon Park, from where we could see Lake Erie. We once asked him, taking a break in the action, what he thought about the Russians. He growled, made an obscene gesture, spit sideways, and said, “There are lots of Russki’s in Ukraine. They are liars about everything. They aren’t all bad, but they all hate themselves. We hate them, too.”

   Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. It is bordered by Russia and Belarus, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, among others. It has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has its own language. Most people speak Russian, as well. The Muscovites are always trying to convince them to drop the Uke talk and speak only Russian.

   “We don’t talk that Russki talk anymore,” Alex said. “Not here, no way.”

   In the Middle Ages Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, was the epicenter of East Slavic culture. It was, at least, until the Kievan Rus was destroyed by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Somebody is always trying to beat up on Ukraine. From then to the 20th century Ukraine was variously ruled by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Tsars of Russia. Everybody wanted to be the boss of the Ukes. It’s a miracle they have prevailed and are still prevailing, facing the long odds of going against the vaunted Red Army.

   The Russians are finding out what it is like to go toe to toe with somebody who is not afraid of them and has the up-to-date American rockets and artillery to back up their bravado. The Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle. Their backs are against the wall. They have nowhere to fall. The Red Army is fighting to save its skin and make it home alive for Defenders of the Fatherland Day. The soldiers throw their uniforms into the nearest sewer when they desert.

   When I was a boy I played with toy soldiers. There wasn’t any such thing as a Lithuanian mounted  boyar toy soldier, so I pretended that anybody on a horse was a Lithuanian knight. They were always the good guys. They won every fight battle and war. They were my heroes. I didn’t know what sons of bitches they must have been. They weren’t any different than anybody else in power back then. They were all sons of bitches, including the Holy Roman Church, whose popes ruled by the sword whenever the pen wasn’t convincing enough. 

   In the early 16th century Pope Julius I, the Fearsome Pope, imported Swiss Guards to be his personal bodyguards. He strapped on armor and led the Papal State armies against the Venetians, the French, and the Spanish. His armor plating covered every inch of him just in case the grace of God didn’t get it done, including a helmet made to look like a miter. Everybody on his side was allowed to join the Holy League. Everybody else was badmouthed and excommunicated.

  After Pope Julius died a rumor had it that if he was denied entrance at the Pearly Gates, there would be hell to pay. He would storm them, St. Peter or no St. Peter, and never mind his set of silver and gold keys. It was every man for himself and God against all.

   Until the end of the 14th century Lithuanians didn’t give a damn what the Vatican did. They were pagans. They were the last pagans in Europe. The word “Lithuania” is first mentioned in 1009, in an account of the murder of Saint Bruno by “pagans on the border of Lithuania and Rus.” He was trying to convert them. That was a mistake. Their headman, whose name was Dievas, ruled the universe from his kingdom in the sky. He didn’t like anybody popping up with new ideas about Heaven and Hell. Perkunas, the god of thunder and lightning, was his right-hand man and enforcer. The holy fires were guarded by Vaidilutès, the Lithuanian equivalent of Vestal Virgins. They buried their dead with food and household goods. The last pagan grand duke was buried with his hounds, horses, and falcons.

   When they finally joined the God-fearing club it was a political move. They were doing a dynastic union with Poland, and one of the conditions the Poles laid down was that the Lithuanians had to convert to church-going and dump their veneration of the forces of nature. It didn’t change their business plan in Ukraine, other than to make them more organized. They transitioned from frat parties to fancy dress balls.

   The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had controlled Belarus for some time and when they went after Ukraine they got it, extending their control to the open steppe and eventually to the Black Sea. The Ukes learned to “Beware the Lithuanians.” When they started to get what they wanted they left their freebooting days behind and started building castles to keep their loot secure. It was  a ten-day ride from Vilnius to Kiev. Why not ditch the seasonal exploitation and make the most of the four seasons?

   It wasn’t their land, but it is finders keepers. They meant to keep what they had subjugated. The Ukrainians didn’t have a say in the matter. They told the Ukes, “We may not be perfect but we’re Lithuanians so it’s almost the same.” The Ukes said, “We promise not to laugh when your oven is on fire.” The Lithuanians weren’t offended. They just said, “Show us the goats.”

   They built the Lutsk Castle, which later became a museum. They built the Olyka Palace, which later became an insane asylum. They built the Kremenets Castle, which later fell into ruins after the Cossacks sacked the city at the bottom of the hill. In the meantime, the boyars lived the high life. They started with red borscht, green borscht, and cold borscht. They feasted on holubtsi, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. They ate slabs of kholodets, a cold jellied meat broth. They drank vodka between courses. Ukrainians to this day drink more vodka than beer. When they were done with dinner they went to bed, snoring and cabbage farting in their sleep.

   Even though the Lithuanians always said the Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, they built their castle-fortresses on high hills with steep inclines, the rockier the better, fitted with one main gate and plenty of towers, arrow slits, battlements, and dungeons. They kept big rocks and hot oil handy to toss down on door-to-door salesmen. If you ended up in the dungeon you found out soon enough they weren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

   Imperialism is never cozy and consensual. It’s more like assault and battery. The movers and shakers of power politics don’t get thrown in jail until long after they are dead. My friend Alex had never heard of Lithuanians living it up in Ukraine. He was surprised to hear they had once been a super power. He was chagrined to find out there were more invaders of his homeland than he had realized.

   “How come the Lithuanians push us around back then?” he asked. Most of us playing ball at Gordon Park were second generation Lithuanian Americans. We weren’t even teenagers, yet. None of us had a good answer, much less a sensible answer of any kind.

   “Somebody always wants to be the top dog,” Kesty said.

   “No, that wasn’t it,” Arunas said. “They just wanted to have somebody else do all the work, like make dinner and clean the toilets.”

   “It was the Ukrainian girls,” Romas said. “Ukrainian girls are hot.”

   Romas was over-sexed, and everybody knew it. Nobody had any other ideas. We went back to playing ball in the summer sun. When we got overheated we walked to the shore and sat on the edge of a cliff in the breeze. Lake Erie was in front of us, the water rippling, the tips of the waves white.

   “Can we see Ukraine from here?” Alex asked.

   “No, it’s that way,” Arunas said pointing over his right shoulder. When we looked all we could see was Bratenahl, where rich people lived in mansions. They made the rules, for what they were worth. Our grade school class practiced duck and cover once a month, just in case the Russki’s dropped an atomic bomb on Cleveland. We brought our own lunches every day but wondered where our next lunch was going to come from if all the food stores got blown up. Many of the Bratenahl bluebloods had their own fallout shelters. They didn’t worry overmuch about starving.

   All good things must come to an end. The Lithuanians were strong in Ukraine for several centuries, but the deal they made with Poland reaped a better harvest for their next-door neighbors than my ancestors. The Poles say, “A good appetite needs no sauce.” By the mid-16th century Lithuanians were sauce. Their goose was cooked. The dynastic link was changed to a constitutional one by the Union of Lublin in 1569. Ukraine was set free of the Lithuanians but was annexed by Poland the next day.

   The more things change the more they stay the same, until they don’t. The new would-be colonialists calling the shots in the Kremlin are finding that out, to their discomfiture. They make a wasteland and call it New Russia. They have been looking grim lately. Meanwhile, Lithuania has joined NATO and gone out of the plunder and pillage business. The boyars are rolling over in their graves.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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