[Today’s writing exercise with three stories. Forgive the typos, as this is off the cuff with little to no editing. My comments are in italics and brackets.]
In the space below each of these three historical events, describe a seemingly mundane, everyday event that might have occurred on the same day, which serves to juxtapose the famous events:
- William Shakespeare dies, April 23, 1626.
Riku stirred the warm water over the fire in his family’s small kitchen, waiting for his father to return from the docks and his mother from visiting his aunt in the foothill. Though only ten, he understood the immense responsibility of tending the fire, not overstocking the flame or letting the sparks leave the same stone circle. His father’s father, his soku, still bore the scars on his arm from the Last Great Edo Fire, and his grandfather rarely let a month go by without telling how his mother was consumed.
But Riku was ten years old, and his mind wandered as a child’s mind does, even during important tasks. His eyes saw his hand stirring the water, preparing to add the chai, but his mind was far away. It was not on his small family, his parents or his poor maimed little sister whom he loved more that the moon, nor was it on the upcoming Kanda Matsuri festival, in which his father promised Riku could attend from dawn to dusk. His imaginations passed over even his favorite dream: success in school. It was not unknown for the best students to find a new life above their caste, far from this small Yokosuka apartment.
Had Riku thought of his favorite dream, he would have repeated his silent prayer thanking the gods his family was not burakumin, social outcasts. No matter their efforts, there was no light in the dark days of those untouchables.
No, as Riku stirred the near-bubbling water, his mind floated to a memory of a voice, grey eyes, and a butterfly clasp holding thick black hair in place.
Riku was a young boy in love.
Her name was a breath of air from his lips that someone standing near him would not hear.
She moved to the neighborhood days ago, and the rumors that followed were scandalous. Normally Riku would ignore his mother as she gathered the town harpies for tea, but he could not help but overhear that Koharu’s mother was well-born, the daughter of a samurai chieftain on one of the southern islands. She chose love over duty, and eloped with a low-caste samurai from her father’s entourage. Koharu was born six months later.
Riku could not help but believe the gossip. Koharu was his age and already beautiful, and she glided across the streets as if she rode a cloud. Her voice was music in words, and he idly wondered if she sang to the tune of a biwa lute, his mother’s favored instrument.
Without thinking, he threw kindling on the fire under the pot, failing to see one twig bounce into and then out of the flames on the far side of the stone circle.
When young men fall in love, they tend to fall into one of two camps, Riku’s father had reminisced over dinner the previous week: strut around the barnyard like a proud and senseless rooster, or hide in the shadows as a worthy ninja, watching his prey and learning all he can under cover. Though he did not understand why his father chose last night to speak of these things, Riku chose to be the ninja and to learn in silence.
(In truth, it was Riku’s mother who’d seen her son’s love for the young girl next door and asked his husband to speak to their son. Riku would never know the truth.)
It took all of two days for the young man to see Koharu was never without a book.
She loves words!
Riku almost leapt to the sun in joy when he learned this. Like his parents, he was small and could not lift great stones like some of his classmates. He could not run quickly or very far before the ghosts in his lungs awoke and slowed his breathing. When teams were chosen for kemari or some other ball game, Riku was often last chosen.
But he could write and write well for someone his age, his teachers often remarked.
And he could write a haiku to Koharu, choosing the words carefully to both show and hide his feelings.
His mind was on a cloud, and his eyes watched his hand stir the water while failing to see the small smoke trail on the other side of the pot.
“Koharu” was like many names in his culture, alive with many meanings. In parts, it could translate to “small heart” or “spring,” but Riku chose to use the more romantic “late summer” meaning. Smiling to himself, the haiku almost wrote itself.
As long as I breathe,
My late summer shall not fade,
My heart breathes with thee.
Riku bit his lip. The third line was not perfect, but he had all the time in the world to perfect the stanza.His words would live forever.
He turned from the pot to gather the chai as the tatami mat made of dry rice straw caught fire and gushed flames.
[Fans of The Bard will recognize the variation of Sonnet #18 (link below), shortened to a haiku for literary purposes. I beg forgiveness from the literalists. The haiku as an expressive art form come into its own not too many years after Shakespeare’s death. It was known in the Edo of 1626. Edo is, of course, modern day Tokyo, a great city with a complex history and an intense love-hate relationship with fire. Much of the above comes from being stationed in Japan many years ago, with a respectful hat-tip to one of my favorite novels, James Clavell’s Shogun.
2. The California Gold Rush begins, January 24, 1848.
Medore Beaubien rested his elbows on the rail separating him from the nearly-completed Illinois & Michigan Canal, his feelings decidedly mixed. There was one of pride in knowing his people helped dig and solidify the waterway connected his hometown of Chicago to the great Mississippi River, unlocking the potential of great riches. There was the sense of reality in understanding that his people would never be fully compensated for their energies, not would they see the riches of the boat owners or cargo managers or anyone else. He acutely felt the pain in believing that time has passed his people by, and that they were no longer welcome in any way in a town they practically founded.
Above all else, Medore was disturbed by his own thoughts. A child of mixed blood, the son of a native Potawatomi whose families helped create the original Chicago, but also the son of the white invaders from the north and east. As he grew, he struggled with the definition of the words, “his people.” Was he one of those who lived and worked this land and great lake for decades, or was he a child of these great inventors and engineers who could build a canal from this great lake to a faraway river that touched the southern ocean?
He was not blind. He could see Chicago changing before his eyes and most Potawatomis were long gone, having given up their deeds to their rich land ten and twenty years earlier. The few that remained were like him, mixed blood, or occupying lowly jobs in exchange for small favors. Their lack of pride in life hurt Medore more than physical blows. Were they “his people,” too?
He had no answers.
“Ain’t it something, Medore? A miracle of modern science.”
Michael clapped his friend hard on his shoulder as Medore grunted in assent. He’d smelled Michael before he spoke, which was not difficult as Michael always drank and rarely bathed, even on his birthday. Still, his roommate from the boarding house was one of the most honest and open human beings he’d known, and possessed no prejudicial bones in his body. A rare trait among Chicagoans, even himself, Medore was honest enough to admit.
Michael kicked the leather bag at their feet. “Mrs. Williams said you paid your rent for the rest of the month, but you cleaned everything out.” She was their landlady. “That’s it? You’re leaving?”
Medore grunted again, then decided his friend deserved better. “Yes. This is not home to me. Not anymore.”
He expected Michael to storm and he was not disappointed. “But, hell, man! You’re one of the original settlers. You built this town!”
Medore smiled as Michael’s face turned a darker shade of red. Outsiders did not understand the relationship between the quiet Potawatomi and the fiery second-generation Irisher whose family hailed from Cork, but Medore did. Every storm had a quiet center.
“Your store!” Michael nearly shouted. “What about your store?”
“It is yours. The papers are in the center drawer. Your name is filled in. Take them to Mr. Williams on La Stalle Street. He is waiting to transfer the deeds.”
Madore almost laughed as Michael deflated, the wind gone from his sails. “I don’t know…”
He stopped when his friend held up his hand. “You clerked well. You are a natural salesman. You will prosper. I trust you.”
Michael turned to the canal, watching the workers lay what they knew were the last bricks in the canal. In a few weeks, the coffers would be opened and the waterway would finally open after years of planning and work.
“I don’t know, Medore. There’s rumors from out West. California. The streets are paved with gold, they say.”
“Do you really believe that?”
“Of course not. It’s just…why are you doing this? This canal is going to make you fantastically rich.”
Medore shrugged. “But it will not make me happy.”
“Why are you giving it to me?”
“Because you have been a friend. The best friend. And I need nothing from…”
Medore stopped, not wishing to offend, but Michael was no fool. “From the white man?”
“I might sell everything and go west. Lock, stock, and barrel. Especially if there is gold.”
“My store is your store now. Do as you wish.” Medore bent and hefted the bag. “I have seen my last morning in Chicago.”
He watched Michael struggle with himself as he opened his arms, letting Michael give him a manly hug, slapping his back. “I’ll miss you, you ugly Injun.”
“And I will miss you and your stories of home. ‘Ireland cannot float…’”
“‘…if you take the Cork from the bottle.’ You listened.”
“I did. Go in peace, Michael.”
“Go with God, Medore Beaubien. I will never forget you. Hell, Chicago will never forget you!”
The Potawatomi laughed in spite of himself. “History is remembered by the strong ones. My people had their day here. They’re done. None of us are left to tell our stories.”
He paused. “This is no longer my home. I’m going home.”
Medore turned and stepped quickly away, choosing not to see Michael’s raised hand waving or his stricken face.
They would never meet again.
[This was a wee bit of a challenge as I’ve never written this flavor of historical fiction. As you’ll find via the links below, Medore Beaubien was a half-Potawatomi store owner who left the Chicago community in 1848, apparently disenchanted with life in the yet-to-be Windy City. The Illinois & Michigan Canal did open in 1848 in order to connect the Mississippi River to Lake Michigan. Everything else is made up, including Michael.
3. Tim Berners-Lee releases the World Wide Web: the Internet goes live to the world, August 6, 1991.
“Liftoff. We have liftoff of STS-43 for its eight-day mission to touch the face of God!”
Cindy laughed as her father did his mock-voice of the mission commander as the Atlantis left the launch pad in the distance. They had been here from the beginning of the first countdown two weeks earlier, but a pesky electronics array delayed that launch, and the gremlins involved kept chopping away at the shuttle and launch assembly. After four attempts, the weather threatened to abort this launch, too, as it had yesterday, but the countdown ran smoothly today and Atlantis headed to the stars.
She stared through the binoculars as she knew her father did through his pair, the two of them intent on watching her favorite shuttle rocket upwards. She could name the crew (including her personal hero, Mission Specialist Shannon Lucid), where they sat in the bird, what each would do in space, and where they would land (back here in Florida in a little over a week).
Cindy lowered the binoculars when the star that was the fires from the booster rockets faded behind high clouds. Her father kept his to his eyes, and she understood why: he didn’t want this time to end. She loved her father and she respected him, even at fifteen years old. He was part of the old NASA crew that sent Gemini into orbit and Apollo to the moon, an engineer with a private contractor. He’d smartly invested his money at the height of the Space Race and left the company after he helped bring the crippled Thirteen crew home. He was a millionaire many times over.
Cindy looked at the crowd around them at the observation pad, though “crowd” was a loose definition. Her father said there used to be thousands would watch the space warriors hurdle to the sky. Today, it was dozens. Launching rockets had lost its mystique in the Nineties.
She almost glared at the elderly couple next to them, then forgave them for their assumption about the relationship between the man with the binoculars and herself. Yes, her father did look old enough to be her grandfather, and (she admitted sourly) he was old enough. The lifelong bachelor that was Ed Killion puttered around the Florida golf courses for years after his early retirement, then woke up one day realizing he was forty-eight years old and maybe, just maybe, he could be a decent father. Millionaires have little to no problem finding fertile women looking for companionship, and their ironclad prenuptial agreement gave Cindy’s mom an allowance after the divorce, while Ed got full custody.
Cindy usually spent the summer with her mother except this year. Somehow Ed convinced his daughter to give up her summer in Cancun and spend it with the old man. The only condition was the two of them would do anything she wished. Ed told her if she wanted to surf in Hawaii, hang glide in New Mexico, or camp in France, she’d need only to give the word.
They both knew her most fondest wish was anything to do with NASA, especially the shuttle. Thus they spent a month in the state with the highest humidity and heat in the nation, in exchange for the chance to watch a shuttle launch.
But enough was enough. “Dad?”
Ed’s shoulders sagged a little, then he lowered the binoculars. “You’re right. Sorry. Hungry?”
Ed’s little Miata was nearly the last car in the lot, the campers and SUV long gone. As she folded herself into the passenger seat, she silently cursed her long legs, a gift from her mother. In fact, she was her mother’s clone in most regards, from the legs to high cheekbones, to her grey eyes. Ed’s sole contribution to Cindy’s gene pool, aside from her intellect, was her curly black hair that refused to be tamed in the Florida humidity.
Legroom aside, she’d fallen in love with the little red car. The engine purred and Ed drove it like a master.
He turned over the engine and she sighed in relief as the air conditioner kicked into high gear, the humidity turning the cold air into a small cloud. “Perfect.”
She looked at him in wonder, waiting for him to drop the car into gear. “Is something wrong, Daddy?”
His eyes were fixed on the shuttle launchpad as it appeared from the smoke from the launch. “You still dream of flying the shuttle?”
“Oh, yes, Daddy.” Anyone who spent more than fifteen minutes with Cindy knew her lifelong dream was to go to space. Instead of music and film stars, her bedroom walls were covered with engineering diagrams of the various NASA spacecraft and aircraft, and more than one astronaut was a personal pen pal.
He turned towards her, a sad smile creasing his wrinkles. “The program might not be around then. Heck, it might not be around in ten years.”
“Really?” She’d never known a day of existence without the program.
“Oh, yes. Everything has a shelf life, honey. Even…people.” He quickly turned his eyes back to the launch pad.
Cindy felt her stomach drop as all thoughts of the shuttle disappeared. Oh, God, Mom was right! “Daddy, what’s wrong?”
“We’ve always been honest with each other, haven’t we?’
“Respected each other?”
He paused, then obviously chose to dive in. “My doctor found a cancer…a man cancer. He thinks they caught it in time, but they’ve no way of knowing for sure until they start the treatments. It’s going to take a lot of time, honey, and it’s not going to be easy. And I’m not a spring chicken. There’s a good chance…”
“Don’t say it!” The scream came from nowhere and caught Cindy by surprise.
“I’m sorry, Cindy. I’ve been trying to find some way to tell you for days. I just..couldn’t.” He drew a smile in the mist on the windshield. “I guess I’m a coward.”
“No!” Cindy slapped her hand on her mouth, then dropped it a little. “No, you’re not. You’re my daddy. The bravest, smartest man I know.”
He smiled as he always did when she exaggerated. “Then I suppose I can’t ask you to live with your mother while I do this.”
“This is going to mess things up for you, honey. School, boys, everything. I didn’t want this to happen.”
“I don’t care. I can study at home. I can skip a year. You’re my daddy. I only got one of those, you know.
“Things could get rough. I could die.”
“‘Failure is not an option,’ Daddy.”
“Gene Kranz never said that, you know. It’s a fairy tale.”
“I don’t care. Let’s go take care of you.”
“Okay, honey.” Ed smiled and dropped the gear shift. The suspension on the Miata was so perfect, she barely felt them go over bumps. “You know, no matter what happens, I envy you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I see it on the horizon: the world is about to change. New technologies bringing on a whole new age of people and computers, each of them linked to created a network of combined intelligence and discovery. It will be an amazing time to live. Even if there’s no shuttle, we’ll still find a way to go to the stars.”
He laughed. “Maybe there, too. Make me a promise?”
“The same old promise: keep dreaming and keep reaching.”
“‘Keep dreaming and keep reaching.’ Always, Daddy. Always.”
[STS-43 launched on August 5, 1991, the day before Tim Berners-Lee “invented” the internet. I thought it’d be an interesting Venn diagram to intersect America’s finest technological success up to that date, the Shuttle program, with that event. The details of the launch are accurate, per these sites. Thanks for reading.