First Annual Zine Awards

First Annual Zine Awards
Thunder Bay's Shivaun Hoad in the long list for "You Still Need a Coffin." Powerful information in a small format.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
#1 on New York Times Fiction List

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Martial Arts by By Keith Johnson

Part one.
Martin’s keen eye for detail had driven him, even as a boy, to faithful and intricate crafting of swords, bows, and spears. His wooden swords were roughed out of hard maple flooring, then tempered by charring and honed sharp on broken field stone. Spear and arrow tips benefited from the same scrupulous attention to detail. Indeed he had even pioneered the “recycle” movement by embedding used razor blades in his hunting arrow heads.

Here, half a world away from those carefree days, he was superbly equipped for the grisly business at hand. Martin wiped his right hand dry on the inside of his thigh and hunkered his shoulders to shield the process as he hastily constructed a cigarette. Explosions from heavy shells and bombs echoed through the hills to the south and east. Counterpoint to this devil’s symphony was provided occasionally by the nasal drone of aircraft engines. Recently, the high pitched descant of human screams had diminished, thank God.

Even in its present condition his khaki uniform instilled in him a sense of pride. It had to, so many of his mates had honoured it so highly. A wry smile wrinkled his face as he thought of Mildred and how she would have yards of advice on how to avoid soiling his clothes. Mud and clay. They cursed it, they slipped in it, they mired their vehicles in it, they avoided it where possible, they hated it, yet there were occasions, even recently when he felt he could not get close enough to it.

Anzio, the landing had been a walk in the park, at least so it seemed to Martin and his team, fellow graduates of Dunkirk and Dieppe. The carnage came later as they tried to consolidate their landing and make incursions into the Alban hills. That was a week ago. The beaches were back there but the moisture laden westerlies kept them constantly aware of their proximity to the sea. The rain guttered down the hill in front of him as he peered over the coping stones of the wall which he dove behind as a low flying Stuka screamed over the rim of the mountains to the south and proceeded to circle around the abbey citadel which commanded this whole valley.

Up there, the old ivy covered walls were quiet now. The brethren who currently occupied the monastery were of a new order, and they were unlikely to lay down their tools to attend vespers even if the hour was at hand. Poised as it was atop the mountain, this old medieval castle had once more become a fortress bristling with armaments, impressively controlling the pass and all the vehicular routes to the north, to Rome. Sure, an air strike or artillery bombardment would have solved the problem, however, believe it or not, the Diplomatic Corps had tied their hands.
This was an historic site. Shunning company of such nefarious greats as Attila or the Visigoths, the Canadians were under orders to apply all lenient means before resorting to utter destruction.

Quiet had returned to the valley. The airplane had departed as unceremoniously as it had come. Apparently, none of the squad had been observed. They would announce their presence at their pleasure.

The smoke from his cigarette was rolling back over Martin’s shoulder. The wind had changed direction, and he became aware that the rain had ceased. A glorious sunset was bathing the matte surfaces of the battlements above in a wash of golden orange. The open expanse below had been laboriously developed into a beautiful vineyard of terraced plots like a great staircase. Pietro, and two other regular members of this Special Forces unit appeared to be bypassing millions of years of evolution by reverting to invertebrate locomotion. Squirming and crawling, they had advanced about fifty yards ahead.

Snuffing his smoke, Martin shifted his pack of goodies, caught up his rifle and wriggled after them. If the weather would cooperate, and with a little luck, after this night’s work, they might be able to realize their orders, which, tersely stated, “reconnoiter site and neutralize enemy.” It would be at least two days before any vanguard of armoured division could reach them. The word “neutralize” seemed so detached, so clinical. Harking back to this grade twelve chemistry-- too alkaline, add a little acid, too much pro, add a little con. Yes, he chuckled to himself we’ll put some Yin in their Yang.

Many of the faces they had seen on their infiltration of the so called enemy lines had not been unfriendly but it was quite a surprise to these seasoned stealth fighters when, two nights ago, a figure materialized out of the dripping shadows of an ancient oak tree. Stepping to the centre of the pathway so it was impossible not to see the silhouette of the raised arms, the apparition approached through the murky darkness. Behind enemy lines, a commando unit, prisoners of war—what’s wrong with this picture? It was only with the greatest restraint that trigger fingers remained tensed and motionless. Thus they met Pietro Valigrosso, who had just committed the most courageously foolish act of his life. The tenuous greeting was consolidated into a budding camaraderie by Peitro’s insistence that the group return with him to his friends where there was warmth, food, and shelter from the accursed rain.

During the night of respite, it unfolded that a cell of resistance fighters had secreted themselves in the wine cellar of this very monastery and had barely escaped the onslaught of the Nazi juggernaut. Martin and his friends had actually been endowed with some of the yield of that cellar and were given to understand that the remaining casks and whatever bottles weren’t looted, had been drained as the guerrillas fled. It was not, perhaps, a great wine but rather a noteworthy one.

The germ of their plan was made possible because of an earth tremor some twenty years ago. It had created such a problem with their wells that the brother monks adopted a more stable water supply. To do this, they employed a fascinating example of perpetual motion, an hydraulic pump. It would deliver water from a small spring-fed creek which seemed to emerge from underground about halfway up the mountain side. The water was constantly being pumped using a few simple laws of basic hydraulics and it required no external forces other than a constant flow of water. The clue to the presence of this device was the characteristic sound it emitted during each cycle of operation. This emanation was an unmusical combination of a gurgle and a belch closely duplicated by the American bittern as its mating call. A string of cement conduits directed the water from pump to hill top. Obviously, there had to be a cistern or tank within those redoubt walls to serve as a head pond for the intricate irrigation system of the vineyard and garden.

As twilight transformed into dusk, Martin, in a running crouch, overtook the other trio about halfway up the slope. There he called a halt and the group huddled under the brow of one of the steps, as the finger of harsh white light from the rotating beacon passed silently over their heads. In muffled conversation, further developments in their scheme were outlined. Martin withdrew three bottles from his pack, also a carefully wrapped package of some white powdery substance. Actually, Marin had detected a white hair-like excrescence hanging from the exposed rock next to the stone wall where he had taken shelter. The cellophane outer cover of his tobacco package held just about all of the stuff he was able to retrieve. ---End of part one.

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