by Gordon Saunders
Available Winter, 2022
An Overview of Verdura
Mammoth Cave, Kentucky, 1836, is the first place on earth from which young people are brought into another world. In the course of about fifty years, earth time, we see the beginning, the end, and pieces of the mid-life of the people and place called Verdura. Its people come from almost every earth continent and from numerous earth races to produce a varied and complex culture. The people from North America who get into Verdura represent both native peoples and immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Africa; slave and free.
The Lord of this world is a creature that looks like a peregrine falcon, but is so much more. Communication and translation often take place inside the mind, without benefit of tongues or ears. This must be the case, since some of the main characters are mineral, not animal.
There is no magic, no zombies, werewolves, vampires, elves, orcs, or fairies. But their absence is made up by the unusual flora, fauna and carbonates that are the natural inhabitants.
The evil and good, wrong and right, mistakes and redemption in Verdura, demonstrate truths that hold good on earth, enabling the characters – and the readers – to deal more effectively with their challenges in everyday life.
A couple of excerpts from The Kingdom of Light.
An episode from Chapter 1: Ling-Guang
The streets of Chinatown were quiet and empty, except for a few delivery carts returning to the laundries, and here and there a lone Chinaman walking wearily home. Behind him, down the hill and across the wharves, Joshua had seen the slightly swaying masts of the dozens of ships filling the harbor.
In dry docks, or settled into the bay, or beached, were ships whose masts no longer swayed; ships whose captains and crews had abandoned them for the lure of gold in the hills. That was ‘49, ‘50, ‘52. But now it was ‘57. In those early days, the gold was sitting on the ground to be collected or lounging in streams to be panned; at the rate of hundreds of dollars worth a day. But men had come in their thousands. Hordes had scoured those hills. And today, the Chinese, the people whom only five years earlier Governor MacDougal had called the “most desirable of our adopted citizens,” were objects of hatred and wrath.
They, in the hundreds and hundreds that had immigrated; they in their quiet, peaceful industry; they––so the whites said––took jobs that should have belonged to the whites. No matter that the whites disdained to do them, no matter that many whites had gained and lost more than one fortune in those few short years. Now the whites shouted, “The Chinese must go!” There had been an eerie, watchful silence in Chinatown that night.
As Joshua had walked along, he thought he saw through an alley the building he was looking for, which a member of the Company had described to him. He started down the alley. Without warning, a knife whizzed past his ear. He dove to the ground and ducked beneath some stairs. Then, looking out from between the slats, he saw that the knife had not been meant for him.
In front of him, two groups of Chinese men confronted one another. Off to one side, apparently what was at stake in their contest, cowered a Chinese girl of indeterminate age. As Joshua watched, one man from the group with its back to him rushed at the girl, dragged her roughly to her feet, and ran with her past his group toward Joshua. He had not quite gotten past Joshua when he screamed and slumped to the ground, a knife protruding from his back.
The girl stopped, threw her hands up and looked wildly around. Joshua glanced at the two groups of Chinese men long enough to see that they had resumed their fray, leapt from behind the stairs, grasped the hand of the hapless girl, and dashed around the corner of the building.
Not looking behind him, he ran toward the bay with no idea where he would go.
Then, after a block or two, he chanced upon a building under construction. Large boulders had been assembled in a pile by one corner of the hole that had been dug for the foundation, and a stack of wood sat next to it. Hardly taking time to think, Joshua motioned and pushed the girl into the corner of the hole by the boulders. He grabbed several planks of wood and placed them slantwise over her, then pushed against the boulders with his shoulder to roll them over her. Loud shouts could be heard from down the street that certainly weren’t in English.
He threw his shoulder into two of the topmost boulders, and slowly, reluctantly, they began to move. The shouts grew louder. Had they seen him? Suddenly the whole pile rolled down the planks. Joshua leaped in with the girl, noticing that the planks weren’t completely covered, and from underneath tried to arrange them better. When he dared move no more, he sat silently beside the girl and held her shaking hand.
The shouts were right above them now. Joshua sat, gritting his teeth, thinking of the knife that had narrowly missed him and the one that hadn’t missed the Chinaman. Both he and the girl held their breath. Would they never go away? What were they doing?
Well, he thought, at least if they’re up there shouting and not moving planks or boulders, maybe they don’t know we’re here. The shouting continued, but began to fade. It sounded as though the group was splitting up to search in several directions. Maybe it would work!
It couldn’t have been long, actually, before the two fugitives began to breathe again. But it seemed like a very long time indeed. Joshua permitted himself to sigh. There was no other noise. No shouts, no moving feet, no prying hands. Perhaps they were gone. He let go of the girl’s hand and sat for a few more minutes. There was a distant shout and a nearer answering shout. He sat for a few more hours.
Perhaps it wasn’t that long, but it was long. Finally, however, he turned to the girl in the very dim light, found her hand again and squeezed it.
Knowing she wouldn’t understand, but needing to talk, he said, “Hiding under rocks. Little something I learned in Verdura, my first time there.”
The girl said nothing, but she was attentive, calm, and bright.
Cautiously Joshua reached out, rolled one rock down the planks, and waited. Nothing. Then he moved another and waited. Nothing. So, in a few minutes they were out, standing on the spot where the boulders had been. Joshua decided that this was not the night for a visit to the Company.
He pointed at the girl and then back to where they had come from, but the girl only stood and watched him. Then he pointed to himself and the opposite direction. Still she only watched. He again pointed first at her and then back to where she had come from, then at himself, and the opposite direction. She stood watching. He repeated the gestures a third time. He began to be uneasy about standing in the open so long.
How could he make her understand that she was free to go now? He repeated the gestures again, almost frantically. Then she seemed to smile, pointed to herself and then to him, and then in the direction he had indicated he would go. He shook his head, turned, and walked away. She followed him. They repeated all the gestures again. Again he walked away and she followed.
So that is how she came to be our housegirl, thought Joshua. She just wouldn’t go away. And she trusted me completely. Of course, Carnelia was delighted…
An episode from Chapter 9: Trog.
Almost as soon as Jimmy stumbled through the door of the large stone building, he smelled the same sweet stenchhe had encountered in the cave of the Speon. Mixed with this was the oily smoke of many torches and a nauseatingly strong, pungent incense. It was too dark to see much in the anteroom, immediately, but Jimmy did see a soldier on either side of two immense, elaborately carved doors farther in. The soldiers barred the way when the other two entered with Jimmy, but after a brief consultation with Jimmy’s captors, one of them opened one of the enormous doors wide enough to slip through, and was gone.
During the instant the door was open, Jimmy caught sight of torchlight reflecting redly from walls, and the shadow of smoke rising upward to a ceiling too high or dark to be seen. The odor intensified suddenly, and then diminished slowly after the door was shut. One of the soldiers with Jimmy mumbled and held his nose, and the two soldiers together moved back toward the front door, dragging Jimmy with them. They waited by the door, obviously uneasy and impatient to be gone.
Then, with a crash, both of the huge inner doors were thrown open. The reek of the hall struck Jimmy like a blow and he started back against the front door. Someone stood in the shadow in the open doorway and waved his arms to direct several soldiers to come out and grasp the ropes tied to Jimmy. When they had done so, without waiting to be dismissed, the soldiers who had brought Jimmy fairly leapt out the front door. When those doors had shut, the dark figure walked slowly forward-from the inner doorway.
He was not a large man, but his cloak made him appear larger than he was. His hood was drawn up over his head, leaving his face completely in shadow. On his cloak were embroidered devices of several kinds. The only one Jimmy could immediately make out looked like a beetle. The cloak seemed to be made of some dark material, and the embroidery of some lighter stuff. But it was difficult to see the devices because splotches of white dirtied the cloak everywhere: as if someone had dropped whitewash on it from above, repeatedly. It was thickest on the hood. and shoulders, and seemed to have dripped downward from there. Old gnarled hands extended from the sleeves and as the man approached, threw the hood back from his head.
Jimmy gasped. It was almost like seeing Kelson again––an older, gnarled version of Kelson, to be sure, but with the same dark skin and finely chiseled features, the same straight teeth, the same intense gaze. Almost instantly he thought of Kelson’s cloak, which had fallen into the guano in the cave, and formed a sickening idea of what was on this man’s cloak.
The man approached him and took his jaw, suddenly, in a painfully strong grip. He turned Jimmy’s face one way and then the other, and then spoke, turning his head but keeping his eyes on Jimmy. The voice was high, thin with age but thick with authority. A soldier said something in reply and the old man’s gaze turned to the soldier who had spoken. He asked another question, apparently, and got another brief response. Still holding Jimmy’s jaw with almost crushing force, he turned back to face him.
He spat out some words Jimmy did not understand. Jimmy shrugged his shoulders but made no other response. The man shook Jimmy’s face, and moved his own face only a hair’s breath away. He spoke slowly and deliberately to Jimmy. His breath was as sour as the stench around them was sweet, and equally strong. Jimmy fought the impulse to gag. He could see that teeth were yellowed and the gums pulling away, and the whites of his eyes seemed yellow as well. Once again Jimmy did not understand what was said. He shrugged again and the man pushed him against the back of the door, snapping his head back.
“I don’t know what you mean,” Jimmy mouthed through the vise-like grip.
The old man looked at him more intensely and then released his jaw. He motioned to the soldiers, said a few words, and started through the larger doors to the main part of the building. The soldiers who had come out with him took the ropes by which Jimmy was bound and jerked him through the doors. Then they were slammed shut behind them. Jimmy turned his head, trying to unkink the knot that had been put in it when the old man had snapped it back, and trying to see the door. But one of the soldiers smacked the back of Jimmy’s head and shouted something, so he turned forward and trudged ahead.
There were, as he had seen earlier, dozens of torches all about in groups of three at regular intervals on the walls and on the columns supporting the still invisible ceiling. The torches didn’t seem to throw much light, though they did send great masses of inky smoke roiling upward to make sinister shadows above them. White splotches covered the walls and columns and at places made the floor so slippery it was difficult to walk on. It was like sloshing through thick mud.
The old man reached the front far more rapidly than the others, and mounted the three stairs to the platform in a single bound. In the center of the platform was a small raised area on which a large thick chair squatted. Behind this were what appeared to be columns. Jimmy could not see them well because this area seemed to be set off from the rest of the room a bit, and was not as well lit. The old man strode past the chair and columns and was lost to view.
By the time Jimmy had reached the stairs the old man was back, carrying a large stick and some rope. He motioned to several soldiers to come forward. To one he gave the stick. Then he dropped the rope and, with two of the soldiers, moved the chair from the platform, setting it to one side. The soldier who had been given the stick returned with it lit like a torch.
As he approached, Jimmy saw the reflection of its flame off of a glassy something that had been hidden underneath the chair. The soldiers and old man set to work on this, as well. As the flame approached Jimmy could see what seemed to be boulders toppled and shattered on the floor in front of the columns. Then the two soldiers lifted a glass box up from where the chair had been, and the old man stood to one side.
Jimmy’s heart leapt to his throat. What he had thought were columns behind the chair, were really wooden stakes. Tied to them were––it was too ghastly to think of––all that remained of people who had been left there. Now there was nothing but yellow bones, splotched here and there with the white guano. For Jimmy knew now what it was…