Star Apples
        *Honorable Mention In Fiction
   National League of American Pen Women
                           

Alone in his quarters, Colonel Alejandro Montemayor of the Queen's
cavalry bent over his ledger and sighed. His finger trailed down a
column until it rested on a name. He checked and double checked the
name in the ledger against what he called "the butcher's bill," crossed
through it, and wrote in the margin, "Killed in action, April 15, 1839.
Valencia."

Alejandro slammed his ledger shut and ran his hand through his hair.
After six years of civil war, it had come to this--an ever-growing list of
the dead and no end in sight. "For once in my life, I'd like to add a
name instead of always marking them out."

In the courtyard, Sergeant Brull's deep voice boomed out orders to
captured soldiers being readied for the long march to prison camp.
While Alejandro waited for the sergeant to escort the last enemy officer
to his quarters to sign a letter of capitulation, he gazed through the
open window to the battlefield where old women, hunched over in their
black shawls, stripped corpses and picked over the spoils of war.

Battle in the morning meant an afternoon spent burying the dead and
an evening dedicated to bringing his ledger up-to-date, along with his
least favorite duty--writing letters of condolence to widows and orphans.
The butcher's bill had been high, claiming fifty of his men.

For most of his thirty-two years, Alejandro had lived in army barracks.
He had "graduated" from the orphanage to the army. In the twilight of
Spanish glory, with the colonies lost and a civil war raging on his
native soil, he found himself fighting a war that pitted brother against
brother.

"Sir! Sir!"

Alejandro pivoted around, more surprised than annoyed that his top
sergeant, a stickler for military protocol, had burst into the room
without first knocking.

"You two could be twins, sir. When I saw him, it was damned near all I
could do to keep from saluting. He's right outside. You gotta see it to
believe it."

"Show him in."

An enemy captain, his visored military cap tucked under his arm,
stepped into the middle of the room and halted before his desk. He wore
a much-patched blue jacket and knee breeches, once gloriously white,
tucked in mud-splattered boots.

Alejandro studied the slender man standing before him.

They had the same straight black hair, the same height--5'3", the same
brooding expression, but the captain's eyes were blue whereas his were
black.

The captain returned Alejandro's long, curious gaze, as if he also found
the similarities astounding.

Sergeant Brull, standing at ease nearby, seemed to be puzzling over the
matter too.

Thoughts rushed into Alejandro's mind, like soldiers charging through a
breach in a wall. Why did he and the captain look so much alike?
Alejandro gave him a curt nod. He forced calmness into his voice. "I am
Colonel Montemayor."

The enemy officer acknowledged him with an equally curt nod. "I am
Captain De Mina."

Alejandro placed a blue-tinted page on the desk and handed the prisoner
a quill. "If you will give your word of honor that you will not try to
escape--"

"I am well versed in the conventions of war, but I will sign nothing
until you guarantee the safety of my men."

"They will be treated with dignity, as befits their rank. You have my
word of honor."

"Then you have mine too, Colonel."

Alejandro handed him the standard document embossed at the top with
the queen's coat of arms.

Captain de Mina accepted it and read every word.

"We've captured the enemy's lawyer," Alejandro remarked to Sergeant
Brull.

Captain de Mina's eyes danced up from the paper. "Correct. Never sign
anything without reading it first." He half smiled. "I usually charge for
my legal advice. In this case, it's free." He squared his shoulders, bent
over the written promise not to bear arms until he was exchanged
during a truce, and signed.

"I appreciate your cooperation." Alejandro studied the signature.
Captain de Mina had abbreviated his first name to 'D' and Alejandro
wondered what the 'D' stood for. "I have a few questions."

Captain de Mina stiffened. His eyebrows melded into a frown.

"Where are you from?"

His frown deepened.

"It's an easy enough question." Alejandro rocked the ink blotter over the
captain's signature.

After a studied pause, Captain de Mina replied, "Avilés."

"Where's that?"

"Asturias."

"You're from Asturias? You're the darkest Asturian I ever saw. I thought
you people were pale, blond, blue-eyed. Who was your father?"

"Pedro de Mina."

"Admiral de Mina? He died at Trafalgar, didn't he?"

"Yes."

"Sorry."

"Thank you," the captain said, his voice betraying his surprise.

A nighttime breeze carried the aroma of garlic frying in olive oil. The
smell of death traveled with it.

Alejandro recalled the day, many years ago, when he was playing on the
kitchen floor while his mother prepared dinner. Napoleon's three-inch
high chasseurs were attacking Wellington's redcoats when Alejandro
noticed blood streaming down his mother's leg. It puddled around her
bare feet. A moment later, she collapsed.

Garlic and blood. The smell of death.

"Tell me about your mother," Alejandro said quickly to erase the vision.

"Why all the personal questions?"

Alejandro shrugged. "Idle curiosity."

Still, the captain hesitated. "I know very little about her. She died when
I was born."

Old memories forced their way into Alejandro's mind, memories of his
mother's death in childbirth when he was five years old. He recalled the
parish priest's late-night visit, his father's weeping, the incense-laden
room where his mother lay dying.

"When were you born?" Alejandro asked.

"November 17, 1805."

Sergeant Brull turned toward Alejandro expectantly.

"Sorry to disappoint you, Sergeant. We are not twins separated at birth.
I was born in 1807."

"We are not related," Captain de Mina exclaimed indignantly.

"How can you be so sure? You've noticed the similarities between us. I
can see it on your face. How do you account for them?"

"Coincidence. For every person, a double exists somewhere in the world.
We have simply happened upon our doubles."

"Coincidence? Doubles?" Alejandro shook his head. "I doubt it."

Alejandro knew little about his parents' backgrounds and had only
vague recollections of his father wearing a sparkling white uniform
with gold epaulets.

But he remembered that his mother was gypsy dark. Just like him. Just
like the man across from him.

A knock at the door wrenched Alejandro away from his musings. "Come!"
An orderly entered bearing a tray of food. He deposited it on the
sideboard and fussed over the table. Alejandro had not asked for dinner
and he suspected it was Sergeant Brull's doing.

The captain's eyes swept to the left, to the orderly arranging a setting
for one.

Alejandro silently cursed his ill manners. Anxiety before a battle always
destroyed his appetite. The groans of the wounded and dying on the
battlefield killed any urge for food afterwards. Alejandro assumed that
his guest hadn't eaten since breakfast. "Captain, I'd be pleased if you
would share dinner with me."

He hesitated. "My men--"

"Have been fed, I assure you."

"In that case, I'd be honored."

The orderly set another place and left, followed by Sergeant Brull.

Over a meal of chicken and rice, Captain de Mina relaxed somewhat
and regaled him with amusing anecdotes about his home in Asturias,
his wife and three children, his aunt and uncle, until Alejandro could
picture each member of the de Mina family.

Alejandro envied him that family and sat brooding over the unfairness
of life. He ran his index finger around a gold-lipped goblet and recalled
his father throwing a glass object into the fireplace in an
uncharacteristic moment of rage when the physician pronounced his
mother dead. His father attempted to pick up shards of glass from the
hearth and cut a deep gash on his wrist. By the next morning, he had
bled to death. Only years later did Alejandro realize that grief had
driven his father to commit suicide. "Tell me more about your father,
Captain."

"So you still think we're related?" he inquired between sips of wine.

"Just making polite conversation."

"He was the Count of Avilés and he died at Trafalgar a month before I
was born. He's buried in the Cathedral of Oviedo next to my mother. It's
all properly documented." A hint of a smile played around the edges of
his mouth.

"Who was your mother?"

"If my father was the Count, it follows that she was the Countess."

Alejandro laughed. It was the kind of answer he would have given had
someone asked him such a ridiculous question. "Did she have a name?"

"Doña Gertrudis de Mina."

Alejandro's insides shook. "My mother's name was Gertrudis."

The men sat in silence, blinking at each other.

"That's some coincidence," Captain de Mina said after a long moment.
"Tell me about your family."

"My parents died when I was five. I went to an orphanage but when I
was eleven I ran away and joined the army as a drummer boy. I worked
my way up through the ranks."

"I envy you," Captain de Mina remarked.

"Why?"

"You had your parents for five years. I had no one except an aunt and
uncle. At least you saw your parents, you talked to them, have
memories of them."

That was a thought. Alejandro had never quite considered it that way.

The fragrance of orange blossoms rode the breeze through the open
window from the orcharded countryside and Alejandro, suddenly
hungry, reached into the fruit bowl and selected a burnished apple. He
cut the apple in two, but instead of slicing it from the stem to the
bottom, he cut it around the middle.

He placed one half on a saucer and pushed it toward his guest.

The captain stared at the apple, his eyes wide. "Star apples." His voice
was scarcely above a whisper.

Alejandro sat up straight. He swallowed hard. "My mother called them
star apples too. She always cut them that way so I could see the star
inside."

"Was your mother Asturian?"

"No."

"Did she spend any time in Asturias?"

"Not that I know of. Why?"

"I've never seen anyone cut an apple that way except members of my
family."

They shared a long look.

For the first time, a memory Alejandro harbored from long ago made
sense. Unable to bear the tension any longer, Alejandro asked, "Is your
first name Dionysius?"

The captain drew back in surprise. "Yes. How could you possibly know
that?"

"I sat on the edge of my mother's bed and held her hand when she drew
her last breath. At the end, she was delirious. She called repeatedly for
someone named Pedro and begged his forgiveness. And then she said, 'I
was too weak to fight them. I should never have let them take
Dionysius away.'"

"We had the same mother?" Captain de Mina ventured.

"I saw my mother die but you're acting on blind faith alone that your
mother died when you were born."

At that moment, Sergeant Brull knocked on the door. "Sorry to
interrupt, sir. We're ready to move the prisoners out."

"Very well."

Captain de Mina stood, his eyes riveted on Alejandro.

Alejandro stood too. "I'll write your wife and tell her where you are."

"Thank you." Captain de Mina extended his hand.

Alejandro gave it a firm shake.

The captain smiled. "You never told me your first name."

"It's Alejandro."

"Alejandro," he said softly. "That was my grandfather's name. On my
mother's side." The captain hesitated. "When this war is over, we really
must . . ." He trailed off.

Alejandro nodded. "Yes. I'd like that."

After the captain left, Alejandro reopened his ledger, turned to the
inside back cover, and added the names of Dionysius de Mina and his
family.

He smiled at the words he had written.

And no longer felt alone.
                 * * *


The following short story is based on a real event:

I Killed Santa's Reindeer

Grown-ups have no sense of humor.  If they did, I wouldn't be sitting
here in lunch detention.  So far, I've served two months.  Just one more
to go.

Here comes the assistant principal to stand guard over me.  They say she
has a glass eye.  The way she looks at me every day, I expect her to
jerk it from its socket and throw it at me.

I don't deserve this.  I didn't commit murder.

Well, I did kill Santa's reindeer but I swear I didn't mean to.

It all started when some genius decided we fifth graders would help the
little kids write letters to Santa.  So one day we visited the Kindergarten
classes.  I was assigned to a little girl with a wish list that would fill the
phone book.  I was supposed to help her write a letter to Santa Claus.  
But she went on and on and on.  My hand started to cramp.

As soon as we got back to our own classroom, we wrote a letter from
Santa to our little pal in Kindergarten.  

My hand was still aching, so naturally my reply was short and to the point.
 
This is what I wrote:

Dear Little Girl with the Long Wish List:        
Due to technical difficulties Santa can't deliver any presents this year.  All his reindeer died.  
His  elves went on strike.  There was a blizzard at the North Pole so we're snowed in until
spring.
         Merry Christmas,
         The Head Elf

I stuck my letter in an envelope, sealed it, and wrote the little girl's name
on it.  I even decorated it with drawings of Christmas trees.  My teacher
collected our work and sent it on to Kindergarten.

I don't know why I did it.  But I've thought about it lots of times and if
I had it to do over, I'd do it again.

Lunch detention will be over just before Easter.

Hmm . . . Easter.  I wonder if my class will help the little kids write
letters to the Easter Bunny.

          

                  IN PERPETUITY


The oncoming car wouldn't stop.  Didn't the driver see me standing in
the middle of the road?  At any moment, I kept telling myself, he
would notice me and swerve.

But he didn't.  Closer and closer came the headlights.

My eyes squeezed shut to block out the glare.  I refused to jump out
of the way, just like that night in 1952 when I died.  I waited for the
chrome to tear into my flesh.  I waited for the inevitable pain, searing
and white hot.  I waited . . .

Brakes squealed like pigs being slaughtered.

A second passed before I slowly, cautiously, opened my eyes.

The car bumper brushed my skirt, my favorite skirt, the one with the
poodle on it.

Ashen, mouth agape, the driver stared at me, then banged his head
softly on the steering wheel, over and over.  He unclenched his hands
and stepped out of the car.  "Are you all right?"

Words stuck in my throat.  The best I could do was nod.

He took my elbow and led me to the curb.  We sat down together, our
gaze locked on his '73 Omega's white vinyl top.

"I stopped in time," he said, his tone awe-filled.  He swiveled toward
me.  "Does that mean the cycle is broken?"  There was a glimmer of
hope in the driver's chocolate-colored eyes.  

Before I could respond, murmurs of approval drew our attention to the
dark top of the stadium where spectators rated our performance.

"Purification #1155629 to commence in three minutes," a
bored-sounding voice announced over the loudspeaker.

The driver slammed his hands under his armpits and rocked forward.  
"I won't do this again.  Haven't I suffered enough?  It was an accident,
for God's sake."

"No.  It was hit and run," I gently reminded him.  "You were drunk
when you ran over that little boy."

"But I stopped this time," the driver insisted.  "That should count for
something."

"I'm sure it will be credited to your account."  After a studied pause, I
added, "But I didn't get out of the way this time either.  Small wonder
they paired us together.  You refuse to admit guilt.  I refuse to show
remorse."

In my head, I heard the Judge boom out my sin.  Suicide and Murder.
 You stood in the middle of the road at three o'clock in the morning
and killed yourself and your unborn baby.

But it was 1952, I had protested.  With no husband and no prospects
of finding one, death was better than living in shame.

Other paths existed.  Perhaps some day you will see that.  The Judge
paused, as if he expected me to say something.

I didn't.

He banged his gavel.  You will suffer vehicular homicide in perpetuity.
"Match #1155629," the stadium loudspeaker droned, pulling me back
to my present purgatory.  "Penitents, take your places."

"Come on."  I took the driver by the sleeve.  "Let's get this over."

He looked at me, his expression tortured.  "Will it ever be over?"

"For you, yes, some day it will be."

It would take much longer to burn away my sins.

A minute later, I stood in the middle of the road.  

At the other end of a ribbon of asphalt, he revved his motor and
started toward me.

The oncoming car wouldn't stop . . .