creative writing contests.  your imagination.  PUBLISHED!

2016 what does this picturemean to me? contest | FIRST PLACE WINNER 

by Sean Flood 

Editor's comments:  Stunning.  That's one word I would use to describe Mr. Flood's use of the English language.  Mesmerizing.  Lyrical.  Shall I continue?  I'd prefer you read The Tower of Penitent Whores yourself.  The spring pictorial contest was constructed to invite the release of all genre and intense imagination that the provided picture evoked in each author.  Sean did an excellent job in taking a plain, somewhat haunting room and leading us out of the horror of a potential ghost story, and into the  very real horror of something that is both historically accurate (although this story itself is fiction) and far more traumatizing than a spectral at feast.  Sean is now also eligible to receive the 2016 Edward Bulwer-Lytton Award, which will be awarded to one Black Ink Contests literary artist that best exemplify originality, creative writing skill and the emergence of a personal voice or vision.  Congratulations again, Sean!

by Sean Flood  


Vespasiano’s Story 

            “Diana, Diana!”

            They were words that carried across the unending fog of the Po valley - over palace, peasant’s hut and stream. Diana, the name of my wife. Diana, the Spanish girl for whose hand I had defied the King of Spain and for whose honor I would become something grotesque. A funny thing, honor. For honor we would fight and die to defend the king upon his throne, a king for whom we men-at-arms are little more than candles to be alighted anew when one has been extinguished. It seemed all I knew was war: as a boy reared at the Spanish court; as a man fighting under the Spanish banner. All this blood and sweat for honor. For honor we throw our better judgment to the fire and charge into the city under siege, slaughtering whomever we find inside and setting all to torch. We would risk our immortal souls for our own honor, but the honor of women, this, you see, is an altogether different matter. For the honor of a woman we would collude with the devil himself.

            And so I did.

            “Diana,” I said, standing upon bended knee and taking my wife’s hand into my own. The window in our palace in Milan was open; the early morning wind blew the curtains in and a lark chirped on the sill. “Diana, return with me to Sabbioneta. All I ask is one night with you in the palace I built for us.”

            “You have a strange look to you, husband,” she said.

Even now, even in my state of rousing indignation, I must still be overwhelmed by the defiant beauty of the hidalgo’s daughter: the auburn hair inclined to curl at the edges, the dark blue eyes, the sensuously plump lips made to plant kisses upon my own. She spoke Italian with a singular accent, an accent which seemed to carry me back to an old and unfamiliar place. This was not a girl, but a force that had awoken into the world. The Lord himself could ill refuse such a woman; and beyond the physical beauty was that spark, the flame that some women possess in abundance and others not at all; that fire behind the eyes that would rouse man to do all to possess the object and bring the world crashing down when he finds this hard-won prize slipping through his grasp. To look upon Diana was to look into the flame that bids you leap in, but warns you: “Come hither and you shall burn.”

            “It is only that I missed you, my love,” I said. “You are the brightest star in the sky, a star burning so bright it might even be seen in the day. You are the moon which never sets, but must always hang above—“

            “Yes, yes, husband, you are quite smitten,” said Diana. She did not smile. “It has been many years since you have made such wordplay, Vespasiano. What is it bids you woo me thus?”

            I could not tell her the truth, that I wanted her to follow me to the Tower of Penitent Whores, so I said: “Need a man any answer beyond love, the natural love of a man for his wife?”

            “Your words are sweet like morning’s light, husband,” said the lady, skeptically, but her flame seemed to burn brighter. “Are you to pass the night with me in Milan? You are so oft away.”

            “No, milady, unfortunately no. I am called to Novara.”

            “Novara is near.”

            “Yes, wife, but I cannot stay.”

            The lady turned away. She had been sitting upon a low bench by the window, looking out upon the town. “Oh.” Her back faced me now.

            “Do not be ill-tempered, wife. I have something better, of which you shall learn in merely a moment.”

            I joined her upon the bench and we looked out of the dormer window together. The alighted lark upon the sill fluttered away.

            “Are we completely finished?”


            “Milord,” cried one of my deputies, charging into my wife’s sitting room. “You are called to the king at Valladolid. We are to make war with the Dutch anew and it is His Catholic Majesty’s desire that you lead the advance guard.”

But the invasion is not to take place until 1565, six years hence.”

            “Yes, milord, but the king has other plans.”

            I pulled the man aside and told him that he had not seen me. He had left the message with a servant. This would permit me a day to proceed with the intended plan. I dismissed the man and returned to my wife. She seemed now inclined to submit to my proposal. “To Sabbioneta,” she whispered, offering me her hand.

            “Yes, wife,” I said. “To Sabbioneta.”

            I had inherited the land from my father, an Italian prince in the service of any nation with sufficient ducats to line his empty pockets. The place was little more than a village of overgrown weeds then - weeds and a single tower looking down over fog. Before I built the town of Sabbioneta on the site of the ancient village, the tower had been like a sinister, crooked finger jutting up out of the dirt. It still seemed to me to be so, even for the pretty palace, offices, and churches built around it: an old, pale finger pointing up defiantly to God.

            “It is there,” said my wife as we neared the town. We were both astride horses when we came to it, with two servants following behind on their own mares. There it was, as the good lady Diana had indicated: the palace built around the tower of penitent whores, like a pearl-encrusted dress placed around a long-dead corpse. Only those who knew the body in life might see it for what it was, but as my wife did not know it, all she saw was the dress.

            “Yes, milady,” I said, forcing a smile. “The palace.”

            “It is beautiful. I am so pleased that we came. Have you a feast prepared, husband?”

            “A feast? Yes, of course.” I did not, but I hoped the servants had set the tower’s dining room to give the impression I had. The lady did not deserve a feast, but she would yet attain her just desserts.

            As we came into the palace, she said: “It is so pleasant to be alone with you, husband.” She encircled her arm in mine and we passed the lofty great hall and came to the winding staircase. Diana’s pretty little feet in her wood-heeled slippers made an exciting tap upon the stone steps. Did I yet love her? Of course, but I was the cuckold and this was a not a question of love, but one of honor. The lady glanced at me and though I thought then - “I cannot allow her to suffer” - it was but a momentary lapse in steadfastness. I knew that she had given that same forlorn look to Annibale. What words had she spoken to him; where had she touched him with her delicate pearly fingers? My face must have become flushed with such thoughts for Diana said: “Husband, are you ill?”

            “No, milady,” said I. “I am only filled with love for my wife!”

            After coursing up three flights of stairs, we came to a hall. My wife must have been filled with some manner of whore’s intuition for she gripped my arm tightly. We came to the door to the tower and Diana asked: “Here, husband?”

            “Yes, milady,” was my answer.

            Invisible hands pulled the double doors open from within. We came into the room: walls six-feet thick, reminiscent of a time when all Italy was ablaze with war and every Italian man a warrior. I glanced at my wife and her eyes widened at what she saw before her: a table laid with starchy white cloth below crystal chandelier; a fireplace in which not a single log burned, and only a lone chair at the foot of the table. The side of the table nearest the door had a low pine bench upon which was set the evidence of the crime: the letters between my wife and her dearest love, Annibale. My wife seemed to suddenly understand. “What are these?” she asked, approaching the stack of letters bound in twine.

            I walked toward the bench with a smile. “This is the damning correspondence,” said I. “I know all.”

            Diana paused for a moment, choosing which weapon with which best to defend herself. The sturdy axe of denial. “What do you know, Vespasiano? The distinctive curve of your wife’s hand upon paper? I am guilty of nothing.”

            I pulled a letter from the stack: “This! Do you deny that this is your hand?” and I shook the paper a few inches before her face.

            Diana gave it a cursory glance and said: “It is overly dark in this room, husband. How can I make out my hand from another’s in this dark? Perhaps if we venture into another room—“

            But, just as my wife spoke these words, a servant pulled the tower doors shut by my command. They closed with a reverberating slam.

            “I could scarcely believe it,” I said. “I had oft heard talk in town of my wife taking one, two, three lovers; it had reached even Milan, but how could I believe it? The woman for whom I had pleaded on hands and knees; how could she deceive in so villainous a manner?”

            “Is it villainous to have a beating heart that feels love?” she asked. “Is it villainy to feel sentiments the lord himself has ordained in me? Am I anomalous or were such feelings placed in me?”

            “So you admit that you deceived; that you broke your wedding vows?”

            “Of what am I accused, husband? If you would state the matter clearly—“

            “Wife, wife!” I cried. “Do not look that way! I will not harm you. Come follow me.” Beyond the tower’s dining room there was yet another room, reached through a single old door. With a signal from my hand, a servant opened this low door and the darkness flooded out. My wife seemed yet to trust and she followed me. Her face had a wry expression.

            “What is that scent?” she wondered.

            “Perhaps it is the scent that marks the whore from other women,” I whispered, but she seemed not to hear. “Come, wife.”

            My wife entered the room first; it was yet darker than the room we left for it had not a single window. The woman was yet clueless as to what lay within, but I saw when she learned for her body stiffened. She approached the figure covered by a scarlet sheet in a dark corner. With trepidation did she reach forward with a hand, grip the cloth, and toss it aside. She cried out when she saw the broken, exsanguinated form. “Vespasiano!” she whimpered as she ran toward me. “Vespasiano!” But I had not the ears to hear her entreaties; of course, she would want to plead at the moment of punishment. A few days in this place and she would be suitably admonished. On my order was the door slammed shut and the lady locked within.

            I would leave the lady in the room for a short period of two days, time to ponder what had been done. I would return to Milan and the lady, contrite, would later join me. We would have a child, a son, to inherit my estate. And so did I return to Milan that very night. I was astounded when I learned what had passed, that my wife had died in despair over her lost love. It seemed that she cherished this Annibale more than she had ever cherished me. The mere thought of living without him had bidden her heart to cease its beating. I received letters from many curious compatriots in Italy and Spain; the tongues of Court had been set to wagging. In spite of my desire to clear my name of any suspicion, I kept silent. I never spoke ill of my wife to anyone, for how could I? Even beyond the consideration of my own honor, I yet loved her. 


Diana’s Story


            When I was born there was a flash of lightning in the heavens: bright, blue, and free. I was born in Sicily, though I was Aragonese by nation: both lands teeming with men and women of glad and amorous spirit. One must understand: I was not born as the caged bird, the offspring of distant parents, like twin distant suns; indeed, when I did in those earliest days open my eyes upon the world, looking out onto it for love, therein did I find two kind, smiling faces gazing back at me. It is said that love is merely an invented sentiment, something to buzz about the empty heads of those who must not war, as men do, but I know different. My parents loved and esteemed one another and I knew, without them saying so, that it was possible and natural that in this world a person should find another who loves them and holds them in high regard.

            As a girl I was betrothed to an important nobleman of Italy, a gentleman of the esteemed Gonzaga family who was called Cesare. Though promised to the man, I did not meet him until the time to marry had drawn near. He was fair and upright, precisely what the daughter of the Spanish viceroy should desire and expect. Though he might not fit the picture I had in my mind of the man I was to marry, I knew that he would in time. Either he would change or I would. I had been fortunate as a child to have access to a library of many volumes and I had no reason to believe that the husband my father chose would not have the necessary qualities. I would have a full life married to a good man; the books said so and I had no reason to think otherwise.

            The appointed hour of my marriage had come. The marriage contract had been signed and the bridal trousseau purchased; it was then, at a masquerade in Rome for young unmarried women, that I happened to meet another man: the relative of the gentleman to whom I had been promised. This new man was called Vespasiano: even his name seemed to call to me from a deep and dark place, like the open mouth of Fate speaking to me. Once I had encountered him - he had removed his gruesome mask to reveal the handsome face underneath - I knew that it was he whom Fate desired me to wed. What can we mortals do when the cloak of destiny reveals itself but obey? He was fair: his face delicately-created and proud. He had a high and noble brow; his lips were full and sensuous. I knew that he was meant for me as sure as I knew that the purpose of feet was to walk bare upon the crisp, dewy grass; the purpose of ears to hear the wondrous trill of the lark and hummingbird.

            The world was filled with delights for the senses and once I had met Vespasiano, Cesare seemed like a dusty book filled with yellowed, crusty pages. He was a tome that had been read a hundred times. Vespasiano was altogether different. He had a scar above his right eye and the wide gait of a horseman. He had a limp from a recent injury yet to heal and, in spite of this, he was to go back to war on the king’s order. He was a story that was still being written. When he came to me upon one night, sneaking into the house of my father after bribing a servant, I knew he had come to propose marriage. I understood this to be his purpose and I understood also that I must accept. He said that we must leave Naples, where my father ruled in the king’s name. We must go to Rome to be married. There, Vespasiano said, a cardinal of his family had the power to arrange for lost lovers to wed without any fuss being made over the proper documents or permissions. As Vespasiano said this, he had a dark look to his eye; I understand it now: it was a look which said that perhaps there was more to the man than a young girl rarely outside the house of her parents would be able to intuit, but all I could yet see was the fair visage.

            After we wed, we fled Rome like two bandits in the night; I was frightened, as I had never had cause to fear danger. We traveled north, to the lands about Mantua, the ancestral home of the Gonzaga family. We came to a delicate village clinging to a stream. At the center was a twisted castle. Something seemed amiss and a voice spoke in my ear: “Do not come to this place,” but I heeded it not. Perhaps a part of me yearned for the sense of adventure that such chidings seemed to predict. We settled into the place, an old structure with few comfortable rooms. Vespasiano told me that I must never go into the top room of the tower, a room with old oak doors that were always bolted shut.

Vespasiano’s easy temperament seemed to change in the weeks after our union was solemnized. He paced the long castle halls with a harried look and was wont to berate the servants when a meal was a moment late to arrive or had not been served precisely to his order. He looked at me with a mixture of love and disgust, something which I could ill understand.

Vespasiano went away, called to Valladolid by the king, and I was left with the servants. I would venture into the halls to hear their whispers. They spoke in hushed yet happy tones, like birds tittering on the branch. They spoke words about my husband, things my heart told me were true as soon as they were spoken. The servants said that the gentleman had been married before, to a village girl when he was little more than an adolescent; that when his cousin, the ruler of Mantua, discovered it Vespasiano had killed the girl, strangling her with his leather belt. They said that when Vespasiano was merely a child his mother had abandoned him to marry another man, a prominent Flemish general. The boy was left to the care of a wealthy aunt and he never saw his mother again, never even to receive a letter or word of love from her. The servants intimated that, for this reason, Vespasiano distrusted and despised women. They said that there were many in the numerous generations of his family that had been similarly constituted. The castle itself was not spared; they said that the evilness of this place was a reflection of its owners, that the very stones had been cut by the devil’s hand and that it was a place filled with a wicked spirit.

I returned to my room and wept. My life seemed to steer in a blighted direction and I knew not how to right it. I wondered if perhaps I had been foolish to leave the shelter of my parent’s house for the dark hut of an unknown man. Vespasiano was often away. He never slept soundly when he was home; he spoke in his sleep, whispering “whore, whore!” and I wondered if he was speaking to me, could he hate me so?

A feeling servant offered to send word to my kin; I watched the woman as she left the castle in secret to carry the letter to the messenger. After days of waiting, I never received any word. I wrote many letters; the days became weeks, and the weeks months. A year passed with a hundred letters sent without reply, letters with parchment warped from fallen tears. My parents had learned that I was not the daughter they had raised, but a stranger. They had discarded me as something which no longer had value. I learned then that the world could be a hard place; that a thoughtless error might brand us for the rest of our lives. Vespasiano soon returned and I could see by his look that he had already tired of me. He had found it necessary to plead his case before the King of Spain and now that he had won the desired object, he realized that he had never really wanted it. We began sleeping apart. We traveled to various cities: Venice, Rimini, Florence, Milan. We settled in Milan where Vespasiano was given high rank at the ruling Spanish court. The years passed by without love, without children. I found that I yet desired Vespasiano, for I saw in him courage, intelligence, and vigor, but he seemed to find little in me to excite his interest.

I visited Sabbioneta alone when I had occasion. The feeble lands surrounding this hidden corner of northern Italy were oft surrounded in an oppressive fog and out of this Annibale appeared. He came to me like the only human face in a room full of owls. Of course, I was little more than a wounded animal then and I might have found the promise of love in anyone, but Annibale would never give me cause to doubt him. When I met Annibale - at the opening of the local hospital in town, which Vespasiano would not deign to open himself – he was dressed in the flashy Milanese fashion, wearing slashed jerkin, several twisted gold chains about the neck, and red velvet breeches. I laughed when I first saw him, as there was a measure of theatrical comicality to him, like that which hovers about the court jester or local buffoon, but then the man dared speak to me. He spoke to me with a startling sincerity. His black eyes were clear and filled with love. His spirit was free. When I told Annibale how little I esteemed his manner of dress, he smiled and said that perhaps I might prefer him devoid of clothes. It was not a gentlemanly thing to say, certainly, but I had a gentleman, the best of gentlemen, and where had that lead me? I began to imagine myself wedded to Annibale: not in secret by a defrocked priest, but in a high cathedral in the sight of all of those I loved.

I returned to Milan and Annibale followed me. Vespasiano was away again and I could not go into society alone, but I took every occasion I could to encounter Annibale. When we passed one another in the street – I was escorted by servants as all ladies should be – he would be ready with a note of fragrant paper to slip into my pocket sleeve. It was little more than a courtly romance initially. He spoke to me in lofty, lyrical tone; he kissed me upon the hand as a knight kisses his lady.

It would become more than that in time. Though it would be said of me that I was a woman of loose mores who shared my bed with many men, it was only Annibale that I so honored. Vespasiano went away to fight in Morocco. I became pregnant, for the first time in eight years of marriage. I bore a child while Vespasiano was still in Africa and I had to watch as the little mite, a tiny girl, was taken from me to be reared by a peasant family. I was not to know the location of their humble peasant’s hut in order to protect myself and my husband’s reputation. Vespasiano returned and I could spy in his dark look that he knew all or suspected. He asked me to return to Sabbioneta with him. After a short period of reflection, I agreed. My heart yearned for the change in scenery.

Vespasiano spoke little during the carriage ride through the fog. I wondered how the coachman knew the way through the mist and road covered in mud. We came to Sabbioneta and I found that the paltry village had become a thriving town. We came to the castle, which Vespasiano called a palace, and I concealed my distaste for the place with a glad smile. “Oh, husband!” I must have said. “It shall be wondrous to spend a night in the palace with you,” or some such absurd thing. We came to the evil tower and a spirit seemed to enter my body like a massive wind, urging me to turn away. “Here?” I wondered. I looked at Vespasiano: he was smiling and I must follow him in. We came into a room on a floor of the old tower that I had never before been. It had a dinner table set with a white cloth. There was only one place set, at the foot of the table, and the nearer side of the table had a low, common bench. It seemed that the table had been set to give the appearance of a meal when there was never any intended. The chandelier cast off a paltry light and the room was some sinister combination of light and dark.

I noted that upon the bench was a stack of correspondence and I inquired of Vespasiano what it was. He told me that he knew all. It was the “damning correspondence,” or so he said. Upon closer inspection, the items did appear to be letters which I had written and sent to Annibale, but how could Vespasiano have obtained them? I denied knowledge of them as I could not yet ascertain the truth.

Do you deny this is your hand?” my husband cried, shaking his fist at me violently.

            “It is very dark, husband,” I said. “I can scarcely see.”

            I looked to the door through which we had entered and the servants drew it closed.

            “Why?” I asked, looking at Vespasiano.

            “Be at ease, wife,” he said. “I shall not harm you.”

            I followed Vespasiano into a room entered through a low door and a scent I had detected briefly before soon became overwhelming. In a corner of the cavernous cell I could make out a form hidden under a white sheet. Upon the bidding of my husband, I drew the sheet and tossed it to the floor. I am not familiar with a language that might describe the depths to which my heart sank upon seeing Annibale’s decaying body: not the ancient intonations of Sicilian, not courtly and amorous Italian, not Aragonese richly palpating with life. Aragonese to me was the peasant blowing his flute at the mountainside as his humble sheep drank from the stream. The Gypsies, to whom the peasant’s notes were carried by the wind, broke out into sudden song. It was a language of hopeless beauty, of a people hemmed in on all sides by mountains and who yet had reason to love and to sing; my mind, so long bidden to think in Italian, in this dark time retreated to Aragonese.

Vespasiano, en fa tanto de mal.”

Vespasiano, it hurts so much.”

I ran toward my husband - for what else could I do? – but the man drew away from me, looking as haughty and callous as ever. “You shall remain here,” he said, covering his mouth to exile the poisonous stench. “You shall remain here until you are penitent.”

Penitent of what, Vespasiano?”

 “My grandfather used this tower to imprison his whore of a wife,” my husband said. “He left her here for three days, locked in this room without food and water, and when she was contrite he let her out. They lived together happily after that.”

He left her with a corpse decaying into a pool of fluid?”

Grandfather was not so inventive, but I feel I have need of such punishments considering the gravity of your acts.”

And we are to live together happily after this?” My face must have revealed a torrent of confusion and disbelief.

My husband glared, but said nothing.

How did you do it?” I asked. “Why? He was your secretary, Vespasiano.”

Poison,” and then I heard the sound of spurred boot heels growing distant and finally the slam of a closing door.

As soon as the air was shut out, I knew that I was to perish. It seemed then that the rumors that had reached my ears in Milan were true; that Vespasiano was engaged to a young maiden from a branch of the royal house of Trastamara. It was said that he had signed the contract for the girl’s hand while his wife yet lived. She was my niece, as my mother and her father were siblings, the union arranged by no less a personage than the king, my husband’s friend and benefactor. All that remained was for the current wife to be disposed of. It was a clever trick. My husband left me in this room with the corpse of my lover spewing forth the poisonous vapors that had killed him. Vespasiano would end my life at minimum price, as the same instrument that had felled my Annibale would fell me. He might use the second dose of poison on someone else.

And in those last moments I was carried not to Sicily or to Naples, but to Aragon, a land upon which my bare feet had never tread, but which I knew from the sound of its words. It was the language of my ancestors, who could not have known how much significance it would one day have for a fallen descendant. It was a language which came down from the mountain and spoke to me like an incantation, putting me to restful slumber.        

                                                                                                                                THE END

Sean Flood is an African-American writer and poet living in New York City. His writing examines issues of disenfranchisement and dehumanization. He graduated from Cornell University in 2003 and currently works as a freelance writer. His first novel, The Uniform, is available for download on Amazon.

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