Novels by Karen Stephen...

Mother Tongue ~ Excerpts

MOTHER TONGUE - Lingua Corsa
My real adventure in Corsica in 1963
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Natu a parsona, natu u distinu. (Frassetu)

Lorsque nait une personne, son destin est tracé.

At birth your fate is written.

Hook for Mother Tongue

Child advocate, Liz Fallon, seeking respite after one of her young charges is murdered, revives her fluency in her mother's Corsican tongue and becomes a translator for a controversial journalist  in Paris, only to find herself plunged into the separatist violence and occult mysteries of the isle of Corsica when he and his young son disappear under ominous circumstances.

Pitch for Mother Tongue

Child advocate, Liz Fallon, desperately needs a break after legal blunders lead to the kidnapping and death of one of her young charges. Fluent in her mother’s native Corsican tongue, she nabs a job at a Paris newspaper as a Corsu translator for Pierre Benatar, whose coverage of the explosive Corsican Nationalist movement has enraged every separatist faction. 

When Benatar and his seven-year-old son disappear, she resolves to prevent another tragedy and cons her way to Corsica under the ruse of researching a tabloid story about the mazzeri, the isle’s ancient foretellers of death. She cozies up to the prime suspects using her secret knowledge of Corsu and the aid of an elderly Brit, Mrs. Standhope, and a courageous young cousin, Biandina. The hunters suddenly become the hunted when her inquiries arouse the suspicions and passions of both the separatist leader and the French police chief. When the mazzeri story also takes a chilling personal turn, she has to wonder whether Corsica intends to reclaim her as its prodigal daughter or destroy her.

Excerpts from Mother Tongue


Liz Fallon ignored the sun scorching the back of her neck and hustled to keep stride with the churning legs of Pierre Benatar. A head taller, she watched light flicker off the bald spot dividing his hair into two frizzy clumps. He forged ahead, as oblivious to her as to the threats against his life by collaborators of the Corsican terrorist they were about to interview. Correction…that he was about to interview. She would only translate. As they took a sharp right, the last of the nondescript homes in the leafy Paris suburb gave way to the menacing sprawl of Fresnes prison. The sight of its ancient stone walls turned Liz’s legs to jelly. She fought to regain her balance with an awkward stutter step.
Months earlier, she had pulled off the road and stared at the pale stucco walls of San Quentin, another hell-hole stuck in the middle of affluence, wondering what judge in his right mind could have released the monster who kidnapped and killed one of her charges. As Briana Jackson’s court appointed special advocate she had argued against returning the spunky eight-year-old to her mother, one of many women who seem quite incapable of staying away from their brutal ex-husbands. But her pleas had fallen on deaf ears and within days the mother lay dead from multiple stab wounds and the child was nowhere to be seen. Two days later her tiny body washed up on the muddy banks of the Oakland estuary.

The tragic outcome brought Liz quite literally to her knees and to this self-imposed exile in France. Weeks of knocking back more Jack Daniels than usual had done little to eradicate the memory of Briana’s sweet black face, framed as always by bead-dressed pigtails, cushioned not against her favorite Disney princess pillow but against white satin.
Liz stayed silent as she kept pace with Benatar, as if her power of speech had been stolen by the throng of mourners back at Allen Temple Baptist Church as she wept before a coffin far too small to hold her grief. Feeling ill-prepared only intensified the cramps in her gut. Benatar had dropped the assignment on her desk less than 24 hours before along with a stack of reports he had filed on the Corsican situation. She had only hours to skim through the material, but time enough to confirm that his no-holds-barred reporting style jibed with the newsroom gossip she’d heard about this diminutive Moroccan Jew who had been targeted by just about every faction of Corsica’s Nationalist movement.
As they passed through the prison’s metal detectors, Liz wondered how much Benatar knew about her beyond the fact that she was the rare American who spoke fluent French and certainly the only one who spoke Corsu. When his regular translator’s heart healed, would she be shuttled off to Charles De Gaulle airport with a one-way ticket back to San Francisco? She felt a nagging urge to explain that back in the States, before she’d gone over the edge and off to a shrink’s office and eventually on to this hiatus to France, her investigatory skills as a child advocate may well have outshone his as a journalist.
Her ruminations came to an abrupt halt when a paunchy guard, sweat staining the underarms of his starched blue shirt, snatched the passport and press credentials out of her hand with the insolence bred into French functionaries. “Lisabetta Falcucci. Ce n'est pas un nom américain. Corse, n'est-ce pas?"
A denial was pointless. Her recently obtained passport did bear her Corsican birth name. What had seemed like a shrewd tactic to nab a translator position on France’s most radical newspaper had just turned to a curse. Benatar glowered at her above his rimless glasses. She felt thirty-two going on a doddering ninety-three with her life swirling down a French toilette.  
Benatar’s probably wondering how the fuck I can translate for him if I can barely remember my own name. She had little patience for lapses, particularly her own. Annoyed that she even cared about Benatar’s opinion, she rattled off a few rapid-fire phrases in French, adding a healthy dose of the vernacular, which worked as well on Benatar and the smug guard as it did on sneering Parisian waiters. But as they passed through the first set of iron gates, her bravado ebbed, smothered by the odor of corroded iron bars and the sickly fumes of disinfectant rising from the green-speckled linoleum underfoot.  

SETTING:  Liz is taken by Scafani to a very unusual Indochine villa located on the outskirts of a Corsican remote village.

Liz circled the room’s centerpiece, an incense burner held up by four brass dragons. As Scafani and his old friend chatted, she wandered over to inspect an odd figurine of a dancer clad only in a tutu and boxing gloves sitting atop a dusty upright piano. Then she moseyed on to a curio cabinet and peered at a venerable jade sage meditating next to a herd of soapstone elephants.
The old man motioned for both of them to sit at the table and then slipped out of the room.
“What is this place?” she asked.
Scafani offered up a sly smile. “You said you were starved. This is the only place to get a meal within twenty kilometers.”
She cast a skeptical eye around the room. “Looks more like an opium den. Is he Vietnamese?”
“No, French. He served in the military back in the old Indochine days. Brought his first wife over from Viet Nam. No one knows for sure how they ended up in this villa out in the middle of nowhere. He never talks of her. Second wife died as well.”
Frederick scuttled back in with a servant in tow. He beamed as he ordered the girl to set down the lacquered tray in front of Scafani and proudly pointed to the unopened bottle of Black and White Whiskey. “Twelve cases,” he said. “All the way from Ajaccio. Only the best for my friend.”
Enough to serve the tourists all summer, eh?” said Scafani.
“You're kidding. People drive all the way out here?” Liz said, speaking too bluntly as usual.
“Mais, oui!” the old man said with a dead pan expression, seeming not the least offended.
“You have to admit, it does have a certain panache,” Scafani said to Liz with a wink.
Liz raised a skeptical eyebrow as she watched Frederick shoo the servant girl out of the room ahead of him.
“He actually does get a guest or two in the summer,” said Scafani as he poured whiskey into two crystal highball glasses.  
“Make mine a double."
Antoine laughed and poured another finger of whiskey into her glass. She tossed it back, enjoying the familiar burn.
As she finished off a refill, Frederick reappeared with a starched towel draped over his cocked left arm. “Le dîner est servi, Monsieur et Madame.”
Scafani proffered his arm. Liz hesitated, then slipped her hand under his elbow as they trailed after Frederick. They ended up in a formal dining room with a mahogany table at its center. A second girl joined the first and the two teens, who appeared to be sisters, stood at attention on either side of a well-worn buffet.
“How convenient that our meal is all prepared,” she said, her voice bearing that sarcastic edge.
“Just enjoy,” he said, his tone more inviting than defensive.
     Frederick barked orders at the girls, who flew in and out of the room with serving trays. He would turn apoplectic whenever they brought out the wrong item. “Non! Not that soup bowl! That kitchen bowl. No good for guests. The salt. It must be served in the silver saltcellar.”  
As the old man switched from Pidgin English to French, Scafani started to provide a running translation.
Liz figured little harm could come if she admitted to speaking some French. “Something about having a beautiful something or other if some scoundrels haven’t stolen it, right?”
“Saltcellar. Why didn’t you tell me you spoke French.”
“I suppose because we started off in English at the news conference. Plus, I thought it was obvious since I'm working for a French newspaper.”
Liz kicked herself as she saw a glimmer of suspicion flash across his face. Too late now. She changed the subject. “Is he accusing the girls of stealing? Who would take anything from this—”
“Shhh! He’s very sensitive.”
Frederick ran off to the kitchen again. He returned literally chasing one of the girls, who was balancing two loaves of bread on a wooden plank. “Arrêt! Arrêt! The bread must be served in the little breadbasket. My God! Have they stolen that too?”

SETTING ONE: Liz arrives at a news conference and watches Professor Nicoli narrate an old film clip.

Liz’s hopes brightened. She turned her attention to the screen. Projected in grainy black and white, a very young Sylvia Nicoli, nearly swallowed up by a dark, broad-shouldered Forties-style suit, walk up a deserted country road.
The Professor launched into her narration. “I remember there was a dry sirocco wind that day kicking up swirls of dust all the way along our three-kilometer journey. I worried that my photographer, who shared none of my enthusiasm for the occult, might change his mind and leave me stranded.”
Liz felt a slight chill go up her spine as the next scene revealed a string of bleak stone houses in a sparsely settled hamlet. The Professor continued. “The inhabitants were nowhere to be seen when we arrived. I knew the men were most likely tending their sheep on the high plateaus. But the women? Were they hiding from me, a stranger in urban dress accompanied by a man holding this strange, whirring machine, or had they caught a glimpse of the solitary figure that approached us?”
Liz let out an involuntary gasp as a scarecrow of a woman popped onto the screen, her black rags being whipped to and fro by the wind. “My photographer was so stunned by the woman that he couldn’t hold the camera still,” the Professor recollected. The next shot jerkily panned down to the mazzera’s legs. “When she came closer, we saw barely-dried trickles of blood on her stick-thin legs, a gruesome reminder of her recent trek through the barbed maquis.”
The Professor turned her back on her audience and gazed at the screen. “I still marvel at her ageless spirit. She was at least in her seventies at the time. Now at the same age, I have long since lost the spring in my step.”
Liz scanned the row of faces next to her. Was the audience buying into this? Every eye, eerily illuminated by reflected light from the screen, opened wide as the film shifted to a close up of the mazzera’s face. The woman’s deep-sunken eyes blazed out from under her bandana.
“She looked through us not at us as she fingered the gold decoration that dangled between her eyes. Its purpose, she told us, was to ward off evil spells on her eyes. She said she had to protect her eyes.”
Liz thought back through the material she had read. She didn’t recall anything in particular about eyes. Was there some connection between their sight and their presumed ability to bilocate, this ridiculous business about assuming the form of an animal and going out on dream hunts at night, and, at the same time, being fast asleep in their beds? Of course, when they did kill their prey, they would need to see the faces of the living—a neighbor or villager or even a relative—on the heads of the dead dream-animal. The zinger, of course, was that they were then compelled to announce to that person that they would die within the year. Couldn’t have made them very popular, Liz thought.
Liz’s full attention was brought abruptly back to the screen as the mazzera thrust out a bony finger at arm’s length. She took a sharp breath as the camera shot dipped to the ground and then panned up to some far hills dotted with oaks and chestnut trees as the Professor went on. “The mazzera said, ‘It happens that I go out at night. I tear my flesh and clothes. The need to hunt is stronger than I. The blood wills it so.’”     

She watched and listened, feeling a bit less inclined to believe that the film itself was a hoax. Its final frames captured the mazzera striding away, back to the maquis. “What it does not show,” said the Professor, her voice breaking, “was a foolhardy thirty-year-old version of me abandoning my photographer and sprinting after the apparition. I’ll never forget the stench of death that stopped me in my tracks, a stink that not even the maquis, with its sweet aroma of rosemary, thyme, and immortelle, could mask.”
As the lights came up, Liz tucked a few stray strands of hair under her braid and checked the status of her duffel bag.

SETTING TWO: Liz gets caught up in the crowd attending the funeral one of Scafani's uncles, also a separatist leader.

The somber peal of the church’s bells cast a sudden hush over the crowd. Straining to see over the multitude of heads of in front of her, she saw a phalanx of two dozen black-hooded and fully armed guerrillas march onto the raised platform and stand, half on each side, and raise their automatic weapons to form a menacing arch. The crowd roared. Men raised their fists in solidarity. Women wailed in their undulating waves of grief.

Liz felt her heart jump into overdrive as a funeral procession, moving at a solemn pace, emerged from the alleyway. A crucifer elevating a golden cross and an acolyte bearing a two-foot candle preceded a red robed priest. Behind, Henri Soriano’s casket loomed into view. A Corsican flag, with its silhouette of a black Moor’s head wrapped in a defiant white headband, covered the simple wooden box.
The six pallbearers wore no masks. Liz easily identified Antoine and Michel at the front of the casket, their arms on each other’s shoulders to bear its weight. Pierre and three other men brought up the rear. Trailing the casket, concealed under a black veil, the widow leaned heavily on the arms of two men. As the funeral party reached the center of the platform, the honor guard lowered their weapons to port arms. The priest uttered prayers in Latin and sprinkled the casket with holy water, then turned and nodded to the leader of the guerillas, who barked out an order.
In unison, the hooded men pointed their automatic weapons skyward and squeezed off a slow, deliberate three-volley salute. At the crack of the first shot, the crowd exploded into a roar of approval. As the second shot erupted, Liz saw riot equipment magically appear from behind concrete tree planters. The police donned the gear with lightning speed. She realized the back-up plan had been closer at hand than she had thought. But even after suiting up, with weapons drawn and at the ready, the police made no further moves.
When the last echoes of the third volley had died away, the hooded men lowered their weapons and escorted the grieved family down the stairs and into the heart of the crowd. The unsettled throng gave way to let the casket pass. Fingertips strained to touch the flag or pat the shoulders of the pallbearers.
As the procession neared the spot where Liz stood, she saw Antoine’s face, taut with grief, pressed against the casket’s side.
Suddenly, a man elbowed his way in next to her and called out Scafani’s name, directing his attention their way. Antoine, without changing his pace, shouted at her. “Get out of here! Now!”
For some reason, Liz didn’t argue.