As if there hadn't been misery enough on the east coast, now comes our latest newsletter on the heels of what for many has been a difficult time to say the least. The record snow totals being reported serve to remind us of a remark by Joseph Kutch, who reckoned February, not Puritanism, was the worst charge that could be leveled against New England. With this particular nor'easter, of course, other areas suffered as well, but let's try to see it as meteorological democracy in action: sharing the worst as well as the best.

And speaking of sharing the worst, although the prospect may chill your blood, we invite you to take the plunge and plough through this issue.


As we till the lonely field of Byzantine mysteries, winds howling across its bare expanse occasionally ruffle the pages of out-of-the-way reference works consulted to find information used only for a passing comment and never again.

In Five For Silver, for example, a Holy Fool drops in on one of the imperial baths, and for this particular chapter we had to look up arcane methods of soothsaying. I shall not reveal more about what happened after the Fool's arrival, but in the course of the necessary investigations I stumbled over onychomancy.

Given the word might be loosely translated from the Greek as claw-method-of-divination, subscribers will not be surprised that it refers to fortune telling either by interpreting images made by sunlight reflections on suitably polished or oiled nails (sometimes specified as to be those a young boy) or alternatively by examination of the white marks and specks often found on our fingernails.

Naturally this discovery immediately dragged me through the hedge into another field of enquiry entirely, but my visit was certainly interesting and in the end it transpired that one of these methods actually has some truth behind it.

Alas, I haven't been able to find out when this method of divination came into vogue, although it's certainly a less intrusive way than inspecting entrails and no special equipment is needed to perform it. Could it be connected with the divination aspects of sun gods such as Apollo or Shamas because as solar deities they are all-seeing, all-knowing, and nothing can be hidden from their glare, not even the future?

Be that as it may, my theory concerning the fingernail form of onychomancy is that it utilises the unconscious mind's interpretation of presented shapes, after the fashion of Rorschach blots -- or for that matter oenomancy, divination by considering patterns caused by split wine, another method mentioned in Fivefer.

However, it might be difficult reading reflected images using the variant method mentioned in Frederick Elworthy's book on The Evil Eye, which refers to nails covered with oil and soot. It's much easier and a lot less messy to examine fingernail specks, especially given you can have a go at this method even on cloudy days.

Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Sir Thomas Browne's fascinating examination of numerous common but mistaken beliefs, mentions this particular practice in connection with cheiromancy (palmistry). While he admits prevalent humours, as he puts it, may be established by observing these marks, he refuses to endorse their use for telling fortunes. He does however provide useful information about the topic, including the logical progression that spots near the top of the nail refer the matters in the past, those in the middle to present events, and specks at the bottom indicate future happenings. Beyond that, his brief comments suggest such contemporary interpretations were based upon planetary influences, rather as today's palmists say the index finger is ruled by Jupiter or the ring finger Apollo. His particular examples are that thumb nail specks refer to one's honour and the forefinger nail relates to riches.

According to Sir Thomas, generally speaking white spots are good omens, blue the opposite. Scoff or not, as intimated above, this form of onychomancy contains some truth, for a glance at any medical dictionary reveals certain ailments or conditions colour, streak, or otherwise mark the nails. So perhaps onychomancy involves less romancing -- in the old sense of lack of veracity -- than it appears at first blush.



...tickety tick news on the ticker this month... tick tick tickety tick...however Six For Gold and the rest of our Byzantine mysteries are still out there hoping to make news...


Revisions. I hate them. I'm thin-skinned about my writing. It bothers me to have my decisions called into question, my taste impugned, my skills denigrated.

Don't tell me not to take it personally.

Nevertheless, after fuming for awhile -- sometimes quite a while -- I do what's necessary. As important as my words are to me, how they strike readers (and that they get the chance to strike readers at all) is more important.

Does that make me a hack?

When Mary and I have revised a manuscript entire chapters have hit the dust. Characters have vanished. We'd had perfectly good reasons for inventing those scenes and characters. The words had meant something to us, probably constituting an expression of ourselves and our outlook on the world and our philosophies of life.

Those scenes and characters had been torn from our inner beings. Our very souls.

Well, where else could writers' words come from, unless they're plagiarists? As it happened, we decided that those particular pieces of our souls slowed the story down. They had to be cut for the sake of the readers who will probably be more interested in the story than the state of our inner beings.

So maybe I'm a hack.

I've always written more to entertain than to express myself or impart a great message to the world.

When I was in the fifth grade my friends and I sat together in the back of the classroom and while everyone else was learning to divide fractions we'd draw cartoons in our tablets, show them to each other and crack up laughing until we caught the beady eye from our teacher.

My only goal was to get laughs. If it took explosions and large falling weights, than that's what I drew. I didn't care if those were cliches, that they weren't ripped bleeding from the deepest recesses of my psyche. (Although, who knows, maybe that's what's in there...)

I've never kept a journal. I've never tried to work through my problems by writing them out. Writing, to me, is performance. It's an action directed outward, meant for an audience, not a solitary exercise.

Something of myself sneaks into my writing, no doubt. That's probably true of even the most formulaic writers. In the end, the words need to be drawn from the writer's own, individual thought processes.

Writers are ranged along a spectrum. At one end labors the secret diarist who would be mortified if his or her words were ever glimpsed by other eyes. At the other end, the hack cobbles together bits and pieces of the latest bestsellers, with no object beyond how much the words might earn from eager readers.

Most of us fall somewhere in between.

Me, I fear I'm shifted toward the hack end of that spectrum. Or so I try to convince myself when I'm asked to change any of my precious words.


Speaking of change, not many of us will have much to spare after April l5th, the due date for US residents to submit those annual penances, their state, local, and/or federal income tax returns.

John Maynard Keynes was of the opinion that avoiding taxation was the only intellectual exercise that carried a reward. Some might add unlike, say, reading Orphan Scrivener. On the other hand, the fact our next issue will flap into email boxes the same day tax returns are due may be a baleful confluence, but it's also coincidental. At least you won't need a calculator to read it, although it might be a good plan to keep the bottle of tax return aspirin handy.

See you then.

Best wishes
Mary R and Eric

who invite you to visit their home page, hanging out on the virtual washing line at There you'll discover the usual suspects, including more personal essays, a list of author freebies, Doom Cat (an interactive game written by Eric), and a jigsaw featuring the handsome cover of Five For Silver. There's also an Orphan Scrivener archive, so don't say you weren't warned! Intrepid subscribers may also wish to pop over to visit Eric's blog at

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