I wanted to write a review that would offer a bit more information & opinion about this short story than was provided by the official description & the single customer review (so far). This offering by Hewson is not only a very strange story, it is a fairly uncategorizable one. I can see why the official description was a bit sparse & includes the phrase "...explores another side to the Rome [Hewson]'s chronicled in his bestselling Nic Costa series." Ummm yess, this is definitely another side to Rome...and I am including Rome of the Romans, those ultimate masters of the orgy, and the sexual weirdnesses therein.
This story reminds me of some of the stuff I have read in literary magazines and in writers' workshops; strange characters doing strange things but the story is "actually" about something else entirely (though this is better than most anything I read at Breadloaf). In "Judith and the Holy Ferns," a bizarre sexual scene is played out but the story is not really about sex; it's about control, subjugation, freedom and lack thereof, abuse, how accidents of fate or atrocities committed by others can force people into rigid and unnatural roles or, perversely, bring about positive transformation, about the masks people wear to hide their true selves. I think. I was always rather bad at sussing out the *TRUE MEANINGS* of stories; I have often committed the idiotic mistake of thinking a story about a horse could actually be a about a horse.
So, the plot: Mary works as a companion & maid to Mr Carstairs, an elderly British art expert (he helpfully explains to her that he is "involved in art"). They have travelled to Rome for a few days for an art exhibit which features, among other works, paintings of Judith and Holofernes, from whence comes the title of the story, which is how Mary mis-hears Mr Carstairs' pronunciation of the title. The importance of the paintings --in more ways than just as source of the title of the story-- should not surprise anyone who's read Hewson's Nic Costa books; art and artists, especially Caravaggio, are frequently featured and often play significant roles in the plot, characterization, and those pesky 'meanings.'
We learn that Mary's duties include satisfying the old man's "friskiness," by which I do not mean she plays pingpong or even has pillow fights with him; it involves a strange sexual ritual which requires a special chair, riding crop, mask, outfit & script for Mary and, God help us all, a parrot (actually a cockatoo at home; the parrot is a temporary local stand-in, needed because of Italian animal importation restrictions). PETA would not approve, although no birds are harmed in the satisfaction of Mr Carstairs' desires. On the contrary; males reading this story may well find themselves curled protectively up in a wad, Kindle clutched in white-knuckled hands.
But I digress. The exceedingly weird (or maybe I'm just hopelessly conventional) sexual scene proceeds and Mr Carstairs, Mary, and the parrot develop and change as characters. Not long thereafter, the curtain comes down, the players exit the stage, and I was left to drag my eyebrows back down out of my hairline. This is one of those stories that might cause readers to approach an author warily, ready to bolt if the author reaches toward them.
Anyway, I really have no idea how many stars to give this story. I wish I could put it on a completely different scale; 3 out of 5 Antarian pherblongs, say, to reflect the feeling that it's quite outside the ordinary. Did I like the story? I honestly am not sure. But I have spent quite a few hours thinking & reflecting about it, which is never a bad sign of any written work.
Some people will undoubtedly be shocked or offended by the sexual elements of the story, which are integral, fairly brief, & very plainly & vividly described. And which still make me cringe, even though it's been a coupla years since I read the story, I think. I was surprised how clearly I remember the story (as of Feb 2014). Unlike much of the dreck I read, this story sprang vividly to mind long after reading it. I've upgraded the review from 3 stars to 4, b/c as time passes, the story hasn't faded or released its hold on my mind. Pretty darn good for a short story.