Bodice Ripper

There was a large leather-bound book at the top. It reminded Lucas of the family bible down in the parlor, worn at the corners with the gilt-work nearly gone, though not nearly as thick. Lucas took the book from the chest and tilted it toward the southern sunlight. He opened the cover with care, smoothing the thick parchment pages, and began to read.

——————-

          June 1750 – Istanbul

It is with gratitude for the infinite grace of God and Fortune, I am finally able to take up pen and paper to transcribe my tale. All who once knew me must believe me dead, lost, or forsaken, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day preserve my story, so that the memory of me, and my family, does not simply vanish from the world.

My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, England, near Sheffield, on May 1st in the year of Our Lord 1726. I am the only surviving child of James and Virginia Hightower, may God rest their blessed souls. I grew up in the parsonage in Hathersage, a snug cottage with tilled gardens, fruit trees, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and forest nearby, open places where I rambled as a girl. I stood for hours on the old stone bridge dropping primrose petals into the stream and waiting for trolls.

My father was an enlightened man. He encouraged my education and love of music and reading. I taught church school for the village children on Sunday mornings, inventing small theaters from bible stories to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday. My mother instructed me in domestic arts, as well as indulging my youthful talent for portrait painting. My life was small and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share the same parsonage with my parents when my father retired.

Alas and woe! Fie to the wanton twists of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky, to believe a snug sheltered life is simply an apple ripe for picking! Come the hard winter of 1743, my entire life came crashing down. A freezing fog fell for weeks on end, a bitter pall of frost, with little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale. Bess, our lovely white milk cow, took fever at Epiphany and died within a day. Soon after, both my father and mother took the fever and were dead in less than a fortnight.

I was alone and bereft. An ox cart came and bore away my parents’ bodies to be burned. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge, yet I had no heart to brew them tea and listen to hushed words of faith spoken to comfort me.

In March, the spring rains came and the malaise over our township lifted. The roads were slick with mud. With the rains, came the Bishop. If I did not understand that my family was poor while my parents lived, the Bishop disabused me of any illusions I might retain about my prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head until his jowls trembled.

“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.

“Marry?” I knew very few boys and fewer young men, only those in our village. I never entertained the question before, in real terms, of securing a suitable groom.

“My dear,” The Bishop looked me up and down. “I am sorry to say that your prospects appear…how shall I say?…severely limited.” The Bishop tutted and scowled across the desk. “By your womanly appearance, I presume you are of an age and fertility to marry. I understand you are well-versed in letters, music and domestic management, however eccentric your appearance. Perhaps you know of a young man who might take you to wife?”

By this, I understood the Bishop to mean that despite mature bosom and hips, my red hair would deter any superstitious suitors from matrimony. Most in the Midlands still held to the belief that a woman’s red hair meant she was wanton, at best, and at worst, a witch.

“I hadn’t thought to marry,” I said. I hadn’t thought to marry because I’d never even kissed a boy, only danced with one at the harvest fair. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.

“Ah, then,” the Bishop grimaced and shook powder from his wig with a little pinch at his forelock. “There are only one or two alternatives to marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, even as an unfortunate orphan, by the sweat of the brow. Another vicar is appointed to this parish, and he will arrive soon. We must arrange for your removal with all alacrity.”

My heart sank. My lips felt numb. I stared down at my father’s writing desk and the stained blotter on which he wrote weekly homilies.

“You are young and healthy, that is good. Your father left no debt, so you need not fear the poor farm, yet. By the Lord’s grace, I have learned of a position for you to serve as a domestic of the higher order. Though this engagement is somewhat exotic, it is with a well-born family, a noble family. I understand you excel at instructing children.”

I nodded. I felt dumb as old Bess just before she died.

“Very good,” the Bishop scratched at his wig again and stood up. “Pack your things, my dear. We’ll have you on the coach for Liverpool tonight.”

With that I was dismissed. I returned to the cottage to gather my clothes and what few mementos I could squeeze in my mother’s portmanteau. The Bishop was true to his word. I was bundled up with my scant luggage, given a small basket of bread and sour apples, and set on the night coach to the west. In Liverpool, I took ship for Brighton to meet my new employers, the Sackvilles. With that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship to parts east, bound for Istanbul.

Nightshades – Flash Fiction

pale_nighshades

NIGHTSHADES

Stephen is coming to dinner for the last time. Everything I need is in the garden. Nightshades ripened in late summer into globed dusky eggplant, blushed tomatoes, tart bell peppers. They flower at night and drop fruit calving under cover of darkness. The eggplant, the brinjal, the aubergine shines purple-black like a bruise growing in clustered elongated teardrops from violet blossoms. All members of the nightshade family contain small quantities of capsaicin and solanine, which may explain why they are currently suspect in culinary fashion, or perhaps that is only potatoes.

Yet Stephen wants moussaka, for old time sake and all the good years we shared together. If it isn’t too much trouble, he said, please no lamb in the dish. Lisa Ann is vegetarian and Stephen is giving up meat. Béchamel is fine, he says, but presses on to nearly growling that I should cut back rich foods and finally lose some weight. Stephen will bring a bottle of Pinot Gris and the documents. I ask for a Noir, if it’s not too much trouble.

I begin in the morning, when the light is solemn before dawn and hummingbirds hungry after their overnight fast jab at dewy blooms. This dish must be served cool, as the Greeks do, not loose and hot from the oven. Even an eggplant picked fresh from the garden has a rhino tough skin; its woody flesh is dispiriting to beginners unwilling to take their time and sweat the beast. I carry my basket full of nightshades and herbs inside with a brace of flowers picked for the table. The eggplant is sliced and salted to weep.

I make both sauces: one with lamb and one without. Fresh thyme and oregano bloom in the olive oil before sautéing the shallot, garlic, diced peppers and crushed tomatoes until finally stirring in slices of softened aubergine. While the sauces simmer, I arrange the ruby-red dahlias in an Ikebana vase and snap a crisp white cloth over the table. It is an occasion, after all.

Stephen is late, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The moussaka is set and cooling with the vegetarian pan and the lamb side-by-side on the counter. Stephen knocks with one knuckle and opens the door.

“Smells good in here,” he hands me the bottle of Pinot Noir. I look at the label.

“Perfect,” I wave Stephen to sit while I rummage for the corkscrew.

“I’ll put this here,” he lays a manila envelope next to my seat. “We can go over it while we eat.”

I dish up moussaka and turn for the salad bowl.

“Let’s enjoy the food first,” I raise a dark glass, “we can talk after.”

Stephen sniffs his plate.

“Is there lamb in this?”

“No,” I shake my head, “there’s lamb in mine,”

 “Ah, good, Lisa Ann hates meat on my breath,”

Stephen stabs through the thick layer of béchamel and scrapes half aside. He chews mechanically, eyes fixed on the vase, and I know he’s counting each bite. When he returns to the kitchen for another serving, I refill our glasses and offer more salad.

After wiping the sauce from my lips and smoothing the napkin on the tablecloth, I open the envelope and take out the document containing Stephan’s proposed separation agreement. I rifle through the pages. Stephen drains his glass and smacks his lips.

“Is it warm in here?”

I look over my reading glasses. A shine has come to Stephen’s forehead; there is a glisten on his rapidly receding hairline. His palms are splayed and pressed on the tablecloth; I see his wedding ring is gone.

“Maybe it’s the wine,” I turn my attention back to the page defining how proceeds from sale of the house will be split.

“Maybe,” Stephen sways as he struggles to stand. I peer over my glasses. His pupils are dilated.

“Leave these,” I shuffle the papers back in the envelope, “I’ll look at them tomorrow.”

“Okay…wow, must be the wine…I better get going, while I can still drive,”

I pack a generous portion of moussaka in tupperware and snap the lid.

“For Lisa Ann,” I hand the tub to him at the door and wave as he backs his Jeep out of the driveway.

When I return to the kitchen, I cover the lamb dish and put it in the fridge. I shovel the last of the vegetarian version down the garbage disposal, humming with the faucet over the growling sink. Everything I need is in the garden, everything, especially the dark sweet berries of my beautiful lady, belladonna.

Lexicon

It’s said the Inuit people know 50 names for snow. Living half the year in long darkness, half in forever midsummer sun, the names came from patient study and deliberation, conferring with elders and ancestors, and finally from standing alone on the frozen tundra to shout a name to the wind to learn which snow must answer.

Not Siletz or Siuslaw, neither Coos nor Kalapuya, I was merely born on the delta between two wild sisters, two swift rivers in the time of mighty Chinook running, born here where rain falls a lullaby on the eaves, listening to cloud, lashing the cedars. Perhaps, the wind says, it is time. Are we the last great rain shadow remaining?  It is daunting. I am unqualified. Nevertheless now, as a grown woman with time running short, I begin the work of setting down this imperfect translation.

The scholar will note that this lexicon is forever inaccurate and incomplete, as most linguistic equivalences between poetry and mathematics are impossible. However, I present this imperfect compilation as a primer, a basic catalog, meant merely as an outline of myriad nuance. For just as snow evolves to find novel forms, rain invents itself anew each generation; each manifestation awaits a hearing, an integration, awaits its true name spoken to the wind.

The Names of Rain, in Mostly Alphabetic Order

Ashrel – dervish rain lifts fishes from the ocean

Bentah – walks on mountain sleeping late

Cihtel – brings Camas to bloom and softens earth to dig roots

Drem – tamps cooking smoke from leaving lodge

Enili – paints rainbows

Fege – sends geese to ground to wait for sky

Gryth – cools the face at corn time

Haili – dogs hide under the bed and howl

Inii – mixes with tears of mourning

Joos – plays pipes across the long pond

Klakatesh – washes the berries before picking time

Laqu’me – children run and laugh gathering firewood

Muus – mothers nurse newborns in the doorway

Nehali – toppling ancestor tree from root

O’roko – Chinook climb currents home to spawn

Papuq – lovers watch the moon

Quzshet – rides with thunder

Rokama – pisses on the slippers left outside

Snalak – wakes the crows to fend off the hawk

Tek – trout rising for mayfly

Umoq – making peace and taking pride at potlatch

Vru’ku – sleeping with spirits

Wewemi – closes the dance beside the fire

Xalj – after the fever breaks

Yopuna – grandmothers crack acorns and talk story

Za’aln – hearing the heartbeat of the land and weeping

******

Please note this is a work of imagination and the lexicon is a figment of my own mythology~

 

 

Work

“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

–Alexander Chee

“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

NaNo

Today the calender turns over to November and National Novel Writing Month, a challenge for intrepid novelists determined to write 50K words in 30 days. That works out to 1667 words per day, even on weekends, holidays, elections, and when the power goes out. To all those participating in Nanowrimo, I salute you.

I completed the challenge twice, finishing one (short) novel and getting 60k words written  on the second. I signed up on October 30th for my first Nano, having only just learned about the nonprofit event that day, and secretly believed it was the quick-start kick-start I needed to launch my next brilliant career as a novelist.

Here is the summary of that first attempt:

“When vagabond musician, Lucas, is summoned to discharge his grandmother’s estate and sell her Victorian house, a battered old chest reveals an handwritten book among the antiques in the attic. The eighteenth century journal tells of an English ancestor, orphaned and shipped abroad to central Asia, as governess to the ambassador’s children. As he reads Verity Hightower’s struggles in a vastly foreign country, Lucas must confront his own desire to keep the house, pitted against his brother’s demands to sell it quickly.  With each chapter of Verity’s story, Lucas embraces the lessons of necessity, family and the true meaning of “home.”

Ugh. Hybrid bodice-ripper-romance dual narrative.

Here is the summary of my second Nano novel:

When a sheep rancher and her dog are savagely killed, suspicion falls on the neighbor’s rescue dogs. To protect her dogs from being blamed for the carnage and destroyed, seventeen year-old Sammi flees with them across the mountains to the high desert. As Sammi desperately tries to elude the state police and forensic biologist pursuing her, she crosses paths with the otherworldly beast spreading carnage, and his master. Sammi must fight for her own life, as well as the lives of her dogs, against dark immortal forces.

Better? Horror-fantasy I swear I will finish some day.

I learned a lot about myself and a lot about story. But this year, I’m struggling to keep the writing hours, rather than the word count.

If you are Nanoing, and tired of trying to form a sentence, I recommend a quick read for some perspective over at McSweeney’s. List: If Other Professionals talked about Their Jobs the Way Writers Do.

Word by word.

Woolgathering | A Note on Craft

frost_blackberry

Woolgathering once literally referred to the act of gathering loose tufts of wool caught on bushes and fences as sheep passed by… by mid-16th century the word woolgathering came to suggest the act of indulging in purposeless mind-wandering.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Gather wool: hands forever stiff with plucking tufts from stiles and bramble.

Many or most get lost at the beginning, wandering about to find wool, a flock of sheep. Sheep do not volunteer to be stripped of their riches. Gathering wool is the chaotic business of first drafts, of culling a beast from the herd. The bleater must be driven through a chute into a small stifling shed. (Having a dog bred and trained for this purpose helps, but weaving a collie into this extended analogy is awkward.)

With the bawling sheep secured in the shearing shed, there is a tussle to throttle the beast and pin it to the straw. I confess I’ve never sheared a sheep, though I’ve hacked many dreadful first drafts. I’ve seen it done. It’s hot, dirty, bloody business, both for the shearer and the sheep. Words must be brawled down like fleece into a heap of filthy wool.

When the fleece is finally stripped and spread across the shed floor, the trembling sheep is allowed to return to pasture, a naked rustic muse. The creature spent the winter grazing in muddy pasture, dragging her belly through weeds rife with burrs, dribbling poop down her backside. Fouled wool will never do for knitting, no.

The fleece must be cleaned. First it must be skirted and then it must be washed. Skirting is vile work, but it is a first draft. Print out the pages, spread them across the kitchen table, and scan for chunks of dried poop, clumps of hay, cockleburs and caked mud. (Don’t overthink, we are nowhere near killing our darlings.) Pick out the noxious bits. A snippet from the Craftsy website applies so literally:

“Yellowed or brittle sections should be removed. You can always set some aside and come back to it later to see if it can be salvaged for other uses.”

Compromised wool unsuited to the current piece at hand might be recycled into a poem. While it’s wise to preserve a first draft intact in the raw original form, I am guilty of continually overwriting while revising. Someday I’ll open a folder for every project and save each file version. Perhaps one day I’ll organize my sock drawer and spice cabinet as well.

Toss aside the nasty bits. Throw them out. Passive voice, “to be” verb formations, tense disagreements, blundering word choices, all go into the black plastic bag. Next, stuff all the skirted wool into a mesh bag to wash. At this stage in writing, one pauses to ruminate, considering on the structure and thesis of the entire project. I ponder in the shower.

Sheep wool is covered in grease called lanolin. This natural oil is excreted from the body of the sheep and saturates its coat. Due to this oil, sheep are waterproof and able to contentedly graze over many days of soaking rain. One needs to wash away excess lanolin. We come to divide the worthy wool, the words that will stand, from the dross.

Fill a tub with hot water and squirt in a generous measure of liquid soap. Do not use your own washing machine as this will only result in remorse. Go for a walk. St. Augustine wrote that solutions arrive when walking (solvitur ambulando) and he seems trustworthy. Let the wool absorb the water and soap, but don’t let the water cool or the lanolin will not wash away.

Repeat four or five more times. Rinse well. Spread the wool out flat to dry for several days. Print the piece of writing. Place it on the kitchen counter, near enough to scribble in the margins between peeling carrots and chopping them. Let it sit. Make notes. Re-read the paragraph you were so proud of and strike it.  Reconsider and write “stet” in big block letters.

Once the wool is dry, comes teasing and carding. I have never done this. I am relying on the internet to help extend this metaphor as far as it will go. I do knit, however. I have observed other hardy handy souls carding wool and spinning it into yarn. Carding wool further cleans, straightens, and separates the fibers, hence the apt cliché of going over a page with a fine-tooth comb. It is here, finally, when you return to the work to restructure it, reinvent it, and rebuild it to be both worthy and whole.

After the wool is carded, it’s spun into yarn. This is an art unto itself, one that requires rhythm and tactile intelligence. This cannot be taught. This might be learned. Spinning is the nebulous writing gift talent. We will leave the spinner, a Clotho of the dark sisterly Moirai, to work her magic.

Only now and finally, is there a skein of yarn. Do not knit from this skein, as it will only tangle. Wind the yarn into a ball that will not ravel as it unrolls. As you wind, dream the words, hear their music, and smooth the stray strand back into the twisted fiber. Select the needles and note the pattern, count the stitches as you cast on.

Read the piece and read it again. Read until you know the words without reading them. Print another copy to leave at hand near the kitchen sink. Consider the root of each word; reconsider that phrase, chain by chain, stitch by stich, row by row, work through the yarn’s tension until the skein is dealt, the work ready to cast off. Bind it well.

knitting_basket

Becoming a Writer

“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, if you cannot take the criticism of strangers, or the uncertainty, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”

–Alexander Chee
“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”

Harvest Moon

aphrodite
Painted Tile in Author’s Collection

The equinox arrives Saturday evening, 6:55 Pacific time. Days and nights will balance, light and dark equal for a moment. Folklore says one might balance an egg on end during an equinox, but I’ve never done it. The moment passes while I’m distracted slicing a pear and the egg swivels and topples. Persephone descends to the underworld, the cloaked seed sleeping a seeming death. Six months ago, at the spring equinox, the light strengthened and grew. Seed pods burst and pushed into the air, leaves unfurled with Persephone rising. Now comes the time to let go. The harvest moon is nearly full.

fuschia_blossom
Fuschia

I have wandered and worked in the sun. In the dark and rain is the best season to write. Then I prop the door closed with a cast-bronze winged pig, enough to keep the heat from the oil radiator inside, yet wide enough for the dog to push her head through and, if she’s inclined, shove back the doorstop to shoulder through and lie down at my feet.

pashmina
Pashmina Collection

I have a small chandelier in the corner of my studio with battery-powered tea lights that still flicker without dripping wax. (Or threaten fire, if I forget them. An amazing feat of technology, this.) I brew a thermos of strong chai and stir in a spoonful of honey. In the dark and the rain, there’s less to see out the window other than the stony shades of sky and bare branches. The eye is released to turn inward, awaiting the shy wild shape of the work.