Happy Wednesday, one and all! I’ve officially got the first episode of my podcast done and done. To help celebrate Wyrd and Wonder–and because it’s just been recommended so gosh darn much–I chose to start with Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko. What does a reader experience in those opening pages, and what lessons can a writer take away in studying but a few paragraphs? Let’s find out together.
I hope you enjoy this sip from the story with me. Any feedback on the podcast itself will also be greatly appreciated, as I hope to make this a weekly thing. x
Hello hello, one and all, aaaaaaand April Fools to you!
Nope, I don’t have my article on the importance of names done yet. I’m still waiting on some research to come from the library. While waiting, I perused a Diana Wynne Jones story that had gotten a lot of mixed press in the States:
And by “little,” I mean little. The entire story is 117 pages with large-print font and illustrations. Like Wild Robert, the chapters jump into hijinks and misadventure quickly and wrap up just as quickly. Books like this are excellent for kids transitioning from readers to chapter books, as it has a balanced mix of simple and complex sentences as well as connecting events between chapters.
However, there are “drawbacks” to such storytelling, if you wish to call them that, for those drawbacks come to a head when a shorter story is made into a feature film. Yes, there have been some amazing films made from short stories (Shawshank Redemption, anyone?) so I’m not saying shorter stories could never be adapted. But that is the key, isn’t it?
Things have to change in a story when it changes mediums, and from what I’m hearing about the film, Studio Ghibli (who has a good history with Jones’ work) stay fairly true to the story which, if you listen to the reviewer here, is extremely detrimental to the film. Why should the audience care about a kid whose entire goal is to make grownups do what she wants? Where did this kid come from? What was up with the witch leaving this baby behind? Why is the whole story just in this witch’s house? This is a movie where almost nothing happens, etc etc etc.
After reading the book, I recalled having similar reactions to Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. What IS the Beldam? How does the cat move between worlds? What’s up with those creepy rats? How on earth didn’t previous tenants wonder about that freaky-ass door that’s actually a mouth or throat that’s actually OLDER than the Beldam?
I also realized for Gaiman’s intended audience, these questions are not important to the central story: Coraline growing through her experience with the Beldam and being thankful for the parents and life she already has. That’s why the story doesn’t have Coraline discovering ancient texts about the Beldam, or meeting the Smithy who crafted the one key, or any of those things.
They. Didn’t. Matter.
Even the film adaptation of Coraline didn’t try to answer all those questions. Sure, it added some color and creepy songs to the Other Mother’s world, but the film left those loose ends, well, loose.
Something else that seems to be lost in the mix is that these stories–Coraline and Earwig and the Witch–are both Middle Grade novels. That means they are SHORT and must STAY short for its audience. Yes, yes, there are longer MG novels out there now, but if you go back a decade or two, you’ll see these length requirements were adhered to pretty closely. Anyone who’s submitted short fiction to a journal or magazine knows the importance of that length requirement: if your story is too long, it won’t even be considered.
So, after all this rambling because I don’t have to worry about word counts on a blog (though I should, according to some readers), let’s see if Earwig and the Witch really is a story where “nothing happens.”
The opening sequence that movie reviewer Stuckman praised is not actually in the book; rather, the one snippet we get of young Earwig’s backstory comes in exposition during the first scene. A “very strange couple” have come during the orphanage’s visitation day. Foster parents can come and select a child to take with them, and this “very strange couple” are the first to pay Earwig any attention.
“Erica has been with us since she was a baby,” Mrs. Briggs said brightly, seeing the way [the couple was] looking. She did not say, because she always thought it was so peculiar, that Earwig had been left on the doorstep of St. Morwald’s early one morning with a note pinned to her shawl. The note said: Got the other twelve witches all chasing me. I’ll be back for her when I’ve shook them off. It may take years. Her name is Earwig. The Matron and the Assistant Matron scratched their heads over this. The Assistant Matron said, “If this mother’s one of thirteen, she must be a witch who has annoyed the rest of her coven.” “Nonsense!” said the Matron. “But,” said the Assistant Matron, “this means that the baby could be a witch as well.” Matron said “Nonsense!” again. “There are no such things as witches.” Mrs. Briggs had never told Earwig about the note, nor that her name really was Earwig.
I must say that I can’t blame Ghibli for imagining what that chase would have looked like and putting that scene in their film. There’s just one problem.
Earwig’s mother never appears in this story. Nor do the other witches.
Oh, Ghibli tries to tie the loose end up in their own way for the film, and from my understanding the ending feels…like a chapter break instead of an actual conclusion. So I’m not sure where Ghibli thought it could take this tale.
Honestly, I think the biggest problem people have with Earwig and the Witch is the fact the story is NOT about a girl reuniting with her mother or some other epic quest. Not all stories are grand in scale.
For some young readers, watching a child learn how to get adults to do what she wants is plenty grand already.
Because this is not a story about redemption, either; that is, the bratty Earwig does not mend her ways to become a nice, sweet girl who shares all sorts of lovey feelings for her new family. Nope. She’s still happy to have others do what she wants.
The character growth comes when Earwig wants to keep getting her way. At the orphanage, we understand that Earwig never had to do anything to get her way.
[Earwig] was perfectly happy at St. Morwald’s. She liked the clean smell of polish everywhere and the bright, sunny rooms. She liked the people there. This was because everyone, from Mrs. Briggs the Matron to the newest and smallest children, did exactly what Earwig wanted.
After the “strange couple” take Earwig to their home, she quickly learns their intentions:
“Now let’s get a few things straight. My name is Bella Yaga and I am a witch. I’ve brought you here because I need another pair of hands. If you work hard and do what you’re told like a good girl, I shan’t do anything to hurt you.”
Earwig has never had to work like this before, and of course she hates it. In dealing with a witch, though, she can’t do her typical schpiel of talking people into doing what she wants. There’s magic in the mix now, and so she’s going to have to learn magic to fight magic.
THAT is what this story is about. The title isn’t Earwig and the Lost Coven or The Intentional Orphan or Escape from Bella Yaga or Whatever Happened to Mummy Witch?
Jones wrote this story with the conflict between child and adult at the center. Plenty of kids struggle with authority as it is, even moreso when the authority is not a parent. What kid wouldn’t want their most hated teacher to look ridiculous, if only for a moment?
Jones’ Earwig and the Witch revolves around the conflict between Earwig and Bella Yaga. Anyone else, anything else, is periphery. That’s why the outside world plays little part in Earwig’s life once she’s in Yaga’s home. Even the Mandrake, the “man”–or demon, or whatever he is–of the “strange couple” does not interact with Earwig much. He is the only thing in that house more powerful than Bella Yaga, Earwig thinks…until she finally puts herself to work to learn magic with the help of Thomas, Bella Yaga’s cat.
It’s not easy to get a kid to want to work at something. Believe me, I know. 🙂 Perhaps a typical audience may not see this as growth in Earwig as a character, but for a child and one who’s worked with children, this is HUGE. Earwig has never had to work at anything before. Sure, Bella Yaga’s got her doing plenty of awful chores, be it slicing snake skins or gathering nettles from the garden, but those awful chores only motivate Earwig to learn magic quickly so she can put a spell on Bella Yaga and give her that “extra pair of hands” she wanted so badly. (You can see the earlier illustration for the result of Earwig’s work.)
When Bella Yaga rages over the new “extra hands” and sends a torrent of magic worms at Earwig, Earwig guides the worms into what she thinks is the bathroom next to her. Being a magic house, though, the walls don’t always work like normal walls, so Earwig ends up sending all the worms into the Mandrake’s room instead. Being one who can control demons and spirits and such, the Mandrake isn’t exactly one to surprise with magic worms. After lots of fire and shrieking, the Mandrake calls Earwig to come from her hiding place. Earwig readily admits that hiding the worms was a mistake, but the Mandrake knows Earwig did not make the worms and declared Bella Yaga would be training Earwig properly from now on. Earwig does not hoot or holler her victory, but instead approaches Bella Yaga with care.
She carried Thomas across the hall into the workroom. Bella Yaga, looking red and harried, was picking up broken glass and bits of mixing bowls. She turned her blue eye nastily in Earwig’s direction. Earwig said quickly, before Bella Yaga could speak, “Please, I’ve come for my first magic lesson.” Bella Yaga sighed angrily. “All right,” she said. “You win–for now. But I wish I knew how you did it!”
When the conflict ends, so does the story, and Jones knows it. Apart from a couple pages of wrap-up, Earwig and the Witch is over. Are we all curious about what kind of witch Earwig could grow up to be? Sure. I’m guessing Studio Ghibli was too, and that’s why they teased more to come at the end of their film.
But questions are not loose ends. Sure, I’d love to learn more about the history of the village in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” What really went down between two friends to motivate one to bury the other alive in “The Cask of Amontillado”? Whatever happened to The Misfit after he killed the family in “A Good Man is Hard to Find”?
A story has to end, and that end comes when the conflict ends. Even the big ol’ multi-book series will start and end their installments over the rise and fall of a specific conflict.
So storytellers, please do not feel like you have to answer all the questions and explore all the lands and dive into all the characters. Look at the conflict that drives your story forward, and ask yourself: Does ____ matter relate at all to this conflict? If you can’t find a good answer, then chances are, you know the answer is no. And this goes for novel writing as well as short fiction. Sure, novels do not demand thrift in words like short stories do, but if readers feel like you’re taking them on a detour from the main conflict, they’re going to start asking questions, and lots of them.
And those are questions you as a writer will have to answer.
Honestly, the research and discussion on naming characters is coming, as is a post about the wondrous music of Two Steps from Hell. More author and publisher interviews are on their way as well, and I’m also *this close* to getting Blondie to share her dragon story here.
Welcome to February, my friends! Sunlight is rare in Wisconsin these frigid days. The snow has frozen, and mothers–well, this mother, anyway–cruelly refuse to let children hurl ice at one another for fun. This has led to lots of running about the house, blasting imaginary baddies while flying off on dragons, Transformers, and Federation star ships. So long as their epic battles do not end with more stitches, we’ll be fine.
And then I discovered John le Carré through a whimsical selection of the library: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring the late great Sir Alec Guinness. Bo, ever the student of all things related to cinema, told me Le Carré wrote the George Smiley novels as a literary retort to Fleming’s Bond.
The two authors did actively serve their country in the Intelligence realm, so considering how each approached the world of spies, I’ll leave the idea of a rivalry up to you. Personally, when a character describes protagonist Smiley with “Looks like a frog, dresses like a bookie, and has a brain I’d give my eyes for,” I can see how one could perceive Smiley to be the antithesis to the debonair 007.
In celebration of the incomparable John Le Carré, let us visit the postwar England of his protagonist, George Smiley. Let us see how one author transforms the landscape for a story dark and full of danger…oh, but this is not a tale of international espionage. Oh no. This is but a humble tale of a village murder.
Yet even a village murder can be filled with secrets and lies. Even a village murder can be a story of quality.
Chapter 1: Black Candles
The greatness of Carne School has been ascribed by common consent to Edward VI, whose educational zeal is ascribed by history to the Duke of Somerset. But Carne prefers the respectability of the monarch to the questionable politics of his adviser, drawing strength from the conviction that Great Schools, like Tudor Kings, were ordained in Heaven.
“Ordained in Heaven.” Already, Le Carré establishes Carne School’s feelings of superiority over the rest of the masses. Not only is this school connected to the throne and the aristocracy, but to God himself. Surely no common man would think himself better than such a place.
And indeed its greatness is little short of miraculous. Founded by obscure monks, endowed by a sickly boy king, and dragged from oblivion by a Victorian bully, Carne had straightened its collar, scrubbed its rustic hands and face and presented itself shining to the courts of the twentieth century. And in the twinkling of an eye, the Dorset bumpkin was London’s darling: Dick Whittington had arrived. Carne had parchments in Latin, seals in wax and Lammas Land behind the Abbey. Carne had property, cloisters and woodworm, a whipping block and a line in the Doomsday Book–then what more did it need to instruct the sons of the rich?
“Rustic hands.” “Bumpkin.” A school of the country, nestled in the dirty rural life, yearns to be a part of the “courts” and be “London’s darling.” Classism flows through the novel with a powerful current, the kind that grabs you by the foot and pulls you under if you’re not careful. We must tread on, carefully, for the students are arriving.
And they came; each Half they came (for terms are not elegant things), so that throughout a whole afternoon the trains would unload sad groups of black-coated boys on to the station platform. They came in great cars that shone with mournful purity.
They came to bury poor King Edward, trundling handcarts over the cobbled streets or carrying tuck boxes like little coffins. Some wore gowns, and when they walked they looked like crows, or black angels come for the burying. Some followed singly like undertakers’ mutes, and you could hear the clip of their boots as they went. They were always in mourning at Carne: the small boys because they must stay and the big boys because they must leave, the masters because mourning was respectable and the wives because respectability was underpaid…
Oh, this imagery! All the vibrant energies equated with youth have been cloaked with black and contained with piety.
But more on that in a moment, I just want to pause here on the importance of connecting what is “normal” in one setting is not always normal elsewhere. Sending children away to boarding school is not a common thing in the United States; I did so in high school (that is, for ages 14-18), and even for my religious boarding school, life was nothing like Carne. At first read, I couldn’t help but think of Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and his episode all about poor Tomkinson’s transformation from a lowly first year to…well. You can watch the episode. It’s brilliant. 🙂
For those who did not send or attend a boarding school for children, this idea of youth forced to attend a starkly religious place for education completely justifies this procession of “black angels” and “little coffins.” But Le Carré also says the boys look like “crows,” and this hints at something a bit more malicious, a bit more sinister. After all, crows are the mediators between life and death, and feasters upon the rotting flesh of others.
We’re not two pages in, yet we are already keenly aware Death is afoot in this place.
…and now, as the Lent Half (as the Easter term was called) drew to its end, the cloud of gloom was as firmly settled as ever over the grey towers of Carne.
Gloom and the cold. The cold was crisp and sharp as flint. It cut the faces of the boys as they moved slowly from the deserted playing fields after the school match. It pierced their black topcoats and turned their stiff, pointed collars into icy rings round their necks.
“Gloom and the cold.” I love that this is a sentence fragment after such lines about gloom over “grey towers”–for an institution that considers itself divine, Carne certainly has no physical sense of light or hope. But gloom can be a different thing on warmer days, when sunlight is not so rare. In the wintry days of Lent (Carne can’t even refer to this time as the Easter Term, Easter being a holiday of light, resurrection, glory, HOPE!), when the Divine is at its lowest point in preparation for crucifixion, the cold has a physical power to “cut” the innocents of this school.
Carne isn’t the only gloomy place
in England on this day. London, too, struggles beneath foreboding.
Abruptly [Brimley] stood up, the letter still in her hand, and walked to the uncurtained window…She looked down into the street, a slight, sensible figure leaning forward a little and framed by the incandescent fog outside; fog made yellow from the stolen light of London’s streets. She could just distinguish the street lamps far below, pale and sullen. She suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and on an impulse quite alien to her usual calm, she opened the window wide. The quick cold and the angry surge of noise burst in on her, and the insidious fog followed. The sound of traffic was constant, so that for a moment she thought it was the turning of some great machine. Then above its steady growl she heard the newsboys. Their cries were like the cries of gulls against a gathering storm. She could see them now, sentinels among the hastening shadows.
This theme of proper mourning flows downwards from the school to the nearby village. For instance, Le Carré has readers picture the village’s hotel as “sitting like a prim Victorian lady, its slate roof in the mauve of half mourning” (24). When a policeman meets with George Smiley about the murdered wife of a teacher, he wastes no time in establishing the set-apartness of Carne School:
“Funny place, Carne. There’s a big gap between the Town and Gown, as we say; neither side knows or likes the other. It’s fear that does it, fear and ignorance. It makes it hard in a case like this….They’ve got their own community, see, and no one outside it can get in. No gossip in the pubs, no contacts, nothing…just cups of tea and bits of seed cake….”
“Town and Gown.” What a phrase. Now this definitely recalls something of my own boarding school experience. We were all of us outsiders to this small Midwestern community. We weren’t of their earth, we teens of unknown backgrounds. And with all the rules dictating where we could go and when, we rarely connected with any peers of town. Where no one knows the other, ignorance will take root, and in Carne, those roots run as deep as the currents of classism. All are beneath the sanctity of the School, worthy only of “bits” of seed cake and tea. Not even seed cake–bits of seed cake. It hearkens to the Biblical image of dogs begging for scraps from the Master’s table, and that such scraps of Gospel Truth are the key to salvation.
Yet clearly Carne School does not feel the rest of the town is worth such truth, as one teacher proves in a conversation with Smiley:
“The press, you know, are a constant worry here. In the past it could never have happened. Formerly our great families and institutions were not subjected to this intrusion. No, indeed not. But today all that is changed. Many of us are compelled to subscribe to the cheaper newspapers for this very reason.”
It is quite a surprise to Carne School’s faculty, then, when the new teacher’s wife refuses to follow the rules and restrictions that keep Town and Gown apart. After this same wife is found brutally murdered in her home late one snowy night, both Town and Gown are suspect because, as another teacher’s wife put it, “‘Stella didn’t want to be a lady of quality. She was quite happy to be herself. That’s what really worried Shane. Shane likes people to compete so that she can make fools of them.’ ‘So does Carne,’ said Simon, quietly.”
Let us close this analysis with Smiley’s glimpse of the murder scene.
[Smiley] glanced towards the garden. The coppice which bordered the lane encroached almost as far as the corner of the house, and extended to the far end of the lawn, screening the house from the playing fields. The murderer had reached the house by a path which led across the lawn and through the trees to the lane at the furthest end of the garden. Looking carefully at the snow on the lawn, he was able to discern the course of the path. The white glazed door to the left of the house must lead to the conservatory…And suddenly he knew he was afraid–afraid of the house, afraid of the sprawling dark garden. The knowledge came to him like an awareness of pain. The ivy walls seemed to reach forward and hold him, like an old woman cosseting an unwilling child. The house was large, yet dingy, holding to itself unearthly shapes, black and oily in the sudden contrasts of moonlight. Fascinated despite his fear, he moved towards it. The shadows broke and reformed, darting swiftly and becoming still, hiding in the abundant ivy, or merging with the black windows.
We return to darkness, slick and liquid, seeping into all the cracks seen and unseen. We return to the imagery of a woman from a bygone era and the doomed youth. In this place ordained by heaven to protect and enlighten, the pure innocence has been stained black and red. Beware the Town. Beware the Gown. Beware the Devil flying with silver wings.
Such are the details that catch the reader’s breath in their throat. Hold it there, writers. Take a lesson from the Master of Subtlety and Method, whose Slow Burns creep so delicately the reader never notices the licking flames until it’s too late. Use the details of the setting to bind actor, atmosphere, and action together, leaving no chance for escape until the final page is read and the reader can breathe at last.
Along with more lovely indie author interviews, I’m keen to share my process in worldbuilding for my own fantasy fiction. We’ll have a go at a little mapping, a little digging, a little thrill-seeking. 😉
Good morning, friends! The autumn leaves have all but fallen here, and the glorious color I was blessed to share with you in my newsletter a few days ago is slowly parting. To celebrate the coming release of my new novel Fallen Princeborn: Chosen, I’m back to share a bit more background on my Fallen Princeborn series.
The inspiration for a number of my Fallen Princeborn characters comes from the PBS shows I enjoyed in my childhood. Arlen, Liam’s teacher, is rooted in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael character, whose series I loved both watching and reading. Here was a man who held to his own principals no matter the dictates of the world around him. He found a divine peace in nature, and was not afraid to help others in need.
Liam’s parents, though, are something else entirely, inspired by something I saw because of Sir Derek Jacobi: the epic historical miniseries I, Claudius. If you have not seen this series, I HIGHLY recommend it.
As you can see from the interview, the chemistry between Brian Blessed and Siân Phillips was–and is–still magical. Together they make not just a couple, but the couple–Ceasar and his wife. There is no denying Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, but the wife? Ah, not even Ceasar knows what she truly wants. The power-plays they commit together and against each other are part of what made this series and book such a fascinating study in family drama, and their relationship showed me as a storyteller that an action-packed scene need be nothing more than a conversation between two dangerously driven characters.
In Fallen Princeborn: Stolen, there is a flashback into Liam’s childhood where Charlotte briefly sees Liam’s parents. In Chosen, she meets them in person.
It goes about as well as you would think.
The present-day Lord Bearnard Artair bears some resemblance to the figure Charlotte witnessed in Liam’s memory. He is shorter than Arlen and Liam, his body still rough and stocky, only now beneath a tailored pinstripe suit. His flaxen hair has greyed. But his face shows more wear than anything else: the crescent bags beneath his eyes, the slight jowls beneath his cheekbones. A jagged scar runs down his right cheek. A muscle above the scar twitches a little. …. Rose House seems to shift beneath Charlotte’s feet. A stench of dread wafts from Liam, still stiff and silent behind her. “You never said your name.” She adds a spit bubble for a pop of a period, just like her sister would do with bubble gum.
The chuckle dies on Lord Artair’s lips and in his eyes. Yet the corners of his lips remain turned up with a sick sort of glee. Jeez, Santa Claus to psycho in two seconds flat.
“I, human, am Liam’s father, Lord Bearnard Artair. And you will do well to show some respect, lest I find you a fitter meal than what is being served later this day.” His frog-like eyes stare, unblinking, at Charlotte’s face and through it. She can feel him trying to page through her mind, thumbs all licked up and gross.
While Charlotte has no qualms about battling a pair of immortal meglomaniacs, Liam is another matter.
His mother stands with her back to them all, facing Liam’s tree.
It’s maintained its beauty and terror—a lightning storm above the sea, that’s what he imagined as he brought silver ore to shape and sheen. The branches leading to the troughs in the glass house are intact, though many of the glass frames are broken. The silver roots embedded in the floor boards from the tree into the intended rooms for humans remain, even if the floorboards around them were torn up or smashed. Any room with a human had been destroyed—Liam’s sure he can see through the broken walls all the way down to either end of Rose House.
“I must say, I could not bring myself to destroy this peculiar sculpture.” Her voice is as measured and cool as it ever was. “I was pleased to see you had gotten rid of several portraits—though one modern girl appeared in several mediums. Recently, by the feel of the clay.” Lady Treasa Artair turns.
Liam loses his breath.
Where his father’s body betrayed his age, his mother shows hardly a century’s passing. A few gray hairs color her temples, noticeable only because her hair is raven dark and pulled back into a bun at the back of her head. Gold jewelry older than several revolutions adorns her manicured fingers, a gold chain belt and necklace against her billowing black silk shirt and pants. Heeled boots peek out from the cuffs. …. “And here you are.” Her painted red lips smile. “My little eaglet’s returned to me at last.” Her heels click clack across the room. She holds out her hands. “Come, Liam, embrace your mother.” His hands tug up, knees tug forward. But he bows his head and hides behind a curtain of curls. A tall woman, Lady Artair can hold her son and rest her sharp chin upon his shoulder. Her perfume assaults his nostrils. “So shy? So mute? But you are injured.”
Every time I watch I, Claudius, I am transfixed by Livia. She speaks much, but listens more. She grants many favors, but ties a thread to every one, and you never know when she’ll pull upon that thread, summoning you back to do a certain thing, a little thing, a thing which affects you so little…and the royal family so much.
Livia’s presence felt supernaturally powerful to me, and for a long time I could not work out why. Only when I was sharing bits of my own childhood with the kids was the mystery revealed.
And that reveal came with the Ewoks.
Yes, I’m serious.
Did you see her in all the black hair and feathers? How the heck did I forget this woman???
But that’s the thing–I didn’t. This Livia-Witch buried herself deep into my psyche, just as Jacobi’s voice encapsulated the impossible because of The Secret of NIMH. That which captured our imaginations as children never truly leaves us. Our imaginations may escape to engage with other wonders, but they will always turn around to look back, back into curiosities of those young years. And perhaps, if one is very lucky, there will be that portal in this everyday present that transports your imagination into the past. I found my portals with Jacobi and Phillips, for their performances gave shape and sound to one of the greatest, bestest things I have always adored in stories:
Do you have any favorite villainous and/or dramatic families in literature? I’d love to hear about them!
For a long time, I loathed writing the “intimate family story.” They were all the rage in school, these small-cast, down-to-earth stories of relationship conflict without any hope of a happy ending. Where’s the fun in writing such a story? You can’t have any massive showdowns or laser battles. It’s not like you can blow up an aircraft carrier when everything’s set on in the middle of Fort Bored, Wisconsin.
Now I know such stories have their place and their readers. Nothing wrong with that. But as a reader and writer, I struggled to see the true weight of small conflict…until now.
“What’s Aunt Dot look like, Mom?”
“Why does David go away to school?”
“Why is David’s family so mean?”
Blondie, Biff, and Bash sat around our meal/school table, their peanut butter sandwiches untouched, string cheese still wrapped. Apple sauce dripped from their spoons onto their Oreos.
“Is David that guy?” Bash points to the boy on the cover.
I shook my head. “Nope. That’s Luke.”
I had thought long and hard regarding which Diana Wynne Jones book to read to the kids. Howl’s Moving Castle was my first choice, but it seemed…oh, it seemed too easy a choice. They had seen the movie which, while very much its own creature, would still give the kids lots of visuals to think on as we read. I wanted to start from scratch and require the kids to visualize the story for themselves. This isn’t a typical challenge put to seven-year-olds, who are still very into picture books and the like, but Blondie was quite used to lunchtime read-alouds without any illustrations, so . We’d had success…and see if Myth-Reader Blondie would catch on as to who’s who in this story of freed mischief and horrid family members. Good thing I didn’t have this particular cover, which gives away the whole bloody mystery…
I mean, come ON. To post the climax of the story on the flippin’ cover…
Eight Days of Luke is a perfect example of just how epic an intimate family conflict can be. Jones accomplishes this in two parts: first David’s family, and then Luke’s.
Unlike most boys, David dreaded the holidays. His parents were dead and he lived with his Great Aunt Dot, Great Uncle Bernard, their son Cousin Ronald and Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid; and all these four people insisted that he should be grateful for the way they looked after him. (9)
One paragraph in, and readers know the family dynamic is not at all pleasant, let alone fair. Being an orphan is lousy in and of itself, but to live with relatives who expect nothing but gushing gratitude for nothing is its own level of Hel.
“David,” said Aunt Dot, “I thought I told you to change your clothes.” David tried to explain that he had now no clothes that fitted him any better. Aunt Dot swept his explanation aside and scolded him soundly, both for growing so inconsiderately fast and for arriving in advance of his trunk. It did no good for David to point out that people of his age did grow, nor to suggest that it was the railway’s fault about the trunk. (19)
Expectations set for David are always impossible to reach. He is not allowed amusements of his own, like a bicycle or a friend. The latest strain brought about by his family’s misunderstanding of when school let out leads to David boiling over and saying what no one’s dared say.
Before she or anyone else could speak, David plunged on, again trying so hard to be polite that his voice came out like an announcer’s. “It’s like this, you see. I hate being with you and you don’t want me, so the best thing is just to leave me here. You don’t have to spend lots of money on Mr. Scrum to get rid of me. I’ll be quite all right here.” (30)
The relations are utterly flabbergasted at David’s bluntness–no one denies David’s words, but they are so angered by it all that they send David away without lunch. David sulks in the backyard and, overcome by a desire to say awful, cursing words, unwittingly cracks open the very ground to reveal snakes and fire and…another boy named Luke. The two fight back the snakes, and then David is summoned to face the judges, his family.
“We will say no more about your rudeness at lunch, but what we would like to hear from you in return is a proper expression of thanks to us for all we have done for you.” Under such a speech as this, most people’s gratitude would wither rather. David’s did. “I said Thanks,” he protested. “But I’ll say it again if you like.” “What you say is beside the point, child,” Aunt Dot told him austerely. “All we want is that you should feel in your heart, honestly and sincerely, what it means to be grateful for once.” “Then what do you want me to do?” David asked rather desperately. “I sometimes think,” said Uncle Bernard vigorously, “that you were born without a scrap of gratitude or common good feeling, boy.” (47)
It doesn’t matter that David really is thankful not to be sent off to a remedial math tutor for two months. It doesn’t matter what his manners are, or what he does to stay clean (which, for a boy, is nigh impossible anyway). David’s very presence in the family breeds contempt, not love, and in that contempt there will always be conflict.
It takes some time with the mysterious Luke to bring about some much-needed change to David’s family’s dynamic. Cousin Ronald’s wife Astrid, for instance, ends her days of simpering and snapping and starts standing up for David’s needs.
“Honestly, David, sometimes when they all start I don’t know whether to scream or just walk out into the sunset.” It had never occurred to David before that Astrid found his relations as unbearable as he did. … [said Astrid.] “Bottom of the pecking-order, that’s you. I’m the next one up. We ought to get together and stop it really, but I bet you think I’m as bad as the rest. You see, I get so mad I have to get at someone.” (127)
David’s family also doesn’t know how to handle the new attention from individuals keen to find Luke: the gigantic gardener Mr. Chew, the inquisitive ravens, the impeccably dressed Mr. Wedding, and more. David can’t fathom what these people would want with Luke, and Luke doesn’t know either, at least at first. It takes a run-in with a ginger-haired man who looks a lot like Luke to move the mystery forward into another scene of accusation before familial judges.
“One of my relations,” said Luke. “He’s lost something and he thought I knew where it was.” To David, he added, “And I see why Wedding’s so set on finding me now. It’s rather a mess.” (131)
Most of the other people were shouting accusations at Luke at the same time. David did not notice much about them except that they were tall and angry and that one man had only one ear. Nor did he notice particularly where they were, though he had a feeling that they were no longer in Uncle Bernard’s dining room but somewhere high up and out of doors. (144)
Now unless you were reading that blankety-blank version of a cover with Thor and the two boys on it, you may only now begin to see that Mr. Wedding, Mr. Chew, Luke, and the others are far more than arguing family members. David is witnessing a clash among gods and goddesses, a conflict spanning across all centuries and further, to hillsides of fire, to prisons of snakes, to storm-bringing hammers.
And yet for all that power, that end-of-days, time-bending power, they are still a family of bickering relations refusing to believe a boy’s words.
Sound familiar? It does to David.
The chief thing he noticed was how small and frightened Luke’s harassed figure looked among them. Never had David felt for anyone more. It was just like himself among his own relations. (144)
This parallel stays with us as we watch David offer to clear Luke’s name and set out to uncover the missing object Luke’s been accused of hiding. It takes a visit to Three Sisters living in a cupboard in a city boy’s basement and running a gauntlet of young warriors, but David soon discovers the secret ward hidden in the fires beyond time, and retrieves that which all thought Luke had stolen: Thor’s hammer.
Luke’s name cleared at last, his immortal family rejoices while David learns the fate of his own family.
When the thunder had abated a little, Astrid said, “You’ll never guess what’s happened, David. Dot and Bernard and Ronald have run for it.” “Run for what?” said David. “Run away, silly,” said Astrid. “The police think they’re out of the country by now. That’s how much they were worried about you being missing. Or me either, for that matter.” (199)
Blondie was shocked David’s family took off. “But he’s a kid!” she said. “They can’t leave him!”
I showed her the page of text. “Welp, they did.” Astrid explains that David was the real owner of the money that his relatives had been spending all these years, and once word (from Mr. Wedding of all people) got to a neighborhood solicitor about David’s situation, the authorities put a warrant out for David’s relatives.
Blondie nodded in approval with this. “Astrid’s way nicer now, so that’s okay.” David feels the same way, too, and says as much. Because his presence in the family was such a source of conflict, the absence of family here takes all the conflict with it. For David, life can only get better.
Could the same be said for Luke? David learns the answer when he asks about those who had taken Thor’s hammer.
David was still puzzled. “Did he–Sigurd–like the lady more, then? He didn’t seem to–just now, at Wallsey, I mean.”
“No. He was mistaken,” said Mr. Wedding.
“Was that mistake your doing, by any chance?” Luke asked shrewdly. “Brunhilda seemed to think it was when she came to see me in prison.” Mr. Wedding thoughtfully stroked the raven and said nothing. “I thought as much,” said Luke. “Their children might have threatened your power, eh? But she found another way of cutting your powers down when she took the hammer into those flames with her. Am I right?”
Mr. Wedding sighed. “More or less. These things have to be, Luke. We’ve been in a poor way, these last thousand years, without the hammer. Other beliefs have conquered us very easily. But now, thanks to David, we’ll have our full strength for the final battle.” He turned and looked at Luke, smiling slightly. Luke looked back and did not smile at all.
It came home to David that Luke and Mr. Wedding were going to be on opposite sides, when that final battle came. (201-2)
Unlike David’s relations, Luke’s family has no intention of running. Oh no–that conflict is far from over. He may not have to go back to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but there is no promise of better things in his future. For Luke, there would always be conflict with his family. But these family squabbles would do more than hurt feelings or send a radio into the compost. Family squabbles on Luke’s level could drown islands, crack open time, and burn countless cities to dust. Any small, intimate conflict within a family of gods is destined to impact the world entire.
Be they mortal or immortal, some families are born to fight.
I have a few kickin’ interviews lined up, and I’m excited to share more lessons in plotting. I also want to share some of my own writing ups and downs. It’ll be a wee bit, though, as I want to spend time in June exploring YOUR work and all that you’ve been up this spring. Hooray! I’m so excited to hang out with you!
“But I don’t KNOW what to do, I don’t KNOW!” Bash sits between me and the occupational therapist, head in his hands. Tears run down his nose and splatter on “Glass Man,” the Unthinkable that blows a small problem way out of proportion. The space after I can defeat Glass Man by____ is blank.
“All I know is ask the teacher for help!”
The therapist and I trade looks. Bash was all fun and smiles for the initial physical activities, but now that we’re talking about tackling disruptive behaviors, he’s shrinking in his chair. The kid so fearless on the trapeze and crash pad is curled up and shaking, his glasses on the table streaked with dried tears.
Inside I ache, on the verge of crumbling just as he. His hands are too small to be holding his head like that. He shouldn’t feel the Fear like this so soon in life. This is the kind of Fear that crushes imagination, courage, hope.
I should know, carrying the burden as I do now. But not then. Back then I feared climbing a tree, sure, but not reading with my classmates. I may have feared taking my bike down that vertical drop of a gravel road to the park, but I never worried so much about my math that I threw away my test and hid in the school basement, only to find out later I had gotten every answer right.
I cannot solve this for him, I tell myself time and again as I stroke Bash’s back, doing my damndest to keep my outsides calm as the therapist tries to look into Bash’s face.
“But you did such a great job on Energy Hare-y!” she says, her voice just bubbly enough to be excited without patronizing. Her freckled face and ponytail give her the look of a high school baby-sitter, though her diplomas on the wall reflect a solid ten years of medical education. “You said you should take a break, and that’s just the thing to help a body get the wiggles out and find new focus.”
“This sounds an awful lot like Rock Brain,” I add, pointing to another Unthinkable. “He’s got you stuck real hard.”
Stuck is right. For every tough behavior—inability to sit still, outbursts over small problems, fleeing in fear of failure—Bash’s answer has been, “Ask the teacher for help.”
Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? Ask for help. I tell my students that every week. I’ve told Blondie, Bash, and Biff to do this when tackling something new and/or hard. Never be afraid to ask for help!
This is even truer when it comes to matters of mental health. Illnesses like depression and anxiety can isolate a person and make them feel incapable of connecting to another human being. I experienced this first-hand during my years of post-partum depression. Holding one baby boy while another slept, I’d stare out the bedroom window to see other people walking dogs, grilling food, swimming in pools. They were all neighbors, yet impossibly far away. The walls of the house seemed impenetrable. I felt like I was losing my sense of Self, of hope. I’d pray to get through the day, hour, minute without succumbing to the voices inside telling me how easy it was to just walk out of the house and not come back, to make the boys cry for a reason…
Though my sons’ birth cracked open the darkest pieces of me, they were also my inspiration to hammer those pieces to dust. Now Bash is facing his own darkness, one that tells him over and over that he is stupid, that he can’t do anything, that his teacher will be mad because he’s wrong, he’s wrong in everything, that he can’t do ___ because he’s never done it before so he’ll fail and everyone will laugh.
I want so badly to lift the Fear off his shoulders and carry them myself. I want to hold his hand and guide him to the right answers at the right time. I want to see him succeed…
But he will not succeed if I do everything for him.
Some battles must be fought alone. We can provide the tools, the support, the whatever-else-needed, but in the end, the fight is Bash’s and only Bash’s.
It’s not an easy truth for writers to face, either.
Fear looms over us with every submission and book review. For some of us, Fear grips us before we even put the story to the page. I don’t have the time to write well like real authors. I can’t afford to spend time on something that’ll fail. It will fail. No way anyone could like something I write.
It’s a Charlie Brown moment—we just can’t do anything right, not even what we love.
Better to run and hide our creative selves from the world than face the disapproval and derision sure to come.
The therapist gently tugs on Bash’s arm. “Let’s do another break, huh? How about riding the scooter down the ramp five times, and then we’ll try beating Glass Man?”
Bash slowly rolls off my lap. His body’s bent forward so low his hands practically touch the floor as he approaches the scooter. He flops belly first onto the scooter, his legs crooked up into the air. He grunts little grunts, his fingers tap little taps on the scooter, floor, ramp.
He pulls. Just a little. Pulls more. Just a little. Pulls the first two wheels onto the ramp. Just a little.
“Let me help you,” the therapist says, but Bash moves past her hands. Back toward her hands. Away from her hands again. The ramp’s only four feet, and Bash covers those first three feet a lot—up and down, side to side. Yet he does not give up. When he slaps the sticker at the top of the ramp with his palm, he gets there himself.
It’s just a few seconds down the ramp and across the room. But it’s enough to crush the sadness and fill Bash with wild and happy giggles. He runs back to the worksheet, “I can breathe!” he says, and shows us how he can fill his tummy with air and blow out his fingers like birthday candles.
The therapist claps. “That’s great! Say, that’s the perfect way to beat Glass Man.”
Bash grins and hops over to his sheet. He writes BELLY BIRTHDAY BREATHS so big it covers the picture of Glass Man completely.
It’s another Charlie Brown moment, when one’s determination finally eclipses the Fear.
We find the breath in us to move forward across a land of glass and rock and discover we are not such fragile stuff at all. We are capable of incredible feats of imagination and bravery, for there is no greater Fear than the Fear we carry within. Only when we shirk that Fear can we share stories from the deepest, truest places, the kinds of places readers yearn to find.
So take up that kite, writers. You may get tangled, the kite may get torn, but there is always tomorrow and the promise of another chance to fly, and fly far.
Welcome to July, friends around the world, and Happy 4th to my fellow Americans!
Yowza, July already! June whipped by thanks to summer school for the kiddos. Biff and Bash have been doing a class to help them get ready for 1st grade, which means time with the three R’s and some extra socialization. It also means me going through all their kindergarten work to pack up the most memorable bits, including their writing. After going through their pieces, I couldn’t help but ask Biff and Bash about their favorite work.
For a girl reticent about meeting new people and trying new things, it was a bit of a challenge getting Blondie to participate in summer school. With the bribe of a computer gaming class, I was able to sign her up for photography and geocaching. Lo and behold, she’s found those courses way cooler than playing ol’ computer games!
For some, summertime means going on adventures in far off places. But my experience with Blondie in the Horicon Marsh was a beautiful reminder that one doesn’t have to travel far to escape to other worlds.
So often we think we have to travel miles and miles to escape the humdrum.
We presume the truly fantastic is beyond the horizon, just out of reach.
But if we take a moment to step outside, we might just discover adventure awaits us in the here and now, be it in the nearby marshlands…
…or with the imaginations frolicking in our own backyard.
What are your imaginations up to this summer? Any recommendations of fun daytime-adventures with kids? Let’s chat!
What follows is a continuation of my previous two installments of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn more about The Man of the Golden Hound Crest and his dangerous power over Wynne’s household.
What would you consider to be your worst defeat?
An easy choice. You may disagree with me later on, but I promise you, here lies the root of all present sorrows.
But I cannot speak of it in the open….surely not in my home. It is midday, is it not? Then the water mill is no option. Wild Buddug meets her sweetheart there for the next few hours, and one accidental intrusion is quite enough for me, thank you.
Caddock’s warehouse will be filled with loud talk and eyes far keener for lifeless goods to protect—or steal, depending on how you see it. Let us leave the market and follow this alley, here, the one where someone carried their slaughtered pig too close to the wall. The blood has gone dark, but is still there, you see it? A curious stripe against the daub. Normally animals do not walk this way, as it is too narrow for even three people to walk together, and the roofs nearly touch over head—it feels close, does it not? Like a chest left open by chance, and by equal chance will be slammed shut upon you. It is a dare to walk this way, and a relief when the walk is done. But this alley takes us from Market Street straight to Stock Street, where Lord Murchad built his warehouses. This is not a place to come friendless, I promise you, and while it is indeed highly questionable for a young woman to be roving about where thieves and murderers and the occasional honest man make their living, I have earned my immunity through Caddock’s friendship. No one here, of good or evil, crosses Caddock.
Through the front door, are you mad? That, that wretched man, his, his eyes follow us even now. No no, come around, where the cart horses graze. The parked carts make this pasture an ever-changing labyrinth, and there, see it? Galene flows nearby to keep us company. Let us use this covered cart with mud still wet upon its wheels. Yes, I know, it is the smallest of group, but it is also the least likely to be called upon in the near future.
Now, you spoke of defeats. Mine comes from no battle. The battle never had a chance to begin.
It took place not long after the Man of the Golden Hound Crest had found Morthwyl and me among the orpines. I did not dare walk north for the next few days, not even with the Galene strong and silent by my side. I feared beheadings, I feared death on the cusp of tasting life upon the lips of my Morthwyl.
Thank the gods for Market Day! I sat without complaint among my sisters in the garden, eyes fixed upon the road beyond the fence. My notes were soft and rarely in harmony, but I received no chastisement, as all my present kin were just as keen to watch the arrivals. Two large barges had arrived, and Father paraded proudly with their owners past our home and on toward the market. Furs and velvet, perfumes and fruits—bah! Mud clings to silk as well as homespun, I voiced with low, harsh notes upon my flute. When the last of Cairbail’s barge-oxen carried what appeared to be a dead stone monster with a horn upon his snout, I saw them: Morthwyl walking obediently behind his father and elder brother. Their smithy cart was compact and efficient, requiring but a few loads of firewood throughout the market hours to fuel the forge. That would be Morthwyl’s duty: he would move down Farmer’s Alley to the town’s edge where farmers often left cords of wood for convenience. They knew him, liked him for his father’s skill, would offer him a chance to sit, eat a bit of sops, and I would be there waiting…My flute sung as the skylark from me, eager to hear Morthwyl’s whistle in return.
But then bells jangled out of my sight, their harmonies discordant.
I caught back my breath and fixed my eyes upon Almedha as though awaiting some cue to play anew. Oh, Morthwyl, did he follow you all the way here? Has he spoken to you? Oh to hear your thoughts and know your safety! But I dared not look. I listened instead, and knew by the rhythms of their footfalls that they moved without haste. Nor did their cart house whinny in complaint. If she, an old thing, was at ease, then it was quite likely The Man of the Golden Hound Crest merely walked behind, please Galene he only walks behind…
The Man called his beast to hold before our gate.
The stallion loosed dark clouds from his nostrils. I thought of forge smoke, full of embers that burn the unthoughtful, how the sunlight upon the golden hound would surely burn the eyes of my sisters and turn them blind to all but wealth.
Cordelia audibly gasped and broke her flower wreath. Morwenna dropped her lyre and whimpered as she threw herself to the ground and fumbled herself into a new, ladylike position on the grass.
The Man dismounted, not once minding mud upon his black polished leather or his scarlet cloak. Sunlight fell upon his ringed hands as he gathered up the reins…
And my sisters’ Contest of Sly Accidents began.
First Isolda. She filled the air with a scream and cried, “My finger, surely the needle has pierced my bone!”
Next came Morwenna, who stumbled up from the grass and fell again. “Oh sisters, my ankle, surely it is broken!”
The Man led his beast to our fence and tied the reins to a post.
“Sisters, my week’s work will surely be ruined by the blood. Please, help me!”
“But my ankle!”
Cordelia clung to her broken flowers as her eyes searched for the pruning knife to slice a bit of flesh . Scoff all you want, but I would put it past no sister to cut off a hand for the sake of a wealthy suitor’s attention.
“I am sure to faint upon this sight of such bloodshed. Will someone not catch me lest I fall?”
“If only some kind-hearted soul could carry me to my room!”
“What in Hifrea is all this?” Mother burst forth through the door. I found myself watching the cake crumbs leap from one neckfold to another and down to her chest. “You know how noise up…sets….me.” Mother lost all control of her jaw, letting it hang complete open as The Man stood at our gate’s door, one fist upon his hip while the other swept the air before him.
“Madame, is this the most excellent house of Master Adwr, Trader Extraordinaire?”
How his golden chest did glitter, and his hair did shine! Almedha moved towards the gate as if in a dream. Isolda’s finger bled freely upon her skirt, and Morwenna’s ankle miraculously healed as she stood to move but a step closer to him.
“Y-yes, why, yes, yes it is, Good, Gentle, Sweet Sire,” Mother hopped down and to the side in such a bow no body her age could possibly fulfill without the utmost willpower.
I see your face. What was I doing in that moment?
The same as this moment: sitting.
Hush, someone’s coming…
Who’s out there, Caddock?
Thank the gods, His eyes haven’t come round yet…no, not Caddock, or his men. I tell you, I do not fear the men who work here. No, it is…there is always one of his…no. I cannot call them men. I’ll call them followers. There’s always one of them skulking about Cairbail. They never fraternize in the market, or drink by the docks with the other free men. They only move, listen, observe, and vanish. Life dims in their presence and closes in upon itself as a flower in night’s chill.
Did I close up when The Man of the Golden Hound Crest came through our gate? No. I changed nothing with his arrival. I did not stand, or even cease to play. What did I matter? I was not of marital age, and clearly, all my sisters were more than willing to meet whatever he envisioned as an ideal wife.
How foolish I was.
“Madame, I must confess to you that I committed a great sin against your husband.” His face contorted into such pain and sorrow that my mother looked ready to hold him to her bosom and weep upon his hair.
“Oh Sire, surely no such sin exists, but merely a misunderstanding to be easily expunged.” She curtsied, arms open for her own unique business. “I am Mistress Ffanci, wife to Master Adwr, and can speak with confidence on his behalf that the only sin in business is the unpaid service. And surely, Sire, you are one who would never commit such a sin.”
His face altered again, this time to ecstasy. I did not like how his face changed so quickly, like an actor with a table of masks at his side. “Ah, Madame, you flatter me. I am but a simple businessman, no different than your husband, and nowhere near as blessed as he with beauties to call my own.” His eyes shone with as much gold as the rest of him, and when they fell upon Almedha, I heard Morwenna moan in envy.
“A man of, business?” Mother blinked away her tears of elation. I could see her mouth turn about the word “business” as one tests a bit of fruit to see if it is spoiled. Would Mother’s talent for scrutiny save us? Surely she could see that no mere trader amasses such wealth, let alone parades it without reason. “Wynne, cease that infernal noise at once in the presence of such company.”
I did so with eyes down. “Yes, Mother,” I spoke hoarsely, and coughed. No one wants to admire a sick girl.
“Ah.” His boots approached the hem of my skirt. His gaze burned as summer’s sun upon my hair. “A lovely name for a lovely face.”
Isolda gasped. Cordelia whined, “But what about—”
“Sssss!” Mother’s dress blew closer, and I could see her hands shaking as they lay folded against her girdle. “You, you know my daughter? Then I must apologize for Wynne’s rudeness, as she said nothing of—”
“Dear Madame, lay no blame upon the child.” He bowed low enough to grace Mother’s hand. I liked not ring that sparkled on his ear. “My guards found her in the forest, and surely frightened the memory from her head. They are forever armed with the most terrible looks upon their faces.” He politely put his lips to her hand, then turned to me with a smile.
He said nothing of Morthwyl.
His words were enough for Mother. She laughed with total ease, and said, “May I present the older daughters of Master Adwr to you?” My sisters formed a curved line next to me and curtsied in due course with their names and smiles. But the look of him, the way he never spoke of the boy I was with, never uttered Morthwyl’s name, of which I had no doubt he knew…I felt as though he already had a trap set for him, for us, and with one false step we would all be ensnared.
“Surely, Sire, we can speak more of business, sins, and beauty this evening with Master Adwr. Would you care to dine with us?”
He joyfully accepted, and departed with just as much ceremony and wistful gazes as his arrival.
Almedha promptly clocked my ear. “You might have said!”
“I didn’t!” I spat back. “I’m not old enough, and please, please think: is it not strange he never shared his name?”
“You wanted him all for yourself!” Isolda hissed.
“Because you,” Cordelia said with a swift kick to my leg, “were supposed to tell us.”
“He never spoke it!”
None of them believed me.
Please tell me you ran off for, like, the next several days. This guy just screams “bad news.”
No, he never screamed “bad news.” If he had, even Mother might have noticed and reconsidered a more intimate acquaintance. I doubt my sisters would have minded, though…
No no, I meant…oh, forget it. I’m assuming he didn’t forget the dinner date.
If only he had!
Never has my house been in such an uproar. No other suitor existed accept Sire. That is how my sisters referred to him in their rush from room to room, harassing Heledd and Ysball as they purred, whined, hissed.
“That’s my girdle, Morwenna!”
“But who will braid my hair? Mother, my hair will be dreadful for Sire and he’ll never look upon me again and I’ll simply die!”
“Isolda, please, pleeease take it in another inch, I can hold my breath!”
“Where is my brooch? This old thing must be yours, Wynne.”
“Now girls, as an army prepares together to conquer a new land, so must we all work together,” Mother called from the living room, finger ever ready to pinpoint a command. “Isolda, surely you have some ribbon we can work round Almedha to tighten the dress without alteration. Cordelia, go to Heledd, your hair must, be, perfect. Morwenna, give Cordelia back her girdle and polish both lyres. Cordelia, make a crown for Morwenna’s hair, then yours. Wynne…” Mother’s finger froze right between my eyes. I watched her nose pinch, her lips twist.
“Help in the kitchen?”
Mother snorted. “You would like that, wouldn’t you? To live in the dirt and dust as a servant. Off to your room! Morwenna, give her your second-best dress.”
I heard her still as I changed: “Master Adwr, at last! You simply must hurry, we are all on the cusp of disaster!”
“Oh my, don’t tell me Morwenna’s lyre strings have broken at last? That would certainly be a disaster.”
“Don’t you dare joke, Master Adwr! A trader bearing the crest of a golden hound, yes a golden hound, such detail, such perfection in the stitches, a businessman of such wealth that any king would envy him has come to this very house, and complimented your daughters, and will return to dine in our house tonight! And all this would be for naught had he not sinned against you in some fashion. How could you not tell me such a merchant was in your acquaintance?”
“Madame Ffanci, I am most certain I know not of such a man.”
“Then what can he possibly mean that he has sinned against you, a fellow businessman?”
“My dear lady, I have not the faintest idea upon the matter. Perhaps it is he who altered the prices with The Yoruach as his wealth seems capable of dictating the ebb and flow of currency across several countries.”
“Oh but it is, Master Adwr. And that he should know Wynne, of all our daughters, and she says nothing of him! I swear, my husband, that the child surely is a changeling. She could not possibly be of my womb.”
Morwenna harrumphed in agreement as she polished her lyre with smooth, precise strokes. “None of us would have kept such a secret.”
“You’re…” I squeezed myself into the pale blue, pretending it the river Galene, but failing. The Galene would never choke the life from me like this tortuous device. “…welcome to him.” Delicate stitches depicting baby’s breath wrapped around the collar and cuffs. I could only hope they would be white still at dinner’s end.
Morwenna narrowed her eyes skeptically to me as she tossed her oldest girdle across the room. “I know what you’re doing, Mistress Hard-to-Get.”
“Morwenna, I’m twelve. He can’t marry me. I don’t want to marry him. Insult me all you wish at dinner. Mock me, make light of my inadequacies.” I felt the girdle press hard against my hips. Did my sisters ever eat? “I had no desire for his acquaintance before and still don’t.”
“Likely story.” Morwenna’s glare would not waiver, not even as I left the room.
Oh, how I yearned to sit at river’s shore and lay all these troubles among Galene’s stones! She’d whisk them away on her current to join with the toxins that wretched tannery dumped. But no, all I could do was sit in the garden, mindlessly fingering a hollow song upon my flute.
Chirps and squeals and bickering continued to fall from every window of the house. In time Father stepped out, his eyes squinted in concentration as he blinked once, twice, upon my countenance. “Wynne, your mother has told me quite a story. Is it true, what the other females in this house say about this phantom Sire?”
I lay my flute upon my lap. “It is.” I wanted to speak more, but feared what words would carry into the house.
Father sat beside me. “You think nothing of his wealth and manners?”
“I think them dramatic. As an actor for the theater.”
“Ah,” Father stroked his naked chin. “You think him a charlatan.”
“No. I…” How could I explain my fear without sharing the woods, sharing Morthwyl? More than anything, Morthwyl needed to be safe, and I could not trust my parents, who speak their thoughts with no consideration or restraint. “I do not doubt his wealth. But I do doubt his nature.”
“Were I only to know of your Mother’s words, I would be in complete agreement with you,” he said with a tired smile.
Oh, heart, still, be at peace! Do not quake the baby’s breath upon my chest. “You know more?”
Father nodded as he prepared his pipe. “A servant boy bearing a golden hound upon his chest approached me in the market today. He thanked me on behalf of his master for your mother’s gracious invitation and insisted to supply the meal since, as he said, his master’s home was not yet ready to entertain guests.”
“What a curious insistence,” I said, pondering how on earth the servant could know Father, let alone the sense of transporting a nobelman’s meal through the forest to our house. “And rude. If our means are too meager for his taste, he need not have accepted Mother’s offer.”
“I, too, have wondered this.” Father patted my hand and almost smiled, but a shriek from Almedha over a broken ribbon and a cry from Mother of “Master Adwr, make sense of this chaos if you please!” interrupted him. “I am quite certain, Wynne, that your sisters and mother are the silliest women in all of Idana.”
We shared a smile before he left. If that was what this Sire wanted, a silly woman who happily swooned at the sight of coin, then he was welcome to any sister. I would not swoon. I would not be silly. In fact, I would be so disastrously dull that all would think me doomed to live my years as an old maid.
I’d like to think this all went to plan, and that you succeeded, buuuuut then we wouldn’t be here talking.
Indeed, we would not.
Oh it began not unlike I imagined: refreshments in the garden while Mother called upon us to perform both individually and as a group. He bowed and applauded, provided every imaginable courtesy in his manner, and yet one thing remained absent: his name.
His servants also attended all in the garden and in the kitchen. Heledd and Ysball were more or less shooed out of the house to make room for his five servants, boys all Almedha’s height, all of wooden pallor and demeanor. They never smiled, they never joked. They merely blinked their green eyes and answered yes or no. Were they all of a family? Their features never changed from lad to lad, as though all came from the same womb at once. So very strange! My curiosity welled beyond control, and I felt compelled to create a test for them. After one song, I turned to the servant nearest me and asked him what he thought of our harmonies. He twitched his mouth, coughed, and said “Yes.”
“Yes, they are in need of improvement, or yes, they meet your ear pleasingly?”
“Wynne, do not tire the servants with your pointless talk,” Mother spoke through grated teeth. “I do apologize, Sire. Our youngest is not nearly so polished as the others, whom you can see are all well and healthy, with proper hips and quiet manners.”
“They are each as delicate and rich as a king’s rose,” he spoke with a swooped into a stand. “I see by my servant that dinner awaits us. Shall we?”
Such bows and curtsies and pleas for the other to go first—it is a miracle any of us entered the house before midnight!
His servants dizzied me with their slow, eternal loops around the table, the meat of freshly slaughtered pigs and chickens upon their platters, forks for all to use at their leisure. Olives, dates, strange fruits, cakes filled with honey, berries, mincemeat. I ate little, though my stomach grumbled for more.
“And that tapestry there?” Mother spoke and chewed all at once, firing bits of sinew in every direction. “Isolda’s at the age of ten. Ten, I tell you! Such a gift, we knew it the moment she touched a needle. But no one can fill a house with music as our sweet Almedha, and such a head for figures! Young Garnoc, who just took up his uncle’s shipping company, has been wooing Almedha for months, I think so his cloth-eared fool of a manager doesn’t burn through all his funds!”
“I’m quite proficient with numbers, as well,” Cordelia bowed her head, nearly knocking the cake platter from the lad’s hands. “I’ve studied with Father for many years, and I’m quite good with recording all the goods of a household.”
“But I’ve the best hips for bearing children,” Morwenna nearly stood up next to me, but Father coughed her back down. Gods know how far Morwenna would have gone then and there to prove this trait. “Mother says so, and our mother does know best.”
The Man leaned back in his chair, sipping little, eating less. “Every beauty here, absolutely ripe with talent. Madame, you are most blessed indeed! And yet, I have heard little said of your youngest.” He pointed his cup at me.
The silence was not only pregnant—I am certain it gave birth.
Mother chewed with a look I could only describe as consternation. “Well she’s not afraid of getting dirty—”
“There there, my dear, you’ve said quite enough about tapestries and hips to fill all our daughters’ minds for several lifetimes.” Father cleaned his fingers upon the table cloth and studied his wine. “Wynne is not like her sisters, nor is she of age.”
The Man watched Father’s face. “Do you mean to say your daughter is without talent?”
Father watched back. “Hardly. But since she fell into the Galene eleven years ago, she has had more sense than any other female of this house. If I’d known a few minutes of Galene’s waters in the lungs improved the mind, I would have thrown in the lot.” He passed about his cup as if to toast. He received gasps in return, including from me.
“Master Adwr, mind your tongue!” Mother laughed with daggers in her eyes. “My husband, he has such a humor.”
I dug through as much memory as I could, but I could not, with all my strength, find a moment of water filling my lungs. “You never told me I fell into the river.”
Father did not look at me or any of us. Something had dawned in his mind and caused him to smile. “But you were there. At last, I—” he set down his wine and looked upon The Man with new eyes. “I do know you, my humblest apologies. But it has been those eleven years, has it not, since I last saw you?”
By the Galene, never did I think I would see his perfect face crack! It lasted but a moment, but that moment portrayed fear, even some anger. The Man, whoever he was, knew vulnerability. Oh he covered all well with a smile and a laugh, but I have never forgotten that one moment where all looked ready to crumble. “And that is my sin, Master Adwr. To have lost contact with you since taking over my father’s business. I owed you a proper meeting when he died on a trip to the coast, but alas, my mourning threw all proprieties asunder.”
“Ah, that is all long, long ago. Surely you’re your father’s son. I cannot think of a clearer mirror than your face.”
He bowed in gratitude. Cordelia tackled the opportunity to speak. “But why was he present for Wynne’s drowning, Father?”
“She didn’t drown, Cordelia, lest we’ve been raising a ghost these eleven years. No, in that time you all often accompanied me along the Galene whenever I journeyed to the King’s Stronghold. Wynne was never one to enjoy the silks and spices, and often tired Heledd out as she explored the river, even talking to it. And one day, the day I was doing business with Master Prydwen, this Sire’s father,” he pauses to toast The Man, “we all heard Heledd scream for help. We run over, and what do we see? Little Wynne climbing up onto the opposite shore.” Father chuckled as my sisters oohed and tisked at my daring infantile impertinence—clearly, I was doomed from little on. Mother chewed through another cake with impatience. “Strangest thing. And you’d think that sort of experience would keep a child away from water. Just the opposite with little Wynne.”
“Perfect for a charwoman,” Isolda said with a glare before poking her tongue with an empty fork.
I was beginning to regret my request to Morwenna for a banquet of insults. I wanted only to sit by the Galene and think, and speak, and understand. “I see no need to pretend I’m better than I am.”
“No, you choose to pretend you’re worse, and I frankly find that just as distasteful.” Mother licked her fingers and patted his shoulder. “She’s far too much growing up to do, but no doubt she’d be a fine assistant to any one of her sisters in the house of Prydwen.”
The Man held his cup out, and a lad who carried meat a moment ago now held the pitcher of wine. “Your daughters inspire tears, Madame. Not only are they beautiful, but they are talented and humble as well. I must confess that I, too, yearn to have such a family about my table, to come home to music and beauty every evening as you do, Master Adwr.”
Father waved the wine lad aside. “You feel yourself ready for children, Son of Prydwen?”
The Man twitched, just as he had when I was fool enough to mention I had sisters. “Just, Prydwen.” His face fled into a smile. “I carry my father’s name. For the business, you understand.”
Father squinted a moment, then shrugged. “Of course. So, you think yourself ready for family?”
The easy manner returned. “Yes, I do. My manor is so very lonely with only servants and guards to talk to. But with the right companionship,” he raised his glass to Almedha, to Isolda, “life could be very,” to Cordelia, “very,” to Morwenna, “exciting.” To me.
I knew, in that moment, he had plans for us. And I wanted to be as far from those plans as possible.
I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, Prydwen–any thoughts at all, really. Reader input rocks!
What follows is a continuation of last month’s installment of free fiction–a dialogue between me and Wynne, a character from my Shield Maidens of Idana fantasy series.Today we learn of her town, her love for music, and a unique friendship that brings light in an otherwise dark life.
Good thing you didn’t vomit on that snob of a rich trader.
Really? I rather wish I had.
I am not strong, you know. Not like Morthwyl and his family, who haul as many plants, logs, and rocks as any oxen.
I am not creative, like the artisans who take bits of hide, metal, and clay and transform them into tools or art.
I am not intelligent, like the farmers who read the whims of soil and air with ease.
What I am, truly, is afraid. I see my family, and I dread that in but a few years time all love of Galene and Morthwyl will be slashed and burned to make room for wealth, comfort, status.
I am afraid of losing my Morthwyl.
I am afraid of losing my freedom.
What meager virtue in my possession can possibly protect us?
Hey, don’t focus on your fears. Focus on the better things. Here, is there something you enjoy doing? Apart from visiting Galene and Morthwyl, I mean.
This will sound foolish, I’m sure, but I rather enjoy music. Not the music of my sisters, which is always some tragic, romantic ballad. No, I mean the music of the land, and of Galene. Even the silence of the world moves in a harmony, when one sits. Here, let us rest beneath the cottonwood.
You may cease your curious glances to my back. No, it is no staff, but a flute. I am not supposed to travel about with it, but I like to show my gratitude to kind passers-by with a brief song.
I remember the moment: my fourth birthday. Almedha had just come of marrying age, and my sisters were already learning music, art, and domestic pleasures. Now it was my turn to become yet another cog amidst the turning wheels of Mother’s industry.
“Now, dear,” Mother licked her thumb and ticked the air. “You’ve one, two sisters on the lyre, so I’m sorry, Wynne, but it simply is not to be for you. And truly, if not for Morwenna’s obsession with Almedha, I’d not have her on the strings, either. Don’t gawp, Morwenna, that’s a commoner’s face, and we are not common.”
Cordelia arranged an armful of spring blossoms in a pitcher yet again. It seemed the Irises were giving her more trouble than one thought possible of flowers. “What of the garden, Mother? I would love a pair of hands willing to cut and prune for me.”
Even then, I noticed it: she wanted “a pair of hands,” not “another pair of hands.” Cordelia’s hands entered the home every evening without a single smudge of dirt. If only our gardener did not worship her so!
“Don’t be silly, Cordelia,” Mother’s eyes bulged a bit more than usual at any idea which began outside her own mind. She shook her hand at the maid for wine as though a fly circled her wimple. “Wynne hasn’t the sense for sharp objects, and she comes home soiled enough as it is.”
Cordelia’s head drooped like the beleaguered irises. “Yes of course, Mother.”
“Can you imagine the laundress? She’d have fits until Hifrea’s Coming if Wynne were in the mud every day!”
“How silly of me, Mother.”
“Now that’s the first word of sense from you all day.”
I took care to sit my straightest with hands primly folded, even as my feet dangled…and I thought what a peculiar sensation it is, to be without ground under one’s feet. Would one’s whole body feel this way were it to dangle? Oh dear, that would mean a noose, wouldn’t it? What a strange feeling for one’s body to know just before death…
“Wynne are you listening?“
“Yes, Mother.” It rarely felt safe to speak truth in my house.
“Oh, whatever shall I do?” Mother’s head often rolled about when she began another fretting spell, as I called them. All was lost, and we daughters were hopeless…until things fell in line with her plans, and then suddenly all turns promising again. It felt as though we were a ship on the ocean, and there was no telling when another storm would hit us. Surely nothing else could compare, what with the slaving crew, the bossing captain, the waves crashing about, and lots of lightning, and wind, and—
Yes, my young self decided. Even the smells of the tannery fit the stories of life a’sea that Caddock told after lessons along Galen’s shore. “I’m listening, Mother.”
“Listening! You! Hmph! Isolde, bring me that blanket you finished trimming, my frail constitution simply cannot withstand this offense. You missed a corner, dear. No, no matter.” Isolda moved always with her head down so that firelight would better capture the tears eternally jeweled at the corners of her eyes. “You are a young woman of style and grace, Wynne. It’s time you showed it.”
“I’m four years old today.” Our housekeeper Heledd and the maid Ysball had said happy birthday to me, so surely other grown-ups thought this worth noting.
Mother nodded. “Exactly. You’re not a child.”
Father looked up from his desk of records for the first time since dinner. “Perhaps the art of a needle is just the thing to keep her attention, my dear.”
“No, no, her fingers are too fat and her lap too thin. And what’s more she’ll never hem straight with such posture.”
Almedha paused in the cleaning of her lyre. “May I make a suggestion, Mother?” Her voice was the softest, and therefore the sweetest. She always sang in the garden during the larger market days and festivals, and if she could sing louder than a cricket, Mother was sure she’d win the first heart of the merchant who heard her.
Mother waved her handkerchief at Almedha, a signal to go on.
“I was thinking of the minstrels who came for Beltane Fair. They had a fiddle, a cwidder, a recorder, and a flute. Perhaps—”
“Aha! Just my thinking, Almedha. Oh Master Adwr, have we not a most excellent firstborn?”
“Indeed we do, Madame Ffanci.” Our parents shared a doting look upon Almedha, who positively glowed.
“If only her chest would come along properly. She hasn’t the look of one who can mother…” Mother had a knack for dowsing kind thoughts. “Ah, but there are wet nurses, I suppose.”
My sisters immediately took to studying their own fronts while my eyes watched my feet dangle and pondered the words “wet nurse”: what a silly idea! Why should someone soak themselves before healing the sick? Wouldn’t the water ruin poultices, or make a mess of the bandages? Not to mention the nurse would catch cold in any wind, and shivering makes dressing a wound nigh impossible—
“Mo-ther, Mo-ther, Wynne can’t bother to be bo-thered!” Morwenna chanted as she plucked two of her lyre strings.
“Morwenna, by the gods, stop that noise! Oh, oh, oh!” Mother’s eyes closed, and the expected streams of tears quickly took course down her pinched cheek bones. A pool soon formed in the folds of her wimple. “We’ll be penniless paupers all thanks to our common, ungrateful children, Master Adwr!”
Father rolled his eyes until they settled on me. “Nonsense. No girl in Idana can possibly match the beauty of our daughters, Madame Ffanci. Wynne is old enough to learn a skill to keep her out of the dirt.” The final word filled his mouth with distaste, as though the sight of my spattered dress and boots were enough to make him ill. “I believe Garnoc has acquired some fresh rosewood. I’ll commission a flute to be made for Wynne in honor of her birthday.”
The wailing “Oh!” tumbled back down Mother’s throat and bubbled up anew as an “Oh!” of ecstasy. “Oh Master Adwr, how intelligently thought! A flute will call attention to Cordelia’s voice, and will harmonize both Almedha and Morwenna’s lyres beautifully. Perfection, my husband, perfection!”
“But who is to teach Wynne?” Cordelia gently spread the iris petals about the table with one hand while holding the pitcher of broken flower stems in the other. “Mistress Carryl only knows the lyre.”
“I’m sure Heledd will know someone,” said Father.
“Hopefully not too low,” added Mother. “I won’t have any tinkers speaking with my children.”
So that is how this flute came to be in my possession.
Am I upset with the choice made for me? Hardly. There is no defeating my mother in battle, especially when I learn my teacher is to be Caddock, who traveled with minstrels before settling in our town, Cairbail. It was a sure scandal that I had to take lessons at a warehouse rather than in our house, but I promised never to sully my tongue or ears with common food or language.
A promise I spoke within the house. And you may recall what I said about words I speak in my house.
Here, let’s take a break from the questions. Take us through Cairbail.
Then let me bid you follow, if you please, through the northern farmlands. The reeds are soft with summer, and Galene sings when the sun shines upon her. Listen with me. Does not the water over stones make you think of seasoned lyre strings? I like to sit here, where the tannery does not hurt the water so. The goddess has been kind so far, but I have no doubt a day will come when she finds herself too sickened by Cairbail’s industry, and we will all wake to find our river gone. Never underestimate a goddess—or any girl, I think—of strong mind.
Here the sun dances like my feet. When the sun warms skin, when the bees feast among the blossoms, when the fish leap from water for dragonflies, I forget the grime and odors of town, and turn to kinder, gentler things. When I think on the beautiful, my heart aches to follow the Galene further north where another heart touches mine as the orpines meet with love’s promise.
But alas, my dance must end, for today my father is due to arrive with a caravan, and my mother has stressed all daughters be present for his arrival. Will you walk with me through town? Let us cross these last fertile, rolling slopes, and bid farewell to spring and all its sweetness. Look to the Galene: her happy waters grow stronger crops here. Take care with your feet lest you trample seedlings or droppings. I care not to task Cairbail’s farmers. Visiting caravans are rarely kind to them, and never face punishment for gleaning.
Step this way, please, to the oxen-path. Oh, Galene, you flow as falling stars before Cairbail, yet we send you off soiled and used. Abused, I should say, but a merchant’s daughter is not allowed such thoughts. Trade is life, and industry is trade. At least the tannery is there, a short ways south of town, so the water is not so terrible until Cairbail’s end. Our mill to the north carries waters to the fields, see it? We already passed it some paces ago. Rather hidden by the trees, it is, but if you ignore the farmer yelling at the mule, you can just hear the clack-clack of the buckets tipping.
Cairbail is neither tulmain nor city. There is a street of homes, true, and it connects to the warehouse street, which turns there, sharply, for the ancestral shrine, annoying river and land caravans alike. We must have good pasture for livestock, a stretch of sand for small boats and long docks for bigger barges. Our high street is dedicated to eateries and artisans. We are a perpetual hayloft for travelers, with our own wares barely noticed. Perhaps that is best. Those attracted to our town are not the sort I care to think about.
Mind our rock fences–they are rather low, I’m afraid, just enough to scrape one’s ankle terribly if not careful. Turn here. Market Street may look wide enough for a joust, but that is only because the selling carts have left for the day. They sit in the middle, and the shops remove their shelf-shutters, and this place soon overflows with traveling caravans, farmer’s wares, the tannery’s wares, and tinkers. Even artisans from villages nearby will come once a month before midday to set up near the edge of market for the sake of shadow from the sun.
See how the tracks stay clear of this shop? I am sure you can smell why now. The tanner Congol comes here with his treated hides, as some merchants care more for the materials than finished goods. A whisp of a man, that Congol, from living so much among the dead and putrid substances. Would you believe he has tried courting Isolda not once but thrice? Father would have enjoyed such a commercial alliance, and Mother was willing to push my sister to accept the smells as necessity of industry and status, but then he had to ride to town with his perfect features and glittering rings…
But let me show you further. I must ask of you to not look upon the mule bleating at us. It is an angry, sickly thing, and also the favorite pet of the leather-tooler Aedh. For a man who takes pleasure in snapping necks of rabbits and deer, he can’t bear to see a single child make fun of his four-legged companion. He holds the breadth and strength of an ox, having broken many doorways in anger and drink. I am quite certain if not for his craft Lord Murdach would have found reason to be rid of him long ago.
Ah, the charcoaler’s here, and there the road up to Lord Murdach’s manor. His officers live here, without the shelf-shutters, as they are still open. This is the only corner of Market Street where my sisters will walk alone, as officers of a Lord have been deemed better company. It also helps that chamberlain’s wife Carryl knows the lyre well, and instructs as Mother pays fit.
At last, the kinder side of Market Street. Do you not smell it? Fertile earth, freshly cut greens, squeezed fruits, drying herbs. The farmers live on this side, ready to sell their latest gatherings from plots and fields alike, but only Adyna’s family takes time to clean her door, baskets, and shelf-shutters daily. Where Market Street turns to Traders Street you’ll see a house of a most curious paring: our sage, and our physician. I must confess, I do not trust a sage who foresees the Galenegaining strength from the tannery. He will sit and smoke his pipe idly as citizens come to his wife for aid, and declares he knows precisely what ails them before they speak. Indeed, there was a time last year when he was even correct in his deductions. Truly theirs is a match made by the gods, for he is often sick, so she is bid to tend him, and she is oft in predicted danger when gathering herbs, so he is bid to save her before danger can fully manifest itself. He arrives so early, in fact, that not one of his visions of terror has been ever witnessed by another. But many see the potential of truth in his words, including Mother. Whenever he sees Mother instructing us in posture, he is certain that whatever tea she drank in the last five days will result in a mild illness ranging from headache to runs and another symptom beginning with the letter Tinne…unless, of course, she would be so kind as to accompany him back to his wife’s surgery for examination.
Ah, here we are. Yes, the house with the wooden fence at waist height. Can’t afford to block the view of potential suitors. Just as an artisan proudly displays his wares, my mother makes an exhibition of her children for potential wooing. We’re quite the collection, my sisters and I.
Yes, well, let’s not go back in there just yet. Is there any other sanctuary in Cairbail besides the Galene?
Hmm.Yes, I will concede to one, one I learned at that tender age of 4 with the promise of music lessons, you may recall.
Heledd showed me the swiftest, simplest route from our home to the warehouses. How large they all seemed then! Full of flying feathers, foul jokes, fouler smells. Sacks of drink, of bean, all spilling about helter skelter while men shrieked for other men to be careful, curse you, that’s money you’re losing! The scales tended by guards and men with brows forever set heavily over their faces.
“Never you mind them, little love. Keep to your business, and they keep to theirs.” Heledd carried her buxom figure like a weapon, and it disarmed many. She was but a few years older than Mother, but she moved with as much ease as Almedha, and drew just as many looks.
“What about the slavers?” I could see one in that moment with a beard deep in drink and lips full of talk with a few others. His other hand dangled a collar too big for any dog.
Heledd saw him, too. “Pfft. No one crosses Caddock.” We stopped before the largest, noisiest, oldest warehouse on the street. It needed no windows with the number of loose boards hanging about, the door had surely been kicked in several times. Even its air was different, sweet, but pungent. Why oh why would Lord Murdach put the most valuable spices in this, surely the poorest of warehouses? Even I knew the guard upon the front door looked a waste of a man, and I was but a four-year-old child! “You there,” Heledd bowed forward and knocked upon the man’s head. A fly fuzzed out of his hair, and he grunted angrily until he looked full upon my companion. “Fetch Caddock, if you please. Tell him it’s Heledd.”
He rolled himself up and through the door with a gurgly “Yes’m.” A moment later the door opened, and there stood a tall man of dark hair and eyes. He wore no braids, and kept his beard short—he seemed strangely tidy for a resident of this street, even wiping his hands of dust before greeting Heledd. “Good afternoon, Mistress. I must confess, I thought your message to me a jest. Surely no daughter of that mule-head Adwr—”
“Ahem.” And she nudged me away from her skirt. I gripped my flute like some sort of, oh, almost like a staff, except I knew nothing of weaponry. All that I knew was that it was big, and heavy, and if I swung it with enough force, I would make him hop and holler like a fool.
Caddock narrowed his eyes for a moment in study of me—or perhaps my flute, for it did hide half my face while I shut up the other—before requesting we follow him in.
What a place! I had never seen such the likes of it before. Any journey with Father was to meet caravans on the road, or perhaps at Quinntoryn, the King’s Stronghold. Mother had not wished her daughters sullied by the looks of laborers in the warehouses and along the docks. Perhaps it best, as I was too young to appreciate the dangers a nefarious will can inflict upon others. But my first steps in that warehouse made me feel as though life in a home was a waste. The roof, as tall as clouds! Boxes and chests and sacks filled with things that moved, things that sparkled, things that emanated smells of life, love, hunger, disgust. All the world had been transported here, kept here. And Caddock moved about the sacks with ease, throwing nuts and fruit into one crate where what looked like a hairy child snatched up the food with glee. He plucked an apple for himself from a barrel and bade us follow him around a tower of crates to a small room with a fire, table, and chairs. Two men had their feet upon the table, laughing over something about a pumping fist. One thumb from Caddock, and they left without a word. He sat, then Heledd, but I knew not how to sit without dragging the flute upon the floor, so I remained standing.
A knife appeared, small and slender, in Caddock’s hand. Its point moved swiftly through the apple and cut a thick slice for Heledd. “What’s all this really about?”
Heledd often chewed and spoke at once, like time could never be wasted on one meager task at a time. “She’s a far different sort, make no mistake. Prefers the Galene to her manor house any day, don’t you, little love?”
I nodded and wiped the juice sprayed upon my cheek.
“A river child?” Caddock slowly worked his knife through the fruit’s flesh. “The river’s shore is no source of comfort for town-folk of your stature.”
“That’s not true,” I said with a mighty thud of the flute’s end upon the floor. “Galene’s shown me all sorts of lovely places. You’ve only to listen to her properly, is all.”
The adults shared a look above my head, something warm and pleasing, I could see, as Caddock’s face lost all the study and came over with a smile—a real smile I’d seen other mothers and fathers have for their children. “She speaks to you often, the river goddess?”
Now I narrowed my eyes at him. “It’s not all in my head, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Far from it. Your sisters mock you for this?”
“And her parents.” Heledd rested her hand on my shoulder. “It’s all I can do not to whisk her away from that horrible house.”
Caddock nodded slowly as he popped another slice off and held it to me on knifepoint. “Trade?”
I sat at last, happily munching, as Caddock held the flute to his eyes. “Garnoc knows his craft. A pity Lord Murdach does not commission him to make a few more. The hills of Gleanuaine would welcome such flutes for their shepherds. May I?” Imagine, a man like that asking a little thing like me for permission! Yet he refrained from playing a single note until I bid him play. His fingers explored the flute’s holes, finding their proper homes, and then his eyes closed. His whole face seemed to close as the flute touched his lips, and all expression passed through his breath and into the melody of cottonwood trees and sparrows, of fawns tickling the Galene’s hands as they drink their fill. I laughed and clapped and told him what I saw as he played.
Another look was shared over my head. I feared a joke coming on, but instead Heledd hugged me. “A river child, indeed! So, what say you, Little Brother?”
Little brother! “Have you sisters, too, Heledd?”
“NO, thank the gods, no, child. Caddock and I alone were more trouble than our home could handle, weren’t we?” He laughed and set the flute upon the table, not really looking at me, or his sister, or anyone, it seemed. “And speaking of,” Heledd stood and straightened her shawl, “I best go back to prepare dinner. Have her back by then, or we’ll both of us get another round of poison from Madame Ffanci’s tongue.”
Caddock nodded without looking. I heard Heledd snap “Mind your eyes!” at someone before the door closed. That someone turned the corner: the slaver man.
“Any trouble, Caddock?” He looked at me, his fingers toying with that dreaded collar.
For a heart of courage in that moment! But I am little more than a coward, and remained still, frozen.
Caddock stabbed his apple knife into the table and looked at him. The table apparently received such treatment often. “None. Quite the opposite, actually. This lass is my student, and therefore, under my protection. Is that clear?” A slow, heavy nod came from the slaver, and he shuffled off. “You can breathe now, he’s gone.”
I didn’t know I’d even stopped. “When we’re done, will you please take me home, Sir?”
“And deal with the likes of your parents? Not for three dozen of my sister’s raspberry tarts. No, girl, you’ll walk to and from alone, and you’ll be fine. He’ll tell the others. No one crosses Caddock, and that,” he leaned forward with the flute for me, “includes my friends, and now my pupil. Gods, this is a first.” A smile played upon the corner of his mouth. “You can call me Caddock, if I may call you…”
“Wynne. It’s nice to know the goddess still speaks.” I knew my eyes grew very wide, and I leaned in, too, like we were sharing the most prized of secrets. “We used to talk often, Galene and I. But I stopped listening when arms and coin promised a more adventurous life. I do not regret the adventures, but I do regret losing her ear.” He wrapped my tiny hands around the flute. “And you’ll lose it, too, if you listen to your family. So let’s practice hard, you and I. With a few breaks for air, of course. Out back. By the river.”
And that is how I came to the sanctuary that was Caddock’s warehouse, and how I could move about Hafren’s seediest corners without fear. For a time he was my source of human friendship, but his tales of adventure, of discovered treasures and conquered beasts, made me yearn for adventures of my own, with a friend my own age…
Ever feel like you need to be forgiven for something?
I want to tell you how much I love my family, of the bundle of sticks tied together is never broken by whatever storm or creature befalls upon it. Yet I cannot speak this lie of my own accord, for truly, I do not love them.
This sin is my own, and I must carry it with me always.
Your parents don’t exactly seem to inspire much love, so you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.
No, ’tis true. And I would not wish to be like Adyna, an old maid of forty years who never set foot off her father’s farm. Her name is the joke of many rhymes I hear the farmers’ children chant as they pick weeds and rocks. A child should grow to separate from her parents, just as the maple’s seeds break free and spin themselves high into the wind to land either near or far to grow. I want to grow far. I need to grow far.
But my sisters…how I wish I could carry them on the wind with me!
But you’re not friends. Why should you care?
Because I think that if not for Mother, their souls would have a chance to grow. They stare into the looking glass, insult each other for the merest blemish, stuff their bodices for deceitful chests, all for the sake of Mother’s approval. To them, beauty is everything. No music, no flower, no tapestry compares to the beauty of their forms. If they are not beautiful, then they may as well be dead.
How can one believe such words and yet manage to really live?
Mother said those words once. Oh yes. Not with Father around, for I think that such an extreme declaration would have stirred even him from his inventory for a mild chastisement. Father travels south once a year on the Galene to the ocean’s shore for dealings with the Sea Barons of the Dracicocht Isles. This time of year is always difficult with Mother, for she thrives upon the echo Father gives to her sentiments. Oh, Heledd, does her best, but her common sense flusters Mother more than anything.
The day those words were uttered was…oh, I must have been six years. My flute play was adequate, but not yet proficient, especially as the instrument was still rather big for my small body. Mother wailed in the first week of my tutelage to not “slay doves in the house,” so thanks to music, I had an easy time escaping her sharp tongue for the Galene. Bless her! No one is so patient with a struggling musician as the river goddess. That she did not send a fish to knock my flute in the river gave me hope that I was marked for improvement.
If only my sisters had come with me, I thought as I trumped in through the kitchens. I felt much better in the kitchen with the maids. They always spoke in whispers, like bees buzzing in the meadow, and gave me such sweet smiles. Any child would think herself blessed to have such women for a mother. They smiled upon me that afternoon, and gave me a bit of bread and honey to nibble on when—
“Isolda, this hill is much too steep! Rip this all out and do it again.”
I still remember the look they shared: Wrinkles filled with flour, juice, and grease, their faces were a bit like those painted for plays on festival days. One was stiff and straight like a narrator; the other all grimace. That was Heledd whenever Mother spoke out of sight.
I continued eating. By then, I thought Mother’s criticisms came and went like a certain other bodily function: foul when it comes out, quickly dispersed, and not spoken of in any company.
“Morwenna, what has happened to your face? Dear, if you pull your braids back too tight you’ll look as though a caravan ox has stepped upon it. You’re ridiculously too stretched and pinched for anyone of good class to take notice of you. Go upstairs and do it again, and if you fail again I’ll have Heledd do it properly, and then she’ll rip it out and you will follow her example.”
Heledd tapped my shoulder and waved her finger in front of her lips. I nodded and huddled by the table, eager to stay there for the next several weeks.
“And Cordelia, what on earth are you doing wearing that flower ring in the house? You’ll bring in the bees!”
“Almedha, daughter, help me with your sisters!”
“And where in Hifrea is Heledd? I need my tea, she knows how I can’t live without my afternoon tea lest the headaches come on, not to mention the shakes and the sweating and the—”
“I’ll see to it, Mother.” And there was Almedha, her own braids perfect, bodice unstuffed as her own chest was progressing to Mother’s approval, wrapped with cords for measuring a new dress. “Ah, Wynne, there you are. I didn’t know you were home.”
“She just got in, Mistress Almedha,” Ysball said before any interrogation could start.
Almedha was sixteen then, already full with ideas of running a rich merchant’s household any day now. “You are a lady of the family, Wynne. You should be entering through the front of the house, not the back like a servant.”
I stuffed the last bit of bread in my mouth. “Ah wash pachktizin.” I must confess, this was not very good manners, and not in any way excusable, but by Galene, I was hungry, and, and—I wanted to finish my food, for goodness’ sake!
“Well now that you’re here, I’m sure Mother would want to see you.” And my sister approached to take my arm.
“No she wouldn’t.”
“Wynne! What a thing to say, honestly.” And up I was taken, honey fingers and all, to the parlor where Mother sat surveying Isolda’s stiches and Cordelia’s flower sachets. “Wynne’s just returned from practicing her flute, Mother.”
Mother’s eyes darted round the room to me as a frog who’s found a fly. “Practicing, my foot! She’s gotten into the larder again, eating us out of house and home. No one wants a fat wife, Wynne, remember that.”
No one dared look at Mother’s pear-shaped body squeezed into the chair.
“I just gave the girl a bite as she wasn’t here for lunch, Madame,” Heledd said as she set Mother’s tea firmly—very firmly—upon the table. “Your tea.”
Mother rolled her eyes and drank. “Well you certainly reek of the river. There again?”
I nodded. How did I reek? I was north by the mill, where all the dead animal urine and bile of the tannery didn’t go.
Almedha nudged me. “Speak when spoken to, Wynne.”
“Well? Prove it, then.”
“Oh, child, have a sense. Play me something!”
Mother gargled and croaked, “But of course now, when else?”
“But…” And I held up my fingers, sticking together from the honey bread.
“Do as Mother says!” Almedha hissed. I heard a door open above us—Morwenna must have stepped out. Cordelia paused with her roses, Isolda with her thread.
Couldn’t they see past Mother’s commands? I even held my hands up to Almedha so she could see the honey. “But I’m—”
“Confounded, stupid girl.” Mother banged her tea cup and pried herself free of the chair. “All of you, confounded and stupid. You’re all lucky you’ve got some beauty, otherwise you’d be better off dead.”
“Madame!” Heledd stood in the doorway as Ysball brought the tea in for the rest of us.
Once, just this once, has Heledd openly defied my mother. My sisters stood agape, horrified that one of lower class would be so imprudent. I’m sure Mother thought so, too, but perhaps, and I do hope this to be the case, even Mother realized she had gone too far. Nothing was said by anyone, even Mother, for the rest of the day. The natural order of life within our fence had been utterly upheaved, so much so that Isolda left her sewing in a pile on the floor, Almedha’s lyre went unpolished, Cordelia’s bouquet received no water, and Morwenna’s braids laid against her face half-finished.
I rushed back to the Galene to wash and tell her all that had passed. The current wrapped round my hands and seemed to squeeze an assurance to me: life would get better. Somehow, life would get better. I had only to listen to her, follow her lead northward, beyond Cairbail…
If you didn’t catch the Pride and Prejudice vibes before, I bet you do now! Mrs. Bennet was a HUGE inspiration for Madame Ffanci. I welcome any and all thoughts on Wynne, her family, the setting of Cairbail–any thoughts, at all, really. Reader input rocks!
A collection of book reviews by Patricia Skalka — A Chicago native, life-long reader and author of "Death Stalks Door County," "Death at Gills Rock," "Death in Cold Water," and "Death on a Ferry," the first four volumes in the Dave Cubiak Door County mystery series.