Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

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Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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Lessons Learned from Agatha Christie: Let Dialogue & Point of View (Mis)Lead Readers.

Nothing annoys like repetition. “Mom, can I have a cookie?” “No.” “Can I have a chocolate chip cookie?” “Not until supper’s done.” “Can I have a cookie now?” “I said no.” (pause for approximately twenty seconds) “Can I have a cookie now?” (exasperated scream and toss of graham crackers) “Oooh, crackers.” (munching) “Can I have a cookie?” (head bangs wall)

I feel the same way when I read repetition–not just in my students’ essays, but in novels by those who should know better. The characters in Hercule Poirot’s Christmas had some very annoying spells of repetition that revealed no inconsistencies in circumstances or any sort of human nature. They were just part of the interrogation. Other lines had equally annoying bouts of foreshadowing directed at…nothing.

“He’s like the faithful old retainers of fiction. I believe he’d lie himself blue in the face if it was necessary to protect one of the family!”

bookcoverI wanted to believe Christie was better than that with her dialogue. I wanted to see some proof. So I took a risk and picked a story I knew would be more dialogue than anything: Five Little PigsIt’s a cold-case situation: a young woman comes to Poirot asking him to discover the truth about her parents. Everyone says her mother poisoned her father; the mother was tried and executed for it. Yet her mother’s last letter claims innocence. The daughter, now fully grown, wants to know the truth.

The truth must be found in the memories of others, and to get those memories Poirot must dig through dialogue.

 

There is nothing so dangerous for anyone who has something to hide as conversation!

Hercule Poirot, The A.B.C. Murders

Poirot speaks with a few legal members involved with the court case, and then five other people present in the home at the time of the murder. This comes to nearly 240 pages of conversation.

And none of it felt dull, let alone repetitive.

Clearly, Christie’s attentions were more focused on this story. One can feel it in the tight prose and pacing. Her descriptions of the characters are brilliantly precise:

Philip Blake was recognizably like the description given him by Depleach–a prosperous, shrewd, jovial-looking man–slightly running to fat. (58)

[Poirot] would never have recognized [Elsa] from the picture Meredith Blake had shown him. That had been, above all, a picture of youth, a picture of vitality. Here there was no youth–there might never have been youth. (104)

The dialogue also reveals a lot about the characters, such as the governess.

“Men–” said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says, “Bolsheviks,” as an earnest Communist says, “Capitalists,” as a good housewife says, “Black beetles,” so did Miss Williams say, “Men.” (117)

Besides the court personnel, who only witnessed the characters after the murder, there are five perspectives being tapped for details from the same time frame. This should welcome lots of repetition, considering these people are coming to the same house, dining together, conversing together, and so on.

Yet the repetition doesn’t happen. I’ll use one moment in the plot for an example.

Painter Amyas has brought his model Elsa to live at the house while he paints her. His wife Caroline does not like her; it goes without saying Elsa and Amyas are having an affair, which is normal behavior for Amyas and his models. Something seems different this time, though, and Amyas’ friends, the brothers Philip and Meredith Blake, warn him as such. Amyas shrugs them off. Caroline’s teenage sister Angela also lives at the house under the care of the governess Miss Williams.

What follows are four accounts of the same moment in the book: when Elsa announces to all she’s going to marry Amyas…despite Amyas still being married to Caroline. The police officer shares bits and pieces of Philip Blake’s account, so for the sake of sticking with points of view present at the situation, I’ll keep him out.

Philip Blake (considering the length, I felt photos the easiest way to share):

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Elsa: And in the end I broke down. Caroline had been talking of some plan she and Amyas were going to carry out next autumn. She talked about it quite confidently. And I suddenly felt it was too abominable what we were doing–letting her go on like this–and perhaps, too, I was angry, because she was really being very pleasant to me in a clever sort of way that one couldn’t take hold of.  And so I came out with the truth. In a way, I still think I was right. Though, of course, I wouldn’t have done it if I’d had the faintest idea what was to come of it. The clash came right away. Amyas was furious with me for telling Caroline, but he had to admit that what I had said was true. (183-4)

Miss Williams: On this day, September 17th, as we were sitting in the drawing room after lunch, [Elsa] came out with an amazing remark as to how she was going to redecorate the room when she was living at Alderbury. Naturally, [Caroline] couldn’t let that pass. She challenged her and [Elsa] had the impudence to say, before us all, that she was going to marry [Amyas]. She actually talked about marrying a married man–and she said it to his wife! .. [Amyas] came in just then and she immediately demanded confirmation from him. He was not, unnaturally, annoyed with [elsa] for her unconsidered forcing of the situation. Apart from anything else, it made him appear at a disadvantage, and men do not like appearing at a disadvantage. It upsets their vanity. He stood there, a great giant of a man, looking as sheepish and foolish as a naughty schoolboy. It was his wife who carried off the honors of the situation. He had to mutter foolishly that it was true, but that he hadn’t meant her to learn it like this. (194-5)

Angela: The very first intimation I had of the whole thing was what I overheard from the terrace where I had escaped after lunch one day. Elsa said she was going to marry Amyas! It struck me as just ridiculous. I remember tackling Amyas about it. In the garden at Handcross it was. I said to him: “Why does Elsa say she’s going to marry you? She couldn’t. People can’t have two wives–it’s bigamy and they go to prison.” Amyas got very angry and said, “How the devil did you hear that?” I said I’d heard it through the library window. He was angrier than ever then and said it was high time I went to school and got out of the habit of eavesdropping….I stammered out angrily that I hadn’t been listening–and, anyhow, I said, why did Elsa say a silly thing like that? Amyas said it was just a joke. (199-200)

Notice the extensive detail Philip provides as opposed to, say, Miss Williams. Philip’s bias against Caroline and for Amyas highlights special touches of tension in his telling: “Elsa had got under her guard all right.” “Poor old Amyas…he went crimson and started blustering.” Then you have Miss Williams noting how Caroline “did not lose her dignity,” and later “walked like an empress” from the scene (193). Elsa’s telling revolves primarily around her feelings more than anything else, and Angela’s gets into something new: that Amyas  said it was all a joke.

Sure didn’t sound like a joke in that room.

One moment, told again and again, yet with new language and observations every time. This layering through multiple viewpoints gives readers the pleasure of digging for the unknown information and hidden emotions not known from the police account. Christie takes great care pacing out these plot reveals, too–Angela’s account, for example, isn’t given until the second to last chapter of the book.

The key here is that the information differs with each account: there’s always something new to learn. Even the lack of telling can be telling. Notice how Elsa breezes over this moment? You’d think she’d want to rub in how Caroline reacted to being told her husband was leaving her. Yeah, there’s a reason Elsa doesn’t share too much.

(Dunh dunh DUUUUUUUNH)

Now I get that this style of multiple points of view will not fit many kinds of story, nor can every story be told in a series of conversations. But if I’ve learned anything from my own point of view experiment, it’s that one’s got to try different styles of storytelling. Even if what you create isn’t fit for human eyes, you still stretched your brain. All those story-starts I did with Dorjan are going to remain stopped. They’re not going anywhere. But in writing them I did get to thinking about that character’s life, and other pieces that may be worth telling. And then, I got to thinking about other characters from the story and their lives…it goes on.

We don’t always find the right voice for a story in the first go. It might require a process of elimination to discover the true narrator. Or, maybe you’d rather have the different perspectives tell the story together. After all, Christie took a bunch of conversations and wove them into a taut mystery readers couldn’t leave alone. Just imagine what that kind of layering could do for your own fiction.

PS: In the spirit of Sarah J. Higbee’s weekly book cover studies, I wanted to share some of these designs for Five Little Pigs. Frankly, I feel gripped by none of them: not the childish ones, certainly not the giant pig. The one with the flowers is way too busy, and the beer glass of all things emphasizes THE biggest clue in the mystery. I see why later covers tended to focus more on the painting, as it is the catalyst for the murder.

 

Point of View Experiment with “Normal’s Menace,” Phase 1

The wrong point of view can ruin the most fantastic of stories. Maybe you jump from character to character too much. Maybe the character you designated as narrator has taken over the story, or that particular character can’t possibly be present for the necessary plot points.

This is the quandary I’m in now with a bit of short fiction. I’m not even sure I want to use the title “Normal’s Menace.” But then, I’m not even sure I want to tell it with the narrator I currently have.

Well, like any scientific experiment, the process of elimination will show me which voice best serves the story. Since you’ve been patient enough with my brainstorming through music and photography, let’s continue on through this, my first draft.

Normal’s Menace

I loved Captain Whiskers. He was the best thing to come from Quiet Mound. You don’t know where that is, because it’s on my farm and you shouldn’t be going all over it unless you got a snowmobile, I guess, but Daddy hates those things, and he shot at one when he thought it was a bear, so it’s just not a good idea to come here.

You can sort of see it past the first field. I see it, anyway. I always look at it when I wait for the bus in winter. Hard to do anything else when you’re in a snow suit. Mom’s gotta yank my arms through the straps of my backpack, but it’s up to me not to drop my She-Ra lunchbox. She’s the Princess of Power, you know. You drop She-Ra, the Evil Horde wins.

So I hold on super-tight to my lunchbox, and imagine that Quiet Mound is a portal to Etheria, where She-Ra fights for the Great Rebellion. Nothing grows on Quiet Mound, even though it’s got this pond big enough for two ice shanties at the top of it, like…oh! Like when you make your mash potatoes into a crater and put all the gravy in it. Like that. It’s all protected and cut-off because of the trees. Winter makes them look like someone strung them out and wrapped them together again, like the webs barn spiders make.

That’s where I found Captain Whiskers.

The first big snow, and I’ve just freed She-Ra from Hordak’s Ice-Ray, and there’s this cat. I didn’t see him at first because its speckles matched the last brown leaves stuck on a thorny bush along some of the trees. I thought he was stuck, so I pulled out my real pocket knife to cut him out. He looked starved and pretty beat up, with scrapes and cuts deep in his fur, but he was still super nice when I cut some of the branches, and his eyes were the prettiest purple, prettier even than She-Ra’s friend Glimmer. He purred while he watched me the whole time, and when I touched him! Oh, it was magical. I could see, you know? Really see She-Ra on Swift Wind, and the Horde Robots marching through the trees. And she called to me, ME, Millie the Magnificent, to fight by her side! And my pocket knife was a real sword, and the pool was lava, and I fought all those robots into the lava and melted them and She-Ra knighted me for the honor of Grey Skull and bestowed a captainship upon The Bravest Cat in the Galaxy—

–and that’s when Daddy found me with his rifle slung over his shoulder and a dead turkey in his hand. “What are you doing, Mil?” I wrenched my pocket knife out of a dead tree trunk. He spat a little tobacco at Captain Whiskers. Captain Whiskers went on licking my feet as if they were covered in milk. “We don’t have room for strays, Millie.”

“Barn’s always got mice, Dad.”

He snorted into the snow like a bull in the cartoons, and set a bunch of snowflakes all whirly. “Fine. Barn only.”

And for Mom and Dad, that was that with Captain Whiskers. They didn’t know how he came to my window every night to take me back to Etheria, to make magic with Madame Razz and spy on the Horde with Bow. They missed all that. Captain Whiskers made it all real. It was…it was just so awesome, I can’t tell you. I didn’t need television or my cassettes or even food, really—made for some awkward dinners with my parents, let me tell you. They started to watch me eat just to make sure I wasn’t the one fattening Captain Whiskers. It’s just that…food’s so boring, you know? Who needs food or sleep when you can go on adventures that take you away, inside and out? I even snuck Captain Whiskers with me to school a few times until Captain Whiskers cursed Molly Grunewald.

Yeah, that’s right. Cursed Molly Grunewald. All he had to do was stare at her, and I saw her for the Horde Robot she really was, and I held up my sword to strike, but she leaked all this oil and fell before I could cut her head off. Turns out she peed her pants real bad. But she didn’t want other people to know she peed her pants, so she said Captain Whiskers peed on her. But I was there. He got her to pee herself. No more bullies for me! But I couldn’t let Captain Whiskers do that all the time, so I kept him out of school unless I needed him.

Then that stupid guy came out of the trees and ruined everything.

 

Saturday, right? No busses to wait for, and winter meant chores weren’t too bad, so I was going to have lots of time with Captain Whiskers on Quiet Mound. I got him from the barn. He was so sweet that morning rubbing his head right against my heart and purring, even licking a little. I could see the portal’s light all sparkly and secret through the trees from the driveway—

–but something moved. Something low.

Skulking, that’s the word. It skulked around the edge of the trees, eyes right—

—on—

—me.

Captain Whiskers went NUTS. He leapt out of my coat and took off faster than I could blink. Even Cheetara never had a chance of catching him.

The thing stopped skulking and lifted its head.

Like a huskie on steroids. Big. Black. Nasty.

I shrieked high and as loud—trust me, I get pretty high. Even that far away, it had to shake my noise out of its ears. Mom rushed out asking what I broke, but then she saw it run up Quiet Mound and yanked me into the house and declared I was stuck inside until Dad trapped whatever that was.

What really stunk was that Captain Whiskers wouldn’t leave the barn that night. I spent more time out of bed than in, peeking out the window to see if The Nasty ever took a break from skulking. My hands shook for my sword. I shivered for Etheria. It got so bad I tried walking down the stairs to find Captain Whiskers in the barn, but my feet weren’t listening to my head and I clunked too hard on the groaning boards. Mom fussed me back into bed with a cold pack and a slug of something gooey and dreadful. My dreams were as hollow as a snake skin.

 

Next morning I find a note from Mom: they’re helping neighbors with traps, stay inside, be good, eat some food you look like a skeleton, blah blah blah. Are you kidding me? It’s the first sun we’ve had in weeks. The trees sparkled with all their little icicles, and I could see the…the…what’s the word…meniscus! That line the top of water makes. It sparkled, too, like the portal I always saw with Captain Whiskers. I opened my bedroom window to look at it better, Captain Whiskers came in purring, and the air just bit with magic, you know? Cold, too, but magic. I knew, through and through, that something amazing was going to happen at Quiet Mound today.

And then, that guy.

He stood by the trees, hands in a ripped up trench coat. I know the homeless people in our town because I help Mom with the free lunches our church holds a few times a month. This guy was new. Or a hitchhiker? That was more a summer thing. What the heck was he doing out there? Just, hands in his pockets, standing in dirt and snow, and…looking.

At my window.

The window blew a bunch of snowy ice off the trees. It whipped his coat around his knees, it blew his black hair around his face, but he didn’t move.

“NO TRESPASSING!”

Captain Whiskers took one look at him and totally freaked out a gazillion times worse than yesterday. He hissed and spat and ran around my room and clawed the closet door in no way that I could cover up with my folks. Stupid cat. I yelled at him to stop, turned to the window again, and—

–that guy was walking through our field. Not that stupid fast-walk old people do instead of jogging. Just this steady step, step, step. Through our field! He didn’t even have a snowmobile!

Call the Grunewalds for my parents? No way, not letting Molly know I’m scared. Call the police? I went for the phone, but Captain Whiskers knocked the receiver out of my hand and he just…he glared. And his paws held my hand down. I didn’t even know he had claws. Ever catch your hand on an old nail under the couch when you reach down there to get something? Like that. Like eight of that.

I sucked in air and bit my lip and made my tears go silently into my hair. “Stop it, Captain Whiskers. We need help.”

He shook his head.

“But he’s coming. What are we gonna do?”

Captain Whisker’s ears fell flat as his hair rose up. He…it was such a weird sound, something I never heard from a cat before. Like a groan people make when they’re really frustrated, but there was a hiss in it, too. He let go of my hand and licked my blood off his claws. Morning light and dust mites shimmered above his head, came together and made—

The Princess of Power stood in my room—still a little bit see-through, but wowzers, she was in my room!  “He heralds the coming of Hordak to your world. He is determined to enslave you all.”

I couldn’t help it—I looked out the window.

Not walking.

Fists out.

Oh no…but…”but he’s just one guy.”

She-Ra bent forward, and…wow, that scowl. Her eyes weren’t blue like in the cartoon, but all black, and when she brought her face to mine I thought I was going to fall in, get buried alive. “Do you want the Evil Horde to conquer your world?”

“N-no.” My voice didn’t even sound like me, so small and stupid and scared.

“Then evade his capture.” Now her skin lit up like diamonds on tv, and she smelled like summer. “Reach the water, and your captain will bring you safely to Etheria, and to me. Do not fail me, Sir Millie the Magnificent.”

I wanted summer. I wanted Etheria. No more stupid snow suits or barns or schools or parents. I wanted to fight by She-Ra’s side forever and ever and ever. “Never!”

Her skin got really shiny, then broke up like dust in the sunlight.

Ding dong.

I grabbed my coat. Captain Whiskers stood with me at the top of the stairs.

Ding dong.

“Hello?”

He wasn’t even American!

This time my feet listened to my head. I tiptoed down a bunch, managed to skip the groaners even, but once the stairs were in view of the door I laid back and started sliding on my butt instead. I could see a head with wavy hair behind the stained glass on the door. Captain Whiskers had been moving behind me, but once the head came into view he shot down and round for the kitchen.

The head moved with him.

Ding dong.

“I’m with Animal Control. It is urgent I speak with you about a rabid animal loose in these parts.”

“Come off it, you, you sod!” I heard people like him say that on PBS.

“I know you’re in there.”

Guess he doesn’t watch PBS.

I back-stepped towards the kitchen and back door.

“Millie?”

HE KNEW MY NAME!?

My hand froze over the backdoor’s knob. The front door’s knob clicked against the lock. Click. Click. Thunk.

It unlocked.

Oh I bolted. I flung that door open and RAN. Didn’t think about steps or claws or wind or cold. Just barn barn barn barn barn barn

BARN!

I slid through the cow poop at the door and ran up the ramp and up the bales to the hayloft. He’ll use the main door to avoid the poop and—

He sat in the hayloft’s threshing door like he’d been there all morning. He even had his hands folded like this was all normal! “Look can I just—“

“NO!” Captain Whiskers leapt onto my chest and dug his claws into my bones and I turned to run but my feet flew into the air and I fell over the loft edge, I was going to die with poop on my shoes—

A hand grabbed my leg and YANKED. I was upping and not downing, overing and not splatting, overing and downing and thud. Hay this time.

The guy hunched on hands and knees where I would have landed—hard cold floor. I should have broken my neck where he stood, but he had saved me.

But—

—but I was still in so much pain. Not from the fall. From Captain Whiskers.

Why did he hold me like that? My heart felt like it was screaming and running and shaking all at once. Like Captain Whiskers had my heart for real in its claws.

The guy shook himself out like a dog and sent hay everywhere. It was…it was really weird. I knew Captain Whiskers wanted me to keep running, but how? This guy beat us to the barn. There was no out-running him.

“Sorry about the fright,” he said. “I’m not used to manners on two legs.” He stood up, and I saw his eyes for the first time: one was green, and one was sky blue. I’d seen eyes like that on a Huskie once, but never on a person. “May I please ask you where you got that cat?”

Now I didn’t believe for one Horde Second that he was from Animal Control. He wasn’t going to tell me the truth—I’m just a dumb little girl to him. But he’d have to tell the truth when Mom and Dad find him in here with me in tears, especially when Dad has his rifle…

I realized then I wasn’t holding Captain Whiskers. His claws were in me so hard that I didn’t have to. “Found him.” I still felt like I had to hide him somehow, so I zipped up my coat.

“You must love him very much.”

“Huh?”

“He’s drawing blood.” He pointed at my jeans. Hay clumped to little red stripes rolling down to my knees.

“He’s my cat.” That was all I could figure out to say. I felt muddled and hot inside. Outside the world sparkled with Etheria magic, but off somehow, like light in a cracked prism..

The guy took one step forward. Captain Whiskers hissed hot spit on my neck. “Thorn is no one’s cat.”

“His name’s not Thorn, it’s Captain Whiskers and he’s mine.”

Ever watch someone’s eyes when they laugh? They get this sort of extra smile in them. The guy’s green eye got that smile, but the blue didn’t. The blue one looked…angry. Like, Dad-watched-a-snowmobile-run-over-a-calf angry. That freaked me out more than his magical showing-upping in the hayloft. “Captain Whiskers. Nice, erm, name.”

“She-Ra gave it to him.” And I found I could hold Captain Whiskers, so long as I didn’t press him. He even started licking my chest and made the pain back off a bit. “You get a name from the Princess of Power, you keep it!”

He sucked his lip. The cows’ gossip got really loud for that moment. When he talked again, he went really slow, without a smile anywhere on him. “Has she spoken to you as well?” He didn’t ask like other grown-ups, who always assume it’s all pretend. He asked me like she was real.

Because she was.

Which meant…

I pulled out my pocket knife, and it grew, and was a sword and for REAL. Yes, for real. I pointed it at him with both hands, and it knicked his coat. Shut up, like one more tear was going to matter.

And you know? He wasn’t even surprised. He just stuck his hands back in his pockets and glared at Captain Whiskers’ head sticking out of my own coat. “And for how long have you and Captain Whiskers been going on adventures with the Princess of Power?”

The seriousness of it. Wrong, too wrong. “Why do you care?”

“Answer the question.”

“I don’t even know who you are.”

“My name is Dorjan.”

All that magic I felt in the air earlier? It fell out. Like in the movies, when you see zero gravity, and then gravity comes back and everything just splats. That’s what happened.

Captain Whiskers clung even harder and bared his teeth right by my throat, he was so scared. I wanted him to let go, I wanted him to keep the pain away, to keep the world away cuz it was just to muddled up and weird and dumb and I didn’t know what to say to such a dumb name so I just said, “That’s a dumb name.”

Dorjan stepped back until Captain Whiskers closed his mouth. “Yes. Well. We can’t all be Captain Whiskers.” He cracked his neck. “Now. Let her go.”

“Captain Whiskers is a boy, stupid!” But then I realized he wasn’t talking to me. His eyes were on Captain Whiskers, and they were angry. Both of them.

Captain Whiskers hissed and opened his mouth by my neck again. His teeth, pointy as the claws, on my skin, why? “Captain Whiskers, stop!” I felt small and hollow. I even cried a little. “Please, I love you, stop!” She-Ra’s scowl was all I could see, and doom. Real doom. I was going to fail her and lose my magnificence.

“Don’t be an idiot, Thorn.” Dorjan’s voice went low and slow, weird compared to Captain Whiskers’ crazy heartbeat against my own even crazier heartbeat. “The girl won’t survive the Water Road. She’ll be useless to her Ladyship, and you’ll be driven out again.”

The teeth let go.

The cat-heart slowed a little.

“You can’t win. She won’t allow it.”

A small shove from Captain Whiskers sent me back into a bale. The sword clanged, bounced, and landed a pocket knife. Bubbles of pain burst across my chest, and I suddenly went all light-headed…

…but, on the ground, hazy, I could still see Captain Whiskers make bloody pawprints as he approached the Dorjan guy. His tail bobbed in the air like a snake’s head.

“Frankly, Thorn, if I were you,” he stepped aside, and the big barn door opened to glorious sunshine and the sounds of an old truck slowing down on the highway, “I’d try Milwaukee. It’s got a casino and a rather rampant drug problem. Living there’s a breeze for our sort.”

Captain Whiskers purred.

Purred!

He was leaving me!

“Cap…Captain…”

He turned around.

Ever look in a cat’s eyes? They’re really good with that calculating look.

Captain Whiskers had it, but more. The beautiful purple in his eyes was actually swirling around the iris like a whirlpool. I held up a hand for him, to pet him, because this was his home, he was my light, my life—

He laid a paw in my hand. Purred.

Then dragged his claws across my skin.

Dorjan sucked his breath in.

I whimpered as more blood came out. It glittered in the dark. Captain Whiskers lapped some up.

I didn’t get it then. I still don’t.

He…he just showed up, took me to another world, and then left me lying in my own blood.

And then he walked away, like I was a toy he got bored with. He even approached Dorjan with his nose in the air.

Dorjan knelt beside him. “Of course,” he said, voice a growl, “if I were you, I wouldn’t be going after children in the first place because I’d know the rules, and how certain princeborns don’t take kindly to the rules being broken.” He smiled. It stretched his face. I peed my pants.

Captain Whiskers hair rippled up from head to tail. He moved his mouth as he hissed as though he could speak real words. He ran out in…it was all so slow….all couldn’t-be-happening…

…me struggling up…

…Dorjan in the air, burning like a copper fire…

…Captain Whiskers slipping on ice…

…me grabbing the door…

…Dorjan landing on four paws, not even a huskie, some sort of wolf, teeth blinding in the sun…

…Captain Whiskers long, bizarre, not furry, hands and feet and a mouth full of curses…

…me screaming his name…

…the blood in the air, but something else, too, something tragic and beautiful as it sparkled brighter than any snow…

 

Mom and Dad say I was traumatized. That a hawk got Captain Whiskers, and attacked me when I tried to fight it off, because that’s the crazy sort of thing I’d do in my She-Ra games.

I don’t play She-Ra anymore.

It’s all cold and fake and not-real.

I miss the old Captain Whiskers.

I miss the magic I felt that morning before Dorjan made Captain Whiskers evil.

I stand at the end of the driveway every morning and stare at Quiet Mound. Maybe another Captain Whiskers will come. When he does, we’re taking off for Etheria before another Dorjan comes and screws it all up.

 

Next week I’ll post from Dorjan’s point of view. We’ll see how much of the story alters…or if it’s the same story at all.

 

Tone Deaf

Long, long ago, the ever-lovely lady Shehanne Moore and her hamster brood nominated me for The Respect Award.

respect-award

Such a reward requires questions answered, which I hope I can take out of order, since the questions led me to think some thinks that aren’t entirely respect-related, and this is a run-on sentence, so I best likely stop, shouldn’t I?

Who do you respect the most?

Now this I can confidently answer: my friend Rachel(Not the one from Polish Fest-the other one. (Have I mentioned I know a lot of Rachels?)) I have written a few past posts about her, and the roads traveled for her recovery. She dedicated herself to God’s Calling back when we were teenagers, and had been teaching in a two-room school in a small Nebraska town for ten years when a brain tumor wrapped its tentacles around her brain stem. Again. And again.

Yes, she’s been under the knife three times. She struggles to speak and walk. She may never be able to hold up her head again, since her neck muscles have atrophied. She had to step down from the ministry, never to return.

Now this would be the point where, at least I think, you give God the finger and tell Him to piss off. I gave my life to YOU, and You give me THIS. Fuck. You.

Nope. Not Rachel. She’s still determined to live on her own once the therapists give the okay, and tutor children. She looks to God, and hopes.

To lose your body and mind for months and struggle to find footing outside that which you’ve known all your life…to go through all that, and not lose faith…

Damn.

What is respect and what does it mean to you?

Right, so this question is weird for me to answer, and I’m not even sure why. My initial thought is: 4th Commandment. Honor the elders, and so on. Believe you me, that was instilled in we pastor’s children at a tiny age. I’m 34, and I STILL can’t refer to my friends’ parents by their first names despite their requests. Hell, I called my father-in-law “Sir” until Blondie was born. First names are informal, see. Respect starts with the address.

Listening, too. Listening is respectful. Visiting the old lady down the street because she goes to our church, she’s lonely, misses children, go ON Jean she just wants some company–

–sitting in a room shaded by thin white gauzey curtains, a room the shade of canned peas with that carpet and furniture that seemed to sap color and spoil it on the spot, the air heavy with cats who died years ago–

–and listen.

Not that I remember what she said. Respect is a lot of show at times. I learned that quickly: situate the body, say the right words, and inwardly back away. Away from the eyes and senses, and fly, over and through the firmament. Land in a world I build one rock at a time. Get back to work.

Nowadays, I DO listen. Hard. It’s the faith in the words of others where respect transforms into a weapon, the most valuable weapon I have. So many of you have only known me through my words. You met me here, befriended me here. For the few who’ve known me before I started this online venture, you know I love you, but you KNOW me. Your friendship and kindness put this syrupy taint on the comments you give on my writing. I’m compelled to purse my lips and think, you’re too sweet, you’re just saying that because you’re my friend…

For those who’ve met me here, your words come completely of your own volition. You would feel no need to say something unless you wanted to say what you really thought.  For so, so long, I always took a compliment as “I’m just doing God’s duty,” “you’re just being nice,” “you don’t really know me.”

But you do know me. You know me better than most people in my proper life. And you have given such outpourings of thoughts and ideas on your writing, and I’m compelled to give them back, and this sharing of sparks sets all the dark woods ablaze, burns away the black fog, sending it hissing in retreat. The stars reflect our sparks, we are the true lights of the heavens–

Respect is what I use to hack at the self-doubt. Because I respect you, I should believe you in what you say. And if you say, in no uncertain terms, that I am meant to do what I do, well then. Time I respect, and therefore defeat, that which holds me down.

What do I respect about myself?

This is the work-in-progress part. One of the reasons I held off on answering Shey’s questions is because I didn’t know how to answer this one. Lucky for me I hit a milestone not too long ago.

In the past few blogs I’ve mentioned my decision to finally try fiction again: a Middle-Grade fantasy story based on Michael Dellert’s Matter of Manred series. I’ve been posting my freewrites on my facebook page to help deal with my fear of sharing fiction. If I can be okay sharing the extremely rough stuff with others, then putting polished scenes out shouldn’t be so terrifying.

Once I finished Michael’s #13WeekNovel protagonist prompts, I started to work on the setting. The first freewrite didn’t go too terribly, even with the history gaps…

When I wake up, I smell old dung and hay. Scratched from the wool. Redo the braid that at least holds some hair back.

I have to share a room with Nutty, who snores, by the way. I’ve asked for a spot in the barn loft. Nope, not proper.

Damnation.

At least I only need this space to piss and sleep.

Speaking of…

Oh…it is so, so tempting to empty it upon her. My hand actually steadies at the thought. But then the whole room would smell.

Ah, well. Not worth it.

Best to dump just after Fiachna passes….There. That’s dumped.

And with Fiachna’s morning curse at my window, it’s time for the kitchen.

Down the stairs—watch it, the third from the bottom creaks, so best to leap down. White walls, we have one large tapestry made by Muirgurgle’s mother before she died. Saffir is Nutty’s mom, the one still around. She’s got her own in the works. Funny how each focuses on the kids: baby Muirgurgle’s discovery of an ermine nest on this one. How nice of the family to donate their lives and live in posterity as Father’s coat.

Not sure what Saffir’s making, though Nutty’s in the corner. Probably her talking to birds. Or ghosts. They’re both a touch off, if you get me.

I smell elderberries and hyssop from the fields. Hops, dandelions, and yarrow.

Our furniture is simple, for Father’s tastes are pretty functional which, really, is all this thorp can afford. Not that I mind. One thing, though: the mantle over the fireplace tells a story. It’s a battle of ____. My grandparents fought alongside Terrwyn against ______. They all three survived, but I’m told my grandmother was besot by nightmares ever after. Terrwyn had a hand in helping with Father’s upbringing, and in one of my grandmother’s final lucid moments, promised to keep an eye on him ever after. I can’t believe she would have stayed here otherwise as some lowly tinker.

Not that she sees herself as lowly. And no one would be foolish enough to call her that. And if someone did, Cinaedh would slice his manhood off.

Strange how Father came from such strong people, and can surround himself with good people.

And still be such an ass.

But I’m a middler, and the child of no one special in his eyes. My opinion is of little worth here.

So let’s go into the kitchen, where herbs hang from the beams and there’s always water hot for tea. Grab yourself some elderberries. Watch the spout, it’s got a chip there.

Here. This doorway? This, this is the best view of the thorp. The front door just takes you to a wide circle of thatch roofs and buildings that are old, but solid. Aberfa’s pottery workshop’s the newest thing, and even that’s several years old now.

That’s why I always come out from here. Demman doesn’t mind, so long as he didn’t want the bench for himself.

Watch the grass and flowers bend with the breeze downward. Follow with the slope to the River Aurnia. There’s the mill at the outermost point of the thorp, aaaaand, yes, that’s Aberfa with Bryn, the lady miller. You can bet master miller Pyrs is already in there, loading grains. Kids aren’t quite awake yet—you’d hear them arguing.

I don’t really dwell on the mill when I’m out here. I don’t dwell on the thorp at all, really.

I dwell on that, past the River Aurnia. See that? The Woods of Irial. No, it’s not mystical, or full of beasts, or the gateway to Annwn. It’s just far-reaching. Some smaller thorps are even inside it, and its southernmost, according to the drymyn, is this little place called Bailecrwth.

That’s where I’m going to go to find my mother’s family, if there are any left to find.

And south of them is the Khaibe tribe. They are the reason my mother fled and found herself here. They are the reason Father found my mother, took her, and put my creation into the works.

Dour talk for sunlight transforming the field into gold shimmers and diamonds from the dew. You’d think the sweet sharpness would ease my tongue.

Well it doesn’t.

Every day, I look past this thorp to the place I need to go, for I have a blood-feud that must be resolved. I refuse to carry this with me to the grave. They wronged my mother. Their sins drove me into existence.

They have to pay.

61MFCKK6V4LLife called: teaching, mothering. It took a few days before I could return to the Easavainn Mills. Initially blank, so I opened my copy of Brother Cadfael’s Herb Garden and let the flowers inspire me.

It starts with eglantine.

Beautiful, aren’t they? Sweet as apples, and pleasing to the eye.

Banon, Muirgurgle’s mother, planted them here along the fence. Not sure why the fence; it doesn’t exactly keep anyone out, being vines and posts, but it’s a fine thing. Gentle, like she was. I’ll see Father out here sometimes, look upon this living boundary, and tear up.

She must have been quite a woman, to make a man like him cry.

So, down the slope. Let’s open the gate. Don’t worry, the vines are flexible.

The river’s quite full of fish—trout, mainly. A few leeches. Turtles—watch for them. Don’t step on the Alkanet—you’ll put Nutty and Saffir out. They insist on it for their faces.

The thorp keeps a few fruit trees on the edge of Irial. I’m honestly not sure who planted them—the trunks have this look of gnarled veins like the jeweler, but I don’t think pear and cherry trees came along on their own. Once I heard Father telling Muirgurgle that his namesake planted them to honor the river goddess. Not sure what this fruit has to do with her. Do gods eat?

Further in, when we’re brave, we can get the Damson fruit. I used to enjoy going in there…and then the…

Damn you hands, STOP SHAKING

The Cat-Eyed Man. I’ve told you about him.

I refuse to let the miller’s children go in there anymore without an escort, being me. They know what I did, so they always want me along when they go past the eglantine. Even Muirgurgle won’t bother with the woods, and HE is the one who’s supposed to hunt. So Fiachna’s left to scrounge up game whenever Father decides to teach the hapless twit how to hunt.

Me? I go in.

I go in alone. My hands may shake, throw my body into a quake, but I. will. Enter. Part of revenge is fearlessness. One can’t be afraid of meeting one’s own death. One can’t be afraid of looking evil in the eye, and pulling that eye out with one’s own fingers.

Follow me here.

Hmph.

I didn’t like it.

Something felt wrong.

The…voice. DAMMIT, the voice was missing.

I sent it to Michael, and he agreed that the tone had changed. “Maybe you’re exploring a new aspect of her character.”

I read it through again, tried to apply Michael’s suggestion to the feeling around the words, but no. No, it was wrong.

This wasn’t Gwen. Not Gwen at all. Where did she go?

And all the old panic came back, the failed WIPs of the past because the voice never. fucking. stuck. Years of looking, trying, finally getting, and then….gone.

And here I’m barely a month in, and already going tone-deaf with Gwen. She’s not pretty with words. She’s 14, and she’s an overlooked, unwanted middle-child in her home. She’s cocky. Stubborn. Angry. Kind to some, yes, but even they can’t always handle her. Such a girl would never, EVER talk like this.

No.

No, I’m not going deaf. Not this time.

Michael suggested going back to the early freewrites, where Gwen’s voice was clearest.

I listened to him, listened to myself, and…

Well?

Are you coming?

The damson trees grow a ways in. You carry the basket. I’ve got my dagger, and I keep a staff in the woods, just in case. Easy enough to hide, wood in a wood.

Why should anyone else find it? No one will go in here but drunken men and the miller’s children, and none will go in on a dare, or without me.

That’s right. Me. Ever since the Cat-Eyed Man, everyone else in the thorp sees the woods of Irial and thinks, “Get Gwen.” Gods, I think this is the only way I matter around here…Demman likes to call me the Honey Girl with the Barbed Tongue because I give him plenty of grief whenever he asks me to fetch some.

Yes, that’s why I have this bucket. Hush, I can reach my dagger easily enough.

It’s all about duty…watch the leaves, there. And don’t step there, it’s a bit of a small sink hole…the roots of the fruit trees have done strange things to the soil. It’s always moist, ready for planting. Not sure why, the river’s back quite a ways. Could be the trees. Cinaedh said once that if something ever happened to thorp, we could all live in the woods and never need for shelter. The leaves, you can see them, are as large as a mare’s hooves. You should see this place come autumn, when the green is burned over with reds and oranges, lots of orange. Damnation, but I miss the autumn, and the smell of the sap for tapping.

Sorry. I get very lost in feeling here.

For all the niceness back there…yes, there…with the flower fence and smoking chimneys, it’s not home. It’s never felt like home. At least in the workshops I’ve been useful—Aberfa lets me keep her company, and Terrwyn will tell stories when I help her haul wood for fires. But this…what is Easavainn but a place where I was nursed and let loose, like the runt of a litter?

DON’T STEP THERE. Can’t you pay attention? You’re going to attract the wolves, walking like that. By Catha, just…no, walk on front of your feet. Your toes. Yes, like that. Pish and shit, you’re worse than Terrwyn, and she’s the one with the iron leg.

Yes, there are wolves in this wood. I think some wild dogs, too…Luc saw a pack a month or so ago and insisted they were too small to be wolves. No one listened to him, of course, but I’m a generous soul DON’T TOUCH THAT. Don’t you know poison oak when you see it? By Catha, you’re dim. Feel like I should have you on a leash.

Where was I? Oh, yes, being generous. I am. I’m a wonderful listener, and let Luc say all he saw. Don’t underestimate those children. For all their bickering, they’re extremely quick, observant, and smart. Braith nearly made off with twenty gold trimmids from a merchant once because he was too dull to notice his money chest opening and closing. And I’m not even going to start on Drys. He’s either going to be a master thief, or a master…hmm. Assassin, if he ever gets the taste for blood. Either way, he’s never going to stay on the sunny side of the law.

Finally…you can feel we’re in the woods proper now. Everything’s got a touch of water to it. I like that feeling, that life-feeling of water in the air I breathe, the grass I touch. The sun can’t reach here, the trees are so thick. The whole world’s dark and soft. And here, in this place, my hands don’t quite shake as bad. Maybe there’s a dark magic here, and that darkness knows my intentions, and allows me to steady myself and practice.

Care to see?

Pish, we have time, set yourself down. Pick the centaury—that nettle-like plant there—take up a few chestnuts, and let me move.

Ah….I miss having good hands.

What do you mean, stalling? I am NOT stalling. We have all morning to fetch the honey from the Black Stone’s Glen—Domhnall named it—no not the Messor, the Constable, the one who actually WENT there—and the name stuck. What a gods-awful name. Oh, no, a black stone, how frightful…

They didn’t SEE the Cat-Eyed Man. They didn’t SEE how the blackness, like this, like a cave the moment after someone blows out the candle. They didn’t THAT seeping out from under him as though he had let loose his water inside his clothes like some mad old derelict.

And you didn’t see it either, so if I want to practice some moves before we go to THAT place, then I’M GOING TO BLOODY WELL PRACTICE. Shut up and eat your chestnuts.

I ended there, and felt different. Strange, a good strange.

I had listened to myself, believed myself, and it paid off.

I was starting to respect my instinct.

I could get used to this.