6 Nov
2014

Beelzebub

If the Silver Lady is my favorite creation, Beelzebub is a close second. Here’s an excerpt from Seal Skin where Beelzebub is a feature:

When I first saw Beelzebub, I wanted to laugh.

Beelzebub was like a naughty child, lying high on a golden palanquin with huge jeweled goblets of wine in both hands—oh, how he loved to drink, most happy, most entertaining when drunk and full of life. He was only four feet high. His face was rectangular, as if a clumsy craftsman had chiseled him from solid stone. His arms were short and his small feet nimble, always beating out a tune. I’ve never seen anyone like him in all these many years. He was always smiling, always chuckling, even in anger, even in malicious mischief. At first glance, he seemed to be wearing the most spectacular of crowns, a mist of sun jewels encircling his head. But it was not a crown. The jewels were dragonflies, buzzing lazily, Beelzebub’s hair a golden meadow. How dazzling their colorful wings were. Each wing like a sprig of galaxy light.

One day, while losing myself in the delights of the city, I suddenly became homesick. I longed to see my kinfolk, longed for my mother sea. My Fin. So I dressed myself in the most seductive attire and went to see Beelzebub.

“Clever Beelzebub, most powerful Beelzebub, you can find my sealskin. You can return it to me. It would be so simple for you. And I would do anything in return. Anything, my lovely Beelzebub.”

“Oh, my lovely creature. Oh, my lovely creature. Yours is a lovers’ quarrel. Lovers’ quarrels are dangerous things. Best not to get involved in lovers’ quarrels. Live and let live, eh? Now, how can I distract you? Have you been to the floating flower market? And you’ve seen all the wonders of the temple? The levitating chariot is quite fun. Tomorrow, during the first day of offerings, I’ll be riding the chariot and throwing lightning bolts from my fingertips! My first time doing that trick—I’m getting nervous just thinking about it! So many things can go wrong, and you never know with crowds. Incredibly difficult keeping the populace entertained. I know! How about this, my beautiful Ula? I will grant you any other wish. You must have other wishes? You children tend to have so many! I will shower you with such lovely things, you will forget all about your old sealskin. Oh, no, no—do not cry, my dear lady, do not cry.”

Trying to please me, Beelzebub broke out in a hilarious song. As he sang, he drank and danced and pretended to lose his balance, doing backflips around the room. He was the best of court jesters and I laughed to please him, my broken heart burrowing deep within me.

A week went by. And then Brenn came to me in a smoldering fury.

“Do you think I would not know of your plotting?” he asked. “Do you think you can use Beelzebub against me?”

“Oh, Brenn, give me my sealskin. I beg you. I will do anything you ask. I miss my home so. Cannot you see it, Brenn? I must go and see my home. I promise I will return.”

“You will not return. You will forget your promise. You will forget me. I am sick of you. I will never love you anymore. You will have your sealskin back. But only after I have my immortality. Not until then.”

Beelzebub was deeply upset. He tried to make peace between us.

“I meant no harm, no mischief,” he said. “I thought if I could just tell him how homesick you were, he would relent. Oh, you see, you see! One must never, never get involved in a lovers’ quarrel. Too dangerous. So dangerous.”

Beelzebub gave me a pretty bracelet and comforted me. Then he turned to Brenn.

“Now what can I give you, my boy? What does Brenn desire? A golden sword? Here’s a dagger crusted over with gemstones. Very pretty. Won’t cut through an apple, but very, very pretty. Humans bring me the prettiest things. I love being a god. So much fun. Does my greedy little heart so much good.”

“Please, Beelzebub, please, tell him what he wants to know,” I begged. “Please, Beelzebub. Tell him how to become immortal. Then he will give me back my sealskin!”

“Immortality! Immortality!” Beelzebub sighed. “I do not understand the craving for such things. It is like desiring to eat sweetmeats that you have never tasted. What if the sweetmeats disagree with you, eh? You cannot throw it back up with a nice burp. Here. Let me show you something much more fun!”

Beelzebub dismissed all his servants except the Sweet One.

“Now observe.”

Beelzebub raised his hand. His hand seemed to disappear. He seemed to be searching for something, as if he could see a box that we could not. Finally his hand reemerged, but holding a small glass bottle of blue liquid.

“Ambrosia,” he said. “The best that I can do for you, my boy.”

He took a swig from the bottle and then passed it around. Oh, I wish I had some now for you to try! How unlike it was to anything else on earth. The drink had no taste, not like the taste that we know, of salts and sugars. If Beelzebub’s ambrosia had a taste, it was the taste of beauty, of all the beauty in the world. I felt most awed.

“This was brewed for the last big feast,” Beelzebub said. “The wedding of Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna. Before so many of us went into Chrysalis. We all thought Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna were being very silly. A wedding? What was the point when Chrysalis was so near? Not that any of us ever stayed married. But they had never before been wed and wanted the novelty. Find out what it was like before it was too late. Alas, there is very little ambrosia left. And, of course, no more will be made. How fortunate that I had the good sense to steal a casket. Enough of this! What’s regret but a fool’s bread? Let us drink and enjoy ourselves! To Houghxydthvarioum and Sthinna! To my dear friends here and now!”

“How did you do that?” Brenn asked, excited with that hunger for knowledge which so obsessed him. “How did you create it out of air?”

“Create it out of air?” Beelzebub repeated, laughing. “My friend, if I had created it out of air, I would indeed be a god. Observe again.”

He held out his hand. Suddenly he was holding the most beautiful gown I had ever seen. Spun from some unknown metal, light as a spider’s cobweb, encrusted with a powdering of jewels that blinded the eye.

“For you, my lovely lady,” Beelzebub said.

“Really? Mine? To keep?” I asked, breathless.

“To keep? Oh, no, no,” he laughed. He was a miserly sort, a real hoarder. “But you may wear it if you like. For our banquets. After all, a feast should be for the eyes as well as the mouth. And I do so enjoy feasting upon your loveliness, my dear.”

“If you are not creating it, it must have been here all along. How do you make things unseen and then seen?” Brenn asked, puzzled.

“I do not make things seen and unseen, my friend. Ah! Must I spell it all out for you? I thought you were cleverer than that, my boy.” Beelzebub paused. It was clear that he was torn. The exuberant Beelzebub wanted to tell us everything but the greedy, sly Beelzebub wanted to remain quiet. “Perhaps you have guessed that I have much treasure? Too much for this world. Too much to carry with me. So I keep them hidden in secret places, safe places. Places in other worlds. I have the key, the knowledge to open and close the doors to these worlds. In this way I keep my treasures close to me. It is with me wherever I go, safe from any thief, any army, because only I have the key.”

“I do not understand. What worlds?”

“Do you think this is the only world? Creation is tumbling with worlds, sometimes stacked one upon the other like pieces of oat cakes. You poor creatures seem locked in a box, unable to see what is so clear to me.”

“Will you teach me? Show me these worlds! Let me through the doorways!”

“For what purpose? To steal my treasures? Come now. Do not be angry. This knowledge will not show you the way to immortality. And that is your one purpose, is it not? For now? Who knows what you will want once you have immortality,” he laughed.

“Are there others like you?” Brenn asked.

“Awake? Maybe one or two. The others are all in Chrysalis.”

“Chrysalis?” Brenn queried.

“We walk like humans for millions of years and then we cocoon ourselves, like caterpillars—marvelously pretty things, caterpillars, eh? Even at our most populous, we were not many. A thousand of us or so. And a good thing. We couldn’t live together. Terrible things happened. Fights, wars, petty jealousies, festering wounds, murder, treachery, lovers killing lovers, brothers killing brothers, sons killing fathers. Daughters killing everybody! We brought out the worst in each other. And when other life forms came along, the things we demanded of them! Blood sacrifices, war—just to show each other what power we had, what devotion we could inspire among dumb creatures. And for what? Alone, we are quite jolly. But never put us together. I become quite another creature, an ugly creature, among my own kinfolk.”

He would not say more.

Grim, Brenn packed a bag full of provisions and went up into the mountains. Beelzebub and I thought he was sulking.

“Good riddance!” Beelzebub proclaimed. “Now only we jolly folk remain!”

We had a wonderful time together while Brenn was away. Sweet Beelzebub made me his high priestess and we played all kinds of amusing pranks on his worshippers. During one full moon, we turned that great white stone green—oh, the hysteria we caused! When the dull winter days came, we sent brave warriors on mad goose chases looking for fantastical beasts. Sometimes messengers from anxious kings would arrive seeking advice and we’d make the oracle spout complete nonsense, just waiting to see how the kings’ wise men would translate it!

But good Beelzebub wasn’t all pranks. He had a deep affection for his people and did his best to help them. His sensible advice prevented wars, and during famines, he brought in food from other parts of the world. As a god, he blessed the people with yearly miracles.

“Humans, I find, need to believe in the divine,” he would say. “Otherwise they get so depressed and suicidal. No fun.”

I adored my days spent with Beelzebub. He could almost make me forget the sea.

After a year away, Brenn returned. He had a present for Beelzebub. A liquor he’d brewed, a liquor the color of rubies, dancing like flames.

“My offering to the god Beelzebub,” Brenn said. He bowed deeply, graciously as he presented his gift.

“My dear Brenn! What is this? What is this? It looks most promising.”

“It is ambrosia,” Brenn answered. “At least my interpretation. It took me a year to gather all the right flowers, to distill the freshly fallen snow a thousand times. I am not foolish enough to think that this ambrosia resembles in any way the ambrosia of the ancients, but I hope it will please you, Beelzebub.”

Beelzebub drank his glass greedily.

“Oh, this is most delicious, most intoxicating, my dear Brenn. Triggers a delightful effervescence in the soul. I have underestimated your gifts, my boy. Underestimated them most erroneously. My apologies, my deepest, most sincere apologies. I feel suddenly a thousand different selves, all happy, all blissfully happy in all its many stages. So many delightful ways to be happy.” He sighed and fell back on the cushions. I think he was singing. The air was vibrating like rain. He drank several more glassfuls. Brenn waited patiently.

“I shall make you my Master Distiller,” Beelzebub said, sinking very deeply into his pillows. “Master Distiller. Must be careful, or all you will end up as is the heads and tails of hate, my friend.”

He seemed to understand what was happening, what Brenn was doing.

“If you want to avoid death, think what feeds life,” he babbled. “Death, of course. Look around you. From the lowly worm to the cosmic universe, life comes from death and death from life. Everything you eat, my friend, is death. Animal, plant, you kill to eat. It’s impossible to eat anything live. The moment life is in your mouth, it flees and you eat death. Life from death, death from life, you’re stuck in the cycle. So what to do?”

“Break away from the cycle.”

“Find a way to eat life. Now my darling, my darling—” He reached for my hand. I went to sit by him. “My darling is as close to an immortal as any creature.”

“Ula is immortal?”

“Immortal?” Beelzebub chuckled. “No. Not immortal. She’s just stuck. You’ve stucked her. By taking away her sealskin. Without her sealskin she is held the way she is, mummified by your poisoned love. And you, it seems, with her.”

“You’re immortal,” Brenn said.

“Oh, no, no. Don’t look at me with those hungry eyes, my friend. Even the gods cannot escape the scissors of Fate. I am not immortal. I am part of a race that lives inside a different time than yours. For you, I seem immortal, because seen through your time I live for millions of years. Not that you are always aware of us. We live in stages. First as dust, than as you see me here. Soon, I will reach my chrysalis stage, cocooned and unnoticed for another million years before I become like the air. You will only feel me as pressure and force, an occasional dance of light, and I will not care one iota about you. To me, you will be like dust, the whole human race like a spot of ink.”

Brenn now accepted the truth. Beelzebub was not immortal. He did not know the secret of immortality. But he was as certain as ever that the secret existed.

Beelzebub was not angry at Brenn for his treachery. He was as good-humored as ever, treating us with magnificent hospitality. He did not know the secret of immortality but he knew the secrets of many, many things, plants, minerals, animals, of sky and earth. These things he slowly taught Brenn, and with his clever ways Brenn began to manipulate this knowledge to extend his life. He no longer needed me every seven years. But he still needed me and he would not be satisfied until only he himself was the gateway to life.

Seal Skin is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and iBookStore. Also at Scribd and Oyster!

14 Oct
2014

The Silver Lady

 

Here’s a very fairy-tale inspired excerpt from Romance of the 3 Djinn!


There’s a world inside the shell. With trees and grass and sky. The sky is this very pale pinkish white. I’ve entered at the edge of a forest. Before me lies a small path that circles to a pretty cottage garden, which in turn takes me to a large, two-storey house. The roof is a lush green—I think there’s grass growing on the top. Grass that’s been cut very short so that it’s like a carpet—and it’s dotted all over with tiny white daisies. The windows are heavy with flower boxes, the flowers in them gigantic and candy-colored. My legs begin to walk up to the front door. I can’t stop.

“Hello, my darling,” a voice calls out. There’s a woman looking through a curtained window near the door. “Let me open the door, my darling!”

She’s beautiful. Tall, maybe eight feet tall, with long, curly silver hair. She’s wearing an apron. A nice, crisp white apron with two big pockets below the waist. As she waits for me, she smoothes out her apron with the longest fingers I’ve ever seen.

“You’ve lost your way, haven’t you, darling?” she says. Her voice is so soothing, glossy paint gliding on walls. “Come in and rest. Have a nice cup of tea, and then we can figure out what to do with you.”

She has me sit at the square kitchen table. She gives me a cup of tea. All the while she keeps staring at me.

“My,” she says, sitting down next to me, “it has been a long time since a stranger has come our way.”

She inspects my arms, my hands.

“My, what beautiful bracelets you have on,” she says. “And your rings! You sparkle like a rainbow, my darling!”

“Thank you. They’re wedding gifts. From my father-in-law.” Then I think I’d better say his name, to protect me. “From the Great Djinnaye Altan. My father-in-law.”

“The Great Djinnaye Altan,” she repeats, smiling wryly.

“You have heard of him, haven’t you?” I ask nervously.

“Yes, my darling. A great Djinni indeed. It would be nice to have such a father-in-law. But then, one would have to marry. Which would be a shame.”

“So you know who the Great Djinnaye Altan is?” I repeat, afraid.

“Yes, my darling. Who hasn’t heard of the Great Djinnaye Altan?” Her voice twinkles and I think she’s teasing me.

“Then can you tell me how to get home? Back to his palace. I don’t know how I got here. I was in a room and I saw a seashell—”

“A seashell, my darling?” she says, almost purring.

“Yes. Does that sound strange to you?”

“Not strange. Not at all. Seashells are quite common. I am not particularly fond of them myself, but I will admit that some seashells are very pretty indeed.”

“What is this world, please?”

“Oh, my darling, you’re getting yourself all worked up and that will do no good. Not to you. Not to me. As I said before, we will figure out what to do with you. Now relax yourself and finish your tea. I make a very good cup of tea, if I do say so myself. I can bake some scones, if you’re hungry. Tea and scones are so lovely together. Like rain and lightning.”

“No. I had my breakfast just a moment ago. Thank you.”

“Then drink your tea, my darling. It will make you feel better. Nothing like a good cup of tea, they say, which I find to be generally true. And then we will talk. I will tell you all that you want to know. And perhaps more.”

My tea is almost gone. My head feels strange, the room becoming dark. I can’t keep my eyes open. I’m surprised to find I’m half asleep.

“Now that’s better, my darling,” I hear her say. She has such a beautiful, soothing voice.

When I wake up, I’m lying on a wooden slab. I can’t move.

“Now, listen, my darling,” the silver lady says. “The second you touched the seashell your fate was sealed. There is nothing you or I can do. So think nothing more of it. I will now tell you where you are. This is the home of the Ghoul Crona. I am his servant. I am compelled to do everything that my lord Crona commands. He is not easy to care for. He likes to collect things. Woe to any servant who must care for a lord who collects things! See, look there. His latest passion is the jeweled arms and hands of great ladies such as yourself. I do not know why. But how can we ever understand the passions of others, unless we share their passions ourselves? And I certainly do not share Crona’s passions. But as his bonded servant, I must serve his passions as if they were my dear own.”

I see that there’s a shelf which is high up near the ceiling, one that circles the whole room. The shelf is sparkling with huge jewels—diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, lapis lazuli, corals, pearls, strings and strings of them—all hung on willowy arms and hands.

“Yes, I’m afraid you are waiting for Crona. He will be delighted to see you. As I said before, we haven’t had a stranger visiting us in a great long while. The seashell used to wash up on shores, to be found by one pretty lady or another. But about a thousand years ago, the Great Djinnaye Altan locked the shell up, so we’ve been quite hungry. You must have been naughty, because he will occasionally send us naughty creatures, bad witches and Djinn and the like. Oh, my master will be pleased! He’ll be back any minute now. He likes to go fishing in the afternoons.”

Terrified, I try to move my arms and feet. I can’t. I try calling out to Deacon, to Youri, to Channa. I try to vanish into smoke. Nothing. There is nothing I can do. All my great powers gone. I can’t even speak.

“There really is nothing you can do, my darling,” the silver lady says kindly. “It’s the tea. The tea has dulled all your powers. As you can see, you will not be able to lift even a tiny finger. Poor thing. I hate to see you struggle so. If you’d like, I can give you more tea. So you will sleep and not know what will happen.”

No! I scream inside. It’s my only chance, to stay awake and try to find a way to fight.

I hear someone coming up the pathway. The door opens.

“You! Come and get the fish!”

“Yes, Master,” the silver lady says. “Master, we have a visitor.”

“A visitor!”

The voice changes. It sounds like a delighted little boy. Into the room comes a giant, a very good-looking and even sexy one, like a movie star. A lock of thick hair brushes over one eye. Impatiently, he sweeps it away.

“Look at her jewels!” he cries out. “And what lovely arms to mount.”

He sighs with pleasure.

“Will you have your tea first, Master?” the lady asks.

“No. I can’t eat. I’m too excited. I must work now. Or maybe I should wait. Prolong the pleasure. It is not often that we get a visitor nowadays. No. I’m too excited. Let’s do it now. I’ve never seen jewelry so magnificent. She shall be the centerpiece of my collection.”

“She’s all nice and clean so I haven’t had much to do. No nasty sand or anything. And doesn’t she smell nice? I’d like some of her perfume. I thought we could pickle her after you’ve removed the arms.”

“Yes. That would be nice. And then we can have her with lots of cabbage. Lots of stewed cabbage.”

“And onions! With juniper berries! That would be lovely, Master. I look forward to it. I will get you your tools, Master.”

“I think we will have to sharpen all the knives before we start. We haven’t used the tools in a very long time. I want to do a pristine job.”

“I think you are right, Master. I shall do that now.”

A few minutes later, I hear the silver lady sharpening knives in another room. The giant stays with me, measuring my arms, my hands, each finger.

“How will I mount your arms?” he asks, looking at me from different angles. “I think I will do the classic v shape. I’m so out of practice. Let me look at my notes.”

There’s a book he wants on a shelf, a large, heavy, leather-bound book.

“I wish I’d take better notes,” he says, struggling with the book. “This diagram isn’t making that much sense now. It’s been too long. I should have had a professional do it. Let’s see.”

He looks around the room until he finds a pair of arms in the shape that he wants. He studies the arms for a long time.

“I don’t know,” he says to himself.

He comes over to me and lifts up one of my arms, comparing it to the mounted arms he has in his other hand.

Move! Move! Move! I scream in my head, desperate to save myself. I have to move; I have to fight. Arms, move! Choke him! Choke him!

The giant gasps in surprise. So do I. Because it’s not my arms that are attacking Crona—it’s the mounted arms in Crona’s hand. In fury they grab him by the neck. The giant falls backward but quickly regains his balance, ripping the arms off. Immediately another set of arms grab him. And then another, and another. All the arms in the room, the vast collection lining the ceiling, spring down towards him in terrible blood lust.

“Help! Help!” the ghoul screams.

The silver lady rushes into the room.

“Oh, my,” she says. “I’ll be right back, Master.”

She comes back with a huge butcher knife. Holding it high in the air, she swings the blade, chopping the giant’s head right off.

“Oh, that was lovely,” she says, surveying her work. “What a clever girl you are, my darling. I want to eat you up. You do smell wonderfully delicious, my darling. I was looking very forward to eating you with cabbage. But—by rights you deserve my gratitude for freeing me. I must do the proper thing and let you go. It was my disobedience to the Lady Karma that got me into this wretched situation in the first place. I rue the day I bit the heads off my baby sister. The tea will wear off in an hour or so. Sleep until then, my darling.”

I feel terrible when I wake up. The worst headache ever, all my blood vessels throbbing like they want to turn my brain inside out.

“So how do I get home?” I ask the silver lady. She’s busy mopping the blood off the floor.

“I do not know, my darling,” she says, seeing me now as a nuisance.

“You don’t know.”

“Not a clue.”

“Then what should I do?”

“Go back the way you came, I imagine. Now go along. I have a lot of cleaning up to do as you can see. Doesn’t his blood smell horrible? It’s that diet of his. Too much fats. I’m going to have to flood the floor boards. Rub the wood with plenty of rosemary and juniper. It’ll take days, I fear.” She sighs, but with deep contentment. “Well, the sooner I get started, the sooner things get done! I’ve never been much of a procrastinator.”

The silver lady holds the kitchen door wide open and scoots me out. She starts humming as she gets back to work, completely forgetting about me.

As I start for the woods, I see the giant’s headless body lying on the grass. Birds are already picking it over. I don’t suppose she’ll want to pickle that. The smell is pretty rank and I run to get away.

In the woods, I start blindly calling out for help.

“Deacon!” I call out. I don’t really believe he’ll hear me. That anyone will hear me. But I’m so frightened and I don’t know what else to do. “Youri!”

Still—Channa must realize by now that I’m not in my room. Ever since the Rain Viewing Festival, when Youri reprimanded her for losing sight of me, she’s kept a pretty close eye on me. She’s not someone who likes to be reprimanded. They must be looking for me. Even if it’s just Channa. I scream out again. Channa! Nothing. Maybe time passes differently in this world. Maybe in my room, only a second has gone by. I can’t be sure of anything anymore. I could be trapped in here forever. No—not forever. I can’t be trapped here forever! I start walking faster, looking frantically for some kind of sign or marker signaling the way out of the shell. If I got into the shell, there has to be a way of getting out of the shell. Right? There has to be an exit somewhere. Right? I just don’t know what it’s going to look like. And that’s what worries me. It could look like anything. A leaf. A pebble. With no flashing neon sign to point the way.

The hopelessness of it all calms me down. I look up at the pearly white sky with its streaks of pink. The shell? I reach for it, the top of the shell, and with everything I have, try to shoot right out of the shell. It just makes my headache worse and I have to lie down. I’m going to die here, I think, and I can’t help crying, sobbing, my fingers digging into the dirt.

Trapped inside a seashell, almost pickled and eaten for dinner—could my life become any more bizarre?

 

Romance of the 3 Djinn is available at Amazon, B&N, Kobo and iBookStore.

17 Jun
2014

On Finally Finishing The Tale of Genji

From Wikimedia: A hand scroll painting dated circa 1130, illustrating a scene from the "Bamboo River" chapter of the Tale of Genji.

The Tale of Genji. Sounds so romantic. Who can resist a story about Heian aristocrats, written in prose as elegant and luxurious as the period’s court costumes? Pages and pages of aesthetic delights, the celebration of romance, poetry, flowers, Genji (the tale’s hero) so beautiful, surely even the moon is envious.

Right.

Okay, this is what the book is really about: rich men behaving badly. Really, really badly. Like gross frat bros who stalk, kidnap, rape and even groom girls. This is a shocking book. I have never read a book with so many rapes and sexual assaults. It’s just an endless series of woman hunting.

Three, four hundred pages into it, I was left puzzling. I mean this book was written by a woman. Why would a woman write so elegantly, even sympathetically, about the adventures of douches whose main hobby is preying on young girls and women? (Interestingly, there is only one mention of a woman sexual predator and she’s played for cruel laughs).

Then, somewhere around page 900, I started to realize it wasn’t about the boys but about the girls. The Tale of Genji is really The Wail of Women. It builds, slowly, tear by tear, the very first tale about Genji’s mother, a gentle woman who dies from the sheer stress of court life. Specifically, she’s driven to death by the bullying of other women. Why is she bullied? Because the emperor loves her. And because she doesn’t have powerful male relatives to back her up.

So, The Tale of Genji is the tale of just how vulnerable a woman becomes when she lives in a society where women are completely dependent on men. If a man wants her, and his position is high enough, even the wife of the emperor is not safe from his advances. And that man can be anyone, even a stepson. Her only escape is the nunnery or death. (And the nunnery isn’t that safe: the book ends on a cliffhanger involving a nun who’s just too beautiful for her own good. And let’s get this straight: the douches will tell you that it’s always the girl’s fault, for being beautiful, for not being nice, for playing hard to get, etc.)

In the book, life is such hell for women, they usually don’t survive past the age of 35. If a man doesn’t drive her to death, the vengeful ghost of a rival will. Sure you get to wear awfully pretty clothes, but who the hell wants to marry your rapist to avoid a scandal? And that’s if you’re lucky because more often than not you’ll just become a secret mistress holed up in the middle of nowhere. And you won’t get any sympathy because even your mother will tell you how lucky you are to have been taken up by such an important and beautiful man. Yup. That’s some kinda reality there. (A really disturbing part of the book describes the bewilderment of a young girl as her kidnapper and groomer begins transitioning her from playing with toys to sex. And who is this groomer? Our hero Genji. But it’s all good because he’s so beautiful. Granted, the idea of beauty is complicated. In Heian times, beauty was considered a kind of karmic prize you got for being so good in a previous life. But what about this life, I kept wondering? The way Genji acts throughout the book, he’ll be lucky if he’s reborn as a hyena. I’m not saying he’s all bad. Out of pity he collects and adopts downtrodden ex-lovers, housing them at his great estate like he’s running a petting zoo. He’ll even occasionally visit them for a nice chat.)

BTW, the edition I read was the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition translated by Royall Tyler. Great edition with footnotes as overflowing as the hair of a great Heian beauty. The footnotes are essential—you need them to keep track of who’s who. Really. Characters are often referred to by their court/job titles, which change since people get promoted or die. And then suddenly old characters are known by new titles and old titles are referring to new characters. Confusing as hell, I’m telling you. A quarter of the time, I had no idea who the writer was talking about. Especially when there’s a new paragraph and there’s only a “she” or “he” and you’re thinking, “Who she?” since there could be two or three people “she” could be.

Since I mentioned page 900, I’m sure you realize that this book is big. And heavy. I injured my thumb trying to read it in bed. Took months to heal; the book took months to read. Why isn’t this an ebook?

9 May
2014

Contentment

Bob had been sitting in the car for over twenty minutes. Parked up on the next hill, he had a good view of Dulcey’s house. He’d come to feel responsible for the house. Like a good family doctor. With care, houses could last forever. Bob’s thinking was that a house like Dulcey’s should last only as long as the love did. Another year, Bob thought, another year and then he’d repaint. Some of the upstairs window frames needed repair. He’d do it all in one go. It was a grand house and he loved the feel of it.

He started the car and drove home full of contentment.

Carol’s car was in the garage. Surprised, Bob bounced into the house and grabbed Carol by the waist, giving her a messy smooch on her cheek.

“My, you’re in a good mood,” Carol said.

“So I am, so I am.” He gave her another kiss.

“You want to go over to Dulcey’s for dinner?” Carol didn’t see Dulcey as much as she would have liked. With her new job at the museum and all her volunteer work, she had even less time now than when the kids had been little. She missed her piano lessons. She’d start again soon.

“When do they expect us?” Bob asked.

“Around eight. Why?”

“I wanted to know if we have time,” he said. “And we do.”

He threw Carol over his shoulder and took her into the bedroom. On the bed he tickled her until she was crying with laughter. And then the tickles became caresses, the fingers, lips. The love they made was very quick, very hungry. The rest of the hour they spent lying together, holding hands. They were like warm little radiators.

Rain began to fall as they drove to Dulcey’s. Hand in hand they ran towards the house. Little droplets of rain covered the button of Carol’s nose. Bob wiped them away tenderly with his thumb. Carol put her hand around Bob’s neck and kissed him passionately.

 

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & NobleBuy a copy!

4 May
2014

Stories of Love Under a Full Moon

Chris was head over heels in love. He’d never been in love before. There had been all his crushes, but those had been warm buzzes of joy.

“I wish—I wish you knew what it was like, Penny. I wish you’d fall in love so I could talk to you about it.”

Penny thought that was a lousy reason for wishing someone in love. She didn’t trust love somehow. Everything she’d heard about it made her afraid. Like Dulcey and Cal. Dulcey was still in love with Cal, and yet he’d broken her heart. At first because she’d been too much a baby, and then later, when he’d died. Heartache was love, happiness imagined later, to make sense of love. Dulcey’s eyes still lit up thinking of Cal. Love twisted things around.

Chris and Penny were sitting on the opposite ends of the porch swing, where minutes before Chris had found Penny curled up fetus-fashion reading a book. She seemed so much a world within herself that he’d almost walked away.

“She’s so beautiful,” he said, the statement a cresting of all his newfound emotions. Love hunched him over, as if it was just too much for his body to bear. He looked up to see what Penny thought; she was smiling, not for him, but about some thought he was bound by only in its periphery.

“What are you smiling about?” he asked gently.

“Oh—” This brought her back to him. “I was just thinking—someone once told me that being in love was like having butterflies in your heart and Megan said—” Penny stopped. It was the earnestness on Chris’s face. He wouldn’t understand.

“I guess it’s sort of like that,” Chris said, trying to find a way for Penny to understand. “Only it’s more like someone grabbing you from the inside. It’s wonderful.”

Penny listened, quieting her hesitations. They sat together twenty, thirty minutes before Chris got up to go.

“I just wanted you to know how I felt,” he said, smiling enough to turn the whole world pink. Penny stared after him. She was unhappy and sat by herself thinking. When she went inside, she was glad Megan was at the breakfast nook. Spook was on her lap and she was reading a cookbook, her reading glasses slipped halfway down her nose. There was an impression of parody, of an old-fashioned storybook grandmother.

“Chris gone?” she asked, looking up. Penny nodded, sitting down next to her.

“Megan, what do you do when someone’s in love and you know it’s wrong?”

“Wrong? How so?”

“Wrong—wrong for them.” Penny didn’t want to mention Chris, but she didn’t know how else to explain herself. “Chris is in love with this girl we met when we were up at Sequoia—”

“Oh—” Megan said. She closed her book. “Well—you could kidnap him and lock him away for a couple of years.”

“You just have to watch, don’t you?” Penny said.

“I’m afraid so, Penny. Besides, how do you know? You don’t know what two people are like in private, when they’re alone together. There’s no place for wrong or right in a relationship.”

“But sometimes you know, Megan,” Penny said, holding back tears. It seemed so useless to know anything.

Megan felt suddenly dizzy, the air around her spinning. She put her head back and closed her eyes. We’re all in a dance, she thought. Swirling past each other, same steps, same gestures, in and out of ancient patterns, unable to stop, unable to help, except with a quick glance of helpless compassion while the silent music makes us move.

Dulcey walked in, feeling the mood, instinctively knowing its weight.

“It is a full moon, isn’t it?” she said wryly.

They looked out the window, a brilliant stone moon filling a quarter of the sky. Megan and Penny started laughing.

“I was just on the phone with Helen,” Dulcey said. “Penny, your grandfather is doing just fine. Completely his old self, Helen says. Although I don’t know about Helen. She sounds a little odd.”

“In-lawitis. When’s Helen coming back?” Megan asked.

“She wants to stay a couple of more days,” Dulcey replied. “Look at that magnificent moon! Let’s go outside to watch. We used to have the most marvelous moon-viewing parties—dancing to a full moon, reciting poetry, eating moon cakes, making up riddles.”

The three of them sat on the porch and watched the moon crest overhead. The sky was cloudless and black, the moon capturing time. The distance between them and the moon seemed merely an imagining.

This is an excerpt from Anchored Leaves, available as both paperback and ebook at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Buy a copy!

15 Apr
2014

Fog & Dreams

Here’s a poem I wrote on a foggy night. (It’s in the style of Tale of Genji.)

How can one not have
mournful dreams
when foghorns drift in
& out throughout the night?

12 Mar
2014

Happiness


Here, an excerpt from my novella All Married Together:

It was incredible pain. Waves and waves that had Will rolling on the ground screaming. After an hour of mental handholding, Chess took him to the emergency room.

The pain was centered in the lower right quadrant of his abdomen; Will was sure it was appendicitis. He had to lie down. The waiting-room chairs had arms so he went flat on his back on the hospital floor. The pain was slowly progressing into unbearable territory; Will thought he was going to throw up. The restroom was two yards away. There was constant traffic between Will and the restroom.

Chess knelt beside him. The nurses weren’t happy that Will was on the dirty floor but they left him alone. The big clock above him ticked away as the large double doors near his head opened and closed, gurneys with injured people sliding past him.

They’d been in the emergency room for almost an hour: there was a baby that couldn’t stop screaming and the faint smell of vomit in the air. A group of Japanese came in, all wearing face masks. The emergency room was just half full. Patients seemed mostly healthy except for the baby and a young woman who was burning up with fever. Her boyfriend had her wrapped up in his arms. Mysteriously, the Japanese were herded away into another building.

Through an intercom Will’s name was called. Chess helped him walk through those large double doors and into an examining room where a male nurse had him change his clothes before helping him onto a bed. Will shivered fiercely in the hospital gown.

“Let me get you some blankets,” the nurse said. “There. Better? Good. We tend to keep things cold. I know it’s awful but it keeps the germ count down.”

Will kept gripping the metal guards surrounding the bed, half rising in pain, almost as if he were about to give birth.

“We’ll get the doctor to see you as soon as possible,” the nurse said. He was so cheerful, so patient, so reassuring, so familiar. “And then we’ll pump you up with meds and get you as comfortable as we can. Just hold on a few more minutes.”

Will nodded.

Meanwhile a hospital staff officer came with a thick packet of financial and legal paperwork to be signed. Will was in no state to read legalese, so Will opted to give Chess his power of attorney.

“You’re sure you want her to have it?” the officer asked. “Because she’ll make all the decisions from now on.”

And Will said with contentment, “I can’t think of anyone better.”

“We’re married,” Chess explained. The officer smiled, happy with the answer.

The doctor came. He asked Will five questions. He seemed to have diagnosed Will’s condition with one look, the questions basic and redundant. “Kidney stones, most likely. But we’ll get you scanned just to be sure.”

The diagnosis was a go signal for the nurse. Within five minutes, Will was pumped full of Toradol, Dilaudid and Zofran.

“Dilaudid,” Will said, giving a thumbs up to the nurse.

“Almost worth getting kidney stones for that,” the nurse joked. “Now how do you feel? On a scale of one to five, one being no pain and five being pretty lousy.”

“I’d say three. Going on two,” Will reported.

“That’s what we like to hear,” the nurse said, happy. “If the pain gets to four, call me, and we’ll get you back down to three. We want you to be comfortable but we don’t want you floating off to space, if you know what I mean.”

On the drugs, Will felt very calm. He’d thought the drugs would make him drowsy but he felt fully alert and at peace. Will wasn’t sure if he’d ever felt like this, his thoughts remarkably tranquil.

“I’m surprised I’m not still in the waiting room,” he said to Chess. “I got treated so quickly.”

“You jumped the line. There were several people ahead of you, including the screaming baby and a woman who was burning up with fever. I think it was because you were lying on the floor moaning. That really helped your cause.”

“I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m in the emergency room. I don’t think I could have planned it any better.”

“Kidney stones. I thought it was going to be something serious. I was sure they’d be wheeling you off to surgery. You had me really worried.”

“Me too. I had no idea kidney stones were this painful.”

“I think we must have the world’s most cheerful nurse,” Chess remarked.

“Is it the drugs or does that nurse seem really familiar?” Will asked. “I feel like I know him or something.”

“I keep thinking the same thing,” Chess said. “Oh! I know. He looks just like that actor—you know, the one we saw in that movie last week. That comic.”

“Yeah. He could be the guy’s twin brother,” Will agreed. “You don’t think it’s the actor doing research?”

“Maybe that’s why he was so liberal with the drugs,” Chess joked.

Will held Chess’s hand with gratitude and love.

“I’ve put you through a lot,” he said. “You must be tired. You haven’t even had a chance to eat dinner. Why don’t you sit down. It might take a while to get the scan.”

Chess agreed. There was a chair near the foot of the bed. She was still feeling jet-lagged from her trip to South America—she’d met so many people, visited so many farms and factories—her body buzzed with the trip’s vibrations and she couldn’t keep her eyes open, thoughts lost in the background noise of the hospital.

The tiny examining room was near the ambulance entrance. The corridor was busy, firemen and police, people in traumatic distress, gurneys and the sound of their wheels against the hard floor. Nurses and paramedics joked about sandwiches, their attempts at sneaking away for late dinner breaks, a quick smoke. Will’s first wave of pain had attacked him around five that evening. It was already ten.

Outside, in the corridor, a new struggle was beginning. There was an elderly man, six foot two, weighing maybe two hundred and thirty pounds. He kept arguing with the nurses: “Where’s my sweater? Someone took my wallet. Someone took my wallet! Where’s my sweater?”

“Sir, you have to stay on the gurney. We don’t want you to fall again.”

“I know what’s going on,” the man said. His voice was choking with anxiety. “You’re all in on it. Someone took my wallet.”

“Please get back on the gurney!”

He struggled to find himself. The nurses tried to soothe him; they asked him questions about where he lived: “Yes, yes, I live alone. My wife died. That was years ago. I live alone now. I used to teach. At the college. I have an apartment. I’ve lived here a long, long time. But it’s not really an apartment.”

Several times the man tried to force himself out of the gurney, but lacking strength, became entangled instead. Frustrated, the staff began threatening him, treating him as if he were a very large, very naughty child. Terrified, he refused to speak again, moaning, “Leave me alone, leave me alone.”

After this, for a long stretch, there was only quiet.

Will watched Chess. She was soundly asleep, fatigue creating shadows on her face. He remembered that first time she was asleep in his arms, on the floor of the airport, the blizzard raging away. They shared so many memories now, Chess and Will, tiny unremarkable memories that came surging through him as pure joy. His sorrow was that he hadn’t married Chess years and years before. Then regret dissolved and time was no longer relevant: in a total compression of heart and soul, his memory claimed Chess from the very beginning of his birth. Yes, he’d known Chess all his life and he was going to know and love her for a fourth year and a fifth year and a sixth year and on and on until all the years were a suspension of love and happiness.

A young orderly came in and asked, “So, you ready for a ride?”

Chess woke up. She felt as if she hadn’t slept at all, just merely floated along with the consciousness of the hospital.

“Is it all right for me to come?” she asked, gathering all their possessions.

“Sure,” the orderly said, getting ready to push the hospital bed out into the corridor.

Chess walked alongside the bed as Will and the orderly cheerfully bantered together. Will was still hooked up to his meds, still calm, still relaxed. Chess couldn’t help smiling. Which was strange. Everything felt strange, like she was hooked up to Will’s meds too. Maybe she was dreaming. But she liked it. Because for the first time, she actually felt married. To Will. That she and Will were really married. And she smiled and smiled. She and Will were all married together now.

“What are you laughing about?” Will asked.

“Nothing. I’ll tell you later,” Chess said. “Later, when we’re home.”

“Home. I can’t wait.”

Their home together.

All Married Together is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook.

6 Jan
2014

Women Writing Woes

Today I was reading Flavorwire’s interesting post on Jennifer Weiner and her difficult position in the debate about women writers. The post is also a dissection of Rebecca Mead’s Weiner profile in The New Yorker (Mead is one of my favorite writers, BTW—been a fan for years [even fact-checked a piece of hers and found her to be really nice, which you can't say about most writers]).

Both the post and article talk about genre fiction versus “literary” fiction. Genre fiction, like chick lit and what’s known as “commercial” women’s fiction have plucky, likable heroines and a happy ending. Most people like and want genre fiction. Thinking about this made me realize that most literary agents are also genre fiction readers. So many of my own novels have been turned down by agents because they didn’t think my heroines were plucky or likable. (The plucky thing seems to be very American.)

Alas. I have to agree with Claire Messaud when she says you’re in deep trouble if you’re reading to find friends. And as Michelle Dean writes in her Flavorwire post, “Many women are not safe, relaxing, and fun personalities, and it is a little strange, and constricting, and even stultifying, that we are afraid of seeing them be so messy in books.”

31 Oct
2013

Trick-o’-Caroling

A little something for Halloween!

Picking a Halloween costume was an art. Early on, Megan and Penny had talked about going as headless ghouls, but somehow the ghouls had gotten lost in Dulcey’s plans. Penny was going as Little Nell. Megan was disappointed.

“What are you going to go as?” Helen asked Megan.

“I don’t know—I don’t think I’m going,” Megan replied. It just seemed too much of a bother. She’d stay home with The Tale of Genji. And a vodka martini.

“Of course, you’re going.” Sometimes it was as if Megan was Helen’s second child.

“What are you going as?” Megan asked, looking for inspiration.

“Cleopatra. Want to see the costume? I picked it up last night.” Helen had wanted to surprise everyone but she couldn’t wait. Her costume was too good, a gown threaded with gold and silver, a five-pound wig for a crown—just thinking about it made her feel regal. “I’m getting my makeup done at the salon.”

“This wig weighs a ton,” Megan said, putting the wig over her head. “Are you sure you’re going to be able to wear it? You’ll be sweating all evening. You will.”
Helen took the wig away from her.

In the past, all of Megan’s costume decisions had been made with Stella. Alone, she was indecisive and self-defeating.

“Why don’t you go as Mata Hari?” Dulcey suggested. They were all sick of Megan’s waffling.

“I’m too wash-and-dry for that.”

“Nonsense. You’d make a wonderful Mata Hari.”

“Why? What did Mata Hari look like?”

“Dark and mysterious. She enthralled men with her Javanese dance of love.”

“I’ll go as Virginia Woolf.”

“Be Mata Hari, Megan,” Helen commanded.

She resisted Mata Hari, but in the end, it was all she had. The evening of the party she inspected her costume and makeup. The fin de siècle felt hat that hung jauntily at an angle, the fake fur stole, pearls and gloves. Her suit was historically correct to the last detail (it’d taken a week for her to sew it). Her makeup was just as detailed, her face grayish white, her lips blue. She’d made her eyes bloodshot by putting a little vinegar in them. Painful, but necessary. Satisfied, Megan went downstairs to reveal herself.

“I don’t get it,” Helen said.

“I’m Mata Hari.”

“What’s with the makeup?”

“I’m dead. I’m the corpse of Mata Hari.”

“What’s that?” Helen asked, pointing to holes in Megan’s suit.

“Bullet holes.” Megan had borrowed a rifle to riddle her suit. The residue of real gunpowder was absolutely essential. Not just for the look of the powder, but also for the smell of it, the way the powder’s acrid smell wailed its way into the nostrils.

“You’re going to spend all night explaining that,” Helen said.

Dulcey saw the bullet holes and screamed with laughter.

“The question was blood or no blood,” Megan explained. “I thought I’d be tasteful. Just a spray of gunpowder.”

“I think it’s wonderful. Absolutely wonderful! So! What about it, ladies? Shall we proceed?” Dulcey held out her diamanté-studded lorgnette and led the way.

As they neared the Lewiskis’, Dulcey’s heart began to pound. Stage fright. She felt extremely uncomfortable in other people’s homes, unfamiliar stages.
“There! There! We can park there!” She found relief in barking out commands, directing traffic. Getting out of the car, her knees almost buckled, her legs imperceptibly shaking. Penny gave her hand a squeeze. Dulcey squeezed back and walked swiftly towards the house.

Regina was the first to greet her.

“Dulcey, sweet sunshine!”

“Regina!”

“You look amazing, darling.” Regina gave Dulcey a peck on the cheek. Threading her arm through Dulcey’s, she propelled her forward.

Helen lagged behind.

“Helen?” Megan asked. “You okay?”

Overwhelmed by her costume, Helen couldn’t breathe. Sweat was flaking off her gold and silver makeup.

“Just take off the wig,” Megan advised.

“I can’t. It’ll ruin the effect. I’ll be okay.” She didn’t tell Megan she was wearing a corset. Her gown was diaphanous and she’d wanted her body to appear perfect. She held on to Megan, walking slowly up the driveway.

Bob Lewiski waved enthusiastically at them. He looked more Hollywood detective than British inspector, but he did have a magnificent pipe hanging from his lips.

“Lady Fairmouth, I presume?” he said, pretending to write notes in a little black note pad.

Dulcey laughed, delighted. “That pipe! I love that pipe!”

“It was my pop’s. Last time I had it in my mouth, he beat the living daylights out of me. Welcome! Come on in everyone! The gang’s all here.”

“My god!” Dulcey said, surveying the room. “I can’t believe how fantastic everyone looks!”

Stephanie immediately ran towards Dulcey, giving her a huge hug. She was a chocolate chip cookie with a great big chunk missing. Carol had added teeth marks with felt pen.

“Oh, sweetheart, you look fantastic!” Dulcey said, hugging her back.

Megan’s heart dropped. The room was full of Scarletts and Rhetts, Marilyn Monroes and John Waynes. It was Hollywood, not Halloween. She wanted ghouls, headless demons, dead souls reaching for the living. Not a night of play, but a night of experience. She wished she hadn’t come.

Carol Lewiski suddenly popped up with a tray of drinks.

“Drink?” she asked. She was Groucho Marx, her thick electrical-tape eyebrows constantly in motion.

“Yes, thank you.” Megan took a glass and disappeared.

“I think we have a hit,” Dulcey whispered to Carol. “Only—I think everyone’s getting a little too sloshed. Me included. I had a few at lunch with Regina. I can’t believe she’s still standing. That’s one tough cookie.”

“Maybe we should serve dinner?” Carol said.

“The sooner the better, I’d say,” Dulcey agreed.

Carol struck a gong, one-half of some old cymbals Bob had lying around.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, dinner is served.”

The buffet snaked all around the dining room. Dulcey nibbled quietly in a corner, rehearsing lines in her head. A John Wayne came up to her.

“So when’s the fun starting?”

“Start, my dear? What can you possibly mean?” Lady Fairmouth asked, the voice husky and stiff, vowels curdled.

“You know—ah, right,” he said, winking.

It happened as people lingered over coffee. The lights turned off, then on. Startled, people gasped and then laughed in anticipation. Dulcey wailed melodramatically, “My necklace! My necklace! Someone has stolen my necklace!” Inspector Snoop came dashing in. A voice pierced the air— “Someone’s been murdered!” Carol faked a faint. Everyone rushed to say their lines, a free-for-all ensuing as everyone laughed hysterically, Dulcey’s face streaming with tears. Then suddenly a door slammed and the room blackened.

“Penny, sweetheart—you’re not supposed to turn the lights off anymore,” Dulcey called out.

“I didn’t turn the lights off,” Penny said.

Bob made his way to the light switch. “The power’s gone.” He looked out the window. The entire neighborhood was black, except in the glowing orange light of children trick-or-treating, their plastic pumpkins eerily swinging in blackness.

Carol hunted out candles. Bob lit an old hurricane lamp, the light somber, flickering ghosts deflected.

“You had this all planned out!” someone accused Dulcey.

“Not me!” she laughed. And then she found her legs. “It is All Hallows’ Eve, the night the dead become the living. Expect the unexpected. All other nights the ghosts hide inside us, wandering in our imagination, where dark is light and light helpless. Only once, one night out of the whole year, are they too strong to be held in imagination, too irresistible to be dismissed. Boldly they come, boldly into the night, to grab what is theirs and celebrate. What we won’t recognize, what we can’t believe because we are too afraid, is that this one night, they own us. Ghosts are here always, their breath on our hair, their touch down our spines, watching us as we huddle in our beds. It’s not just our imagination. Tonight is Halloween. Let’s touch the ghosts. Come on. Everybody. Blow out the candles. I dare you.”

Bob turned off his hurricane lamp. Slowly, the candles snuffed away. It was blacker with the sounds of hushed, anticipating breathing. The room seemed choked.

I can feel you, Megan thought, her arms folded about her. Stella.

Suddenly a cracking, thunderous sound!

“Is that you, Bob?” Dulcey giggled.

“How did you know?” Bob asked.

“Been on too many soundstages. Not bad. I’m going to put you into the act, dear man.”

Bob shimmered his cymbals.

“I know! Everyone, hold hands,” Dulcey commanded. “Let’s have a seance! Be very quiet. Be very welcoming. Hello. Hello. Is there a spirit in the house? Is there a spirit in the house?”

“Yes,” Bob croaked.

“Who are you, spirit?”

“The spirit of the drunken sailor!”

“What do you want, spirit?”

“A cold martini, shaken, not stirred.”

Laughter roared.

Dulcey quickly stood up, lit a candle.

“We’re going trick-o’-caroling, everyone,” she said. “Light all the candles!”

“Trick a what?”

“Trick-o’-caroling—you know, like Christmas caroling.”

“But there aren’t any Halloween songs,” Helen called out.

“We can sing camp songs,” Stephanie suggested.

“Stephanie!” Dulcey grabbed the girl and kissed her cheek, hugging her tightly.
“Right, then, off we go.”

“Oh, this is getting too hokey,” Regina whispered in Megan’s ear. “She can be too much. Don’t you think?”

Megan ignored Regina, walking away.

Gaily, Dulcey’s party went around the neighborhood, ringing doorbells and yelling, “Trick-o’-caroling!” As they sang, other groups joined them, until, a festive mob, they ended up on Platter’s Field, drinking apple cider and roasting hotdogs and marshmallows around a bonfire, giddy with joy. The power quietly flickered back on around four in the morning.

Dulcey always maintained Bob had planned the whole thing.

“You’re giving me much too much credit, Dulcey,” Bob would protest.

“Don’t play modest with me, mister. I have your number. Only, Bob, next time, don’t blow out the whole city. No point in overdoing things.”

They couldn’t stop giggling, bending over together in hysterics.

This was an excerpt from Anchored Leaves. If you enjoyed it, buy the book! The ebook version is free if you buy the paperback at Amazon.

23 Oct
2013

To Live It Again

Here, I share another excerpt from Anchored Leaves. In this parcel, Dulcey relives her past through her young, beloved protege.

 

Dulcey often talked about a children’s play she had once done called Tales of Scheherazade, a two-hour extravaganza she’d written based on A Thousand and One Nights. She’d play bits and pieces from the score, twenty-odd songs of delightful, haunting beauty, songs she was most proud of having written. People went home humming the music, remembering certain lines like forgotten yearnings recaptured. They insisted she do the play.

Dulcey hesitated—she wasn’t sure how she’d pulled it off the first time around. The basic text was written, the songs complete. All she’d have to do was consolidate her many versions, add enough lines for all the children. Penny could play the piano—but that would mean she’d have to create an arrangement, which was always so much work. Dulcey generally ad libbed the arrangements, using only a sketch of notes as a bible. For her, it had always been much more easier to create spontaneously than play what was already written.

No one took notice of Dulcey’s reservations. She’d done too good a job conjuring up the Tales. The play was growing chaotically around her and she didn’t understand. For the first time, she was afraid.

One of the play’s most enthusiastic supporters was Carol Lewiski. She was mesmerized by Dulcey’s descriptions of the original production and began immersing herself in the world of the ancient Persians. Sometimes she’d drive three, four hours to visit a museum or library, losing days inside books. She was especially affected by the religious art: the colors, the geometry, the grace and vibrancy that celebrated without mentioning—she couldn’t ever remember feeling so moved. It was more than looking at pretty pictures; she was filled with ideas, ideas she found couldn’t be expressed except with colors and shapes, in the sensuous flow of cloth. So much of her married life had been about Bob or the children, about being sensible and making a dollar stretch. She’d never known what a fulfilling career meant; she’d found a secretarial job with the school district to help support the family. If she had been extravagant, it had been for the children. Even her dreams had been for her children. And now she was so moved, being inside her own self, being able to express who she was without being bound in relation to anyone else. She felt confident in a way that seemed at odds with everything she’d ever thought she’d known about herself. For the first time in her life she wanted to travel, really discover the world and herself in it. All because of Dulcey’s beautiful play.

The premiere was three weeks away. Megan had arranged for the use of her school’s auditorium. Jim Abernathy had a friend of his print the programs in exchange for advertising. Only the costumes and props were left. In the Lewiskis’ garage, a band of volunteers spent the weekend sorting through donated materials.

“Oh, look at this!” Carol pulled out a large length of glossy yellow cotton, patterned with birds of paradise. She draped it over a shoulder to see if it was long enough for a full costume. “We can definitely use this. Maybe Aladdin’s robe. Or Scheherazade’s gown. I was thinking, Dulcey, if we had a bake sale we could probably raise three, four hundred dollars. Stephanie’s Girls Scout troop raised five hundred at their bake sale.”

“That’s a great idea. We can ask everyone to make something.” She knew Carol would take care of everything.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking. I just made some plain sugar cookies and they sold those for ten cents each. I’m sure Josie Abernathy would make her whoopie pies. Easily fifty cents. And Megan makes those heavenly almond meringues—I’ll start calling around.”

“You know, I have a pair of earrings just that color yellow. It’s the kind that hangs really long.” The flow of Dulcey’s fingers shaped the earrings down her neck. “It’ll be perfect. I think it’s somewhere in my closet. Penny, remind me to go look for those later.”

“Dulcey, you look tired,” Carol said, pressing her warm hand on Dulcey’s shoulder.

“I’m all right,” Dulcey said, smiling. “Just need a nice hot bath and an early night’s sleep.”

“Helen, why don’t you take Dulcey home,” Carol said.

“I think that’s a good idea,” Helen agreed. Dulcey didn’t protest.

The next day, Dulcey and Penny sat at the kitchen table trying to finalize the script. Penny was taking typing classes at school so she acted as Dulcey’s secretary. It was a good time to be working on the Tales, that quiet time in summer when everyone was away and boredom steeped in the heat. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe she was tired. She couldn’t concentrate, staring at the odd pieces of paper, the scribbled notes that seemed to float in and out of her consciousness. It’s just scribbles, she thought, scribbles. Somehow, when she imagined things, it was so much more. There was nothing here—just scribbled nonsense.

“All these little plays, these little songs I’ve written—they don’t mean anything to me,” she suddenly confided to Penny. “I haven’t done anything, not really. Haven’t accomplished a damn thing worthwhile. I’ve just thrown my life away. But it’s not too late. I’ve been working on something, something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. Look—I want you to see.”

She put her iced tea down and dug through a pile of papers until she found the manila folder she was looking for. Inside were three flimsy pieces of onionskin paper.

“I’m writing a book,” she said, almost whispering. “It’s the story of my family. My mother’s family. They go all the way back to Jamestown. Royalists to the bone; after the Revolutionary War they went straight up to Canada. I bet you didn’t know there were colonists loyal to England. They don’t teach that at school. It’s just like my family—to stick to the losing side. Anyway, sometime in the 1800s they came back down to America and somehow settled in California. I want to write about that—a big family epic about California. Now you mustn’t tell anyone. I don’t want anyone to know until it’s all finished. I haven’t gotten very far—I’m just doing the research now. I’ve written away for some documents—birth records and property deeds. You know, we can trace the family back to Alfred the Great. I just want to accomplish something for once in my life. I had so much talent—but I just took it all for granted. Like my MGM contract—I just wasted it. I never tried seriously at anything—and I had so much. I could just kick myself.”

She snapped the folder shut.

“Don’t tell anyone now. Promise. I’m only telling you because—Penny, I want you to promise me that if I die before it’s all finished, you’ll finish it for me. You carry on for me.”

Penny slowly nodded, too frightened not to promise.

“You promise?” Dulcey asked again, wanting to be sure Penny really understood. Penny nodded again, feeling dizzy. Dulcey scrutinized her face, then relaxed, judging the promise to be good and knowing. There was no one else except Penny.

“Also—there’s something else. Come to my room.”

Penny nervously followed. Dulcey motioned for her to sit on the bed. She took a large cardboard box from out of the closet and rested it between herself and Penny.

“Most of this ain’t worth a thing. Just things I’ve collected over the years.”

From the box came smaller boxes containing costume jewelry, old greeting cards, programs, trinkets. The last thing to come out of the box was a large velvet cloth that was tied like a sausage.

“This is the only thing I have left that’s worth anything now,” Dulcey said, carefully unrolling the sausage. Leaved in between the velvet were a dozen pieces of antique jewelry, the whole collection not worth more than a few thousand dollars.

“These are all family heirlooms. I want them to be passed on to my nieces. The garnet pieces should go to my niece Christine and this aquamarine set I want Elizabeth to have. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?” Dulcey picked up the aquamarine bracelet and held it against her wrist. The dangling jewels swayed, releasing a reverie bound in cycles of light. Dulcey surveyed her treasures.  She touched each piece and then patiently rerolled the bundle, being careful to lay each earring, bracelet, necklace flat against the velvet.

“I can’t believe it’s all I have left. How the mighty have fallen. There was a time when Ronny and I’d spend a couple hundred dollars at lunch and not even think twice. We had a magnificent home, entertained all the time. We never even thought about money. And then things happened so fast. Ronny retired and then the cancer—we didn’t think he’d even survive. Six months the doctors said. We had to trade the pension in for the operation. I used to teach music just for fun. God, it’s awful not having any money. I couldn’t even get a decent dress for Elizabeth’s wedding. Everyone thought I looked awful and I knew it. After the reception I was helping my sister to her room—she was really plastered—and she turned to me and said why did you even come? I know she was drunk, but, god, it was like she’d kicked me in the stomach.” They’d been so close—Dulcey had helped raise Christine and Elizabeth.

“I used to be very sophisticated, oh, so chic—Ronny was so proud of me. Now I’m just a buffoon. Where are those earrings I was telling Carol about? Here they are. What do you think? Just perfect, aren’t they? Here, you hold on to those. God, I haven’t looked through all this stuff in ages. Oh—you have to look at this!”

Dulcey gave Penny an old vinyl 78 single. The cover had swaying palm trees and the label read Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine! Sung by that new sensation Diane Beverley!

“Diane Beverley! That’s me! I made that when I was with MGM. Begin the Beguine! And, oh! Here’s my dress—the dress I used to perform in.”

Dulcey pulled away the fragile tissue paper. She carefully unfolded a black silk gown.

“I bet you can’t believe I was ever this small!” She held the dress to her chest and spread it across her hips. “There should be a pair of shoes—right at the bottom, Penny.”

Penny found matching black silk sandals in a plastic bag. She took them out of the plastic. The shoes were so delicate, silk fraying at the edges.

“There’s no way I’ll ever fit into those sandals again. I bet they’d fit you though. Try them on.”

Penny took off her tennis shoes and slowly fitted the sandals to her feet. She stood up, suddenly three inches taller, her body, the world, unbalanced.

Dulcey looked at the dress again, examining its details without seeing them. With sorrow she said, “Here. Try it on.”

Penny began to undress.

“Careful,” Dulcey warned. “Watch the shoes.”

Guiding Penny, Dulcey gently pulled the dress up around her, zipping it carefully up the back. She straightened the skirt, brushing the wrinkles and smoothing the fabric over Penny’s hips. The gown fell just an inch above the heels, Penny’s toes peeking out.

“Turn around. My god. I can’t believe it. It really is me. Only I was a bit more busty than you. But there are tricks to take care of that.” Dulcey stuffed tissue into the bosom of the dress. “What would we women do without tissue? There—you look a picture. Just some work on your hair and you’ll be ready for Hollywood. Oh, Mr. Mayer—” She fingered Penny’s hair, brushing the thick curtain away from her face.

“Let’s do something with your hair,” she said, pulling Penny into the bathroom. With large scissors, Dulcey began ruthlessly cutting away at Penny’s waist-length hair. Stunned, Penny sat watching as leaves of her hair fell all around her. Dulcey liked the way Penny’s new hair bounced around her shoulders. She decided to put it up in hot curlers for that Hollywood glamour look. Penny needed makeup, too. Lots of it.

“Close your eyes for some pancake,” she said, buffing Penny’s face with cream foundation. “I wish I still had some false eyelashes. There was a time when I never left home without them. But this will do, this will do. I think we’re finally ready.” Dulcey threw off the towel that had been protecting the gown and had Penny stand up for inspection. “My god—you look like a young Ava Gardner. Take a look.”

Penny didn’t understand what she was seeing in the mirror, the creamy paleness of her décolletage against the silky blackness of the dress, her narrowed waist, the blossoming of her hips. Her face was like a mask of someone she could almost recognize.

“What do you think? The dress is a bit loose, but you’ll grow into it. ‘Begin the Beguine’.” Dulcey seemed sad, wistful. And then, with a roaring voice, she cried, “Come on!”

She grabbed her record and marched Penny into the front sitting room where the stereo was. Dulcey turned the record player on. For a moment there was nothing but static, the needle skipping over scratches. Then the orchestra began, followed by the voice, clear and rich, and very young.

Dulcey stood behind Penny. She began guiding Penny’s arms, whispering movements through her body. Memory and experience sang through every fiber of their being. The song had become her life.

 

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Anchored Leaves




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