Hawthorne, Nebraska probably reminded moviegoers from all over North America of Fill-in-the-Blanksville. It reminded me of Essex, Ontario. The single road that crosses railroad tracks and passes some silos and a water tower before it becomes, briefly, Main Street, then reverts again to a numbered route that runs straight through flat farmland. Main Street, with its tavern, its Family Restaurant (Chinese-Canadian, perhaps), its grocery store and hardware store and liquor store and drug store. In gridded squares off Main Street, the houses, with their cushioned chairs that rock but don’t recline; their floral-print couches draped carefully, back and arms, with crocheted doilies; their decorative wooden cabinets filled with tiny, collectible spoons, and glass bowls filled with gritty, plastic fruit. The houses, with their old people. They’ve known each other for decades and decades, these old people, and they have names that no one has now (Weltha, Cecil, Nelda, Betty, Delmar). They don’t seem to talk about anything except the weather (all of them), cars (the men), and who’s doing poorly (the women, stage-whispery and head-shaky). They ask their visitors half-hearted questions about life in the Big City and make vaguely disapproving noises at the answers. They don’t change, but you do: every time you show up, at Christmas or in July, they exclaim at how much taller you are and say you must know, now, what you want to be when you grow up. (I started answering “a writer” when I was about 10. My Essex grandmother always replied, smugly, “Oh, you’ll change your mind.” At which point I always thought, indignantly, “Why even bother asking?”)
I remember being shocked whenever I saw another child, in Essex—because surely there couldn’t be children there; it was a small, colourless place whose children must have all grown up and moved away long ago, as my father had. It was a place where old folks died, all the time; I knew this for certain because my grandmother took me to funeral visitations, some for people she didn’t even know. But lo: there were children, both in town and living on the dusty-looking farms outside of it. I could tell because some of the houses there had toys in their yards: trampolines, wading pools, swing sets.
A few weeks ago, at around the same time Peter and I saw Nebraska, we started watching Six Feet Under. I caught the first season-and-a-bit when it originally aired, but we’re now well into season three, and un-viewed territory, for me. Strands of movie, show and Essex County are now weaving (possibly knotting) in my head.
In the Fisher house, as in those funeral parlours in Essex, and, inevitably, in Hawthorne, there are old, freshly coiffed people in coffins, and there are kids who’ve grown up and come home again, even if only briefly, to floral-print couches and meatloaf and possibly Jell-O salads with pineapple and mini marshmallows in it (and, in my grandmother’s case, shredded iceberg lettuce underneath, smeared with Thousand Island dressing). (Seriously.)
Sometimes the deceased in Six Feet Under have left particular instructions for the clothes they’ll wear, in their open caskets. Sometimes they haven’t, and it’s their children or spouses who care desperately about (even fight over) the clothing, the earrings, the hair. I’ve never thought of myself as someone who’d care even a little about such things. And as for open caskets—ew. But then my grandmother died. And when I looked down into her open casket, at her adeptly made-up face, her thin but well-coiffed hair, her floral-print dress, I took myself utterly aback by crying. And there was the crowd, too—the many, many people who filed up to us and took our hands and told us what a fine, stern, impressive woman she’d been.
“She would have loved this,” we said to each other, all wobbly and laughing. “God, how she would have loved this.” (Though not that particular use of “God”, which, when we were kids, would have made her snap our names and then purse her lips. But here’s a poignant, fascinating thing: when she got dementia, she went back—waaay back, to a time before she’d been Born Again. For the last few years of her life she was gentle and smiled a lot and never, ever mentioned Jesus.)
The only thing missing, in her coffin, was the giant handbag.
Afterward we followed Main Street out of town until it turned back into a number, running straight through flat farmland. Kilometers later, in Cottam Baptist Church, we wobbled and laughed all over again—because there, arrayed in rows on a couple of long tables, were bowls and bowls of Jell-O salad: green, red, and orange Jell-O, studded with maraschino cherries, pineapple, mini marshmallows, slimy halved grapes and tiny cubes of Granny Smith apple.
Hawthorne, Nebraska. Essex, Ontario. Open caskets. Old people with old-people names: Weltha, Cecil, Nelda, Betty, Delmar.
Ever since Chip the Cat died a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about it. Not his death, only: the others I’ve witnessed. And not just those: the births, too. Because I’ve been thinking, in a helpless, formless way, about how our bodies fight to be born, and to die; about struggle: how we’re told we should face it, and how we actually do.
They’re not ‘contractions’; they’re ‘surges.’ Take away the negative connotations. Manage the pain by imagining your body as a rose, unfurling bit by bit to the sun that is your labour, your baby. Be centred and calm. And hey: you might even have an orgasm! Many women do, in labour!
I tried so hard to listen to words like these, as my first baby’s birth approached. I wanted to believe them—even the ones that made me wince because they were so clumsy and trite. I knew there would be pain. I told myself that I’d be dignified and quiet, like the women in the birth videos I’d watched. Dignified, quiet, rosy, surging with strength and orgasms.
Near the end of that first labour of mine, some tiny, lucid part of my brain thought: “Who’s screaming like that? Geez.” A few moments or hours later, that lucid part thought: “Oh man. That’s me.”
I was not a rose. I had not a single orgasm. I was a yowling, writhing beast (nope—no meds) with a brain that had shrunk to pinprickedness within the vista of pain that was my body. “I” was gone. Small-scale time was gone; what was left was primordial and forever. The body “I” had been in was fighting, scrabbling, straining, making all sorts of noise and expelling all sorts of fluids.
But then I started to push, and I remembered what time it was, and I saw my sister’s face at the foot of the bed, and it was my baby who was doing most of the struggling. I’d seen that model pelvis, in my prenatal classes; I’d seen how the poor floppy fetus-doll had to contort to get itself free. (Stupid bipedalism, with its morphological demands.) It took my real baby only 20 minutes, but they must have been insanely difficult ones. She was compressed, trapped; she was pushed down, inexorably and without any say in the matter. She barely cried, after my body had expelled her. She lifted her bald, bloody head from my chest and mewed a bit, then flopped down again, as weak and exhausted as I was. And I, fully returned to “me”ness, crooned and cooed—back in residence; back in control.
I’ve been at about 25 labours other than my own, and I know how different birth can look. Some women, even without pharmacological assistance, go very, very quiet. One of these, after yet another intense, silent contraction, grabbed my hand and whispered, “I think I’m going to die. When will this end?” I don’t remember what I said. But not even an hour later, her own baby girl was lying on her chest, and she was laughing, beyond weary, her mind returned to her body, so that both felt like hers again.
Why can’t she just accept that she’s dying? Why can’t she make peace with it? It would be so much easier…
In early 1999, when I got pregnant, my best friend Alison already had cancer. In enormously distressing parallel, our bellies swelled. While I expanded everywhere, though, she shrank. My hair grew thicker; hers fell out. But we both slept a lot, then had trouble sleeping. We both went off food, got cravings, felt better, went off food again. Our bodies reacted together to two very different sorts of invasions.
Oh, Dylan Thomas: you wrote them—those words about not going gently. And Alison didn’t. She was the sweetest, happiest person—and she couldn’t accept anything except the injustice. “I’m 30. 30! How am I supposed to be okay with this?”
When she finally did admit to me that she was going to die, it wasn’t a relief to either of us. It was real, and it was terrible, and there was absolutely no catharsis of any kind.
At noon on the day she died, she was agitated: her clawed hands swiped at mine; her cracked lips moved; her eyes (blue and black and yellow) widened and widened and refused to close, even in a blink. She moaned, low and rhythmically. Her body was stiff, convulsive, so delicate and defiant, after days of comparative listlessness, that I went back to the hospital that night. She was still, by then. Her eyes were half-closed; they’d given her a sedative, after her sister had arrived, at long last, from out of town. Her sister had gone home, by the time I arrived. I hunkered down beside her, and her husband said, “She’s drooling” and we watched the clear, thin stream turn dark brown and molasses-thick, and someone yelled, and someone got the head of the bed up so that the fluid would drain somewhere—and her bird-chest rose, and her head lolled, and then her bird-chest stayed hollow and low, and even as the fluid continued to trickle, that was all.
He was old. He’d had a good life. At least he wasn’t sick; he didn’t have to suffer.
My sister and I lay on a pullout couch and listened to our grandfather dying, in the next room. The verb should definitely be past continuous: he was dying. It was loud, and it took a long time.
He was 93. He wanted to die—he’d said so countless times, usually on his birthday, with a wry, sad smile beneath his pencil mustache. “I never wanted to live this long…” And yet when the time came, “he”, at last (it seemed), was gone—but his body fought. And fought. It moaned: rising, peaking, fading sounds that repeated and repeated, for hours. Everything was suspended, hanging in some primordial place where such things happen, again and again, forever.
The moans stopped sometime after the sun rose. The room was bright as my mother, my sister and I stood looking down at him—at the body on the bed. The morphine drip had been turned off. His breathing was slow, slower. Thick brown fluid oozed out of his mouth, and I said, “This is what happened with Alison, right before…” Later, my mother told me this had reassured her—because what do you think, when you see thick brown fluid and you’ve never seen it before and you’re so painfully, helplessly present, watching someone else who isn’t, any more?
Except that I can’t know that. Maybe grandpa was still there, behind the paper-thin eyelids. Maybe he thought, “Well I’ll be darned: there’s a red-breasted nuthatch on the bird feeder I had the girls put up outside my window!” or “ohthankgodit’snearlyoverthankgod”
But all I could see was his body’s struggle, and its stopping.
He had a good life. He was lucky. At least he went peacefully.
Chip the Cat was given an injection—a sedative, so that he wouldn’t feel the killing fluid when it went in. Only he didn’t react to it the way he was supposed to. He growled and whined. He twisted around between us until we let him jump down off the vet’s couch. He wobbled, stumbled, sank onto his haunches before he tried to walk some more. His eyes were wide, all pupil. He dragged his leukemia-wasted body around the room until he found the darkest possible place, behind the toilet. Then he hunkered down. Waiting? Feeling what? Knowing what?
When the killing fluid went in, 15 minutes later, he didn’t flinch.
An hour later, when Peter lifted Chip’s body up to carry him outside to the waiting hole, there was a rush of fetid air.
A rush of rot; a blurp of placenta; a slow, darkening, thinning stream. Bodies struggling, striving, surrendering.
“Why?’ is always the most difficult question to answer. You know where you are when someone asks you ‘What’s the time?’ or ‘When was the battle of 1066?’ or ‘How do these seatbelts work that go tight when you slam the brakes on, Daddy?’ The answers are easy and are, respectively, ‘Seven-thirty in the evening,’ ‘Ten-fifteen in the morning,’ and ‘Don’t ask stupid questions.”
― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt
The girl strides down the hall, her knapsack slung over one shoulder. It’s a full knapsack, and it drags her back down into an odd, Quasimodo-ish shape, but she doesn’t care: one-shouldered is the only way to do this. She strides. She knows where she’s going—locker to math wing to 3rd floor English class to basement weight room to locker to cafeteria to music room to locker to back field. She imagines one long tracking shot, capturing every step. She thinks, “None of this will be important, someday, but I want to remember every second of it.” She’s a romantic realist, and she plays the trombone, and she loves high school. Even the hunkering down outside the gym, waiting for the surge that will signify open doors and imminent exam. Even the tests, the essays—the things that make her sit cross-legged on her bed (to her mother’s chagrin), flipping textbook pages and writing line after line on three-ring binder paper. Especially the grade 9 Latin class in which she works on her novel (on three-ring binder paper) when she’s finished with Sextus (puer temerarius!) and Flavia and their dog Latrax (Latrax latrat!). Her Latin teacher walks up and down the rows; she sees the girl writing words that are, at best, Latin cognates, and she smiles. It’s OK. It’s good. The girl writes stories and novels and does homework and plays trombone and sits with her friends outside the music room doors; she reads Shakespeare and Golding and Sartre and masters, briefly, the arcane hieroglyphs of trigonometry, before she burns her math notes and pitches the remnants into a garbage can on the back field, having dropped this nemesis of a subject forever. She dissects no frogs or fetal pigs, having dropped science before this became necessary. She is happy in a way that she knows people (maybe even she) will roll their eyes at, in the not-too-far future. She longs for that tracking shot; for an image of her navigating, striding, going places.
I just got back from parent-teacher night at my daughter’s high school. And by “got back from,” I mean “hightailed it from said high school to a fabulous gastropub a few blocks north and west of there.”
Parents shouldn’t be disingenuous or precious or otherwise deny-y: evenings like this one really are as much about parents as they are about their children. It’s just another level of navigation—and I wish there were a tracking shot for this, too. Me, following my kid through the hallways she knows. The lockers. The cafeteria. My kid saying, “It’s so weird being here at night”; me remembering having had the very same thought (and wondering, now, what my parents were thinking, when they followed me). The things that were mine, the things that are hers, right this moment—some that match; others that don’t.
And that’s OK. It’s good.
My sister and I decided this, the other day: reading Wolf Hall is just like watching Game of Thrones. So many names; so many places; a world that’s impossibly evocative, while also being utterly confounding. Granted, I’m not all that smart when it comes to anything Epic. Fair warning, future students o’mine: if you’re writers of sagas, I will scrupulously line edit them, and I will say things like, “I think you should put a section break here, and use italicized present tense for the magic” or “This part is slow”—but I will never say, “I’m wondering why the genesis of the feud between the Houses of Sokartates and Teliae is attributed, on p. 382 of volume I, to the perfidy of the forty-third Viscount while in Ullnaria, whereas Teleonides III says, on p. 740 of volume II, that it all started at the Rock of the Lesser Seer, fully a generation earlier.” Nope. I won’t catch anything like that. I process political intrigue the way I used to figure out algebraic equations—which is to say, not at all.
Anyway. Wolf Hall and Game of Thrones.
The imagery of the latter keeps me vaguely grounded. The desert: ah, it must be Daenerys. A dungeon, and implements of torture: oh, it’s that wan young man who beheaded the old guy in Winterfell (for I recognize Winterfell, always), and I have no idea where this torture chamber is (but then again, neither might the wan young man), and I forget his name, but yeah: he’s that guy. I’m always both treading water and letting myself sink; I surrender to the not-getting-it, even as I rue it. (In fact, this puts me in mind of reading novels in Spanish…but that’s a cuenta for another time.)
Wolf Hall‘s images are all on the page, but they’re just as vivid as the HBO ones. Wolf Hall‘s world is imagined but not made up: it’s 16th century London; it’s Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and baby Elizabeth: names I know, events I recognize, in a smooth-edged kind of way. Yet I’m still a little lost. People have names and also titles; Thomas Cromwell, the point-of-view character, is almost always simply “he”, surrounded by countless other “he”s. All those archbishops and foreign-yet-related royal types. The Lutheran heretics. The estates and palaces, the Tower and the barges. It’s all a wonderful, dizzy blur.
When I’m treading water, I cling to character and scene. There’s much to cling to, in this book: moments of unbearable poignancy, amongst the intrigue; moments made more poignant because the narrative voice is so poised and cool. It’s a carefully constructed paradox, which, in lesser authorial hands, would irritate me. But Mantel makes it work. I surrender.
Also, I think a lot about pain and waiting.
The story of Henry VIII and his wives is one I internalized so long ago that discovering it again, in Mantel’s hands, is an epiphany: simultaneous dramatic irony and discovery. I was a teenager when first I internalized; now I’m not, and I’ve had two children. Anne Boleyn is pregnant, and everyone knows it’s a boy—there’s no way it couldn’t be, given the blessedness of the union—and nine months go by, and the reader writhes and revels, waiting. I waited, twice. I chose not to avail myself of the ultrasound technology which would have had Anne cast off well before Elizabeth emerged—and when my own daughters emerged, there was only joy. I try to imagine what Anne’s pregnancies must have been like. All the prayers and invocations; the certainty of king, courtiers, priests, and maybe herself, because everything depended on those first few seconds; that first glimpse of the slippery, pinkening baby. (Of course, Elizabeth had the last, ruffle-collared laugh.)
And then there’s the pain. Implicitly, the pain of birth; explicitly, the agony of death. An old woman burned. A young man burned. Thomas Cromwell the quiet, aching observer. And although I’ve read about such deaths countless times before, it was this quiet voice that truly brought them home to me.
I might not understand the nuances. I might flounder in the Epic swells. But when Daenerys’ dragons fly; when the boy Thomas gathers greasy bone from burned-out fire, and the baby Elizabeth squalls at her mother’s feet—I get it. I surrender.
A couple of weeks ago, the wondrous Erik Mohr did several cover mock-ups for me—all of which made their way to me for comment. One was utterly, immediately right; another was absolutely lovely. The resounding first choice was nixed, utterly and immediately, because it wasn’t Young Adult enough. For those of you who might not understand what that means, take a look at this blog entry. What you’ll see is photo-realistic bodies and body parts, plus a whole lot of indigos and turquoises.
So: no to Erik’s fresco cover, which I adored. On to the purely lovely choice, which was a landscape: a mountain-with-lightning-bolt, a meadow, a winding stream (see previous post). “Huzzah!” Chizine and I exclaimed, both aloud and on Facebook. “This is it!”
Except that it wasn’t, because this cover was, according to yet more YA experts, “too static.” We needed a figure, and tauter font arrangement. I, who had just thrown the cover online, felt both chagrined and panicked. After about three minutes, I fastened on the only thing of which I was certain: the figure had to be my Minotaur. (In fact, I was certain of another thing: Erik.)
A week later, here the Minotaur is, in front of the mountain-with-lightning-bolt. He’s a figure, all right. His body parts are teenage boy and bull; he has verdigris on his head (and I LOVE this: it evokes the ancient agelessness of Knossos); he’s crouched, half-shifted, in an attitude that would be all coiled aggression if it weren’t for his slightly lowered muzzle. He’s my Asterion, and I’m so glad that those experts led us to him.
Asterion was standing before the double-axe pillar. He was naked and glistening with oil; he looked like a golden creature that had just pulled itself out of the sea. A priestess was kneeling before him, holding up a lamp. He lifted his hands. Chara bit her lower lip; she always did, at this point in the rite, because the first time she had seen it she had gasped, and the queen had glanced over at her. He passed his hands slowly through the shuddering tip of the flame. He did not flinch. Just this one pass was enough: he fell forward onto his hands and knees and changed, swiftly and silently, as the priestesses poured libations on the stone around him. He stamped his hoofs and his heavy head swung back and forth on his neck…
I love Old Navy. Old Navy, and Ariadne.
Let me explain (whilst also pulling metaphor out of a hat by its ears!).
Today was the day I decided I needed new clothes. This usually happens once in spring and once in fall: I’m consumed, seemingly all of a sudden, with the desire to get new things. Not a lot of things. One shirt for work, say; one pair of jeans for non-work. Today I decided I’d walk from work to Winners—brand names at serious discounts! I’ve had success there before, though it’s rarely been quick; usually there’s a great deal of rifling through racks of truly hideous garments, followed by a protracted period of change-room futzing. Today I tried on six things, and not one of them fit me. It wasn’t just an aesthetic issue: the items did not fit. I thought I knew my jeans size. Six brands later, apparently not. So I hooked the uncooperative garments onto a rack and hightailed it for Old Navy.
I know what size I am there. Jeans, dress pants, dress shirts, t-shirts: it’s always the same. I wish this weren’t so compelling. Does the fact that it’s compelling make me old and unadventurous as well as shallow? I love the shirts I found. The jeans fit me perfectly, and I love them too. The jeans are “boyfriend fit”—which, as far as I can tell, means that they’re not so stranglingly tight that you lose all sensation in your legs, from mid-thigh to ankle, and bulge like a sausage everywhere else (because surely boyfriends dislike this, in a jean).
Now for that bunny of an analogy.
The familiar. The thing you’ve known for years, and trust, and enjoy. Old Navy jeans—and Greek myths?
I tried, years ago, to write a trilogy set in a fantastical Aegean, based upon the tragic, bloody, incestuous, cannibalistic, multi-generational story of the House of Atreus. A couple of years later I tried something else: a trilogy based on a fantastical Alexander the Great. Both of these attempts started out well enough: I loved the idea of parlaying obsessions I’d had since adolescence into something literary and adult. Only neither of the trilogies worked out that way. The concepts toppled the characters and I couldn’t prop them up again. Authorial hubris? Or maybe just stories I wasn’t ready for.
About three years ago, I tried again. This time I didn’t start from a map or a multi-generational epic or a still-famous real person. This time I sought out one myth and settled into it. Ariadne. Theseus. The Minotaur. The labyrinth. What if Ariadne were a manipulative bitch, not a lovelorn victim? What if the bull started out as a boy? What if there were a slave girl who knew them, who watched the cruelty and the shapeshifting and ended up being the very centre of everything (including the labyrinth)? This was story at a scale that didn’t scare me. Characters I knew but wasn’t so awed by that I’d hesitate and question and falter.
The Door in the Mountain is what came of this. It’ll be out in spring, 2014. A year after that the story will end with a second book that, for now, has no name. I’m only about 12,000 words into this second book. As usual, I have no idea how it’s all going to end—but I’m sure I’ll figure it out. The characters are clear; plot will follow.
So I guess I’m saying that the Minotaur myth is my happy Old Navy, while Alexander the Great is my fruitless Winners. Tell me you’ve encountered such an analogy before. I dare you.
[This is the Door in the Mountain excerpt I read at the ChiSeries event a week ago. No context required.] [No jeans, either.]
Ariadne could not sleep. She lay as motionless as she could atop her sheet, her arms and legs spread wide, but sweat still seeped from her skin and flattened her hair. She imagined her mother lying in her bed, one corridor away. The same sunlight would be oozing between the round pillars up near the ceiling; the same heat would be pulsing through the walls. But Pasiphae would probably be sleeping, her own skin beaded with water, not sweat.
Ariadne groaned and sat up. The paint on her walls seemed to swim: the green coils of plants and their crimson flowers; the brown of fawns and hares. “Deucalion,” she said, and reached for some hair clips. He would help – he would summon a small, fresh wind that would soothe them both. But he was asleep, curled up like a cat in the chamber beside hers. Glaucus was asleep too; even the children’s slave was sleeping, sitting cross-legged with her back against the square pillar that separated the boys’ rooms.
Ariadne almost woke her brothers (with a single, piercing scream, right in Glaucus’ ear), but then she thought, No – it’s so quiet, and I’m alone – I’m the only one awake, and I could do anything I wanted…If only Phaidra didn’t have a nurse, I could creep in and put a lizard in her cradle. But Asterion – he just moved into his own chamber. Yes – Asterion…
He was not alone: the girl Chara was asleep on the floor at the foot of his bed. She was lying on her back with her limbs splayed, as if she were on the finest of mattresses and not stone. Ariadne ground her teeth in annoyance. The child was always with him, when Pherenike was attending to the queen – a small, thin, dark-haired little shadow whose grey eyes were strangely solemn, when they were open. Now, though, they were tightly closed.
Ariadne looked from Chara to Asterion. At first she thought he was awake, because his arms and legs were twitching. He was facing the door but his chin was tucked against his chest and she could not see his eyes. He twitched and twitched, and his limbs made hissing sounds on the cloth. She stepped through the doorway and walked slowly toward the bed, her bare feet silent on the stone. When she was close enough to touch him he sucked in his breath and flung himself onto his back. She froze and held her own breath until she saw that his eyes were closed. They rolled beneath their lids, up and down and around. She remembered this rolling from the cave, nearly two summers ago; the very same movement, though his eyes had been open that time. She also remembered that his horn nubs had glowed like molten bronze, before. Even though his hair was much longer and thicker, she could see that it was the same now: two points of light were throbbing on either side of his head.
It was very hot in the cave, she thought. And it’s very hot in here. She pressed a curl flat against her forehead, curling it tighter with her fingertip until it was like a whorl of seashell. What would happen to him if it got hotter?
Getting the lamp was easy. There were only a few slaves about, between the family’s quarters and the underground storerooms, and all they did was raise their hands to her in the sign of the horns and continue about their business. She paused in the grain room, which was dark except for the flickering of oil lamps. The rows of jars soared above her head. Their shadows were taller yet. She drew in gulps of cool air, but just for a moment – soon people would be stirring.
The lamp’s base was metal and she had to shift it from hand to hand as she walked so that her skin would not burn. She set it down quickly on the floor beside Asterion’s bed; it clanged against the stone and he grunted and thrashed but his rolling eyes did not open. Chara did not move at all.
Ariadne stared at his walls for a bit, while she thought. The paint on them was all blues and whites: water, sky, the god-bull forming out of a foaming wave. The god-bull on the wall and the god-boy on the bed – she scowled and turned back to the lamp. Then she smiled.
The hem of Asterion’s sheet caught fire almost as soon as she touched it to the lamp. The cloth melted black behind the flame, which widened as it climbed. When it reached the bed frame it was nearly as long as Asterion was, from glowing horns to scuffing feet. The fire was flowing under the arm and leg closest to the edge; it was around them, over them, in the space of a single heartbeat. He woke with a cry and lurched up on the bed, and the fire was eating at his tunic. He cried out again; his voice sounded too low, as if he were a man, not a two-year-old boy. He threw himself off the bed, straight at Ariadne. She leapt backward and he fell at her feet. Sparks caught in her skirt and she smacked at them with her hands until they died.
He gazed up at her, and in the space of one more heartbeat his eyes widened and rounded until there was no more boy in them. He heaved himself onto his hands and knees. His tunic fell away in gobbets of black and embers and his spine arched. Blisters unfurled on his skin and turned almost immediately to coarse brown hair that bloomed along his back and sides in patches that joined. His golden head had gone dark and matted too, and his horns were longer, curving out and up above folded-over ears. He scrabbled at the ground with fingers and toes that fused as Ariadne watched, their nails spreading and yellowing into cloven halves.
He turned his head – sideways, because his neck was so thick that he could not lift it up. The fire was only sparks now, spinning and settling on his furred body and on the lashes clustered around his eyes. His eyes were rolling again, white and brown and black. Ariadne thought, He can’t see me. She lowered herself slowly into a crouch.
“Look at you, Brother,” she said, loudly enough to be heard above the whuffing of his breath. “Look at what you are – and I’m the one who found out. I’m the only one who knows. So if you change back now – if you can just do that, no one else will –”
The beast that had been Asterion bellowed. This was not the low cry of before but a full-throated roar that startled Ariadne back onto her heels. The roar did not stop. She heard another sound – a scream, behind her – and began to scream herself because she knew she should. The children’s slave ran past her. She flapped her skirt against the sheet until the flames died and then hovered a few paces away from the bull-thing. She raised her hands to her mouth but they muffled nothing. Her scream trailed into a sort of whine, while Ariadne’s continued. Footsteps pounded along the hallway, closer and closer (Ariadne heard them when she paused to breathe). She squeezed her eyes shut.
“Quiet – quiet, Ari!” Deucalion, shaking her by the shoulders but not looking at her. Glaucus was clinging to the doorframe. He was already crying, Ariadne saw, and she wished she did not have to wait to say something mocking. Androgeus strode past Glaucus. He stood above the bull, who was on his side again, kicking as he roared. Androgeus knelt. He placed one hand on the creature’s flank and one on his head, between the horns. He leaned close and spoke his god-marked words again, which Ariadne could never understand. The coarse hair beneath his hands turned to silver.
The bellowing and kicking stopped. The rolling eyes went still and changed shape – everything did, from hoofs to legs to flanks to barrel chest to damp, flaring nostrils. It happened in the time it took Ariadne to blink three times (she tried not to blink at all, but there had been tears with her screaming), and when it was done, Asterion the boy lay on his belly on the stone. His slender arms and legs trembled. They were covered with blistered welts, but his back was the worst: red and raw like the insides of a flayed animal. Androgeus drew Asterion’s head gently onto his lap. He stroked his damp golden hair and murmured more words as Asterion gasped and sobbed. He’s in such pain, Ariadne thought, and felt a rush of pleasure that sent blood dizzily to her head.
Someone was laughing. Ariadne turned and saw Pasiphae standing in the doorway. She was laughing and maybe crying – it was hard to tell whether the moisture on her cheeks was sweat or god-marked water or tears. She walked slowly to her sons and knelt by Asterion. “My little god,” she said. “Poseidon’s little bull – I saw him in you, just now, and I heard him in your voice.” She held her palms above his back. Water dripped from them and fell on his raw skin like a mist. All his muscles bunched when it touched him, but as it seeped and spread he went limp.
“I look on you now, and I rejoice in your godhead, and yet,” she went on, each word harsher than the one before it, “I hate your pain. I hate it, and I wonder what caused it. Who caused it.”
The slave gasped, “My Queen, it –” and Ariadne leapt to her feet.
“It was her!” she cried, pointing at the slave. “I came because I heard him shouting and she was already here with the lamp!”
The queen’s green eyes shifted. The brows above them arched.
“No!” The slave’s hands were still over her mouth. “No, that’s not true! Why would I bring a lamp on such a hot day? My Queen, I came when I heard the prince shouting, and it was she…”
The slave was fat. She was fat and her hair was lank and her eyes were small and darting, like a sow’s – and yet Pasiphae was gazing at Ariadne now, looking her up and down as if she might actually believe the woman.
“Daughter,” she said. “Tell me once more what happened.”
Ariadne swallowed. She drew herself up tall. One of her hair pins was slipping out; she felt its metal tines and a wayward curl tickling her neck but she did not fidget at all.
“I heard Asterion. I was too hot to sleep; I heard him and got here very quickly. He was on the floor and she was kneeling by him. The sheet was still on fire so I put it out with my skirt – look! – there are holes in it, and my hands are all pink and burned! I screamed so that someone else would come.”
Asterion coughed, and froth came out of his mouth. He was staring at her. Hecan hardly speak, she thought. He’s only two. So there’s no way he can understand me, either. And yet he stared at her. Chara was staring too – how long had she been awake? She was crouched with her arms wrapped around her knees, a thumb in her mouth. Her sea-mist eyes were almost as round as his had been.
Before Ariadne could say anything else, hands came down on her shoulders. They were large and blunt-nailed and covered with black hair. She knew they were her father’s even before she craned up at him.
“I have only just come, and yet I think I understand this much: a slave is telling the royal family that the Princess Ariadne lies.”
The slave bent her head. Her hair fell in sweat-clumped strands around her face. “I am,” she whispered.
Fool! thought Ariadne, but as she did, a sick shudder rose from her belly to her throat. (Had she really been dancing in front of everyone, just this morning? Had everyone really just been cheering for her?)
“Leave this room,” Minos said to the slave. His voice rumbled through Ariadne and she felt heat – flame stirring beneath the skin of his fingertips. The sickness had already gone. “Leave this city. And tell everyone who asks that Minos King was merciful enough to let you live.”
The woman shuffled toward the door. When she reached Ariadne she paused and moved her hair aside with one fat-fingered hand. Her beady brown eyes found Ariadne’s and held them.
“Now,” said the king. The slave shuffled on, and out.
Pasiphae was looking down at Asterion, drawing her weeping palms gently along his burns. Deucalion was standing with his head against the painted bull-god’s flank, facing his mother. The only eyes Ariadne could see were Androgeus’ and Asterion’s, and they were on her, steady and knowing. Androgeus can talk to animals, she thought, and the sickness was in her throat again.
“He is monstrous,” Minos said.
Pasiphae smiled and curled a lock of hair behind Asterion’s ear. “He is my god’s, and he frightens you. Shames you, too—for your own family came to kingship with marks far weaker than his. Conjurors of light and thunder; the gods were hardly even trying, when they marked your line.”
Minos gripped Ariadne’s shoulders even more tightly. The heat in his fingers made her want to wriggle, but she did not. She waited for him to growl a curse or shoot bolts of fire at her mother but he only stood and stood, breathing heavily – and then his hands were gone and he was walking swiftly down the hall, in and out of the light that fell between the pillars. “No!” Ariadne wanted to cry after him. “Come back; do something!”
“My son,” Pasiphae crooned. “My little lord.”
Ariadne felt blood surging up into her head again – fury, this time, not joy. There were voices too, her own and ones she did not know: You should have been the only one to know about him no one is looking at you no one is paying you any attention at all not the gods and not men even though you danced for them only this morning run away run away and they may notice…
She ran, but no one called after her and no one followed (she glanced over her shoulder to see). All of her hairpins fell out; by the time she came to a panting halt in Naucrate’s outer chamber her curls were hanging against her neck and back in a tangled mess.
“Princess! What is it now? Come here and sit by me…”
Naucrate smelled like lemons, as always, and her hands were as firm and gentle as ever, tracing long lines on Ariadne’s back, but the voices and blood did not stop their pounding. Ariadne pulled herself free of Naucrate’s arms and ran to the table. She swept everything off it – all the tiny jars and vials and boxes. Kohl, perfume, figs and glass rained down onto the stone.
“Ariadne,” Naucrate said, into the silence that followed. “Oh, Minnow, what is wrong?”
“I know,” said my writing student yesterday, “that you’re not supposed to throw prophecies in at the beginning of a book. But I have. Three of them, in fact. I couldn’t help it!” (They are, in fact, perfectly acceptable prophecies, and it’s a truly remarkable book.)
And as we sat there in pre-rain heat, on the “patio” of a Starbucks, with cars, dogs, people and bikes passing by mere inches from our table, I thought of another August, and another novel that began with a prophecy. (A prophecy within a prologue—and there are those who insist that prologues, too, should be banned. I have no shame.)
The August was 1987’s; the book was Rowansong.
For the second summer in a row, my parents and sister had gone off to Nova Scotia, leaving me in charge of house, lawn and cat. Things weren’t going well. My boyfriend and I had broken up, and I wasn’t feeling nearly as sanguine about this as I had a month before. The novel I was writing (yes: Rowansong) had, since the breakup, refused to be written. There were patches of yellow appearing on front and back lawns at an alarming rate, despite the fact that I soaked them unto quagmire with the sprinkler. I’d had some people over, and one of them had nearly set my kitchen on fire with flaming sambuca. And then, just when I thought I couldn’t pity myself any more, I got fired.
I was a City of Toronto Parks and Recreation employee, which meant that I’d spent the summer acquiring an unwontedly spectacular tan whilst standing by a wading pool. I was also supposed to run programs for the kids who came every day, and I’d been totally prepared to do this—but the kids turned out to be between the ages of 12 and 14, not 5 and 7, as I’d been led to expect. They didn’t want to play duck-duck-goose or make collages with bits of lace and dried pasta. These were mouthy, hilarious, sweet, smart people, the oldest of whom was a mere three years younger than I was, and when I wasn’t standing by the wading pool, we hung out. My supervisor didn’t like this at all, and she didn’t like them, and they really didn’t like her.
While it did occur to me that my supervisor might not be all that fond of me either, I wasn’t prepared for the super-supervisor’s visit to the park, in the almost-last week of August. I was, of course, standing by the pool. He cleared his throat. He told me I was fired. He said my supervisor had complained that I had been late on multiple occasions (which was absolutely untrue), and said that the Parks & Rec management team wanted, via my firing, to let other employees know that it wasn’t too late in the summer for them to be fired (which was just plain idiotic).
I went back to my empty house. So did the kids from the park. For five days they arrived promptly at 9, throwing their bikes onto the yellowing front lawn, charging around the place with the wooden sword I’d gotten from my “When Knighthood Was in Flower” enrichment course a few years before. We made peanut butter cookies. We lay on our backs on the stupid dying grass. They found my grade 6 diary and howled with laughter as they read bits of it aloud.
And then, as one, they stopped coming—cottages; a last week of sleepover camp—and I was alone. So self-pityingly, echoingly alone, despite the furry, kneading presence of Merlyn the cat.
I called my grandparents and cried a little. They commanded me to come to Stratford to stay with them; I bought a train ticket. The night before I left, I called my ex-boyfriend, who came over. By the time I’d packed the binder containing the handwritten pages of Rowansong and sat myself down on the train, I was already feeling a whole lot better.
That week was magic. There was the small matter of my parents’ panic—for I’d neglected to inform them that I’d be going to Stratford, and by the time they phoned my grandparents (having phoned our house over and over for days), they were out of their heads and probably about to call the police. Other than that, though: magic. I ate breakfast at the round table in the kitchen. My grandfather and I walked down to the river as we had since I was little, carrying bags of bread for the swans, who were gorgeous and greedy and ungrateful. I spent some afternoons with my grandmother at the art gallery where she volunteered. And in between, I went to the island—or, more accurately, the islette (a made-up word which, I hope, reflects the need for an additional diminutive form). It was the tiniest lump of land ever known to islettedom: it had a couple of trees, some grass and flowers, a graceful wooden bridge connecting it to the shore (to which I could have walked, had I had rubber boots), and, most importantly, a low, flat rock. I sat on this rock every day, with my gigantic binder open on my lap, pen in hand. I filled up three-ringed page after three-ringed page. After two months of stasis (“Two months!” the older me scoffs. “Just wait for the drought of 2004-2007!”), the ink was flowing. And it was the most wonderful synthesis: the golden-green, grandparent-warm space of Stratford; the boyfriend reunion; the kids who’d followed me into exile.
And the kids were on those three-ring pages. Oh, yes.
Kella awoke at dawn the next morning. The first thing she heard was Trillany’s voice.
“She’ll be angry that we followed her – maybe we should leave.”
“Certainly not,” came Doric’s voice. “This was my idea, anyway: we’ll stay with her.”
“Your idea?” demanded an incredulous Blaine. “Yours? Little brother, you’re deluded.”
“Now see here,” Doric retorted hotly, “I don’t know what that means, but – ”
“Shut up!” hissed Jemm. “You’ll wake her with your quarreling.”
Kella decided that she had heard enough and sat up, opening her eyes. “I’m awake already, thank you Jemm.” He hid behind his hair, while Doric looked decidedly uncomfortable. Blaine grinned and said, “This was actually Jemm’s idea, as you could probably guess. Doric’s trying to get all the credit, as usual.”
“Credit?” Kella demanded. “I wouldn’t accept credit for something like this! This is my journey – you can’t come with me.”
Trillany looked triumphantly at Doric, who stammered, “But you’re blind, and we can help you…” He withered under Kella’s glare, which, for a blind person, was quite direct.
“You know I don’t need help, and I won’t take it. Go home: your parents will be worried.”
There was an awkward silence. “Actually,” Jemm admitted, “they don’t expect us back for a few days. We guessed when you’d be going and said that you were…”
“Yes?” she snapped, and he looked defiantly at her from beneath his hair.
“We said you were taking us to my hill for a few nights. I told father that you probably forgot to mention it to him.”
Kella was relieved. “He knew you were lying.”
“Probably,” Jemm replied, “but he didn’t say anything.”
“Most likely because he hoped that this witch would frighten some sense into your heads!” Kella stormed, rising and beginning to stride up the trail. Trillany reached her first.
“Kella, we’ll let you see the witch alone. Only let us come with you to the cave. Then we promise to leave.”
And so it was that five people instead of one went up the path as the sun climbed higher in the sky.
(Don’t ask. Don’t ask how Kella could be blind but also the third-person-omniscient POV character who can somehow see that Jemm’s blowing at his hair and Blaine’s grinning. That’s not important.) (I was barely 17, OK?)
I went home to a changed world. Love: restored. Lawn: not dead, just ailing (chinch bugs). House: intact. Cat: sullen but not full of hate. Book: back on track. Parents and sister: as happy to see me as I, strangely-but-not, was to see them.
The last week of August, 1987. Thank you, o thrice-prophetic student of mine, for making me think of it.
Rowansong will have the last (and first) word.
There is a harp, standing alone in a cold stone room. Sorsillis’ Harp it is called, after the woman who crafted it. Its rowan wood is lined with age, and coursing with power long-stilled. The silver strings are silent: no hand for centuries has been able to wake the power. So Sorsillis had willed.
There are runes carved in the wood. They twine around the frame to the scrollwork at the top, where, suddenly, they stop. At one time – unknown Cycles ago – the runes continued serpentine to the ruby set in the center of the scrollwork. Now they have faded into virtual non-existence – mere scratches, indiscernible figures. Forgotten prophecies.
A white-haired woman slips into the room, closes the door softly behind her. She stands before the pedestal on which Sorsillis’ Harp rests, gazing at it with familiar desire. Her hands do not go to the strings: she knows she is not the one to break the silence. She hoped, long ago. But no longer. Now her fingers reach for the runes that are still decipherable; she touches them lightly, reading them with her eyes closed. Her lips form the words as her fingertips skim to the scrollwork. There they still, resting on the scratches. Her eyes open, and her hand falls away from the harp.
She leaves without looking back.
There will be many:
one for birth
one for forgiveness
one for salvation
one for Beyond.
There will be Three:
one for tears
one for hope
the last for sightless vision.
In the sleeping land will their meeting lie
where darkest caverns burn brighter than a thousand suns…
As a doula, I see new parents who, while they’ll admit to knowing almost nothing about babies, are also filled with certainty. One couple’s infant is sleeping through the night. Another’s doesn’t sleep at all unless he’s in the Sobey’s produce section. Even though, at some level, they know better, both sets of parents are sure that this is the pattern that’s in place for the duration, be it soul-crushing or delightful. As a writing instructor, I see students who are just as certain: This is how I write. This is never going to change. Now, while the author may have more control over his or her writing process than the parent has over the small, squalling life form, I’ve been both, and there’s a common thread: Whether you’re smug or resigned, contented or anxious, you can’t get too comfortable, and you shouldn’t ever capitalize The Way Things Are.
Until 2011, I wrote longhand. When other writers found this out, many would make dismissive hand gestures, roll their eyes and say something like, “You’ll change that.” Still others would get defensive: “Please tell me you’re not one of those writers who think there’s some mystical bond between your hand and the paper.” To the first comment I’d say (defensively), “I really don’t think so—and anyway, it doesn’t matter how you write”; to the second, “No—it’s just a functional thing; it’s how I work best.” And it was, for years and years.
I could write anywhere; all I needed was a pen and a notebook, or a napkin, a coaster, a grocery receipt (most of my bursts of inspiration were conveniently brief). I chose my notebooks and pens with an almost fetishistic fervour that sort of belied my insistence on the lack of a mystical element to the process. I did some quiet gloating while writer friends crawled around under café tables, looking for power outlets. And this quiet gloating did some more belying. Yes, I wrote longhand, and yes, I did think it made me a little bit better and cooler than the other kids.
Some of these other kids didn’t simply write on laptops: they wrote OUT OF ORDER. One characteristic of my longhand process was its linearity. I couldn’t jump around in the narrative without requiring multiple books, or colour coding, tables of contents, explanatory notes that would end up being longer than the actual story. So I started at the beginning and stayed firmly on course, chronologically. This meant that I’d sometimes spend weeks or even months not writing, as I was trying to figure out what came next. There might be an image in my head—a moment that I knew would take place another fifty or hundred pages in—but I wouldn’t write it. Not allowed, according to Sweet’s Longhand Code.
Three years ago, I was struggling with a new idea, scribbling notes in a book that didn’t feel quite right (too big, with pages that ripped too easily away from the spiral binding). I’d retired my Pattern Scars pen (because, as every fetishistic longhander knows, each book requires a new pen), and none of the ones I was test-driving was doing it for me. At the same time, my ancient-in-technological-terms iMac, after displaying some increasingly strident warnings, was unable to do anything except turn on and off—and sometimes not even that.
So I got myself a MacBook Air, and everything changed. Not right away, mind you. At first I kept scribbling in the sub-par notebook, struggling with scenes that weren’t coming together. I typed some notes and saved them on my laptop. One “Writing Thursday” at the pub, I went from typing notes to typing a paragraph of actual story. It wasn’t terrible. I kept writing the scene longhand the next day and was irritated when it didn’t flow as I’d expected it to. I returned to the laptop. That scene was followed by another, and another. No way, I thought. Nope—this isn’t how I work. So how dare it be working?
I got stuck. Longhand didn’t help. The laptop didn’t help. Jump ahead, a new, seductive inner voice whispered. You know there’s going to be a scene in a cave, with Minos, Daedalus, Icarus, Ariadne…you can see it now. So write it now.
I did write it—it, and another couple of scenes that came well before and well after it. I typed these scenes and then spent nearly eight months filling in the ones that led to them, all aflutter that I was being so risqué, so heedless of what I’d always considered to be my modus operandi.
I’m writing the sequel now, entirely on my laptop, entirely out of sequence. I haven’t made a longhand note in months. I crawl around under café tables, looking for a power outlet, and I can’t believe that I’m doing this; meanwhile, I also can’t believe that I wrote a book entirely on the streetcar, in a series of Miquelrius notebooks, with a red plastic pen, blue ink, medium fine tip. Both processes seem mysterious (if not mystical). The transition from one to the other is humbling because I can’t really explain it. The fact that I can’t be sure that this latest phase will endure is both unsettling and exciting—kind of like that moment in the middle of the night when you’re awake and your baby, who hasn’t stayed quiet for two hours in a row in its entire four-week-long life, isn’t, and you think, “Oh my god: what is this new state, and can it possibly last…?”
Last night, Peter and I went to liberate some of the gazillions of snails that have taken up residence in our aquarium. Semi-unwittingly, we chose the sweet spot between thunderstorm and sunset. In the space of about half an hour, this is what we saw. (God, I love living where I do.)
(NB: the odd orange/pink/blue variations had nothing to do with a failure of my camera’s; they occupied the sky together. All I did was pivot and point and shoot.)