Terrific chat with Rodger Nichols of Cover to Cover Bookbeat.
My publicist sent me the link to this WAMC (public radio) program. I knew it was a review of A SECRET HISTORY and I had a bellyful of butterflies!
Happily, the butterflies soon subsided. It’s a charming review, and the clever Zazu managed to describe the feminist themes of the novel without making the whole thing sound tedious.
It’s also short and sweet–the whole thing only lasts eleven minutes–but it is bound to add to your to-be-read list! It certainly did mine.
The craft the Orchiere witches practice, the one they refer to as the “old ways”, is invented, based on an ancient and inherited system, deeply rooted in a matrilineal tradition. I’ve borrowed from Wicca, the neo-pagan practice developed in the mid-twentieth century, but the Orchiere witches are not Wiccan, nor are the witches of the Glamis line, who appear in the Book of Veronica.
The Wheel of the Year is so lovely, though, and so evocative, that with the license granted to me as a creator of fiction, I’ve allowed my witches to use it. It also emphasizes the ancient history of their craft, and its connection with nature, which Wicca also celebrates.
The rites of the Orchieres also borrow from Wicca and from other neo-pagan traditions. The circle of salted water for protection is one such element, as is the use of a newly-poured candle and a consecrated altar. The herbs they use in their rites and potions and philters are based in real herbology. In fact, many so-called witches of medieval times were innocent herbalists, useful in times of illness, but all too easily blamed when their remedies were unsuccessful.
The witches of A SECRET HISTORY are neither the wicked hags of medieval times or the wacky suburbanites cooking up potions in their twentieth-century kitchens. They are women–grandmothers, mothers, granddaughters–with power. They are at risk because society has always feared women with power. Scripture provided an excuse to persecute them, and western culture has persisted in viewing them as dangerous, because they threaten the traditional balance of society. They endanger the fixed assignment of roles to women, and that frightens people.
There will be more to come! Please visit again.
This story was published in the anthology Alternative Truths, a collection of tales written in response to the political situation America finds itself in. A portion of the proceeds from sales of the book go to the ACLU, and a number of the authors have also devoted their share of royalties to that cause. Please visit Amazon.com to buy a copy.
The banging of a sledgehammer woke Livvy from the heavy sleep of early morning. She opened her dry eyes gingerly, lifting the lids a tiny bit at a time, blinking to stir up some moisture. Gray dawn showed through the thin curtain of her single window. It was too early for birdsong. Not too early for the sledgehammers.
Livvy pulled her mother’s handmade quilt over her head, and indulged in a few moments’ longing for the old days, when Butch had been alive and they lived in a real house. It wasn’t much of a house, being in the shade of the Wall, but it was far enough away so the racket of building and repairs didn’t reach them. She longed for one night of uninterrupted sleep. It seemed those were in the past, as so many comforts were.
Some of the other relics, relegated to the shacks as Livvy now was, were deaf enough to sleep through the noise. Livvy’s hearing was intact, though other parts of her weren’t, and she slept uneasily since Butch died. She kept her single door locked, but it was only plywood. It wouldn’t do a thing to stop the gangs if they came in search of food or blankets. There were guards here and there, of course, but they were meant for the Wall, not for protecting people who couldn’t work anymore.
Livvy pushed back the quilt. “Get yourself up now, Olivia Sutton,” she said aloud. Butch used to tease her about talking to herself, and her reply, that she was talking to the cat, made him laugh. She wished Butch was still here to tease her. The cat was gone, too.
She smoothed her bed, and drew back the curtain gingerly, so the threadbare fabric wouldn’t tear again. Her window faced the dirt lane separating the Wall and the dilapidated row of shacks from the houses of the village. The shacks were flimsy squares built from boards and metal pieces left over from construction of the Wall. Each was a single room with a toilet and a woodstove, built like a lean-to, attached to the massive bulk of the Wall itself. They were differentiated mostly by the colors and textures of whatever had been used to build them.
The shacks had been thrown together for Wall workers a long time ago. When the workers moved on to other sections, the Council pressed the shacks into use for people like Livvy, people who couldn’t work anymore. It pleased the Council to call them “the Residences,” but everyone else called them the shacks.
Sometimes, when the Wall shifted or settled, a shack would shatter, and tumble to pieces. If the inhabitants were lucky, they escaped with a few bruises. If they weren’t lucky, they died.
Of course, the relics were close to death anyway, so no one cared much. Livvy suspected most of the relics didn’t care much, either.
She used the toilet, changed into the shapeless dress she wore most days, and walked the five steps to the woodstove. She had a few grains of coffee left, brought to her by one of the church ladies, and a pitcher of water she had carried in yesterday. She could make one cup of coffee, probably her last. Coffee didn’t grow on this side of the Wall. Coffee needed sunlight, and the Wall cast a long, deep shadow.
Soon there would be no coffee left except for the people who lived above the shade line, people with coins to pay the smugglers. It was illegal to buy from them, of course, but when it came to the people in the big houses, the law turned a blind eye. Even if Olivia Sutton had coins, she wouldn’t dare buy from a smuggler.
Livvy heard that on the other side they had oranges, too. She loved oranges, the look of them, the weight of one in your hand, the wonderful scent that broke free as you peeled away the skin. Apples grew at the top of the hill, and she and the other relics were allowed to pick up the ones that fell to the ground, but Livvy longed for oranges. There had been a few in her girlhood, and later, in her working life, as an occasional bonus. Sometimes she craved their tart sweetness so much her belly ached in response.
She took care brewing the precious cup of coffee. When it was ready, she divided it in two. Porter, next door, had run out the day before. With both cups in her hands, she crossed the patch of dirt and gravel to his shack.
He hobbled out to meet her, leaning on a long, knobbled stick, moving as if every step caused him pain. “You look nice today, Mrs. Sutton,” he panted.
She chuckled, and handed him the half cup of coffee. “You’re an old sweet talker, Porter,” she said. “I can guess how I look.”
A rickety bench ran along the side of his shack, built from more Wall remnants. Livvy held Porter’s arm as he struggled to settle onto it. It was cold in the shade of the Wall, and Livvy’s skin prickled with goosebumps. The Wall grew higher every year, and every year its shade devoured more of the village. People complained their vegetables wouldn’t grow, and their fruit trees were dying. Still the Wall rose higher. The complainers achieved nothing but warnings from the Council.
Livvy took a sip of coffee, and closed her eyes at the rich bitterness. “I’m going to miss this,” she said.
“Kind of you to share,” he said.
She opened her eyes and smiled at him. “Don’t mention it.”
Porter seemed to be fading before her eyes. His scalp showed through the few remaining white strands on his head. His eyes were clouded with cataracts, his hands bent and twisted by arthritis. There was a time, her mother had claimed, when there were remedies for arthritis, and cataracts could be taken out. Such things had disappeared before Livvy was born.
Her life, like her mother’s, like Porter’s, like Butch’s, had been lived in the shadow of the Wall. Butch had died on it, putting a foot wrong when he was laying stones at the top, falling to an ugly death on the piled boulders at the foot. There was supposed to be a pension for his widow, but it never materialized.
Livvy had often tried to persuade Butch to find another line of work. He only shrugged. “What else can I do?” he said, every time. “They won’t have me on the Council.” He had laughed at the old joke, the way he laughed at everything. Livvy hadn’t found it funny.
Now she shivered a little, and Porter said, “Let me get my blanket for you.” He moved his stick, and tried to get to his feet.
“No, no,” she said, as he fell back on the bench with a breathless groan. “I’m perfectly fine, Porter. Let’s you and me enjoy this last bit of coffee, and then I’ll see if I can’t walk up the hill. Get some sunshine. Maybe see if there are some apples left.”
“Wish I could escort you,” he said. “These old legs won’t hardly carry me no more.”
“I’m real sorry about that, Porter.”
His shrug reminded her, painfully, of Butch’s. “Doesn’t matter now,” Porter said.
“Of course it matters!”
“Nah. Once a man can’t work, that’s pretty much it.”
“A woman, too.”
“Yeah, that’s right, Mrs. Sutton. That’s right. A woman, too.”
The hill was steep and long, a single, mostly-paved road leading up to the big houses of the Council members. The shade didn’t reach those houses. They rose proudly into the sunshine, their gardens full of flowers, their trees flourishing. Livvy had worked in one of those houses for years, cleaning and taking care of chidren, sometimes cooking. The housekeeper always called her Mrs. Sutton, and she let her take leftovers home to Butch. Sometimes she slipped packets of coffee and sugar into her apron pockets as little treats. Livvy’s favorite days were spent minding the Councilman’s chidren, taking them to the playground or reading to them.
When she couldn’t get down on her knees anymore to scrub floors, the Councilman fired her. It was better than falling from the top of the Wall to break her neck, but not much. It was the end of good things in her life. She didn’t bother asking if she could still come to read to the children. Truth was, if that Councilman met her on the street, he wouldn’t know her, and he sure wouldn’t care whether she wanted to see the little ones. The only good thing was that without a job, she could lend a hand to Porter, who had no one to see him through to his end.
Porter had never married. Livvy had never had a child who lived more than a few months. They made good neighbors.
He drained his cup, closing his eyes as she had done to savor the last drops. “That was good. Thanks.”
She took his cup in her cold fingers, and rose. “You’re welcome. You have something for breakfast?”
“Yeah. I have an egg.”
She raised her brows. “Who brought you an egg?”
“Woman from the church.”
“That was nice of her.”
“Had to listen to her sermon, though.”
Livvy chuckled, and the two cups clinked together. “Pretty bad, was it?”
“Yeah. Seems I ain’t saved, at least not the right way. That really bothers her. Still let me have the egg, though.”
“Do you want me to come over and cook it for you?”
“Naw, I can do it. You go try to get some sun.”
Livvy’s knees ached with the cold, but she managed, painfully, to climb the hill to the old school playground. She settled herself onto one of the children’s swings that hung, empty and abandoned, from a rusting steel frame. The sun rose high enough above the Wall that the playground was bright by midday. She put her face up into the sunshine and waited for her aching joints to thaw in its warmth.
The school had closed decades before. There weren’t many children about anymore, so the park was usually empty. She used to love pushing children on the swing, or waiting for them at the bottom of the slide. When she heard the mothers snap with impatience, she wanted to hush them, tell them how fortunate they were to have living children.
She never did it. As Butch said, better to keep your head down and mind your own business. You never knew if the Council was going to take after you. You could lose everything.
She lost everything anyway. First Butch, then her job, then her little house with its trio of tiny graves that never saw the sun.
Oh, and the cat disappeared. Thinking of the silly cat made her eyes sting.
Livvy muttered, “You gotta stop that, Olivia Sutton. Cat would be long dead by now.” She blinked, and shaded her eyes against the glitter of sunlight.
From the playground, she could see miles of the Wall. She was curious to know how much higher it had grown in her lifetime. Butch used to say it was growing three inches a year. That seemed like too much to Livvy, but Butch was usually right about such things. She also had no idea how long it actually was. There had been a boy, when she was young, who swore he’d walked along it for two solid weeks and never reached the end.
Livvy had never been out of the village. She didn’t dare leave, for fear the Council wouldn’t allow her back in.
She pushed with her feet, and the swing rocked gently, forward and back. The Wall loomed below her, many yards thick at the bottom, growing narrower and narrower until it was only a foot or so across at the top. Butch said it used to be steel from top to bottom, one flat plane, but since there was no more steel—those factories had fallen to ruin long ago—now it was an ugly mountain of rocks and dirt and who knew what-all, patched together with cement.
It was protection, the Council said. To keep the people safe. Nobody could recall for sure what they were being protected from, but there were lots of rumors. Thieves. Murderers. Rape gangs. Kidnappers.
Livvy wasn’t sure what to believe. Sometimes she imagined there were just people on the other side, people different from herself, but having their own hopes and dreams and sorrows. She didn’t expect she’d ever find out.
She swung again, her knees and ankles beginning to feel warm at last. She was hungry, and thought of going to the soup kitchen in the church basement, but she was reluctant to leave the sunshine. The church basement smelled of cheap candles and old food, and echoed with hymns and lectures. She wished she could take a bowl of soup back to her shack, and eat it in peace, but they would never allow that. They liked the relics to behave themselves, and act properly grateful.
She was trying to decide whether to go home for a cold sandwich or subject herself to the church ladies when she heard a light step behind her. Stiffly, she twisted her body so she could see who had come into the park.
A little girl was climbing the stairs to the slide. She couldn’t have been more than eight, with a thatch of fair curly hair and good leather shoes that looked as if they fit her well. One of the Councilmen’s children, for sure. Livvy looked around for her minder, but didn’t see anyone. Maybe the girl had escaped to seek a few moments in the sun, just as she had.
Livvy worked her body out of the swing seat, and limped to the foot of the slide. “I’ll catch you,” she told the child.
“Okay!” The girl put her legs over the edge of the rusty steel incline. She was wearing denim pants, and there were rough spots on the slide.
“You might tear your pants,” Livvy warned.
“I know,” the girl said, and pushed off.
Now Livvy knew for sure she was the daughter of a Councilman. No one else could risk their clothes that way. The girl bumped down the slide, its surface no longer smooth enough for real sliding. At the bottom, Livvy put out her hands, though there was really no catching involved. It was nice, though, to touch a child’s firm, warm body. She released her with a pang, remembering all the times she had caught children coming fast down the slide, shrieking with joy, flying into her waiting hands.
She folded her arms. “What’s your name?”
“Pansy.” The girl started for the stairs again.
“Where’s your mama? Or your minder?”
“Mama’s at home. She’s feeling sick.”
“Does she know you’re here?”
Pansy had reached the top of the stairs. She swung her legs over again, but didn’t push off. “No.”
“Shall I walk you home?”
Pansy pushed herself off, and slowly bumped her way to the bottom of the slide. Livvy didn’t try to catch her, or even put out her hands, though she would have liked to touch the child again, to feel youth and energy and warmth through her fingers.
Pansy said, “Did you used to go the school?”
“Yes, until it closed.”
“Why did it close?” Pansy bounced on her toes as if standing still was impossible.
“Doesn’t your mama tell you about that?”
“Well.” Livvy turned to look at the faded school buildings, the windows boarded up, the old parking lot cracked and sprouting weeds. “Well, I guess people just lost interest in the school. They let it die.”
“I wish I could go to school.”
“Who’s teaching you to read? To do your arithmetic?”
“Mama. But she doesn’t read very well herself.”
“Oh, I’m real sorry about that, Pansy. I do love reading books.”
The little girl turned up her face, blue eyes sparking with interest. “Do you? Could you teach me?”
“I would, but I don’t have books to use.”
Pansy said, “I have books. I have three of them.”
“That’s nice. What are they called?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ah. You haven’t learned to read at all, then.”
“No.” Pansy sighed, and looked around at the dilapidated play equipment. “Kids used to play here, I think.”
“Yes, they did. I did.”
“You were lucky.”
“In some things.” Livvy looked around, surprised no one had come looking for the child. “I think I should walk you home, Pansy.”
“We could read one of my books!” The little girl bounced on her toes, and her curls shook with enthusiasm.
“If your mama says it’s okay.”
“Mama’s lying down.” Pansy seized Livvy’s hand with her small, strong one. “Come on!” As they started out of the playground, Pansy asked, “What’s your name?”
“Olivia Sutton, but you can call me Livvy.”
Pansy swung Livvy’s hand back and forth, and walked on her toes, as if regular walking didn’t burn enough energy. “Are you old, Livvy? You look really old.”
Livvy laughed, and it felt good. She hadn’t laughed in a while. “I’m pretty old. It’s what happens if you live a long time.”
“Will I be old some day?”
Livvy squeezed the little girl’s hand. “I hope so, Pansy. I do hope so.”
It wasn’t an easy climb, and she struggled to keep up with the child. She was out of breath by the time they reached Pansy’s house, a solid sort of building with two floors and multiple windows, and an iron fence around everything. There was even a garage behind it, its door up, waiting for one of the few remaining automobiles to be parked there.
Pansy led her around to a side gate, and then in through a spacious kitchen with real cupboards and a stove with four burners. It made Livvy sigh with nostalgia. There was an electric coffeepot and an assortment of cups hanging on hooks above it. There was a counter with stools beside it, and a fruit bowl that held three apples and one single, perfect orange.
The sight of the orange made Livvy’s mouth water. She averted her gaze.
Pansy dashed into another room, and came back with a little stack of three slender books. She held them out to Livvy. “Can we read now?”
Livvy cast an uneasy glance around her. “We should get permission from your mama first. She might think I—well, that I came for something else.”
Livvy didn’t know how to explain to a child that she was at risk of being accused of theft, or abuse, or whatever offense might occur to someone. Pansy obviously didn’t notice that she and Livvy were different colors. It had been interesting to Livvy that the little girl saw she was old, but not that she was dark. Pansy wouldn’t understand the problem.
“Who are you?”
Livvy started, and whirled to see a young, very thin woman in a white bathrobe standing in the doorway to the kitchen. “Oh! Hello, ma’am,” Livvy said hastily. “I just walked your little girl back from the playground. Didn’t seem like she should be on her own that way.”
The woman put a hand to her throat, holding the lapels of her robe close. She looked frail, and Livvy wondered just how ill she was. “Pansy,” the woman said, in a thready voice. “You weren’t supposed to go out of the yard!”
“Sorry, Mama,” Pansy said, without sincerity. “This is Livvy, and she—”
“Olivia Sutton, ma’am. I used to work two houses down.”
“Oh.” The woman took an uncertain step to one side, as if she couldn’t decide whether to go back upstairs or come into the room and face the situation. “Pansy isn’t supposed to talk to strangers, but—”
“I told you, Mama!” Pansy cried. “This isn’t a stranger. This is Livvy. Livvy’s going to teach me to read.”
It was the nicest afternoon Livvy had enjoyed in a very long time. Pansy’s mother, called Sarah, was easily convinced that Livvy was no threat to her house or her child, and retreated to her bedroom. Pansy and Livvy made cheese sandwiches, and Livvy made Pansy carry one up to her mother before they ate. Afterward, she sat down with the little girl and read all three of her books. When she finished, she started again with the first, explaining how the letters worked. Once Pansy could read the title and the first sentence, she seized the book, and galloped up the stairs to show her mother.
Sarah came down once again, still barefoot, but dressed in a blouse and skirt. “Thank you, Olivia,” she said. “Pansy has been longing to learn to read. Let me give you some money.”
“Oh, no, ma’am, thank you, but I don’t want to be paid. I enjoyed myself.”
“Well,” Sarah said, with a vague wave of her hand. “I should give you something. Pansy gets so lonely since I’ve been sick.”
Livvy hesitated. She hadn’t come to the house for anything except to read to Pansy, but the chance was too good to pass up. She hugged herself, and blurted, “Ma’am, if you have any extra coffee . . .?” At Sarah’s surprised look, she said, “I’m down in the sh—the residences, see, and we don’t get coffee too often.”
“Oh!” Sarah said. “Oh, if you want coffee . . .” She pointed at the cupboard above the coffeepot. “Help yourself. As much as you like.” Another wave. “There’s some sugar, too, I think. Cheese. Anything you want, really. Just take it.”
Ten minutes later, Livvy was on her way down the hill, her pockets bulging with things from Sarah’s kitchen. She had a precious pound of coffee, and a half pound of good yellow cheese without a speck of mold. She had two eggs, and best of all, she had the orange from the fruit bowl. The walk took her a long time, downhill being worse than uphill for her knees, but she spent it planning the feast she would prepare for Porter in the morning.
She placed the orange in a saucer, and set it out in imitation of Sarah’s fruit bowl. She hid the coffee behind her kettle, and set the cups ready for the morning. She went to bed early, and slept well, with a tummy full of cheese sandwiches, only waking when the sledgehammers began in the early dawn.
They sounded closer today. She supposed they had discovered another tunnel. The blows rattled her walls, and made the woodstove shimmy on the plank floor.
Muttering instructions to herself, she filled the woodstove and lighted it. She boiled water for coffee, and while it was steeping she peeled the orange into sections, savoring the smell of orange peel. She steamed the eggs in the rest of the water, and when everything was ready, she went across the patch of dirt to Porter’s shack.
She had to wait while he hobbled to the door, and pulled it open. “Mornin’, Porter,” she said.
“Why, Mrs. Sutton,” he said. His voice was rough with sleep. “What brings you here?”
“A feast,” she told him.
It took a bit of persuading, but soon she had Porter in her shack, seated on her only chair, with a cup of fragrant coffee between his shaking hands. She worried he might drop the cup, but he didn’t. He drank it slowly, smiling at her between sips. She sat on her bed as they each ate an egg, then carefully shared out the orange.
At the first taste, Livvy groaned with pleasure. “I haven’t had me an orange in so long.”
“Me neither, Mrs. Sutton. It’s like this is my birthday or something.”
They smiled at each other, two old relics enjoying a good meal. And coffee.
When she had helped Porter back to his shack, Livvy looked up the hill to the playground. She didn’t see anyone there, and she was tired from her climb of the day before. She decided she would rest, though it wasn’t easy with the banging and cracking going on.
The next day, when she had drunk a precious cup of coffee and taken one to Porter, she went out for water and saw someone was in the playground again. It was too far for her to be sure, but she thought it might be Pansy. She took a shawl this time against the cold, and clambered up the steep street.
Pansy ran to meet her. She had her first book with her, the one she had started reading in, and she had an orange in her pocket.
They fell into a routine, Pansy and Livvy, with Sarah’s all-but-invisible support. When the weather was fine, Livvy and Pansy read at one of the picnic tables in the playground. When it was rainy, Livvy labored up the hill, and she and the little girl worked in the warm kitchen. Sarah found more books for her daughter, books she herself could barely read, and Pansy devoured them.
They went on that way for weeks, and it was almost like the old days. Livvy came away each time with cheese or eggs or oranges, sometimes coffee, often apples from beneath the tree in Pansy’s yard. Pansy glowed with enthusiasm. Livvy’s joints eased from being in the warm house so often. Porter flourished, too, in his modest way, with a bit of better food and a cup of coffee each morning.
Then, one afternoon, Livvy looked up from the book in Pansy’s lap and saw a tall blond man staring at the two of them. “What are you doing in my house?” he demanded.
Livvy jumped to her feet, and Pansy did, too, the book falling to the floor. They hadn’t heard the automobile come up the hill. “I’m Olivia Sutton, sir. I—I’m teaching Pansy to read.”
“I’m reading, Papa,” Pansy said in the smallest voice Livvy had heard her use.
“Your mother is teaching you to read,” he said, in a flat voice that made Livvy’s belly tighten, and Pansy shrink against her.
“Sir, Sarah—uh, Miss Sarah—she wasn’t feeling well, and—”
“She’s lazy,” he snapped. “Nobody feels well if they lie in bed all day.”
Livvy made no answer. There was no point. She bent to pick up the book, and laid it softly on the sofa where she and Pansy had been sitting.
Pansy’s papa said, “Did she hire you? Without asking me?”
Livvy had no answer for that, either. She had no way of knowing what Sarah might have spoken to her husband about. She wasn’t hired exactly. She didn’t know what to say, but she could see this was the end.
She tried not to look longingly at the three oranges in the fruit bowl. She didn’t go anywhere near the cupboard where the coffee was kept, or the electric refrigerator where there were always eggs and cheese. She said, “Pansy, I’m gonna have to go now.”
Pansy’s sweet little hand slipped into hers, and squeezed, but she didn’t say a word. Livvy wanted to kiss her, but under her papa’s glare, she didn’t dare. She murmured, “You can read those books to your mama now, Pansy. You know all the words.”
“Sarah can read them for herself,” her father snapped. He stood with his hands in his pockets, watching Livvy walk out the kitchen door as if he was afraid she was going to steal something on her way.
Empty-handed, heavy of heart, Livvy limped her way down the hill to her shack. She didn’t mind so much not bringing back an orange or a couple of eggs. She minded leaving Pansy with a father she was obviously afraid of, and a mother who hadn’t admitted to her husband that she couldn’t teach their daughter to read because she couldn’t read herself.
Porter came out as she crossed the lane. “Good day up the hill, Mrs. Sutton?”
She shook her head. “My little girl’s daddy came home. Wasn’t happy to see me.”
“He didn’t know about you.”
“Guess not.” She trudged toward her door. Her knees had begun to ache in earnest. “I didn’t bring anything this time, Porter. I’m out of coffee, out of cheese—everything. I’m sorry.”
“That don’t matter. You’ve been so generous already. I think I have the fixings for some soup. Would you like some?”
“No, thanks. I’m going to have a lie-down, I think. This is making me sad. My poor little girl.”
“You taught her a lot, I think.”
“I don’t know if it does any good.” She opened her door, and stared into the dim, dusty interior. “It’s not right, Porter. Those people up there with so much. Us down here with nothing.”
“Always things in this world aren’t right, Livvy.”
“Yes. I oughta know that by now.” She lifted her hand to him, and went into her shack.
Livvy went to bed without eating anything, though she still had a wedge of dried-out cheese and two slices of bread that weren’t too moldy. She had no appetite. She kept seeing Pansy’s desolate face, and her heart ached all over again. She didn’t know where she would find comfort for this loss. At least when the babies died, she had Butch to hold her, cry with her.
When she fnally fell asleep, it was the thick nightmare-ridden sleep of exhaustion. When the rumbling started, it seemed to be part of her dreams. Not until it got so loud she couldn’t ignore it did she wake fully, sitting up in bed with her quilt clutched to her bosom.
The rumbling grew to a roar. Her shack began to vibrate, then to shake. Gray dust sifted from the ceiling to powder her quilt, her floor, her hair. She scrambled from bed, her painful knees almost giving way. Stiff-legged, she struggled across to her door.
It wouldn’t open, though she shook it and banged on it. Through the dimness, she saw her side walls tilting, pulling loose from the Wall, jiggering her door so it wouldn’t budge.
Rocks began to fall, battering her roof, bouncing against the off-kilter walls. One burst through the growing crack between the shack and the Wall, and rolled across the floor, just missing her bare feet. She thrust her feet into her shoes and began to kick at the door. The noise intensified into a mind-numbing cacophony of falling rocks and cracking wood. She found herself screaming against it, as if her voice could stop the obliteration of her home.
The door finally gave way beneath her kicks. It fell outward, taking the front wall of the shack with it. The side walls, like playing cards in an old stacking game, flared outward and collapsed, shattering into a hundred bits of ancient wood and rusted metal. Livvy made her escape, dashing across the lane with her quilt around her shoulders. When she reached safety, she whirled to gape in horror at the wreck of the shacks.
Hers was flattened, as if a child’s giant foot had stamped it to pieces.
Porter’s had fallen inward.
She shrieked, horrified by the sight. His roof had crashed onto his floor, his side walls collapsed on top of that, and a mound of stones loosened from the Wall had buried the whole mess. Had buried him. People from up and down the lane came running, and frantically tried to lift rocks and planks and bits of old tin, but it was mostly to make themselves feel better, to know they had done all they could. They knew—as Livvy knew—it was too late for Porter.
She sagged to the ground, and pulled her quilt over her head to hide her weeping.
When the sun rose beyond the black bulk of the Wall, an automobile came coasting down the hill, past the playground, past the small houses. It stopped when it reached the lane, where survivors and workers now huddled in the cold, staring at the wreck of the residences. Livvy got to her feet, and turned with the others to watch the Councilman step out of his automobile and stand, hands on hips, surveying the disaster.
It was Pansy’s papa. He looked much as he had the day before, irritated and impatient.
One of the work bosses went up to him, and the two men spoke a few words. Pansy’s father gestured up and down the Wall, and pointed to the section that had collapsed.
Someone said, “At least there’ll be some repair work.”
Someone else said, “Think the Council has any idea why it fell down?”
“New tunnel came through,” someone whispered behind his hand. The whisper was repeated through the crowd.
They fell silent as the Councilman approached them. His lips were pinched. “You people will have to clear out while we get this situation resolved.”
Livvy felt numb with disbelief. Clear out? The relics? She glanced around, but it seemed no one was going to speak. It wasn’t right, and they all knew it. She clutched at her quilt, and stepped forward. “Sir?”
He eyed her without recognition. “What is it?” he snapped.
She felt vulnerable, exposed in her night clothes, but she couldn’t retreat. “Sir, we—the residents—” She couldn’t help emphasizing the word. “We have no place to go.”
“Of course you do,” he said. “Go up to the church. They’ll have cots.”
“Some of these folks can’t climb the hill to the church, sir. They’re gonna need help.”
He blew out an exasperated breath. “Lady, that’s not my problem. My job is to keep this Wall in good repair. To close up the tunnels. To keep everyone safe.”
“Didn’t keep Porter safe,” Livvy muttered, but only to herself. The Councilman was already on the way back to his automobile, his neck stiff with annoyance. In moments he was gone, his auto spinning easily up the steep street.
The repair work began immediately, with the boss shouting orders and men scurrying here and there. Some people from the church arrived to start shepherding the relics up the hill. A few, who would never be able to make the climb, sat right down in the dirt of the lane to wait for whatever would come.
Livvy could make it to the church, but she had no intention of going before they brought Porter out of the wreck. Two workers had already started pounding away at the rubble, rolling stones away when they could, breaking up others, tossing them onto a pile in the lane. Shards of Porter’s few possessions appeared, a saucepan smashed flat, a broom handle in splinters, fragments of a water pitcher. Everything went onto the mound. Most of it would go back into the Wall.
When one of the workers abruptly straightened, calling for the other man to join him, Livvy crossed the lane to see what they had found. The first one caught sight of her. “You should stop there, ma’am. You don’t want to see this.”
His kindness made her eyes sting. “You found him,” she said.
“Friend of yours?”
“Yes. His name was Porter.”
“I’m real sorry, ma’am.”
“Can you tell—” She pressed her fingers to her trembling lips. It was hard to wrench the words from her throat. “Young man, are—are you quite sure he’s dead?”
“Yeah, no doubt about it. If it helps—pretty sure it would have happened fast.”
Livvy shuddered at what it must have been like for poor Porter, the noise, the cracking and crumbling, the full weight of the pitiless Wall crushing out his life. Tears burned her cheeks, and when she put up a hand to brush them away, she remembered she was still in her nightgown, with only her quilt to cover her.
She pulled herself together enough to meet the young man’s sympathetic gaze. He said, “Listen, you can’t stand here like that. How’s about my wife brings you some clothes? Helps you up to the church?”
She could have accepted his offer. She could have accepted the clothes, gone to the church, slept on a cot and listened to sermons.
She glared at the Wall, suddenly furious with the way it had ruled her life. The young man went on talking, but she didn’t hear him. She didn’t see anything but the behemoth of stone and steel and wood, the relics of civilization. She wanted to pound it with her fists, shout it down, smash it with her own stubborn spirit.
Then she saw it. The opening. The mouth of a tunnel gaping behind the wreckage of Porter’s shack. It was littered with scree and the flotsam that jammed the interior of the Wall. It was little more than a crawlspace, dirty and dark and narrow.
But there was light on the other side. It wasn’t much, a window glimpsed at a distance, but it shone with light. Sunshine. It called to Livvy’s heart.
She started toward the opening. The young worker seized her hand. “Lady, you can’t go in there! It’s not safe!”
“Why?” she said, not looking at him, focusing on the tunnel and its promise of light at the other end.
“It could fall in at any moment,” he said.
“I don’t care.”
“Can’t you just wait—my wife—”
She pulled her hand free, gently, and glanced into his kind face. He was as dark as she was, but young—so young. A wife. Maybe a family. His future before him. If he had a future, that is, working on the endless Wall, living in its cruel shadow.
“It’s good of you to worry about an old woman,” she told him. “But I think I’m gonna take my chances.” She started off again, picking her way over the broken bits of Porter’s life. “I really want some sunshine,” she muttered, not even pretending to talk to anyone but herself. “I’m so tired of living in the shade.”
The going was rough. Her old shoes slipped on jagged stones, and broke through rotted bits of wood. She was still in her night clothes. She hadn’t brushed her teeth or combed her hair, but she was on her way.
When she wriggled her way into the opening, the dank smell of old dirt and cold stones met her nostrils. In places she had to suck in her stomach to sidle through. The Wall groaned and cracked around her, threatening to stop her once and for all. She pressed on.
The light ahead grew brighter. Hands were picking at that little window, widening it, pulling away bits of the Wall. Her heart thudded at the thought of the people there, maybe smugglers, possibly the adversaries she had been warned about since her infancy.
“No turning back now, old woman,” she grunted as she squeezed around a chunk of ancient link fencing. “Don’t you chicken out now.”
Above her the Wall grumbled and shifted, trying to hold her in its clutches like some great dragon guarding its lair, coveting its relics, loathe to let even one escape.
A shaft of unimpeded sunlight broke into the tunnel on the far side, and with it a gust of fresh air. Heads joined the hands she had seen, silhouettes against the brilliance. Enemies? Perhaps.
But the real monster was the Wall, and though it began to shake, and rain detritus down on her head, she would not give in. She pushed forward, scraping her knees and shoulders, losing one shoe, kicking off the other to maintain her balance. She was sure she was bleeding in places, but it didn’t matter. One way or another, Olivia Sutton was going to be free.
Did she imagine it, or did the breeze from the other side smell of oranges?
Thoughts while vacuuming, one week after the election of a misogynist xenophobe to the presidency
Cleaning things is how I deal. So, today, while I ran the machine over the carpets and wriggled the hose past a puppy who thinks everything in the house belongs to him, I wondered why I’m feeling sad.
I really am sad, that pain in the chest, burning in the stomach feeling that comes when something awful has happened. I unfollowed someone who posted a meme laughing at those of us who are grieving the result of this election. That was cathartic, in its way, but I still needed to identify the source of this sorrow.
It’s not just that I wanted a woman president, though I did. It’s not just that I think the president-elect is utterly unsuitable to lead or represent our country, though I do. It goes deeper. And while my humming machine sucked up bits of broken dog toys and stray autumn leaves from the floor, it came to me.
I’m grieving the loss of my belief that a standard of civilization in the United States would prevent this disaster. I was certain the majority of us were too well-informed, too historically aware, too good-hearted to vote in favor of misogyny and xenophobia and racism and prejudice, to say nothing of rampant vulgarity. I’m in pain because a tenet of my faith in my fellow citizens has been proven invalid.
No one laughing at young, passionate people weeping at this loss remains my friend. No one perpetuating this misogynistic culture or these racist views, can be on my list.
When I posted the picture of the 1920s suffragettes in their white dresses, one of my commenters said, “I wouldn’t grab one of them.” Is that vulgarity going to be the new norm? I won’t stand for it. I can’t avert my gaze and pretend it’s not happening.
I wish I could vacuum up the rage and resentment and fear that drives the people who voted for that man. I wish I could come close to understanding it. Instead, it fills me with despair.
Four years of this? Wow. I’ll have the cleanest house in the country.
Recently, I heard a choir I’m familiar with, a lovely and accomplished group of sixty or so voices. The director was new to me, and though the performance was nearly perfect, I was disappointed. The former conductor—whose performances were never nearly perfect—brought something different to the music, a passion and energy that pushed the choir right to the edge every time. When I listened to them under that director, I never knew what might happen, musically speaking. What always happened, without fail, was that I was engaged and moved. I felt a deep connection to the music and its message, perfection notwithstanding.
I’ve been pondering that, and thinking about how it might relate to writing. Tastes are vastly different, of course, but for myself, perfection is not the element I seek. I love beautiful language, but still, I’d rather read something that feels as if it’s pushing the envelope. I like stories that teeter on the cliff, plots that might go either way. I like unique characters, the ones who take chances, who surprise me as a reader.
This may be why I love writing villains, real bad boys (and girls), who are capable of all sorts of disturbing actions. Heroines and heroes are hard, because they tend to be generic. You expect them to make wise and virtuous choices, to be the sort of person we can all admire.
Villains can be much more fun. They operate from a different context. More than one reader has said they hated being in the mind (which is to say, the point of view) of Preston Benedict, the antagonist of my Benedict Hall series. I loved it! For me, his scenes were the most fun of all to write. Antagonists are, in many ways, easy. They’re already on the edge.
Creating protagonists who are capable of surprising readers is much more difficult. A likable protagonist with an edge is much to be desired, and not at all simple to achieve. I’m going to try to remember how affecting the choir was when it was less perfect and more adventurous, and apply that same effect to my fiction.
Blog post hosted by SF Signal.
“The State of Social Science Fiction” at My Bookish Ways
In recent days a self-published author has been excoriated for arguing with someone who gave his novel a one-star review online. The author doesn’t claim the book doesn’t deserve the one-star review; his argument is that it is unfair to him for the reader to have posted it because it could hurt his sales, ruin his life. Because, come on, this writing thing is hard!
Herein lies the great deception in the many shortcuts to publication now available. Is the goal to see your name on an Amazon page? Or is the goal to create something worthy of being seen on an Amazon page or elsewhere?
Before it’s my turn to be excoriated for giving indie authors a hard time, let me say that I’m fully aware, as are lots of folks, that there are some good ones who are succeeding brilliantly at publishing their own work. They have created something that appeals to readers enough that they will spend money on it. Some have even created a solid revenue stream. They have no doubt worked really hard at that, because writing something good is not easy. It takes perseverance, discipline, study, ambition, and talent.
It takes talent. Talent is something that is scattered unequally over the population. In itself, it is no guarantee of success, but without it, success can be all but impossible to attain. Edison said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but as others have pointed out since the Wizard of Menlo Park spoke, without the 1%, the 99% is wasted.
A nice singer I worked with tried out for the New York Yankees before turning to music. He said to me once that baseball had been kinder to him than singing had, by which he meant, he learned early that he didn’t have the talent for a career in baseball. It took longer for him to learn that he didn’t have enough talent for a big career in music. (Of course, then we have to define success, which is fodder for another discussion entirely.)
Baseball is, in its own way, a form of showbiz, and many yearn to be professional ballplayers who end up disappointed. Many people long to be movie stars, too. Only a few will make it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise so many people. We understand the showbiz effect, that strange system that makes Tom Cruise is a huge star and someone better looking and more talented only moderately famous. (Greg Kinnear, not that I’m naming names . . .) That’s showbiz, and we get it. Baseball, ballet, sculpting, newscasting—all of these have elements of showbiz.
So does writing.
What bothers me about the anecdote I started with, a writer complaining to a reviewer that it was unfair to negatively review his work, is the sense of entitlement the writer evidently possesses. That entitlement is not justified. Publishing is hard, as is every creative field—or perhaps I should say, every field. There are no guarantees of fame and money, no matter how hard you’ve tried.
We all know plenty of fine writers who work day jobs because their excellent novels and short stories don’t earn them a living. Are they failures? I don’t think so, because they’re doing what they love. Are they justified in whining about that? Nope. And they don’t do it, either.
We can’t know ahead of time whose work will catch the zeitgeist and whose won’t. Despite what lots of books about writing try to claim, no one knows what the next bestseller will be, just as no one knows what actress will turn out to be a top draw at the box office when another one doesn’t.
I have a hard-and-fast rule that applies here. I learned it in my first career, and it is this: Never, never respond to the press. Even the amateur press. Suck it up, know that everyone gets the occasional bad review, and move on.
In the meantime, as I’ve said to many students, let this one go and go write something new. Try to write better with each new project. Everything we publish is a tryout, in a way. An audition. And when you audition, you take your chances.
The great 19th century contralto Elisabeth Schumann-Heink said, “To be a singer you must have the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It’s true for all of us who put our work out into the public eye. We are performing artists. It’s our job to entertain the public, and the public owes us nothing. We have to earn it.
Nothing is headier, to a writer, than being in the zone. Words and thoughts flow in a steady torrent. There are no doubts, and no fears about where it’s all going. Nothing seems to matter but getting the words onto the page, tapping into that mysterious source of creativity. It feels powerful. The writer believes in the work at that moment, and has confidence that her story will unfold in the best possible way.
Sadly, like other intoxicating moods, this one is both rare and short-lived. It really is a sort of high, and for most writers, it’s not easy to achieve. The obstacles are legion.
What obstacles? Oh, work, laundry, kids, television, dogs, the telephone, the internet, the radio, sunshine . . . in short, the elements of life.
Who doesn’t dream of the perfect work space tucked away in the woods, or at the bottom of the garden, or the edge of a cliff, where no one is allowed to go except you? Mine—completely imaginary—overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It has minimal furniture, but windows on all sides, and a steep stone path down to the beach. In this dream space, I sit at my desk with my computer in front of me and my research books at hand, and I write by the hour while gazing out at the waves, undisturbed by anyone (who would dare come up that path?)
The reality for most writers is that bills have to be paid and messages have to be answered. Groceries have to be obtained somehow. There don’t seem to be any brownies popping up to fix what gets broken. We get sick, or our partners or children or pets do. Our work space may be, if we’re lucky, an actual study or den. More likely, it’s similar to the one the late, great Erma Bombeck, author of The Grass is Always Greenest over the Septic Tank and other marvelous books, began her career on: a board set across cardboard boxes in her garage. Jean Kerr, writer of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, did all her writing on a notebook in the car while she waited for her kids to get out of school. A friend of mine wrote most of a novel on a yellow pad while he rode the bus to and from work.
Every writer’s process is different. Some listen to music while they’re working. Some of us can’t. (When I listen to music, I listen to music.) Some work in coffee shops, where the bustle around them is nothing but white noise. Some shut themselves into a room for hours, in a manner the late and much-missed Jay Lake called binge writing. Some work in bursts, like a sprinter. Others work on a meticulously organized schedule.
Whatever our process is, we need to find it, and find it regularly. Practice, and practice on a regular basis, is key to every art form in existence. (Please see “Five Music Lessons for Writers” for my thoughts on the virtues of regular practice.)
I’m revisiting this topic as much for myself as for any of the rest of you who might find something of worth here. 2014 was a year of enormous events for me and my family: moving house, losing a family member—yes, he was a dog, but he absolutely was one of us—celebrating a wedding, taking an extensive overseas trip. For the first time in my publishing life, I fell behind on my writing goals, and I know—as the veteran of two different careers in the arts—that I need to rediscover the zone in which I do my best work.
I’ve been thinking back on the times in my life I’ve been most productive, and about the projects which seemed to flow most smoothly. There are some similarities. There are some things I can do to put myself in the zone, and I think they’re worth noting, and noting in order of importance:
1. Eliminate distractions.
Yup, that means turning off the wifi. It means going where no one will talk to me, whether that’s in my study alone or a coffee shop where no one knows me. It means letting the telephone go to voice mail. It means—gulp—putting my cell phone out of sight and out of earshot.
I think turning off the television and the radio are fairly obvious, but the internet is insidious. How many times do we break our train of thought just for a quick look at our email or Facebook or Pinterest or other lovely, entertaining, time-sucking creation? I remember, in the midst of writing The Glass Harmonica, discovering eBay for the first time. Talk about distraction! It was irresistible. I had to give up my membership, delightful though it was, for the good of my Art.
2. Prioritize projects.
Most writers, despite what many in the nonwriting public seem to think, have brains teeming with ideas. We don’t need folks to tell us theirs! We have plenty of our own, needing only the time and the energy to develop them. As an example, I have two sequels in different series simmering in the back of my brain. Boiling along next to those is an idea for a cozy mystery, something I’ve wanted to write for a long time. I also have a brand-new book, two-thirds finished, which my agent is eager to see, and a short story due in a terrifyingly small amount of time. The problem, as each day’s writing begins, is choosing which of these possibilities to work on.
Some writers excel at compartmentalization, and can work on more than one project at a time. Others can’t. Every writer has to find what works best for her. The important thing is to be able to focus fully on the project in hand at any given moment. Jumping from one story to another, or spinning in circles because we can’t decide which should come first, doesn’t get the work done.
Deadlines are great for prioritizing the list of ideas. If there doesn’t happen to be one, however, there are other ways of determining the order of importance. The best is when a story is burning inside you, demanding to be explored. Another is when you feel the need to take a break from, say, a long-running series, and play in another space for a time. It can be energizing to spend time with different characters, different scenery, different plot lines.
I keep files of ideas on my laptop. If a great line of dialogue or twist of plot occurs to me that’s not in the current project, I make a note in the appropriate file (having learned long ago that otherwise it could be lost forever) and then put it out of mind. If something occurs to me when I’m out walking, or shopping, or riding in the car, I make a note on whatever comes to hand, and transcribe it later. I keep a notebook beside my bed as well, to write down anything useful that comes to me when I’m reading or trying to sleep. Ideas will keep until the time is right to put them to use. They don’t need to distract us from the work-in-progress.
3. Don’t abuse the muse.
This is a quote from the great Greg Bear, who I was privileged to study with. Most artists are a bit obsessive. That’s a good thing, because it gets the work done, but it won’t help the work to pump the well dry. Work, and work hard. Then take the time you need to recharge.
For me, this means exercise. I walk, I do yoga, I get up in the middle of a writing session and stretch. For some writers, it might mean coffee with a friend, a ramble with the dog, a visit to the library. Everyone needs their own way to unwind, and, as the wonderful Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, to fill up again. (And by the way, if you haven’t read Anne Lamott, you’re missing out on a rare treat. I think every contemporary writer should read all her nonfiction.)
Jay told me once that although he was a binge writer, after a session—which could run for many hours or even days—there would be long periods in which he wouldn’t write at all. That wouldn’t work for me, but it did for him, clearly, because his bibliography is extensive. I always imagined Jay’s idle periods as his unwinding time, his chance to let the well fill up again.
We wouldn’t expect a ballet dancer to practice only when she felt like it, and still turn in beautiful performances. It’s no different for writers. We have to go in search of the zone. We can’t wait until it finds us.
Do you have any other tricks that work? Feel free to share. Me, I’m going to go practice these until I learn some better ones.