Leonardo Dead Vinci

I am presently hard at work on my latest novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, which has been a far more difficult challenge than my first novel.  The draft I am building now is actually my third attempt to tell this character’s story without becoming sidetracked by secondary characters or peripheral, historical weirdness.  I am also hoping this time it will have some sort of actual plot.  The struggle is real people.  
The following is an extract from the chapter I am working on at this very moment which, for now, I have titled Bone Fires. It is a conversation between Floretta and Sergeant Fury, a cat-stodian of the dead.  It’s a nice teaser and fairly indicative of the book’s style.
The accompanying illustration is by Elizabeth Snider aka The Sewing Artist

 

flora‘Is this what you imagined your afterlife to be?’

‘Not exactly.’

‘Explain.’

‘Well,’ Floretta hesitated to compose a thoughtful and (mostly) truthful answer to the Sergeant’s question.  ‘I suppose I imagined more black.’

‘More black?’  The black cat arched an amused and inquisitive, whiskered eyebrow.

‘I certainly didn’t imagine you,’ she blurted out rudely.

‘Really?’  Fury pitched a tone of mock indignation.  ‘A girl with a death wish and a passion for Egyptology never expected her afterlife to include a cat?’

‘Death wish?’ shrieked Floretta with genuine indignation.  ‘Why, I never—

‘In the cellar of the vicarage with a knife,’ declared the cat, as if presenting evidence for the prosecution.

‘Dagger!’ countered Floretta.

‘A dagger with crumbs on the blade from slicing the morning’s bread.’

‘My resources were limited.’

‘You efforts to catch consumption by drinking nothing but milk for a month were rather entertaining,’ the cat continued.

‘I researched the topic thoroughly, I’ll have you—

‘But not nearly as amusing as your attempt to hang yourself with a dress.’

‘Christening gown!’ argued Floretta.

‘Death wish!’ accused Fury.

If he could have, she was certain the cat would have dramatically pointed a finger at her.  She tossed her head to show him in no certain terms how offended she was by the case he had presented against her.  In truth, she felt more than a little disconcerted as she realised this cat caretaker of the dead had clearly been watching her for some time.

‘Do you deny it?’ he demanded through narrowed feline eyes.

‘Categorically,’ Floretta declared.  ‘I had no wish to die.’

‘No wish to—

‘I simply wished to make certain that, were I to die, my death would be neither messy nor ugly nor accidental.’

‘So, your suicide attempts were rehearsals?’

‘I like to think of them as…’ she paused again, trying to form just the right words to describe her forays into Beaux Arts Macabre.  ‘Preliminary sketches of the sort which The Old Masters used when building their grand, artistic visions.’

‘Leonardo Dead Vinci,’ suggested the cat wryly.

‘Exactly,’ Floretta punctuated, deliberately ignoring his obvious overtone of sarcasm.

 

 

Tea with Cecily

The following excerpt from my Young Adult horror novel in progress, The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, is accompanied by the artwork of illustrator Elizabeth Snider.

Recently deceased Mia Walsh makes her way to The Church of All Hallowed Souls in an attempt to confront her father (the vicar) over his accusations against her (sort of) ex-boyfriend.  She is accompanied by long-time ghostly resident and would-be post-mortem mentor, the Victorian poltergeist Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  Whilst hiding from her mother behind a gravestone, Mia comes face to face with a nightmare named Cecily.

CecilywebLater, Mia would not remember if she had screamed or not.  Perhaps she had been too terrified even to rely on what had rapidly become her post-mortem, knee-jerk reaction to most things.  The face of the girl in the churchyard with the sing-song voice definitely made her want to scream.  Once the girl might have been pretty with her long golden curls, creamy skin, ripe, peachy mouth.  But something terrible must have happened to that lovely girl.  Some tragedy had drained her former beauty.  And her eyes.

Where are her eyes?

They looked as if they had been gouged out with a pair of forceful thumbs or plucked out with hot pincers or—  Mia didn’t’ care to consider any more horrific alternatives.  No evidence of past trauma there now—no marks or scars or weeping blood at all.  But no eyes.

Wait.  Mia looked more closely.  There were eyes down there somewhere.  Very deeply set and very small.  Like tiny jet beads on a black dress.  Maybe the horrible thing that happened to this nightmare girl had been too much for her eyes to cope with and they shrank, retreated as far back into her skull as they could.   All around the pin-prick, bead-black eyes were rough charcoal smudges of flesh, indigo, purple and black, which swept between the curves of her blonde eyebrows and the apple blush of her cheeks.  Twin bruises swirling toward two, twinkling dark stars in a vortex of horror.

Mother: a excerpt from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes

229038_10150232086718659_724701_nIn honour of Mothering Sunday, here’s a totally appropriate and not at all creep-tastic excerpt from my work in progress YA Horror Novel The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes.  And happy Mother’s Day to my own dear Mama. xox

 

From the archives of St Becket’s Church of England School, 1963

Priscilla Reid never heard anyone actually say: “The Old Cloakroom is haunted.”  Neither did anyone enter it, unless they were being dared to.  It was difficult to put a finger on why.  The room just felt wrong.  Dark, cold, vacant and solitary but somehow crowded and exposed.  Perhaps it was the spectre of time which made the room eerie.  All the things that had happened here, all the people who had passed through.  Six hundred years of joy and misery and fear and laughter captured in stone. Yet no other place in the original wing of St Becket’s School had the same feeling of wrongness, though they were all just as ancient.

Priscilla began to feel the effects of the room from halfway down the corridor.  It pulled goose pimples from the flesh on her arms and back and neck.  She’d left her cardigan at her desk back in the library.  The light dimmed.  Priscilla’s pulse quickened.

Don’t be daft.  It’s just an empty room. Nothing here but a frightened girl’s satchel with an overdue book in it.

Swallowing her fear she carried on into the cloakroom.  Whoever took Delia Jackson’s bag did a proper job of it.  The little canvas satchel lay crumpled in the far corner at the very end of a long row of those eerily empty coat pegs.  The thief must have thrown it from around the corner—hard enough to crush a plum Delia must have been saving to eat on her way home from school.  Dark, purple liquid seeped through the light beige fabric of the bag, staining it like blood.

Priscilla felt a strange, swooping sensation in her stomach.  As if the floor had just dropped from under her and she was falling from a great height, the wind pulling at her hair and her dress, making the bow of her collar flap against her chin.  Against the dizzying wave of nausea, Priscilla squeezed her eyes shut.  Little lights bloomed behind her eye lids: black then white then red. Bright, glowing, blazing red.  She forced her eyes open and all was still again—only the corridor and the cloakroom beyond.

Run.  Just run and grab it and run back out and hope no one is waiting at the opposite end of the hall to see you looking stupid. Her feet refused to obey.  Right, on the count of three then: one, two, three!

Priscilla pushed off from the stone wall, pelted into the freezing cold air past the empty coat pegs to the far end of the darkened cloakroom.  She gathered Delia’s satchel into her arms.  Spinning on her heel she launched herself back to the safety of the corridor.  Then, in the middle of the very wrong, very old cloakroom, she froze.

The bag moved.

Priscilla held her breath and waited.  Perhaps she had only imagined it.  The bag twitched again.  Then a third time before it began to squirm.

The bag thrashed wildly in her arms as if it didn’t want to be held.  Had Delia brought a cat to school?  Hidden in her bag?  Is that why she was too frightened to collect it?  She looked down at the canvas satchel.  Its light beige fabric blended with the skin on her arms.  The same colour, the same texture, the same—flesh!

The bag cried out.  A high, insistent, piercing wail instantly recognisable to any parent.  Priscilla opened her trembling arms and an infant’s face stared back at her, red mouth opened wide in an angry howl.  Its tiny fists and feet flailed.  Its spine stiffened and curled, stiffened and curled in a writhing motion.  The stain on the fabric of the bag was not from a squashed plum. It was a layer of blood which coated the new-born skin of the crying baby.

A sharp pain took root deep inside her, awakening a memory she had hoped would stay forever dormant.  It rose up from the secret place where Priscilla had hidden that horrible, wonderful, painful moment pulled from her at last by a high, insistent, infant cry.  The cry of her son.

That was all we had, wasn’t it?  One moment of wailing together before they took you from me, my darling boy. 

Maternal instinct moved her to stroke the infant’s fine blonde hair, damp and slightly pink with natal blood.  Tears streamed down Priscilla’s face for several moments, until a though occurred to her and she jerked back to look properly at the baby in her arms.

Blonde?  No.  Not blonde.  Her boy had most certainly not been blonde.  His hair and eyes and skin had been dark.  Like his father’s.

In response to her touch and her thoughts, the baby began to change.  Its flesh darkened, staining baby peach skin to a rich teak.  Fair and fluffy hair thickened, coarsened and blackened around her pale fingers until the babe in her arms became the son she’d known all too briefly.

My boy.  My darling, forbidden Indian boy.   

Unable to stop herself, she leaned down to plant a kiss on the dusky forehead of the squalling, bloody infant. The secret, thrice-cursed son she’d given away because he’d been born to the wrong parents in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But here he was in her arms at last.

‘Have you been here all this time, my son?  Is this where they brought you?  Were you waiting for me?  Were you, lad?’

In between questions she peppered him with kisses.  Gurgling happily, the flailing baby’s hands playfully they knocked aside the librarian’s tortoiseshell, cats-eye glasses.  Then tiny brown fingers grabbed fistfuls of Priscilla’s smooth, blonde locks and pulled with fierce tenacity.  The infant screams grew louder, wilder, sounding less like a baby and more like some enraged predator.  Priscilla tried to pull away but the baby’s grip was strong.  The sensible thing would be to release her hold on it, to let it drop to the floor.  But she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

‘This time I will never let you go.’

She held tightly to the baby and the baby held onto her, then Priscilla looked once more into her infant’s eyes.  The features changed again.  Dark eyes warm and cocoa soft hardened into something black, dilated, pupiless.  The mouth was no toothless, squalling maw either.  As the baby screamed one last time, Priscilla saw rows of razor sharp teeth.  The jaws of the baby opened wider and wider, impossibly wide. It seemed as if it would consume her head-first like a python.

That’s when she finally dropped the baby.  Priscilla staggered, blind with terror, determined to get out of the Old Cloakroom.  Her heart raced and she struggled to breath.  Something constricted her windpipe.  She moved her hand up to her neck and ten tiny fingers wrapped themselves around her.  The baby—or the thing that looked like a baby—clung to Priscilla’s back its arms and fingers clutching tightly about her neck in macabre imitation of a piggy back ride.

Don’t leave me, Mother.’  The baby whispered in Priscilla’s ear.  ‘Not again.’  Phantom tears dripped from its dilated pupils and fell icy hard on the librarian’s shoulders.  ‘Mother.  Please.  Help me.’

The infant’s tiny arms wrapped desperately about Priscilla’s neck in a ferocious embrace.  She stumbled to the stone floor at the edge for the Old Cloakroom.  The world began to spin.  Her heart began to slow.  Still the phantom bag baby held her, its terrified cries deafening as they echoed in the empty cloakroom.  Priscilla Reid clawed feebly at her neck and back hoping to pull the creature off.  Her fingers found a rope wrapped tight as a noose around her throat.  The baby was gone now.  Or she was the baby?  Priscilla wasn’t sure.  She only knew that she was being strangled.

Everything went dark and cold.  For several long moments, a silence fell around The Old Cloakroom, like a soundless shroud smothering the corpse of Priscilla Reid, school librarian.

In a far corner of the cloakroom sparked a red light, like a match being lit.  The flame burst and bloomed like a scarlet rose bud.  The glowing ember rose bloomed and stretched, its petals curling upwards, billowing in a ghostly breeze.  Its leaves puffed up then out ballooning in a fiery expanse of flowery embroidery.  The rose of red curls and billowing floral silk wafted over toward the fallen woman and the squalling, phantom infant.

‘You.’  The glowing rose scowled at the infant phantom cuddled beside the dead librarian.  ‘You swore to me you weren’t going to do that anymore.’  The red light of the rose burned hot.  ‘What shall I do with you, infant?’

The Final Death of Floretta Deliverance Hughes

The Following is an excerpt from my second YA fantasy novel, a work in progress titled A Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs.  In this passage one of the chief characters Floretta Deliverance Hughes falls to her death in a planned, staged suicide attempt that goes wrong.

floraFlora fought her way up the side of the moor.  She couldn’t breathe.  Throwing herself off the knife edge arête of Oswald’s Edge might not prove necessary.  Her corset would suffocate her long before she reached it.  She paused for breath and leaned against an outcropping of rock beside the pig track—the easiest method for ascending Grimsrigg Fell.

Ball gowns weren’t for hill trekking.  The bulky cage skirt and petticoat lay in a pale heap on the valley floor, far below.  Beneath the silken skirts of her fantastically red gown Flora shivered with cold in lacy pantalettes and struggled for breath under the confines of tight stays.

Atmospheric conditions were perfect.  Wisps of indigo cloud fell across the full moon, shifting and swirling like the curling tendrils of dancing girls.  An autumnal sort of fog settled along the heathery moorland, sneaking its fingers into crevices and wrapping its arms around the world in a hazy embrace.  It had been such a fine day she should have known the night would be bitter.  But Flora revelled in the artistry of it all.  This was weather to die for.

Pulling a cloak more tightly around her with one hand and gathering her skirts in the other, Flora pressed on.  In a rare moment of practicality, she had taken Priss’s sturdy hobnailed boots, the ones she wore to muck out the chickens.  Hopefully the family would not assume their devoted maidservant had stolen the embroidered scarlet slippers Flora left in their place.  How ridiculous I must look in my wool cloak, mud-spattered work boots and fashionably frilly ball gown.

Flora experienced a moment of doubt.  Would the questionable and arguably comical aesthetic of her attire ruin the overall effect?  Beaux Arts Macabre demanded Beaux de Mode.  I shall remove the cloak before I fall and perhaps the shoes as well.  Yes!  Barefoot beneath my gown adds a salacious touch of scandal.

Distracted by thoughts of a fashionable exit, Flora trod on the front hem of her gown and fell hard against the rocky path.  Not a particularly painful fall, but the poppy silk sustained a mortal injury.  A tear like a bloody wound rent the bottom-most ruffled tier.  With a defeated sigh, Flora ripped away the entire layer.  She grinned down at the effect of exposed lace pantaloons and grubby work boots beneath the silk scarlet frills then trudged on.

She turned out to be grateful for the rugged footwear.  The pig track was not as easy a route as she remembered from climbing it as an adventurous ten-year-old.  Flora stumbled often but Priss’s boots made the rocky path easier to bear.  It would be no good at all if she should fall at the wrong moment or even worse sustain an injury which might mar a graceful leap from the dramatic precipice.

By the time she reached the top of Oswald’s Edge the full moon was at its zenith beneath a veil of cloud and the entire Vale of Burr was blanketed in fog.  Perfect.  Flora shrugged off her woollen cloak.  A violent tremor shuddered through her brought on by the chill of the fell wind and her own fear.

Flora adjusted the neckline of her gown as if proper bodice arrangement might ease her terror.  She stepped closer to the rocky edge and looked down.  Not across the lovely valley vista but down.  Straight down.  Down the steeply sloping drop-off, over the jagged shards of rock, through the sheer distance from top to bottom of Oswald’s Edge.

‘Oh!’

This was too much.  This was too real.  This wasn’t some charming watery grave or a woozy poisoned fainting spell.  This was hard, brutal, painful death.  There would be no turning back once she began.  No possible way to change her mind.  And what if Hercules Bogg really did want to teach her about archery?  What if he wanted to learn more about roses and blossoming red flowers?  Who would feed Lord Byron?

There was no beauty here.  This was an ugly end.  Mals Arts Macabre. Mal!  Mal!

‘I can’t do this.’

Flora hastily retreated from the edge of Oswald’s Edge. She had to find the pig track. The pig track would take her home.  She wheeled on sturdy heels and walked straight into a pair of silvery blue eyes.

‘Wha—who—ha,’ stuttered Flora, backing away from the mysterious would-be priest whose face was a breath from hers.  His body swathed in black robes, made his face appear disembodied.  His eyes like twin moons, bathed her in a merciless glow.

‘Find her for me, little vicar’s daughter.  Find her.  Bring her back.’

Flora didn’t even have time to ask who he meant before Priss’s hobnailed boots stepped back into nothingness.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes fell gracefully from the knife edge arête of Oswald’s Edge.  Her red dress billowed, her red plaits rippled and her fair skin shone beautifully in the moonlight all the way down.  And she could see every moment of it.  Her beautiful death reflected in his pale, disembodied eyes.

Illustration by Elizabeth Snider

From The Undecided Transcredible Jaffers Rescue & Nerd Support Society webpage. Sam Streeter, administrator. 23rd July, 2010.

“Another sighting of Truman Becket’s ghost in the Hallowed Soul’s Churchyard. The iron bars of his sarcophagus were heard rattling even up at Burnt Tree pub Saturday night.  This morning no less than five people saw a man in a black cloak walking across Soul’s Bridge as if on his way to church.  Totally real, people.  Burly-the-Wath is haunted!”

Alistair Jacques says: Are you stupid, Streeter or just high?

Tommy Grace says: Show us a photo or shut up.

Sam Streeter says: I’m not stupid or high and I don’t have a camera.

Dave Bogg says: Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change form and once Streeter gets on a topic it will only die when he does.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Ethan Unwin says: Tell me when you see Agnes Wymark’s ghost.  Bet she’s hot.

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Dave Bogg says: Perv

 Sam Streeter says: Knob.

Tommy Grace says: Doesn’t he do this every year?

Dave Bogg says: St Becket’s Day.

Ethan Unwin says: Ancient history, mate. 

Sam Streeter says: WHICH OF YOU ARSEWIPES JUST FRAPED MY STATUS?

Alistair Jacques says: LOL

Graveyard All SaintswebCat Woodhouse didn’t like loose ends.  She stared down the loose ends as if, by sheer force of will, she could make them no longer be loose.  But the ends rattled and, against her common sense understanding of physics, flapped in the chilly wind of the summer daybreak.  That really should not be happening.

‘You shouldn’t be doing that,’ she lectured through tense lips to the loose ends who, in response, flapped defiantly back at her.  She shook a warning finger causing her armful of bracelets to rattle indignantly.

‘Reckon that’s going to work, do you?’  Jenny Rowntree leaned resignedly against one of the yew trees lining the All Soul’s churchyard.  ‘Shouting at iron chains?’

The two women gazed down at the crumbling arrangement of ancient stone.  Dark moss and silvery lichen crawled across the surface, marring the most important grave in the Burly cemetery with a weathered rash.   Iron bars surrounded the grave marker like rusted sentinels.  Heavy linked chains connected the seven posts, their guardian arms forming a formidable barrier about the occupant’s final resting place.

Or, at least, they were meant to form a formidable barrier.  Two of the chains now hung limply, arms broken, barrier compromised.  Phantom fingers of dawn mist drifted in and out of the gap in the chains as if to further prove the point: anything could freely pass through.  Mrs Woodhouse swiped and batted ineffectually at the mist with her unbraceleted arm then sighed.

The mist sighed back.

No, not a sigh.  An exhalation of relief, as if the something or someone was able to breathe freely for the first time in ages.  Mrs Woodhouse backed away, joining Miss Rowntree by the twisted yew trunk twined with tendrils of long-dead ivy.

It might have been the wind.  It might have been her imagination.  If so, Cat was not alone in imagining it.  Jenny Rowntree’s sturdy, weathered fingers trembled as they scrabbled backward to grip the even sturdier, more weathered and wrinkled yew.  The iron chains flapped more vigorously, almost cheerfully.  Like ribbons in a girl’s hair or party streamers or banners—symbolic standards warning of an approaching storm or army.

Or both, thought Cat Woodhouse.

‘Never really believed, you know.’  Jenny Rowntree’s forced whisper so close to her ear made Eliza jump in surprise.  ‘I were only doing it for me Mam.  Carrying on’t family tradition.  Thought it were all codswollop.’  Her Northern accent thickened with fear.

‘My mother would have agreed with you,’ Cat whispered back, clinging like a lifeline to her own refined, carefully learned, vowels.  ‘But I believed.  Eliza did too.’

‘Codswollop,’ repeated Jenny, voice rising.  ‘If you really believed our silly trio made a difference you’d have gone to the girl night before last to tell her what’s what.’

‘You really believe I could have done that so soon after—

Another, deeper sigh punctuated by a wide beam of morning sunlight.  It encircled the violated grave like a halo.  Inside these hard shards of pale light, dissipating dawn mist congealed and swirled, almost tangible, rustling like swathes of fabric before rising up the shaft of light toward the sun.  The sight terrified the two women, whose nerves were already stretched to breaking.

‘I thought we would have more time,’ confessed Mrs Woodhouse.  ‘And I didn’t know how to tell her.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.  ‘Be an awkward chat.’  She looked nervous, uncertain—two expressions seldom seen on the caretaker’s careworn face.  She surveyed the grave with suspicious disbelief.  It took less time than Cat thought.  Jenny hadn’t thought it would happen at all.  Yet here they were.

‘This complicates things, Miss Rowntree.

‘Aye, Mrs Woodhouse, I reckon it does.’

‘Eliza never did tell her about us.’

‘Not a sausage.’

‘Unfortunate.’

‘Didn’t have time, did she?’

‘She had nineteen years.  Long enough if you ask me.  But it’s up to us now.’  Cat Woodhouse emitted a sigh heavy with burden.

‘Aye,’ puffed Jenny Rowntree.

‘We best be quick about it.  The situation seems…’  Volatile.  Complicated.  Potentially catastrophic.  ‘…vulnerable.  Yes, that too.  ‘Sooner is better.’

‘Aye,’ agreed Miss Rowntree.

‘She’s not going to like what this means for her.’

‘No.  I reckon she won’t.’  Miss Rowntree exploded with laughter and Mrs Woodhouse glared.  ‘Nowt we can do about it though.  There’s rules.’ 

‘And we have no time to be diplomatic,’ Mrs Woodhouse concluded.  She pushed back the bracelets lining her left arm in a gesture reminiscent of a woman rolling up her sleeves.  It was all about to get serious.


Extract from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer

 

Burnsall on the River Wharfe: A setting for Burrs Water in Burly-the-Wath

Not for nothing do the proud inhabitants of Yorkshire call their county “God’s Own Country”.  Where I grew up in central Illinois, landscape variation meant swapping cornfields for soybean, so I never grow tired of the beautiful countryside of my adopted homeland.  I find it particularly inspiring as a writer.

For my first novel A Circle of Lost Sisters, I gave my pack of werewolf girls a vast moorland to run around in, based mostly on the North York Moors.  The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes is also based in Yorkshire, but I have placed my fictional community of Burly-the-Wath in more of a Dales type setting.  In particular the village of Burnsall on the River Wharfe.

In the first chapter of the book, Flora attempts to re-create an Ophelia-esque suicide, only to be defeated by poor aesthetics.

wharfeFor several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes froze in the midst of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted beatifically to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing.  Her eyes blinked open on the pale green undersides of willow leaves, bobbing pink cherry blossoms and hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day; another day of no rain.  No rain for some time now.

Flora looked down.  Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further.  The river was not deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—certainly not deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she submerged face-down she might—  No!  Drowning in such a manner was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

*

burnsall2

‘Oh, honestly!  Why do I bother at all?’  She slammed the uncooperative book closed on her inadequate prose.  A nearby sheep bleated its protest to this sudden noise so early in the morning.  ‘Even you think I’m a nuisance,’ sighed Flora at the sheep.

Flora lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not.  In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather.  The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of her voluminous dress.  Again she sighed. 

‘All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.’

*

wharfe2 Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death.  Her deceased mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view.   Practical as well—the sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths.  If only Burrs Water had any depths.

Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows.  Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields.  Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths.  By the time she reached the vicarage,  Flora’s legs and feet had collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus.  The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric.  She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory. 

selected extracts from The Many Beautiful Deaths of Miss Floretta Deliverance Hughes, a work in progress by Katharine Elmer

From the diary of Floretta Deliverance Hughes. 21st May, 1875

2011FB9062_jpg_l

My dearest friend,

I shall not be attending school today because a beautiful death takes time to arrange. No doubt Reverend Hughes will have something to say about this, but I shall not be lectured.  I shall be dead.  The Reverend Daddy’s views on truancy do not trouble me.  Neither do his views on anything else.  Only death holds power over me now.  May the angels judge justly those whom I leave behind.  May their hearts weep as the heavens open for the dying soft voice of this lost daughter.  May God have mercy upon me in death as he never did in life.  

Remember me as your faithful,

Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot

*

Flora’s death was not going the way she had hoped.  To begin with, the cherry blossoms refused to co-operate.  She wanted them to fall gracefully across the surface of the river like pink petal teardrops.  They should surround her corpse as it drifted toward the village where her tragic drowning could create maximum impact when discovered by a charming shepherd boy with golden curls who would wade into the water and press her be-flowered body to his lean, muscular chest and mourn the cruel passing of so lovely a maiden.

That was the plan at least, but it was simply not working. The pretty and perfectly pink blossoms clung stubbornly to the tree over-hanging the east bank of Burrs Water, not even releasing their grip after Flora vigorously shook several branches.  Only a handful of browning, half-rotted petals fell to the rain-soaked ground, after which they were far too foul to be useful.

Undaunted, Flora fingered the daisy and rosemary chain crowning her coppery locks.  Ideally they would be woven through, but her hair grew stubbornly straight and the tiny flowers kept sliding out.  She lifted her full skirts admiring the beaded pattern of violets on the layers of white silk fabric then fanned them out on either side until she was certain she resembled some variety of lace-trimmed water lily.  Slowly, so as not to disturb the careful arrangement of dress and hair and without dropping the posy of bluebells, rue and more rosemary clutched in one clenched fist or the pair of significant books in her other, Flora waded into the water.

Instantly she flinched.  Sharp stones punctured the tender flesh of her bare feet.  Courage, Lady Ophelia.  After a few moments the icy temperature of the river numbed her vulnerable skin.  Then all she could think about was the cold.  Did you believe this wouldn’t be painful?  It’s death.  Death hurts.  She grasped the next tier of her dress, lifting it higher.  Doubtlessly the amount of leg revealed would scandalise any lesser (or normal) young lady.  Flora revelled in the rebellion of it—a final rebellion.  She sucked in the chilly spring dawn through chattering teeth before shuffling further out into the very cold indeed river.

‘My death cannot possibly offer more pain than my life,’ Flora intoned.

For several moments, Floretta Deliverance Hughes stood frozen in the middle of Burrs Water eyes tightly closed, face lifted to heaven.  Nothing happened.  Her brows knitted.  Still nothing happened.  Her eyes blinked open to the pale green undersides of willow leaves, the bobbing pink cherry blossoms and the hazy purple dawn.  It would be another clear and glorious spring day.  Another day with no rain… No rain for some time now…

Flora looked down.  Burrs Water rippled jovially over her ankles, bubbled up to tickle the gooseflesh on her legs, but rose no further.  The river wasn’t deep enough.  Not deep enough to carry her gracefully along its current—not even deep enough to drown her.  Perhaps, if she plunged in face-down she might be able to—  No!  Drowning face down was artistically unacceptable.  Sigh.

How very disappointing.  First the cherry blossoms ruined her aesthetics and now the river mocked her with its drought. Even the weather seemed opposed to aiding her death.  Despite an atmospheric mist blanketing the Vale of Burr, dawn promised a morning of clear, blue sunshine.  Sunshine!  What simple person would commit suicide on such a beautifully blue spring morning?  Not this one.

Quite, quite disappointing.  No use going through all the business of drowning if Flora could not do it beautifully.  Were there any golden-haired shepherd boys living in Burly-the-Wath anyway?  None came to mind.

Flora sighed again.  It was not to be.  Not like this.  Hiking up her heavy skirts, she waddled with difficulty out of the river and up the steep grassy river bank after discarding her small bouquet into the river.  With disgust she noted how perfectly the shallow current carried along the little indigo flowers and woody green spikes of rosemary.  She laid a leather-bound copy of Hamlet and a cloth-covered Poems of Tennyson on a woollen cloak spread out along the grass.  Flora had not been able to decide which volume should be discovered clutched against her lifeless bosom so she brought both.  After wiping her legs and feet dry on the cloak, she gathered a sheaf of papers tied with a skinny length of crimson ribbon and made notes on her latest experiment in “Les Beaux Arts Macabre”.

Post Script.  The death waiting at my door shall have to wait a while longer.  It shall not happen today, my dearest friend.  Your Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot lives to despair another morrow.  Attempt the fifth at a beautiful death foiled by drought, sunshine, floral awkwardness and lack of handsome shepherd. Aesthetic note: bluebells more accommodating than cherry blossoms.

Flora sulked and shivered at the foot of the unobliging cherry tree along the bank of the corpseless river.  A wasted morning, but lessons had been learned.  Perhaps she should wait for autumn to make another attempt.  Burrs Water would be bursting its banks in October.  Beneath the Post Script, Flora scribbled:

“Autumn is the time for death when the waters freely flow, the leaves all lose their will to survive and all the earth braces itself for winter’s death…”   She scratched out her second use of the word “death” and replaced it with “chill”.  Then, after a moment added “which all shall kill”.  Flora grimaced at her terrible use of meter and forced rhyme.  Quite, quite disappointing. Anyone styling herself as “Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot” should have better mastery of literary forms really.  Not that it mattered.  There was no “dearest friend” regardless.  No one would ever read these.  No would care what she wrote or how she died or even if she even lived at all.

Pointless.  Disappointing.  Futile.  That is the true story of my life.  Those are the only words I truly need.  Flora thought but did not document these final musings.  They were far too bleak even for Lady Ophelia Juliet de Shallot.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes lay back on the woollen cloak and let despair engulf her as the river would not.  In this she was once again thwarted by charming weather.  The morning sun shone brightly through the branches of the flowering cherry tree making lacy dappled patterns on the grassy banks, the bubbling river and the lacy layers of Flora’s voluminous dress.  She sighed a third time.  All the forces of God and man and nature are against me.

Ah, well.  The day was early still.  If she hurried she might be able to get to school on time thus avoiding a tiresome tirade from The Reverend Daddy.  First she would need to deconstruct her non-crime scene.  She removed the daisy-rosemary crown and wrapped it around her bound papers, her Tennyson and her copy of Hamlet    Gertrude should have been specific in her description of Ophelia’s suicide.  Less poetic, more instructive.

Attire was going to prove difficult.  Flora had not anticipated the need to return from the scene of her suicide.  She crept out of the house just before dawn, wool cloak firmly wrapped about her so the white gown would not attract unwanted attention, though she did admire the effect of the full moonlight which made the silk glow silver beneath its violet bead pattern.   Flora gave attention to every aesthetic aspect of death.  Her deceased  mother’s wedding dress seemed perfect from a symbolic point of view.   Practical as well—the padded puffed sleeves alone would have soaked up the entire river and dragged her swiftly into Burrs Water’s deathly depths.  If only Burrs Water had any depths.

Practical for drowning perhaps but not practical for walking through the surrounding grove of trees, over several fields and across bordering hedgerows.  Even trickier would be making her way home without being spotted by someone tending flocks or fields.  This included most everyone in Burly-the-Wath.  “Plebeian breeders of stench and stupidity,” according to The Reverend Daddy.  “Odd words coming from a Shepherd of Men,” Flora’s eldest sister Rose Prudence once retorted, and not out of his hearing.  Rosie was like that.  Middle sister Lillian Chaste would sooner go mute than criticise father.  And Flora…what Flora said never mattered to anyone.

Fortunately, the vicar’s youngest daughter knew many secret paths and so managed to avoid detection, though the return journey took her twice as long.  By the time Flora approached the imposing iron gates and close-planted sheltering trees of the vicarage, her fingers had cramped with cold and the effort of holding up the hefty layers of skirt.  She hadn’t bothered with petticoat or under things or even shoes—only a nightdress and mother’s gown.  En route from the river, Flora’s legs and feet collected grasses and flowers and all manner of countryside detritus.  The wedding dress survived mostly unscathed, though Flora had at one point nearly pulled it all the way over her head to protect the fine fabric.  She would hate to ruin her most precious death accessory.

Shoving open the front door, Flora deposited her cloak on the threshold ignoring the obvious pegs then flung her collection of books and papers, diary included, through the open doorway of The Reverend Daddy’s library.  If he should pick it up and read it, so much the better.  But she knew he would not.  He’d step around it as if it didn’t exist until Priss tidied it all.  By the end of the day each discarded item would magically appear neatly arranged in Flora’s room.

Mother’s wedding dress might be harder to ignore.  Flora pulled it off over her head—no need to fuss with multitudinous buttons, the frock was three sizes too large.  Though she was taller than Mother had been—taller than most fifteen-year-old girls, a misfortune her sisters never hesitated to remark upon.  And skinny.  “You’re so lucky to never need corsets, Flora,’ Lilli often insulted, “Gowns hang off you as if you aren’t even there.”  She would always say this whilst smugly admiring her own plump figure.  Cow.

Flora draped mother’s dress across the main staircase where no one could fail to miss it.  She considered removing her shift as well—perhaps knotting it about the banister and walking her tall, skinny naked self down the hall to her room, but she thought better of it.  The Reverend Daddy might ignore obvious attempts at suicide but blatant impropriety was sure to catch his attention.  Flora was already depressed enough.

Wet and muddy footprints traced a clear route from the front door to the sisters’ shared bedroom.  She made no attempt to conceal her presence from the waking house.  Why bother?  Flora learned long ago the pointlessness of caution.  No one noticed her efforts at stealth.  No one confronted her violations of normal conduct.  No one noticed her at all.  No one ever did.  She was no one to everyone.

Floretta Deliverance Hughes lived her life as a ghost.  The tall and skinny and perpetually ignored spectre at every feast.  This was only appropriate really.  “I entered the world on a wave of death,” she had once written in her diary.  “Last nail in the coffin of my parent’s dream.”  Their “dream” being a male heir to inherit the family name and wealth.  One daughter was acceptable, two were regrettable, but three daughters and no son…  That was tragic.  The Hughes family had failed.

According to The Reverend Daddy, failures are best forgotten.  “If we fail, we move on.   We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.”  But there would never be a future son for Reverend Hughes.  Mother died one month after giving birth to her third, final daughter.  Thus Flora was the failure her family tried to forget.

“I live a haunted life.”

In an effort to transcend this grim existence Flora filled pages of her diary with mournful poems, most of which were plagiarised from Tennyson, Shelley or Rossetti.  Days spent loitering in fields of wildflowers hoping some wild artist might find her and paint her proved to be days wasted.  Hopeful wanderings through the high and private wheat fields of the Vale of Burr on the off-chance a rakish stable boy might feel the urge to ruin her reputation came to naught.  The closest thing to handsome stable boy in Burly-the-Wath was the blacksmith’s son Otto.  Unfortunately, whilst he was large and lovely, Otto was no rake.  “Though he may have farm equipment for brains,” Flora witticised.

In light of all this, death seemed the best option.  She could wait for child birth to kill her as it had her mother, but there was no guarantee of this and it seemed like a very painful and lengthy process.  So Floretta took matters into her own hands.  Regrettably, Flora’s hands, though sensitive to the artistry of tableau, were far from expert in the ways of death.

In the vicarage cellar, a close approximation to the Capulet family crypt, Flora attempted to thrust a dagger though her breast in the manner of Juliet, only to be interrupted by Priss who needed the best kitchen knife to carve Sunday roast.  At harvest time, she hung herself in the barn rafters by her own christening gown, which only tore the fabric and had not been long enough regardless.  Death by starvation had been foiled by Tilly’s Christmas cake.  Attempts to contract consumption by stalking anyone with a cough, drinking large quantities of milk then avoiding sunlight simply did not work at all.  And now Ophelia’s drowning scene…  Sigh.

Flora brooded on these failures as she dressed numbly for school. She ignored the giggling banter between her sisters who laced each other’s stays in preparation for their day of utter uselessness.  “If we fail, we move on.   We do not look back, but keep our eyes firmly fixed on the future.”  Poison would be the next experiment.  Apple stones allegedly contained cyanide.  How many would she need to consume?  Visions of her limp body dressed in a school pinafore discovered beneath the orchard behind St Becket’s brought a rare smile to Flora’s gaunt face.

From the shared bedroom window she could see St Becket’s school, its stark black and white wattle and daub contrasted with most of the grey stone buildings in of the village.  Beyond it, the high peaks of Grimsrigg Fell protectively embraced the Vale of Burr.

Such high peaks…so very, very high

Flora grinned.  A dramatic leap off the rocky edge of a mist-shrouded moor seemed an attractive way to die.  Difficult to botch as well. All she would have to do is fall. 

“A truly beautiful death.  Beaux Arts Macabre!  I’ll need to find something red for the occasion.  A red girl flying through the air.  How could anyone possibly ignore that?”