Join The Mockingjay Fellowship Army: A YA Geek’s Survival Guide for the Wars to Come

Fiction-all art in fact-holds a mirror up to reality.  That mirror may be painfully accurate or distorted by fantasy, but either way that mirror reflects truths of humanity.  It is where we find comfort and discomfort, the world as it is or as we wish it to be, a place of refuge and a place of strength. 

Like billions of people across the world, I am struggling to come to terms with the events which played out in America this week.  Before you turn away in boredom or disgust (though I assure you I would have the greatest sympathy if you did, for the internet is dark and full of terrors at this time), I urge you to place the results of the election into a wider context.  This is not just about Trump’s election.  It’s more about what his election says about our world.

We are entering into a period of “Interesting Times” and must brace ourselves for what is to come.  You have studied the events of the twentieth century I am sure, though it is unlikely that your high school history teacher was anywhere near as brilliant as mine (thank you, Mr Walters).  A clear grasp of the events which led to first World War I and then World War II is essential knowledge for us all at this time, so if you were not paying attention in class, go back and look over your notes again.  Better yet, photocopy the notes your Hermione Granger-type friend took and study those.

Taken in isolation at the time, not one of the key moments looked as if it could lead to the global horrors that followed.  Together they did.  It happened.  And if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we are slow learners.  Every clock has a pendulum swinging back and forth-that is the nature of time. So, get ready.  The pendulum is about to go about as far to the right as it is able.

Read the news.  Look around you.  Pay attention.  Open your eyes, ears and mind to the new reality.  It ain’t pretty.  We are only days into the New Trump Order and already race hate, misogyny and homophobia are running rampant.  The Death Eaters are gearing up for a march toward Mordor.

Fortunately, we keen readers of YA Genre Fiction are uniquely prepared for just such a state of affairs.  All those delightful hours losing ourselves in the dystopian world of Panem, cheering on Dumbledore’s Army and following the terrifying journeys of The Fellowship are about to pay off.  These brilliant authors, these beloved characters and these rich tales of heroism were preparing us all along for difficult days.

The following is a survival guide for the wars to come.  I wish you good fortune.  I wish us all wisdom and fortitude to make it through.

thai-protesters-with-three-finger-salute-imitate-katnissRule Number One: Know the Real Enemy

When Katniss was in her second Arena, she did not know who to trust.  Haymitch’s words echoed in her head: “Remember who the real enemy is.”  The real enemy is probably not the person next to you who voted for Trump or whose parents voted for Trump.  The real enemy at the moment is the same enemy who always rears is ugly head at times like these: that three-headed hydra of Fear, Ignorance and Greed.

Ask yourself why did the middle of America vote for Trump in large numbers?   Why did working class voters in Britain vote for Brexit?  It’s too easy to say because they were stupid.  Ignorance is not the same as Stupidity.  Ignorance is a lack of knowledge and understanding, not a lack of brain power.  And it is easy to be ignorant when the popular press is all you read and it is telling you that immigrants took your jobs (sound familiar?  Daily Prophet anyone?).  The Greed and Ignorance heads of the hydra working together.

The greatest con being pulled right now is that immigrants are to blame for the economic and employment difficulties happening in the UK and the US.  But the real enemy is the greed of the wealthy business owners who moved their manufacturing to cheaper countries, bleeding the working class of their own countries dry.  These same greedy, wealthy business tycoons are also influencing or, in the case of Trump, running the governments which are convincing the people that immigrants are to blame.

Know the enemy.

 

Rule Number Two: Keep Your Friends Close.8cclhly

Frodo would not have made it to Mt Doom without Sam by his side.  Harry Potter needed Hermione and Ron.  Buffy needed her Scooby Gang. We won’t make it through this alone.

Make sure, however, that these friends are true friends.  Like-minded individuals who see the truth as you do and are determined to fight against it rather than give in to the popular opinion.  Prepare to be in the minority to start with.  You and your friends may be targeted.  Stick together.  Ron, Hermione, Ginny, Luna and Neville had Harry’s back when everyone thought he was lying about You Know Who.

Be that army.  

 

 

Rule Number Three: Stay True to Yourself

Lucy Pevensie, hero of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, is one of my favourite characters because she stuck by her truth even when her entire family thought she was a deluded liar.  She knew that she had gone through a wardrobe into a magical land to have tea with a talking fawn and no one could tell her otherwise.  She didn’t back down and question herself.  Popular opinion did not sway her.

If you can see the hate and lies swarming around you and you know it is wrong, stick by your truth.  Don’t compromise your principles just because everyone else thinks you’re crazy or stupid.  Bigotry is wrong no matter what.  Persecuting someone based on race or religion, gender or sexual orientation is just plain wrong and you know it is.

Even Katniss risks losing herself first to the Capitol’s blackmailing demands that she quell the rebellion by becoming their pawn, then by her own demons which threaten her sanity. “To thy ownself be true.”  See, your English teacher is right.  Shakespeare is relevant.

Know your truth. 

 

dumbledores_armyRule Number Four: Don’t Give in to The Dark Side

They may have cookies, but those cookies are poison.  Another of my favourite childhood books (which you should read if you haven’t yet) is Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark Trilogy.  In the second book, The Kestrel, hero Theo joins a rebellion for all the right reasons, but soon becomes a monster who nearly kills the woman he loves.  Seriously.  Go read these books.

The Dark Side is a bit of theme with YA Genre Fiction.  Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, Buffy Summers, Frodo, Katniss-they all face the choice of becoming the very thing they despise.  In the end, they all choose the light.

By all means join the resistance.  Go to rallies.  Organise walk outs.  Protest to the rooftops.  But keep a clear set of guiding principles in mind.  When in doubt, think on this: do you really want your good cause to be won through bad actions?

Don’t give in. 

 

Rule Number Five: Take Time for Joy

I believe, as do many others, that we are in for some hard times head.  The way might be dark and difficult, full of hard choices and ugly events.  But even in the midst of all this, take time to be happy.  Dance  at a wedding with your little sister.  Fall in love with your best friend’s little sister.  Celebrate birthdays even when the vampires are assembling a doomsday monster.  Play sports, eat great food, take lots of selfies to mark these precious moments spent with those you love.  Otherwise, what are you fighting for?

Live for joy. 

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?’

A Question of Comic Art

Emma_Frost_(Earth-811)I have recently become a fan of comic books.  Sorry, graphic novels.  Mostly because of my husband.  That’s what happens when you marry a geek.  You learn stuff.

While I don’t pretend to be fully versed in the comic canon, thanks to my other half and the great people at Destination Venus, I am pretty well up on the good stuff.  Fables Legends in Exile, Kill Shakespeare, Lucifer, Runaways, Neil Gaimon’s Sandman, Joss Wheedon’s Astonishing X-Men and Buffy Season Eight, Alan Moore’s everything.  Seriously, Watchmen is up there with Catcher in the Rye.

As a result of this recent interest and as a feminist, my attention was quickly caught by a conversation on Facebook about comic book art.  Predictably, it was about boobs.  To his credit, I think my artist friend started the conversation with a creative gripe.  It was his intention to draw attention to the poor quality of mainstream comic book art in comparison with the artwork of many of the above-mentioned graphic novels.  Realism and proportion were at issue.  The conversation soon evolved into something more.

It’s probably not possible to discuss comic book art without talking about objectification. The aesthetic of comic art is a throwback to ancient Greece in its emphasis on perfection.  Female figures have exaggerated bums and boobs.  Men have muscles which border on the ridiculous.  I take that back, they don’t border on—they embrace and snog the ridiculous.

This was the first point made by a few people in this discussion.  You cannot complain about the representation of women because the representation of men is just as heightened, just as unattainable, just as psychologically and politically questionable.  My response is: yes I can and no it isn’t.

I most certainly can complain about visual representations of women in mainstream comic books because it’s pretty ridiculous.  The only good thing which might be said is that the target audience for comic books means fewer girls have access to the images and therefore they have a limited impact on their self-esteem and self-image.  But that is a minor point.  My main issue with the argument is one of equality.  Cause there ain’t none.

ThorWCAnytime anyone says “it’s the same for men” they are wrong.  Sorry to deflate your righteous indignation, men, but you got no leg to stand on.  Domestic violence is not the same for men as for women.  Unrealistic images of male perfection do not have the same impact.  You cannot claim any sexual equality because there is none.  There never has been.  We live in a patriarchal world.  Until that changes, no argument can exist about the equal impact on the sexes of anything.

If this still confuses you, let me break it down.  A superhero in a comic book might have a detrimental impact on the self-esteem of some imperfect teenaged boy who reads it.  But within a wider, cultural context, that boy’s worth is not based on his looks.  That boy will be judged by what he does not how he looks doing it.  Money, power, intelligence and influence matter far more in the patriarchy.  Furthermore, even without comic book art, women are valued first and foremost as sexual objects.  Every institution from marriage to procreation to the division of labour and property, access to education and healthcare—all of them in some way maintain patriarchal inequality.  There are rules and norms and life or death consequences behind those boobs and bums which do not exist for the muscles.

But the far more disturbing argument I heard today is that the comic books are being made for teenage boys.  Boobs and bums are what teenage boys want.  What they have always wanted.  What they are hardwired through nature to want.  And that cannot change.  Ever.

Bullshit.

Not bullshit that men desire women sexually.  Lust away.  It’s the idea, this hard to shake idea that men are creatures of desire alone when it comes to women and the expression of that desire which I totally, absolutely take issue with.  Even more the idea that men can’t change.  Of course they can.  We can.  Humans are adatable.  We’ve been changing and evolving since day one.  You think we’re going to stop now just because we can hold a spanner properly, walk a bit taller and get our dinner from Tesco?

And yet, despite all that—when it comes to sexual equality and who does the washing-up, people—men and women—resort to a caveman argument.  Boys will be boys.  That’s men for you.  Fire-gazers and boar-hunters who have not moved past the base instincts of homo habilis.  I hear stuff like this from intelligent, progressive women all the time.  I don’t know if we’ve given up or if we actually believe this crap but I’m here to say its bullshit.

sandman1_deathCulture shapes the brains, libidos and even bodies of men and women.  Culture can change it.  Trouble is, culture doesn’t really want to.  Patriarchy benefits men.  If you’re sitting pretty in the driver’s seat, why on earth would you willingly take your place at the back of the bus?  Slowly, gradually, men are starting to learn why.  Because it’s the right thing to do in the name of equality and social justice.  And because patriarchy has plans for men as well as women.  Plans that do not always benefit all men.

Lots of men get this.  They truly do.  I know many men who identify themselves as feminist.  One of those men said something once I will never forget.  He first acknowledged that when women challenge men on issues of gender inequality, people are quick to label those women male bashers or man haters.  “I have never believed this to be true,” he said.  “If a woman challenges me on my beliefs or behaviours, it means she realises I have the power to change.  It is an act of respect not hate.  It’s an act of love.”

Patriarchal objectification won’t stop me enjoying comic books.  Some wonderfully complex female characters have been created in word and image by these men (and they are mostly men).  But my enjoyment of comics won’t stop me calling a spade a shovel.  The male-dominated genre community should really know by now that it has some serious soul searching to do.  I’ll help you do it.  I’d like that.  With respectful anger and love.

 

 

 

 

At Mid-summer Shall I Rise

The following is an extract from the first chapter of my second novel Dead Maiden’s Book of Songs in which ghosts of the past haunt the Yorkshire town of Burly-the-Wath while a coven of witches rise to try and put things right.

Illustration by Elizabeth Snider.

From A Tudor Maiden’s Book of Psalms archived by St Becket’s Church of England Grammar School. 

Burly-the-Wath. 22nd June, 1563

Each morn I do offre up to Him above my soul.  At Mid night will I rise for mine deare Lord pryserving me from below.  At noon I cry out sweete lamments to heaven do I pray. Morning, evening and at non His hand showeth me the wey.

 

936064_10204460520659337_6242712851193932157_nA needle cannot thread itself.  Cecilia knew this.  Thread was a length of wool; needle was made of bone.  Both needed a hand to work them.  She tried without success to thread her needle with tender fingers which had not yet lost the plumpness of childhood.

The needle drew first blood.  It pricked Cecilia’s palm.  Disgusted she threw needle and thread to the floor where both became lost in the rushes.  She sucked the blood welling in her hand.  If I cannot school my fingers to be dextrous,she thought, my whole life shall be spent licking wounds.

At that moment the needle chose to obey.  Acting of its own power, needle surrendered to thread like a maiden to her lord.  They rose from the rushes as one and lay meekly in Cecilia’s lap ready to sew.

She looked about to make certain no one had seen.  Fortune was with her, the small brown mouse she fed on kitchen scraps.  Happily no one else was.

‘Fortune be always with me,’ she chanted to the brown mouse.

It was hardly her first experience with unnatural phenomenon.  Objects flew, water jug refilled themselves, candles lit without benefit of flame.  Cecilia wondered if these things were only in her head.  She prayed they were.

Throughout the normal course of her days, Cecilia Norvyle tried not to draw attention.  A thorny challenge considering all of Burly-the-Wath watched her, wary for signs of devilry or witchcraft.  The townsfolk thought her a changeling the fairies might reclaim any moment.  Because Cecilia was the daughter of a priest.

The king and his reformed religion allowed its leaders to marry and have children.  But kings, religions and reforms were fleeting things nowadays.  Under the old queen, Cecilia’s family had been forced into temporary exile in Flanders, but the new queen’s tolerance brought them home again.  Legitimate daughter of a new faith father.  Folk of Burrdale parish knew this.  But knowing a thing and believing a thing are not the same thing.

‘Give me to the church,’ Cecilia often begged.  ‘Let me devote myself to God.’

Less than a day’s journey was the Abbey of St Margaret.  There Cecilia might spend her days in sheltered seclusion.  Perhaps God would cure her of the strange and wondrous things she did and saw and dreamt.  But her parents had already buried three sons and Cecilia’s infant twin sister.  They would not be parted from their last surviving child.

Thus condemned, Cecilia strove not to bother anyone; to appear and behave as a pious and modest maid.  She dressed in simple clothes, kept close to hearth and home and never revealed she could read or write.  She kept her unusually deep blue eyes lowered—a singular violet in a field of green-brown and blue-grey.

Her only companion besides Fortune the Mouse was a nomadic cat.  Full black he was but for the hind legs which were pure white and of a slightly shaggier fur; his body large, lean and strangely muscular.  A true brute of a beast to anyone save Cecilia.  The cat growled defensively at every parishioner who made a sign against the evil eye behind the back of the priest’s daughter.

‘You wear saint’s greaves ‘neath your dark armour, sir,’ Cecilia told him, tickling the white ruff of fur at the cat’s heels.  ‘You are my Archangel,’ she whispered as he rubbed his ebony head against her.  ‘My Michael.’

It was a sad truth of Cecilia’s lie that her sole companions, Fortune the Mouse and Michael the Cat, could never meet for fear one might consume the other.

The summer of her fifteenth year broke out in pansies and primroses.  Cecilia began work on a gown for the Midsummer festival.  She looked forward every year to the Feast of St John, where so many curiosities abounded no one would notice her.  People dressed in fantastical costumes: sometimes as mythical creatures, sometimes garbed only in floral garlands.  Churchman, ploughman, trader, shepherd and pauper would parade the streets with torches and tankards of ale playing music as they went.

For one day she put modest dress aside.  With Mistress Norvyle’s guidance Cecilia altered her mother’s old silk and linen gown of willow green, shaping it to her younger body, embroidering it with violets, ivy and musk roses.  On the morning of the festival she wove fresh versions of these flowers in her waist-length honey-coloured hair.

Is this wise?  Shall I draw attention to myself?  What if something unnatural should occur?  Yet everyone will be laughing and feasting.  None will give me a second glance. 

One did.

He was an Unfortunate from the church school.  That’s what folk in town called them: The Unfortunates.  Some of the boys, Cecilia knew, turned the slander into a title.

He looked to be of a similar age as she, fifteen or sixteen years.  Beneath full white linen breeches his legs and feet were bare.  His ruddy chest was bare as well.  Ropes of ivy draped about him like some savage warrior.  His thick, brown curls were flecked with daisies and meadow sweet.

Cecilia couldn’t help admiring the young man.  When he caught her looking at him, his radiant smile nearly made her weep with longing.   Laughing, he took her by the hand and led her along the parade route.  Cecilia laughed with him as they followed the river, crossed the Bridge of Souls and finished in the churchyard.  The whole of Burly-the-Wath seemed to laugh with them.

‘They call me Tom.’  He did not let go of her hand.  ‘Tom o’ the Streets.  Or some call me Tommy Street.’

Cecilia couldn’t speak.  He held her hand and his sun-baked chest was bare.  He had flowers in his hair.  She couldn’t say a word.   She could only smile.

‘You’re Father Norvyle’s girl,’ said Tom.  Cecilia nodded.  ‘I seen you before.’  Cecilia blushed.  ‘But you never see me.’  Cecilia frowned.

‘I see you,’ she protested.

‘Aye,’ grinned Tom.  ‘Your Mam sees me too.’

Tom nodded over her shoulder.  Catherine Norvyle glared at the two of them across the churchyard of All Hallowed Souls.  Before Cecilia could turn to look, Tom pulled her behind a yew tree growing beside an ancient tomb dark with age.

‘Tell me your name,’ he begged.  ‘No one will tell me.  Maybe nobody knows.  Please.  Just tell me your name.’

Cecilia fought to remember how to form words, struggled to find her breath to make the sound he wanted.  She felt faint and leaned back against the lichen stained tomb closing her violet eyes.  Deep inside a voice unlike her own stuttered a version of her name.

‘C-C-Celia.’  Her body exhaled to him in hesitant gusts.

‘Celia.’  He inhaled the sound deeply, as if her name were a rare fragrance he remembered from long ago.

Against the hard stone tomb the boy variously called Tom pressed his hands into those of the girl he knew as Celia.  Beneath their twined fingers the tomb’s wall pulsed hard once, then again in a softer echo.  Like a heartbeat.  Awake and alive.

Elsewhere in the churchyard the black ears of a cat called Michael flickered to attention and a white-breasted bird took flight.


 

Adequate Drain

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n7This story is a definite departure from my usual: not set in Yorkshire, first person and real damn short. Shortest story I’ve ever written. As always, feedback is welcome!

I freaking hate locker rooms.  But where else am I supposed to go?  There’s an abattoir in Farmer City.  But I can’t, like, bike twenty miles to Famer City.  And what would I say: “hey, nice slaughter house—mind if I use it?”  Unlikely.

An adequate drain is crucial and this is the best place I could think of.  Call it lack of imagination.  Maybe I crave familiarity.  Maybe I like to punish myself.  Who am I kidding?  I so like to punish myself.

The school is dark and quiet after hours.  Creepy.  It shouldn’t be really.  Not to me.  What’ve I got to be scared of?  Bet we’re hard-wired to find silent darkness unsettling.  Evolution and crap.  Survival of the scaredest.  See, I pay attention in Bio.

Anyway.  Time’s wasting.  I look around.

“You’re alone, stupid.”

Force of habit.  Girls strip off while covering up.  Hide behind towels, sweaters, locker doors trying not to notice each other.  Like we can help noticing.  Comparing.  I don’t compare well.  Yet.

I peel my clothes off.  I’m sweating so bad everything sticks.  I take the picture, the bottle, and Michelangelo to the shower stall.  No cubicles obviously.  Health and safety!  God forbid teenage girls get privacy.  But boy howdy I got drainage.  I’m all about adequate drainage.

The girl in the picture looks like a bitch.  But there’s no mirror in the showers.  Obviously.  So picture bitch is my point of reference.  Every sculptor needs a model, right?  I set the bottle down, blue tack picture bitch to the chipped tile surround of the shower stall and pick up Michelangelo.  My tool.  My muse.  Or am I his?

My art teacher once said Michelangelo, started with a big, shapeless slab of marble.  Bit by bit he chipped away the excess until tadah: David.  Really, that’s all I’m trying to do.  Make me a David.  Be like Michelangelo.   I should have a wristband: “WWMD?”

I first wanted to use Mom’s fabric scissors.  Number of times I’ve watched her cut patterns to make something new.  Thick concentric lines on wispy thin paper indicating different sizes.  That’s what I’m doing really.  Cutting a new pattern.  Resizing.  Mom would totally kill me if I used her sewing scissors for this.  I’m not fabric.

I take up the knife/chisel I call Michelangelo and look down at the marbled slab of me.  Yesterday was legs.  Night before that belly and butt.  Tonight’s all about arms.

I don’t think anyone’s noticed yet.  But that’s the point.  I could do this all at once.  Get it over with.  If only!  Dramatic, overnight change wouldn’t go unnoticed.  Mom would notice.  She would freak.  Freak at her daughter the freak.

So I play the long game.  Small changes.  Piece at a time.

Right arm first.  Like painting your nails.  You’re meant to start by using your off-hand.  No idea why.  I make a fist and shake, letting the flab settle.  Man that’s gross.

Not for long.

I look at picture bitch.  Perfectly shaped arms flop in a lazy cross over her blonde head.  I angle the carving knife at my elbow and work down.

Michelangelo might be my muse but when I’m working I can’t think of myself as a sculptor.  I pretend I’m shaving.  Because that’s what it is really.  Shaving off pieces of me.  Can’t say it doesn’t hurt like hell though.  Cause it does.  But not for long.

By the time the knife carves out the curve of my armpit I’m already healing.  Severed halves of upper-arm puppy fat wriggle and struggle to reunite.  My flesh meets in desperate wrinkles like plastic wrap that just has to cling to itself.  But there is less of it now.  Less flesh.  Less fat.  Less clinging to me.

Lots of blood though.  Hence the need for drainage.  Hey!  I used the word “hence” in a sentence.  Thanks English teacher!  I have to sit down though.  Just til the throbbing stops which doesn’t take long.  I heal fast.  Obviously.

Meanwhile: bottle time.  I unscrew the safety cap on the acid.  Beside the enormous drain hole of the shower stall lies the triangular chunk of my discarded, disconnected flesh.  I half expect it to flop like a fish out of water.  But it doesn’t.  It just lies there.  I dribble acid carefully over the ex-piece of my arm which hisses then bubbles.  The acid gobbles up my tasty arm fat before trickling down the drain.

Yum.

I wonder, not for the first time, if somewhere in the bowels of Greenup County is a sewage monster made of my cast-off flesh.  As quickly as I heal it would not surprise me.  What if it comes looking for me someday?  A great, white whale of sewage waste.  Moby Dick seeking Ahab.  I really don’t want to be Ahab. We read it in lit class.  It doesn’t end well for him.

Throbbing subsides and I work my left arm now.  It’s not like ear piercing: do one and it hurts so freaking bad you can’t face the second.  This is more like: one down so what’s the diff?  I’m used to it and I try to see the bigger picture.  Or should I say the smaller picture?

Smaller picture of myself.  Concentric circles of me.  Cutting out my pattern.  Paring me down.  Piece at a time.

But I will heal.  I heal fast.  Freak-sician freaking heal thyself.