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.

 

 

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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.

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.


 

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