Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Heroes in Exile

For some time now, I've been trying to plow through a stack of unread books, lamenting both my changing tastes and my inability to resist stacking up paperbacks at Half Price. I tried to stack things I really wanted to read beneath things I "should" read and ended up just cherry-picking the stacks.

This has brought me both stomach-churning treats and a desire to mention the Hero's Journey. As in, I am too old to be taking the standard hero's journey and I'm not really interested in reading 8 million books about young people who are discovering their own special edges and coming home to be the incredibly brilliant cog in a now-familiar wheel. I just can't get all that worked up about the girl from the far village who goes to the magic university/great palace/sparkly vampire ball.

Let me stop to say that it's mostly fantasy that seems to be deserting me. Mystery novels are still fun. Modern gothic chick lit is still creepy and heartwarming (Reese's Peanut Butter Cup reading!!) Fantasy, though...it's either gruesome or YA or as familiar as my favorite trails in the Arboretum. Which is the problem--my tastes are provincial.

The best stuff isn't familiar until you're finished. Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes, for example. I wanted, oh how I wanted an explanation for what was going on throughout the novel. For the author to let her protagonist off the hook. To be able to understand on what kind of freaky moral judgments her universe was based. Her protagonist was alive, the side characters were alive, and after I finished I was alive to the judgment calls and assumptions around me. I wanted the woman at the heart of the novel to be okay.

After I finished Zoo City, I picked up an anthology of short stories and my reader's high was smacked right off. Here was something that was "the best" of some previous year and it was recycling some familiar images and handing out a tidy moral--you adults, get the heck out of fantasy! It's a kid's game! Find a random kid, pass it on!

What the heck? Was I supposed to turn this anthology in to the nearest daycare center? Apologize for wanting to stick with a genre I've enjoyed? At moments like these, I remember the cover of my dad's Tolkien books. Bilbo riding a barrel toward Laketown, drifting with his head up and waiting for the next turn of the water. Even though that first book was more of a children's story, Frodo's story was not. He didn't bring fire back to his village, marry the most bodacious Took, and populate Bag End with Frodolings. Instead, his journey is one of exile.

Perhaps that is the hero journey that most appeals right now. For whatever reason, I have come to a place where the idea of setting out and not coming back or not coming back to the same place makes sense, to where the idea of hero is confused with the idea of excised pathogen.

This gives me hope. For if I am to be exiled from fantasy itself, there is perhaps a more miraculous story that is waiting to be discovered.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Montalban Moment

He was eating breakfast in a booth when I arrived, straw cowboy hat, sunglasses, and string tie hanging centered in the V of his open shirt. He got up to toss some trash, stood and laughed with another table, shirt open in the approved Wrath of Khan-era Montalban manner. I'm staring at his chest, which is rude. I'm thinking about temptation and the white-suit-era Montalban. Thinking about the devil in Texas.

These images all tumble together because watching Fantasy Island was pretty much forbidden back in the day, except at Grandma's. As a kid, I would conk out on her giant bed as each week's assortment of wishes were fulfilled. Much of it flew over my head, but not the image of a sardonic Latin angel walking his latest guest through the realization that you don't really want what you want.

An odd lesson to absorb, yet one perfectly consonant with the idea of not being successful, just being...suburban. I'm reminded of the lawyer wife from The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul--the one who just wanted everything "nice." She died for that. And maybe for blackmailing the gods to get it.

So I'm having a nice breakfast and I'm enjoying this laptop and I'm thinking about whether I should just noodle around some more or get down to business and whether it's a good idea to lead with an image of this guy's chest and why I have this instant need to link a cheerful tanned gentleman with the darkness when it's just the heat outside and the brass sky at 10 am and the slow broil against the window.

I'm still wondering what I wished for. Whether it really was "nice."

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Perhaps the best anecdotes begin with a dog...or with barbecue...or with just the slight tug of your attention away from the hum of the everyday. This one begins with a giant bag of barbecue takeout that we brought home in the dark in June. Must have been pretty late for it to have been full dark in June, so let's say sometime after 9 pm.

As we were walking in the door, something flashed through the yard, a square-jawed, dark face that looked bigger than in was coming in fast from the slight rise by the neighbor's fence. With the food secured via deft footwork, we found a thin short-haired border collie zipping around, looking for food.

She was friendly but unclaimed. One of the boys down the street said her picture was taped to a lightpost near a convenience store and, after determining she was friendly (and hungry) and not in the least afraid of the car, we drove around the neighborhood to find her family.

There are lots of pages advertising lost and found dogs around us, spaniels and labs and little fluffy Yorkies, etc. We visited the convenience store for the first time and poked around the shreds of a dozen fliers looking for hers. We asked neighbors and the man in the convenience store. We found no matches.

The next day we toured the vets around the neighborhood. She had no chip and none of the vets or patrons recognized her. By now, her method of huddling her back against your legs or your side and flopping back against you, her backwards canine hug, was already nestling her into the family.

When she received a clean bill of health and was accepted by a rescue agency for adoption, we brought her temporary pen out into the den with Merlin & Varda and started our own small pack. We named her Angel, giving her the kind of pet name that we never seem to give our own dogs.

She stayed with us for three months and recalibrated our interaction with our two fuzzy ones. Reminded of our first dog, the nimble American Eskimo we'd lost two years ago, I finally started to give up some of the sorrow that had frozen my interaction with Merlin & Varda. The three of us zoned on the couch in the hot afternoons. Angel is a tennis ball fiend, so we played catch when we could.

Then the dominance games started and the formerly housebroken troika started having to be walked separately. It was frustrating and I lost it. Instead of coming up with good ideas (like shifting their feeding schedule to the cooler morning or evening), I wanted the situation "fixed." To my husband's credit, he let me weather a bout of bad advice relating to the dogs by visiting my parents.

At this point, Angel found her adoptive family. We scheduled a time for them to pick her up and then we waited. The day they picked her up, we tried to have her out and give her all the hugs we possibly could. My husband was sad--he had considered her part of the family and I was worried about Merlin and Varda. You can't explain things to them.

So far, the dogs seem fine. Angel is friendly and was happy to be heading out with her new family. Merlin and Varda are curious and sniffy and have spent a good part of the day curled up with me.

I find myself sad at odd moments--feeding the dogs and only getting food for two of them--and at others trying to make this into a narrative that teaches me something, anything to keep Angel as close to my heart as possible.

Having three dogs was difficult. They needed more attention than I could give them during the day and the drought made trying to get them exercised separately its own special hell. I didn't want to admit that I was overwhelmed and I didn't search for ways to manage the issue, I just wanted it resolved--I wanted Angel to find her own family.

She was a gift and a lesson and a reminder, a bit of forgiveness in the grief of losing Wynn at a time when I didn't realize I needed it. She was not a stray dog. She was on the road
that goes ever on, down from the door where it began.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

More Steps

It begins this morning on FM1960. There are many, many empty storefronts, small shopping plazas with different fronts and colors. This one has a poured concrete overhang, the bulbous front pressed with dozens of stone chips and the walls around the dark windows light columns of grey or beige brick. The 80’s are drowsing here, the great dark windows like aviator shades blank to your perusal and the overhang heavy above. If a fuschia sylph pushed out of one of the doors, insect bright, insect fragile--black lace gloves grasping at her own conversation, you might have heard Tina Turner following after.

Instead, the entire place passes in seconds and the street shows another empty face. There are few people out in the brutal heat of late morning. Mad Max is laughing at us, whispering taunts in a digital stream that breaks across the internet ocean; a dry, dry day at our fingertips.

If we slip from the morning to the early evening, we find the blank shapes of thundershowers in the distance and the bloom of the heat lingering in the car, despite the all-the-way up a/c. After a brief stop, we bring food to the parking lot of quiet four-story building and eat in a parking space under a tree, the sun diffused over the dash. A few breaths might center us here, but we don’t really want to be here, so we turn up the radio and listen to the bad news of the day.

Money and drought share an image of a closed and broken spigot. They keep talking and the fries and chicken fingers lose their savor. We have been warned not to come late to the door, to risk only a quarter of an hour past six and so we hurry in at 6:05 pm.
Most of the offices are quiet but few are dark at this hour. At the end of the hallway, right beside a glass exit, is the door to the stairwell. Stepping in, you see another glass door immediately to your left. You can exit either from the public or the private side, but one is tempted to think that you would come out in entirely different landscapes.

The stairs themselves begin under a low ceiling and the straight rise to the second floor brings you past this drop ceiling to stairwell straight to the fan at the ceiling. It is dark in here. The bulbs are on as required, but the light is not bright.

By the time we reach the second floor, the public building and the outside are hidden from our sight.

Still, we are climbing to the fourth floor. We do, only to find the stairs continue. At first, the fan, open to the day, distracts us. Then we see a missing ceiling tile and a dark space revealed. Sunlight comes from some opening and blinds us to the coils and giant transistors we seem to see.

It’s the opening to a box of dreams, to a box of steampunk magic, to a box that only an engineer would hold.

Here we are in the stairwell. There is a door and a place to be. There is no maintenance person standing in the dim of the stairwell, the top of his building open to our eyes. We can’t see the leaves that are falling in the mid-August haze. There is no sound of children outside, beyond the rusty fan that has not yet begun to turn.
It has not been stopped for us.

And yet . . . it is stopped. The ceiling has exposed the brilliance of the sun’s evening fingers lying against the mechanism and the deep blue of the sky above the fan. There are more steps.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Impossible Shot

Lately I've tried to be more of a "consider the reader" writer and less of a crazy fantasy snob. It probably has something to do with the awful, awful book I recently finished that flew across the room at least twice before landing, ruffled and much maligned, in the stack of read books on the top of the bookshelf.

Masquerading as a mystery story, this stupid mishmash of a cozy instead came across as the author's lame sermon on tolerance and supporting your friends and not denying your own uniqueness in favor of your own overblown sense of propriety. The main character was a doormat who was apparently cute when angry ('cause the men like 'em spunky and yet in their place) and possessed of a mysterious "empathy" that allowed her to sense...emotions? Ghosts? Who cares?

Despite being a MYSTERY, the main character didn't solve anything. Instead, the murderer murderously attacked her and spilled the impossible-to-solve plot (because all clues had been erased or completely ignored by those prejudiced but hot cops) just so the book could end.

This poor book was horrible. It made me angry. I've read drafts better than this tripe.

After finishing it and to clear the palate, I decide to take a break from plots and books and the like and clean the front room. (Anger has its uses.) To keep my blood pressure in line, I put in an old kd lang cd and was soothed by songs shuffling calmly from the dusty speakers.

Then came the song about growing up in Ontario. For some reason, the images bled across the living room like the watercolor illustrations in the books I used to read at my grandparents' house--the little Indian children growing up in the desert, the biographies of the pioneers, the fantastic Water Babies--and flashed into the fields outside of Port Arthur that passed by the windows of their great tan Buick as we traveled to visit cousins or other relatives. Wherever those memories live in my body, they were sieved up and served to me by the song about a place that I've never been.

The songwriter, the singer didn't aim at opening up my memories of summer trips; yet the song did just that. It made an impossible shot, threading the present roadblocks straight into the heart of the past.

While the tone deaf battering of the mystery story doesn't relate to my experience of the song at all, I find myself at once jealous of the song and fearful that I am instead the tone deaf author caterwauling against the silence.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Drowning Eyes Draft

Even if the water level is low, the water isn’t clear enough to reveal the creature that casts the dark shadows by the bank. It might be fish turning beneath the water; instead these sleek dark bodies are Jenny Willow’s hands and her hair, tangling beneath the water like a mare’s nest from a nightmare, sharp and quick and hungry.

I swerve around the sandbank, pulling myself through a warm trill of water, digging my fingers into the gummy sand and keeping an eye on Jenny Willow. If she doesn’t leave, I will pull myself back to my own pool. Pegmell might be lying, I might have been made foolish by living further away from the Borders.

Here where Cypress Creek bends past the Pale Queen’s lands there are hungry Jennies along her borders, sometimes visible out of the corner of your eyes as you walk through the park. Jenny Willow’s [twisting] shadows thrust up in to the small tree leaning over the water. She pulls herself up and then dangles from her hands, flinging herself toward a sharp cut in the bank. Her thin form stretches like a splash and then she’s gone.

I slip along the sand, the green water blank around me. Despite a pool close to the river, I am hungry enough to eat a frog. Pegmell brought a brief respite from the hunger in the granite gnaw-rocks with which she lured us past the border. Mine fell beside me like a fat frog and I had caught it and tossed it away from water before my fingers registered the solid texture. Frogs bring out the vicious in the Jenny; they are the family we are forced to keep.

I pulled myself from the water, lifting the veil from my eyes and letting them gleam over the bank. Our flesh is more than our skin, of course. The water itself is part of our flesh, an inside-out pulse. I am both naked and flayed in the heat.

The smell of her and her rock had already disturbed my pool, however. She might as well have tossed in a basket of frogs. My stomach rumbled. We never eat our leaping brethren; it’s like chewing on a bit of your own skin. They remind me of our true prey, though. People are rare in this water, rarer at night and early morning, when my eyes are clear and bright enough to lure them close to the water.


Pegmell came up the dying branches of Cypress Creek for those of us who might be suffering from the lack of water. I can follow her scent on this rock. The idea of something that is too secret to be spoken through the dragonfly whispers and yet is urgent enough to risk throwing rocks at your cohorts intrigues me.

Her meeting is well inside the Pale Queen’s borders, in a shallow milky cataract of a pool edged with iris and mined with turtles. I can feel the eyes of the snakes and others following me from the leaf litter and the branches. Open space is best for her business.

I keep my calves in the water so that I am less naked than I feel. It is not my pond and the pulse of the dyed water faint. It tastes like the pipes from which it came. The other Jennies are pulled up around Pegmell, leaning against the iris swords.

Until Peg speaks, her azure eyes dominate the tan and green mottle of her skin. The deep brown of her lips merely underline those eyes. Drowning eyes.

“Did you know that these are what Arthur took, what he was offered by the first Jenny, the Queen of the pond. A sword green and sharp. No one comes for our swords or our help anymore,” Pegmell begins.

Pegmell is still smiling at us. Her mouth tugs her eyes just beyond the edge of her face and I wonder if she has learned to taste us dry, as she has learned to breath and speak abovewater. My own tongue twists and I bite down, leaning over the water.

“I imagine that she lived in the robes of a princess, that she was perhaps the sister of the man on the bank. She gave power to her brother and he lost the way, the way every way has been lost to us. We are more frog than man, and more viper than frog.” Her lips curl above her teeth.

I blink and find myself pushing down into the water. The others move closer to her. She glances my way and I am careful to keep my mouth above water. I want a name and I think that I could be less solitary. Sharp teeth pin my mouth closed. The iris swords bend to my fingers and the tips point for a minute toward Peg. Am I less alone here?

Jenny Bog shake a dragonfly from her shoulder. There will be no tales today. Jenny Cypress catches it with her tongue and swallows whatever tales it had. I lick the stone that Peg gave me--each of us is holding a bit of the limestone.

None of us are blooming and Peg’s skin is dry. Her arms curl around her knees and her toes grasp the concrete edge. Every thin flap of skin has been abraded away. Each digit is separate. I find myself sliding closer, like the turtles that bump against me and crawl over the small of my back toward the sun. My skin aches at the sight of hers.

Pegmell’s voice throbs softly over us. “The dwarves remember the same things, the way that their work was taken. Always for compensation...but it became hordes and rumors and handiwork became...unheimlich. When I found one of them standing at the edge of an old cenote, I almost pulled him into the water.”

“Tell us what becomes of our places when we leave?” Jenny Cypress asks.
“You won’t care. These are places that you wait, like a chrysalis for tadpoles. You will have other places with others of us. There are no bad stories of the homes which you will find.” Pegmell stopped.

“With dwarves?” Jenny Silver Maple asks?

“There are other creatures that you will meet. There are homes that come with the gnawing stones and others that come with a few bones. You can abandon the prejudices of kept creatures.” Pegmell spoke to those who lived in the park, not to those of us who were further away.

“Not all of us are protected by the Lady,” I murmured.

“There is no protection here. Are you protected by staying the same? By believing that you are capable only of drowning and eating the world from which you’ve come? You had mothers who were not part of the park, not behind the border that your fathers hid behind. There is no court here that will give you more than a sentence of eternal hunger.”

“We can find our mothers?” Jenny Bog stood, revealing the tangles of skin still clinging to her waist. She was still shedding into her form.

“I’m offering a chance to make a home for yourself. I’ve seen the King’s Riders pause when he saw us at the side of the dwarf Robert. They saw that we were the same kind of honor, the same fealty was offered to Robert as the King expects. We are no longer Jennies or kelpies or dark promises. We are capable of it. What we want from our heritage we will take.” Pegmell kept us deep in her gaze.

A braver creature might have chosen to take what she implied was there, but my character had coldness and treachery as well. Limestone sparked against my tongue but I was thinking of clouds of blood drifting through the water, tasting the human dissolved in the water, the way it should be. Child of lies, if not violence, I was the daughter of a frog prince and a human woman. I was the pearl who survived.


Smoke doesn’t frighten me the way it does the others. My pool is ringed by cigarettes and the smoke above the waves soothes me. Here in the horns of the Pale Woman in the wind that is for a moment her hair and then air again, the crazy sparks of lightning bugs struck from her bone, from her fingers, light the page longer than their mother, the lightning bolt.

After cracking the spine of the notebook, I’m ready to put down the confession, to ask for a pool in the Woman’s protection, to betray Pegmell’s silence.

I have little hope for this. Pegmell asked no permission to break the bonds of the court, gave no gifts to our people for taking us from our pools.

She was released by the dwarf so many years ago, she’s seen the hidden and the mud and the places were even the humans dive naked back into the water without giving in to her hunger. How could she remember the reflexes of custom and propitiation? Remembering them, would she count it wise to act on them?

My stomach rolls with the idea of people jumping freely into the water. I am licking my own fingers, Pegmell’s rock has been gnawed into a dry powder and a worry stone that rolls between my fingers like a lost thought.

A scream leaps up behind me. The Woman turns, her white skin shining in the rain. A slim dragon slides backwards down the slick limbs, catching at thin vines and a shallow canopy.

It sprawls before us, eyes whirling. “Mushrooms rise!” it growls and then laughs. Smoke curls from its nose and a gathering of wet frogs and spiraling caterpillars and draggled moths converge on the curling breaths.

She, the Queen who has imprisoned me in her own horns to ride out the this thunderstorm, she takes a deep breath and presses her roots deeper into the sweet soil. We sway with the breaking of the deadly drought.

The princes, the frogs, leap and glisten. I lean over and cast the notebook into the maw of the dragon. Horns catch the delicate skin fronds as I slip down, jumping toward the smoke and darkness.

I land on the startled snout and run, letting the harsh forest pull the water from me.

Monday, August 1, 2011

A Trail to What?

The Pumpkin King & I were discussing book trailers this evening before dinner and I was wondering what I would do if most of the bookstores around us (at least the ones offering new books) closed. There are other, more important issues that surround this; however, we ended up talking about how we pick our books. In my case, this is a genre issue.

Specifically, we were discussing how fantasy book covers and book trailers either attracted or repelled us. I'm a big believer in the "uncanny valley" and I tend to reject out of hand any animation or cover that looks like it was pulled artlessly from a figure drawing program. If the art design is absent, I'll assume editing and revision are also absent.

When it comes to book trailers, I'm ambivalent. First of all, I hate the notion that a book is just a wordy proposal for a movie. Book trailers seem to play into this, thereby reducing the imaginative content of the book itself to a few familiar scenes (fraught glances, mood-lit woods, etc.) rather than with the voice of the book itself. On the other hand, I've seen interesting ones--although they do prime me for the idea that the book itself is incomplete without the attendent video production.

To me, the attraction of good cover design (and, presumably, book trailers) is that it underscores the ideas that are present in the book. The opportunity to develop and play with the fantastic is missed when tropes and advertising merge to become cheap stand-ins for a developed story or image of the book.