On James Joyce’s Ulysses, Melville and Writing

I’m re-reading Joyce’s Ulysses while simultaneously re-reading Ellman’s biography on James Joyce. It is facinating stuff, but similar to many other writers in this way: Joyce was always poor, always dogmatic on his writing, and always making his way as an artist. And this got me thinking once again of the writing life and the writer’s commitment to the craft. Joyce initially sold  (let’s be generous) 500 copies of A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and could not find a publisher for Ulysses.  His good friend Ezra Pound encouraged him while he read chapters of the novel, and all of this before the great censor lawsuit when it was finally published. And this made me think of Melville (just re-read Moby Dick and Parkers two volume biography on Melville a few montha ago) who left novel writing all together because the public did not get what he was trying to do as an artist (actually called him “Mad” in a headline). He turned to Poetry for the next thirty years and died in obscurity.

I bring this up because those of us who are “in the game” and quiety publishing, or not publishing, but still quietly writing and writing and writing, creating one novel after the other, or one book of poems after the other, or one book of creative nonficiton after the other are the norm. There is no rich and famous. There is always the next project. The writer of novels is in it for the craft of creating a story that will capture the volcanic imagination inside her! The goal of every writer is to learn the craft, then write the stories, no matter how long it takes or how hard it appears to be. A very few people accepted Joyce’s work when it was written, and that is the norm. Joyce struggled to live, to write, to raise a family, was probably (like all of us) a bit mental, bipolar and single-mindedly driven. But in the end, like some ancient prophet of Delphi or the Old testament pronounced into the imagination for all time the most profound characters that live and breathe for us today. We can, any time we desire, pick up a copy of Moby DickUlysses and immerse ourselves into those universes. All we need do is read. And like Shakespeare with Hamlet or Melville’s Moby Dick or the ancient Iliad, Odessey, Old Testament, the Gospels, Symposium, etc…. beings are called ex nihilo and brought to life… forever. The magic and wonder is never… and never will be… remuneration… it is always… in the end… the audacity of the spoken word that stops time, and brings the makebelieve to life.

 

 

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Upcoming Fiction and Essays

Well, as many of you Facebook Friends know, I have two new books coming out in 2017. First, my creative nonfiction essays entitled Seeds: Meditations on Grace in a World with Teeth is to be publsihed by CrossLink Publishing sometime in July/August. Second, the novel you have been reading on my blog Blood Roots (a reimagining of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde meets Beauty and the Beast) has been contracted by Solstice Publishing, and is to be released late 2017 (December) or early 2018 (January).

I am in the process of organizing each project as I work with the editors, cover designers, marketing, etc…. And I am going to post various things that happen during the process so to inform those who don’t know about the process and want to understand it better. Right now, I am working with editors in both houses to revise and complete our final manuscripts. Once that happens, then the cover and formatting, etc… will begin. It’s always an interesting experience to re-read a manuscript but now with the eyes of a reader picking it up at a bookstore…. complex and helpful.

In the months to come I will post the covers to the books, and tell you more about my travel plans and what cities I will be in and when. As always, your help in buying, promoting, talking about the books is always so helpful. But for right now, enjoy the chapters for Blood Roots posted here, and until next time….

cheers

Latest novel finished

Well, I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus – but for good reason. I have just finished my latest Urban Fantasy novel entitled IMAGO. It takes place four hundred years in the future in a city called Cogstin. I would put the pitch like this: it’s Stephen King’s “Gunslinger” and Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” and Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” with a little bit of Milan Kundera for fun. I may post the first few chapters later. I do plan on discussing the process of writing the novel – for those out there that are interested or perhaps writing your own scifi/fantasy. That should be fun. 

On life notes: I will be teaching creative writing for Upward Bound at Wittenberg University for the next six weeks starting on Friday, so if any of you are around that area, let me know. 

Feel free to catch up on all those chapters I posted for Blood Roots. We are in the midst of pitching it to editors, so sorry to leave you hanging. Thanks for the comments on it. I really like that book and hope to get it in bookstores soon. 

G

Blood Roots: 6,7,8

Hello, readers, and thank you for your comments and emails concerning Blood Roots. I’m glad you are enjoying these sample chapters. Many of you have shared these posts, and I’m so encouraged. Thanks. Keep getting the word out. So, these next few chapters are some of my favorite from Part One. Hope you have as much fun reading them as I had writing them. Enjoy.

Blood Roots (Continued)

6

All day she found herself returning to the stone hiding space in her cell. She would forget something and hurry back there. She completed her stations early, ate quickly just to see the note again, hold the locket, stare at the woman in the picture and recite the words on the paper. The old man called her from her room more than he had liked and his tone was terse. They sat in silence at dinner, his eyes searching her face, she glancing down at her meal of rabbit and rice.

Night finally came to the church, and she could not have been more ready to hole up in her cell. She waited until the old man had wandered down into the cellar. She waited a half hour after that, just to be sure. She took out the locket and letter. Over and over, she unfolded and folded the paper into a neat package, the exotic bird in the wax more distinct in the candlelight . She held the parchment so close to the flame that on several occasions, the edge browned – those words revolving in her mind: I know who you are. Do You? She finally faded into sleep, just as the dawn broke through the forest beyond.

Her body was part machine now, trained from birth to wake early, practice the art of war, work her muscles until exhausted, until they ached, healed, into iron, a fluid moving, calculating weapon. And so, with only several hours of sleep, she woke, pulled on her shirt and pants, tied the rope belt around her waist, barefoot, agile like a cat, and dashed into the woods.

The old man had made an obstacle course for her, ropes, rocks, rivers, ravines, each with a station to punch or kick, to balance, all muscle groups, all eight postures of Tai Chi. She remembered her earliest thoughts – the old man chanting the songs to her, making her memorize them, forcing her to run from station to station. As a girl of three and four, he carried her to the stations, talking to her as he ran, she laughing and chanting, he setting her on the ground, demonstrating the positions, moving in rhythm, a graceful animal. When she was nine, he ran with her to the stations, making her chant the words, moving in unison at every station, their bodies, fluid, a dance. When she was fifteen, he waited for her, his body thin and showing signs of his age. He would create new obstacles for her, and she would overcome them, and he would create still more. And now, she did not see him at all. Now she created her own challenges, crossing a spine of rock like a cat, swinging across a ravine, dancing with a spear of wood, an extension of herself, climbing the rock face without rope or fear, seeing the hand holds in sequence, a creative act, moment by moment a revelation.

And now she ran through the forest, the songs of the eight postures alive in her mind, moving deer-like, panther-like, a terrible controlled force – but while she ran something else negotiated that routine space: the letter. I know who you are. She arrived at the second station, and she grabbed the rope and climbed without her legs to the top, shuffled across the great outcrop of rock and pulled herself up to the flat surface. Moving, dancing, sweeping her arms first forward then back, then off to the next station and the next and the next, but the letter’s words spun in her head and as she walked across the sandstone spine, she lost her footing, caught herself, and hurried to more substantial rock.

Who am I? I know who you are. The words implied a beginning. She had never sought such beginnings out. She had lingered on it here and there, but there was not time for such things, and the thought disappeared until the letter. And as she finished her last station, as she spun and broke the wooden boards, thick and reinforced, the faux image of her enemy, the Leader of the Blood Clan, as the boards splintered, she had formed a plan.

She walked to the stream and stripped her clothing off, settled into the moving water and allowed it to wash over her slender body. She closed her eyes and listened to the creaking trees, the wind as it rustled the leaves, a ripe fruit dropping in the distance. The words began to linger, revolve in her head: who are you? Where did you come from? Wasn’t the old man her origins? If not, who was he? The water was cold, penetrating, making her breathe in a slow controlled manner. She clenched her fingers then straightened them out, rolling her body so that her stomach nearly touched the sandy bottom. If not the old man, then who? And if not the old man, then another life, another world, another possibility had been willfully abandoned. And for the first time in her life she connected herself to an alternative path. Was it the woman in the picture who wrote the note? Her heart pounded. She felt a sense of panic, confusion, as if a room revealed another door, a door that she had never considered. Did she dare step through it? She breathed in, then out, the river calming her mind, the current sweeping the panic from her body. She lay there for an hour.

Her eyes blinked open, a resolve deep within her. Yes, she had a plan now. She gathered herself up and dressed while she was still wet. The morning hour was late, and she was running through the woods, the same trail the boar had traveled days and days ago. She ran, a sudden explosion of joy and excitement in her breast. She ran, and a smile broke upon her face, slight, a thin curl to one side. She headed back to the church, to the old man who would have beans and rice waiting for her on her return.

 

 

That afternoon – the old man busy in the wine cellar with his jars and herbs – that afternoon, Mira put a note in the hole of the great walnut tree. The note was simple: Who are you? Can I meet you? That night she stayed up late with the old man, his mood pensive, a suppressed animal just below the surface. She woke in the morning, each Tai Chi station a place to control her swelling expectations, limit them, push them into a safe spot, the consequences if she did not – unthinkable. She bathed in the stream quickly and dashed to the walnut tree. The letter was gone.

 

 

 

7

She went to the tree every day for a week – nothing. By the second week, she went only twice – still no response. Mira’s mind raced with scenarios, with hope, with another self, but by the third week something inside her withered. She ran through the stations twice a day now – morning and evening. And with each passing day, the door of hope, the door that led her to some other place became smaller and smaller until finally it had disappeared all together.

The old man had noticed something in her, and he taught her the art of steel. “You are the steel,” he said. “The steel is you, one, a part of you.” She consumed herself with making a blade of her own, folding the metals together as the ancients had done, forging it, pounding it, her muscles aching, the sweat from the furnace soaking her shirt, dripping down her nose. She hammered it until it was precise. She hammered it until it took the shape of the old man’s knife – an enormous Bowie knife. She tempered it in the cool water, and as it steamed, she laughed at the silliness that had consumed her for so long. This was who she was. This was what she was: honed steel, a killing device used for one purpose, one moment, a moment for the old man’s choosing, his instrument of death. She stared at the blade when it was finished, holding it up to the light of afternoon sun. All that day she sharpened the blade, sparks from the grinding stone sputtering and spitting, pock marks of pain on her forearms. She took the steel blade to her cell. She removed the stone from the wall and pulled out the note. She held the blade, no handle, held it in her right hand, the parchment in her left and slowly drew the edge across it. Slice and then slice again, and then slice again, the red wax seal stamped with the exotic bird falling to the floor. She burned the pieces of paper and held them as they curled and blackened to carbon. She replaced the stone in the wall and walked outside.

The old man was busy with a map, making markings, sipping his whiskey from a tin cup. She walked up to him, axe in hand. “I will not be back for a week.” The old man stared at her, glanced at the axe then back to her face. He scratched his stubbly chin, and then took a sip from his tin cup. He placed it on the table and went back to scribbling notes on the map.

 

 

It took her a week to chop down the great walnut tree, her hands blistered and swollen from the slow, steady fury of her swings. Each night she would hone the axe blade. Each morning she would begin again. She ate walnuts, collected from the masses falling from above and drank from the nearby stream. It fell with such force that the earth trembled below her feet. She felt no joy when it fell: she felt no pain, her hands raw, the axe handle streaked with blood. It was what had to be done. Before she left, she hacked a piece from the great stump.

The old man made a poultice and wrapped her hands, and after two weeks she could use them again. She took the chunk of walnut and began to carve. Every day she carved. She got up early, went through her stations and carved. Before darkness completely consumed the forest, she went through her stations and carved. She carved until the walnut took shape. She carved until it blackened with her body oils. She carved until it was perfect, rounded, smoothed, a part of her hand, like the very blade it would go on. And then the old man showed her how to fasten it to the steel.

 

 

 

8

It was late afternoon, and Mira sat at the wooden table across from the old man, his hands resting on a map. He had acted peculiar the whole day. When she arrived at the first station, he was waiting for her. He had not done that in two years. “What are you waiting for!” he yelled. He moved with her, screamed at her, forcing her to concentrate. “This is real,” he shouted. “You do not believe it. This is real! Life and death!” He smacked her head so hard that she immediately crouched into a defensive posture, hands like poised snakes. “Oh, now you think you are ready!” And with that he dashed lightly down the trail to the next station, she barely able to keep up with him. And the same happened at each station: shouting, taunting, pushing, sprinting to the next and the next and next.

On the last station, he ran off early, and to her dismay, he was waiting for her in his unique style, left arm across his chest, right arm straight back, blade at the ready. And then he came at her, hard, a terrible whirling machine. She made his blade miss, but his fist hit her chin, and she fell back, regained her balance, elbows low, spine a tendon of steel. She was ready for him the next pass, and she crossed her arms to block his blade as it slashed downward. She twisted and kicked his legs out from under him. He leapt to his feet and swept his foot in a great arc. She jumped high, but that was the move he was waiting for, and he quickly took her to the ground – the knife at her throat.

“Hah!” he said. “You think you are ready. The Leader of the Blood Clan is strong. He is powerful beyond imagining. He will slice you to pieces. He will -” But even before he could finish – she having already cocked and crossed her legs in anticipation – before he could finish, she turned, concentrating all her force at her knee, and with great power flipped him over, her hands pressing his hands and the blade to his own throat.

“Give me a chance,” she said trying to control her breath.

He laughed. She stood and bowed. He walked into the church without a word.

And now it was late afternoon, and she was sitting with him across the table. She recognized the old man’s hand writing, but she could not recognize any of the places. It was mostly of the great lake’s shoreline, and one island far to the east, circled and with arrows pointing to carefully blocked lettering. The old man rubbed it with his thumb, tapped aimlessly, then looked up into her face. He did not say anything for minutes. She saw the strain that the day had put on him, the purple coloring at the tips of his ears, cheeks flushed, his eyes pale blue, emotionless.

“If tonight favors you, tomorrow you will study this map, memorize it, make it part of you.”

His gaze was piercing, constant, so intense that she glanced down at the map. “I will.” She pointed to the island. “Is this where….” but she did not finish, for the old man had placed a piece of paper next to her finger. She recognized it immediately. It was the note she had placed in the walnut tree. He grabbed both her hands and pulled them to him, hard, manacles securing her to the wooden top.

“There is nothing else! No one else! There is only us, only Blood For Blood. Do you understand? No! You do not! You will tonight. I must punish you for your disobedience.”

She could barely breathe, her tongue thick and dry. “Yes,” she whispered.

“I will give you a moment to prepare.”

She stood, but her legs barely worked. She tried to push in the chair, but her hands trembled, so she turned and walked to her cell. She pulled on the sealskin shirt and pants, her mind tumbling with questions, sudden possibilities surfacing, disappearing. Someone was looking for her! The old man had found the note! I know who you are. She touched the stone where she hid the locket. Oh god it was true!

            She sat in the chair as the old man tied her arms tight. He pulled the hood over her eyes, and they walked together to the small boat. He tied her legs and hoisted the mainsail, then stepped to the rudder. She counted in her head the time from the shoreline, and she knew it was farther than any other time in her life. When he shoved her over, and her body sank into the cold murky depths, she realized the futility of such a distance. He had made his point. She would die tonight, and she knew it was by his good pleasure and only his good pleasure that she would see the morning. If he had not shown her the map, carefully placed it before her so she may see it, understand what he was telling her – if it was not for that gracious act, she was sure he intended to dump her off in the great abyss of water and leave her to feed the fish and the fowl.

Blood Roots Chapters 3,4,5

Well, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed the first two chapters of my urban fantasy Blood Roots. If you are new to my Author Page, read the previous post to catch up. I am excited to share with you the next three chapters, and like the creator of a carnival funhouse, I am rubbing my hands together with anticipation as you slip, slide, and turn in panic to see what is around the corner or standing right in front of you all along. Enjoy!

 

Blood Roots (continued)

3

Night came quickly upon the church, and the old man was sitting at the table eating a portion of rice and beans. His great knife lay next to his bowl. Mira sat across from him, her mind trying to focus on the night’s task, but her imagination leaping to the locket now secretly hidden behind a loose stone in her cell. She had not eaten for two days and she was hungry.

“You will leave in an hour,” the old man said. “You will track and kill tonight.” He picked up his tin cup of whiskey and toasted empty air. “You will bring me what I’ve asked of you.” He placed the cup down. “You may not come back at all.” He ate the rest of his beans and rice in silence. At the end of his meal, he pulled out his black pouch of tobacco, rolled a cigarette and lit it. He stared at her. She looked for some sign in his face, some secret signal that would encourage her. Nothing. He pushed the knife toward her. She had never used it before, and she had never seen him without it. A sign. “It’s time,” he said. “Do not fail me.” She sheathed the knife and buckled it to her waist. She bowed slightly and walked out the door a silent, ominous thing.

She knew these woods, had wandered them all her life, and she had never come to its end. The north side was a beach ending in the great lake Erie, an endless horizon of gray blue. To the east, south, and west only forest. She had never earnestly tried to find its end. Yes, one month when she was ten, late Spring with the summer coming fast, that month she had tried to map her world. She walked for a day straight South. She crested ravines and sandstone cliffs, stood high upon a finger that dropped a thousand feet into a valley below, but as far as she could see – only forest and cliffs. It was that day she saw what she could only conclude as a flying bubble. It had a small basket attached to its bottom, and a man stood inside. She watched from a rock as it drifted in the western wind, floating over the trees, the basket slightly askew, watched in awe as it disappeared over the horizon. When she mentioned it to the old man, he told her to beware, for it was the enemy searching to destroy her and all that they had worked toward. He tore up her map and forbid her to travel such distances any more. If she had time to daydream and wander about like a cloud, then he was obviously slacking in her training. It was after that day, she was forced to catch, kill, and cook her own food.

Her senses were alive now, the dampness of the night now easing upon the low-lying areas. She hurried toward the clearing where all the other night hunts began, and when she arrived she squatted just outside the open space and waited. Her patience was rewarded, for off to her right, on the other side of the clearing, she heard a branch break, a grunt, then something large scurrying away. She ran after it. She bent under drooping boughs, leapt over fallen trees, every now and again stopping to make sure of the direction. It was a large boar. She could clearly see the path through the thick underbrush, and she was quite sure of its destination. At the turtle- head shaped boulder, she headed west, down a deer path that led to the same rocky ravine. The path the boar had taken circled back, and this gave her time to climb a tree and wait for it to arrive. And it did arrive. She could hear it three hundred yards away, the dampness of the forest echoing its confusion and determination, a sort of madness consuming it, smashing through thorn bushes, grunting, every now and then a squeal. She drew the great blade from its sheath and held it near her thigh. She was glad. She was so hungry, and such meat would be a triumph. And then she sensed something strange: another presence driving the boar, something fast, something ferocious. The boar leapt over a downed tree and tumbled over a small embankment. It struggled to gain its footing, the pink underside exposed as it tried to right itself; she saw the wound from where its leg had caught a branch. And then it was back on all fours and racing toward her tree. Three, two, one…. But just as she was about to jump, something came from the thicket, something upright. The presence of the other so stunned her that she lost her breath and instinctively pressed against the tree, the knife falling to the ground below. She watched in stunned silence as the predator swiped at the 200 pound animal launching it into the air, dead where it landed; its head nearly severed from its torso. It hurried over to the carcass and fed upon its belly, tearing large chunks from the underside and spitting them out, then burying its face into the bowels. This was it. The old man had set her up: this was a Blood Clan.

Her throat was dry. She pressed further into the trunk of the tree, eyes glancing to the forest floor, desperately searching for the knife. An overwhelming sensation surged through her body, a single will, a screaming voice: “Run! Run or die!” But as soon as she thought this, it was too late, for the animal had sensed her, jerking its head up, sniffing the air, a strange clicking noise emanating from its throat. It stood up, a hulking thing, arms longer than a human’s, uneven, large neck muscles so that the silhouette barely distinguished the head from the chest.

“I smell your fear,” it said. And it laughed, low like a grunt. “You thought you could imprison me, Hunter? I will tear you to pieces and eat your flesh.” It turned one way, then another, sniffing, wiping its mouth.

She squatted motionless, waiting, waiting, searching – there, the blade so sharp that it had caught the base of the oak, the bone handle sticking up toward her. And in that moment she saw it all clearly, like someone entering into a dream, slowly unfolding, her mind gathering every detail, all conceivable outcomes, all counter moves, her pulse slowing, her mind a razor’s edge. She jumped from the tree, reaching out her hand for the handle, clutching it tightly and pulling the blade toward her as she rolled. The animal had sensed her movement just as she gathered her force, and as it raced toward her, she counted in her head: one, two, three, calmly, arms out, the blade an extension of her arm. Four! When the two forces met, she was already spinning, her body a vortex, her fist like iron, the blade a whirling, severing machine. She felt the clawed hand upon her neck, the inhuman power behind that hand as it drove her to the ground, but the blade had danced before her, and she knew even as they fell that she had won. The shear weight of the animal crushed the wind from her lungs, and it was all she could do to push it off of her.

She stood in the shadow of the moon, arms to her side, blood-soaked and bruised. Her ankle hurt where she twisted it on her landing. She stood and looked at the human-like creature, humped flesh, severed arm, a gaping wound from its crotch to its neck. She stood over it and felt the full extent of her power, a hurricane force, unstoppable, unleashed and apocalyptic. She raised her arms in triumph and screamed, an animal howl, exhausting all of her breath. And when she had depleted all that was inside her, she stooped down, lifted the great blade in the air and pulled the hair taut. She leaned over the face, nose almost touching the enormous mouth filled with long, sharp teeth and pronounced the words she had been taught: “Blood for Blood.” And with one stroke she cleaved the head from the body, wrapped it in the burlap sack the old man had given her and sat motionless beside the large oak until the dawn appeared through the trees.

 

 

 

4

Mira stared at the forest beyond the stone window of the church. The locket lay in her palm. The old man had disappeared for days, and she knew she would have to go after him eventually. The night of the killing had fundamentally altered her…. And him. By his reaction to her return, she had the sense he had not expected her back so soon, maybe at all. He gave her food and disappeared into the passages below, no comment, no emotion.

She shoved the locket under her thigh and ate the salted meat, at first animal-like, tearing at it, stuffing her face, slurping and gulping the water from the tin cup. She was quiet and intentional, her stomach filling to satisfaction. When she was finished, she pushed herself away from the table and stared again out the window, her hand holding the locket, a sudden wave of fear, a rush of panic, flashes of moments from the night before overwhelming her, and just like a wave, it receded back into a far off pool, leaving only a shadowy residue of uneasiness. She reached for the tin cup, but her hand trembled, and she clenched it, placing it back in her lap.

In the moment when the animal appeared, she thought only of her survival, but now in the small room, the noonday sun through the stone sill, the light casting shadows on the wooden table, the tin cup – now, she analyzed it more carefully. “You thought you could imprison me, Hunter?” Yes, those where the creature’s words. And that was the old man’s name: Hunter, Colonel William Hunter. Many years ago she had discovered letters to him from a Doctor Humboldt, old letters, letters inked in a fine script dating back thirty years, just after the Civil War between the states. She had found them in a box, when she was eight, and she had read only a few of them before he had caught her. She was whipped for her curiosity, banished to her small stone cell without food or water for days. But it was worth it. She had learned much, and information was a weapon. She knew about the old man’s prison experience in Andersonville, Georgia. She had pieced together other details as well, details mentioning this strange and ancient race of beings. Doctor Humboldt had discovered them in the mountains of Peru. Mira also knew that the old man had battled such creatures before, in the prison camp, pursuing them even after his release. And now, apparently – he was capturing them.

She sat silently for an hour, her head spinning with more questions than answers. Instinctively, she opened her palm and stared at the open locket. The woman in the picture was thin-faced, her hair pulled up, small curls dangling from her forehead. Her eyes were darkened, a light gray, fragile neck moving into a thin ring of lace. Mira stood up and walked to her cell. She took the loose rock from the wall and reached in, pulling from the space a shard of mirror. She held up the picture in the locket, then the shard of mirror and looked at the two images. She made her face stern, lips pursed ever so slightly, eyes severe. No, that was not it. She softened her eyes and smiled slightly, showing her teeth. No, too happy. She smiled with her lips together, yes, that was it. The image in the mirror was hardened, skin more worn, eyes slightly darkened and sunken in. Mira’s hair was short cropped, like a boys, a colic looping up where it formed her natural part. She moved the mirror to her neck, muscular chorded, nothing like the smooth skin of the woman in the picture. And still she moved the mirror down, small breasts, nearly invisible in her torn and weather-stained shirt. For a moment she had a deep longing to be someone else… maybe even the woman in the picture. And then a soft whisper deep within her: who are you?

The noon hour had passed and late afternoon was upon her. The old man had not returned. She placed the locket and the shard of mirror back into her secret hiding space, replaced the stone, and headed out into the woods to find him.

At first she wandered aimlessly, her head still filled with conflicting images: one of the monster from the night, the other, the elegant woman in the photograph. She found herself quite by accident at the giant walnut tree. The small opening was empty. She looked around, then headed south in an attempt to find traces of the old man’s trek. Soon it was apparent that he ventured out that way, a broken twig, scuffed leaves, a half boot print where he had slipped stepping up a ravine.

She followed his trail the rest of that day, and found him laying with his back against a weathered birch, a dried creek bed below. His left arm was splayed out, palm open. His right hand held tight his bowie knife. A half empty bottle of whiskey lay at his thigh. He had obviously hacked notches in the tree above his head, another into the elm to his right, and still more here and there as his anger exhausted itself. She gathered deadfall from the area and made a small fire, then waited for him to stir.

Near midnight he came to, a sudden spasm as he entered the land of the living, his great knife sweeping up in defense, then falling to the ground. He noticed the whiskey bottle, picked it up and gulped.

“There’s a world of hurt out there, girl, you know that?” His voice trailed off in fragments of cussing.

“Yes.”

“Give me some of that food. I’m famished.”

She plated some biscuits, some beans, a thighbone from a rabbit. She watched him for a bit.

“Where do you keep them?” she said.

He looked up, stared at her for a moment, then concentrated on his plate of food.

“It called you by name. Before I killed it, it called you by name.”

“No difference now,” the old man said, “if it did or it didn’t.”

The old man finished in silence and tossed the plate near the fire. He wiped off the bottle of whiskey and drank some more, then stared at the earth. “It was July, 1864 when we first entered the prison camp. Forty-five thousand of us, herded like cattle into a stockade of 25 plus acres. No food, some water, shoved together, starving, no way out. We didn’t know what to fear then. We didn’t know they were in the camp. When twenty-five men disappear at night – twenty-five out of twenty thousand – who takes notice? Every night, night in and night out. They’d come for us when we slept, pull us into the shadows. We stopped hoping for salvation. We stopped praying for daylight. Thousands were slaughtered. The prison camp became a holding tank of death. The South did nothing. Why would they? The Blood Clan did their job for them. We huddled together, created watches, but nothing helped. By the end of the first year ten thousand men had been murdered. The south would say it was starvation. They’d come from the shadows. They’d leave limbs and torsos behind. On Christmas day they declared war and mounted fifty heads upon stakes for all to see.”

The old man gulped from the whiskey bottle. “When Sherman marched to the Pacific, Andersonville was liberated. They escaped, but not before I killed their leader.” The old man’s voice faded. He stared into the darkness beyond the fire. “I’ve spent my life killing them. I’ve seen them wipe out an entire town by dawn. I was there, the fear, the panic, nobody thinking straight, nobody understanding, just running and hiding. You can’t hide from them, girl. You can’t run from them. They’re made to kill, to hunt. They don’t feel or think like we do. They have a bloodlust, one goal – exterminate.” He drank again, placed the bottle next to his leg and rubbed his muddied face with his hands. He turned toward her and stared. “Do you understand me?”

“Yes sir.”

“You don’t understand anything!” The whiskey was taking over now. “You can’t understand. How could you? All this training… For what?”

“I’m ready.”

“You’re ready.” He laughed. “They’re all out there waiting for you. Every one of them. And I the gatekeeper.”

“I’ll show you.”

The old man lifted the great knife in his hand and pointed at her. “You know nothing.”

“I killed it,” she said, her voice confident, the terrible memories crashing in upon her. “I gave you what you asked.”

“It was half starved, for god sake. It wasn’t one of them… Not those out there.” He pointed into the darkness. “You think you killed something. It was starved and beaten. God almighty, it was a test.” His voice faded “A test is all.” He drank again from the bottle.

They sat in silence. The animals were awake now, scurrying here and there, a nightingale chirping, a deer far off. She could smell the lake, feel the coolness of the night as it settled. The fire seemed small and insignificant, the night overwhelming.

“I’ve found a way,” the old man said. “I know how to get them, everyone involved – Humboldt, Magnus, every one of them.”

Mira looked up, her adrenaline pumping through her veins.

“I found it alright,” the old man continued, then cursed several times for emphasis.

“Send me,” she said.

“You?”

“Send me. I’m ready.”

“You don’t know what you’re asking.”

And whether it was the whiskey or the great battle within, perhaps his past memories, Mira could not know, but the old man suddenly stood and walked into the darkness of the woods. Mira walked after him, then stopped. She squatted down beside the tree, one hand on the trunk, one hand on the neck of the bottle. She lifted it to her mouth and drank. “If you can’t kill them, I will,” she whispered to the night. “Give me a chance.”

 

 

5

She wandered about most of the night, her mind racing. She felt anger, disgust toward the old man. Maybe he was right. Maybe she was not ready. Maybe they would kill her. She at least needed a chance to find out. The old man had seen something, and it had shaken him. She remembered the power of the animal she killed, the leathery hand throwing her to the ground, the bloodlust behind it. It was starved and beaten. God! What were they? Who could stop them? She felt a weight suffocating her, pressing into her chest, throttling her neck. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She spread her legs – one forward, one back, balanced – shoulders low, arms bent, palms up: a balanced scale, move like a turning wheel. Everything had a weakness. They could be killed. The old man had killed them. He had said so many times, even shared stories about the slaughter. Maybe he was lying.

She spun with grace. She spun with control, her mind clear, her hands – fists: Extension and Contraction, opening and closing. And with a final movement she stood before a large birch tree, open palm a paper’s width away. She straightened. The fear had vanished now, but it was replaced with something else. The old man had seen something. He had walked out of the forest, walked out and found… what? Walked… Or sailed! Her heart pounded with the thought. There was an out there after all. He must have taken the boat. She thought of the whiskey bottle. The barrel was empty at the church, had been for weeks. He must have purchased a new one beyond the woods, beyond the lake, another shoreline.

The sun broke through the trees as the morning came upon the forest. She squinted at the light, the shadows dancing in the swaying limbs above her. She stood up and stretched, muscles taut and cramped from the night. And then she saw it. There in the knot of the giant walnut tree: a folded piece of paper. She raced to it and pulled it out, the heavy paper sealed with red wax, an exotic bird stamped into it. She ran into the shadows and squatted down, eyes darting back and forth: nothing. Her mouth grew dry, and something deep inside her whirled, a storm, a force pulling her to itself. She looked down at the paper and broke the wax seal, opened the letter and read:

I know who you are. Do you?

BLOOD ROOTS Ch 1 and 2

As promised, dear readers, my first weekly installment from my latest novel Blood Roots. I will upload the new chapter(s) each week. Like it on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc… Pass it along on social media. I’m excited to begin our journey together.

Blood Roots

By

Greg Belliveau

“With every day, and from both sides of my intelligence, the moral and the intellectual, I thus drew steadily nearer to the truth, by whose partial discovery I have been doomed to such a dreadful shipwreck: that man is not truly one, but truly two.”
Robert Lewis Stevenson The Curious Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

MIRA

Ohio, 1899

1

She was not alarmed when he placed the burlap bag over her head. She did not fight him when he pulled her arms behind her and tied the ropes tight.  No, all of this was expected, an endgame with a razor’s edge of finality. How many nights had she imagined this scene, there in the abandoned stone church, in the darkness of her stone cell, austere, a wooden table, a straw-stuffed mattress, a single window. And now like some determined, sacred prophecy the actions played out before her, and she need only follow what had been predetermined. This time she would succeed. Not for the old man, no, he was an instrument used to train her. She would succeed for something else: to silence the fears, silence the doubts, silence that part of her that hoped for something else.

She smelled Lake Erie as she walked through the long grass, then the cold, hard rocky shoreline. She stepped into the familiar boat, and she even pulled her knees up to her chest to make room for the old man while he crouched for the rudder, hoisted the sail, a sudden thrust as the wind pushed the boat from the rickety dock, a small exhalation of breath. Summer was leaving, and the coolness of Fall, even though it was still late August, had begun to pull the warmth from Ohio, drag it out into the Great Lake and into the Canadian jet stream.

The wind picked up, she huddled to conserve her body heat, for she knew she would need it, and for but only a moment – a sudden flurry of released emotion almost immediately contained – she longed for the old man to speak. Of course he did not.

A half hour passed, the sound of the water rushing under the hull, the rhythmical motion of the boat knocking her knee against the wooden side. The wind bit deep, even through the special clothing the old man had made for her, dark, tanned sealskin pants and shirt, fitted tight down to her ankles and wrists. But even with the cold, she could feel the perspiration collecting beneath the hide, gathering then leaking down the creases, dripping into her folds of skin below. The boat slowed and drifted, the mainsail down. She sensed the movement of the old man, heard the bone handle of his enormous bowie knife knocking and scraping the wood while he secured her legs with the rope, while he positioned himself for leverage.

And then she was sinking, her body tightly balled, legs instinctively pulling through the loop of her bound arms. The hood slipped off and floated toward the surface. She straightened out stiff like a needle piercing the viscous universe. Down. Down. Down, forever, the cold numbing her hands, her feet. Her fingers worked the knot, picking, pulling. Down, down, down and then the sandy bottom of the lake. She sensed the subtle impression of panic, pushed it back and subdued it. Her mind cleared, eyes still closed. Routine, mechanical, step by step. Begin.

The old man had tied the rope tight – why wouldn’t he – and it was not until she had reached the bottom that she had freed her wrists. She stooped to untie her bound ankles, and as she did, her body arched, then like a buoy slowly drifted toward the surface. The clock ticked in her head, the effort on the ropes nagging at her, a low buzz in the background. Not this time. She would not fail this time. Her fingers pecked at the rope, pecked, stabbed, pulled. The knot held fast.

She reserved her energy, stiffened and sank back to the bottom. She could sense the darkness just beyond. It was slow, methodical. Soon her limbs would be useless, mind black, one great inhalation, and then the void. Again, she bent over the rope. Again her body arched and drifted upward. Once again, she picked at the knot. Yes, there was the weak spot. Hadn’t the old man taught her that: everything has a weakness. Find it, exploit it. She pulled the band of rope, unraveled it from her legs, and she opened her eyes. The gray, cloudy world of water gave her no comfort. She looked up for direction, but it was evening now, and the light had faded, faded but not disappeared completely. The blackness was ever-present, the chaos and panic clawing its way out of its prison. She stiffened again, sank to the bottom, her knees like steel springs, bent metal pulled to breaking, and she launched herself toward the surface.

Her legs kicked, great swooping arcs with her arms, hands flat like paddles. Up, up, up she went, eyes strained open, the panic so controlled now freeing itself within her. Up, up, up. One hundred feet. Fifty feet. Yes, this time. Yes, she was ready. Twenty feet to go. The darkness pulled at her now, like powerful hands from the deep, pulling her legs, her arms, pulling them down, draining their life. Ten feet. She could not see the image of the boat. Five feet, the water like an enormous, heavy lid shutting her out, the great deep below now so strong. Her mind grappled with the unthinkable: just give up. Just give in. NO!

When she broke the surface, she nearly screamed, would have screamed if her mouth did not instinctively gulp in the air around her. The water pulled her down again, and she kicked with what energy was left, eyes desperately searching for the old man and his boat. He was gone; only darkness and the sound of the wind across ever moving surface.

She rolled to her back, controlling her breath, spitting out the water as it splashed over her face.  Her hands floated at her side, useless limbs. She had thought of everything, controlled everything, but she did not think of this. Fifteen minutes passed, she pushing the panic back into that secret place. She controlled her breathing: one, two, three, four, five. And again. Longer inhalations, longer exhalations, eyes closed. A half hour passed. She opened her eyes and stared up into the vast expanse above her. She smiled. It took her a moment to find the pinprick of light above, set it into the pattern so ingrained in her imagination: in the woods, the water, in pitch black, completely disoriented – none of it mattered if the night sky was without clouds. She used her arms as oars, orienting herself toward the south, toward the shoreline. She breathed in deeply, exhaled, then, arms and legs like leaden rods, she moved slowly in that direction.

In her seventeen years of training, even after all the strange and seemingly impossible tasks the old man had forced upon her – even after all she had overcome, she had nothing to compare to her present situation. By the time an hour had passed, she could not think any longer about her goal, her mind relentlessly falling back into doubt, her body a water bug pulling against a terrible riptide. Why had she come so far, to be so close to obtaining her goal, just to lose it all at the very end? This fueled such a rage in her, starting in her chest, then her limbs, and she found a sudden strength: You will not break me. She even said out loud: “When I return, and I will, old man, I will kill you.” These thoughts so consumed her that she did not realize another hour had passed. She did not realize that if she had quieted the voices in her head, she could have heard the waves crashing upon the sandy shore two hundred yards away. She did not realize that her body was shutting down, that her legs were useless now, that her arms were barely moving. She sank beneath the surface still thinking how she would cut the old man’s throat. She sank and drifted down, water rushing into her lungs. She did not even notice the horrible burning sensation in her chest, or that this was her last thought into oblivion.

And then she awoke, a baby thrust naked into the world of light and sound. She felt the pressure on her chest: Pound! Pound! Pound! Thunderous, violent. She vomited and coughed, her insides on fire, her eyes ablaze with light and heat. And when she rolled over, the cool sand under her back, under her hands, the heels of her feet – she recognized the old man’s face hunched over her own. The light from the campfire was like noonday sun. She squinted. His features established her presence into the land of the living:  creased brow, thin veneer of skin covering his jowls, crows feet in the corners of his eyes, his white mustache drooping over his upper lip, the shadow of whiskers covering his cleft chin.

“Now, you are ready,” he whispered into her ear. “Now, you will not fear death. I have brought you back from the grave. Now there is only blood for blood.”

2

Mira thought of the old man as long in years, but she did not know how old he actually was. He had never spoken of it directly, only alluded to it by the stories he told. His hair was pulled back, a thick straw, iron gray. His face was worn, like parched hide, lean and unshaven, a gray mustache. But that appearance, his calm demeanor hid something ferocious. His muscles like cables, he was quick and violent, and in a moment’s notice could break a neck or sever a limb or throat with the enormous bone-handled bowie knife he kept at his side. He had been a colonel in his past, of what army and when, she did not know. He had been trained in the secret art of war and had experienced violence on levels she could only imagine in those long nights in the stone cell.

But there was a sadness about him, glimpses of deep loss, those days when he withdrew from the world, the strap, the syringe, his pale eyes reddening, the weariness when he awoke like a satchel of rocks had been placed upon his back, stooping him toward the earth, his steps uncertain, motions cautious. She had noticed it when she was quite young, the withdrawal to some secret space, and as a naive girl she had tried to comfort him. She would learn from such a mistake by nearly losing her life. He was a predator, a tightly wound coil, and his thirst for blood and vengeance had no bottom. Something unleashed was how she explained it. Something chained that when released must exhaust itself. At those moments she would lock herself in her cell and listen through the heavy wooden door. The shouts followed by guttural sounds, low groans of deep sorrow and rage. He would storm the abandoned church like a terrible wind, smashing, upturning, pounding on the walls, on her door, and then the old man would disappear into the surrounding woods for days. She found him once saturated with blood and gore, weak from his abandonment, pupils dilated so that no border remained. She had learned what to do over the years – the strap, the needle, the small glass jar he kept with hundreds of other small jars in the cool of the church wine cellar, all labeled in neat blocked lettering: Pueraria Montana. This was the herbal tincture of his addiction. She had seen the great drying racks in one of the observatory rooms. She had secretly watched him grind the seed pods and foliage into powder and distill with alcohol through copper tanks and glass tubing into a clear liquid.  And it was this liquid that brought him back to the present, bound the animal within, sometimes through the radial vein, sometimes with a stab into his chest cavity directly into the heart: a gasp, a seizure as if all the muscles contracted at once, then released.

She had only known one person in her seventeen years: the old man. It was the old man who trained her, constantly placing her in outrageous situations, showing her how to be patient, calm, controlling the pulse, controlling every muscle group, controlling the adrenaline rush as it swarmed over her. It was the old man who had stripped her of emotion and longing and fear, daily, weekly, yearly for as long as she had memory. She had been trained to stalk and kill her own food, make her own shelter, survive for weeks on nothing but root and insect until she was starving, until the old man found her, fed her, forced her to do it again. It was the old man who molded and shaped her to be a weapon, silent, violent, no remorse, no empathy. It was the old man who had strategized, calculated and prepared her for one thing: kill the Blood Clan leader. And that moment had finally come, or so she thought.

“In two nights,” he said. She watched him gather the leather bag containing the glass jars, the strap and the needle. “Prepare yourself.” And he walked down the stairs and into the labyrinth of tunnels below the decayed stone building.

It happened during this time, a month after the drowning, and on one of her “observation walks,” walks where she would become like the fallen leaf, the scampering squirrel: silent, observant, crouching for hours in one spot, eyes wide with any movement, sound, markings – a scratch in the bark where the deer had played, a small path from the rabbit, the dried bone left from the fox, the discarded turtle shell still wet from separated tendons. It was, indeed, on this day that she discovered the object hidden in the walnut tree. The tree was a large knotted thing with enormous arching branches sweeping out, the leafy tentacles now drooping with ripe fruit, clustered and green. She was watching a squirrel tend the harvest, pushing on the large seeds, scampering to the next branch to do the same, some falling to the ground to be collected later. It was as she followed the squirrel that she first saw the knot and the sparkling object within.

She did not move. She watched the tree, the shimmer of light, something metallic, but her mind was only focused on one thing: trap! She stooped lower, head just above an incline, a lazy creek below her footing. She scooped mud from the creek and rubbed her arms, her hands, her face and neck, eyes blinking open. An hour passed, watched the landscape searching for any sign, left, right, back to the glimmering object in the walnut tree. She had passed this way many days, many nights. She knew that knot in the tree, and never had there been any object there. Her mind raced for solutions, logical implications: a crow perhaps had stolen it, hiding it in its nest as many do. No nest, she would have seen it. A squirrel? Rarely had she seen such a thing. A raccoon perhaps? Perhaps, but again, no nest had been built there, and she would have seen it. But the angle of the object to the sun, the careful placement to refraction, distraction….This could not be chance. This was something much, much more diabolical.

From her earliest memory, the old man had warned her of the outside world, the civilization beyond the woods, the terrifying evil that had infiltrated it. He had told of mechanized horses, or mysterious forces called electricity. He told her that one day she would be seduced by it, one day she would be tested, but that day had never come. Many times after he had been drinking, the old man would tell her stories a sinister race, the Blood Clan, an ancient race from the beginning of time, before humans, a race that strategically, methodically had grown, like a disease. He spoke in whispers, a deep anger just below the surface, of a leader – half human, half Blood Clan – how he had escaped the old man’s grasp and now was organizing, breeding, a snake writhing and expanding to the ends of the world. And they (the old man and her) the only ones left to cut off its head. This is all she knew. This is why she had been born, trained, she a special child, a sacred child, the avenger for all lost humanity.

All day she watched the landscape for movement, but only woodland animals appeared. The light faded into gray, then darkness, and still she did not move, the clay on her face and neck cracking and peeling as it dried. She stayed motionless, a part of the forest until the rays of morning appeared through the trees, and still no sign of a human’s presence.

And then she crept to the tree, snatched the object and darted back to her secure location near the creek. Her heart pounded, and she steadied her breathing, hands closed in a fist. Slowly, she opened her fingers. There in her palm was a small locket attached to a thin gold chain. She stared at it for meaning, for context: nothing. She turned it over in her hand. It was a tarnished golden oval, no inscriptions. And then she pried it apart and caught her breath. There on one side, a thin border of gold holding it in place: a picture of a woman. She fisted her hand, placed it in her pocket and hurried back to the stone church.

Beginnings

In many ways this is a new beginning for me, new website, new blog post, new opportunity to expand my audience. I like new beginnnings. So many people have asked me what I am doing now, where I am teaching, what book am I working on…. Well, this is the place to go to find out all those things and much, much, much more. Let me begin by a brief history:

I am currently part of the “gig” economy, boys and girls! teaching composition classes at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, as well as Creative Writing Courses at Antioch University Midwest, Yellow Springs, Ohio, (but wait… there’s more) as well as graduate Creative Writing Crourses at Antioch University Midwest in their Idependent Master of Arts Program. It’s all good, and I’m loving it! But most importantly and fundamentally, I have been writing… a lot.

For those of you who have been following my professional career, I am now represented by The Virginia Kidd Literary Agency, and my agent is currently pitching my urban fantasy novel Blood Roots which is a reimagining of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde set in Ohio during the late 19th century. This is the second book in the Blood Clan series, which began about five years ago. My current writing project, a novel entitled Imago, is something I have been thinking about for over fifteen years. It is a new genre for me: dystopian/science fiction. This is one of those books that is writing itself, for the philosophical underpinnings have been muddling around in my imagination for fifteen or so years.

Now, for the good stuff. Over the course of the next few months, I am going to release (for the very first time) the opening chapters of Blood Roots in order to gernerate some interest. If you like what you read, feel free to pass it along via social media. If enough folks are interested, then my agent and I will take some new steps to get more of it out to you. Well, that’s it for now. Beginnings. Here’s to them!

Cheers

GB