Adventures of Copper and Sheba

[I am bidden to clarify, by persons innamorata, that this is a joint work, the product of collaboration, if you can believe it, between my sister and myself. Who chiefly took which part, and from whom came certain elements, you are perfectly free to guess at your peril.]

Once there was a small green dragon, who came of a long line of sheep-eating dragons. His parents named him Copper, thinking this a witty remark on the fact that he was sure to be the bane of many sheep: imagine therefore how great their disappointment upon finding, as soon as he grew old enough to have such opinions (which was soon), that he detested the texture of meat, especially sheep, and much preferred a diet of doughnuts! His parents, heartily ashamed of this failure in the family, disowned him as soon as he was old enough to support himself. He lived by himself in an abandoned waste, chiefly on an unlikely diet of doughnuts, occasionally supplemented with ice cream. Despite this diet, well calculated to induce lassitude and obesity, he managed very happily, and built up for himself a small but respectable hoard of flannel sheets, on which he spent many a relaxing evening not terrorizing sheep.

On a wet wintry evening, a stray cat could be slinking and searching for a dry corner in a heap of boulders atop a hill. She discerned a sizeable gap between two of them, well-rubbed as by something going in and out, and after contemplatively shaking the water out of her ears decided to go and have a look inside it.

Partway down the tunnel (for it turned into a tunnel) she noticed the air was getting warm, and when she came to a corner and a sudden change of air, with a sharp smell, unfamiliar but distinct, she stopped.

“Is anybody home?” she asked, putting on a deep impressive voice just to be on the safe side.

“Who’s there?” It was a sleepy, comfortable voice, with a reptilian rumble in it which put the cat’s back up. She thanked her lucky stars for her dark colouring and dared to put one eye around the corner.

A dragon! She pulled her head back with a whiff. She’d been prepared for a large snake, but this was something else. But she’d noticed another thing, which kept her from ignoring all feline sense to go running back up the passage with her ears flat: the dragon occupied a large pile of flannel sheets, which, given the nature of dragons, would be kept both dry and warm.

“May I have one of your sheets?” she blurted out.

“No. They’re my hoard,” it said. She could practically see it curling its claws around them.

“What if I told you the orphanage needed sheets and by giving us some of them you could keep lots of children warm at night?”

It sniffled. “Don’t do that to me, I’m a terribly sappy dragon.” She could practically hear it wiping its eyes on a handy corner of the flannel. She waited, willing it to yield. Then, with the slightest trace of a growl, “No. Who’s there?” it said again. But it still didn’t sound exactly threatening, and that was something.

She sat down and summoned all her dignity. “A cat.”

A pause.

“You don’t sound like a cat. Where’s your tail?” It sounded more curious than angry.

She stepped forward so the glow of its light threw up her shadow on the left-hand wall, but she herself was just out of sight. “I haven’t got one. I’m a Manx.”

“They have stubs,” it retorted quickly.

“Not all of them,” she admitted. It considered this. Something in the silence sounded skeptical.

“Where’s your retractable claws?”

She stepped forward into the light and extended them to their full reach. The dragon pulled back a little.

“Okay, go away.” It put its nose behind the edge of a sheet. “Unless you have doughnuts.”

“Doughnuts? Why would I carry doughnuts?”

“I hate cats; they’re so contrary.”

She turned her back. “Well, I hate dragons; they’re so scaly, just like snakes.” The dragon grumbled and muttered to itself, but she did not move except to settle herself more comfortably/in a more permanent position.

It considered for a moment and said, “What will you give me for a sheet?” With a hint of hope, it suggested, “ice cream?”

“Are you not actually a dragon but a pig in disguise? — I mean a little boy?”

It could not repress a snort at this, presumably of laughter. “My name’s Copper. I like doughnuts and ice cream, and I’m a dragon.”

“My name’s Sheba,” she said, still not turning around, “and I’m a proud carnivore.”

Since it had such a marked dislike to her, what could she do but stay the night?

A few days later, spent in incessant sniping back and forth — neither cared to go out in the wet, and Copper constantly complained that Sheba was underfoot, while Sheba found fault with his claws constantly scratching on the floor — and both were immensely relieved when the weather cleared up. Copper went off to wherever he got his doughnuts from, and Sheba, announcing her intent to get some “real food”, went out to hunt.

She came back in shaking her whiskers and spitting.

“Your ‘real food’ not cooked enough for you?” Copper asked from the other side of a plate of doughnuts. She could hear the quotation marks in his voice.

Apparently,” she spat, “you don’t patrol your property well enough.”

“Property? I just live here.”

“There’s a family of snakes moved into the neighbourhood. Maybe you like snakes because they’re family, you overgrown wiggleworm with limbly and birdy excrescences, but I do not. They’re scaly and won’t stop moving and steal food.”

“I understood some of that. The part about the snakes. And let me tell you,” Copper said, rising to his full height with one claw on a doughnut and his wings unfolded till they cast the further recesses of the cave into shadow, and Sheba’s hackles would have risen if they weren’t already as stiff as they would go, “I do not like snakes, those low second-cousins-thrice-removed who go around all pretentious and think they deserve better because they’re related to us.” It stopped to consider. “Or is it third cousins twice?”

“Irrelevant, in my opinion,” Sheba said. “They’re in your territory.”

Copper left the doughnuts behind and stalked to the tunnel. “If we’re going to hunt these things down together,” he said, “you’d better keep your mouth shut. We’ll have to be quiet.”

“If we’re hunting together,” Sheba spat to his tail, “you’d better not try to teach me how to do the job I was born to do and you, apparently, have neglected.”


“Well, doughnuts don’t require much hunting, do they?”

Now, hunting anything together by definition requires co-operation, and snakes (though, being limbless, are exceptions to many rules) are no different. Sheba showed Copper the area in which she had found them sunning themselves, and together they silently took down one after another, maugre their teeth.

At the end of their work, pieces of fourteen snakes of various sizes and states of being torn up littered the blood-spattered grass, and Copper raised a claw to congratulate Sheba, who smacked it with her claws still out.

“Good work everybody,” Copper said, meaning her. A nearby crow settled in the top of a tree and asked if they minded. “That will put one in the mood for a doughnut. Want one?”

“I feel more like frittered mouse for lunch,” Sheba purred. “If you’re very good I may give you some. Oh wait — you’re a vegetarian. So sorry.”

They shared the pile of flannel sheets that night.

Posted in Fiction, Short story | 4 Comments

Writing update

“She had written what she felt herself called upon to write; and, though she was beginning to feel that she might perhaps do this thing better, she had no doubt that the thing itself was the right thing for her. It had overmastered her without her knowledge or notice, and that was the proof of its mastery.”

Gaudy Night, Dorothy L. Sayers

As early as Sunday, September 2nd, last year, I knew someone had to write about Levi’s death and its aftereffects, and that I was probably the only one both close enough and removed enough to be able to tell the closest thing possible to the complete story. (You can ask people for their side, of course, and so far some have been eager to tell, but not everyone has the leisure to write their own and all the other available things down.) By a few weeks into the term, which had just started at the time, I was neglecting smallish school assignments in favour of writing in it instead. By the middle of the term it was the only thing I wanted to do and I had recognized that it would suck up as much of my life as I would give to it.

I am by no means on the other side of the writing, as Harriet was in the lines quoted above (by the way, a shameless plug for Gaudy Night: read it — but only after reading Strong Poison and Have His Carcase — if you’re at all interested in deep conversations about the active and (sometimes versus) the contemplative lives, or mature reflections on entering marriage with open eyes, or the kind of work which demands loyalty outside hours from nine to five, the kinds of things you build a life around and should consider thoroughly before doing so, not that I can claim any kind of experience in any of these areas), but much else holds true. As it’s in such rough draft form, with some parts not even in proper sentences or paragraphs, and I’ve only got the faintest glimmers of ideas for organization, I know that I could quite likely do better. If I knew the end from the beginning and could head steadily toward it, collecting and recording all the important details which point to the end, and only those details, I’d be able to cut out much of that groping in the dark which has characterized certain parts and probably will. But I have no doubt about the value of the work in its ideal form, which is what I’m trying to bring the reality up to.

As of this writing the document has some 32,129 words in it, comprising actual reports of things I’ve seen or heard from the last nineteen weeks, literary allusions which help illustrate or illuminate things and which I’m collecting to add to a future draft, several thousand words of the process of making sense of the various subjects which meet at this point and trail off into loose ends elsewhere; and bracketed notes might contain things to check up on later, or things which represent unfinished thoughts, to be rewritten when they’ve matured, or things which I wrote down in a certain place but which might need to move elsewhere when I get around to organizing.

Last Friday as I walked down Main Street from the car to Carl’s, a route very familiar to me now, the thought came to me without my searching for it, “This feels right, like a puzzle when you’ve put in the last piece but one and they all fit. For now, at least, this is where I’m supposed to be.” Perhaps it had something to do with the one road we sometimes take as a shortcut to church, behind the auto repair place, and not taking it today but knowing what it was like and thinking about how many people go past on the highway and see no more of the town than this, but that for us, so many square inches have each their own experiences and memories attached. Or perhaps it had to do with Pastor pulling out just in front of me from the grocery store parking lot, and the fact that bumping into people you know is common around here. Perhaps it was because in order to write this story I have to be around to see it happen.

And people need it. Levi’s dad still tells us, almost every week, about someone new to whom he’s passed on the story, that sting of the way it goes sharply down and sharply up again “my son killed himself, how can a Christian kill himself, what do we do about this — see, there is grace even for this sin, there is grace and hope for you and anyone who needs it”, and someone else tells him about so-and-so they knew.

So I’m not looking to leave the area just now, though the way people ask “so what’s next?” seems to assume that. For now at least — and I’ve never been able to see too far ahead — this is what I’m doing and I know it’s worthwhile. It fits. In a few years maybe I’ll go on to something else and I will have to go away, and if that’s the case, that’s fine. I don’t have to worry about it yet, because this part isn’t over.


The Two-Legged League continues to take great strides. I got the hair-brained idea from somewhere that it would be neat, King’s College Cambridge’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols having started in 1918, if the main characters could go to the 1919 one. So I did a bit of research. All the best sources, including articles on the College’s website, said the order got changed up a bit in ’19, but none of them said what the changes were. And I thought, someone’s got to know. If they don’t I can make something up, but I can ask. So I e-mailed King’s College Cambridge and the Archivist replied: she can send me a photocopy of the order of service from that year if I send in a certain form. So I did that Wednesday and now I may expect mail from the UK.

Also I’ve written a few thousand words and it’s still exciting. Taking more influence from Dorothy Sayers than I expected, which is weird. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read Murder Must Advertise while thinking about how strange it is that some normal people aren’t more messed up than they are. And I’ve been researching PTSD, because that’s the modern name for shellshock, so that’s been fun.

I might post snippets of the Two-Legged League, if any of you want snippets. I’ve also got a short story coming at some point.

Posted in Books, Non-fiction, Research, The Two-Legged League, work in progress, Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

All your rabbit-trails in one handy place

During the semester, when things are crazier than normal, I have a tendency to open cans of worms or find the openings of rabbit-holes, and have to note them for later. Sometimes I leave links to things in random e-mail drafts, replies to people or what not, and then with more e-mails incoming the drafts slip down out of sight and I forget them. Other times I throw the link in whatever document I have open at the moment, though this is rarer. Or I’ll throw a bookmark (or several) in a book and leave it on my dresser or on the floor for weeks and weeks, and by the time I get around to it, hoping the same line strikes me again, I’ll have discovered that the bookmarks I used, if they were of paper at all, have lines scrawled on them which sparked something in me before, and I’m left to try to put it together again (like this one, probably from Brit. Lit. II with Prof. McLean: fear in a handful of dust. I can see the classroom).

Today I’m sharing some of those interesting links with you. I have opening thoughts on a number of subjects for future blog posts: when we go see the house which has been offered me, expect a post of stuff from that; if I go to Nordskogen’s Twelfth Night this weekend I’ll write about it; when my search for a second job turns up any kind of humorous situation I’ll let you know what it is; and if orchestra happens to have anything fun in with all the politics and drama, I may tell you (after all there’s still David, and he’s a great deal better than nothing). But those, along with an update on the current writings (the Two-Legged League is making great strides, I am glad to inform you), will wait a bit.

The poem “Adam’s Curse” by Yeats: This, like Amy Lowell’s “Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds”, is a writer’s-life poem, and a bit more.

I’m going to try to copy and memorize De Profundis in Latin sometime before I move out, and this is a handy parallel Latin-English translation:

I may have linked to Sir Orfeo here before, but I’ll do it again. We have Tolkien’s translations of Sir Gawain, with Pearl and Orfeo, in print form, but alas I can’t lend it out to you all. If you want an introduction to the poem — which is, I want to say, early thirteenth century? — you could do worse than look up the translation here: It’s a medieval understanding of Orpheus in the Underworld, with a happy ending. And High Medieval love poetry about a faithful married couple at that!

A brief introduction to Down Syndrome in period:

The Clerk of Oxford, also known as Eleanor Parker, has a blog I’ve gestured vaguely toward before, because everything in her wide-ranging repertoire is good, but I found this especially interesting — an Anglo-Saxon poem containing a dialogue between Joseph and Mary about her miraculous pregnancy:

I haven’t found it in physical form yet, but the book Number Our Days is interesting from what the Google Books preview has to show of it:

Similarly, Rethinking G. K. Chesterton and Literary Modernism:

A collection of Dorothy L. Sayers’ essays has been digitized, having come out of copyright:

And finally, the Penslayer (Jenny Freitag) has not been very active on her blog of late, but there’s a few years of archives to go through, and for a taste of her splendid writing I can recommend this post:

Posted in Books, Fiction, History, Poetry, Research, The Two-Legged League | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Adventure on the Vienna Express

The promised Olivia and Dr Rieppel story.



This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, actual events, names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, or incidents is entirely intentional.

Adventure on the Vienna Express

  Winnie had hardly dared to believe her good luck when Dr Ora actually managed to convince all the necessary authourities to let her accompany him on a trip to Europe as his teaching assistant. And, given his reputation as the most absentminded of professors, it was almost equally surprising that they’d gotten as far as landing in Heathrow with all their luggage intact. Upon takeoff from Minneapolis, Dr Ora had proudly shown her his battered but still complete map of Europe, with each of its many folds holding a complete country in detail. Winnie admired it but was also secretly relieved.

  They spent a day on the road from London to Canterbury, and by Dr Ora’s insistence heard Evensong at the Cathedral: a glorious experience, and while Winnie soaked up every note of the music, she wished she had not left her camera in the hotel. The next day Dr Ora sadly bade farewell to “Holy Mother Canterbury” for a while, and they set off for Germany.

  The plan was to spend a few days in Frankfurt with some of Dr Ora’s friends, and go to a few concerts and such, since he had insider information about some Schubert and Bach being performed during a couple of the nights of their visit. Afterward, they would go on to Vienna to spend what remained of the month. And despite what came after, Winnie always looked back to those late nights, full of music and good food and Dr Ora glowingly happy in the presence of old friends, as the best of that summer.

  At eight twenty-one in the morning, with true German efficiency, their train did actually depart; and what was an even greater testament to a particular efficiency, in this case Winnie’s, she and Dr Ora and all their bags, baggage, and belongings, were on it.

  “From Frankfurt,” Dr Ora said as the train pulled out of the station, the morning sun shining on his white hair and turning his bald pate pink, “I believe we go to — ah. I know I have our itinerary somewhere.” He shifted in his seat so he could reach his pocket.

  “I’ve got it,” Winnie said, producing a folded piece of notebook paper. “Frankfurt to Nuremberg Central Station, to Munich, then to Vienna Central Station.”

  “Ach, Fraulein,” Dr Ora sighed. She found, to some surprise, that she was growing used to the title even when it wasn’t for purposes of introduction to some famous musician or other with whom Dr Ora hobnobbed as comfortably as with his community orchestra. “You must be invaluable to your family.”

  Winnie’s smile faded and she looked out the window, through the reflection of Dr Ora’s purple argyle vest, at the old buildings of the city as they passed. For a moment, rather than merely wishing one or another relative were there to share something, she stopped to wonder how things were going at home and whether her sister’s life had gone to more than its usual extent of chaos without her influence to keep her on track — how many meals she’d forgotten to eat, or what she’d set on fire, or accidentally allowed to die, without reminders. Because of Winnie’s schedule of late, with the differences of time zones, and long evenings always full of engagements, they hadn’t even talked on the phone.

  “There’s Offenbach,” Dr Ora said, pointing out the window to a sign with that name. “You played with us for the concert we did the Orpheus overture for, didn’t you?”

  “Yes,” Winnie smiled.

  Between conversations about the fine distinctions between Anglo-Catholicism and Roman Catholicism, with digressions on the history of the organ in Canterbury’s cathedral and other less germane things, Winnie and Dr Ora pointed out signs for other towns with interesting names. Kleinaustheim, Sailauf, and Veitshöchheim passed them by as the morning unfolded, and as they passed through Wurtsburg station they noted the sign for Rottendorf to the east. Somewhere on the other side of Munich Winnie, sated with scenery, and the conversation on conservation of architecture flagging, got out her notebook and pencils and began to draw.

  A sign for Eggenfelden made her laugh, and she turned to point it out only to find that Dr Ora’s eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward on his chest. Asleep, unconscious of any eyes upon him, the veneer of the entertainer had fallen from him and he looked now only like a weary old man, enjoying some needed rest. Winnie knew what late hours had taken up his life of late, and she could not bear to disturb him. She quirked her mouth and thought of how his wife should have been going with him on this trip, instead of being simply an absence, an empty space between them whenever he pointed to a building and said, “This is where we ate,” or heard someone’s symphony, or saw someone perform, or went to church, “the last time.” It shouldn’t have been the last time. She’d have given up a hundred opportunities like this if it meant his wife could have been with him instead.

  As time passed Winnie became conscious of a growing sensation that they were taking longer than they should have to get to Vienna. The conductor never announced a station intelligibly, always sounding as if he were speaking through a hand clapped over his mouth, so that the most anyone could hope to catch from him was “station” or at most “central station” in the larger towns. And she hadn’t seen any signs lately. They’d passed into and out of cities, going from old brick or stone buildings back into wilderness so often that the sight of storied homes had almost failed to move her.

  And then, as the sun took on an unmistakeably evening slant, they left Nickelsdorf behind, and the next sign Winnie saw was for Hegyeshalom. Her heart sank as she realized it was in no way a German name. She waited a little while, and to her dismay, as the next sign rushed toward them out of gathering clouds, saw a long sprawling title with the element “magyar”. Magyar. Her mind went back to a favourite book of her youth, where she’d learned the word, and the fact that a czardas was more than just a piece for solo violin.

  Hesitantly, but her growing panic overriding all else, she put her hand on Dr Ora’s shoulder and gently shook him. “Dr Ora,” she said. “Dr Ora,” again, as his eyes opened and he looked blearily over his glasses.

  “What is it?” he asked, looking around.

  “So sorry to wake you, but I think we’re in Hungary.”

  He sighed, but returned cheerfully, “Are you sure?”

  “Well, there’s a sign I can’t read we just passed, but I’m pretty sure it’s not German.”

  Dr Ora sat up at last and looked out the window, but nothing in the scenery conveyed a difference in nations. “Well, we’ll just have to get off at the next station and see what we can find. Wie viel Uhr?”

   Winnie checked her phone. “Quarter after six.” Her stomach growled. “We’re going to need something to eat soon.”

  “Oh, I’m sure we’ll find something,” Dr Ora said airily, bending down and opening his briefcase. Winnie raised her eyebrows, but he didn’t notice.

  The conductor chose this moment to announce something ending in “-ation”.

  “We might as well get off here,” Dr Ora decided, closing up his briefcase and absently patting his pockets, and when the train stopped they joined the flow of passengers getting off.

  “Do you know any Hungarian?” Dr Ora asked brightly, when they stood on the platform in the midst of a migrating crowd.

  “No,” Winnie said. “Even Dad doesn’t. He said Hungarian was practically impossible to pick up.”

  “I’ve heard Hungarians will learn German, though Germans — where’s it gone?” Dr Ora patted his pockets all over, his face growing red behind his glasses.

  “Where’s what gone?”

  “My map. I know I had it — oh, where? I can’t remember the last time I needed it.” Dr Ora took off his hat and looked inside it. “No, I know for sure I saw it on the counter in London. Did I leave it there?”

  A thorough search of briefcase, suitcases, and all pockets revealed that whether it was on a counter in London or no, Dr Ora had certainly left his map behind somewhere. On the bright side, their search brought to light a bar of chocolate Dr Ora had bought in Germany and forgotten about. To make matters worse, as they left the shelter of the station, they found it had begun to rain.

  Winnie had kept a sleepless eye on their luggage ever since the Minneapolis airport, such a long time ago now, and so far her efforts were rewarded: they may have gotten off their train at the wrong station, not to mention the wrong country, but at least they had all their clothes and other essential belongings still. Despite his best efforts to the contrary, Dr Ora still had even his umbrella.

  “Did I ever tell you about the time I got lost in Edinburgh?” Dr Ora said pleasantly, as he opened his umbrella over them. “I think we’ll turn to the right here.” He paused to look for traffic and stepped out. “I was sort of sightseeing by myself, she wasn’t on that trip — it was when I was still young and had all my wits about me — and anyway I took a wrong turn as I was heading away from the castle.”

  Winnie privately doubted Dr Ora had ever had all his wits about him, but since she couldn’t very well blame him for his part in their plight without blaming herself, she resisted the temptation.

  “Edinburgh is a very old city and very full of ghosts, you know, all over the place, there’s stories in every old house and library. Russell Kirk, I’m sure your dad reads him — he’s a Conservative from the last century?”

  “The name sounds familiar.” (She had no idea who he was.)

  “He wrote a few ghost stories set in Edinburgh, because he spent some time there himself. Well, anyway, I took a street I thought looked familiar, and when I got to the end of it there was a plaque saying so-and-so was murdered here in seventeen-something, so I turned around and walked back —”

  Winnie was biting back a plea to stop, which wanted to come out as a scream, when an interruption offered itself. “Ah!” said Dr Ora, looking at a dripping street sign. “Eszperanto. That looks uncommonly like Hope. Let’s take this street. It’s bound to lead somewhere good, isn’t it?” he said, glancing back at his downcast student. “Got to keep hope up, right?”

  Winnie managed a small smile. “It’s as good a direction as any.”

  “I am so sorry for getting you into this pickle, as the Brits say,” Dr Ora said as they turned to the left, and Winnie had not the heart to reproach him.

  “What about that chocolate?” she said instead.

  “Oh, yes, where’d I put it now?” Dr Ora said, and Winnie raised her eyebrows. But he found it at once and handed it to her, and she opened the package and broke off a square for each of them.

  “A terribly healthy supper, isn’t it?” Dr Ora remarked, looking at the piece dwarfed in his hand. “I suppose I won’t get any fatter.”

 They had another stroke of luck, for after about a mile their road crossed one with a familiar name. “Bartok Bela!” Dr Ora exclaimed. “Let’s see where this one goes.”

  Near the corner stood a white building with red arches around the windows and the door, and in one of the windows hung a violin. Like a couple of tourists they hurried across the street and looked in at the instruments and the packages of strings hanging on the far wall, all of which proclaimed it, in a universal tongue, a music store.

  They went in, but the store owner spoke neither German nor English, and the signs they had in common did not extend to conversations about food, so they soon left.

  As they dragged their luggage down what began to look more and more like an important part of town, they passed several places at various stages of being closed up for the night. One, however, on the other side of the dark and silent Museum, was full of light and bustle. They looked through the windows and saw that it was a restaurant.

  Winnie put her hand on the iron railing and looked at Dr Ora, trying to gauge whether he was likely to have the right amount of money about him and whether the exchange rate would be enough to let them buy food, and whether they would be able to understand enough of the menu to order something edible.

  “Well, Fraulein Weiss,” Dr Ora said, “shall we adventure this place? What do you know about Hungarian food?”

  For once Winnie decided her complete ignorance was unimportant. “It’s food. Let’s go in.”

  Dr Ora held the door for her, and they found a corner near enough that they didn’t have to haul their things over too many feet.

  The menu was completely unintelligible, but the waiter spoke some German, and when he left them the travellers consulted together.

  “Let’s order the least expensive things, just in case,” Winnie said, “so our money’s more likely to cover it.”

 “I’ll ask him when he comes back,” Dr Ora said, shaking his finger at Winnie, “remind me, whether they accept euro. The thing is, with these Romantic composers, so full of passion and exuberance, you might almost say exaggeration, in every emotion, is that their occasional bad works are that much more grating, because it’s not just a failure to understand the form they’re using properly — as it might be if, oh I don’t know, if Bach had ever written anything bad, which of course he never did,” and Winnie couldn’t help laughing, and agreed, “but Dvorak now, that American symphony! Dvorak is better than that. My son, now, loves that one, but I’ve had to say I don’t want to ever conduct it. We’ve had a few debates. . .”

  A man at the next table over, who had been seated with his back to them, put down his fork and pushed his chair back, turning to face Dr Ora. “You are a conductor?” he said in unmistakeable German.

  “I am,” Dr Ora beamed. “Only a local orchestra, but it’s good, quite good.”

  “Local to where?”

  “Ah, Minnesota.”

  Winnie did her best not to choke.

  Then he had to explain how they came to be in Hungary at all, and it turned out that they had a mutual acquaintance in a certain famous musician, and then that the stranger was himself a musician of no little note.

   The waiter returned to take their orders while Dr Ora was busy talking, so Winnie indicated the inexpensive meals they’d picked out. “Oh, he said to remind him — about paying — wait a sec,” she finished in English, and turned to Dr Ora and tapped his arm.

  “Ja?” Dr Ora said in the midst of a monologue having to do with Schubert. “Oh, money, right? Do you take euro here?”

  The waiter declined.

  Winnie’s heart sank into her empty stomach. She envisioned them getting thrown out onto the streets and having to spend the night outside with only their chocolate for sustenance, and what if this part of town wasn’t as nice after hours at it seemed now, and (in the unlikely event that anyone took Dr Ora for an American tourist) they were set upon by thieves?

  “Horrible conversion rate,” their new acquaintance explained. “It’s not worth their time. You’re much better off carrying Florint with you.” Winnie reasoned that their money would be safe then, but what about their other valuables? And it would be cold and wet, but they were in summer clothes.

  “Ah, well, I haven’t any at the moment,” Dr Ora sighed. “Never mind. I’ll — I’m sure —”

  “Don’t worry about it. I’ve got an apartment about a mile from here. Would you care — that is, if I offered you — since I’m sure if you’ve only got euro you’ll have trouble finding a hotel — a place for the night? You and the — are you his granddaughter?”

  Winnie really did choke this time.

  “No,” Dr Ora corrected, “this is Fraulein Weiss. She’s also in my orchestra, she’s part of what makes it better than the other regional ones. We should be delighted to accept your invitation! That is, if it’s not too great an inconvenience putting us up at such short notice.”

  “Not at all.”

  Winnie began to recalculate things and gave up.

  “We have to be to Vienna by tomorrow afternoon,” Dr Ora said, “as we’ve got engagements with people, so we won’t presume too long on your hospitality. See, Fraulein, you needn’t have worried. My luck always holds.”

  Not only that, but their new host paid for their food. As Winnie satisfied her hunger, she listened to Dr Ora and his new friend as they tried to find out how many other people they both knew. Now he was not so obviously trying to cheer her up, his mood could only have been described as unforcedly buoyant, as he swapped anecdotes about composers and musicians living and dead, inquired about other names, and occasionally rhapsodized about particularly moving pieces he’d had the honour to perform.

  Later, at the apartment, their conversation continued long into the night. The two men sat at their host’s tiny kitchen table and discussed all sorts of matters, musical and otherwise, over nuts and a bottle of wine. There Winnie did not join them, for tired as she was she borrowed a map and sat for a while in the corner figuring out the route for the next day and whether they would be able to buy tickets from Győr to Vienna Central Station with Dr Ora’s remaining euro.

Posted in Fiction, Short story | 2 Comments

Writing something fun

Once again I have returned to the haunts of men, this time from a visit to (among other things) the haunts of worse-than-Chicago crime. (Shootings in Chicago were down last year, to a mere 2,740 — if there were that many in my local towns there’d be about 20 people left. But I digress.)

I have noticed things lately and thought, if there’s anybody still around to comment, perhaps I might start a conversation. During the last term most of my writing was unpleasant, either because it was work in Levi’s story, which at times was the only thing I wanted to do (besides sleep), or because it was assignments with deadlines and I didn’t want to do them anyway (see above). Then, midway through the term, I went to the Stellar University of Northshield, and did some nonfiction which was fun. That surprised me, as not until then had I realized how burdensome writing was getting.

At times you do have to write hard and grueling stuff, but during such times it is good to take a break from it and write something which doesn’t have to be meaningful or anything more than fun, just to remind yourself that writing isn’t always such hard work and to stave off burnout. Also, to remind yourself that other things are worth writing about. You don’t have to write gritty stuff if you want to be worth reading.

The Olivia-and-Dr-Rieppel story (which got a rejection from the place I submitted it to, so I will post it here soon!) came out of last semester as well as 28,000 words of “What happens when a Christian commits suicide?” I started thinking about reviving some version of the Lily-and-her-boys stories, which are all cosy. Just Outlaws, which had previously been my for-fun story, now had too much darkness and serious stakes to fill that place. Sometimes you do need a break from facing the dark side of reality, and as I seem to recall someone having said, “No one ever injured their sight by looking on the bright side”.

Bad things are worth writing about, but so are the good things. Neither invalidates the other. We need both, we need stories about both, even (especially?) stories with both mixed.

Posted in Fiction, Non-fiction, Writing | 2 Comments

I wonder as I wander

(out under the sky)

Merry Christmas!

This Christmastime (consider we-ell, and bear in mind) has been strangely hectic, at least inside my head, and it’s been hard to settle down and choose a project to work on. As one not requiring too much concentration, I’ve begun sorting out my bookmarks and trying to cull them, because I have a lot more than I thought, but that’s not too exciting, and work at Carl’s is far from intellectually stimulating, and now I have time. I should use it while I have it.

So I made some goals for myself by the time I move out (probably in spring), and one of them is to take something whose first draft is finished and bring it a step closer to being ready to publish. Another is to take an incomplete first draft and finish it. (This is apart from work on Levi’s story, which I expect to continue indefinitely.) I’ve got four months — that should be enough, right?

I pulled my printed copy of Wind Age off my shelf yesterday and re-read it, which was unpleasant because the story has so many problems as written. But the paper is pleasant in the hands. But whatever in it made me want to write it two or three years ago wasn’t visible this time, so I don’t think I’ll revise it next.

I still get tired just thinking of how likely it is that I’ll have to scrap large parts of the latest draft of Of the North, and the shine has kind of gone off the idea even after several months away from it and working on very different things, so it’s not that one either.

For one of my fiction workshop assignments I turned in The Colour of Life, even though I hadn’t written it for that class, because Dr Wilson said it would be all right, and I wanted her thoughts on it anyway. She liked a lot of things about it and marked it up and I’m excited to revise it, so I think that might be my project for the first goal I mentioned.

And I’ve had so many ideas for where I want to take The Two-Legged League that it might be the first draft I try to finish. That means a lot of new research, though. But it’s a document I get excited to open, which is a new feeling these days, and probably a good thing.

As an honourable mention, though it’s far from my top priority, the various versions of Lily’s story have begun to raise their heads and peep from time to time (perhaps partly because in any style it’s a wintery story), and I’m considering the possibility of returning to it. Olivia’s good at illustrating it, too.

Posted in Lily's stories, Of the North, The Colour of Life, The Two-Legged League, Wind Age, work in progress, Writing | Tagged | Leave a comment

From the Leaf-Mould

Artist’s statement from the senior capstone class. It had to answer several very specific questions, and I asked the professor I named if he was fine with me doing so, and he was.

I’d been writing for about seven years when I entered SMSU, almost entirely self-taught, and having learned about “show, don’t tell” only the year before. I had already noticed I tended to write stories (fictional, fictionalized non-fiction, and plain non-fiction), and had very recently gotten interested in historical fiction.

For at least my first year and a half at SMSU I had no Creative Writing classes, and most of my how-to-write learning, as in resources designed to teach writing (and not just ideas gained — often quite unconsciously — from reading good books), came from online communities for writers. I also learned a fair bit through trial and error and the beta-reading process independent of school. A beta-reader and not a writing class first awoke me to the necessity of reading historical sources critically.

I had read for fun at home a lot of the stories and poems for the various literature classes I had, but usually for the pleasure of their literal meanings or wordplay. Thanks especially to Dr McLean I learned a great deal more about the works themselves, and how time and place are important to all kinds of writings, which necessarily come out of some kind of context, whether to approve or rebel against them. History and literature are inseparable.

Within the last three years I’ve fallen in love with historical research, mainly due to the influence of the medieval living-history group I’m in, and the number of manuscripts being digitized has made it easy to find at least pictures of primary sources. But getting better at documenting things, so important to so many of my stories, hasn’t been due to my classes, which were they at never so high a level did not go into the essential characteristics of genre.

Over the last few years I have gravitated more to historical fiction, although the general categories I noted in my first paragraph have mainly held true. I’ve learned a bit about the size of an idea required to sustain a novel, and which works better as a novella — at least in theory, because the small ideas always seem to end up putting out tentacles and taking over far more space than I allotted to them. I also can’t say I have a main genre, because for every historical fiction project I have, I pick up a non-fiction one, or one in another genre of fiction. I can’t even say I have a particular time period, because although I love the European Middle Ages best (and that’s only a thousand years and a bit more than a continent to play in), I’ve got projects as early as Late Imperial Rome and as late as the 1920’s. I have found my voice and the style in which I like best to write, and my readers seem to think it’s distinctive and something recognizable carries over from one work to another.

When I critique others’ work, I’m getting better at putting my finger on things that seem “off”, and now I have names for things so I can say “pacing’s too fast” instead of “it felt rushed” which might mean either too much telling or the story progressing too quickly. When I critique my own I mainly come up against crippling-self doubt, but that seems to be normal. When I get other people’s criticism I’m finding a middle ground between disregarding it and rewriting the whole thing. How well I revise things varies depending on the project. I’ve got one novel I’ve overhauled twice and am afraid will need a third rewrite; others co-operate and look polished by the second draft. It’s never the same thing twice. To say my proofreading skills haven’t improved much would be misleading, as I’ve long been good at sentences and grammar and those parts of style, and my work tends not to need a lot of proofreading or line editing.

Another way my experience in the program has helped me find names for things is due mainly to one writing workshop. From my brief exposure to modern literature (only the very best and brightest made its way into our workshops as models, I’m sure) I learned just how much I have against “realistic, gritty” stuff and why. I don’t object only to the idea (prevalent in that workshop) that using vocabulary above your reader’s level of comprehension is a bad thing, the reason given being that most readers aren’t interested in that kind of challenge, and if you try to write books which stretch a reader’s comfort zone, you won’t be popular, though it is certainly problematic for many reasons.

The far worse idea, which was impressed on all of us in that class even more frequently, was the insistence on “realistic, gritty” modern writing being the proper way to do things, with crime noir the most common example used. We were told writing in an old style, using words like ‘awry’ and ‘vixen’, writing about old subjects like courtly love or witches’ curses or (worst of all, apparently) heroes, these things are out of date. If you write these things because you like something about some previous era, then you’re writing escapism — as if escapism is all that goes on in such a story, or as if escapism is bad in a world which, if it is truly as the gritty realistic school portrays it, needs occasional escapes to be tolerable. Or why should you try to bring archaic words or themes like chivalry to a modern audience? You make your readers work to understand your writing — again, as if that’s a bad thing.

I objected, since my background was in Tolkien and Lewis and Andrew Lang’s Coloured Fairy Books and a thousand stories which used rare words for all the right reasons, and which have lasted through time despite not being written to the lowest common denominator or being “out of date”. Yet when I first heard the idea in workshop I did not have the words to refute it. After a few months of hearing it I did, and my great and lasting annoyance with those trends in modern writing has helped me clarify and better defend old writing styles, for which I am thankful.

Such trends are actually unrealistic, and in a way which focuses on evil more than it needs to and provides neither any hope nor reasons to fight the evil. Such stories have the power to make us unsatisfied with the world, but they fail to point us toward anything which should satisfy us. If someone asks you about life “why bother?” what do you say? And does your writing reflect that, or expose you as an hypocrite? I have no doubt that if I asked Professor Anthony Neil Smith why life was worth living or why I should not kill myself, he would offer a suitable answer. And yet he writes in a genre which can only be described as offering a depressing view of the world. Perhaps he does it only for the money and his own heart is not involved, but can a writer remain intellectually honest under such circumstances?

A world, lived or written, which has no room for eucatastrophe, is not worth spending time in. Eucatastrophe bleeds through the greatest stories. It is not enough merely to make us discontent with the current state of the world, though that is the first step to changing it; we must have some hope that the darkness will not last. To show us a place bare of vegetation, with smog choking our characters’ lungs and no potable water, on a dangerous journey to a doubtful end, almost out of food, with pursuit in the air and on the land behind, but in their weariness forced to stop and rest a little in the oppressive darkness of night in that land, is only a false picture if you stop there — if you do not also show us the clouds parting overhead and a single white star shining untarnished. It shines all the brighter for the dark; but for all that the writers of starkest realism say, it does shine.

I do not know why Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” was never assigned for any college class I’ve ever had, but it is a grave oversight for it to be left out of the Creative Writing program. I understand that not all the faculty agree with his arguments, but to avoid them completely as not worth our time is perhaps my second greatest grievance, and very closely bound up with the foregoing, as should be easy to see. He writes about the necessity of eucatastrophe in a good story far better than I ever could. Or might we not at least have read Mythopoeia? It seems to me that as he had so much influence on so many of the stories which came after him, that whether we agree or disagree with him we cannot afford to ignore his ideas.

I have always had the advantage a large household library brings, and I’ve read widely and re-read almost everything, usually more than once. But I have a hard time separating the books which have influenced my character from the books which have influenced my writing. Those who’ve read my work occasionally liken it to British literature, and a couple of my friends who are familiar with Chesterton have paid me the high honour of saying my style reminds them of him (which I have a hard time seeing, unless it’s the intermittent Old-English-inspired alliteration).

In short, I write noblebright fiction, a new term for a writers’ rebellion against grimdark, that modern, gritty, “we’ll have no heroes here” fiction. That I am pro-life not only means I am against abortion, but that I am for humanizing disabled people, helping suicidal people find reasons to stay alive, and against old people being neglected or euthanized. To be pro-life means to recognize life as a fundamentally good thing. One cannot truly be pro-life and write stories that look at the world with dark glasses, focusing on the worst parts, and conclude that there are no heroes and no saviours, unsure of morals; we see in a glass darkly but that’s no reason to make the glass darker than we must.

My three latest novel ideas, “The Vestal Virgin story” (“When Vesta’s sacred flame was put out, where did her last priestesses go?”), The Two-Legged League (“In 1920’s Britain, four traumatized friends try to spread a Chestertonian joie de vivre”), and So That Others May Live (“What happens to a church when a Christian commits suicide?”, nonfiction) have all come out of the blue, and in the case of the last have hit me upside the head so hard that I daren’t speak to my future plans. As far as I can control anything, I will keep writing and try to publish, but I don’t know which of my books will be the first to publication or how long it will be, or even whether I’m going to grad school, or what I will do to pay the bills.

  Naturally I have strong opinions on the subject of why literature matters, and if I had the space I could go on in saecula saeculorum. To help keep it short I shall quote a respected authour who wrote in this instance particularly about fairy-tales, but whose idea may justly be expanded to include all stories (and just as fairy-tales are good for grown-ups as well as children, so are all good stories). Chesterton wrote defending fairy-tales, “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear” (The Red Angel).

  We can’t help telling ourselves stories; the only question is what stories we shall tell. As sub-creators, even if we do not acknowledge it, as makers made in the image and by the power of the Word, we must. Whether to preserve or make our histories, to remind us where we come from or guess where we are going, to escape from the world burning up around us and return refreshed and ready to spring again into the fray, or to hold up heroes and inspire people to “do after the good and leave the evil” like them, or for still other reasons, we need stories, and nothing else quite fills their place. The stories we read shape, challenge, and reinforce what we believe, and (unsurprisingly, as they’re made of words) carry tremendous power.

Posted in Books, Writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments