Time to Breathe, part III

(Continued from the previous two days’ posts)

Then Dr Rieppel strode in with his coat-tails flying and a beaming face, and the people, seeing him for whom they looked, began to clap with right good will. Kayla and I slipped into the very back pew on the left side and settled down. Now everything that could possibly have been in my hands was out of them, if anything went wrong other people would be able to take care of it — I could sit and listen to the music, with one ear open for inside jokes, and rest. For the first time all day I wasn’t counting minutes till I had to be somewhere, or trying to hurry up and finish an assignment before the next time I had to drop it. I could breathe again. It was dark where we sat, but lit up under the dome, where the orchestra was.

Dr Rieppel reached the stand, picked up his baton, and gave the downbeat. The Farandole began.

The President of the university, whom I never seem to be in the same room with unless something embarrassing happens, came down the aisle next to us, looked down, saw me, and whispered “Hi”. I gave the deep nod so common among SCAdians. A few other people came in late, some of whom knelt before going into a pew, or crossed themselves at the doors, reminding us that this might be a concert hall for the night, but first it’s a church.

When the Farandole was finished Dr Rieppel turned and thanked the audience and announced the next piece, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Greensleeves. Olivia found out afterward that Pastor live-streamed that one on Fakebook. The wind quintet followed with arrangements of Christmas carols.

The Toy Symphony may or may not have been written by Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang Mozart, or Haydn. Nobody knows, and the attribution is extremely inconsistent. So when, on a sort of whim, Dr Rieppel decided to add it to the concert, and sent LauraLee and me to look for it, it was a sort of wild-goose chase. First, the orchestra library is small, crowded, and disorganized; secondly, we didn’t know whether to look for it under H or M; and thirdly, the way things are in that closet, it might very well be in with the P’s or the D’s or something else completely unrelated. And once we found it and made the necessary copies and got parts out to people, we had trouble with the percussion. We had one girl doing all the birds, quail, nightingale, and cuckoo, until we found out that one part calls for all three at once. So she had to get helpers for just that bit, and it was a bit of a mess generally.

Tonight things were going pretty well, until during the pause at the end of the second movement, everyone started clapping. It wasn’t even scattered our-neighbour-is-clapping-and-we-all-pretend-we-don’t-know-him clapping, it was everyone doing it. The audience clapping between movements is a musician’s nightmare. In the back, I was simply shocked and annoyed and hoped whoever started it wouldn’t get a wink of sleep that night and other such kind wishes. Olivia said afterward that Dr Rieppel actually laid down his baton at the end of that movement as if he meant for them to clap. Either way, whether it was planned or only a good way of saving the situation, he turned around and said, “But wait, there’s more!” and then turned back and gave the signal for the finale.

The program (Kayla had one) said “SMO Student Quartet Selections” by “J. S. Bach, et. [sic] al.” were next, but I had it on good authourity that neither group was a quartet.

“Oh, is this Joel’s trio?” Kayla said. We had the following conversation while the members of the trio and duet were coming forward and making room and getting settled: Olivia and Anni moved at the same time, though their piece was afterward, to make things smoother.

“Yes,” I said.

“He’s been talking about it a lot,” she said. “I work with him at Music Street.”

“Oh!” I said.

“You know him too?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You look awfully eager for something.”

“I think there’s an inside joke from a rehearsal about to come up,” I said.

Kayla watched them arranging things and laughed. “Joel cracks me up, you know. He doesn’t blast rap in his car, he doesn’t blast rock or pop or country — no, he blasts Vivaldi. And the other night I was coming into the library late, eight o’clock, and I heard classical music on the lower floor, and I just leaned down and said ‘Joel!’ and sure enough he was there.”

“Oh yes,” I said, “and we say at school that if it sounds like someone’s playing a piano and coming down the hall toward you, you know Joel’s coming.”

Dr Rieppel got a microphone and said, “That Farandole was the perfect piece to start off tonight’s concert with, and although I always heard it at Christmas concerts I never knew why, but it’s because it’s a piece about the Three Kings.” He’s often mentioned during rehearsals what a good piece it is, usually followed by, “I’m so glad I had the idea to do it,” which, since it was actually Joel’s idea, always made the boy fume, and entertained the rest of us. “It was a perfect choice to open the night with,” Dr Rieppel was now saying, “and I’m going to hand off the mic to the guy whose idea it was.” Joel, upon finding the microphone thrust in his face, said, “I’m Joel, and this is JP and David, and we’re playing a trio by Corelli in C Major.”

“Isn’t Olivia in your quartet too?” Dr Rieppel said, as Olivia and Anni were sort of on the outskirts of the group, waiting.

“No, they’re doing a duet,” someone said.

“Oh,” said Dr Rieppel, forcing the microphone on Olivia, despite her protests. “And what are you playing?”

Olivia was far too quiet to be heard, at least in the back where we were, but I happen to know that it was a Bach piece originally for piano, arranged for violin and cello.

“So in other words, you’re stealing my repertoire,” Dr Rieppel said, and Olivia laughed and said “Yes.”

“Got to watch out for those little whippersnappers,” Dr Rieppel now said to us. “They’re coming up so fast. I love them all so much, and they’re all seniors, and they’ll be going away and I want to change their high-school records so they have to stay around another three years.”

He got out of the way, and the boys began. The Corelli fit the space we were in, much more stately and less tinselly than what came before. I shifted to my right a little to better see JP, who was on the left. The lights didn’t extend very far beyond where they were sitting, in a sort of oval directly under the crucifix in the center of the room. The Christ’s head was bent as if he too were listening — listening to the lovely music of two Catholics and a very un-Lutheran Lutheran (who’s a Communist before Lutheran, at that). So close, so far away.

At one point the cello came across a bit more strongly than I suspected it was supposed to. When David is too loud in ordinary life, Joel says “Be quiet, peasant!” but just now they were all three working together, in (dare I say it) harmony, one of the only times Joel and David get along.

Olivia and Anni’s Bach came next, and while the boys were making way for them, when Anni had sat down but Olivia remained standing, I whispered to Kayla, “That’s my sister.”

“How old is she?” Kayla asked, and after a brief scramble through my mind I said, “Sixteen.”

They started off and presently Kayla whispered back, “She’s good!”

I’d heard them practice better than they performed, but it wasn’t a bad job, and especially considering all they’d both been through to get to this point today, it was good. (Bacco had given her back her own bow just in time for the concert.) Also it was Johann Sebastian Bach, which is hard to beat, and it was another of the pieces that fit the space so well.

When they’d done, and Anni stood up and they grinned at each other and bowed, Kayla added, “My first instrument was a violin, and I sold it and got my guitar. I’m not sorry I got the guitar, but now I’m kind of wishing I’d kept the violin. Does she play anything else?”

“Oh, anything she touches,” I said, as usual. “Piano, mandolin, guitar, harp, recorder, viola da gamba. . .”

“We should jam sometime,” she said thoughtfully.

Dr Rieppel came back to his stand and after a brief scramble to rearrange things, Sleigh Ride began. Every year the orchestra plays Sleigh Ride because the audience likes it so much. The joke goes that “Kurt insists” although Kurt, a second violinist who’s been with the orchestra for forty years, hates it. And with good reason. One rehearsal Dr Rieppel said “Let’s go back to the development section” and several people said “There is no development section!” which is a perfectly reasonable criticism.

Every year, also, a “guest conductor” has the dubious honour of taking Dr Rieppel’s place. So at every rehearsal we — or rather they — make sure to practice it because they’re never actually paying any attention to the guest conductor. Last year it was the retiring Dean; this year Dr Rieppel announced the most honourable Mayor would be joining him. He handed over his baton and said, “Now you must be very careful because the orchestra will be following everything you do. It’s a wonderful feeling of power.” Having thus terrified the Mayor, who didn’t know that we’d been told every week “We’ve got to get this down so you can play without a conductor, because there’s no guarantee whoever we get will ever have conducted before”, Dr Rieppel stepped down and picked up the “whip” — two two-by-fours put together at one end.

From having listened to the piece over and over again in rehearsal, I could tell by the changes in the music when the first whip-crack was coming. The Mayor, however, did not. Dr Rieppel raised the whip and cracked it in his face.

The Most Honourable Mayor jumped back, visibly startled even from our seat so far in the back. Olivia had a good view of his face and said his reactions were pretty funny. The second time Dr Rieppel raised the whip before cracking it, he flinched before its sides even met. The third time he put up his left hand to shield himself. The last time he didn’t know it was coming because the music didn’t change the way it had been, though those of us who’d been at rehearsals knew it was coming because the ending so often had to be re-done. So Dr Rieppel very slowly turned back toward him (he’d been doing a fair bit of conducting-without-conducting throughout), and all at once raised the whip and cracked it once more right in his face. The Mayor jumped back with a great start. The strings went bumm bum! and stopped. People liked that one, as usual, and laughed and clapped a great deal.

The quartet played next, a piece which I found out the next day was Beethoven — I don’t know why I didn’t just look at the program, since Kayla had it right there, but oh well. She, by the way, was planning to go up during the Messiah pieces, which came right before Sarajevo, so as to tune up her electric guitar under cover of something else.  I didn’t know it was Beethoven, but I liked it all right, and they seemed to be enjoying it in spite of the day they’d had. Actually I think even the audience, if they’d known what we’d all been through to get to that point, would have seen why the orchestra put so much emotion into a lot of the pieces.

“I love when musicians really get into their thing,” Kayla said when they finished and bowed.

Then Dr Rieppel told the audience how nearly the quartet didn’t make it, and how they were flown in at almost the last minute thanks to friends in the community and Schwans, and announced the chorale would be doing a piece on their own. “I’m excited to work with them again, I haven’t in about a decade — it took them that long to have enough of me — I have a lot more white hair now than I did then. Not,” he told us, “that the Chorale is responsible for that. That would be my colleagues in the Music department.”

The chorale, who’d been sitting in the front rows, came and stood in the cleared spot between and behind the second violins and the violas. The program said “O Magnum Mysterium, Morten Lauridsen” which I had a vague memory of having heard before. And then — they started. Some music is just right for that space, like the Corelli. This, for some reason, I could see while I heard it, the way steam curls up from a teapot or something else on the stove until it reaches the ceiling, and then spreads out sideways to fill the rest of the room. This was white and misty and went up to the golden height of the dome and out into the alcoves and rolled up the nave toward us, far-away and shivery and at the same time familiar.

“I love this one,” Kayla sighed about a minute into it — an odd speech for one whose chief instrument is the electric guitar, but also understandable under the circumstances.

So you will know why, when I felt a sneeze building inexorably inside my head, and remembered that in all the haste I hadn’t gotten my allergy medicine at supper, I knew it would be a disaster. To sneeze, in such a space, during such a song — as I said later, “Inconceivable!” Somehow it came out silently. Someone else’s phone went off, but that wasn’t my problem, though it would go on and on and somehow was never silenced until it simply stopped.

Well, the next piece was in the program, as Dr Rieppel said, “Because what’s Christmas without Handel?” and this was one I’d been waiting to hear in Holy Redeemer ever since the first rehearsal. Kayla slipped out during the applause for the chorale and went up to the front to tune up, and I, on a whim, hurried up the stairs to the balcony. I’d never been up there before, and it might not be the kind where I’d get sick from the height (as in a Lutheran church we were at for a funeral once, and the Colosseum in the Cities).

Also I hadn’t seen Cole come in, though it didn’t mean he hadn’t come, because at times I’d been so busy giving programs to the people who came in through my side that I wouldn’t have noticed if he came in by the other. Down where I was sitting it was dark and would also be hard for one short person to spy another. But I’m pretty good at recognizing the top of his head, thanks to seeing him through the hole in the floor at school.

The stairs were narrow in both width and depth, and went rather spirally at the top. I came through the opening and unexpectedly almost ran into Isaiah from behind. Levi was sitting on the railing, which is wide, but he has a habit of falling asleep at random moments, so I wouldn’t have recommended that seat for him. If he fell, he’d fall onto plain wooden benches with no padding whatsoever; that, or a solid uncarpeted floor. I went forward to a place where the railing curved back, and it was just at the right height for me to lean my arms on it. I gathered my breath and then deliberately looked down.

It wasn’t bad; there was a ledge about two feet below that was wide enough for me to stand on, if by some chance I found myself on the wrong edge of the railing. I saw my coat in the pew a little to the left, directly under Levi, and hoped he didn’t fall when Kayla and I were sitting there again, being at the same time glad so far that hadn’t happened.

“We are playing the Overture and ‘For Unto Us’, the latter in collaboration with the Chorale, which we are so glad is here with us tonight,” Dr Rieppel said, “and after that we’ll finish with the rousing Carol Sing-Along.”

The Sarajevo comes between them. He’s forgotten the Sarajevo.

At one rehearsal they went from Handel to the Sarajevo, and a certain nameless second violinist who shall not be named, but who is called Joel, played the first note of the Sarajevo in the Handel’s key at the same time Olivia played the correct one. The effect was nightmarish enough that even I could tell something was wrong, and Dr Rieppel exclaimed “We are not doing the Halloween version, Joel!” and then shook his score with an adjuration to any resident demons to get out. It would be the Halloween version of the Carol Sing-Along, if Dr Rieppel went to it and everybody else, or mostly everybody, went into the beginning of the Sarajevo. And if they all played along with him, the Sarajevo would be left out entirely and Kayla would be sitting up there doing nothing.

But for the present, as I came back to listening to the music, Handel was another of those pieces that fit the place just right, and if the first violins made a bit of a mistake with their entrance in the second movement, the seconds made allowance for them and those who weren’t at rehearsals (which was, to be fair, the vast majority of the audience) wouldn’t have noticed. And at the part where Dr Rieppel always says “Shh. . . now grow and grow and GROW!!”, though he didn’t actually say that this time, of course, I heard him out of habit. (His voice did not come from upstairs, in this case, because I was upstairs, but it was an extremely strong memory, at least, and the cello part at that place sounds a lot like his voice when he says it.)

I didn’t see Cole anywhere in the audience, which was perplexing, and a bit worrying, as I remembered Olivia’s frustrated comment as I was changing and we had no supper and it was late and everything was going wrong, “If he forgets I want his head on a platter!” But I had a pretty good view of the orchestra now that I was up above the audience, and Olivia seemed to be enjoying it. I could only assume, at that point, as she’d had no chance to tell me yet, that she had her bow back.

“For Unto Us” was fun to listen to, as always. When it finished we came to a moment of truth, in plot terms: was Dr Rieppel going to remember? When the applause died down, would the first notes we heard be the subtle opening of Sarajevo, or the cascading cymbals and trumpets of the Sing-Along?

He turned to the audience and said, “My cellist just now reminded me that Christmas Eve, also known as Sarajevo, actually comes next on the program, which is fortunate, as otherwise I would have given the entirely wrong downbeat.” (Yes it is, and yes you would have, and we’d have all died. . . probably.) “This piece is dedicated to Kurt Wagner, who has been with the orchestra for forty years, and Gretchen, who has been — as long? Kurt says forty-eight. Oh, so then you really have been with us since our first season. You’ve really been the longest-standing members of the orchestra — see, this is proof that we can get and retain members even when I’m in charge — has anyone else been here a really long time too? Diane, how about you?”

“Seventy-seven,” said she, a violist.

“Seventy-seven years — that’s — oh, since seventy-seven. Well, that’s a long time too.”

Sarajevo went off without a hitch that I could tell. Whether for good or ill, the electric guitar was noticeable, at least from my distance, only if you knew where to look for it.

During the applause I went back down the stairs, and, my eyes missing the first turned step, nearly hurled myself down the spiralling part of the case. But that didn’t happen in fact, and I made it back to the pew entirely unharmed, although a little out of breath.

I had thought for sure I’d hear Pastor belting out the one verse we did of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, that being one of his favourite hymns, but I couldn’t hear anyone singing louder than the others.

Afterward four of us ended up together at the back end of the center aisle. I was standing against one side, leaning against a pew with a binder Olivia had deposited in my hands before vanishing. Isaiah was across from me, with Joel on the right, explaining to him the symbolism contained in the painting on the ceiling: not only the obvious grapes, wheat, and dove, but things he’d learned from his Greek class, like the Chi Rho (though he accidentally called that a Pi Rho at first — it’s not Pisces Rex). Joel was admiring, and JP, standing on Joel’s other side, was looking pleased, probably because of a fellow home-schooler educating the public-schooled one. Then Isaiah said, “The A and the O stand for Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, like in Revelation.”

“Oh,” Joel said. “I thought maybe it was A for Anarchy.”

I took a step forward and pretended I was about to hit him over the head with the binder.

“Wha — whoa — okay, okay,” he said, putting his hands up.

“I wouldn’t really!” I said.

“I thought for a moment you were going to!”

“Anyway, anarchists couldn’t possibly design a church like this.”

During the reception, at which Olivia’s famous chocolate chip cookies vanished before half the line got to the table, Isaiah and Ariana and I joined the three boys at a round table and talked, not really about serious things. Olivia flitted in and out, too busy being a social butterfly to stay anywhere for long. Isaiah said something about a pre-calculus class, and Joel said, “I was meaning to ask, what grade are you in?”

“He’s home-schooled, we don’t have grades,” I said.

The topic turned naturally to college plans once Isaiah explained that he was doing the math class PSEO, college during high school, like I did and JP is doing now. JP said he’d applied to a school in Texas, and Isaiah said, “Dallas Baptist Theological Seminary?” David seemed to think that very amusing.

At about the same time Levi came over and said something to Isaiah, and Joel, ever the nice one, said, “I haven’t met you before, who are you?” Someone said something about him being the youngest of ten, and Joel fell sideways off his chair.

Ten?” he said, while David looked smug. “Okay, I’m an only child, I thought your guys’ seven was a lot — I don’t know about these things. Ten?”

“Well, I’m the oldest of nine,” Isaiah said.

Joel was telling Isaiah about our discussions on Tuesdays, and making me out to be more terrifying than I think I actually am, to which I replied, “All I’ve got is a safety pin!” (Olivia had taken her binder back a while before.)

“A safety pin in the hands of death!”

We ended up giving Isaiah and Ariana a ride home, and just when we’d all gotten to the car (“Please excuse the mess, we’ve been homeless and living out of this car all day”) Olivia discovered she’d left her water-bottle inside. So she went back to get it, and we waited for her. While we were sitting there talking about the beauty of the church, Isaiah said, “When Levi and I drove down here we didn’t see it at first, and we almost went to the one next door by accident, but then I saw it was Episcopal, and I told him we don’t want to go in there.”

“How did you not see this one but you saw the teeny tiny one next to it?” I asked.

“He was looking for a sign, I guess.”

“This generation looks for a sign,” I said, because Levi’s two months younger than me (and two feet taller) and I don’t let him forget it, “but no sign shall be given it — save a huge church with a tall spire lit up from underneath, with a cross on top. You would think that would be noticeable.”

Olivia came back at last with all her belongings, and with one last count of our things (water-bottle; violin case, with her bow now safely in it; backpack; her day clothes thrown on the floor; the cooler with her uneaten half-sandwich and a lot of garbage in it; my bookbag; knitting bag; two guests I must not forget to drop off at their house) we said farewell to Holy Redeemer for the time being, and turned toward home in the dark, toward rest after that long, long day.

Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, Short story | Tagged , , | 8 Comments

Time to Breathe, part II

(Continued from yesterday’s post)

At three thirty we were supposed to start moving things from FA to Holy Redeemer. Dr Rieppel had offered some of his students the opportunity to help us in lieu of having to write a research paper, so when I got to the door I found about half a dozen loading stands onto the trailer. Then Kris, whose trailer it was, arrived and said we’d have to unload all that because the biggest tympanum had to go on first. And then when that was done we had more trouble with the percussion. LauraLee (the other orchestra manager and librarian, and the one who actually knows what she’s doing) had a list of percussion things we needed, but she didn’t always know what each name referred to. Also we were pretty sure they were all put away properly in the cupboards in the band room, which were locked, and we didn’t have the key. And more and more students kept showing up — by the time they stopped coming we had about twenty, and they were all standing around with nothing to do. We didn’t know what to do with them any more than they knew what to do with themselves.

“I wish Dr G were here,” Beth said, coming through, and referencing the percussion situation, not the excessive body count.

“He’s here,” Olivia whispered to me from ten feet away (she was in the doorway hugging her violin case, having accompanied me either for moral support or from idle curiosity and a desire to watch the Music department [figuratively] go up in flames — I leave you to judge, but she’d brought her instrument with her, so she was prepared to fiddle in the latter case). “I saw him in his office this morning.” Naturally, Beth did not hear her.

“Olivia says he’s here,” I said, and Beth went out to look for him. He came back with her, and he at least had the key to the cupboards, though what he could not do was match the meanings of the words on LauraLee’s list. Beth went and got Paul the percussionist, who had no key, but knew what was needed. Finally we were able to put some of the students to work loading things. Dr Rieppel appeared at some point and a box of programs found its way into Beth’s hands, and I kept getting shoved off the sidewalk into the snow, which my nice black shoes didn’t appreciate, when large things came by. At last all that was done, Dr Rieppel announced that he could take anybody who didn’t have a ride, and see you all at Holy Redeemer!

I ran back to the practice room because Olivia still had the car key, asked for it, and said, “You need to come with me because I don’t know how to get there.”

“I can’t,” she said.


“I can’t. I have to stay here. It’s easy, go to the second light like you’re going to HyVee, but don’t, turn right, and keep going past all the other lights. It should be on your right.”

She did not reassure me. This was me driving, after all.

I survived the afternoon traffic and slushy roads and, since it was still daylight, saw my destination a block away thanks to the church’s spire. I did a horrible job of parallel parking, jumped out into the snow, and found the trailer. Kris and Beth were overseeing the unloading, and a steady stream of students came in and out by various doors. There being nothing for me to do there (I’d arrived last of all saving only Dr Rieppel, which is. . . typical), I went inside to see if LauraLee might have any ideas for me.

Things were standing in the center aisle and LauraLee explained that until Dr Rieppel arrived we wouldn’t know where to put things, and the floor was polished stone and we really shouldn’t scratch it (we looked at the drums, the stands, and everything else, and probably a few people lost all hope). But it was hard to panic in there, what with that open space, because as you come down the aisle you saw the afternoon sunshine coming through the windows by the altar, just under the starry blue dome, and with everything glowing blue and gold like that you have a hard time not being calm and thoughtful.

Dr Rieppel arrived at last, and flustering as that day was for him, there is hardly anything more impressive than him (with all his white hair) in his coat, doffing his hat with one hand while crossing himself with the other, just inside the sanctuary door. He gave us directions on how to set up, changed his mind and contradicted himself a few times, was very nervous about the students not understanding that the tympani must not touch the floor while you’re carrying them.

Then we began to get chairs and stands and set up for the string section. Someone knocked a stand over once, and when I picked it up there was water on the floor without apparent cause. I got two stands and made them as tall as possible, putting them where the double basses would be. I turned around and then came back, and they were gone — someone had moved one to the second violin section, and I didn’t see where the other had gone.

At another moment I turned from taking a stand off the rack, which was behind the cello section, and saw that someone had been putting chairs out for the cellos. I smiled to see that where David would sit there was only one chair, not two stacked, and wondered how much of a fuss he’d make later. Just a little while after, I was coming past that spot, and the chair was disappeared, replaced with something black. I wondered which of the students standing around had known to try to get David a taller chair, and looked up, and saw a tall thin form with a cello case on his back hurrying up one of the side aisles. So they were here early, then.

To make room for woodwinds and singers we moved the flowers by the altar, and some candles had to be put out in order to be moved safely. For a little while after that, in addition to the wood of the pews (pews always have a certain smell, have you noticed?), we smelled a touch of smoke, but it went away quickly.

The sanctuary had no clock in it, of course, but we all knew time was passing, and no one had heard from the quartet, and though nobody spoke of it, our dread at their increasingly-likely absence was mounting.

Eventually I really had nothing else to do, and went to leave to pick Olivia up, not knowing if we’d have time to eat our supper first.

At the first rehearsal for this concert, Dr Rieppel said we should try to keep it short, under an hour if possible, because “people just can’t sit for an hour and a half anymore”. At the time Olivia had turned and looked at me and we smiled, because of the length of our services. But as different groups came up with pieces to play, and Dr Rieppel approved other peoples’ requests for things to hear, the list got longer and the time stretched out. Tonight we had 75 minutes’ worth of music to rehearse — at the dress rehearsal, mind you — in one hour.

Moreover, furthermore, and too, Dr Rieppel had impressed upon us all over the past week that the dress rehearsal would start at five thirty, and that this did not mean tuning up at five thirty, or getting to the church at five thirty, but that he’d be giving the downbeat at five thirty. With Olivia possibly being her section’s leader, she keenly felt the responsibility of being there on time.

I got to the car, where I’d left my knitting bag, which Olivia had thrust in my hands as I ran off, and had my phone in it, which she’d wisely thought to send along. It had a text message and missed call from her. I called her back to say I was coming over to pick her up, and what time was it?

“I’m not sure, about four twenty?” she said.

“Only that?” I said. “We should have time for supper when I get back then.”

Now she panicked. Nothing else that day had found her less than perfectly prepared and ready to meet it head-on, but: “Phia, there’s no pizza. They got rid of the Papa John’s.” In her voice, that line had the ring of a great classical tragedy to it.

Well, that was a shock. We’d made a little tradition of getting pizza for our supper before a concert, thanks to the Papa John’s located so handily in the school’s cafeteria. We hadn’t thought we’d need a backup plan, so we hadn’t made one.

“Mom says we can use the money to get something at Arby’s or Subway or Culver’s,” Olivia said. After a bit of hemming and hawing from both of us we agreed to put off making a plan until I was back to campus.

Then I turned the car on and it was 4:48.

The FA parking lot was emptying by the time I got back. I wanted to run through the lot to save some time, but it was covered in ice and I could barely walk (dress shoes again, not to mention cold feet), so it was a frustrating expedition. But Olivia was sitting on the bench by the door, with all our things piled around her, and we could panic together. We had less than half an hour in which to do something about our supper, and we should probably change our clothes. (One of the myriad of things in that backpack of hers was my shirt for the concert.) I’d seen the supper rush beginning at Culver’s on my way by, and could predict that it would be the same at Arby’s and Subway, and anyway we had no time to wait even for an order of fast food.

We decided to change, so that that important step didn’t get forgotten until too late, and wear our coats while we ate to protect our nice things. We’d get something, anything edible, from the cafeteria, and just go from there.

Then Olivia made the discovery that although she had my clothes with her, her fancy red and black outfit (with the long full chiffon skirt) was still hanging in the car. We looked at each other in despair — me thinking of the endless journey across the ice and back, and her thinking of all the time we didn’t have.

“Never mind,” she said, “You change, and I’ll just do it when we get to church, or maybe I’ll squeak in some time after rehearsal.”

So I changed as fast as I could and still get the shirt on not back to front, and we ran over to the Student Center with our usual load. We got a container of grapes, one sandwich (already sliced in half, handily), and two cheese sticks, and then ran back to the car.

We were on the sidewalk that runs parallel to FA, in the dusk, when a voice behind us called “Are we at the Catholic church?”

Our first inclination was to ask, “Does this place look like a Catholic church?” (it doesn’t), but we turned and looked and saw Megan, one of the violists.

“Yes,” Olivia called back. “Do you want a ride?”

“I’ll grab my viola,” she said, gesturing to the building.

“We’ll wait,” Olivia called back, and ran off to put her load of things in the car. I waited by the other FA door, in a place where the wall protected me from the wind. Olivia was still gone when Megan re-emerged, but instead of coming to join me she waved and set off in exactly the opposite direction. So we hoped she didn’t actually need a ride and that she’d just misunderstood Olivia’s question, since we didn’t have the time to chase her down in the dark (and the ice) and find out.

Olivia ate most of the grapes on the way over, and fed me when she remembered to (though her supper was a higher priority at this point, because I could eat when the others were rehearsing, but she obviously couldn’t). They were cold, because we’d been carrying them in the cooler, and very good. She ate her cheese too.

Because it was dark now, we couldn’t see the spire and were afraid we’d miss our turn for the church, but we saw the sign for the Episcopal church next door to it just in time, and made it through the light (that church looks nice from the outside, a tiny stone thing about a fifth of the size of its neighbour, with vines growing up it, but we hear tell it’s got a woman pastor). It was 5:27.

I parked in the lot this time, rather than attempting to parallel park in the dark, and she grabbed her violin and hurried off to rehearse. I went downstairs to see if anything needed doing, and while a little old lady and I were decorating a miniature Christmas tree with ornaments of Janus-faced snowmen, Pastor jumped down the steps and deposited a tray of something on the counter. “Hi — Sophia,” he said, and I said to his back, “You’re here early,” having completely forgotten that his oldest son was playing with us. The chorale came downstairs to practice, their ladies went around tying each other’s bows, and I was set to unwrapping paper plates and napkins.

When that was done I went upstairs to where I’d left our cooler on a bench in one of the little alcoves in the foyer. I ate the five or so grapes Olivia had left me, and my half of the sandwich, but didn’t have the stomach for the cheese too. Then I went in to listen to the rehearsal. The two men who do the recordings for the concerts were setting up near the front on the left side of the left aisle, and I sat near them as it was a good place to be close in case Dr Rieppel needed me for something.

The down-beat had not been at 5:30 sharp, of course; the orchestra runs too nearly to SCA time for that. But by the time I sat down they were in the thick of it. Olivia was not the only one who hadn’t changed; her blue and gray stood out against the sea of black along with JP’s blue plaid shirt and David’s red.

I left during the rehearsal for some reason, and when I came back, a cardboard box full of cords was sitting where I’d been.

“Oh, am I going to be in the way now?” I said.

“We thought we’d just put you back a pew,” one of them said. So I picked up my coat and Olivia’s backpack from the floor, but as I went to grab my knitting bag, I noticed a tail of yarn going up from it  and vanishing under the box.

“My knitting’s under this, though, so I can’t move it yet,” I said, and the one named Bob came and picked it up.

“I just set it down because my arms were getting tired of holding it,” he said, “I didn’t mean to crush your knitting.”

“It’s squishy,” I said. “It’ll survive.”

“I suppose if it had been your glass-blowing or pottery-making it wouldn’t have worked so well,” he said.

“If that had been the case I probably wouldn’t have brought it here,” I pointed out, and we all three laughed.

The Sarajevo piece calls for an electric guitar, which at first we weren’t going to do, but then Dr Rieppel sent an e-mail to LauraLee and me asking if we could get the part to a certain Kayla who, according to him, looked just like someone else from thirty-five years ago. Neither LauraLee nor I could possibly have been with the orchestra at that time, so we didn’t know why he’d included that, but the part got to her eventually. She came to the rehearsal last week and turned out to be someone I already knew by sight. Since she was only in the one piece, she came and sat by me for the rest of the rehearsal, and we talked about books and reading and writing — she did a bit of poetry, but was asking about my historical fiction (and said at one point “I may talk your ear off”).

Then Bacco and the second violinist in the quartet walked down the aisle! Dr Rieppel, having his back to them, didn’t see their advent, but we did, and the musicians did, and we were all probably tempted to drop whatever we were doing and cheer. The violist and cellist followed a bit later.

(Olivia said that at the beginning of rehearsal Dr Rieppel said “They’re flying the quartet in”, and everyone thought at first he was joking — but he wasn’t.)

The mood lightened at once. Olivia and JP moved aside to make room for the proper section leaders as quickly as they could. The French horns, percussion, and some others were soon released, and people started going back and forth with clothes or food or car keys in hand, changing, snatching supper, running errands. Excitement mounted as we realized this is about to happen at last! In less than an hour! and now the quartet was here it was easier to stop thinking of all the things that could possibly go wrong (though the quartet’s presence had hardly eliminated all of them).

Beth came and got me to start handing out programs (I think at about six-thirty, but again, there were no clocks), and Kayla came too. People started coming up both staircases, and we met them at the sanctuary doors. I saw lots of faces I knew, but in the wrong settings, and people like the retired Dean, and a professor I had once — but, of course, neither of the History professors from earlier. Ezra came and got a program from me with a grin I would have called sheepish had he not looked so rabbity.

Just before the concert was to begin, Dr Rieppel came to where Kayla and I were standing with the last of the programs. He was in his suit now and looked a bit more relaxed than he had, but what he said was, “Would one of you — no — do — would you, ah, Sophia, would you do me a favour and go to my stand and make sure it’s open to the Farandole and that my stick is in the stand?”

“No!” I said without thinking.

“What, are you nervous?” Kayla said.

“Walking down the center aisle in front of everybody when they’re expecting Dr Rieppel? Yes,” I said.

“Right, when they’re hoping to see a guy twice — no, three times your size and a foot taller,” Kayla said. “I’m in the same boat.” (She’s even shorter than I am.)

“Just make sure the Farandole’s on top, and my baton’s there,” Dr Rieppel said, then stepped inside the first doorway into the sanctuary. In despair, I gave my remaining programs to Kayla and marched off to my doom.

The sanctuary was pretty full. I tried to slink down the right side of the center aisle (there was no other way to get to the stand unless I wanted to be impaled by all the cellos), but people would look up as I went by. I got to about the third full pew, vaguely recognized some faces but didn’t know who they were, and tried to catch Olivia’s eye, signalling a plea for moral support. (We have a way of communicating without words, even from a distance, which often comes in handy.)

She glared at me as if to say “Why are you here? Go back and bring us our Dr Rieppel! Shoo!”

How I made it to the end of the aisle without doing something silly I don’t know. I had to step up onto the little platform they provided him in order to see what I was doing. The score for the first piece was closed, and as I stared for a moment at the blank white cover I hoped with every fibre of my being that it was the Farandole, so I didn’t have to go searching through all the pieces to find it, or, worse, discover that it wasn’t there at all. (Olivia said that at the time she was afraid Dr Rieppel had suddenly been taken sick and sent me in as a replacement, and that it would be, in her words, “Sleigh Ride all the way through”. I think my fear was, at least, less irrational than that. Bacco would have taken over for him.)

I opened the cover. It was the Farandole.

All this takes more time to tell than to do. I saw the baton lying in its special slot on the stand, got off the platform to the side, backed up three steps without noticing until I turned around that a very SCAdian impulse had taken over, and somehow didn’t run back up the aisle.

(To be continued. . .)

Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, Short story | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Time to Breathe

Yesterday was a perfect whirlwind, and I feel like I’m still catching my breath, physically and figuratively.

We had a snowstorm the night before, which didn’t much affect the roads to school, I thought. Olivia was coming down with me for the whole day, so we left at 7:30 for my nine o’clock class the way we do, and all was well.

Until we got to the very last intersection before the turn-off onto campus, and a couple of sheriffs were redirecting traffic. I didn’t know what route they were sending us on. Olivia, however, knew — though last time she was that way was two years ago in the middle of the night — because at the concert she played in with the orchestra, as part of the prize for winning the local concerto competition, one of the boys who came to listen to her locked his keys in his car and they had to go driving all over town afterwards (him, a couple of his nieces and nephews, my mother, and Olivia still in her formal red dress) to get his brother and a lockpick. So she wasn’t panicking. However, at the time we got to the intersection it was a quarter to nine, and the detour was eating up our time. (On the other hand, that class’s professor hardly ever shows up less than five minutes late.) We did have Beethoven’s overture “The Consecration of the House” on the radio, thanks to Classical MPR.

We got to campus at last, and I parked in the lot I have a permit for, by Fine Arts (often referred to as FA). Now almost all the buildings on campus are connected, so we weren’t going to have to go outside, but it was still a long way. And our inventory included Olivia’s violin in its case, a cooler with our lunches, Olivia’s backpack with her giant math book in it (among lots of other things — she over-prepares), my knitting bag, and my bookbag, which was not at its lightest. Also I was in a floor-length skirt because that’s what I was wearing to the concert. With all of these, we ran through FA, BA, CH, SM, and SS, going up a flight of stairs somewhere along the way. Olivia didn’t know her way to the classroom, and sometimes I forgot she didn’t know, and I’d have to answer her frantic questions for directions. I began to notice that I had less and less breath to spare for answers, and by the time we got to the last turn, all I could do was nod and turn right and hope she followed. At that quiet hour of the morning we sounded like the percussion parts for the Toy Symphony, there was so much jingling and squeaking and clomping.

I handed her the cooler at the classroom door, ducked in, and came face to face with the professor. (Olivia says he said “Hi”, but I don’t remember.) I dropped my two remaining bags by my seat and sat down, not exactly panting but certainly wishing for a few moments of peace in which to catch my breath.

I began to notice, about three minutes into class, that I wasn’t understanding either what the professor was saying or what he was writing on the board. This was slightly disconcerting. A little later I recognized certain symptoms for lightheadedness and nausea.

I fainted in public once before, about seven years ago, and it was an extremely uncomfortable experience. I didn’t like to think of doing it again, besides that there were desks all around me and I didn’t like the thought of what I might hit as I went down. So with some vague idea of sparing us all the fright of me fainting all over his classroom, I got up and didn’t exactly run, but went quickly, for the nearest bathroom.

While I was cultivating a new appreciation for cold tile floors (read: stretched out supine with no thought for dignity whatever), the door opened and a girl came in, who, upon seeing me, said, “Oh dear, are you all right? Can I help you?” I said I occasionally had fainting spells and should be all right soon, as long as I didn’t sit up just yet. (Also I frankly had no idea what would help beyond the cold floor, as I am not experienced with this kind of cause.) So I gained a new appreciation for complete strangers who’d care enough to even want to help. Eventually I could tell I was over the worst, and would probably make it through class (at least) without fainting (and never did actually faint, I’m glad to say), so I got up and went back down the hall past the classroom to where I’d left Olivia. She was, naturally, a bit surprised to see me. I explained that the world was turning highly unpredictable, and she offered me a choice of Tylenol, Ibuprofen, or allergy medicine. After some thought she added an offer of food. (I told you she over-prepares.) I said it was probably too late now to need anything, and did she carry ambulance supplies everywhere with her?

She advised me to go back to class, proffering the hypothesis that I’d simply run out of oxygen (which, funnily enough, I’d joked about doing when we started our race), and, seemingly unconcerned that I’d spent a little while next door to Charon and that without an obol, pushed me back toward class.

I looked down the hall toward the room and saw the professor approaching. There was nothing for it now, so I went toward him.

“Why don’t you join us?” he said, gesturing generously toward the door.

I said I sometimes had fainting fits and didn’t want to do it in class, and he was shocked and asked if I was all right now. If he’d thought the A student was uncharacteristically playing truant, he was set right, anyway, but that didn’t explain why I’d been talking to someone instead of coming back to class, so I said my sister has medicine with her. Then we got back into class and I found out that we’d been split up into two groups and instructed to sketch up skits involving Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and one other historian we’ve read for class, of our choice. I’m a Baptist, I don’t know how to do these things. I began to rather wish I had fainted entirely, so I could have skipped it. But I managed to get the part of St Augustine, despite being, as I said, in the wrong half of humanity to be him, so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

At last that ordeal was over. I got Olivia and took the cooler again, and we trudged back to BA, where I left her sitting on my bench by the library with our things piled around her, while I took my knitting bag, Ovid, and my notebook to Greek Myth. We did just sit there for a little while, until I really had to leave, to catch our breath.

Just before I left I told her that Cole would probably come by with no time to spare before his ten-thirty class, and he’d stop to say hi to Jean, the old lady who works at the little cafeteria downstairs. I had just gotten to the other side of the room, and was still near the hole in the floor through which we can see the place, when a cheery voice called, “Hi Jean!” from practically right under my feet. “Good morning, how’s it going? Nice to see you again Jean,” he said, and Olivia and I laughed at each other from opposite sides of the room.

I got out of class a bit before noon and went back, and we had our lunch. In my absence the delivery man came by, whom she recognized from my description of him, and she said hi and got a confused look from him. She also said Bacco, the concertmaster and first violin of the quartet, had texted her saying not to bother coming down if the roads were too bad. After lunch she went off to FA to practice, and I tried to settle down to some school. But I hadn’t much time, and had a lot of things to do, and multitasking never goes that well.

At some point while I was alone, a History professor who mainly does American history came by. “High five?” he said.

“Why?” I said.

“Oh, never mind,” he said, rather disappointed.

“No, it’s fine,” I said, putting forth my hand, “but any particular reason?”

“It’s Tuesday. And you’re here. And it’s the last week of class.”

We high-fived, and as he was about to go on I said, “Coming to the concert this evening?”

“Concert? There’s a concert?”

“The orchestra — SMO,” I explained. “Seven p. m., Holy Redeemer.”

“How did I not know this?” he said.

“There’ve been posters up everywhere. . .” I said.

“What are you playing?”

“Bits of Handel’s Messiah, um —” My mind blanked. I was thinking of the Toy Symphony but couldn’t remember its name, and was dimly conscious that the schedule included more than that.

He walked over to a nearby pillar and very slowly banged his head against it. “I didn’t know,” he said, “and I’m supposed to have supper with a friend tonight. Now I’m sad.” He turned and began to continue on his way.

All at once another History professor, whom I usually see coming, materialized in front of me, and I nearly had a heart attack on top of asphyxiation. “Why is he sad?” he asked, and as I stammered and groped for words, he called after the other teacher, “Jeff, why are you sad?”

“There’s a concert tonight and I can’t go,” he moaned as he vanished in the direction of the Dean’s office.

“A concert?” the newcomer said, addressing the only person left, which was me. “When?”

“Seven p. m., Holy Redeemer,” I said.

“I can’t go either, I have to teach,” he said. “Now I’m sad too.” He exited left, leaving me rather crushed, which made three of us, and was the opposite of what I’d meant to accomplish by asking the first one.

At about one-thirty I heard Dr Rieppel downstairs. Sometimes on Tuesdays and Thursdays he buys his lunch at that little cafeteria, but it’s usually earlier. Jean was asking him about his day, and I heard him say, “And on top of that, it’s our Christmas fundraiser concert tonight, and the quartet is supposed to come out from the Cities, but the roads in the suburbs are really bad and they may not be able to make it, and we can’t have a concert without them, and it’s just been a really stressful day.” She sold him a bagel with cream cheese (not so different from our own lunches, had he known), and said it would tide him through his afternoon class, and went off, poor man, visibly flustered.

When Olivia came back I told her what had happened. Without ever saying it, we agreed that we shouldn’t tell people the quartet might not come, because no one else needed to panic; however, in that event, she and JP would end up being section leaders pro tem, he of the first violins and she of the seconds, and it would be good to prepare him. We’d planned to relocate to FA anyway, so we took up our paraphernalia (inventory: violin and case, with borrowed bow; backpack with math book; cooler; knitting bag; bookbag) and moved over like a couple of snails.

Last week Bacco took Olivia’s bow back to the Cities with him to be re-haired, and she’d been borrowing a spare from JP. Bacco was supposed to bring the bow with him and give it back before the concert, but if he didn’t make it, she’d be without her bow, and have to use the spare she didn’t like as much for the concert. She hadn’t panicked at the thought of having to be section leader on a couple of hours’ notice, but the idea of not having her own bow to play in the concert with was dreadful.

Once in FA, we settled our things in a practice room on the back wall, next door to Cole, who was practicing piano and whom we did not disturb, figuring there’d be plenty of time to talk after the concert — he was planning to come not only for the music but for Olivia’s celebrated chocolate chip cookies, to be served afterward, and the chance of talking to our pastor. I tried to do a little more school, which mostly consisted of me growling at a textbook for its bad interpretations of both sides of the Reformation.

At some point we had the door open and we were talking about something, when we saw David go by, so in the middle of a sentence I threw a “Hi” at him over my shoulder. He kept going, but a couple of (very big) steps past our room he turned around and came back, and stood in the hall gnawing on a pear while we finished with the topic at hand. During the pause he said, “What?”

“I said hi,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. He took another bite of pear (he was eating it after the manner of corn on the cob) while he thought this over. Then he started down the hall again, saying “Hi” after he was almost out of sight, as an afterthought.

Olivia went and told JP the news, to which she says he said, “Oh! Then I’ve got to practice!” He did indeed, and provided us with a soundtrack the rest of the afternoon, as we did school and later, after three thirty, began to move things.

But you’ll have to wait for the rest, I’m afraid.

To be continued. . .


Posted in Non-fiction, Ordinary life, Short story | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Guest post from War of Loyalties’ authour

War of Loyalties, the World War One historical novel I’ve mentioned here before (I was trying to concentrate on one thing long enough to figure out what I was saying about it, and my sister, who’s beside me, suggested “written”, but that is not the case), is published, and in honour of its release into the world, its authour Schuyler has agreed to do a post on my blog about her love for historical fiction. (Which works out very handily for me, because the Christmas concert’s tonight, and instead of having to write a blog post and do several school projects and do concert things, I have one less thing to think about.)

I finished Part One last night, which means I’m on page three hundred and something of 645, and so far she’s set up several tricky moral dilemmas and I’m on broken bottles (Dickens reference) as to how they’ll be solved. Also I still don’t quite trust Jaeryn, and I’d like to find out what exactly it is Terry does, and things like that.


Why I Love Historical Fiction

My parents homeschooled me growing up, and I loved that experience. Throughout my educational years we worked a lot with history. We read old books. We listened to history speakers. We loved ministries that participated in history. And over time, the familiarity with history and the fact that I liked it better than math geared me towards a comfort with working with it. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing I liked it because it had stories in it. I grew up with discussions about stories and theology, and history offers a lot of depth to mine both story-wise and theology-wise that is so satisfying.

We tended to read historical stories when I was in junior high and highschool. When I was younger we turned to things like Anne of Green Gables, G.A. Henty, and Elsie Dinsmore. Later we expanded into Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, and Charles Dickens. Now I have found modern fiction in addition to those that I love—but because of this emphasis on old classics, I had developed an appetite for historical fiction before I quite knew what was happening. Stories were an everyday part of our after-lunch reading time, and because those stories were old ones—well, it wasn’t much of a jump to start writing them. When you’re a writer and you find books you enjoy, you like to imitate them, and that got me started on the historical fiction genre.

Later I’ve come to realize that L.M. Montgomery and Charles Dickens actually wrote contemporary stories for the time they lived in, but because it wasn’t my own time period, I just lumped it into historical fiction and happily counted myself among them.  

But in more recent years, as I’ve looked at the future of my writing, I took another look at the genre.

I was sitting in a session at the American Christian Fiction Writer’s conference, listening to Susan May Warren talk about how she’s always planning out her next book before her current one is finished. War of Loyalties had been my main thing for a long time by then, and it got me to thinking: what’s next? I had at least three book ideas that I wanted to write, War of Loyalties being one of them. But as I started thinking about my writing even more long term, I came to a much clearer understanding that historical fiction was something I could be passionate about for the rest of my writing days, however long they are. Since I love Cadfael and Anne Shirley and Davie Balfour and Herbert Pocket in their long-ago worlds, I am glad my book can take its place on the shelves among the stories I have loved, and not only my book, but those of so many friends this year.

There are time periods I want to explore as I imitate the authors I love. I keep having ideas for novels and novellas that fit with this direction. So as long as the Lord still leads that way, I am well content to exercise my passion by going back in time. London. France. Detroit. Ireland. The Irish Rebellion. World War Two. The Roaring Twenties. The Victorian Age.

They’re all things I’m hoping to get to.

I’m just going to have to get a lot better at loving research. ☺   


The novel is now available for sale if you’d like, in paperback:

Purchase Link: https://www.amazon.com/War-Loyalties-Folkestone-Files-1/dp/0692970541/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1511961389&sr=8-1-fkmr0&keywords=war+of+loyalties%2C+schuyler+mcconke

There’s als


First Prize Winner:

-Paperback copy of War of Loyalties

-“Jaeryn’s Vow” 8×10 poster

-Custom War of Loyalties mug


Second Prize Winner:

-Ebook of War of Loyalties

-Real vintage Folkestone postcard (this is a postcard that has actually been posted in 1917.)


Third Prize Winner: (open to international winners)

-Ebook of War of Loyalties

WordPress Giveaway Link:


US residents only for 1st and 2nd prizes. Accounts created solely for giveaways not eligible.

About the Author

IMG_6953 (2)

Schuyler McConkey is a writing teacher, book reviewer, and ministry leader living half of her life in happy fellowship with her family and spending the other half in angst-filled fictional worlds. She is passionate about classic, Dickensian stories and characters who encounter deep struggles touched by grace. Irish music, British movies, and chai lattes provide the fuel for her dreams.


Posted in Books, Historical fiction, Reading, Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

November wrap-up post — with snippets


Bits of Hegel and Marx and Ibn Khaldun and Nietzsche and such, for Historiography (We’re almost done and I shall be sad — how is next week the last week of classes already?)

The Song of Roland, for the fun of it

Gaudy Night, read in pieces before bed on occasional evenings — still very good

I’m still chipping away at Christ Among Us on the same system, but it goes much more slowly. Partly, I think, it’s that it’s so ecumenical and soft, and I know that if I open it I’ll be lucky to get three pages without groaning. Not very good bedtime reading, because then I get annoyed, and start formulating arguments, rather than going to sleep. (Not that it’s always a certain book’s fault. Some nights I do have to make an effort to turn my brain off if I’m to get any sleep at all. I could leave it talking and probably it would be very productive, but I’d pay for it the next day. And it’s always a bit of work because the brain doesn’t turn on and off like an electric light.)

And Ten Thousand Thorns, the newest fairy-tale retelling by Pendragon’s Heir‘s authour! It’s officially published as of today, and if you’ve no objections to e-books, well — shoo. Go get it. I reviewed it here already, so I won’t do that again.


Over the Thanksgiving break I actually dipped into a couple of stories, so I have a few snippets for you. The most notable school-writing, besides that scholarship essay I mentioned a while ago, was a paper comparing the historical methods of S. Augustine and Ibn Khaldun. Part of which the professor read in class as a good example, with my sister sitting outside and taking notes the whole time. . .

I started the prelude to Rose-Tinted Arrows, and wrote most of the opening chapter, and have ideas for more (a lot of them, honestly, based on the question “How would a seminary student with such-and-such a trait adjust to this condition or that?” so that will be fun). It starts when Algernon isn’t captain at all, but running from a miscarriage of justice. There’s going to be a lot about civil disobedience, the least of these, revenge, and the lack of toothpicks in the Black Forest (which he eventually comes to say isn’t as black as it’s painted) in this one — and not a single girl anywhere in the cast. Anyway, the outlaws take him in, and over the next few years he grows in favour with the current captain, and (this isn’t spoilers, is it, since those of you who’ve read about R-TA knows he ends up that way?) becomes captain eventually. But that’s closer to the end of the book.

* * *

  But as he passed under a big tree near its foot, other shadows descended on him from either side — strikingly corporeal shadows, he discovered, as one of them grabbed his right arm and the other kicked his legs from under him. For a long mad moment he drowned in surprise and fear, the very physical flinching away from the sudden blows, the terror which went to the stomach.

  “All right, all right,” he heard himself babbling at last, raising his free hand. “I’m not here to fight.”

  His unseen assailants paused for a moment, as if taken aback in their turn, and then hauled him to his feet.

* * *

  “Well,” he ventured, looking from one profile to the next, with a grin he did not quite feel, “and who might you gentlemen be?”

  The pertness and general idiocy of his statement struck him too late, and with a double stab at his pride, for who in his right mind would be worrying about what a couple of roughs thought of the conversational skills of a man they could be about to kill?

  They glanced at each other. “Bandits,” rumbled one, at the same time “Ootlaws,” said the other.

  “What!” Algernon said. “You call yourselves bandits, and you don’t even wear masks?” He raised his eyebrows and drooped his mouth in disappointment.

* * *

  “Don’t blow on it so hard,” one of them enjoined another, as the man whose head was nearly in the fireplace sent another gust from his lungs into the flames. Sparks shot out in every direction, and a cloud of smoke rolled out into the room, setting some of the bandits coughing. They all watched as it disappeared.

  “You’re going to set the smoke alarms off,” said one of the men.

  “It’s been at least something like half an hour,” the human bellows objected. “It’s still too cold.”

  “Blow gently, like this,” his neighbour said, and demonstrated with a quiet, steady breath that sent a flame leaping up. “Soft and steady.”

  The first bandit, on his hands and knees, rolled his eyes and breathed out as instructed. Then he tossed a crumpled paper on the fire, which seized it eagerly.

* * *

It’s interesting being inside his head, rather than seeing him from an outside perspective as in Rose-Tinted Arrows. He. . . has an interesting head to be in. (Also I’m not used to masculine narrators, but it was surprisingly easy to do it, once I got going. Like a certain bit where he’s comparing his arms to someone else’s — not something that would ordinarily occur to me, unless someone’s asking me whether I do rock-picking, but it came pretty naturally, and makes sense.)

I was home alone almost all day when everyone went Black Friday shopping, and it was a pretty productive day, once I got going — I’d been away from OtN for too long, and was a bit stiff getting back into it, but it was perfect weather for it, and that helped. I kind-of-sort-of outlined the three missing chapters in the middle of the first half, and found homes for some homeless scenes, and got a bit of an idea of what I need to research next. Being mainly the liturgical calendar, what an ordinary Mass would have been like (assuming it’s changed since then, which I know it has), what you’d do for processions if there were no other churches near enough to process to, and what feast food would have been like. Once I know about that, putting in the high feast days and such should give me at least ten thousand words (her first Sunday there in detail; her first Advent, Christ’s mass, and Easter, and probably Whitsun, and maybe something a bit more local like some of the feasts Liturgy Architecture and Sacred Places mentions).

But I did write one scene I liked quite a bit at the time.

* * *

They were up early that morning, before the sun rose. The sky was a flat dull sort of blue with a few bars of dull purple cloud, the heavy sculpted kind: very blank and missing something. Then you turned and saw one in the east streaked with red that shone like silk or fire.

  Red turned to gold as they went about their chores, in the air around them the daily noises: cocks crowing (Rohan had come at last), dogs barking, children calling. Smoke began to rise and swirl in the dawn-wind above each roof. The golden cloud shone brighter and brighter until you’d think surely it was a hole in the sky, the gap leading to Heaven — can it get any brighter? — so bright it hurt. Is this (as the first bell rang for Lauds) what it means to rejoice in glorious hope?

  The eastern half of the sky was Our-Lady-blue and the cloud was still gold when they turned to go inside — it must have some great significance, some transcendant grace — why else such beauty? Why stir the heart so if it were for nothing? — and now AEschild saw the brown earth lying velvety under the sky, and the little puddles in ruts and furrows turning the light back like so many stained-glass windows. She looked up and saw one of the clouds she’d forgotten, now nearly overhead, dissolving in pink rain. Further in the west, a cloudbank along the horizon, which the sun hadn’t reached yet, a solid dark-blue wall. Down the valley, a single vulture floated lazily, stooped, and was gone.

  AElflaed pushed back the shutter to the wall when she came in, and golden light splashed across the far wall and ran down, like liquid honey, like something so much there you could take some on your finger and eat it, and it would be like manna.

* * *

If it seems very dramatic, that’s partly its placing in the story, which is definitely spoilers.


Nothing at all that I can remember. Oh well, there’s only two weeks of classes, then finals — then if that weren’t the tail-end of Advent already, maybe I could say things would be quiet enough to get back into actually doing things and not just thinking about them. There’s an experiment going on (see here), which I’d like to be a part of — anything for destroying misconceptions about the Middle Ages.


Uncle and grandfather, maternal, visited for Thanksgiving. I won’t say a debate with the former over the cessation of prophecy didn’t happen while we were doing dishes one evening. It’s almost enough to make one want to go over to Rome.

Speaking of which, Joel, JP, David, and Cole ate supper with Olivia and me on Tuesday. It’s looking fair to be the last such meal this semester (next Tuesday is the concert and as far as we’re concerned it’s all chaos). At one point JP was gone for a minute and Cole and David were talking about something, and Joel said to Olivia, “How was your Thanksgiving?”

“Okay, I guess,” she said.

“Why, did you have arguments?”

“Well, yes.”

“But not with close family, right? Just extended?”

“Actually, with close family,” she sighed.

“But not religious or anything — right?”

“Well, actually. . .”

So then the whole story came out.

Before the other three showed up, Olivia and I were eating supper with Cole. I heard a couple of people come out of the library and I stopped listening to the immediate conversation because I thought I recognized one of the voices. I wasn’t quite sure if it was who I thought it was, though, so I was concentrating on it. Cole said, “You look pretty focused,” and I started to try to explain. Olivia took the more concise route of saying “She heard a voice upstairs and was seeing if it was someone she knew.” Cole laughed and said, “A lot of people hear voices upstairs all the time.”

“Not from upstairs all the time,” I said, “we write villains too.”

Cole looked very shocked and said, “That got even darker really fast.”

Yesterday was the Undergraduate Research Conference, which meant a lot of poster presentations and dressed-up people and things. The poetry workshop students had to read some of their work aloud in one of the bigger rooms. There’s a bit of a running joke at church about me and microphones, because I’m so quiet and Pastor always has to put it very far down for me when I read minutes from previous meetings, only he always forgets to until I just stand and stare at it instead of reading. Whoever’s report is after me is always very tall and makes a show of adjusting it a lot too.

Well, the way that room was set up, the microphone was on the far edge of the desk, and not adjustable, and if I wanted to get properly close to it I would have had to lean on the desk and bend over. Also I was the last one reading, so I couldn’t even get it over with quickly. But I survived, and perhaps by contrast to the things that came before it (including hobnobbing with pointy hats), the reading wasn’t too embarrassing.

While I was having lunch Jenny and I were chatting, and she asked if Cole would be interested in either of the two upcoming Avonwood meetings. I said he was downstairs, so I’d run and check. (I’d go down instead of yelling over the rail because it was so noisy that day he wouldn’t hear me from the distance.) So I went down.

He was sitting at one of the tables with Cora, one of his girls. Cora was answering a woman’s question about where the nearest women’s bathroom was. Only she wasn’t quite sure, because the actual nearest one might be out of order, so the next nearest one would be. . . and so on. Cole was sitting and looking encouraging.

The woman got the directions, thanked Cora, and left. Cole and Cora then told each other how awkward that kind of thing is when you’re not sure of the answer. The President of the school passed, and since the stranger was by now out of sight, and hearing Cole say something about asking for directions, said, “What are you looking for?” (Cora went to get her food out of the microwave.)

“Oh, nothing, nothing,” said Cole with a gallant smile, “but a lady stopped just now asking where the nearest women’s restroom is, and we weren’t sure where and whether it was out of order.”

“Oh, I see. Well, thank you for being so helpful.”

“Not at all, no problem,” Cole said, smiling and nodding. The President left and he and Cora and I all turned to each other and started laughing.

“Well, I wasn’t helping any,” said Cole to Cora. “You’re the one who knows, er. . . who would know that kind of thing.”

With the day beginning like that, the reading was surely fated to go off terribly, I thought. But in fact the only trouble was that, being unable to get close enough to the microphone, I was too quiet. And one can always laugh at these things in retrospect.

I’m still putting off deciding about grad school, but if I do go anywhere, it’ll be for something medieval. University of Toronto and St Andrews Edinburgh have both been recommended me. They look good (St Andrews has the added benefit of being on the same island as a lot of the good museums), but they’re both in different countries, and one’s across an ocean. So, really, I’m no closer to deciding.

Posted in Books, Fiction, Of the North, Rose-Tinted Arrows, SCA, snippet, work in progress, Writing | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Let’s have a little talk about tweetle beetles.

A little while ago I got nominated for one of the fancier scholarships in the Humanities half of the school. They gave it to a Music major instead, which he probably needed it more than I do (we penniless artists must stick together, after all), but I got an essay on liberal education out of it and an interview in which I got to explain what is justification. (You’re not surprised, are you?)

Part of the paper was supposed to answer the question “What do I plan to do with my education?” which I sort of declined to answer on the grounds that it could both be everything (and thus the answer would be far too broad for the confines of a four-page paper) and nothing (being far too narrow to answer at all). I talked a lot about historical fiction instead. Here’s the part of it that actually has to do with writing and not liberal education in general.

I am a writer, and I write mostly medieval historical fiction, with occasional anomalies in fantasy or nonfiction. I see far too much mediocre or poorly-written, poorly-researched historical fiction, with anachronisms not only in things like dress and social customs, but in the way the people of the chosen time really thought and lived. Putting a twenty-first-century woman in the guise of a girl born in the twelfth century is ridiculous at best, when no reader seriously thinks the people of the time were like that; but great harm follows when the credulous reader, who assumes that because the book is published the authour must have known what she was talking about and be a reliable source for the period, takes it to be true that the attitudes of the twelfth century were something they certainly are not, and which would be obvious if the authour had taken the time to read any primary sources. Those who believe these stories — and words have great power, we know, for both good and harm (those who deny the power of words should logically take a perpetual vow of perfect silence, which everyone around them would find very beneficial) — believe a false picture of history, and their view of the world is skewed.

Even leaving out the historical romance genre, which hardly counts as historical, the market is bloated with bad historical fiction. But there’s a dearth of good historical fiction, the kind which is faithful to history, which tells the true stories of people remarkably like us, whether they lived two hundred years ago or fourteen hundred, without being lazy in research or writing for the lowest common denominator, without changing the worldview or twisting the prominent philosophy to be politically correct. By which I mean things like forcing feminism back in time, for example, and trying to make it seem as though the two opposing ideas “all men (*except the love interest) and the Church oppressed women” and “the heroine can insist on wearing men’s clothes and fighting and nobody bats an eye, or if they do object, she just hits them and carries on without repercussions” can exist side by side in the same story world without causing serious logical damage — not to mention completely ruining the suspension of disbelief for any reader who knows the first thing about medieval philosophy.

I want to counteract all this by writing good historical fiction. At the most basic level, that means if I write a story set in 11th-century England before the Conquest, no reputable woman in the story should be described as being bareheaded in front of people. Linen and silk are the most common fibres, though upper classes get silk. Nobody’s cloak should be velvet. Potatoes do not form a part of human diet. I should not describe carrots as orange. Cloaks are usually rectangular, although a certain social class or higher may have semicircular mantles. “Ok” is not an acceptable part of characters’ vocabulary. Amber is a jewel and not a feminine name. And so on.

But good historical fiction requires much more than just knowing that Edward Cyning died the evening before Twelfth-day in 1066, or that place-names ending in -caster or -chester are so because Roman military camps used to be set up there. Characters need to be something more than properly-costumed caricatures of the era, and should certainly not be my contemporaries dressed up in cyrtel or tunica. An idea that did not come into being before 1700 cannot be in the mouth of a character from 1400 (unless time-travel is involved, which is seldom). Perhaps it does not matter much to the fate of the world if an authour describes a mature Edith Swanneck letting her hair fly in the wind, and the reader goes on the rest of his life without knowing that Anglisc women covered their hair. But an authour who writes a book in which a French clergyman of the thirteenth century publicly put forth that a Saracen can be saved without baptism, and no condemnation from Rome was swiftly forthcoming, would be committing a grave error indeed. For if the reader went away thinking the Church approved of any hint of the idea of universal salvation before Vatican II, he would go with a terribly false picture of the worldview of the time. And since the view of the world affects everything else, his idea of every bit of the life of the Middle Ages will be skewed. (As a matter of fact, given the popular misconceptions these days, it’s far more likely that the authour will say something more like “the Church believed physical existence was a bad thing”, like the Gnostics or extreme Platonists which the Church had rejected several centuries before.)

I want to write historical fiction that accurately describes the way people looked at the world around them. Even if it’s politically incorrect to write about a medieval woman who’s married with six kids and can’t write her name and still manages to be happy, if that is the woman who happens to be at the centre of the story, and if it’s necessary for accuracy that her state is so, I will write her. Even though I don’t believe in transubstantiation (since I believe in justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone soli Deo gloria), because the church in England in the eleventh century believed in it, the characters in that story believe in the Real Presence: so I’m not going to insert editorial comments making fun of them, or have seemingly pious characters declaring it’s all bunk. And a story set in the seventh century will include characters who believe in literal six-day creation, and I’m not going to portray it as silly misguided superstition or ignorance, or make it seem as if they were idiots for believing it. They took it seriously. I ought to too, even if I didn’t believe it. And to know what people really thought, I have to be able to read primary sources, and know which secondary sources are reliable and which are not.

Liberal education, with its usefulness in preparing people for thought generally, comes in handy especially here. Having a long personal history with Latin is helpful. Learning how to do at least a little bit in many different disciplines gives a mindset ready for research and discerning good sources from bad. Wide reading in various periods and philosophies helps me know what people in the chosen time and place would most likely have believed, or at least narrows the options pretty quickly, saving a lot of time in the long run. For example, as I prepare to begin a story set in 394, I already know to keep Utilitarianism out of it, and nobody need mention Aquinas. I also know that Augustine is about to start writing, that the Pelagian and Arian heresies were prominent, and that Jerome was alive. This gives some general context; now I can start doing deeper research. Since my school years weren’t spent focusing on giving me a single trade to learn, teaching me how to do just one thing, I have all the advantages (and some of the disadvantages, such as dabbling in many things and never settling on one, or constantly starting things without finishing them) of a Renascence man.


I also used a Dr Seuss reference in the paper — I said something about having other works-in-progress floating around in my brain, and that like the Nupboards in the cupboards, they’re good fun to have about. But nobody mentioned that, so I don’t know if anyone caught it.

Thoughts, gentle reader? Anything you’d add or contradict?

Posted in Historical fiction, Research | Tagged | 6 Comments

A new story from Suzannah Rowntree!

You all already know how much I like Suzannah Rowntree’s Pendragon’s Heir, and if you don’t, you haven’t been reading this blog for very long. When I saw that she was publishing a new novella in her fairy-tale retellings series, and looking for advance reviews, I gladly offered.

(If you would like to see the cover as well, see this post on her blog, and you should read her blog anyway — there’s lots of good things on it.)

Ten Thousand Thorns is Sleeping Beauty in China, which I liked the idea of — a nice change from the usual medieval-European-fantasy retellings. (Not, of course, that there’s anything wrong with medieval Europe, just too much of a good thing sometimes.) The writing style is still recognizable as Rowntree’s, not only in the very human villains but in the themes that come out.

The main characters, Iron Maiden and Clouded Sky, make a good pair when circumstances force them together: not trusting too quickly, but also not stubbornly refusing to work together when it’s been proven they can trust each other. Which was refreshing, having a story where a girl-guy pair neither falls in love at first sight nor irrationally hate each other and yet can’t separate. Finally! Some humanity!

Miss Iron is a warrior woman done right. I think her introduction helps: immediately after sending a man flying through a wall, she sits down to drink some tea. It’s an almost British trait, actually, but establishes her as feminine as well as female. And her skill at fighting comes just as much from her cleverness as her physical strength (kind of like Athene, come to think of it — or maybe I’ve just been reading too much Greek tragedy lately). And I loved her sense of humour.

My mother noted that she’s a very take-charge kind of woman, perhaps a bit too much so — being a girl-guy pair and all, for Iron Maiden to be the one getting things done was a bit odd, she said. But considering that Iron Maiden is running around getting things done because something needs doing that she can’t do, and she’s looking for someone who can — that seems reasonable. There’s another point later on where she takes charge of things in the middle of a fight, but it makes sense there because the only other person on her side is emotionally incapacitated, shall we say. So don’t read the story if you’re opposed to women ever being right alongside a man in a dangerous situation (but then, why would you ever be reading fairy tales?), I guess. But if you like warrior women who like their tea, and animals, and whose response to enemy soldiers is likely as not to be laughter, you’ll probably like Iron Maiden.

The dramatic tone fits the content, and the humourous bits throughout had my sister laughing sometimes (she read it while sick, and she still got the jokes). The title Vastly Martial Emperor made me smile, a bit like the names in Dream of Jade, and Longevity Noodles appearing as the main dish during the breakfast in which the uninvited fairy flies in to announce the princess’s premature death was a good touch. The fairy godmother character was also delightful.

Speaking of which, all the funny bits in Morning Light’s backstory were good, but I won’t quote them. You must read the book when it comes out for that. It releases on November 30, and at present only in e-book forms, though if it’s popular enough who knows what will happen.

The characters aren’t the only good thing about the story. I can’t go into great detail about the theme without spoilers, of course, because to reveal the answers to the questions the story asks would be to ruin it. Olivia just wrote a paper on Utilitarian ethics for school, so she noticed some of the moral dilemmas. Clouded Sky’s grappling with his position that it’s all right to put up with some evil to bring about a greater good contrasted nicely with Iron Maiden’s search for a hero.

The main villain, the Imperial Sword, was excellently done. I love villains who are bad without ceasing to be human. They’re more powerful, because we can see how, if just a few things were different, we could be the same way. (Speaking of Greek tragedy.) I was never quite sure, while reading, whether the Imperial Sword would continue being on the wrong side, or try to do something good, or be killed before he acted on a chance to do something good. For those who have read Pendragon’s Heir, I could see hints of Breunis in him and Clouded Sky (and maybe a touch of Agravaine, had things gone a bit differently with him). That was a very good thing.

And I’ve got to say this because of that writing workshop last spring, but I love stories where we see proper heroes, or how abstaining from personal evil doesn’t make you good and “I was just obeying orders” doesn’t work as an excuse.

“I was ordered to do it, so it’s not my fault” and “if I don’t do it someone else will” and basically every other example of situational ethics doesn’t work in stories, because these are not the kind of heroes who will inspire us to reach higher and be courageous and stand up for our principles, these are not the ones who give us hope in the midst of darkness. It will come and we’ll say “not even our heroes could withstand it” and despair. That’s one of the biggest problems with the modern kind of fiction where everyone is a villain and no one gets to be a proper hero because that’s not realistic. If it’s not realistic, don’t you think that’s kind of our fault? So Iron Maiden’s insistence on hope had me cheering for her the whole way through. 

And I like how the Emperor can’t have the Mandate of Heaven, and we know this by the way he acts: no one with Heaven’s approval would be acting so contrary to Heaven’s decrees. It seems awfully simple, put that way, but read the story and you’ll see the solution is not exactly simplistic.

Several times Rowntree takes Eastern philosophy, if you can call it that, to its logical end, and with that and all the moral questions in the story already being asked and sometimes answered in an Eastern setting, this probably in’t light reading. Young readers could probably enjoy the story as a fun swashbuckling sort of adventure, but do be warned ahead of time that the dilemmas are central to the story and you probably shouldn’t be half-asleep while reading it. (I happen to like that kind of story myself.)

The only thing I have to say that is not praise (other than it only being available in e-book form) is that I want to know what happened after the end of the story. Not that that’s really the story’s fault. The ending is satisfying, but it’s exciting enough that you want to keep going and see how the people who survive do things. Occasionally I noticed typographical errors, but I can only remember three in the course of 134 pages, so that’s not so bad. I was confused by how quickly Second Brother woke up after a certain defeat, given how easy he was to take care of on other occasions. But I was hardly sorry to see him defeated, either.

My favourite line, if I must pick one, would probably be this:

“At least he could comfort himself with the thought that he’d finally defeated her in a fight.
   But only by using one of her own stances.
   Doubt like a night traveller crept into his mind.”
Posted in Book review, Fiction | Tagged , | 6 Comments