Two past midnight, the cramped streets are drowned in fog and the smell of sweat, a smog so thick that the moon is a silhouette amongst a starless sky. Dim, incandescent heat exudes from shop lamps, permeating the air in a dusty, copper glow while workers bend their backs and beat their fists. Flesh and forge, hammer and head, their discordant rhythms birth sparks from embers, metal from dread; it was the lowest, sleepless and infernal pits of Birmingham's working class, smelting the sweat of God from courtyard scrap.
Arrow shafts mark our path
Grey feathers, opulent skies brooding
This night's sighing with spring
An idyllic serenity to lose sleep for
"Now this, do you regret it?"
Lingers like love with resonance
I sift the fletching between fingers
And towards him reply, "No."
A word which drinks the stillness
Blood marks our memories, scars
Our bodies in tattoos ineffable
"From all this, I cannot cower,"
Clenching soil for comfort
Holding back more than whispers
His shadow doubles low, hand offered
"Then once more, brother,"
Unsheathed, blades gritting dawn
Fade in the night's translucence
Save for those bright streaks
Slipping past as we grip hands
Forward again, regretting none
Shave & Simmer
Passersby couldn't manage to pretend any longer that they didn't hear the shouts bouncing out of the butcher's shop on Ivy Street. Brief, staccato thumps like kicks into a burlap sack provided accompaniment to the main melody of insults garbled by incoherent yelling.
Tumbling out in a wince-inducing whirl of flailing limbs and nearly a few fractured ones, Edgar, incidentally the burlap sack, narrowly dodged getting his head caved in by a carriage wheel as it clattered by, had it not been for the gentleman who halted the adolescent's graceless somersault across the street. Not by virtue, the boy simply happened to be in the way of his brisk pace.
"And don't bother comin' back for pay you little ungrateful git!" Like the jacket he tossed out with the boy, the butcher's final insults landed in Edgar's lap just as soon as he'd sat up again.
The 'closed' sign had helpfully turned itself from the force of the establishment's door being slammed hard enough to add another crack to its hinges.
By then, the crowds had already stopped paying attention to the altercation. Once it was apparent that Edgar's head hadn't been reduced to minced pudding on the cobblestones, London's Ivy Street had lost interest of the brief exchange.
"Heaven's sake," the gentleman said as he reached down to help Edgar up. "Are you all right? Anything broken?"
"I would like to say my pride," Edgar said as he accepted the man's hand, "but I think that one's been cracked since I was born, sir. Edgar Doss."
"Morgan," the man said with a wan smile. "Morgan Brooks. A, ah, a regretful pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless, I suppose."
Morgan was one of the only, (if not the only) man on the street without a top hat. At medium length and in the early stages of thinning, Morgan had the hair of a man who combed it but once in the morning with his hand before ruffling it up due to stress just a half-hour later, if that. A few long locks fell in a messy side-part over his left eye, which he swept back with habitual swiftness to get a good look at Edgar through eyes so hasty to dart this way and that, Edgar was doubtful anybody had ever gotten a good look long enough to discern their color. He resolved that they were dark green, no, plain black, or was that grey?
"Certainly," Edgar said, unable to feel comfortable in his gaze. "Beg pardon, sir, but do you have somewhere to be? I shouldn't be keeping you."
"Why ... yes," Morgan stammered, though he looked just as confused as Edgar as to what and where this place may be. "I, ah, did that monster, that man there, does he happen to be your employer?"
"Previous," Edgar said. "Mr. Dudson."
Morgan straightened out the ends of a black jacket that ended fashionably short over a waistcoat, layering over a white, similarly worn shirt. A few loops of black fabric made for a necktie that seemed all but prepared to serve a secondary purpose as shoe laces for how lazily it was hanging from his neck. This, too, he knotted up as he came to quick decision, though it did little to clarify his sickly pallor.
“Yes, yes I thought as much. Come work for me."
"Beg pardon?" Edgar repeated.
"Shave and Simmer. Ever heard of it?"
"Not really ..."
"That's all right! Just look at you; you look like just the assistant I've needed. Young, exuberant, lively!"
"A bit battered, really."
"Rather frail-armed, sir."
"Ahm ... jovial in spite of hardship?"
“Sarcastic at best.”
"You'll do!” Morgan grasped him by the shoulders and shook.
"Sir?" Most days, Edgar schemed of ways to charm café and bakery owners into hiring him. The more this madman insisted the less inclined he was to believe that he owned anything at all.
"You'll do perfect. Truly!"
Despite having just lost his job and having no home to return to now that he was beyond the age for little laws London had in place for orphan care, Edgar was doubtful. Then again, he'd made the mistake of skipping his daily meal at the butcher's before his afternoon beating, and his stomach was more vocal about accepting this request than he was, even if all it meant was an odd chance.
Morgan didn't pretend not to hear the loud growl and leaned closer to Edgar with a keen, knowing eye. "Come now. A barber shop over a quaint café. Spot of coffee and pastry will do you good. What’s not to love? The missus and I could use another pair of hands. Me, mainly, truth be told.”
"You're married, sir?" Edgar stalled, seeing no ring on Morgan’s long, knobby fingers. The man's breath was also a few shades closer to alcohol than not. Gin, by the smell of it.
Morgan's eyes fell to the ground and for a moment Edgar thought he'd drifted far enough into thought that he might be able to slink away from the uncomfortable guilt of owing this man his attention after being saved by him.
"Sometimes the most regrettably strong bonds are the ones we find ourselves incapable of leaving, especially if they are against our will," Morgan finally said in a long, quick string of sudden reflection.
“So not happily, then?"
"Tell you what." Morgan slapped a sixpence into Edgar's hand and squeezed the boy's fingers around it for him when his were less eager. "You keep that. If you'd like to see more of it, just ..." Like an actor forcing himself to say a line, Morgan gave Edgar a pat and squeeze on the shoulder that was less reassuring and more concerning. “Stop on by. 2121 on Hollow Crescent Drive. Just around the corner there, you see? Yes? Good lad. The shop could use another set of hands. As you can see, mine are a bit, well ..."
Morgan held up his hands which appeared to be in the middle of a trembling fit. "Barber can't work much like this," he said with a touch of shame. “Would do wonders to have a lad like you around to, ah, take my place when I’m unfit.”
It wasn't old age that had taken hold of those hands, Edgar knew from his days at the orphanage, but the last time somebody slipped a sixpence into his hand, it'd been for a bit of work that wasn't a close cousin to honest. He'd worked for drunks before, and this one seemed a bit too timid to have the gall to beat or even insult him.
“Mr. Brooks, you said?” Edgar said, turning the silver piece over and squinting at it in the sun.
“Please, call me Morgan.”
“2121 on Hollow Crescent?”
“Just so. A pleasure, Edgar Doss." And with a bit of a limp in his left side, Morgan strode off, nodding hurriedly to strangers caught staring at him.
Shave and Simmer was all simmer but no shave, as Edgar was realizing under the pensive expression of Morgan as he stroked a straight razor against the underside of Edgar's neck. The barber would graze, flick, graze, flick, spattering cream and bristles onto the ground like a wild artist. Although there was a damp rag resting on Edgar's shoulder at this very moment, when asked, the barber insisted this was the most efficient. Judging by the ghostly throng packing the business, Edgar was dubious that efficiency was an immediate concern of Morgan’s.
The thin walls of the two-storied building let in trickles of sound from the café under the floor, of dishes clattering in a sink and tea cups being rested on plates between mutters and a loud bark of laughter here or there. With a satisfied nod, the barber withdrew his blade, slapped on a dollop of aftershave onto Edgar's cheeks, massaged it, and tossed the adolescent a cool towel.
Morgan's business, it seems, was eclipsed by the one below.
"My apologies," Morgan said as he stropped his blade with his back to Edgar, bringing it up to the light here and there to check the edge, "were it not for my hands, it wouldn't have taken so long. It's the arthritis, you see. Or, something of that nature, I'm sure." The way Morgan spoke was with a slow, pensive, regretful tone, as if every ail of his life was his own fault yet he was powerless to change it. Edgar felt a pang of pity, watching the man who would've ideally been in the prime of his life, carefully cleaning a blade that was the only starry object in the entire, derelict room. The shop, lacking many windows to let in what little sunlight London could afford between the thick cloud cover, was supplemented by two gas lamps set in the walls, their glass enclosures blackened with soot thicker than a fireplace's. The low glow set the lines in Morgan's deeper, his expression disquieting in its deep brooding.
"But with you looking nice and proper, young Edgar, we can finally get started."
"On cleaning, sir?"
“Cleaning? Why's this?”
"Well it's obvious, isn't it?" Edgar remarked, rubbing his cheeks. The sheen of lavender-smelling aftershave was settling nicely into his pores now that they’d been closed from the cool towel. "Your shop, sir, well, don’t take this to heart but ..."
"What's wrong with it?”
Edgar wondered where to begin, explaining basic cleanliness to Morgan or asking him when was the last time he scheduled an appointment to see if he needed a pair of thick optics.
“We’ll be needing pen and parchment,” Edgar got up from his chair, feeling both brave and sympathetic, partially due to being shaved properly for the first time since his stubble began to grow, “to make a list, that is. If we’re going to be up to our arses in shit, we might as well know just how severely."
It was midday when Edgar flicked ink across the floor after dabbing a pen into a bottle with a thick, black crust like charcoal on its rim. Morgan protested, before Edgar pointed out that the other curious, unnameable substances on the floor were doing the ink proper in welcoming its addition.
With the top half of Shave and Simmer matching its better bottom in quality, Edgar sipped the cold remnants of coffee served from a press while Morgan finished polishing off the only mirror in the dingy barber shop. It was the last thing that needed cleaning, and thank the heavens for that, Edgar had seen more hair, cream, and molded, spilled hair products than he thought existed in all of London.
"Feeling fresh, sir?" Edgar asked. "You could eat off them floors."
"Yes," Morgan chuckled, not for the first time that day. "This was what I hired you for. I saw you and I thought, well, injecting a bit of fresh life just might be what this business needs." With a confident stride, Morgan swept open the door to the balcony and shouted, "At last, we're open!" with wide-spread arms above the soaked and utterly empty Hollow Crescent Street.
It was a half hand passed midnight.
"Just a shade past the peak hour of business, don't you think sir?"
"Admittedly, yes," Morgan said, pacing back into the shop, stippling with a downturned head. “Edgar, I regret I've not been entirely honest with you."
"Yes, yes, truthfully I was pleasantly surprised that you had a keen eye for the shop's appeal and—“
“—general hygienics, sir."
"Quite. However, the real work I had in mind for you is in the yard out back. After me, if you'd be so kind."
In the short, cramped patch of garden space that the Shave and Simmer was hiding behind its front, Morgan began a frantic check that the 'missus' had finished closing her café and was asleep in the backroom. Only a single gas lamp was burning inside, still, the harried barber took at least five minutes peering through the darkened windows.
"At last," he sighed when the light winked out, "some freedom from that insufferable woman's ceaseless prying.”
In the total twelve hours that Edgar had been on the premises, he hadn’t seen nor heard ‘the missus’. For all he knew, she was a conjuration of Morgan's coping mechanism. “This can't wait 'till tomorrow, then?"
"Certainly not. The matter is urgent and the timing ideal. Edgar. Listen closely, what I'm about to tell you might seem strange, but you’re .... you're a good lad, aren't you? Well, not good in the typical, do-right-by-god sense, but, you know, eager to please, to work?”
“What are you getting at?”
“You’d enjoy a sudden bit of wealth, wouldn’t you? A lad like you?”
“It couldn’t hurt, sir,” Edgar agreed, wondering if Morgan’s madness was reaching its peak for the day now that he’d complemented his exhaustion with another finger of gin. As the boy wandered about the garden, fending off the man’s monologue, he tripped over a bit of earth.
"You see I've discovered something, Edgar, something I regret but I feel I must not carry any longer, a burden. One day, you might come to understand. Alas, you are young. Very. Young. You see, every man on earth must at once make a horrendous mistake to know the true depths of a soul's depravity. It seems at least once we must crawl out of such trenches to appreciate the kiss of sunlight on ..."
“Morgan, what is this mound right here? And that one, over there in the corner?”
"They are the, ah, the purpose for which I hired you. You see, they're a few, well, how do I put this? ...
Edgar took a deep breath. Suddenly, the fresh air in the garden and the wide, open sky muddied by the fog came in intense detail, and Morgan's eyes—deep grey, he was certain they were grey—popped out at him through the dark, crescent moons of bruised black rimming his red eyelids.
So it wasn't the drink that was ailing him. If anything, the gin had done him some good. It was sleeplessness; guilt had been devouring this man like fire burst over kindling.
“Mr. Brooks …”
"I won't hurt you, I promise," Morgan breathed a shuddered breath and took a step back from Edgar. "I simply need your help." Appearing from inside the half apron still tied around his waist, a small but heavy purse of coins landed in Edgar’s hands, who was too dazed to do more than stare at the lumps of soil around the garden, wondering just how shallow they were, wondering just what Morgan said to the café owner to satisfy her questions when she asked weeks, or merely days before?
"No qualms, Edgar Doss. If you aren't up for it, run off with what you got there and consider it a payment for your discretion. But if you are, then there's another one of those purses for you at the end of the night. Hell, you can work for me afterwards, too … a token of my good faith. Whatever it takes to earn your … continual silence."
Edgar checked the contents of the purse, the dull sheen of the silver inside dispelling his hesitation almost immediately with a warm flutter in his heart. This was the sort of wealth that made men disappear, which, he supposed, was quite the point. "How many others have you tried to hire?"
"You think I have dozens of those purses lying around? Did you see that you were the fifth customer I had this afternoon, and that I payed you to come in? You were the first one, by god I swear it."
"How did they die?"
"Must you know?" Morgan hissed impatiently.
“Was it intentional?”
“Can’t this wait 'till after?”
“No. Not if you want what you say you want.”
After a pause, Morgan relented. “The first by accident. The two others following you could say were … inspired by the first mishap.”
“Men this world could do without? Men like Mr. Dudson?”
“Kindred souls, no less. Edgar, I promise you."
The last thing the boy wanted to do was give the man a reason to second-guess his instincts t hire him. Yet, Edgar's curiosity weighed heavier than the purse in his hands. “Then why can't you finish this on your own?"
"It's true. I could risk it. I could do it myself. Only, last night, sleepless, I had something of an epiphany. It's not easy work, and I can't promise you a clean conscience nor steady dreams to follow. But it will be discrete. It'll just require a bit of finesse, a dash of timing. Now, my plan is foolproof …”
Edgar strode back into the second story of Shave and Simmer with a fresh press of coffee and a wet kiss on his cheek from Missus Reiner who seemed all too pleased to see a young face, for once, working for Morgan steadily rather than briefly. According to her, most 'apprentices couldn't suffer that man's peculiarities for long'.
Looking out from the back window as Morgan finished up another client, Edgar admired the fresh plots of daisies, tulips, and even lavender bushes that had taken place of the mounds they'd dealt with just three weeks passed. With a contented smile in his new outfit, one that he had several of in his recently-leased flat, Edgar walked to the other side of the shop and gazed out at the street.
The shop’s bell chimed farewell to the customer.
"A lovely day, Mr. Brooks," Edgar reflected and sipped his coffee.
The slick, rhythmic swipe of Morgan's blade on the strop ceased. The barber approached the window and joined him in admiring the steady flow of London squalor and luxury as it passed by in varying earthy tones and the rarer, brightly dyed fabric. A spring sun was leaking through the clouds and falling brightly on the street’s business.
"Just so, Edgar Doss."
And for the first time in many years, the butcher's boy felt at home. He even felt guilty for taking Morgan’s second purse. Maybe in a few month’s time, he’d help advertise enough business to help earn the investment back. The authorities wouldn’t discover them, this the boy was sure of. If Morgan could charm half as well as he could scheme, all of London would be lined up to purchase his pamper and cologne special along with the traditional shave.
The boy's chest stopped and started at twice the same pace. His hand shot to the window, his breath flared against the pane. A ponderous, recognizable figure was walking across the other side of Crescent Hollow, his fat-footed gait aiming for the café doors.
"Morgan," he began, "look who it is!”
"Is that ... is that Mr. Dudson?"
"Not exactly," Edgar replied with a small grin and a glance at the barber.
Morgan's brows furrowed. “Are you certain?"
“Without a shade of doubt.”
“Who is it, then?”
“Why, it’s a dissatisfied customer.”
To Slaughter Sparrows
Ascend these soldiers, their wings
Are called for humble graces, my kings
Shatter goblets and countries, all likely
A blithe performance, certainly
Our Prince Reaper’s harvest growing
Devil taps a nail, song spun on bone
And down, down descend the soldiers so
Quarrel flocks like murders flown
On wings, wings of steel and oak
Yet Murder! Murder! some village somewhere sings
Far off, death’s still a tragedy
And up, up and up that body floats
Light as feathers in powdered smoke
Punctured steel and sinew rends
Life like life casts itself in pints
There they march, brave souls
Romanticizing stupidity and casualty
Ascend these soldiers, their wings
Tire and dread their marching, my kings
Dismantle borders and throats, all likely
A blithe performance, certainly
Our Prince Reaper’s harvest growing
Imp tracks like infantry soles,
Souls sewn up in taut sacks of thousands
Thank the ephemeral ghosts don’t decompose
Else Hell’d be an insufferable home
I’ll have your head, but may I take your coat?
Yet Thief! Thief! some city somewhere sings
Far off, this arrest’s a fantasy
And up, up and up that body swings
A thief dressed up with final prayers
Silences the crowd with stuttered feet
And crow croaking as his bough creaks
An elegy fit for kings
A hollow cathedral, her pane's broken
Shatters decorate the ground, her silence
Thickens with the now empty knells
Where even phantoms do not delve
Carved close, the cherubric stonework
Calls itself home to none any longer
Still, inspiration breathes without body
Like a damp rose catching fires failing
Little can be said for this place
For the luminescence along the walls
Though forgotten, still, they are not--
His footsteps echoing in her corridors
Hymns akin to sirens draw him deeper
An intoxication that lusts for more
That craven spirit lost to linger
And draw his hand along dusted shelves
In that place ...
Where even phantoms do not delve
- Art by Andrzej Masianis -
The Illusion of Destroying Originality
The end of January marks an important point in my young life. That is, finally having some semblance of a life returned to me after finishing the 200k word monstrosity of a book that I started in the middle of last February. Although I am not completely content with that number given the time it's taken, I often forget that throughout this period, I wrote dozens of poems, more than a handful of short stories, as well as articles, blog posts, and I even squeezed in a journey abroad during the summer. At least, that's what I try to remember so I can sleep better at night.
Today, while I procrastinate weeping in front of the final moments as they materialize in the last pages, I thought of a topic relevant for any writers wrestling with a question that haunted me throughout this entire process. More importantly, I want to share the catharsis I found after resolving it.
Should I read the works of other authors while penning my novel?
If you asked me a year ago, my answer was a dead, flat, "no". Like many, if that question was ever directed at me, I told them that I was not comfortable with the notion because I found that the author's writing style snuck into my own, that I began to unconsciously mimic their inner voice after hearing it in my head. If any eyebrows were raised at this, I would immediately whip out the following anecdote.
Back when Little Harlequin was a freshman in high school, after writing the first three chapters to his first novel, he sheepishly presented it to, of all people, his gym teacher. We'll call him Professor Remus Lupin. Professor Lupin, (who would later become an English and language instructor), was a published author of a short book for middle-grade students. For any readers abroad, this is generally between the ages of ten and fourteen. Seeing as how he had experience in the publishing industry, Little Harlequin clung to Professor Lupin and squeezed out as much as advice as he could get without risking becoming the untimely victim of homicidal throttling.
Adolescent nuisances aside, almost immediately after the class during which Little Harlequin attempted to unearth and wield an innate talent in dodgeball that was never discovered, he approached Professor Lupin.
"What did you think?" Little Harlequin asked. Even then, the boy suffered from few delusions of grandeur. He was prepared for a walloping. He still is, by the way.
Professor Lupin chuckled, shook his head and after shuffling the pages between his hands, the very first thing that left his mouth was this: "You've been reading a lot of Poe, haven't you?"
Little Harlequin's jaw slackened. Psychic gym teacher? Genius? Or ... had he simply seen the gargantuan paragraphs of psychological reflection on part of the protagonist as he underwent deep, emotional pain that was revealed by little else than a corner twitch of his upper lip?
Perhaps I missed my chance being the teenage apprentice in one of those stories where the protagonist is learning a supernatural ability from an adult, though I suspect Professor Lupin was neither of these. But it wasn't a shot in the dark, either. Criminals leave traces at crime scenes. So do fanboys in their writing. And, at the ripe age of thirteen, I wasn't just a Poe fanboy, I was endeavoring to prove that I was his freshly minted reincarnation. (I am, but more on that some other time). I already had The Raven memorized and was fantasizing about the day in which I would tattoo a few of those soul-wrenching lines upon my very own flesh in tribute to my only god. Professor Lupin was right. At the time of writing that manuscript, I was gorging on Poe. My writing screamed the fact.
I've ah ... well, I've since balanced out my tastes. The world also owes me a favor, seeing as how I kept that heaping 90k word pile of angst tucked away in my bedroom back at my childhood home. It did, however, provide some foundation for The Lupine Curse, which has hopefully evolved from 'pile of angst' into 'despondent eBook orphan left on the side of the road'.
It was at that time in which I first heard this piece of advise: if you are in the midst of writing a book, go easy on reading other works of fiction, lest you muddle your inner voice. For writers that are aiming for a 50k manuscript and hammering it out in a month or two, or even a 100k in a few more, this seems like sound advice. However, the situation becomes more complex once we dip into deeper waters, it even becomes counterintuitive. This year, after I surpassed 100k words in my manuscript, I realized a few things:
Damn, I have been writing this book for awhile.
Damn, it's been some time since I read a good book.
Damn, that's because I'm only reading my book.
Damn, this book is going to be longer than I anticipated.
Damn, this book is going to be much longer than I anticipated.
And finally ... the words are blurring together.
After that day with Professor Lupin, I followed his advice for years. With today's work being something of my fifth novel but the first one that I am going to push for traditional publishing, I had gotten used to the rhythm of immersing myself in my own inner voice, and after the marathon, enjoying the luxury of being humbled by authors far greater than myself. Unfortunately, writing is something of a daily addiction. Seeing as how I am not of the mind to divorce myself from the infinite insight offered from books, this creates an obvious conflict.
The longest book I ever wrote before this one was 110k words. Taking a break here and there worked because, back then, I wasn't so committed. After all, the book took me three years to complete. I didn't mind halting the drafting process so that I could learn from the culture that I was hoping to contribute to.
These days, I am not willing to spend three years on drafting alone. And these days, I understand that I am not nearly brilliant enough to sacrifice the wealth of insight and beauty that other books offer. I refuse to believe that my originality will blossom to newfound heights in the instance that I isolate myself from the thoughts of others. Quite the contrary. After too long, it begins to suffer. Less arguably, life is simply too short. (That is, if you're one of those writers who actually enjoys reading.)
After hitting the 100k word milestone for my current work, writing short stories, poems, and other pieces, my mind became a circus (and not the good kind) of contrived personalities, voices, phrases, and dialogues of my own imaginings. But what was beginning to harrow me, was that it was utterly starved of other's. Being somewhat of a loner already, having mounds of my thoughts and writings building into a cacophony began to feel less like a professional stint of production and more of long sequence of drug abuse.
I was starting to drown. The ink was filling my lungs and I began to panic. Production slowed, and deeper than I'd ever gone, it seemed, I dug into recesses of willpower and determination to see through some difficult days. Though I was getting stronger with inspiration as the exception rather than the rule, something was lacking. My general philosophy is to forge our fate rather than wait for a wistful feeling to nudge it along every now and then, but even that perspective comes with caveats. I like to keep inspiration as a whisper in the back of my head rather than an echo I am trying to remember. Not because I need inspiration to work, but because I know that, naturally, a healthy rhythm often provides it. If inspiration is popping through the window less often, it's not because a literary Muse has decided to neglect me for another, it's because my eyes are too filled with cobwebs to see clearly.
Even after my vacation abroad, which happened neatly in the middle of the book, I was closer to scratching my head than typing the keys. I don't need to explain to any of you how a vacation for a writer has nothing to do with halting a story or forgetting about it. The less you work on a novel already begun, the more it haunts you.
I had drugged and indulged myself on my own mania too intensely for too long. It was beginning to feel numbing rather than stimulating. I didn't need a break, I just had one.
What I needed was the excited voice of somebody else. Anybody. Their own madness. Their own originality. Their own brilliance. The energy of their creation coming to vivify the weakened spirit of my own. What I didn't need was an excuse to stop writing. What I needed was motivation to do it better.
Believing that our originality is going to be blotched by another author's is a tricky thought. It's tricky because art is a thief's realm anyways and we are all, whether we like it or not, reshaping what has already been passed through thousands of hands. Down to our daily interactions outside of writing, we are reinterpreting fodder into fiction. If we are to disallow ourselves the reading of another's work while drafting, then I suppose we should shun movies, series, and any media portraying fictitious interactions and dialogue, lest we unconsciously design our protagonist too closely to BBC's sociopathic and endearing Sherlock Holmes, or pick up on the witticisms between children in Stranger Things. (Don't you see how hip and young I am?)
The point is that inspiration is clay and we're the sculptors. But too long at the same piece and we get into the habit of using old tricks to do what we already did before. Reading is a way of taking in other techniques and perspectives we may not have considered, not for the sake of mimicking them, rather to add some heat to dwindling flames.
Instead of perceiving reading as an intrusion on our voice's self-actualization, think of it as reviewing a few recipes while you create your own, not for the purpose of mimicry, rather for insight, for inspiration, for clues in finding your own way. For instance, imagine that you are creating a character that is deeply, psychologically disturbed. The Tell-Tale Heart comes to mind. You remember how Poe shows his reader the horrific perspective of the protagonist rather than a narrator's more objective standpoint. We begin to wonder how we might do it differently, or take an emotion from his example and morph it into our own? Looking to craft a scene in which heart-stopping drama is sat next to humor? Observe what Zafón does in The Shadow of the Wind or The Prisoner of Heaven. Need a demonstration of modern surrealism, take a walk to Murakami's Kafka on the Shore.
This isn't muddying the waters, it is enriching them. We take inspiration from our own lives. Why shouldn't we allow ourselves to do the same with fictitious ones? Again, we aren't taking it apart sentence for sentence, analyzing how a character is developed or a plot thickened; we aren't focusing on the turns that the author makes in their syntax. We can to learn to separate solution from technique, product from style, actualization from inspiration, and so we should certainly be confident enough, after a few years at least, to recognize when our voice is not our own.
Despite having leapt for my dear sanity onto the other side of the fence, I still believe that if we read too much of one author immediately before writing stints, we prompt the blur of their voice with our own. Even still, if a paper cut has been sustained, the immediate solution is not lopping off the finger. There are remedies for this. Between reading and writing, give it a few hours, or days, depending on your schedule. Read multiple authors at once. And, most importantly, immerse yourself in your own work before writing the next portion.
Writing a lengthy novel efficiently often comes with demands on our social lives, daily routines, and comfort zones. It has the potential to effectively isolate the author from others. So let's not allow it that next step of isolating us from the creations of, quite possibly, the only other people who can truly empathize with the process. Who knows, their words might even help us along the journey.
The October Diaries XXX | Final Measure
October 30 - 31,
Thus it would never be a good thing
These ideologies of purity
So we would burn like sulphur
To clean our skin with delicacies
So we would drown and suffocate equally
Without indulgence in dark eccentricities
Mirrors never birthed self-fixation
Our flesh, however hallowed, always craved sensation
Vampires, old crones, shapeshifters and sprites
The old-tome forsaken whose tales are forgotten
These are our brethren, never neglected
A family lineage, characters of our flesh
Shrouded in terror, lest they perish
We cannot enchant merely with truth
Some innateness which adores fiction
An immortal appreciation born to envision
Hope in bleakness, love in stoicism
Desires darkness for its conception
Not twofold but in multiplicity
Do our spirits shift and seek
Thoughts like bodies, possessing
Craving every life's excitement
Which word whispered sparked a shiver?
What touch caressed beyond senses?
Which brush of lips invigorated
And so tortured without end?
In much this way we create
Possibility from fantasy's extremes
So does fiction instill visions
Tangible as apparitions briefly breathing
Through present and memory alike
Our angels and demons made thusly
Two sides of one coin's tossing
Shimmering in continuity
Thus it would never be a good thing
To keep the lights on fully
The October Diaries XXIX | Twofold
Black petals wilt to ribbons
Our skies a beatific reflection
Of our devils tempted by honesty
The lies spoken in truth's disguise
To taste what killing feels like
Nothing haunts better than regret
For fear of what end's been worsened
We flee moments bred to live
Left in the mud, cast in the gutters
This is what we become, murderers
So frightening, their sharpened teeth
Our demons gnawing upon dreams
Yet seldom they act without our consent
Embracing this asymmetry grotesque
So we make of ourselves, faultless
Like for like, thought for thought
It all seems misshapen and contorted
Unjust, wildly misplaced, our fragility
Squandered and traded for waste
We wail with why's, then don a face
For answers are best left softened
Their bitterness traded for repentence
As our monsters growing still
Hiding as they've always been
There under our beds, asleep
In the nightmares of us, we bred
To be not angels, but demons instead
The October Diaries XXVIII | Strings
Strings are tying together
Some frayed, others tangled
Dried blood marks their seams
Still they tighten, loose ends bereaved
Centermost, their creator
Neither conscious nor oblivious
Neither master nor apprentice
Fingers caught between seams
Closed eyes, all touch, no reason
Sitting still, weaves spinning
As strings knot his heart with ease
A seeming fragile web, growing
Lifts his weight so subtly
Now suspends a mesh of dreams
Ribs and skin shed, he breathes
And so all crimson strings beat
A veinous mechanism of volatility
Shakes and twitches from its centerpiece
Risen and unburdened
Tangled yet contented
Closed eyes, working hands
A steady frenzy for fruition
Entwining efforts twisting
Deeper and deeper--
The October Diaries XXVII | Grekkel’s Song Pt. 2
“In the name of Commander Raymor, let me through!” Lock shouted and shoved at the back of the crowd constipating the narrow bridge that ran over the Parmollis River, the only connecting point which dissected Symillia’s north and south districts. Lush duskwood trees still boasting their peak blooms were just then letting their first leaves shed, lining the Parmollis with bronze made to glimmer from the sunset’s light through the droplets coating their backs.
The causation of the impenetrable wall of citizens was a troupe of acrobats taking turns swinging from one side of the bridge to the next, their daring flights above the foaming waters assisted by the spidersilk ropes harnessed to their back and sides. As it took more than a bare leg or stomach to get northerners to smile and spare a coin for any performance, these Addorian street performers were, incidentally, nearly naked in the autumn sun which burned on their skin like summer.
Drawn by the impeachment on their more deprived culture, enthralled, aghast, the Qalmorian crowd of mostly elves were watching this spectacle with an almost shocking disregard for all other matters.
“Oh for mercy’s sake. IN THE NAME OF COMMANDER RAYMOR, LET US THROUGH!” Lock bellowed.
With the crowd sufficiently silenced and drawn to the attention of his bright uniform, Lock huffed petulantly, admittedly at a loss for what to do next.
“What’s the squabble, then?” one of the performers panted after landing gracefully atop the bridge. A layer of sweat covered every perceivable surface of her. Next to the braziers were their collecting cauldrons, currently having a difficult time keeping in all of the coin that had been garnered. Lock understood why. He was having difficulty not devouring her body with his eyes.
“I have been commanded to retrieve a healer of Calan. As this bridge is the only passage to their chapel, there was no other foreseeable way to cross other than interrupting your performance. I apologize, but it is urgent business.”
“In the name of Commander Raymor, sure, but who’s it coming from? Some sorry whelp! Can’t be much important, then. Another round for the boys using our taxes!” A stranger punctuated this with long, slow claps.
People often misinterpret Qalmoria’s reputation for breeding well-mannered folk as an absolutist depiction, as Lock was reminded by the sight of this heavily overweight elf approaching him in a vest stained by a number of unidentifiable fluids. The misconception wafted over to him in the form of unbearable breath.
“Lieutenant Tammen of Her Majesty’s Oathswords,” Lock lied with only a flickering tell that was lost to even the more skeptical listeners. The crowd forgot some of its temptation to defy the impeccable cuts of his uniform, now embellished with imaginary importance and reputation. At the sound of the word ‘lieutenant’, the performers lined themselves up neatly on either sides of the bridge’s guardrails with nervous expressions on their faces.
It was unlikely that their acts had been sanctioned by the city to begin with.
“Why do you need a priest?” somebody asked.
“There is a problem in the southern streets of the city.”
“What, has your commander forgotten to send a runner for his afternoon tea?” the same bloated elf cackled, though he’d seem to have lost the support of the crowd at this point.
Lock flashed the belly of his rapier from its sheath and was about to complement the gesture, before somebody who couldn’t see his movement interrupted him.
“What is the problem exactly?”
“It is some kind of illness. A … a pestilence, if you would.”
At this word, both the crowd and the acrobats assaulted him with questions.
“Are the Marrows safe?”
“What about the Silver Cast?”
“Did your commander receive word from Crowcrest?”
“I … I do not have all of the answers!” Lock stammered and raised his voice. “That is why I was sent for.”
“What are we to do?”
The realization stunted Lock’s overbearing demeanor, making him feel once more as the boy grinding his teeth beneath the world’s expectations, the questions he never had answers for. Of course, the desperation in their eyes was begging him for more than just answers; they wanted reassurance. It was well past the challenge of rendering a commanding presence. He’d now earned the responsibility behind its weight, and they expected him to do something with it.
“Why, this … this matter will be sorted out shortly, there is no need to panic or do anything. So long as we can secure a priestess of Calan, there is no need to fret. You may, ah, return to your performance as soon as we’ve crossed. I apologize for the interruption.”
“Why’s that girl with you? Does she have the sick?”
“Yes!” Lock decided. “You’d all do well to keep a wide berth.”
With the citizens squeezing themselves tight across the bridges sides, Meige and her brother did their best to make her appear ill, executing this by slinging one of her arms over his shoulder and feigning a limp. When the going became too slow, he crouched down and hefted her weight up before rushing past the crowd and into the open air of the bridge’s northern end.
“If you had any reservations about abandoning your oaths, forget them. The Crimson Corps will relieve you of your duties forcefully once they heard of this,” Meige said after they were out of earshot. But by then, it didn’t matter if they had been whispering or shouting. Screams were coming forth from the bridge, now, joining together with accusative shouts and the sound of stomping heels as some began to flee.
Meige turned just in time to see somebody fallen at the heart of the crowd, while a group of strangers made quick work of the chaos to grab a fistful of silver from one of the collecting cauldrons.
“By the five highest,” she muttered.
They hastened their pace into Symillia’s northern districts while guards whom had heard the screams rushed passed them.
Lock prepared himself to answer any questions they had concerning their involvement, but found that they were both ignored entirely.
“That hardly matters anymore, does it? The girl at the well, did you see how fast she succumbed? Happy one moment, dancing the next. Gods save us. ”
“We don’t know if she died, we didn’t stay long enough to see,” Meige said, though there was no confidence in her words.
“Do you think it’s him, then?”
“Oh, Lock,” Meige groaned. “I know that story’s always terrified you, but that couldn’t have been anything but coincidence.”
“You think so?”
They quieted as they approached the long, short steps cascading down from Calan’s Chapel, its innermost rings interrupted by gardens still in blossom. Lock approached the heavy duskwood doors and banged on the iron knocker fashioned in the likeness of a balled fist, (which he found rather redundant). The three towers which the chapel rose into each hung bells of differing size and metal, and when rung in complex sequences taught to the clergy within, they could issue out various melodies for whichever festival or event was being celebrated.
On Hallow’s Eve, they commonly performed Grekkel’s Song, much to the mixed horror and delight of the children still young enough to believe in such things, or to young men like Lock, whose fearful imagination never seemed to outgrow childhood nightmares.
A woman’s voice issued through the door, just barely discernible, quivering with old age. “Many blessings of good health on you, strangers, but our order’s services are closed for the evening.”
“But it is scarcely the evening yet!” Lock protested
“Lieutenant, why don’t you let me talk to them?” Meige muttered. “Good priestess, this is not personal business. Somebody has fallen ill in the inner city, gravely ill. We require your assistance, and would be willing to pay for any services rendered. Handsomely payed.”
“Calan bless you and the ill, child, but our goddess simply cannot help you at this hour.”
The abruptness disturbed both Meige and Lock, who’d grown up around priests and priestesses of Calan all their lives. Of all the Five Highest, Calan’s followers were ever the embodiments of generosity, gentleness, and compassion. Their forthrightness came out only in the face of scolding habits or lifestyles which caused poor health in the first place. In the face of payment, as they often worked for charity alone, rejection in this situation was unheard of. It would be a captivating detail you told at a gambling house to spark up a conversation with quiet dice rollers.
“Please, priestess! This is important!”
“Why were the symptoms of the ailment?” the old woman asked.
“She … she bore none. Then, suddenly, she fell over,” Meige replied.
“Perhaps she fainted, nothing more.”
“No, priestess. She bled. She bled … though there were no wounds. Before long, her skin ran white.”
“So it’s reached you too, then?”
Lock stepped away from the door, now keenly aware that the square they were in was deserted, far too deserted for the time of day. “Meige,” he said, “we have to go home, now, to find mother and father and leave the city as quickly as possible.”
“It’s no use, child,” the priestess said, having heard his whisper, for she had cracked open a cut in the chapel entrance.
The small, individual-sized wicket door that was apart of the grand doorway opened wider. Like breath from a yawning mouth, the air inside the chapel twisted the siblings’ insides, partly from revulsion, but mostly from fear. The woman stepped aside to allow them to peer into the wide halls of the chapel. With hands over their mouths, they looked in.
Every spare bed typically used to house the ill or impoverished was taken up. Dirtied linens, buckets, discarded clothes, dried spots of blood covered all. Somewhere in the back, they discerned an ambiguous shape like a small hill of linen. Peering long enough, Meige recognized smaller details making up the mound. Bodies. And not just dozens of bodies. But multiple mounds. Coughs and low groans could be heard, choirs of the dead in differentiating stages of departure.
And the priestess, she was not old at all. In fact, she was scarcely a few years older than them. Only, whatever pestilence had gripped the city had taken hold of her as well, turning her skin a grey pallor tinged with a dark hue like algae that gripped her throat and the corners of her lips, turning some parts black at their darkest points.
Having seen enough, Lock cursed and tripped over his own feet in an attempt to stride backwards.
“We tried …” the woman began, one hand clinging to herself and another reaching out, as if she was torn between begging for help and dying alone, “we tried,” she said again. Now sobbing, she shut the door partially, leaving just a crack to speak out of. “It started not five days ago. The pestilence, the disease, this curse, whatever the gods have given us … it has different forms. Some it kills without warnings. Others, like myself, more time than we are certain of. But soon, soon enough … all of us.”
“Not all, priestess. There is hope, yet,” Meige said. “You mustn’t think this way!”
“No tincture, spell, blessing, or enchantment has worked. We have been trying, testing, tirelessly. Siflos, Morros, Afimer and Bafimer, all of their orders have barred their doors as soon as word spread.”
“Why did nobody say anything? Why was the city silent? Has Duchess Esmerelda not gotten wind of it?”
“Duchess Esmerelda,” the priestess laughed, a despairing sound which ended in a fit of wet coughs. The hand she rose to cover her mouth did not successfully block all of the blood that consequently splattered the floor at her feet. “Duchess Esmerelda is dead. Brought this back … from her travels. A gift from the royals, you could say. That is why we were ordered not to speak of it. They were … afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” Lock shouted before he realized his anger had risen his voice.
“Vulnerable to attack. Without a ruler, Symillia is weak.”
“You mean to say Symillia is halfway in its grave at the hands of their damned discretion?! The lot of us won’t have the grace to know why before it’s taken us!”
“It isn’t her fault, Lock!” Meige clenched her arm.
“But it is, child. He is right to be angry. If we had known what this was, we would have never followed their orders. I am sorry. Blessings of Calan upon you, children. Blessings of the Five, of all the gods, lesser and greater. We need them all, now, more than ever.”
The wicket door closed.
Lock, who was still on the ground after having fallen, stared at the space where the priestess had been silently, his eyes falling on the blood she left in the few moments she spoke with them.
His sister turned to look behind him, at the northern districts of the city.
How quiet and empty their streets were.