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What We Build: How Architecture is Changing My Relationship With My Faith

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St. Francis Xavier Church in La Grange, IL

For my husband and I, finding the right church has always been a struggle. I’m not proud to say that we’re Goldilocks Catholics, who often find this church too hard and another too soft before settling on one that’s just right.

Part of this is because we both spent most of our twenties as lapsed Catholics who had fled the simple church parishes we grew up in. The ones that invited parishioners to eat mostaccioli in the rectory basement at week’s end, pretty much wrecking our every Friday night. And warned us of the ill-health effects of masturbation.

Our lapse in faith was also, in part, influenced by a hang-over of intellectual pomposity from our college years. For a while there, we became those insufferable atheist types who treat their unbelief like its own religion.  Thank God that was a short-lived phase. Even more than being a heathen, I just hate being a bore.

But we had our legitimate, more mature reasons for turning our backs on Catholicism, too.

We’d become enraged by the pedophile sex scandals that began coming to light in the early part of this century. The fact that our very human church leaders displayed some of the worst of human behaviors, leaving children – particularly young boys – vulnerable to sick and fallen clergy who were too embarrassing for the Church to bring to justice. This alone seemed to justify all of our less justifiable gripes about our religion.

Two things brought us back into the bosom of our faith.

One was having our first child. When faced with the prospect of raising our very own human into someone who will be a good citizen and over-all credit to our species, we  thought about what went wrong with us, and which we hoped to rectify. We also thought about what went right. How we turned out not to be that jerk who doesn’t tip, the awful neighbor who’s always ratting people out to the condo board, the parent who will host a birthday party and exclude only the handful of uncool kids in the class, then post pictures of the event all over Facebook.

Reluctantly, we had to admit that most of our admirable characteristics came from our grounding in faith. Even the meanest nuns and most whiskey-pickled priests, by and large did their part – however clumsily – of inculcating in us a deep and abiding sense of right and wrong that has served us well in our lives.

Dammit, we said. Those blue-noses were right!

The second reason we returned to our faith was that for the first time in our lives, we found a church community that we truly felt a part of. Thanks to my accidental meeting with a priest in a bookshop in a chic part of San Francisco of all places – something people of faith might call Divine Providence, and more secular types would say was the height of cosmic sarcasm – my husband and I got talked into attending mass at a local Catholic church. A sweet, unadorned mission-style church with dark wood and a bit of stucco.

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St. Gabriel’s Church, San Francisco

Honestly, we thought it would be a one-time thing, but we got hooked from the start. Out of nowhere, we found ourselves looking forward to going to church every single Sunday, listening with rapt attention to Father John’s sermons. He would talk about what it means – in word and deed – to truly love another being, and tackled sensitive subjects such as racism and sexual abuse with candor, but without the sanctimony that often accompanies such topics. Father John never put himself above sin and his sermons always made us walk out of mass eager to be better people, looking forward to the opportunity to practice what he’d awakened in our hearts.

Making the decision to leave California and move to Virginia would have been simple as boxed cake if it hadn’t been for St. Gabriel’s. We were that sad to leave our church and  felt we were doing our children a disservice in denying them the opportunity to grow up in that wonderful parish.

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“We’ll find a place we love again,” my husband said. “We just have to believe.”

And we did. Soon after arriving in Virginia, we stumbled upon a monastery way out in the countryside, at the end of a road that ambled up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It had a tiny chapel and offered an intimate, meaningful experience for the odd jumble of Catholics who drove in from all over the county each week. Quickly, we grew close to the Cistercian nuns who made it their home and the soft-spoken South African priest who officiated our services. In that tiny chapel, we sat happily on uncomfortable little wooden chairs and once again looked forward to church every Sunday.

Father Joseph’s sermons were a bit cerebral, unlike Father John’s, which had been delivered with poetic language in an Irish brogue, no less. Yet they were inspiring and thought-provoking, weaving Nietzsche’s perspectivism into his Easter sermon for heaven’s sake, and offering forthright insights about the crises of faith he’d experienced throughout his life.

During the sign of peace, which is the part in Catholic mass when you turn to those around you and offer your hand and a kind word, we would turn to the nuns for more than a handshake. We’d get a hug and a smile, a whispered personal inquiry. “How’s little Josephine?” The sisters had prayed for our daughter when she was born deathly ill. That gave us tremendous comfort and we felt a genuine flow of love between us.

At the end of each Sunday service, when Father Joseph would say, “Mass has ended. Go out into the world and glorify the Lord with your life,” it felt like a directive.

As our sense of community at our new church grew, we attended monastery “work” days, when all of us who went to mass at the tiny chapel would come to garden or help box the cheese the nuns make on premises. They sell it in fancy little gourmet shops to folks who just love the idea of buying cheese from such a pastoral and holy place. You can hardly blame them, and the cheese is really, really good (this is a shameless plug).

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Boxing cheese at Our Lady of the Angel’s Monastery

Even after Father Joseph had been called away to head another monastery, we remained. And we felt it was our privilege to get out our checkbook when the plans for a new church were drawn up – a much bigger one that would accommodate the faithful who had grown so fond of the monestary. No longer would we have to stand, or get out the folding chairs and line them up at the back of the chapel where you can’t see a thing. We’d have actual pews and plenty of them.

When it was finished, the new church certainly was lovely. The stained glass is magnificent and the interior is both simple, in honor of the carpenter we worship, and gorgeous, with a nod to the glory of heaven.

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Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, VA

But there’s a problem.

The new design, while in the Cistercian tradition and perfectly appropriate, is awful. Built in an L shape, it separates the nuns from the congregation. The altar actually faces away from us, but not in a pre-Vatican II kind of way, where the priest would officiate with his back turned to the faithful, but facing the altar, and presumably, God. In this new design, we see only the side of the priest, who gives his sermon to the nuns, while occasionally glancing our way.

We know this is in the Cistercian tradition and what this monastery was built to be. The little chapel was never supposed to become a parish per se, it just evolved that way. There are several actual parishes around town that are meant to cater to the faithful in the way we long for. So, fifteen years into our journey of renewed belief, we’ve found ourselves adrift again – not adrift of faith exactly, but of a place to practice it with any real enthusiasm.

We still go to the monastery work days and are always happy to see the sisters we feel so close to and we love helping them out. But we don’t go to mass there very often anymore. Not even on the big holy days, like Easter and Christmas. We have a bit of cover since our kids are enrolled in Sunday school at another parish in preparation for receiving their sacraments. Our monestary doesn’t offer Sunday school. But the sisters know and we know the real reason we don’t come to mass.

And yes, we do feel a sense of shame.

See, Father John from St. Gabriel’s in San Francisco – the man who welcomed us back to our great and flawed religion – once told us that faith was our responsibility. It was not incumbant upon a particular parish to provide it and as Catholics we had to nurture and expand upon our own sense of meaning and self-knowledge. To expect anyone to do it for us, whether that be a priest, or good sisters or terrific homilies or a sweet country chapel is simply lazy and doesn’t, in fact, bring us closer to God. That approach is more like shopping for a good TV show.

He’s got a point.

But in these times of secularism, dissolving trust in our institutions and overall light-speed change, it’s hard for people trying to keep the faith. The formality and distance of the newer, bigger and better church we helped build at our beloved monastery is not the same place of warm affection and affinity that it once was.

We can no longer reach out and touch the sisters during the sign of peace, or even see them during mass. A waist-high iron gate now separates us from the altar and from them.

But the sisters always stay and talk to us after the service. They tell us to please come and visit and pinch out kids’ cheeks. When Sister Sophie’s parent’s farm in India was wiped out during a monsoon, everyone banded together to raise money to help them rebuild. We plan to make a big pot of curry for her this Christmas.

For all of its new design “flaws,” our church is still there.

Maybe, that’s what Father John from St. Gabriel’s had in mind. This is the next part of our faith journey. When we hold close what we’ve been given by the various religious folk who have helped shepherd us home, the churches that have invited us in and given us a belief in more than ourselves again. It is perhaps time we stop searching for the right architects and build our own house of faith.

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Some More Original Stuff

I’m writing a new chapter of Savage Island this week, and really shaking things up! To give you a hint…there will be a shark. That and other gushingly romantic and suspenseful scenes. Plus, I’ve got a lot of new stuff up on Patreon, including.

  • More Savage Island!
  • Writing on the Brink: 2 new episodes of my mini-vlog.
  • Snow surfing (don’t ask).
  • New visual inspiration for the epic series I’m storyboarding (that means plotting with words and pictures).
  • This weeks photo of Barney, my dog and writing companion.

Words, photos, videos and dogs right here on Patreon!

Now that’s some crazy spiritual architecture right there!

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Savage Thankfulocity

attentionLast year on Cold, in honor of Thanksgiving, I wrote a little note of thanks for all the things I was grateful for. It felt so downright redeeming to sit down and think about the good and great in my life, that I thought I’d make it a yearly event. A twelve month retrospective of the gifts of life and liberty, which not only inspire in the mere pursuit of happiness, but its realization.

So, here goes.

I’m grateful for Barney. He’s the dog I didn’t want. The dog I swore up and down we wouldn’t get. Just the thought of house-training him, feeding him, and walking him made me want to cry. With three kids, a husband, and a mother in my house, I didn’t want to take care of a single other living thing, dammit! And yet, he’s brought such joy to our household. I simply forgot how critical a dog can be for a teenager. He’s the one creature who will never judge you, yell at you, lie to you, break up with you, or call you uncool. The little bugger is always over the moon when you come home – even when you’ve only been gone for fifteen minutes.

Barney’s laying on my lap as I write this, in fact. Snoring his head off. Yes, he’s chewed holes in blankets and barfed in my shoes, but he’s worth it.

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This about sums it up

I’m thankful that my mom quit smoking and has started, for the first time in her life, going to the gym.  Ok, yes, it took a stroke and a broken hip to get her here, but let’s not quibble about details. It’s easy to lament our hardships and lose sight of the fact that the bad stuff also brings with it a sprinkling of magic dust. I am so grateful for that.

I’m also thankful for the way the Eiffel Tower is lit up every night, for vintage photos of Cairo, my husband’s wicked laugh, my son getting his driver’s license, the novels of Alan Furst, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, Diana Gabaldon, Elmore Leonard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera and so many others who have brought wonder and empathy into my life.

I’m ever so grateful for the searching souls who read my fiction and missives. I love that you let me into your worlds and am humbled and honored when you tell me that something I’ve written has been of value to you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Fall leaves, wood-burning stoves, cinnamon, baby pictures of my children, soccer practice being cancelled, friends who show up and support you even when you didn’t ask them to, anti-itch cream, old cemeteries, ghost stories, the ladies of country music, fairytales, combat boots, old wood floors, and funny notes complete strangers leave in your car. These are all things that put a big smile on my face and have me skipping through the day.

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This was left on my husband’s front seat

I love nights when I don’t have to cook, photo booths, southern accents, miracle cures, and seat warmers.

Wednesdays are great because I get to go out for Chinese dumplings with my middle daughter after school. Weekends offer time spent with our youngest, who still likes her old mom and dad’s company and thankfully doesn’t have better plans most of the time – at least not yet. Visiting colleges gives my husband and I the opportunity to kidnap our oldest child and only son, making him hang out with us under the auspices of helping him launch his life. We take what we can get and are grateful for it.

About a month ago, I read a short news article about how the bones of a Neanderthal child were found in the belly of an ancient predatory bird. I am so grateful that we live in a time when our children are not in danger of being eaten alive, for the most part.

In that vein, I have immense gratitude for toilets and all indoor plumbing, good hygiene, antibiotics, acne medication and hair dye. Then there’s the republic that has given my family safe haven – the United States of America. I’m so grateful my mom risked life and limb to bring my brother and I here. It’s a rare gift to have visibility into what your life could have been like compared to what it is. And how easy it is to forget that living in a functioning democracy is nothing short of winning one of life’s great lottery’s. It’s better than being born with beauty or a big brain. It’s even better than being born rich.

So, let’s pump our fists in the air for a moment and say, yes! to that.

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Bravery and good manners are pretty terrific, too – especially when they come in one package. And I’m so, so thankful that I haven’t felt the burning shame of lost opportunity this year. That one stings.

Finally, and this is the big one.

Several months ago, I saw a homeless man carrying a sign. It wasn’t the usual request for money or work. His sign read simply, “I’m tired of being alone. Please help.” I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. I wish I could have thought of something, anything, in that moment. The fact is, I failed and ended up driving by, feeling completely impotent.

In the days that followed, I wondered if I shouldn’t have brought him a sandwich, or offered just some gesture of kindness, no matter how small. I looked for him – hoping I might encounter him again, but there’s been no trace of him since. Maybe he was an angel – I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I was unable to give that homeless man what he needed, he gave something to me. And the very least I can do is be grateful for it. What I am most thankful for is the love in my life. The fact that I have so little loneliness that there are days I run screaming from my house.

But I always run back.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Oh, and guess what?

Savage Island is back! I’m grateful I was able to write another chapter this week!

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As a gift to you, my cold friends, I’m posting Chapter Six of Savage Island for free on my Patreon page. This chapter is all about dangerous pursuits and questionable characters, so start reading here, then click to finish!

Chapter Six: The Dreaded Axis!

Savage Island Axis Powers

Near the ledge at the drop off is where it’s least dark, and Ku and I are determined to follow its line all the way back to my village. It really isn’t that far, but a twisted ankle makes it bloody awful. I’m gimping along like a broken toy, and the only bright spot is that my pained expression looks to be about my actual physical pain. Not that Will Tongahai makes me do and say the strangest things. Or the fact that Will and Oliana had a thing going before he went off to school and that everyone on the island appears to fully expect that thing will be a forever thing.

Don’t know why I even care. He can go ahead and marry her if wants. Not like I have any intention of remaining on this rock after the war or anything. I’d die of boredom a thousand times.

“Go ahead,” Ku says, crouching. “Hop on.”

Ku’s back, wide and muscular, ready for me, gleams in the night and I limp over to him. Climbing up, I wrap my arms around his neck and he stands with a feigned groan.

“You eat the whole pig, little A?”

“You’re hardly one to talk,” I say, reaching up and smacking his cheek.

I shouldn’t be so shaken about damned Will, but I am. I mean literally, I am shaking, and I have been since we left the plank. It was just a dream, after all. A dream that feels more real than anything I know, but it’s still a damned dream. Only ever since we got here, I’ve felt my old life slipping away from me, that’s all. Even dad and Jamie being gone. Gone forever. That seems far away now. Not like it happened so long ago – more like it happened to someone else. I haven’t cried once about it since we arrived on Niue. Not even when I hear mum having a good blub like she always does nearly every day at the crack of dawn. When she wakes up and remembers that it’s real. Her men are never coming back.

“I hope you’re not in a crank,” Ku says. “I mean, I was just teasing. And I’ve carried heavier sacks of coconut than you.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’re just quiet, that’s all,” Ku says. “I haven’t known you long, but I’ve never known you to be quiet.”

I pinch his ear and bring my lips right up to it.

“You want another smack?” I ask him.

“From you? I’ll take it.”

Ku stops. Down below, I can hear the waves shattering at the base of the cliffs, and the sounds of a barn owl and a cuckoo in conversation.

“You tired?” I ask Ku. “I can walk, you know.”

Although I’m none at all happy about that prospect.

“No, I’m fine,” Ku says. “I was just…well, I was just wondering if maybe you’re upset about what I said about Will. And my sister.”

“Why would I be upset about that?” I try to be convincing on that one, really I do.

“Angelie, Will’s a good bloke. He wouldn’t set out to wreck you or anything. He’s an odd bloke, though. Always has been.”

“Yes,” I say. “He is.”

Ku puts me down and turns me towards him. Such a sweet face he’s got. Handsome in the way of the good ones, with the kind of smile that’s not lying to you, charming you into liking him more than he likes you. And just for the sport of it. He takes my hand and I let him. It’s rough and tough-skinned from all the farm work he does, and patterned with cuts from cleaning fish. Some long-healed, some from yesterday. Can’t see those scars now, but I have in the daylight, and I like them. These hard-working hands of his add to Ku’s warmth and good-nature. A girl would be lucky to have a bloke like him weave his fingers through her own. Call her his sweetheart.

A girl who isn’t me.

“You know,” Ku says. “I can’t blame Will for wanting to get to know you better, but…”

A sharp squealing noise cuts into whatever Ku was going to say next – thank God. It’s come on the wind, from just where the Drs. Neville and Vogel were taking their geological samples this morning. Ku’s brow scrunches up, but I know exactly what that sound is.

Click here and keep reading! You know you want to…

Savage Island WW2 Pacific island fightPatreon is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artist (and I hope that’s me). For about the price of a cup of diner coffee, you’ll get access to lots of thoughtful, original artsy stuff that I think you’re going to love.

This week:

  • Chapter 6 of Savage Island, of course
  • A personal retrospective of the Pacific theater in World War II
  • More episodes of Writing on the Brink. This week my new mini-vlog centers on writing love stories, men and visual inspiration!
  • Some gorgeous and moody vintage photographs of Cairo, lovers, and British campaign furniture – all of which are inspiration for the second book in the BREATH series. These are my efforts at visually storyboarding, so you can see how I envision what a novel will look like before I even write a single word!
  • Dog pictures. Don’t laugh. They’re of Barney, our Boston Terrier who keeps me company every day as I write.

There are many really good artists out there doing their best to provide quality, meaning and magic – not fast food. I’m one of them, and I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy. It takes a colossal amount of time – much of which is spent working for free. Any help that allows me to keep bringing you the content you love is appreciated!

A third of my Patreon goal will go to Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with special medical needs. My daughter’s a camper and it was an awesome experience for her, where she met great friends and was able to do all the things “regular” kids do at their camps.

Last, but not least! I’ve got a new Love at First Write for you! This one is about using Pinterest not just to market your books and stories, but to help you tell your stories in the first place!

StrangeDreams, Ancient Languages and the Touch of a Long-Lost Love

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Without further ado, here’s that excerpt of Savage Island I promised you last week! It’s from Chapter 5. This scene comes right on the heels of a casual dinner at Will’s father’s plantation, where an ancient legend about Nin’ti was recounted by Dr. Cornelius Kandinsky Neville, archaeologist extraordinaire.

Nin’ti, for those of you who might be scratching your heads, are rather extraordinary souls. My lovers in Savage Island, unbeknownst to them, are Ninti. They share a deep and powerful devotion that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards a remarkable fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

Here, they agree to meet alone, in order to talk about a series of peculiar dreams they’ve been having….

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I don’t know why I listened to Will Tongahai when he told me to meet him at the plank. Should have ignored him for many reasons, but the most immediate one is that it’s damned dark out here at night, even with a big old moon, and I can’t bloody see well enough where I’m going. I do, however, catch sight of the plank up ahead. A contorted branch of rock that juts off the plateau, it dangles over the sea, illuminated by unfettered moonlight and a heavy dusting of stars. It’s a rather hypnotizing formation and I forget to even try to look where I’m stepping. For the damned second time I twist my ankle and but good.

“Bugger,” I say, bending down to give it a rub.

A shadow looms over me, long and lithesome, a black stain on a turf of dark indigo grasses.

“Your bones were broken and I was holding you.”

Will’s voice comes from behind me. Soft, like a sad melody. He’s close enough that I can feel the heat of his body and I don’t know how it is that I didn’t hear him walking up.

“The sand was blowing all around us, lashing our faces, obscuring the sun and turning the day into night.”

“Was that your dream?”

“Yes,” he says.

Will puts his hand on my shoulder. His touch is like warm water and I shiver.

“My father says that around a full moon, dreams are made up of memories.”

I look out at the man in the moon, suspended high above the water. “Aren’t all dreams made up of memories in one way or another?”

“I suppose so,” he whispers.

His finger trails up my neck inciting a legion of goose pimples and making my skin feel tender all over. I grab a fist full of grass to keep steady.

“Is that where your tattoos come from? Your dreams?”

His finger stops, resting gently at the base of my skull.

“Images of funeral pyres and night skies, like this one. Oceans of sand and flowers I’ve never seen before. They were all I dreamt about after I went away to school. Every time I closed my eyes.”

He places his hands on my shoulders and my breath quails. I know he can hear it. Slowly, his fingers tiptoe under my collarbone, where he lets his palms rest. They’re all hot and damp, like he ran all the way here to find me.

“There you are!”

It’s Ku, and I just about fall over.

“Oliana’s been looking for you, Will.”

I stand up, wobbling on one foot like a jack-in-the-box.

“And you’re here, too.”

“I stumbled,” I say, stupidly. “My ankle.” As if that’s an excuse to be out in the dark, alone with Will.

We all go quiet in one of those awkward silences.

“The moon will do that,” Ku says, finally. “It’s probably a good thing there won’t be a full one at your hair-cutting ceremony, eh, Will?”

Will sticks his hands in his pockets and looks down. His braid of hair overlays his backbone in the way of those spiny beasties in the outback. The ones that are all muscle with brilliant skins of fantastic colors.

“You’re actually going to have one of those?” Part of me hates to think of Will cutting his long hair. It seems a part of him. But on Niue, hair-cutting ceremonies are crucial for a boy’s journey to manhood. It makes a male child a man in the eyes of his Niue elders.

“Will was supposed to do it before he left for school, but he wouldn’t,” Ku tells me. “Told his parents a boy becomes a man when he takes on a man’s responsibilities. Not when he cuts his hair.” Ku slaps Will’s arm. “That what you’re going to do Will? Take on responsibilities? Maybe make an honest woman of my sister?”

My flesh runs absolutely cold and I look up at Will, my mouth gaping like an imbecile’s.

“There’s nothing dishonest about Oliana and I,” Will says. “We were children.”

“She cried her eyes out when your mum and dad shipped you off to England.” Ku shrugs, crossing his arms over his chest. “And now, here you are.”

“And here I go,” I say, just about wanting to vomit. I test out my ankle and thank God it’ll do. I’m not staying here another second.

“Wait,” Ku says. “I’ll walk you back in case you fall again.”

He rushes up to me, but Will Tongahai doesn’t follow. Damn him! Instead, he walks onto the plank and stands at its very edge, his silhouette stamped onto the face of the very moon that’s inked onto the back of his neck. His head is turned away from us and facing out towards the sea.

“Ah’kwara patu ve,” I call out to him. The words just spill out of me and I cup my hands over my mouth. My heart bats in my chest.

“What’s that gobble-dee-goop?” Ku asks me.

Will cocks his head and I know he understands. Even if he can’t possibly. Even if I’ve never known the words I spoke and can’t imagine where they came from. I only know they were in my dream, and I wrote them down this morning as soon as I opened my eyes.

They mean, I was born for you.

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I’m going to be posting some tantalizing weekly snippets of Savage Island. Tasty morsels of adventure and romance that are more than a bite, but less than the whole cake. If you want the whole damned cake – and it’s going to be a good one – the kind of cake with butter and cream frosting, a layer of pudding in the middle, colored sugar crystals and candied violets. Oh, and sparklers. I love a cake with sparklers! Well, if you want that whole cake you can either wait until Savage Island comes out late next Spring, or you can click on over to my Patreon page, where for the price of a cup of diner coffee, you can not only read a new chapter every week, as well as get behind the scenes commentary, history and photos, but enjoy lots and lots of other artsy stuff, too. Things like my mini-vlog, Writing on the Brink, lots of vintage art and photographs, new original essays, and even some pictures of my dog, Barney. It’s a whole world of magic and meaning curated for you.

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Patreon, for you newbies, is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artists. There are so many really good artists out there doing their best to provide quality, meaning and magic – not fast food. I’m one of them, and I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy. It takes a colossal amount of time – much of which is spent working for well under minimum wage. Please think about supporting the artists you love!

And if you want to add a cherry to that cake we talked about, a third of my Patreon goal will go to Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with special medical needs. My daughter’s a camper and it was an awesome experience for her, where she met great friends and was able to do all the things “regular” kids do at their camps.

So, check it out and see if you like it – There are some public posts, too, so click here for access:  Patreon is world in and of itself!

 

Love at First Write: You will know my name! A Writer’s Thoughts on Monikers and Aliases.

So what’s in a name, you might ask? Everything. Imagine this: The name’s Bond, Jim Bond. NO! As writers, we struggle to get the names of our characters right. So how do we approach this naming business? Listen here and find out!

 

 

Even Cowgirls Like Me Get the Blues

Country by Cactus BlossomsI’ve made no secret of the fact that since moving to rural Virginia, I’ve become a major  country music fan. While I’m not one of those people who loves anything written about a pick up truck and a pair of cowboy boots, I’m also not one of those purists who won’t listen to anyone after Hee Haw ended either. I love Zac Brown and think Carrie Underwood’s a lot of fun.

But that’s neither here nor there.

Because for once, we’re not going to be talking about this music-lover’s seemingly radical conversion to honky-tonk. Not much anyway. We’re going back to my roots in sweet home Chicago, where the blues still manage to find an authentic home, and aren’t treated as a cute nostalgia act.

Howlin' Wolf Portrait Session

The blues are to my home town, Chicago, what the movies are to Hollywood. Hollywood has glamor and the onus of excess, plus a healthy splash of nihilism. Chicago lacks the luxuriance of its slick cousin, but makes up for it with a style that’s built of grit, the faith of Job and cool. Violence and corruption are in that city’s bones, but so is resilience. Chicagoans are above all survivors, which is why I believe the Blues continue to thrive there, packing festivals and venues with tourists and locals alike, even though this genre of music has long gone out of fashion in the actual music industry.

Maybe it’s because the Blues have managed to transcend their genre.

Many who go to hear Melvin Taylor or Buddy Guy would never dream of putting them on their iPod. They go because when you step into a Blues show, you step into another world. One of old school heroes and villains, rain-slicked alleys, and a sense of the vogue that gives dignity to even the most down and out cast of characters.

chicago blues white

The Blues have a distinctive sense of place and time. You won’t find them in Bali or in California’s wine country.  The Blues belong on the streets of big cities with mafias, crooked politicians and vibrant African-American communities.

And even its most modern artists and aficionados seem somehow to have stepped out of the past. Or more accurately, they were simply left behind. Forgotten, forlorn, foregone. Because unlike the glitz of the California movie set, the Blues belong to regular people. The ones who didn’t make it and never will.

It’s for that very reason why I prefer listening to the Blues live, rather than putting them on at home – which is exactly the opposite of how I feel about most of my music. Going to hear a Blues show is like going to the theater for me. One that combines my favorite literary genre – Noir – with the razz-ma-tazz hang-over of Big Band Jazz. The Blues have the energy of Big Band, the technique, but is no celebration of living. No, the Blues is more akin to a bender than a night out on the town. The kind of self-abusive leisure that cements camaraderie among losers.

Blues Brothers

Blues and Noir inhabit the same universe, stalking the same joints and living through the same long nights. Sometimes barely. They go together like whisky and cigarettes.

How many contemporary genres of music and literature can you say that about?

I mean, really.

Though born roughly of the same time, the psychedelic youthalopolis of the Beatles and the old school world of James Bond have little in common, seeming to exist in separate universes altogether. Just try to imagine someone on LSD and wearing bell-bottoms stepping into the same joint as a slick spy who drinks top shelf martinis and sports a tux. Or Snoop Dogg trying to belong in the world of Harry Potter? Or Kardi B in Outlander (although Kardi is a national treasure, dammit, and I’d take her anywhere)?

The blues and noir walk hand in hand through yesterday and today, seeing the same events in roughly the same way. They eat the same foods, drink the same rot-gut liquor and would vote for same political candidates, if they thought voting would change a damn thing in their lives.

So, tonight, instead of the usual Lyle Lovett soundtrack that I like to play while I’m fixing dinner, I’m going to put on some Miles Davis. Because I’m feeling kind of blue, but in a good way.

Coming soon…more snippets of Savage Island!!!

If You Hate Passionate Kisses, Don’t Read Any Further! (Savage Island, Chapter Three)

Breath_Kickstarter_paragraphheaders_WIP01-1_STORY_smallThe one side of Will Tongahai’s face is aglow in firelight. The other blends entirely into the night, making him look like a handsome ghoul. His thick, long braid of hair snakes over his shoulder and down past his breast. It’s fairer than it looked at a bit of a distance. The color of raw honey, instead of the shiny black of most Niueans. But then he is half British.

“Quite a change from Sydney,” he says.

Will is tall, taller than me at any rate. My eyes look in to the hollow at his throat.

“You been to Sydney?”

He shakes his head, and the torchlight flickers for a spell over the whole of his face.

“Then how would you know this is a change from Sydney?” I ask him.

“Well,” he says. “Just a good look at you for one thing.”

Will Tongahai turns on his heel and saunters towards Vogel and Neville, his broad shoulders barely sheathed by the worn, white linen of his shirt. He wears it that way on purpose, I guarantee it, and feel sorry for the girls here who beg for his attention. Quite clear he’s only interested in himself. There he is chatting up who could be the damned enemy for all we know. The three of them hover around Mum’s drinks table, and I stride over plucking a coldie from Mum’s cooler.

“Angelie!” Aunt Kitty slaps my hand, making me give it back.

The three of them turn and Will Tongahai grins big as a moonslice.

“He got one,” I say, pointing to him.

“He’s nearly eighteen,” Mum says, Aunt Kitty standing behind her, arms all folded in a see, I told you so way.

“And I’m sixteen and will be seventeen.”

“Months from now!” Mum clarifies for everyone to hear. “Besides, he’s a young man.”

“Not old enough to join the Navy, I hear.”

I can feel the three of them staring at me and that Neville bursts out laughing – a deep, throaty laugh that’s all plush new velvet. My cheeks burn hot, because I know I shouldn’t have said it. I mean, at least Will tried to join the war, and damned near would’ve succeeded if his roommate hadn’t ratted him out.

Mum takes a deep breath and tells Aunt Kitty to go fetch a bottle of rum for Dr. Neville. So, it’s Dr. Neville, is it? She uncaps the beer Aunt Kitty practically pried out of my hands and gives it back to me. I look her right in the eye as I take a long, deep swallow of the ale, which I hate and she knows it.

“Go set an example and sit down,” she says. “It’s time to eat and everyone’s just standing around.”

I nod, heading towards a banquet flanked by long-stemmed torches with bulbous heads consumed in blue and orange flames. They’re almost as bright as city streetlights and make the dining area the one place where you can actually see where you’re stepping.

“You must be Angelie.” A Niuean girl about my age comes up carrying two jugs of fruity wine.

“That’s right,” I say. I take one jug to help her out and wince. It’s sticky and gums on to the front of my dress. “Great.”

“Sorry about that,” she says, biting down on her lip. She’s got those big eyes like they all do here. “I’m Oliana.”

“It’s ok,” I tell her. “At least it’s not red wine.”

She giggles nervously and I give her my friendliest smile. We then take the jugs to a sideboard laid with palms and try to corral some of the elders into sitting down.

Something of a feast has been thrown together in honor of our new guests. We got one of those, too, when we arrived, although this one looks a bit more…more, I have to say. I sit down at the head table – the longest one – and wait, my eyes grazing over all the varieties of roasted fish. They’re surrounded by various preparations of taro, coconut, yam and breadfruit. There’s even some smoked ham and scary-ugly platters of giant coconut crab – alien things that Pacific islanders are convinced ate Amelia Earhart after she crashed.

“That’s why there was no sign of her,” they say.

Those give me the creeps and I will not eat them, no matter how good Mum claims they are. Of course, Will Tongahai plops down next to me and picks one right up. He dislodges its abdominal sack – a thing filled with a thick, oily fluid – and goes to work slurping it down.

“It’s good,” he tells me. “Tastes like peanut butter.”

I know it’s impolite to grimace when someone’s eating, but I can’t help it. “Well, I’ve never had peanut butter.”

“Hmm,” he says. “Come to think of it, neither have I.”

Oliana hovers near Will, clearly dying to take a seat next to him. In the end she chickens out and takes the chair next to me.

Dr. Neville and Max Vogel sit directly across from us and allow me to serve them.

It’s rather quiet on our end of the table as we start to eat. Clearly the travelers are starving. The other side of the table is all chitter-chat and Albert plays his nafa in a low beat. He strums his fingers over the top of the drum, while shoveling food into his mouth with his other hand.

“You going to drink that?” Will says. I notice his beer has been empty for some time.

“I was, yes,” I say. He waits as I lift up my beer and put it to my lips. Counting to three, I chug the whole thing down and place it back on the table with a thump. Will signals a local boy and asks him to bring us two more.

“Since you like it so much,” he says.

Dr. Neville sits back and dabs his napkin at the corners of his mouth like he’s some sort of gentleman. Max Vogel, on the other hand, places his elbows on the table. His banana blonde hair is blown back by the same swift ocean breeze that makes the flames around us shudder.

“Kandi,” he says to Neville in his short, German clip. “Mr. Tongahai tells me we can set up tomorrow morning. Claims the weather should be perfect all day.”

By Mr. Tongahai, he must mean Will’s father, the plantation owner.

“What are you setting up?” I ask.

Dr. Neville removes the statue from his bag again and places it on the table.

“You see this?” He says. “My father found it in a street market in Egypt. Paid almost nothing for it.”

“Is it an Egyptian god of some sort?”

Neville smiles, his teeth as white as Chiclets. “It’s not Egyptian at all. Much older.”

“Sumerian?” Will Tongahai offers.

“Older even than that. At least that’s what he believed.”

I look the thing over, its strong thin body punctuated by an elegant pair of clawed feet that look quite at odds with the way of the head. That is all ferocity and intelligence.

“Like the essence of life itself,” Will Tongahai says, as if picking the words from my mind.

“Correct, young Will.”

“If you found it all the way in Egypt,” I say. “Then what’s it got to do with here?”

Max Vogel chimes in.

“It’s carved from a type of rock that I am convinced exists deep beneath the desert floor in certain parts of the Sahara. Such a substance would be difficult to excavate under normal circumstances and quite impossible to access in these troubled times.”

“And what, you think this substance could be found here, on Niue? We’re all the way on the other side of the world.”

“Ah, but we weren’t once,” Dr. Neville says. “Have you heard of Pangea?”

I shake my head.

“It’s a theory that holds all current land masses were once a supercontinent back before they broke apart during the Triassic and Jurassic periods. That was over two hundred million years ago. Such a continent would have placed where we are right now rather close to the origins of the substance this strange little statue is made of.”

I touch my finger lightly to the statue’s head and feel a slight shock, like when I used to touch the metal railing at our old apartment just after rubbing my feet over the rug.

“But Niue didn’t exist back then,” says Will Tongahai.

“Oh, it did,” Max Vogel says. “It was much bigger, in fact. A real land mass. As Pangea broke apart, it was submerged into the Pacific. It broke the surface again many millions of years later when the volcano on top of which you now live became extinct and this coral atoll was formed.”

Will Tongahai chugs his beer like it’s water, and I feel a sick compulsion to do the same. No, in fact, I one up him and pretty much finish mine, ending with a burp that takes me by complete surprise. Dr. Neville and Will Tongahai bust up and I can’t help but join them. Even Max Vogel allows the corners of his mouth to turn up just a little.

“So, you’re here to find more of what this statue is made of?” I ask, suppressing more burps.

“Perhaps,” Dr. Neville says. “We’re here to take geological samples anyway. Dr. Vogel is one of the top geologists in the world, and he seems to think we have a decent shot.”

He pets the head of his statue and if I didn’t know better I’d swear the thing’s been staring at me this whole time.

“May I?”

Dr. Neville hands the figure to me and I’m struck immediately by how warm it is. The heat from its core spreads from my hands into my wrists and up my arms, flooding my chest cavity like a gush of hot tea. All at once, I feel a searing pain in my face and my ribs, then my hips as if my bones have been broken by a series of heavy, wrathful blows. In the next twitch of time, the pain is gone as if it never was, and I’m left breathless.

“Are you alright?” I hear Will Tongahai say.

His words seems remote, like an echo.

Pinpoints of sweat break out all over me.

I start panting.

I can’t speak.

It’s as if my heart stopped and started again.

Everyone is looking at me.

I drop the statue on the table and rise up. Unable to manage any sensible excuses, I hurry off, tripping over the knobs of coral that pimple the way to the shore. Once there, I hobble along, arms out like airplane wings to keep balance, until I just can’t go any more. I’m breathing so hard my head is spinning. In the distance, I see the Arches of Talava – two of them anyway – the moon shining on them like a reading light. The water hisses and sputters as it hits the rocky beach just a few feet away.

“Hey,” I hear from behind me. “Hey, Angelie!”

I guess Will Tongahai knows my name.

He comes up next to me, his dark skin seeming blue in the alien glow of the island night.

“What is it?” He asks.

I glance up at his face and he’s looking at me with real concern. I feel bad that I just up and ran away like that.

“I think I had too much to drink too quickly.”

That smile of his again. “Impressive how you practically gulped the whole pint in one go. Took me some practice to get that good.”

“Well, maybe I’ve had some practice, too.”

“Hardly!” He says.

Now I want to wipe that smile off his face with the palm of my hand.

“What do you mean hardly?”

“I mean that until tonight you’d never had more than a sip of beer in your life, and that much you hated.”

He crosses his hands over his chest and tips his head to his shoulder, as if weighing me.

“You know that do you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I know you’re a little prince on this island, and I bet a big city like London was a shock to you. So much competition.” I practically spit out that last word.

“I was in Canterbury, actually.”

“Oh, well, Canterbury then.”

“You know what else I know?” Will steps closer and I clench my fists, planting my feet on the rough skin of beach. There is no way I’m stepping back. Not one single step.

“Can’t wait to hear,” I say.

He drops his cheeky smirk and gets very serious all of a sudden. “You’ve never been kissed.”

For a moment, he and I just stare one another down.

His eyes actually pierce the darkness even though they must be the color of mahogany. But I see these ribbons of amber curling around his pupils, and crimson threads as well. Sumptuous and royal. Damn they’re beautiful. And damn him. He stands there, none at all backing down. Comfortable, immovable, like a Rodin sculpture. While I feel as wayward as a mermaid. I don’t know what makes me do it. A kind of fury, I guess. A low rumble of temper that starts like faraway thunder and grows. I veer towards him, taking his face in my hands. I press my small lips against his very plum ones, sweet and wet as if he’d just licked them. And I do it hard.

Will lets me at first. Damn bugger, I even feel him grin while I kiss him. I’m about to push him away – I swear I am – when he takes the back of my head in his palm and brings me close in a deep, deep kiss that goes even deeper as he bends me back. It’s none at all like I ever imagined being kissed. Not tender the way Humphrey Bogart kissed Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Will’s kiss is wild. It’s like the wind Aunt Kitty is so afraid might sweep me off the tops of the arches. The kind that blows my hair this way and that, scoops the breath right out of my rib cage. Every stroke of his tongue – on my lips, the roof of my mouth – is a star burst of sensations. Right when I think I can’t take another moment, his hand slips down my neck and his hot breath drifts over my cheek as we pull apart. His eyes are incandescent, even this close, and they wander over my face like he’s known me all my life.

Yes, I think to myself. Will Tongahai has most definitely kissed before.

Savage Island first kiss

Patreon is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artists. For as little as the price of a cup of simple diner coffee, you’ll gain access to stories like Savage Island as well as book excerpts from novels-in-progress, essays, and so much original art and content that’s been curated just for you! One-third of my Patreon goal will go directly to Camp Holiday Trails, a great summer camp that caters to children with special medical needs. My daughter camped there again this summer and had a ball!

New Love at First Write: Beauty is about so much more than a pretty face or a hot body. In great stories, we use beauty to inspire empathy, to foment passion, to find the weakness in another human being and destroy them. It is truly an awesome tool and on this LAFW we talk about how to use it and use it right.

 

Another Dispatch from Savage Island

Chapter two from my new BREATH inspired novella, Savage Island is here. This story is like Indiana Jones meets Twilight with a little bit of Outlander thrown in for good measure and I so hope you’re going to enjoy it!

Breath_Kickstarter_paragraphheaders_WIP01-1_STORY_smallI elbow my way around a group of islanders, all bunched up together and gaping out at the water like they’re waiting for fireworks to start. The barge is closer now, lit up, a dozen or so lights marking its shape like a constellation of stars. The Big Shipper.

And there’s another boat. This one coming from the barge, illuminated by an unblinking eye of a light beaming from its stern. Bullying white, it even outshines the image of a full moon reflected on the surface of the bottomless, black water just past the coral reef.

Albert starts to thump his palms on his nafa – bum-bu-bum-bu-bum – and the hair stands up on my arms. He’s Mary’s son – the friendly woman from the post office. Long limbed, Albert’s built like he should be tall, though he’s a good bit shorter than me. Victoria, his sister, stands next to him all plump and pretty with a shock of curly black hair that hugs her skull like a bathing cap fixed with floppy rubber roses. She starts to sing Haku Motu. Out of tune.

“Welcome Max Vogel,” I say, mostly to myself. “I’m sure you’d much prefer Deutschland Über Alles.”

All around me there’s whispers mixed up in English and Niuean, which is how most of the people on this rock talk.

“You want a coldie, Will?” I hear mum say from behind me. Half the blokes on the island are named Will. “Swan Lager that came in from the last barge.” Leave it to her to bring refreshments.

Will, whoever he is, apparently does want one, and I hear the pop from the bottle cap as mum opens the beer.

“Fakaue,” says a soft voice more man than boy. It’s thanks in Niue. Glug, glug, glug, he must’ve drank up half the beer in three seconds flat.

Ooooo. It comes in unison from the folk around me as the boat comes up to shore and the front line of Niuean’s get a load of her passengers. I struggle forward, pushing through and the first thing I see is a neat helmet of very blonde hair – obviously blonde even in the dim glow of torchlight. This hair is perched on top of a square and lean face with the prominent bones of a predatory bird. The body, of one Max Vogel I presume, is as upright as the pressed uniform of a general, and he is everything I’ve imagined a German to be and more. Except for the way he’s dressed. A simple shirt and pants, light in color – maybe powder blue. Very casual, like he’s come on vacation.

But that’s not the strangest part.

With him is a man. Skin as dark as the night sky, the whites of his eyes like pearls. His clothes are not nearly as pale as Max Vogel’s, and seem somehow more serious. He’s crouched behind the German, his forearms balancing on his knees as if he’s thinking deep and hard about something.

“Fakaalofa lahu atu!”

A young man, Niuean, but with his waist-length hair plaited in a long braid, walks into the shallows to greet the boat. Wet to his thighs, the frothy spray of ocean water splatters his linen shirt and makes it cling to his chest. The Niuean girls are all watching him like he’s Frankie Sinatra.

“That’s Will Tongahai,” Aunt Kitty pants into my ear. I didn’t know she’d come up behind me.

“Is he the one who just returned from London?”

Aunt Kitty nods. “Only a month ago from some fancy boarding school. Got sent back here for trying to join the Royal Navy to go fight in the war, for heaven’s sake!”

The only person who’s been talked about more than Captain Cook since our arrival on Niue is Will Tongahai. He’s the grandson of missionaries from the London Missionary Society – damned Protestants as Aunt Kitty likes to say – and his mother married Nukai Tongahai, who owns the biggest plantation on the island. It’s always a big deal when a native son leaves here for the big, wide world and comes back. They’re treated as if they’ve returned from Mount Olympus and are half-god now or something.

And Will Tongahai, half-god, that is to say half-British, which is pretty much the same thing on Niue, is extending his hand to Max Vogel and the African bloke who’s come with him.

“Cornelius Kandinsky Neville,” I hear the African say.

What the bloody hell kind of a name is that?

This Neville bloke scans the crowd and his eyes fix on me like I glow in the dark. Makes sense, I guess, as I’m only one of a handful of folk who are obviously not from here. Will Tongahai turns his head to see what Neville’s looking at and his eyes find me, too. He smiles and I feel naked all of a sudden.

“Hello,” I say.

“Hello.” Will Tongahai and that Neville fellow say it almost at the same time. Max Vogel says nothing, concentrating instead on stepping out of the boat without slipping on the cauliflowered bottom of the reef.

“Who have we here?” Neville says. “More English?”

“Australian,” I say. “Sydney.”

“Ah, I love Sydney. One of the great, but little known cities in the world.” He speaks British English but with an accent I can’t quite place.

“Not little known to Australians,” I tell him.

He smiles all friendly, as if he finds my cheekiness cute or something. Will Tongahai’s eyes brush my face like he expects me to look at him the way all of those girls do and there’s no way I’m going to do that.

“What brings you to Niue?” I ask Neville. He glances over at Max Vogel who’s now waded the few feet up to shore and is blotting his pants dry with a towel.

“Same thing that brought me to Sydney,” he says.

“What’s that?”

He reaches into a sharp-looking leather bag, expensive but well-worn, and pulls out a little statue that’s only a mite bigger than his hand when held out flat. It’s got a bird’s head and wings, the mouth of a lion with its teeth bared. Odd, but I kind of like it. Cornelius Kandinsky Neville tosses it up and catches it, gazing at it like a long-lost love.

“Archaeology,” he says, pronouncing every syllable.

Love at First Write

I’m trying my damnedest to write a hero and heroine who will knock your socks off. I want to build a world that you’ll want to step into as if through a magic door. One you’ll want to live in, fantasize about, die in (I mean die metaphorically, of course).

My characters have big, big journeys ahead of them. They will live and be killed countless times while endeavoring to achieve their quest. And if you’re not gasping for air at the end of certain pivotal chapters, I’ve failed.

That’s why I started Love at First Write. I want to think through and talk through what I’m creating. I want to make sure it’s the best it can possibly be. And I want you to be on this grand odyssey with me.

This week, we’re revisiting Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and talking about what makes a heroine, specifically, unforgettable.

Savage Island…It’s Not Just a Story, It’s a World

Breath_KickstarterHeader_final_mediumIf you’ve been following my blog or any of my other shennanigans, you probably know that I’ve been in the process of writing an epic – and I mean epic in scale, adventure, romance, thrills and, and…well, lots of stuff – series. It’s called BREATH and I’ve just sent the final manuscript off to my editor for a last go-over-with-a-fine-toothed-comb. In the meantime, as I wait to begin the book launch process, I’ve found myself feeling restless and missing my characters something terrible. I’ve been pining for them while I drive car pool, while cooking dinner, in the shower, and late at night as I stare up at my ceiling and listen to the rain as it pelts our metal roof.

Finally, I could take it no longer!

Last week, I set about starting to write a novella that revisits the characters of BREATH in one of their previous lives. Once again, I’m feeling happy, fulfilled and like I want to take a break every couple of hours just to dance around my office. I do hope you readers will enjoy this as much as I do, and I’d really like to share the first few chapters with you over the next weeks and get your input.

Breath_KickstarterHeader_WIP01-2_retouchJust to remind you of what BREATH is all about in the first place, let me give you a short summary: Nif and Sherin are Ninti. They share a deep and powerful devotion that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards an extraordinary fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

BREATH is a story of lovers, killers, curses and destinies. It’s about the people who lived history, but it’s also a tale of those who unearthed history in order to preserve and understand its legacy.

You get to travel with Nif and Sherin during their adventures, but you’ll also be present alongside the past and future archeologists who are driven to solve the puzzle of their existence.

egypt-karnaktemple_nationalmediamuseum_flickr_3588098691_94d9a69c5e_oIf you’d like to know a little bit about what, specifically, is inspiring me to write this novella, let me begin with a short poem:

You are the poem I never knew how to write, and this life is the story I’ve always wanted to tell. – Tyler Knott Gregson

That’s it, in a nutshell. But if you’d also like to know a bit about what I hope to illuminate, both for myself and for readers, I’d like to give you a very short excerpt that will eventually make its way into this novella…somehow…if it kills me:

Without love and some tiny glimmer of faith – perhaps faith in God, faith in the great tapestry of which we are but one stitch, faith in goodness – it is a hopeless, numbing experience. A rational experience. And I would never wish a strictly rational mind on even my most bitter enemy. A life blind to magic, limited in its comprehension of art and unmoved by the possibilities of the imagination. Isn’t that a form of death? It certainly seems like that to me. –I wrote this one.

Without further ado:

Breath_Kickstarter_paragraphheaders_WIP01-1_STORY_small

Savage Island, Chapter 1

By Victoria Dougherty

On the island of Niue, it’s hard to believe a whole world is at war. The sky is as blue as Aunt Kitty’s eyeshadow, and whale song erupts any old time from the endless plain of ocean surrounding us. Those giant doves of the sea, cooing at us like gods of an ancient world. “You’re not of this Earth,” they seem to say. “You’re one of us now.”

One of us. No, I’m not. And never will be.

No doubt the villagers here will still trickle in to Matapa Chasm if Hitler and Hirohito have their way. Just as they are now. I see Mary, the plump-bottomed woman who works at the post office. White perfectly square teeth with a big space between the front two – she smiles at me and waves before beginning to undress. Everyone’s been very welcoming, I have to give them that. And they have every reason to be. Matapa chasm, carved out by the sea, its porous rock walls, dark as cigarette ash, will remain sheltering and remote no matter how many people die in Europe and the Orient. The fresh, cool waters will beckon these people just as they did the ancient Kings of this place centuries ago. Toes will dip daintily into the crystalline waters, as my toe is doing right now.

“Come for a swim,” the waters will say. No need to whisper. We’re far, far away and nobody will hear. Certainly not the dreaded Axis.

“Angelie!”

It’s Mum.

“I’m coming!”

“Lunch is ready! Fish.”

What else?

“Don’t want it to get cold!”

Aunt Kitty’s always afraid of things getting cold. Sandwiches, in her estimation, can get cold. So can potato salad.

I trudge carefully over the rough swells of rock, picking my shoes up off of Donald Duck, a rather big hunk of million year-old coral that’s formed in the shape of Mum’s favorite Disney character. A sign, she says, that we made the right choice in coming here. I remind her there was no “we” about it. This was entirely her idea. Aunt Kitty came along because what else was she supposed to do? We’re all she’s got.

“I saw one of those lion fish,” I tell them.

Kitty gasps. “In the chasm?” Her eyes dart over to the pool.

“In a rock pool near the Arches.”

Kitty shakes her head while Mum serves the fish onto banana leaves, careful the filets don’t break apart.

“Those are poisonous, Angelie!”

“Venemous,” I say. “And none at all deadly. Even if one of them had poked me, the worst that would happen is my foot would swell up.”

The lion fish are like everything on Niue. Beautiful, but with a murderous appearance.

“And don’t you go climbing around those arches again. Anyone can see you from above!”

Now the very sky has become a danger. See, two days ago, only a week after our unceremonious arrival on this rock, a V formation flew high over Alofi Bay. Only they weren’t birds. Mum trained her binoculars on them and recognized the markings.

“God Save the Queen!” Aunt Kitty called up to the sky, wielding her yellow cotton handkerchief. The one she cried into all the way on the journey from Sydney, wringing it over the railing – her tears dispersing into the ocean brew, same as we’d done when we left the harbor, becoming only a dot on the horizon until vanishing altogether.

“They’re Yanks,” Mum announced, passing the binoculars to her.

“They’re Allies,” Kitty countered.

Ever since, word has spread and there’s nothing but talk of the war. And that’s all it is. Talk, talk, talk. What else is there to do here?

“Those things are sharp all over and a good wind can come and blow you right off the top.”

Aunt Kitty’s still on the damned arches.

“You know they used to call this place Savage Island. For years and years, they did!” Aunt Kitty bites into a flaky chunk of parrotfish and her eyes bulge. She pulls a thin, white bone out of her mouth as if it’s proof of the hidden perils that surround us.

“They only called it Savage Island because of Captain Cook,” Mum says, laughing. “I imagine that from his perspective it was rather accurate, but it’s a good lesson not to judge things by the way they look.”

The islanders drove him off three times back in the 1770s – they’re very proud of that here and take every chance to tell you about how they painted their teeth a bloody crimson with skins of red banana, and jumped and screamed to all insanity. You know, like savages. Cook could see them up close, as his ship was only fifty feet or so from the beach. Deep water there. We’re on a rock after all, and the short shelf of coral reef drops off into a blue as deep as the Queen’s sapphire.

Last even remotely interesting thing that’s happened here, I imagine.

“Savage Island. Hard to believe Nuie was ever called that,” I say.

Mum tisk-tisks me.

“Angelie, we’re in a lovely place far away from the war. A place where people need us.”

I’m this close to rolling my eyes.

“We’re on a rock and everyone here seems to have been doing just fine without us. The people who need us are trying to keep the whole world from being consumed by evil!”

I give one big huff and Mum kisses the top of my head.

“Strawberry blonde, but all strawberry in temperament. Just like your dad.” She nudges me to eat my fish. “And we’ve given our share to the war effort.”

I pinch a piece of fish and place it on my tongue. Delicious. Fresh and salted. A hint of coconut. I tell Mum how good it is, since I feel like such a shit.

By “our share,” Mum means my brother and father. They died nearly two years ago now on a merchant ship that was sunk by a Japanese submarine. It was just after the attack on Sydney Harbor, and although there have been no attacks since, and boats like the one dad and Jamie went down on have by and large managed to keep away from the likes of the enemy, most of Sydney has been sure that at any time the Emperor himself will show up at their very front doors with two Samurai, lop off their heads, and bring them back to Tokyo as souvenirs!

“What’s that?” Aunt Kitty asks. She stands, her freckled nose tipped up and pointing out to sea.

Mum turns around and squints her eyes. “A barge, I think.”

“I thought those only come once a month.” That last one came only a day or so after we arrived.

Mum shrugs. “There was a big hullabaloo at the post office today, that’s all I know. A man named Max Vogel is coming to the island.”

“Vogel,” I say. “A German?”

Mum nods.

Aunt Kitty crosses herself. “What’s a German doing here?”

Mum takes a serving of bread fruit passing me a slice. “That’s what everyone wants to know.”

Stay tuned for Chapter Two, next week…

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And in the meantime, here’s a lovely photo of Matapa Chasm on the Island of Niue

And here are the Arches of Talava, also referenced in Chapter One:

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