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Back in the Cold!

For the last few years, I’ve been in the desert. A hot, dry, gorgeously infinite no man’s land filled with war and warriors, love and lovers, mysteries and mystics. At least as far as my fiction is concerned. My new Breath series, a historical epic with some major fantasy and romantic elements, takes place in some pretty scorching places, including the Sahara desert of the ancient past, and Cairo of the complicated, glittering present. There are even a few steamy and mucky Virginia summers thrown in there.

But you can’t keep a girl out of the Cold for too long. At least not this girl.

Now that I’m fixing to hand over “Of Sand and Bone” (Book 2 of the “Breath” series) to my editor, lighting a fire to the process of getting it ready for public consumption, I’m turning my attention back to the Cold War.

It’s high time I finish Book 3 of The Cold War Chronicles, which has been on my back burner for far too long. “Tower of Silence” will follow its predecessors “The Bone Church” and “The Hungarian,” and concern characters from both of these earlier novels. Rest assured, this story will come out swinging! With a slew of grisly murders, a cruel and cultish villainess, and a cryptic series of coded messages, “Tower of Silence” promises to be a Cold War thriller you can sink your teeth into.

Did I mention that it takes place largely in 1950s India?

This is 1950s Bombay

And just to psych myself up for a return to my beloved thriller genre, I’m debuting “The Bone Church” and “The Hungarian” in beautiful hardcover on Amazon!

The Bone Church in hard cover right here

The Hungarian in hard cover right here!

For those of you who have been waiting for my novels to be available in stores other than Amazon, your wish is my command. Within a fortnight, “The Bone Church,” “The Hungarian,” and “Breath” will be joining Welcome to the Hotel Yalta,” and Savage Island,” in stocking the virtual shelves at Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and all the usual suspects. I promise to keep you updated as I branch out from Amazon, and take my books out of Kindle Unlimited for the time being, and make them available to a wider, non-Amazon exclusive readership. I’m really excited about this, and look forward to reaching new storylovers, and working with a variety of partners to get my fiction out there!

Speaking of getting things out there, I’ve got a brand-spanking-new Love at First Write up on my YouTube channel! It’s a juicy one on the changing perception of love throughout literary history – basically from Homer to Fifty Shades of Grey! Please don’t forget to like and subscribe 🙂

Stay Cold, my friends!

I Can’t Believe It Actually Happened

Something big happened this week. A monumental thing that I was beginning to think would never actually come to be.

My children went back to school. I mean in-person, out-of-my-hair and out-of-my-house school.

Yet I find myself conflicted.

We’ve gotten used to each other’s rhythms over the past roughly year and a half, and have enjoyed large swathes of our time at home and together.

They would otherwise be out on the town, with friends.

We’ve sunbathed on our porch, gone for bike rides, hung out on our hammock, and eaten well – I even tried to give them Czech lessons. I learned that I probably could successfully home school them if I had to – although, yes, it would make it harder for me to get what I consider an adequate amount of work done. But still, it would be possible and not entirely unpleasant. I’m a pretty good teacher, after all – at least according to my students from way back in my teaching days. And my children are damned good pupils, if I do say so myself. Curious, skeptical, funny, hungry for experience, and willing to take chances.

My husband and son on a camping trip in Moab last summer

Ultimately, however, the social aspect of going to school is something we all value almost as much as the instruction. And being writers, both my husband and I need some solitude – time away from everyone, even our beloved kids and each other – in order to do our best work, our most thorough and creative thinking.

But I won’t lie. I miss them.

As happy as I was to see them driving away Monday morning – off to meet up with friends at a local cafe for some first-day-of-school coffees – I knew this unexpected, uncomfortable, yet undeniably close Covid-era togetherness was coming to an end. While I’m not anxious for the return of lockdowns, and I hope for the sake of our collective health (both mental and physical), that the Delta variant disappears as quickly as it’s flared up, I’ve not-so-secretly enoyed the fact that my kids have been forced, for the collective good, to be homebodies.

Even if I do think friend groups, neighborhood haunts, breaking the rules, and otherwise spreading their wings and sowing their wild oats (within reason) are crucial aspects of development, and would never deny them any of these on purpose.

Nor would I ever deny that Covid has cost our family and our community a lot. I lost my father to Covid. While I was raised by my mother’s second husband, a man I called “Dad,” my biological father was a huge part of my life, my story. A deeply quirky and eccentric man, he was the source material of countless, often hilarious anecdotes.

About his almost pathological obsession with the outdoors (at the ripe old age of eighty, he was still camping for a full half of the year).

And how he would play passionate concertos on our piano – beautifully – only he’d do it at 2:00 a.m., and seem genuinely perplexed when I would come downstairs and ask him to give it a rest. That the kids had school the next day!

Or that he was in love with my mother until the very end, despite the fact that they’d been divorced for over fifty years.

My father was terrified of COVID, yet single and lonely. His need for company is what would kill him, when he broke down one night and went to a local drinking hole – just for some company. Some thirty people would become infected with the virus at that bar, and he would be one of them.

My father, with a date.

We lost friends to depression. Two people we care about deeply took their own lives. Smart, funny, loving people, who had been fully engaged in life! I believe the Covid lockdowns played no small part in their feelings of despair.

And we know people whose businesses closed, or just barely hung on.

Still, I’m aware of how lucky I am. To have not gotten sick, or gone broke, or lost my mind. Most of all, to have been given the opportunity to spend quality and quantity time with the people I love most.

Looking back, I think that’s all I’ll remember. That, and my husband’s fabulous, nightly cocktail concoctions.

A fresh Hemingway Daquiri by Jack Dougherty

A Picture Becomes a Thousand Words

“There’s a theme to the art you have hung up in your office: black and white creepy pictures.” –My daughter

I think she’s exaggerating. The pictures in my office aren’t exactly creepy. They definitely have a mood, perhaps a bit of a noir sensibility mixed in with some historical context; a little woo-woo occult flavor thrown in here and there. Only one of them crosses the line into classic Twilight Zone territory, though. That one’s of The Tower of Silence in Mumbai and relates directly to a novel I’m in the process of writing.

The Tower of Silence is essentially an open air burial ground for an ancient, pre-Islamic religious sect called Zoroastrianism, and yes, that’s right, those are vultures perched on the tower’s wall. But isn’t it wonderful? There’s a sense of peace to the photo, and it reflects – at least to me – a natural order.

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And here’s one of the Jewish Cemetery in Prague’s Josefov Quarter. It’s got thousands of gravestones, all of them sticking up this way and that like crooked teeth. Bodies deep in the ground buried one on top of the other. I love the history, the religiosity, and resilience of such a place, and feel comforted by its existence. This photo, by my friend Susan, sits just to the left of my desk, and I like to take it in when I’m writing a particularly ethereal scene.

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This next shot is an aerial view of Peace Square in Prague. One dominated by perhaps my favorite neo-Gothic cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Ludmila, named after the saint and martyr who also happened to be the grandmother of Good King Wenceslaus. It is said she was strangled with her veil at the behest of her own daughter-in-law, who opposed Ludmila’s attempts to convert the Slavs to Christianity.

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Well, alright, maybe my daughter has a point. Except here’s another one. It’s not an actual print. I tore it from a picture book and intend to have it framed, as a sort of poor man’s short cut to a collection of real art photography. It’s a Jan Saudek, and reminds me of my son, who used to get so excited when the coal trains passed by our house. One time, when he was barely four years-old, a conductor let him sit in the cab and blast the horn.

Jan Saudek - boy watching train

I like old pictures. I have for as long as I can remember. They seem to mix in with my own life’s narrative quite seemlessly, the way cognac dissolves into a complex, creamy sauce tailor-made for a beef tenderloin.

Old pictures are contemplative, capturing stillness in a way that the quick and brilliant modern lens does not. Or doesn’t seem to. Perhaps it’s modern life that refuses to be caught standing still?

And old pictures are a bit like a prayer. They make us think, reflect, rather than merely react. We might end up whispering to ourselves as we ponder the unsuspecting characters we observe in those images, and the historical events we know await them. “Good, God, just five years from the time that picture was taken…”

Even the most jovial shots – of an elegant London in the Victorian Era, a wild Berlin in The Golden 1920s, a free and easy California at the apex of the Summer of Love – reek of both nostalgia and danger. Of the years, days, split seconds before influenza epidemics, Titanic sinkings, wars, holocausts, and Manson murders. Of a time before instant global connectedness, when we had little choice but to sit with ourselves, or interact with those around us instead of pretending to be busy, checking our phones.

The spell these pieces of the past have cast upon me are personal, too. They don’t just stem from the active fantasy life of a passionate story-lover, although I admit that is part of it. My interest in bygone eras and foreign lands was triggered by my own childhood perceptions of my family’s country of origin, Czechslovakia. A place that remained shrouded in mystery until I was twenty-one years old.

Due to a rigid communist regime, we couldn’t, under any circumstances visit our one-time homeland – at least not until after 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell – and we had to be very careful about any correspondence with the people we left behind. For their sake, not ours. And my parents had left behind pretty much all of their possessions when they fled, so few actual family photographs made the journey with them to America. Add to that no heirlooms, no trips to visit extended family, not even phone calls.

It was as if we had appeared in America out of nowhere. A family of no ancestors or homeland.

Klobuky

My grandmother’s village

Throughout my childhood, browsing my immediate family history felt a bit like reviewing a redacted government document stamped CONFIDENTIAL. Some of the sentences remained intact, and I got the general gist of what was being communicated, but it was like most of the names and places had been struck through with thick, black marker.

My only comprehensive connection to my parents’ pre-America world came from a stack of old books that were piled up near our stereo cabinet, next to a bunch of polka records. In that pile was one particular book – a big, cloth-covered hard book containing old, black and white pictures of my mother’s birthplace, Prague.

I remember turning each page, utterly disbelieving that this was an actual place, let alone a city my mother knew as well as our southwestern suburb of Chicago. The time-worn, coal stained buildings, the hundreds of spires and gargoyle statues, the rain-slicked cobblestones, and street signs that sported outlandishly tortuous words like Vltavská, and Náměstí Jiřího z Poděbrad, left me agog, contrasting farcically with the split-level Brady Bunch homes, the freshly paved sidewalks, and the friendly, golden arches of McDonalds restaurants that made up my day to day life.

The most ominous were the photos of lonely streets with only a single pedestrian walking. A phantom dressed in old-fashioned formality, utterly unaware of the camera. It was as if she was walking towards me personally, but would keep on walking, never once looking back.

That always gnawed at me.

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Prague, which would one day, through a miracle of history, become my home, was presented to me like an old movie set – abandoned, left only for the drive-by tourists, like myself. Not a lot different from the Psycho house that sits on the Universal Studios lot. A place that had been useful once, even famous, but now just sits empty. Gawked at by people who need someone to explain to them who Alfred Hitchcock even was, and why they should care.

“Prague was like Paris until Hitler came,” my grandmother would try to convince me. “Old, yes, but also glamorous and modern. Smart and artistic.”

Studying that old picture book made her assertions seem ludicrous. The buildings appeared dirty and haunted, the people, what people there were, a little sad and a lot distant. It looked like Prague had never seen a party and never would. It was a city that had perhaps known stormy skies and bone-chilling cold, dungeons, funeral attire, and secret societies, but never the kind of revelry that could attract the likes of Hemingway, and other distinguished members of The Lost Generation.

Of course, my moving there, and finally obtaining access to Prague’s past as well as her present, even a glimpse into her future, proved my grandmother right. As always. And showed me just how dramatically a staid narrative could be transformed, reinvigorated, even comletely blown up. Like the very miracle every known religion promises can be delivered by a benevolent God – just when you least expect it.

The Prague of post-communist 1990s, was just that miracle, and a curious place to say the least. Her once gleaming bones – some Gothic, some Baroque, others Art Nouveau and Art Deco – were gorgeous, but every bit as bruised and smudged as the old black and whites of my mom’s picture book. That part was true. Even the people seemed stuck at first, continuing to dress like it was the late 1960s. As if time had stopped when my family left, or more accurately, when the Soviet tanks rolled in, squashing the brief period of political liberalization and protest that had bloomed under a reformist president in that fateful year of 1968. A year that seemed to set the whole world on fire – in a blaze that managed to spread behind the Iron Curtain, despite the perennial wet blanket that had covered those luckless nations since the late 1930s.

Yet, in the Prague of the 90s, there was also a collective breath of relief in the air. A sense of hope and thrill that was unrivaled. A latent boldness had been unleashed, and people were drinking harder, smoking better cigarettes, dancing into the wee hours, and finally, looking forward to the what could be. The past, the present, and the future had converged there, making it the most fascinating place in the world, and all because the unimaginable had happened. The naysayers – politicians, journalists, academics, exiles – had been proven wrong.  Dead wrong. A powerful tyranny, thought to be there to stay, had not only crumbled, but evaporated. And practically without a fight.

Out of nowhere, a new world order had been born.

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The new “Fred and Ginger” building – designed by Frank Gehry (1992) – near Old Town, Prague.

I suppose it’s that experience – of immersing myself in a series of remote, black and white photos for years, and then stepping into them, witnessing something that had not only been beyond my imagination, but my wildest dreams – that transformed my life. I was shown possibilities I had long since stopped entertaining, and it permanently changed my relationship with promise, anticipation, castles in the air. In other words, faith. This new, imperishable sense of optimism took root and began the process of transforming me from an aimless creative into an author of fiction. It had shaken my American girl shoulders and awakened the Slav in me, too, I suppose, coloring in the black and white photos I’d loved so much, for so long. If that’s not a novel, I don’t know what is.

Prague Me Kampa

Photographs – particularly ones that inspired me in my youth, or I’ve gone on to “collect” in my adulthood – continue to be rich source material for my work and my spirit. I think they always will be. The places they urge me to visit become part of my make-up. I’ve so often felt like I’ve come home when I’ve stepped into the very scenes I’ve stalked in the old black and white.

I can certainly see how a lover of history, an excavator of the past, could come to believe they have lived before.

Because old pictures, too, have more than one life. They have the life the photographer captured, the many lives envisaged by the people who might gaze at the photo in a book, in an old shoebox, or on the wall of a gallery, and the life we experience when we step into the mud, onto the stone, or the centuries-old mosaic tiles captured on some day years ago, by a single click from a camera.

Those pictures inspire more than a thousand words; they give rise to a thousand worlds.

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And So We Come to the End

silhouette of women

Yes, truly, this is the end of our Cold fairytale-in-progress. Although like many, if not all fairytales, the end can signify a new beginning. That beginning might be assured – with the time-immortal words “And they lived happily ever after,” or it might be more ambiguous. What, we might wonder, happened to Hansel and Gretel after they escaped from the witch, who had planned to eat eat Hansel and keep Gretel as her personal slave? We know they returned home, even though their stepmother had abandoned them in the woods, leaving them at the mercy of hunger, the elements, and nefarious strangers. A famine in their region had made food scarce, and the evil stepmother hoped to convince her husband that his kids had gotten lost, thus leaving more food for her. Now there’s an evil fairytale villain for you!

In the end, Hansel and Gretel awaken in their beds, the morning after returning home, to the sounds of their father and stepmother arguing (no wonder!). So, maybe that’s not so happily ever after. Gretel is also left with the memory of having pushed an old witch into an oven and burning her to death – even if it was for the sake of her brother.

As for Romakaji, you’ll have to decide for yourselves whether you think she and Lionel lived happily ever after or not. I certainly did end the fairytale just as you all (most of you, anyway) wanted me to.

But, this is the Cold, after all. We do like to leave room for interpretation…

“Romakaji” Part 9

By Yours Truly

On the night of the lunar eclipse, the sky was as clear and deep as a sapphire. Romakaji gathered a simple dinner together for herself, Lionel, and Sybil, who had insisted on joining them. It included fresh apples, a bottle of wine, and a tart made from the mushrooms her friend had been gathering in the woods around their village. This batch, which Sybil had brought over the day before, was particularly pungent, and the fungi were a bright yellow the color of carnival mustard.

The three of them spread a blanket at the foot of the bridge that arched over Romakaji’s old pond. Lionel opened the bottle of wine, while Sybil cut the tart in crescents, and placed the pieces on festive little plates patterned with tiny stars. The nature witch looked up at the full moon and bit down on her lip.

“In a few minutes,” she said. “That moon will be as red as blood.”

Lionel poured them each a glass of claret. He took a long sniff of the slice of still-warm tart that Sybil had passed to him. “You said the mushroom symbolizes friendship in your family?”

Sybil nodded.

“So, before we begin our meal, and enjoy the eclipse, let’s drink to that.”

They lifted their glasses and did just so. The wine was warm and dry, and Sybil hummed with pleasure. “As for wine, that symbolizes a journey.”

Lionel smiled at Sybil and kissed Romakaji on the brow. “Bon voyage,” he said.

The tart came next, and they each placed a forkful in their mouths, washing it down with more wine. The claret and the mushroom tart came together beautifully, perfectly, vehemently. And the three went silent as they ate, glancing up at the moon, which was just beginning to change.

brown full moon in dark night sky

A shadow appeared at the moon’s edge, and Romakaji thought of Cressida, and the night she and the nature witch had spent watching just such a celestial event. How young she had felt that night, how hopeful. Then she looked at Lionel and felt just such a hope surge in her heart. Hope for his happiness, hope for a long life with him, hope for hope’s sake, hope for a miracle.

Lionel thought of the choices Count Furfur had offered him in his dream: to do nothing and enjoy a single life of love and happiness, but condemn Romakaji to an eternity as keeper of lost souls and wife to an Earl of Hell; to kill Sybil with the dagger the earl had given him and drink her blood, harnessing her power for himself and taking Romakaji as his forever bride; or to kill himself, offering his soul up to be born again, and search for Romakaji in his next life. As the minutes ticked away, and the shadow over the moon spread, he pondered what each of these choices would bring to his life. How they might change him, the woman he loved, and the world.

Sybil did not think at all. She cleared her mind and began to chant. Her voice rose up over the pond, hovering like a honeybee over a cup of juice. A nature witch knew better than to miss an opportunity to embolden her powers. Her lunar song was the sticky, silken web which bound her enchantments.

As Romakaji took another bite of the tart, savoring the earthy richness of it, the soft, spongy texture of the small mushrooms baked in the custard, she looked up at the moon in transition. Sybil’s voice wrapped around her like a sheath of muslin, while Lionel’s heart beat steadily with her own.

She felt a change within herself. No longer was she merely outside of her cottage with her lover and her friend, she was back in the early days of her life, feeling fragile and invincible all at once, as every child does. And, when Romakaji looked up at the moon, she found herself there, as well.

Standing on its surface, gazing out at the infinite, she caught a familiar movement at the edge of her sightline. There, on the horizon of her planet’s only satellite stood Count Furfur.

“Soon,” he said. “In a matter of minutes, in fact.”

orange moon in the sky

Lionel saw the Earl of Hell, too. Only in Lionel’s vision, he was not on the moon. Lionel saw Count Furfur standing on the bridge that arched over the pond. His gold chain and charm, the same as Romakaji’s, dangled from his thin, stringy neck, and glowed brightly, like Venus in the night sky. Stealthily, Lionel removed the Count’s dagger from his pocket. It was so sharp that it sliced through the flesh at the tip of his finger, and he didn’t even feel it. He looked at Sybil, whose eyes were closed, and her mouth open in song. She seemed oblivious to them, lost in her witch’s rapture. How easily he could slit her throat, leaving her to slip painlessly into infinity.

Then, his eyes grazed over his lover. Her nimble body, with skin as soft as wind, as lace, as honey. Her gaze was fixed on the moon, which was now three quarters in eclipse, and her face was a mask of concentration. Beautiful, loving, perfect.

His love for Romakaji cast a cold eye over the choices he’d been offered by Count Furfur. He knew he could not allow his lover to become a wife to such a creature. To spend time without end at his behest, caring for the wretched whom he had tempted into everlasting torment. Nor could he kill Sybil and drink her blood, absorbing her powers and awarding himself a wife as if she were a prize. He was not a murderer, and he knew well that such a bargain would corrode the love he’d found.

Lionel looked up at the moon, now fully red. As red as a sunset, a chili pepper, a bleeding heart. He put that sharpest of daggers to his chest and glanced at Romakaji for one last memory of her. It was just then that she tore her eyes away from the moon and the Earl of Hell she saw there. She looked to Lionel for what she thought might be the last time, too.

planet illustration

“Romakaji,” he said, and she gasped, seeing the weapon he held in his hand and its placement over his most vital organ.

“Romakaji,” he said again, her name like a prayer on his tongue. “Will you take off the necklace? Not the one I gave you, but the other.”

“It’s too late,” she whispered.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s a hateful thing.”

Romakaji’s hand grasped at the chains around her neck. In her fear of Lionel doing harm to himself, she was careless and her fingers tightened around both chains – Count Furfur’s and the one her love had given her. She yanked hard, and each clasp broke instantly. Her fingers let go of the chains and their charms, flinging them away from her.

“No,” she cried out, once she saw what she’d done. She watched both Lionel’s beautiful gift of love and Count Furfur’s hateful gift of deception drop into the pond she’d been cursed to for so long. Two hundred ninety-six years, twenty-one days, six hours and roughly twenty minutes to be more exact.

She turned back to her love of all loves, though in that moment found she could not recall his name. And Romakaji remembered everything. Clearly, distinclty, as if it had happened only moments before. That had been part of her curse.

“I’ll see you in a few years, I hope,” her nameless lover whispered. Holding the dagger up high, he thrust it deep into his chest.

“Sybil, help him!” She cried.

But the nature witch continued to chant, lost in her communion with the lunar eclipse.

Romakaji thought nothing of curses or consequences. Of bargains or trickery. She grasped the handle of the dagger and pulled it out of her lover’s heart in a single, violent motion. In another motion, equally as determined, she thrust the dagger into her own, long-beating heart. A heart that had survived water, loneliness, and a full one hundred-eight thousand sixty-one days longer than it should have. The many days and nights of Romakaji’s unusual life began to fade, seeming far away to her now, as if she were viewing them through an old telescope.

Sybil’s voice, loud and deep, as if coming up from a canyon, filled her ears. It seemed to pour into her, filling her veins as quickly as her blood left them. The pond, the bridge, the moon, the cottage, all whirred around Romakaji. Only Count Furfur and Sybil remained anchored, standing stock-still – one on the moon, and the other on the blanket, poised over her.

Sybil bent over and extracted the dagger from Romakaji’s body. In an instant, Romakaji’s eyes began to flutter. She licked her lips, took a deep breath.

Lionel’s eyes fluttered, too, and he swallowed hard. He looked at his blood-soaked chest and raised an eyebrow.

Romakaji cast her gaze at the red moon, but the count was no longer there. He appeared on the bridge, and smiled at her – that strange, child-like smile of his.

“Come,” he said.

He held out his absurdly dainty hand, waiting for her to take it. Romakaji felt drawn to do so, even if she did not want to.

“What do I do?”

Sybil opened her eyes and stopped her chanting. “Only you can make that decision,” she told her.

Romakaji stood up a bit unsteadily. She went to take a step towards the Earl of Hell, lifting up her foot and preparing to set it down onto the first step leading up to the bridge. His thin lips parted in anticipation, and she could see his tiny, pearly teeth.

“I’m not going,” she said.

The count narrowed his little eyes.

“But you must,” he commanded.

“I’m staying here.”

“You made a bargain.”

“I remember no bargain,” she told him. “And I think you’re a liar. So, I won’t go.”

Count Furfur’s lips curled. His childlike face became a mask of hatred. “You come right now, or I will tear your friend and your lover to pieces, and you will spend eternity reliving that memory, hearing their screams.”

Romakaji fisted her hands. “I think if you could kill them they’d already be dead.”

“Don’t trifle with me!” He bellowed.

“The only power you have is the power I give you,” she shouted. Romakaji remembered her mother had once told her this was true of all nightmares.

The count’s face changed once again. His mask of hatred fell and his skin became smooth like an egg shell. His lips a thin, red line. Romakaji watched him remove the necklace, the one just like hers, from his neck and drop it into the water.

“Mortal,” he said. “Without me you’ll be weak, with only one life to live. It’ll be over in the blink of an eye. You’ll become old and decrepit, and I’ll watch you die from my throne.”

Then he disappeared.

Romakaji’s heart filled with joy and relief, but she couldn’t remember why. She looked about her – at the blood red moon, the lovely, old cottage with a sweet little pond in back, and at her friend, Sybil.

“Hello.” A dark and handsome young man put out his hand. It was strong, with soft skin and a map of deep lines on his palm. She reached out and shook it.

“This is Lionel,” Sybil said. “He lives in the cottage.”

“Oh.” Romakaji peered at the cottage and imagined how nice it would be to live there. The old stones it was made of, the yellow lights glowing from its windows. Sybil’s place was nice, too, but this cottage seemed more like home somehow. It was almost like she’d lived in it before.

“Lionel’s new to the village.” Sybil said. “He’s only been here for a few months, and is doing genealogy research on the area. Wasn’t it kind of him to invite us to drink some wine and watch the eclipse at his place?”

“Yes, of course,” Romakaji said. Now she was beginning to remember – maybe.

“Sybil tells me you and she grew up here, and you both live in the village together. In one of those old, white-washed stone houses passed down from generation to generation.”

Flashes of memory came to Romakaji like pictures in a book. Playing around this very pond as a girl, watching an eclipse much like this one with a woman named Cressida – Sybil’s cousin, perhaps, mourning the death of her parents – was it only last year? It seemed like much longer than that. She looked to Sybil, who assured her with a firm nod.

“Yes, I suppose we did. We do.”

“You’re lucky,” he said. “I love this area and could imagine staying.”

Lionel glanced down at his shirt. There was a faint, brown stain on it, right over his heart, and he wondered, briefly, what he’d spilled on himself. “Won’t you come in?” He asked them. “I think I have some cheese and fresh bread.”

Romakaji smiled and took his arm, as Sybil stepped back, letting them pass.

“Won’t you be joining us?” Lionel asked her. His eyes remained fixed on Romakaji’s.

“Not tonight,” Sybil said. “I’m awfully tired.”

“Another time, then.”

“Yes,” she said. “The first of many, I’m sure.”

woman in white dress walking on pathway surrounded by trees

To Hell and Back: The Role of the Quest in Fairytales

In most fairtytales worth their salt, the ones that really capture our imaginations in a lasting, generations-long manner, a lover – often a prince or princess – must go on a quest. He or she has to perform a series of trials in order to prove worthy, not only of true love, but of a kingdom they are poised to inherit – whether that be a literal kingdom, an actual realm in a fictious country, or a place in God’s kingdom. The Brother’s Grimm tended to focus on the the former, while Hans Christian Andersen had a far more spiritual approach.

Both interpretations are dramatic, exciting, and virtually irresistible.

Let’s take “Sleeping Beauty,” which actually combines the earthly and the spiritual. At nearly a thousand years old, the tale had already gone through several incarnations before the Brother’s Grimm took it on, and ultimately, Disney, made it a world-wide phenomenon.

The earliest versions of the story are like an unhinged hodge-podge of Tarantino’s “Kill Bill,” the ultimate 80s crazy ex-girlfriend movie, “Fatal Attraction,” and “Silence of the Lambs.” It involves everything from our enchanted, sleeping princess getting impregnated by her prince while she’s asleep (and yes, they still live happily ever after), a cruel mother-in-law intent on murdering the sleepyheaded lass, so that she can keep her son for herself, and a harrowing subplot to the original, “enchanted sleep” portion of the tale.

This part takes place after Sleeping Beauty has been awakened by and married to the prince. In it, a woman from the prince’s past insinuates herself into palace life and tries to murder the prince and princess’s children by having a cook kill and serve them for dinner. Much like the huntsman in Snow White, the cook balks at performing such a horrible deed, and tricks the woman by hiding the children, offering up wild game instead. Because killing the progeny of her ex and his new wife wasn’t enough to satisfy her bloodlust, the nasty old girlfriend then orders the cook to murder and serve up the princess. But the prince finally discovers her duplicity, and kills her in the same manner in which she’d planned to slay his wife. The whole palace then feasts on the evil woman.

In all incarnations of the story, the prince is subjected to a series of ordeals he must navigate in order to save the princess and himself. In all incarnations, there is a prophecy of doom and enchantment as told by a fairy. One that warns of the young princess’s “death” by a prick of her finger. It’s a fate that her family desperately tries to avoid, but their efforts are in vain. In the end it is up to the prince who falls in love with the sleeping beauty to rescue her from the curse.

In only the original, medieval account of the story is the young woman’s actual soul at stake if she is not awakened from her slumber. Although that danger isn’t explicit in the 19th and 20th century adaptations of “Sleeping Beauty,” I do think it lingers…implied, but unspoken. After all, the princess is cursed to sleep forever. She’ll neither age, nor die, nor really live unless she is awakened by love. And her soul, by inference, will remain trapped with her.

“Romakaji” Part 8

By Yours Truly

Cressida led Lionel through the cool darkeness of the forest, until they came upon an enormous, dying tree hollowed out at its base. Tiny, red lights reminiscent of summer’s fireflies dotted the yawning, black center of the opening. As Lionel and Cressida entered the tree, it became obvious that the bitty lights were not from an insect. Nor were they a play of light. They were the eyes of a thousand demons keeping watch over those who entered and exited this portal to hell.

Lionel’s hands did not shake, nor his flesh pimple at the sight. Though he was unsettled by what he was seeing, he was also curious, and continued to follow the woman who had commandeered his dream.

Once fully inside the tree, he found himself in a passageway lighted by an eerie glow that reminded him of ghostly bones tinged with a cold, blue undertone. A lowlit incandescence that that seemed to shout of loneliness and anguish. He flesh did pimple then.

“Do not look at them,” Cressida whispered. “They are the captured souls of fools who made bargains with demons.”

Lionel did look, at once fascinated and repulsed by the way the souls twisted and curled like smoke. Watching them was grotesque, almost painful – like he imagined it would be to observe a conscious, unanesthetized man having his leg amputated.

The passageway proceeded to a large chamber, and as they came close to its entrance, Cressida stopped.

“I can’t go any further,” she said. “You can, but there is no guarantee you’ll ever come out.”

“If that’s the case, why would you have me go?” Lionel asked.

But Cressida didn’t answer. She only faded until there was nothing left of her but a bare outline. Then she disappeared altogether.

Lionel looked inside the chamber and saw a strange boy sitting on a throne of red gems – ones that looked sticky and juicy like berries. Next to that throne was a smaller one made of blue and green gems – the green ones murky like the pond next to his cottage. The one he’d rescued Romakaji from. Although the woman he loved was nowhere to be seen, his heart began to drum in fear that she could’ve been taken from their bed, like he had been.

“Come in,” the boy on the throne hissed, his voice very much that of a man.

Lionel stepped over the threshold of the chamber and walked to the red throne. The boy-man was even stranger up close, with taut, dark skin and an obscene daintiness to his physique. Lionel glanced over at the empty throne of watery hued gems.

“What a thrill it is to have a dreamwalker come visit me. You must have very powerful friends.”

“Not at all,” Lionel said. “I don’t even know the woman who took me here.”

“Then you don’t know why you came?”

Lionel did not answer.

“Let me tell you,” the boy-man rasped. “In two days time, there will be a lunar eclipse, at which time you will be presented with a series of choices.”

Lionel crossed his arms and narrowed his eyes, watching the boy-man very intently.

“The first choice is to do nothing but what you planned – to watch the eclipse with your lover, Romakaji of the pond. But if that is what you choose, your Romakaji will be forced to come live here with me, as my wife, and become Countess Furfur: the keeper of lost souls.”

Lionel thought briefly of the souls he had seen in the passage to this chamber and his blood ran colder. He shook the memory away.

“And my other choices?”

“Those are a bit more complicated…or not…depending on how you look at things.”

Count Furfur licked his lips, seeming to thrill to this conversation. “Your second choice is to kill Romakaji’s friend, the nature witch Sybil Ravencroft, by draining her blood and drinking it. This will give you the power to keep your Romakaji from me, and will also make her your wife for all of eternity.”

He then reached into his cloak and retrieved a small, gold-handled dagger as sharp as a razor’s edge and as pointed as a talon. “You must use this for your task, otherwise the transference of power will be incomplete, and you’ll be left with dark magic, but without a bride.”

“And my last choice?”

The Count almost giggled. “To take the same dagger and kill yourself. Thrust it into your heart. It’s very sharp, as you can see, and won’t take much effort.” Count Furfur demonstrated by holding the dagger in the place where his own heart would be, if he had one.

“Why would I kill myself?” Lionel asked.

“Because it will free your Romakaji from the bonds of her curse and her obligation to me, and it will allow you to die and be reborn. Once you are old enough, you can search for Romakaji, and the two of you can be reunited.” The Count’s eyes nearly rolled all the way back in his head. “I just love happy endings,” he whispered.

“I see,” Lionel said.

Count Furfur leaned forward on his throne and offered the dagger to Lionel. As he did so Lionel noticed a gold chain around his neck and followed it down to a charm that dangled over the Count’s breastplate. It was the same charm Romakaji wore.

“Thank you,” Lionel said, taking the dagger. “You’ve given me a great deal to think about.”

Photo by Ruan Carlos on Unsplash

“Are you alright?” Romakaji asked him.

Lionel inhaled deeply and sat up in bed. His wavy, dark hair was all this way and that, like he’d had a rough night’s sleep. His neck and his brow were wet from perspiration.

“Just a strange dream,” he said. Lionel took Romakaji’s face in his hands and kissed her, stroking the high bone of her cheek.

“My dreams have been peculiar, too,” Romakaji told him.

“My mother used to say that the fuller the belly, the better the dreams.”

Romakaji smiled and smoothed Lionel’s hair. “In that case, I’ll go fix us a big breakfast. Sybil brought us some fresh eggs and more of those unseasonal mushrooms she keeps finding.”

Romakaji brushed his nose with her’s and got up from bed, wrapping herself in his soft, warm robe.

Lionel swung his legs around and put his feet to the floor. He watched Romakaji walk from their room towards the stairs, her grace filling his heart. When he was sure she was in the kitchen, and could hear her lighting the stove top and rummaging for the proper copper pan, he reached into the pocket of his pajama bottom.

Slowly, he retrieved the dagger Count Furfur gave him. He laid it flat on his palm, getting a much better look at it in the light of day, and away from the royal, funereal hues of the Count’s chamber. The gold handle was carved with devotional words writ in many different languages. Lionel recognized the words for love and passion in the three languages he spoke fluently. He also recognized the word for troth.

“Lionel!” He heard Romakaji call from downstairs. “Breakfast is nearly ready.”

“Yes,” he called back. “And so am I.”

Image by albgal from Pixabay

Please have a listen to this week’s Cold podcast. We talk about the writing life in all of its complicated glory. Not only how we writers evolve and develope the daily habits that allow us to finish massive pieces of work, like a novel (or, ahem, a fairytale), but the emotional journey of mining our personal experiences for our creative efforts. How very differently we deploy our imaginations when writing fiction versus non-fiction, and the mine fields we need to navigate as we expose not only our own hearts, but potentially the hearts of those we love. Folks, it is daunting, and it is beautiful.

In Fairytales, Friendship is Instrumental in Conquering Evil

Photo by Jametlene Reskp on Unsplash

“Friendship multiplies the good of life and divides the evil.” –Baltasar Gracian

In the fairytale genre, friendship is love’s handmaiden. The true friend sees the importance of clearing the path for love to bloom. In most cases, the triumph of the lovers over evil is not only a satisfying romantic end for the two characters in love, but has far-reaching affects for the whole realm. Their love equals order restored and prosperity for the region over which they will govern.

A classic example of this trope is in Snow White – both in the original Brothers Grimm version and Disney’s more sanitized story.

The seven dwarfs become true friends of Snow White. They love and protect the young woman, offering her their home to share after her escape from the Evil Queen. They warn her about not talking to strangers or letting them in the house, although Snow White, ultimately, does not heed their advice. In the end, the dwarfs are instrumental not only in Snow White’s “awakening” after she eats the poisoned apple given to her by the disguised Queen, but in reuniting her with the Prince. The dwarfs become defacto heroes by making it possible not merely for Snow White to survive, but to take her righful place as the true princess of the realm. With the Prince and Snow White married and installed as rulers after the Evil Queen is deposed (and killed), the region once again is free to thrive.

Incidentally, in the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, the Evil Queen is unmasked as the villain at the Prince and Snow White’s wedding. The Prince is a bit more of an Alpha in the original tale, and tortures the Evil Queen by making her dance in iron slippers that had been heated on the fire. She dies shortly after. Disney glossed over that bit 😉

“Romakaji” Part 7

By Yours Truly

“You can’t be serious,” Sybil said.

She could not take her eyes off of Count Furfur’s necklace, although the one Lionel gave Romakaji was far prettier in the water girl’s estimation.

“I am serious.”

Sybil shook her head and took a deep sip of the exquisite red wine that Romakaji’s lover had provided for them. “Romakaji, for such an old creature, you seem to lack any wisdom at all. Count Furfur will take you to hell forever if you do not take that necklace off before you or Lionel dies! If you thought you hated the pond, don’t you see how much worse is such a bargain? Do you not understand the concept of forever?”

Sybil could not stop shaking her head.

“My friend,” Romakaji said. “My first true friend in so long. You’re right to worry for me, and even be sad for me. But I am right in my valuation of forever. You judge forever by time, whereas I judge it by the bonds we make, and as I will love Lionel forever, I’m willing to give him forever.”

Sybil did not think she was right. In fact, Sybil thought the water girl had lost her mind. “Have you shared any of this with Lionel?”

Romakaji took the green stone of the necklace Lionel had given her, and held it in her hand, until it became as warm as her palm. “If I tell Lionel, we’ll never again be happy. He’ll either insist I take off the necklace, or the specter of my future will haunt our every waking moment as we try to enjoy the time we have left.”

This time Sybil did not merely take a drink of her wine, but finished the glass, then poured herself another.

“Romakaji, I understand that you wish to have a few happy years, but at some point Lionel will wonder why your aren’t aging. You’re going to have to tell him something.”

Romakaji knew there might come a time when she would have to tell him, and she dreaded that day. She didn’t want Lionel to feel responsible for her decision. The thought of him being happy made her happier than the thought of Count Furfur made her sad. But she also knew the nature of curses. Unless they were broken, they tended to tighten around the accursed’s neck. Just as she became more beautiful as the seconds ticked away, so did her choice regarding her future become more powerful. In time – she didn’t know how long – it would become harder and harder to take the Count’s necklace off of her own volition. She would be called to hell not when she was ready, when she and Lionel had had their fill of love (as if that was even possible), but when Count Furfur was ready. When he had drunk enough of the love he had made possible. One he could watch, but never experience for himself.

“Promise me,” Romakaji said. “That you won’t ever tell Lionel of my choice.”

“Romakaji, I don’t wish to promise any such thing.”

“Nevertheless, I want you to. As my truest and best friend, I ask that you honor my wishes. As a witch, I know you can’t lie when it comes to an oath between friends. Especially if those friends have shared magic.”

Sybil folded her hands and looked deeply into Romakaji’s eyes. “He will not hear it from my lips. I promise you.”

Sybil and Romakaji finished their wine, and made plans to see one another again by the weekend. Sybil was glad that her new friend would be living a fulfilled life while she was here in the physical realm – especially after having spent centuries in a small, cold body of water. But she could not be happy about Romakaji’s decision. Like any true friend, she wanted what was best for Romakaji, and knew that spending eternity at Count Furfur’s side was quite possibly the most terrible thing that could ever happen to her.

“I’m learning how to cook!” Romakaji said, cheerfully. As if she hadn’t condemned herself to be the wife of an Earl of Hell. “I should get started before Lionel comes home – I want to surprise him. Perhaps next time you come, you’ll join us for supper.”

Sybil smiled, and told her that would be lovely.

As she walked out of the cottage, she took a long, sorrowful breath. It was a beautiful day, one of the first that smelled of spring. Down the road, Sybil could see Lionel walking towards the cottage, a lightness to his step. The kind of buoyancy that comes from being in love, and looking forward to the moment he would lay eyes on Romakaji again – even if they’d only been apart for a few hours.

Sybil desperately wanted to tell him about what Romakaji had decided, what she was sacrificing for him. The moment she even had such a thought, her throat felt as if it was closing up on her. She couldn’t form a sound, let alone a word. Such was the bond of magic between two friends; the iron clasp of the word once a promise had been made.

She closed her eyes and tried to rid her thoughts of Romakaji and Lionel and Count Furfur. She uttered a prayer to all that is good in the world. When her eyelids fluttered open again, letting in the light, she noticed a small, yellow mushroom at her feet. It was growing from between the walking stones that led to the road.

Sybil bent down and pulled the mushroom from the earth, examining its smooth, white stem, as thick as a thumb. Black spots covered its cap like freckles. For a nature witch, a mushroom, as long as it wasn’t poisonous, was a fungus that denotes strong ties, particularly friendship. Sybil sniffed it deeply, then popped it into her mouth and ate it, thinking of Romakaji while she chewed.

Lionel walked into a house smelling of onions in butter, the venison he’d brought home from the market the day before, and…something else.

“My friend Sybil found some mushrooms growing in the yard.”

“Mushrooms?” Lionel marveled. “At this time of year?”

Romakaji had been cooking from a recipe book she’d purchased in town, and so far, her every effort had been delicious. She seemed to have a flare for flavors, and thought nothing of adding an ingredient, or taking one away if it didn’t suit her. The only thing she didn’t ever want to make was fish.

They sat down to eat and talked of Lionel’s research, of traveling to the far east together come summertime, and of the lunar eclipse that was coming in a few days. Romakaji loved the moon, as for the greater part of so many years – two hundred ninety-six years, twenty-one days, six hours and roughly twenty minutes – the moon and the fish in the pond had been her only company. She didn’t tell Lionel that part.

“The moon will turn red and be totally eclipsed for about fourteen minutes,” he told her. “We’ll have to stay up and watch it.”

Lionel remembered the last lunar eclipse he’d seen. It had been a couple of years earlier, and he’d made a wish on the moon that night. He wished that before the next total lunar eclipse came, he would find a love. Someone with whom he could spend his life.

He told Romakaji all about his wish, how it had come true, and she kissed him more than sweetly, more than passionately. She kissed him as if he meant everything to her – the sun, the moon, the stars. He was all of those things.

And as she kissed him, Romakaji remembered every detail of the last lunar eclipse she’d seen before she’d been cursed to the pond. Cressida had snuck her out of her house in just her shift. It was an unseasonably warm night. She’d brought nuts and an apple for them to eat, and they’d watched the entire event from the bridge over the pond that would become her home, her prison. They’d watched in awe as the moon turned as red as a sunset, and Cressida chanted a strange song that was one part whistle and one part wail.

“What was that?” Romakaji had asked her.

“An offering,” she’d said. “A nature witch should always sing an offering to the moon on the night of a total eclipse. It strengthens her powers and keeps them pure.”

Romakaji wished she had the power of a nature witch. If she did, she would do something good for Lionel. But as things stood, all she could do was give him her love. And as he laid down to sleep, his belly full of her venison and mushroom stew, she stroked his hair and looked at him with as much love as she could bear. She watched his eyes grow tired, and listened as his breath became slow and steady. His body heavy and still. As still as she had ever seen him as he slept.

Only he wasn’t sleeping. Not exactly. He was deep in a dream that was more like another world. So vivid that its wind cut through his flannel pajamas. The old burs on the ground dug into the soles of his feet, making him wince. It was an older world, where a young woman with stawberry locks of hair beckoned him. She told him that her name was Cressida, and put her fingers to her lips so that he’d know to be quiet. She took his hand and lead him deep into the forest.

“Where are we going?” He whispered.

“To Hell.”

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Tune in next week for the maybe, probably last episode of “Romakaji.”

And while you’re waiting, please listen to the latest COLD podcast. It’ll be the best quarter hour of your day.

And They Lived Happily Ever After…Maybe

All fairytales are love stories.

Even at the core of tales like Hansel and Gretel is the love and devotion between a brother and sister. Hans Christian Andersen’s, The Little Matchgirl, is about a poor, dying child and the love she holds for her late grandmother, the only person who had ever treated her with kindness. When the girl dies, freezing to death on the street, it is her grandmother who takes her soul up to heaven.

And, of course, there are the many fairytales that tell of the love that grows between a man and a woman. It is that sort we’re unearthing in our next installment of “Romakaji,” our Cold fairytale-in-progress. I decided to make it a romantic love because that’s a theme here in the Cold…but that doesn’t mean they’ll live happily ever after. They might – I haven’t decided yet. But this is the Cold, after all, and we don’t just deal in hopes and wishes here. We also address the greater truths and meanings of not always getting what we want – or what we think we want. We celebrate getting what we need. What, in the end, was perhaps what we would have hoped and wished for all along, had we known better.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

“Romakaji” Part 6

By Yours Truly

Romakaji took a long time to walk home from Sybil’s stone house. She wandered through the forest, savoring the crush of cold leaves beneath her feet. She tip-toed through the yards of old and new cottages with windows that glowed yellow with electric light and chimneys that billowed grey smoke. As a child, she had hated the winter, but now, as a woman who had spent centuries afloat, unable to put her heels to the ground, she relished the bite of the frigid air on a brisk walk, and then cozying into the comfort of an armchair next to a fire. Or feeling the warmth of a lover’s arms as he held her in sleep.

Even with Byron, the boy she’d loved better than all of the other boys she’d known when she lived in the pond, love had been a cool, if not cold experience. His skin had been chilled and wet when he held her in the water and would grow goosepimpled and prune over time. Sometimes, his lips would turn blue. His touch had been better than nothing, but even his most loving and passionate embrace couldn’t compare with even a brush of Lionel’s finger.

Lionel’s fingers.

Dry and smelling of herbs and the walnuts he likes to crack, of paper and pen, and sandalwood soap. The loving tentacles that reach for her as if they harbor all of his senses. They lead to the rest of him: his lean, muscular arms and sturdy shoulders that could carry two of her if they tried, the soft, curly hair that sprouts at the top of his chest, the coarse hair that he shaves every morning, making his chin smooth and square.

Then there are Lionel’s eyes.

So different from Byrons, which were crisp and blue. Lovely, yet thin somehow, like panes of glass in a window. Lionel’s are of soil and chocolate, tanned leather and glossed wood. They speak to her not only of love and desire, but of all the things he wants to know, and yearns to share with her. They are a deep well of forever.

And they lit up with a joy he took no pains to conceal when she walked through the door of their house.

“Where have you been?” He asked her.

She told him she’d gone to have tea with her new friend, Sybil, and he seemed happy to see her finally settling in and finding things to do other than piddling around the cottage or reading. He liked to see her becoming more confident.

“Tell me,” she said, as they sat on the soft, spongy sofa he’d first layed her upon when he carried her from the pond. She leaned on him and rested her chin on his chest, looking up into his handsome face. “What would you do if I died?”

Lionel blinked hard. “Why would you ask such a thing?”

“It’s just that I think about how much I love you all the time. I see how your eyes seek me out, how your skin thrills to my touch. Do you not ever think about what it would be like if we lost one another?”

Lionel caressed her hair and kissed her temple. “I know it hasn’t been very long for us, but I’m only ever happy when I’m in your presence. I think if something happened to you, I would never feel this again. I would live my life alone, and have only my work and interests taking me from moment to moment.”

Romakaji could see this was true. That he didn’t only love her because she was becoming more beautiful by the hour, although beauty could be a powerful thing. It was Lionel’s beauty that made her vulnerable to him when she peeked her head up from the pond and saw him for the first time, after all.

Over the centuries, Romakaji had discovered how easily one could grow accustomed to beauty, though. How this, too, had been part of her curse. To be stared at with such lust and longing from outside of the pond, but ultimately unloved. To be dreamed about like a picture in a magazine, and put away just as readily.

Lionel loved her in ways the other boys, no matter how beguiled by her at the outset, never had. With Lionel, there were long talks about all the things she’d thought about in the two hundred ninety-six years, twenty-one days, six hours and roughly twenty minutes she’d spent in the pond. Why the trees seem to shiver when a person pays them real attention? If the twinkling of stars in the night sky is its own language and what those stars might be trying to tell us? Why ghosts don’t seem to recognize that they are no longer among the living? With Lionel, there were walks around the cottage grounds, both of them alive to the subtle changes of nature that crept silently upon each day. There were nights of love so tender and full of intention that even thinking about them made it difficult to breathe.

Of course, it was also their mutual loneliness that bound them. A deep feeling of singularity that made it hard for them to truly connect with a lover, or even a friend. She and Lionel each had minds that wandered into secret rooms that were largely closed to others – not because they were unwilling to share them, but because few people wished to enter into those domains. For Romakaji, it had always been this way, even before Cressida had cursed her to the pond. For Lionel, it had been this way since he could remember. It was only after they met and entered into each other’s secret rooms, that they felt like they belonged somewhere, with someone, for the first time.

Poor, poor Lionel, Romakaji thought. He had but this one, short life. This fleeting chance at happiness with her that would glow bright like a firework and extinguish just as quickly. In the coming decades, he would become frail and gray, while she would remain just as she was.

Romakaji tapped the necklace at her throat. How easy it would be to take it off and simply float up to heaven, as if she’d never met Cressida, or her horrible suitor, or the dreaded Count Furfur, or her beautiful Lionel.

“It’s a shame you can’t remember who gave it to you.”

“Hmm?”

“Your necklace.”

Romakaji smiled and took her hand from the charm. She kissed the spot over Lionel’s heart. “It doesn’t matter.”

Only it did matter to Lionel. For when Count Furfur had made it possible for him to love Romakaji, had opened his heart to her, the Earl of Hell had also planted a seed of jealousy in Lionel’s affections. It was nothing personal. All great loves have an element of possession that must be struggled with, pondered, and ultimately, tamed. It is an ingredient of romantic love that’s much like salt in a sweet cake. With none, the cake is bland, but too much makes it unpalatable.

“Romakaji,” Lionel said. “I was going to wait until the first spring buds appeared, but I think I don’t have the patience.”

“For what?”

Lionel got up from the sofa and went to his desk by the window. He opened his pen drawer and took out a small, rectangular box trimmed with gold foil. He brought it to Romakaji and sat down next to her.

“This is for you.”

Romakaji’s breath caught in her throat. It had been so long since someone who loved her had given her a present.

“Thank you,” she said, taking the box in hand.

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

“Oh.” Romakaji hadn’t realized there was actually something in the box. It was a pretty enough present all on its own.

“Let me,” Lionel said.

He took the box from her hand and opened it like a clam shell. Inside was a lovely gold necklace with an oval charm dangling from the chain. At the center of the charm was a pale green stone with great depth of color. It seemed to sparkle from the inside.

“I’ve never seen anything so fine,” she said.

“It reminded me of your eyes. You like it?”

“I love it, and will cherish it for always.”

Romakaji took the necklace from its pretty box and hung it around her neck. It had a long chain that dangled well beneath the necklace from Count Furfur. Lionel’s present fell just over her heart, which she thought was fitting.

“Would you like me to help you take off the other one?” Lionel asked.

Romakaji felt a bit flummoxed. She fingered Count Furfur’s charm for a moment, then rose up and walked over to a mirror that hung by the coat stand.

“My, though,” she said, as she looked at herself. “They do look so lovely together. Did you buy this with that in mind?”

“Not exactly,” Lionel said.

Romakaji bit down on her lip and wrapped her arms around her middle.

“Well, I think for now I’d like to try wearing them together. One is a symbol of my old life, and this one – this perfect one you’ve given me – a token of love for the rest of our lives together.”

“As you wish,” Lionel said.

He went to the mirror and stood behind her, admiring her light, silvery hair and plum, perfect skin. How his darkness so complimented the fairest of her features. It was the way their emotions complimented one another’s, and their interests in nature and the stars. What they shared seemed to deepen with every day they spent together.

Lionel turned her to face him. He put his hands on her cheeks, holding her head as if it was the most precious thing in all the world. “You asked me what I would do if you were no longer with me.”

Romakaji nodded. When Lionel was this close, she seemed to lose all ability to speak.

“I would die,” he said.

He then kissed her with both sweetness and passion. He kissed her for a long time. Until every part of her was filled with love, and her legs felt as soft as caramel. When he broke from her, finally, he opened his eyes and looked into hers. It was as if he’d stepped into her soul and make his home there.

“I will never leave you,” she whispered.

And she realized, in that moment, that she meant it. Romakaji would not, could not, watch him mourn her from heaven. She would not, could not, allow him to live his one, short life without love. The way she loved him wouldn’t allow that.

If it was the fate of her curse, and the will of her creator; if it was folly what she was doing, so be it. If she must give herself to Count Furfur for eternity in order for Lionel to have happiness, for her to share in it even for a few, measely years, then that is what would be.

Ok, Cold readers – here’s your chance to vote for the ending you think “Romakaji” needs. Should she and Lionel live happily ever after or not?

Leave your answer in the comments here, or, if you are reading this via my newsletter, just email me back with the words “Happily Ever After” or “NOT.”

And don’t forget to listen to this week’s Cold podcast!

Curses and Choices: The Moral Center of Every Fairytale

In any fairtytale worth its salt, wishes are rarely granted without strictures or consequences. Curses are never administered without a clever escape hatch baked into them. An escape that almost always requires a moral test. One that demonstrates how choices shape a person’s character and outcome.

Cinderella is showered with gifts and opportunities by her Fairy Godmother, for instance. They’re all rewards for a life lived with honor and dignity under some rather dire circumstances. But even those gifts have a shelflife. Cinderalla is only allowed to enjoy them until midnight. And what she does with them in the short time she has them at her disposal may change the course of her life forever, provided she plays her cards right.

Cinderella, Story, Girl, Dress, Wedding, Castle
Image by Ksenia Sergeeva from Pixabay

In Beauty and the Beast, truly one of the most perfect fairytales ever conceived, both Beauty and Beast must grapple with elements of their own characters. The Beast’s curse has entangled them in its web, forcing a sequence of choices that have the potential to transform their lives. Beauty must learn to see beyond the Beast’s ugly, animal features and love him inspite of them. The Beast, in turn, must grow his own virtues, shed his vanity, and learn how to love well and selflessly before he can have any hope of breaking his curse, having his love reciprocated, and becoming the handsome prince he once was.

Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

This is why, in part 5 of our fairytale-in-progress, “Romakaji,” we’re playing with the importance of moral choices. How a fairytale’s protagonists are shaped by their responses to curses, magical forces, and plain old bum luck. Through their actions and inactions, they teach us, the reader, how the choices we make today, will build the lives we will live tomorrow.

“Romakaji” Part 5

By Yours Truly

“You’ll have to descend into hell to speak with Count Furfur,” the witch Sybil said. “Otherwise, I imagine he’ll simply wait for you. Whether he has to wait one year or a thousand matters little to him, as he, himself, is truly immortal and will continue to live on even after this universe is gone and a new one has come in its place.”

Romakaji did not like the sound of that. She fingered the necklace at her throat – the one with the pearl and Count Furfur’s seal – and wanted to curse the Earl of Hell who had tricked her into putting it on, luring her into his clutches. Only if Count Furfur hadn’t done that, she’d have never been able to leave the pond, or gotten to know Lionel and fallen in love with him. As evil as Count Furfur undoubtedly was, he did have the curious ability to bring a man and a woman together in love. That had to mean something.

“How can I descend into hell?”

Sybil took a deep breath, and placed her hand over Romakaji’s.

“I can help you, but it’s very dangerous. It doesn’t take a very powerful witch to send an enchanted girl into the underworld, but it does take one to bring her back.”

“Are you that powerful?”

Sybil bit down on her lip. She came closer and looked deeply into Romakaji’s eyes. They had been a murky green when she’d first met the girl in her doorway, but were brighter now. More like a jade stone.

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m careful with my magic. I practice a lot, but I don’t cast actual spells much, as they often have unintended consequences. I’ll do some investigating, though. Come back in three days time and we’ll talk then.”

In the three days, four hours, and twenty three minutes until Romakaji went to see Sybil again, she and Lionel fell even deeper in love. They talked of traveling the world together when he finished his research, of marrying, of having a child. Romakaji had no idea if she could have children, and if she did, if they would be enchanted, too. If she would be left to watch them grow old and die as she would Lionel. Her thoughts of the future – romantic and agonizing, hopeful and dreadful – were consuming her. She loved Lionel, and as much as she enjoyed simply being out of the pond, it wasn’t enough.

By the time she made her excuses to her dearest one and went to see Sybil again, she was desperate to meet Count Furfur, and ready to find out what he had in store for her. If she could not convince him to give Lionel as long a life as her’s, perhaps he would agree to let her live her life as a mortal? Surely, that wasn’t a lot to ask. Especially after she’d given so much of her life to Cressida’s curse already.

“I think I know of a way I can get you in and out of hell safely,” Sybil said, ignoring the tea this time and pouring only straight whiskey into their two small silver cups. “I will cast a twin spell making you look just like me. It’s in the glamor of my magic that you’ll go to visit Count Furfur under the guise of learning precisely which spell Cressida cast over you. You’ll tell him you’re interested in casting a similar spell over a woman who is a rival for the affections of a new lover.”

“Won’t he be able to see through your magic?”

Sybil took a deep swallow of her whiskey. “I don’t think so. At least not while he’s in the underworld. In some ways, a witch’s spell can be even more powerful in hell than in the common realm, where the Count would be able to see right through one of my enchantments, just as he saw through Cressida’s and was able to manipulate you. It is because I’m a nature witch, I believe, and do not draw my power from the dark kingdom. At least that’s what my grimoire tells me.”

Romakaji stared into the bottom of the silver cup Sybil had given her. In one gulp she finished her whiskey.

“Are you ready?” The witch asked her.

Romakaji stood up and nodded. She followed Sybil up the stairs, feeling her heart pounding against her breast, as if it was begging to be let out.

Sybil did not burn herbals or scatter animal bones for her spell this time. Instead, she took Romakaji to a large, copper bathtub that stood alone in the center of her attic. It was filled with clear, cool water and nothing else. She had Romakaji undress entirely, except for her necklace, and asked her to enter the tub, which she did, keeping only her head above water. Sybil then cloaked herself in a long cape of purple velvet, pulling its hood over her hair, so that only her pale face was visible. She did not chant or sing in the old language this time. She merely lit a short, beeswax candle and placed her hand on top of Romakaji’s head.

“Be back before this candle burns down. It’s not much time, but should be as much as you need.”

“How will I know the time?”

“You’ll know,” Sybil said. Then she pushed Romakaji’s head beneath the water.

Romakaji’s head broke the black onyx water of a small pool at the base of a volcanic mountain. She had no doubt she was in the underworld. She emerged, dry as a bone, from the still, dark water dressed in Sybil’s purple cloak. It camouflaged her well, covering her body, her hair, and the necklace the Count had given her. She looked onto the surface of the onyx pool and saw Sybil’s face reflecting back at her. The young witch’s spell appeared to have worked.

At the base of the volcanic mountain was a large set of doors and Romakaji knew without a doubt it was the entrance to Count Furfur’s underworld palace. She went to those doors and found them open and leading down a narrow corridor with a curious light. It wasn’t until Romakaji stepped inside that she realized the corridor was lit by the captured souls of countless unwise individuals. It was a terrible walk to Count Furfur’s chamber, as the souls cried out for help, but were unable to be heard. Their light, bright and ghostly as the whites of an infant’s eyes, made the corridor seem lonely and longer than it was. The thought of one day being stuck here with them made Romakaji shiver and gasp.

When at last she entered the Count’s chamber, he looked up straight away as if he had forseen her arrival. He was seated on an enormous throne made entirely of rubies. Ones that appeared soft and moist like blood clots. It was as terrible a throne as she had expected, but the Count himself was like nothing like she expected. His face was boyish, with skin as taut and dark as a plum. His lips slim and pink like a rosebud. It was only his eyes, a deeper purple than even Sybil’s robe, that betrayed what he was.

“A rare and distinctive pleasure to be visited by a nature witch,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

Romakaji told him the story she and Sybil had rehearsed.

“You wish to know the specific curse the witch Cressida used on the water girl, and it’s nature?”

Romakaji nodded, and Count Furfur smiled with a slight shrug.

“The spell was a simple one, and hardly worth a trip to the underworld, I’m afraid. A protective spell made of spider’s silk and fresh thorny weeds. The girl could have been put in a cave, or a tree or the closet of a house and it would have had the same effect. It was, as you know, Cressida’s death that made the enchantment more or less permanent. That and a promise made to me by the water girl’s suitor.”

“What sort of promise?” Romakaji asked. The mention of her suitor made her skin prick with needles. She hoped she didn’t seem too eager in her response.

“The short-sighted promise of a fool, of course. He wanted revenge on a woman who had injured his pride and he got it. He wanted earthly riches, as well, and he got those, too. I got his soul for the rest of eternity – a much better end of the deal, I might say.”

“And what of the girl?” Romakaji asked him.

The girl,” he said wistfully. “Her fate is more complicated. Indeed the water girl and her beloved will continue to love like no other. Their love will grow just as her beauty and her memory will grow. And when he dies, the girl’s memories of him will only intensify, becoming more vivid with each passing second. She will never be able to love another, I’m afraid. And when she dies, when one day the world ends, or her necklace is lost somehow, she will belong to me and come to live in my palace at my side.”

Romakaji could feel her breath start to quiver in her throat. Not only at the dread of living forever in hell, next to the horrible corridor of souls, at the foot of a throne of blood rubies, at the side of a boyish earl with eyes that speak not of infinite possibilities, but the endless journey of the godforsaken. No, it was because the quiver travelled down to her lungs, making them feel tight, alerting her to how low the beeswax candle in Sybil’s attic was burning. She did not wish to be stuck here, but before she went back, she had to know.

“Why is it you want her?” She whispered. “I mean, she is just some water girl.”

Count Furfur drummed his short, slender fingers on his thigh. He cocked his head and smiled, showing his teeth this time. They were small and misshapen like sweetwater pearls.

“Because I like nothing more than the presence of a woman in love.”

The Count said this honestly, with none of his usual sinister undertone. It was his ability to create love that was a singluar light in his dark existence, and having an enchanted soul pining for a lost lover at his side would be like holding time in a bottle.

“And there’s one other thing the girl’s suitor gave in exchange for his soul,” he informed her. “It was the one clever thing he did.”

Romakaji blinked and shook her head.

“The suitor came to hell in exchange for her choice.”

“What sort of choice?”

“Your choice,” he said. “For do you not understand that I know who you are? You are not Sybil Ravencroft, a rather unpracticed nature witch, you’re Romakaji of the village, and then of the pond.”

Sybil’s robes, along with her twin spell fell away, and Romakaji found herself standing before Count Furfur unglamored.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t keep you here. Not yet, anyway. You’re free to leave any time that you wish.”

But Romakaji wasn’t so sure. The tightness in her chest was growing worse, and her breathing more erratic.

“May I say you are even lovelier here before me than when I visited you in your pond,” he told her. “Of course, you grow more beautiful by the day, but that’s not why. No, it’s the glow of love.”

The Count’s yearning for love was as palpable as the first glimpse of spring after a long, long winter.

“I am curious, if once I give you your options, it will change the way you look?” The Count smiled again, licking his rosebud lips. “See, if you remove the charm around your neck of your own volition, you will have to leave your lover behind, but you will be allowed entry into heaven as if you had never been enchanted.”

“But I killed a boy with my loneliness,” Romakaji reminded him.

The Count shrugged, raising up his tiny palms. “It is only the things you do of your own volition that concern us here.”

“And if I do not remove the charm?”

The Count crossed his legs and leaned in to the girl.

“If you are greedy, if you wait until fate delivers you to us, or you remove the charm after the death of the one you love, after you’ve had at least one human life to live with him, you will become my bride, and my keeper of lost souls.”

Romakaji’s mouth went dry and her hands began to quake. She tried to take in a breath, but could hardly capture any air. The Count began to cackle.

“It would appear your witch friend’s candle is burning out. And that I may have told you a bit of a fib about not wanting to keep you here today.”

Without another word, Romakaji turned from Count Furfur and ran. She ran down the corridor lit by souls, trying to shield her eyes from their awful light. But she could not. Towards the end of the vile and pitiless corridor, she saw the most furious and monstrous soul of them all – her old suitor’s. It twisted, white and hollow-eyed before her, lamenting its poor choices – ones fueled by pride and greed. Hating and begging her with equal savagery. She heard his silent cries all the way until her head broke the surface of the water in Sybil’s copper tub. And she heard them in her nightmares as she slept next to Lionel that night. She also heard a voice, shrill and velvety all at once.

“I’m having a throne fashioned for you,” Count Furfur whispered. “A welcome gift of sapphires and emeralds that come not from the earth, but from the water. So you’ll feel right at home.”

Image by Gerhard G. from Pixabay

Come back to the Cold next week for what I’m pretty confident will be the final chapter of “Romakaji.” It’s going to be a doozy – I promise!

And please join me this week on the Cold podcast as we discuss the importance of writing what we don’t know. How delving into the unfamiliar, unexplored parts of our imaginations enriches our storytelling and our lives. And if you like what you’re hearing, please follow the show and leave a starred review on the platform of your choice (Cold is also available on Apple, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, and Radio Public).

Witches and Enchantments

This week in the Cold, we’re continuing our autopsy of the fairytale genre, as well as the construction, from the ground up, of a brand new tale of magic, morality, and love, titled “Romakaji.” Hopefully, it’ll be one for the archives! What I love about fairytales is that they are a wellspring for the tropes of so many literary genres: romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, paranormal, young adult, historical fiction, and horror. I’m sure I’ve missed a couple.

To date, on our storytelling journey, we’ve examined the following elements: wishing upon a star, the appearance of mysterious strangers, and the allure of damsels in distress. It’s only fitting that we continue by addressing the role magic plays in these narratives.

All fairytales have an enchantment at their core, and the most memorable include some manner of sorceress casting spells and creating mayhem. Like putting a princess to sleep, feeding a poisoned apple to a step-daughter, turning a handsome, young lad into a frog or a beast. The list goes on.

Evil Queens, witches, and fairy godmothers change the course of a maiden’s life, most often entangling her lover in their mischief, providing obstacles, but also opportunities for a smitten pair to show their devotion to one another, to demonstrate their worthiness of true love. If a damsel and her “prince” pass the tests offered by a good or bad witch, their bond is stengthened and their destiny is sealed.

But only if…

“Romakaji” Part 4

By Yours Truly

It did not take long for Romakaji and Lionel to begin to savor the sounds of each other’s voices. To be charmed by the architecture of a smile, the twinkle in an eye, the sincerity of a touch. To ache when they were apart. Three days, two hours, twenty-two minutes to be exact. It was after Lionel quit caring where Romakaji had come from; he only knew she belonged in the cottage, with him. It was after he stopped wondering how she’d fallen into the pond. It didn’t matter – only that he’d saved her from the water. It was the moment he decided that whatever secrets she held close, they were trivial compared to having her with him for always. Because if those secrets would, even for a moment, make him reconsider his love for her, he didn’t want to know them.

Romakaji had felt the sweetness of her feelings for him from the first time she heard him say her name, so the three days and some that it took for Lionel to stop asking her questions, to cease in his efforts of trying to get her to remember who she was or where she had come from – were but a waiting game. Waiting for him to catch up. She wanted to forget her years in the pond, or at least pretend to, and he needed to imagine that Romakaji was just a normal girl, albeit one with a memory problem.

This suited them both.

Only try as she might, Romakaji could not help but be burdened by the knowlege of her peculiar existence. Of the witch Cressida’s curse, that had condemned her, as a young village girl, to life in a pond for hundreds of years. Two Hundred Ninety Eight years, twenty one days, and…oh, what did it matter? A long time! All to protect her from a suitor she could not stand the sight of. A dreadful man who had murdered Cressida, making Romakaji’s curse an indefinite one.

That’s why on a Monday, nine weeks, one day, six hours and ten minutes after Romakaji had been carried into the cottage by Lionel, she found herself alone. After many sweet kisses that morning, Lionel had gone to the city for his business. He’d wanted Romakaji to join him, but she was not keen on leaving the confines of the village just yet. Of course she didn’t tell him that. Romakaji told Lionel she was feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep, and reluctantly, he’d agreed to go on his own. But the truth was, it had taken her two weeks alone to leave the property on which the cottage sat, and she never, ever went anywhere near the pond, for obvious reasons.

Her fears of unintentionally breaking the as yet unknown strictures of her new enchantment were certainly part of why she didn’t wish to go, but there was another reason. With Lionel gone, Romakaji could rummage through his genealogy research unencumbered.

Once she was sure he was away, she sat down at his laptop computer and began working it’s buttons and keys the way Lionel had done – she remembered his every move perfectly. Ravencroft – that was the family name she was looking for. She was sure at least some of the witch Cressida’s descendants would still be in the area.

Turns out nearly three hundred years does a lot to scatter a family line, and there was only but one Ravencroft left. A Sybil Ravencroft who lived in the next village over. Going to see this Sybil would mean leaving the confines of her village, and possibly breaking one of her new rules of enchantment, but for this outing, it was a chance Romakaji was willing to take. She bundled up – it was a cool, late winter day and Romakaji was no longer quite as impervious to the cold as she had been when she lived in the pond – and went on foot to the address she’d found on Lionel’s laptop.

The walk was pretty and foggy, and with each step Romakaji’s trepidations faded. They were replaced by the sheer thrill of travelling to a place she hadn’t been to since she was a little girl. Much of it looked similar – the houses that lined the streets in the oldest part of the village were still there. They just gave way to newer ones which echoed the older structures in form if not building materials. The more recent homes were made of brick instead of stone. A brand new store which advertised provisions was but a rectangle with a lot of large windows up front.

On the outskirts of the village, Romakaji let herself into a gated garden and approached a small, stone house. One of the oldest ones. She pressed a button that would alert the dwellers of the house of a visitor. Lionel called it a doorbell.

A young woman, presumably Sybil, opened up the door wide, taking up much of the frame. She was no older than thirty, with long, black hair and a severe middle part. “Can I help you?”

Romakaji cleared her throat and told the woman her name.

“I’m new to the area and live just down the road,” she said. “I thought I’d come and introduce myself.”

Sybil gave her name in return and invited Romakaji in for a cup of tea, just as she’d hoped. The house was nothing like Cressida’s home had been – all dark and woodsy, full of dried herbs and smelling more of the forest than the forest itself. Sybil Ravencroft’s home was light and colorful, with new furniture and modern light fixtures. It smelled of herbs and nature, yes, but it also smelled of expensive perfume and Italian cooking.

They sat in the parlor and talked of the weather, of how much the surrounding villages had changed since Sybil was a girl, and how nobody seemed to stay anymore. But all the while, Romakaji got the feeling that they were really talking about something else. She had sensed this otherness from the moment Sybil had opened the door. The woman’s eyes had scrutinized her, and Romakaji had the feeling that if she had really been nothing more than a new neighbor come to introduce herself, Sybil would have chatted with her in the doorway for a bit, then made her excuses, promising that she would invite her new neighbor over sometime, but not meaning it.

“Ravencroft,” Romakaji said, taking her chance. She nibbled on some shortbread and blinked her eyes, trying to appear as if she was searching through her memory. “I once knew a Ravencroft, you know.”

“Did you?”

“Cressida Ravencroft. Oh, but that was a long time ago.”

“Hmm.”

Sybil leaned in closer and plucked a pair of eyeglasses from her end table. “What a lovely necklace,” she said. “May I?”

Romakaji nodded and watched her as she beheld the charm, touching the pearl at its center and turning it over to see the seal of Count Furfur. Sybil narrowed her eyes and licked her lips.

“Where did you get it?”

“I don’t know,” Romakaji said, quite honestly. “I thought an admirer had given it to me, but it turns out I was wrong.”

Sybil raised an eyebrow and folded her hands.

“It was most certainly an admirer,” she said. “But not one you would ever want to meet, I imagine.”

Sybil draped her arm over her sofa back and looked Romakaji up and down. “I don’t know who you really are, and whether you decide to tell me or not is your business. But I should tell you I knew from the moment I saw you that you are enchanted. I suppose you’ve come to see if I can help with that.”

Romakaji wasted no time in telling Sybil her story. The young witch appeared neither surpised nor disturbed by the revelations of her guest, and remained quiet until Romakaji had imparted every detail. She then refreshed their tea and added a splash of whiskey to each of their cups.

“The truth is, I don’t know if I’ll be able to be of any help,” she said. “It is significant that a grandmother of mine is the originator of the spell that cursed you, and such a blood bond does have an effect on magic, but Count Furfur complicates things. A mere witch is no match for an Earl of Hell.”

“Isn’t there anything you can do?” Romakaji asked.

“For starters, I can cast a spell that will uncover the nature of the new enchantment that was put into play once your lover rescued you from the pond. After that, it’s anyone’s guess.”

Photo by Devin H on Unsplash

Sybil got to work immediately, burning a small bowl of dried sage and fresh lavendar next to an old mirror and a scattering of small animal bones. She sang a spell in a language that was probably some ancient form of their own, but Romakaji could not understand a word outside of her own name, which the witch used with some frequency during her incantation. When Sybil was done singing and chanting, she laid her head on a pillow and seemed to fall asleep. Romakaji sat next to her for several minutes, and was about to awaken her gently, when Sybil opened her eyes and sat up.

“It is much as I suspected,” she said. “As long as you wear the necklace, you will grow more beautiful with each passing day, although the process has slowed somewhat since you left the pond. Something about water does that. You will also continue to remember every detail of your life. And you will remain immortal, more or less.”

“What do you mean more or less?”

“Well, nothing and no one is truly immortal. Not in the realm of the flesh. I mean, the world will end one day, your necklace could catch on a branch and be torn from your neck. You may wish to take your own life.”

“If Lionel grows old and dies, I can see how I would want to take my own life,” Romakaji told her. “Is there a way my necklace can extend my enchantment to him?”

Sybil shook her head. “No. For every day you grow lovelier, he grows older and one day closer to his death. And furthermore, when you die, if you are still under the spell of the necklace, you will belong to Count Furfur forever, and he can do with you as he wishes.”

“What would he want with me?” Romakaji asked.

“The magic is quite clear that it is he who threw the necklace into the pond for you to find. It was he who made it possible for you to meet Lionel and fall in love. It is he who has plans for you. But as for what those plans are, you’ll have to ask him.”

Until next time, my Cold friends…

And don’t forget to check out the new Cold podcast! This week we talk about the relevance and value of beauty in our lives and in fiction. How our own perceptions of beauty affect both the stories and characters we are drawn to, and how we interpret them. If you like what you hear, please hit the follow button!

Damsels in Distress and Dysfunction

Before we get started, and continue on with our fairytale-in-progress, “Romakaji,” I’d like to remind all of you that Cold is now a podcast! Please tune in and listen, as twice a week, Cold offers a short audio program dedicated to the creative life, the writing life. In it, we endeavor to view our efforts of the imagination with a cold eye, but never a cold heart, talking about everything from family lore to the lovers, killers, curses, and destinies that compel and inspire us.

Find all of your links to Cold right here: anchor.fm/victoria-dougherty

And please, if you like what you’re hearing, don’t forget to subscribe and leave a starred review 🙂

But now, without further ado, let’s keep on keepin’ on with our story of Romakaji, the water girl. In our last installment, we explored the introduction of “the stranger” in fairytales. How the stranger might be a force for good or evil, but is ultimately a force to be reckoned with either way.

This week, we delve into probably the most common trope in all fairytales – the damsel in distress. I’m using damsel loosely here, as there are certainly plenty of tales that involve a male character needing the help of a woman in order to survive and thrive. But in “Romakaji,” we are dealing with a female damsel.

Why are these characters so irresistible to us when all they bring is trouble? I can think of a lot of reasons (depending on the damsel, of course), but at the core of our love of these characters is a very simple human need: the desire to be of help, be of consequence. To mean something to someone in a tangible, significant way. To awaken Sleeping Beauty with a kiss, to turn the beast back into a man. It’s a very personal way to be a hero or heroine, and brings with it a very personal reward – love.

“Romakaji” Part 3

By Yours Truly

10 Of History's Most Ambitious Grimoires - Listverse

At first, the water girl, Romakaji, had kept the gold chain and its charm buried under a slippery rock at the bottom of her pond. The pearl on the one side of the charm had seemed to watch her like an eye, while the seal of Count Furfur on the other side merely frightened her to death. She wasn’t sure what curse could possibly be worse than having to live out eternity in a small, cold pond, but when it came to demons – and Count Furfur was, after all, an Earl of Hell and a powerful demon at that – the water girl wasn’t taking any chances.

Only the chain with the charm was also pretty, and she hadn’t had the chance to wear something pretty in such a very long time. Two hundred ninety-six years, twenty-one days, six hours and seventeen minutes to be exact – and with the seconds ticking away. She imagined it couldn’t hurt her to put the necklace on, especially since it would mostly float about her neck and rarely make any meaningful contact with her skin. From what she remembered from her father’s grimoire, and she remembered every single word and image from the book, the seal of Count Furfur on its own could make no enchantments anyway. It would need a spell of some kind, a talisman, or a prophecy in order to actually create any magic, dark or otherwise. So on this morning, sixty-five days exactly since she’d last seen Lionel, the water girl decided to swim down to the rock and retrieve the necklace to wear – not merely to look at.

If it was Lionel who had dropped the chain and charm into her pond – and she hoped and expected that it must be – then surely he might be hoping that she’d wear it. Assuming it was a gift, of course. Assuming that he knew it was she, Romakaji, who lived in the pond. That he knew the significance of the name he had spoken sixty-five days, two and a half minutes past.

She pulled the chain from under the rock and dangled it before her. For the first time, she felt no trepidation about it. The pearl did not seem to be glaring at her and the seal of Count Furfur did not make her cool blood run cold. When she slipped it over her head and it hovered gently before her eyes, it looked at once dainty and potent. It was how Byron, her first love, had once described her. And the way she always imagined her father had seen her. That, in and of itself, felt like an omen.

The water girl kicked up her legs to float face up close to the glassy surface of the pond. Her chain and charm drifted above her face, twinkling in the beams of sun that had broken through the water. What a lovely thing it was, and the water girl admired the sameness, the steadiness of it. The charm necklace would not become more beautiful with each passing moment, nor would it hold every detail of its existence in its memory as she could. It was not cursed to stay in the pond as she was, and if the water girl wanted to, she could remove it from around her neck and toss it out of the water and into the snowy grass. Perhaps there, someone could find it and take it with them, giving the trinket a new adventure.

As the water girl fantasized about what sorts of adventures could await her necklace, she caught a shadow in the corner of her eye. She looked out past the surface of her pond to find herself staring at Lionel, who had come to the water’s edge again finally! He had the most peculiar look on his face, as if he didn’t quite believe his own eyes, and then all of a sudden, he tore off his winter jacket and dove into the chilly water with his clothes on! He grabbed her by the waste and pulled her up, breaking the surface.

“Hold on,” he said. “I’ve got you.”

Lionel dragged her through the pond and towards the water’s edge.

“No!” The water girl protested. She pushed and tried to wiggle away, but Lionel was very strong. Stronger than Byron or the boy she’d drowned with her loneliness or any other boy who had swum with her.

“Please,” she begged, but he picked her up, lifting her out of the water and placing her on the snowy edge of the pond. The water girl flailed her arms and gulped in the chilly air of the early evening. She hardly knew what to do.

Lionel then pulled himself out of the pond and reached for his coat, placing it over the water girl. He picked her up and carried her inside her old cottage, placing her on a soft, overstuffed sofa.

“Are you alright?” He asked her. “I’ll get you some hot tea.”

The water girl nodded. She snuggled into Lionel’s coat. It smelled of a big, dry man. Her eyes flitted about her old home, noting how different it looked, and how much the same. She looked at her hands, expecting they would begin to fade, disappearing altogether. Or perhaps they would decay right before her. She didn’t know quite what to expect, only that she was cursed with not to be able to leave the pond. She had felt the strictures of her confinement many times over the years – the way her body stung all over when she got too close to its edge, how coming too far out of the water made it hard for her to breathe, even if she could take of the air as well as the water. She’d felt none of these things when Lionel took her out of the pond, however.

Her hand went straight to her necklace, and she fingered the pearl and the seal of Count Furfur. On its own, the necklace was just a necklace, like the images of demonic seals in her father’s grimoire were only that – images. In and of themselves they were powerless. But it would appear the act of putting the necklace on and then leaving the pond – even if it was not by her choice – had created yet another enchantment! While the water girl, Romakaji, was intrigued and rather elated to be out of the pond, it was unclear to her whether this new enchantment was her liberation, or yet another curse.

She heard the tea kettle whistle, and the ringing and clanging of metal spoons against porcelain. She hadn’t heard these noises in such a very long time, and they sounded like music.

“Here,” he said. He brought a tray with a tea pot and two cups, plus some cream and sugar. Two silver spoons.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

Lionel looked at her with great concern. She was used to being gazed at like a thing of fear and ethereal beauty, at least in the times she’d allowed people to see her. This was new.

“What happened?” He asked her. “How did you fall into the pond in your nightgown? Were you sleepwalking?”

The water girl lifted up Lionel’s coat and looked down at her shift. Of course he would think it was a nightgown. Clothing and underclothing had changed a great deal since her time.

“May I ask you your name?”

The water girl nodded and sat up a bit more. She swallowed and licked her lips, finding it hard to make the syllables. It had been so long since she’d said her name. “Romakaji.”

“Romakaji? How extraordinary!”

“How so?”

Lionel smiled. He really did have the handsomest smile. Wide, full-lipped, and with straight, white teeth.

“Well, I’ve been doing some research on genealogy in the area and I found the name of a village girl who disappeared hundreds of years ago. It was assumed she had been kidnapped by rogues and killed. Her name was Romakaji and I thought it an exceptional name. I’ve found none like it.”

“You like the name?” She asked.

“I think it’s beautiful and unusual. I find myself saying it aloud quite often, you know. Wondering what it would be like to have a wife or daughter I could call Romakaji. Don’t know why.”

Romakaji smiled at Lionel and he looked at her in a way that told her he liked her smile very much, too.

“What is your name?” She asked, although she already knew.

He told her.

“Lionel is a wonderful name,” she said. “Fierce and lyrical all at once.”

“Thank you,” he whispered, his deep, dark eyes glancing away in embarrassment. “But you still haven’t told me.”

“Told you what?”

“How it is you came to be in the pond. You could have drowned or frozen to death in a matter of minutes.”

“Oh,” Romakaji said, searching for an appropriate answer. One that was not, could not, be the truth.

“Well, I’m not sure.”

“Not sure?”

Romakaji shook her head. “I don’t know how I got there or why. Perhaps I was sleepwalking as you said.”

“But you remember who you are?”

“I remember my name,” she said definitively. At least that was a truth she could tell.

Lionel looked over at a device only a little bigger than a deck of cards. Romakaji reckognized what it was and frowned.

“I should call the police,” he said, picking up the device. “Your people will be looking for you – if not now, then soon.”

“No! I mean…couldn’t I spend the night?” She blinked her eyes at him, knowing how much he would like that. How vulnerable people were to the exquisite nature of her face. Only Lionel was strong. His concern for her seemed greater than the seduction of her beauty, even if not by much.

“Just until I feel better,” she assured him. “I’m quite certain no one is looking for me.”

“I find that difficult to believe,” he said. “I mean, a girl as fine as you are. I imagine a lot of people would be looking for you.”

Romakaji reached out and touched Lionel’s face. It was smooth at his prominent cheekbone, and below that prickly with five o’clock shadow. She loved everything about it.

“What if I don’t wish to be found?”

Until next week, my Cold friends…

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