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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…

The New COLD Podcast is Here!

We interrrupt our regular programming for a special announcement! For those of you who are looking to continue reading my fairytale-in-progress, Romakaji, worry not! Romakaji will be back next week.

woman in blue dress wallpaper
I’m just chillin’. See you next week.

But this week, I want to announce the launch of my new PocketCast podcast titled (quite appropriately): COLD.

COLD is a short (about ten minutes long) audio program meant to put a smile on your face, give you something to think about, but not take up all of your day. It will include ruminations on fiction and the creative life, often expanding on some of the themes we talk about here. It’s available on Spotify, Apple, Google and will continue to become available on other platforms.

I would love for you to give the inaugural episode a listen. If you like what your hearing, please follow it and leave a starred review. I hate to be a broken record, but reviews mean so much to an author. Not only do they give us an idea of what we’re doing right (or NOT!), but they help kickstart the algorithms that make an artist’s work visible to the people most likely to enjoy and support our work. No small thing.

And if you have something to say about this first episode (or ideas for subsequent episodes), don’t hesitate to reach out! What did you like about it? Is there anything you wish I’d included? Is the purpose of the podcast clear? Is it something you’d like to continue listening to?

Listen to Cold’s inaugural pocket podcast right here!

And please, if you like what you’re hearing, spread the word! A recommendation from a friend and fan is the gift that keeps on giving…

Strange Stories and the Strangers Who Inhabit Them

Those of you who follow Cold, as well as folks who subscribe to my newsletter (Click here to join Cold Readers Club: https://app.convertkit.com/landing_pages/326254?v=7), seemed to think that last week’s foray into fairytale writing was worth continuing.

I love fairytales, and will not only finish up this one via Cold, but will also take some time to examine what various elements of fairytales mean to us. How they’ve influenced our literature, and how they’ve affected the ways we see ourselves.

In this second installment of “Romakaji,” I’m focusing on the element of “the stranger.” The mysterious stranger is an integral part of many of the enchantment stories we grew up reading as children. The stranger can arrive as an evil in tales like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Little Red Riding Hood, but the stranger can also be a figure of romance and adventure. Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Frog Prince all tell the story of a girl who meets a stranger, and he awakens her heart.

I don’t yet know which type of stranger my story will offer a reader, but I hope you’ll stick with me to find out.

Romakaji

by Yours Truly

Part 2

Small English Tudor Interior | ... cottage hearth. What a ...

More than anything, the water girl missed interiors.

She remembered the dark wood, the candlelight, the portrait of her mother on the back stairs. She thought of the scratches on the wood floor and the precious books her father had collected over his lifetime. Essays by Francis Bacon, The Institutes of the Lawes of England, a Missal of the Academy of Sciences, Don Quixote. The Lesser Key of Solomon, an anonymous grimoire on demonology had been a particular guilty pleasure for her.

She’d read them all, and in her three hundred years in the pond – nay, two hundred ninety-six years, fourteen days, three hours, seventeen minutes, and with the seconds ticking away – the water girl had learned to use her memory as a library. It occurred to her this was part of the curse as well, although Cressida, the unfortunate witch who had cast her into the pond, had never told her as much. The water girl had figured out most of the elements of the curse on her own.

Not only would she grow in her ethereal beauty with each moment she spent beneath the surface of the pond, but her memories would become sharper, as distinctive as mathematics. The water girl found she could precisely reference any page in any of the books her father had kept, and any day in her life. Whether it was hundreds of years past or yesterday, she could view it as if it were happening all over again, picking out the most arcane details of even the simplest incidents. Like the smell of her mother’s breath early one morning when the water girl was only eight – the way it had portended a cancerous stomach. Something the water girl only understood in hindsight.

The water girl. That was a name she hadn’t heard in a long time either. Not as long as Romakaji, the name her parents had given her, but a long time nonetheless. It was the moniker local children had given her back when she would, on occassion, allow them a glimpse of her as they played near the pond. The brave ones would dive into the water, seeking her out. Sometimes, she even let one catch her.

But since she’d drowned the one boy with her kiss of loneliness ninety-nine years, ninety-four days, 22 hours and four minutes ago – with the seconds ticking away – she hadn’t allowed anyone to see her and the legend of the water girl had faded, leaving only the oldest people in the village to give her story any mind. The younger generations thought it a foolish old tale, much like the Lochness monster, only less exciting and with no real proof of existence at all. Not a blurry, distant photo, or a single, grisly fisherman with tales of her head rising above the water.

And no one – no one except for the witch, Cressida, and the suitor who she had rejected, had any idea that the water girl and a presumably long dead village maiden named Romakaji were one in the same.

Water girl. Romakaji. Her two selves had revisted her one day in the form of a man who’d moved into the cottage. A man named Lionel, who had fifty-eight days prior stood at the edge of the pond, staring deepling into it. He’d muttered her name in his rich voice. One of thick gravy and soft velvet. Her memory had sharpened around the quality of his voice, too. The way it had caressed each syllable – “Ro-ma-kaj-i.” 

Since that day, she’d heard him walking about, but hadn’t seen him. He hadn’t come to the pond in all these weeks and spent most of his time indoors. It had gotten cold, of course, and there was snow on the ground, but he was young and looked to be a hearty sort who would hardly mind a bit of cold air and snowflakes. It seemed awfully unlikely, too, that a stranger would move to the cottage to do “research,” as he’d said, spend many a day coming to look at her pond, even speak her name, and then lose interest in her.

The water girl, Romakaji, was longing for him to come back. If only he would, she would speak his name, too.

“Lionel,” she said into the water.

She imagined him sitting at a desk inside the cottage, with a fire roaring in the hearth. He might be tip-tapping his fingers on a laptop. She’d seen him carrying one around when he first arrived.

The interior of the cottage would look quite different than it had in her time, but the hearth would likely be the same, and she liked to think about Lionel being warmed by it, staring into its dancing flames, maybe thinking of her.

“Lionel.”

Romakaji looked up at the cottage through the murky grey of the winter water. It was dark, nearly blending with the night.

“Lionel, come to me.”

And just as she said it, a light turned on in one of the bedrooms. She saw a shadow move behind the glass – Lionel’s shadow. Romakaji didn’t dare move or make a sound. Fifty-three seconds later she heard the back door to the cottage open, and footsteps on the stone path leading to the bridge that arched over her pond.

“Lionel,” she said again, but he didn’t appear. She could see nothing but her usual view of night around the cottage grounds.

A shuffle, a deep breath – she heard those loud and clear. A plop near her and something of gold drifting to the muddy bottom of her pond.

Romakaji swam down, sinking her fingers into the soft silt, easily plucking a gold chain from the deep, brown muck. On it hung a charm, a gold disc with a pearl at its center. On its back was engraved a single image. She recognized it right away, as it was emblazoned on that memory of hers. It was the seal of Count Furfur, an image she’d seen a thousand times in her father’s grimoire, The Key of Solomon. Count Furfur, a Great Earl of Hell. A liar unless compelled into a magic triangle, where he would have to tell the truth or burn to ash. A powerful demon, according to the book, and capable of all sorts of magic. A teacher of divine things, he could also be a great destroyer, creating storms and tempests. And he had one quite unusual gift for a demon from hell. One that is unlike any other. He causes love between a man and woman.

The Paranormal Dimension: Magical Seals: How to Use Them ...

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Come Dream with Me

I want to share a little fantasy of mine with you.

My husband and I often think about what it would be like once our kids are out of the house. How we could, potentially reinvent our habits, have adventures, and continue our goal of life-long learning. In the past year or so, we’ve hatched a scheme that may or may not work out, but it’s been really fun to imagine pulling it off.

It goes something like this: Once a year, for an extended period of time (say, three to six months), we’d like to do a house swap, living and writing in a place that peaks our interests, gets our creative juices flowing, and forces us out of our comfort zones. And presumably allows another couple to do the same in our home.

This process of visualizing what it might be like to throw caution to the wind and live with a certain ultra-spontaneous joie de vivre is downright intoxicating. In that spirit, I thought I’d share with you some of my air castle daydreams of this mythical time in the future when my spouse and I, as empty nesters, will recreate our lives.

Image

If we’re going to do a dry run of our hoped-for daring-do exploits, it seems to me we should start with a place that is as storied as possible. Behold this historic cottage in the Cotswolds, England, where I could certainly spend all day long migrating from my desk (hopefully an antique number) to the mossy footpaths that look to be commonplace on the grounds of this Tudor masterpiece. Think long walks taken in the misty air, my dog, Barney, at my side.

Barney would love the Cotswolds

I’ll be honest, I’ve never been interested in writing a story set in the Cotswolds, but I think living in an old, stone, three-story house worthy of a fairy princess – even for a short stretch – could change my mind. This cottage appears so rife with magic that it’s unclear to me in which genre I’d endeavor to write. I could equally see mystery, fantasy and romance. Some fairytale elements for sure. Perhaps a combination of all of these.

If you’ll indulge me, I’m going to give it a rough, raw shot. This will be a brain dump, unedited, so please forgive any misspellings, grammatical errors or continuity issues.

Photo by Bee Felten-Leidel on Unsplash

Romakaji

By Yours Truly

She’d been in the pond for nearly three hundred years. Let us be succinct. Two hundred ninety-six years, seventy-two days, fourteen hours, three minutes, forty six seconds. But how she’d gotten there was not something she talked about easily. Byron had known, of course. He was her first love. But telling him had been a mistake. 

Byron had kissed her rapturously, had swum with her in the pond. She was only ever happy when his father was away and they could visit. He’d told her she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever laid eyes on, and she’d believed him. It was, after all, part of the curse – getting lovelier by the year, the day, the moment. Long white hair like spider’s silk, eyes the same murky green as the water around her, skin as soft as suede and the exact shade of a dandelion seed. Lips the lively pink of a lotus flower and breath as sweet as its nectar.

Byron had seemed so true. Maybe he was. It wasn’t his fault that tales of witches were diabolical and frightening. It wasn’t his fault that a witch had cursed her to this pond. Hadn’t meant to. Cressida was her name and her intentions had not been evil. She had intended to protect the girl from an unwanted marriage. Only the girl’s suitor had fallen into a rage when he discovered his betrothed was being kept from him. Worse, that she didn’t want his hand. Not then, not ever. 

He’d stabbed Cressida in the heart with a silver dagger, then set her on fire. It was the only known way to deal with a witch at the time. To keep her curse intact even after her death. The girl could still hear Cressida’s screams when she allowed herself to think about it.

And that ugly bastard had come to see the girl almost daily right up until he died of a ripe, old age – taunting her, telling her how good life was outside of the pond. How good she could have had it.

The girl wondered if she’d never told Byron about the witch, if he might have stayed. As it was, he told her he feared that if he continued to kiss and swim about with her, he might become cursed himself. The girl thought it odd this had only occurred to her young man after she’d told him the specifics of her predicament. After all, an unearthly beauty who lives in a pond must be in some way enchanted, and enchantments are notorious for being contagious. It had become clear to her in the following years that Byron of the delicious kisses, of the splashing in the water, of the laughing and adoring, hadn’t been much of a thinker.

Three hundred years.

It was a very long time. Nay, two hundred ninety-six years, seventy-two days, fourteen hours, six minutes and fifty-four seconds as of this very word. There had been many young men after Byron ran away. Edward, William, Simon, Ellsworth, Phillip, James, Grayson, Miles, Graham. At least a dozen after that. Not all of them had been young men she’d loved the way she’d loved Byron, but she’d certainly liked them all. They passed the time. Never did she wish any one of them harm.

If only wishes were changes.

Out of nowhere one day, when the cottage had been empty for some decades, a boy, like gift, discovered the place and started playing about there, pretending to be a pirate.

It was wrong of her to call out to him; she even knew it at the time. Yet once she’d started, she couldn’t stop.

She’d played to his sense of adventure, his hope to one day rescue a ravishing maiden from a terrible fate. She’d peeked her head out from the pond, letting him see her face without a clear pane of water between them. A face so exquisite that he’d stumbled backward.

“Come kiss me,” she’d whispered.

And he did come, his hands shaking as he reached out for her, a gasp of pleasure as he fell into the water and she wrapped her arms around him. They kissed and kissed and kissed for hours, rolling all about the pond like river otters. When their lips parted at last, the girl looked upon his face. Such delicate features – a freckled nose, lips that were small, but not thin. His eyes were closed, his body seemed heavy in the water.

And he was not breathing. The girl screamed and held him close, weeping and wailing, calling out his name, slapping his cheeks. But it was no use. She had drowned the poor boy.

All of fourteen he was.  

For ninety nine years, thirty-six days, nine hours, eleven minutes, and twenty-two seconds, his body, now just a litter of bones, had sat at the bottom of the pond. Her only company.

Since then, she had watched the people of the cottage come and go, but she had never whispered to them in the night, shown them her body, rippling in an aquatic dance, just beneath the surface of the pond. And never, ever had she let anyone see her face. It was a fate she deserved, she told herself. For killing a boy with her loneliness.

Photo by Marina Logvin on Unsplash

“Lionel,” she heard a voice call one day. A deep voice of soft velvet. A man’s voice.

He stood on the stone bridge talking to the postman, telling him to call him “Lionel.” Not Mr. Ray, which was his surname, according to the postman.

“Mr. Ray,” that postman kept on saying, and each time Lionel would correct him, until finally the postman said, “Right, ok, Lionel it is then.”

Thick, dark hair with a wave to it – like the sea at night. Eyes as wet and dark as oil. A fine-looking man was Lionel, quiet and contemplative. He was moving alone into the cottage to do research, he said, but he didn’t say what kind.

Although he looked to be of an age when a woman should be at his side, at least on some evenings, his first weeks in the cottage had been spent without company. No friends or family. No visitors except for the postman. There was nothing about him that seemed lonely at all, though. He walked with purpose, his brow knitted in thought. Sometimes, he would stare into the pond.

Then, one evening, he stood gazing at the water for a good, long while, his mouth painted with the faintest of smiles.

“Romakaji,” she heard him whisper.

He turned and walked back into the house.

“What did you say?” She called out. It was the first time she’d used her voice since she’d drowned the boy who played at being a pirate.

“Romakaji,” he’d said. She was sure of it.

It was a name she hadn’t heard in forever. A name she had not even spoken to herself, in her mind’s voice. One that seemed to have died with her when Cressida had given her to the pond for safekeeping. It had been a rare name in her time, and she had not heard it since. Not one person who’d lived in the cottage or visited it was named Romakaji.

Romakaji. It was her name.

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

What do you think, my Cold friends? Should I continue?

Winter in The Cold

I love leaving wild bird seed out in the winter. We get lots of blue jays, cardinals, and woodpeckers, and they love the stuff.

I discovered a wonderful series on YouTube this past week. It centers on the life of a small, young family living a largely “off the grid” life in the forests of Sweden, in a tiny, rustic cabin with no electricity (they’re able to upload their videos through a single solar charger). 

While it’s fun to watch people live much like they would have one hundred and fifty years ago, albeit with important improvements like good dental care and antibiotics, I found that as I was scrolling through their archive of videos, looking for inspiration, I was almost exclusively attracted to their winter clips. Scenes of wood-burning stoves and tea kettles, thick frostings of snow and sparkling streams with ice crusted near the banks, woolen sweaters, smoky breath, early sunsets, and deep sleeps.

I realized how much the winter is like church for me, and embodies so much of the sacred and holy that not only carries us through the rest of the year, but helps us build foundations for a meaningful life.

Our backyard after a snowstorm.

Because the cold months are the quiet months. The contemplative months. We think more about our place in the world, make New Year’s resolutions, vow to cut the poisonous and gratuitous out of our lives. 

With so much silence, stillness, the sounds we do hear are clear and distinctive: the caw of a warbler, the snap of a branch beneath a heavy boot. Winter’s music is heavy with percussion, and it’s sounds are sparse and artsy. It’s a spoken haiku, as opposed to the riotous symphonic pieces that characterize the other seasons.

But as the moon rises on a cold, winter’s night, that haiku often becomes a soft, acoustic love song. More babies are made in the winter than at any other time in the year, so it’s a season of intimacy, too. The solitude of the crisp day becomes an evening made for warm hands and close bodies. It’s a much needed interval for both lovers and philosophers – the life-makers and the sense-makers.​

The 1905 wood-burning stove that sits in the center of our living room.

​Winter’s smells are sharp and masculine in the outdoors. Clean. They’re tinged with pine and minerals, and the plain, fresh air cuts like a razor. While fresh and exhilarating, going outdoors in the cold months is not for the faint of heart. It takes a helluva lot more than sunscreen to brave the weather. If you live in a place where the temperatures drop below zero, there’s almost no amount of layering that will keep your eyes from tearing, your fingers and toes from getting numb. Ears may burn with the cold even when covered with a hat. It can be painful just to breathe. 

But unable to resist the draw, we sled, build snowmen, let the snowflakes fall onto our tongues, or put our tongues to a cold piece of metal, where it gets stuck. Frostbite is a bitch, too. Winter is nothing if not precarious.

Ah, but then we come indoors – maybe to a roaring fire, or just some good ole charmless, miraculous central heating. The interior elements of winter are decidedly feminine, I think. Its’ scents are nourishing and sexy – aromas of cinnamon, cooked apples, cedar. Our cheeks and lips redden from the contrast of heat and cold, giving a girl the kind of flush written about in romance novels. Soft instrumentals and full-bodied wine, preferably red or mulled, and a good long book that’ll last you for hours…or a great conversation. That’s the stuff not only of falling in love, but of making a close friend.

And winter is the time to snuggle a child and drink hot cocoa, make wish lists, and celebrate not merely the sun, but the candle, the gaslight, the bright holiday bulbs. We wear soft blankets and full body pajamas with cozy slippers, take long, hot baths, and watch the firelight dance until our eyelids flutter with drowsiness. ​

My girls on Christmas Eve some years ago.

On a winter’s night, we have the sublime pleasure of having to warm the bed with own body heat, shivering until our comforters let go of their chill. The night wind blows unfettered by the thick mane of leaves that cover most trees during the spring, summer, and fall. Bare branches scrape against our windows in chorus with the hoot of an owl. In dead of night, the winter is an old, witchy woman. She whispers stories about wolves and ghosts, making you believe you heard something sinister outside, just beneath your bedroom window, or saw a specter in a pane of glass. Nearly all of the most hair-raising horror stories utilize the winter. With everyone shut in, there are fewer people around to hear you scream.

I snapped this on my morning walk. I keep expecting to find a body in that field.

But to me, the best part of winter is what she promises, assuming we have the grit and imagination to see her through.

Winter either tells us to think or get stronger with each hardship she presents. She provides fewer distractions, and prepares us for the opportunities that spring and summer may offer. It’s a time of bare bones and waiting. Lost hope and anticipation. Under the leaves and the ice and the thick socks and the goose pimples, is a new world awaiting discovery. 

Here’s the “off the grid” winter homage I was telling you about – you’re going to love this!

A Fictionista’s Map of Manhood from Antiquity to James Bond

man in teal tank top and black shorts standing in front of statue
Photo by Chris Curry

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is as difficult as we make it out to be.

In fact, I think a clear roadmap to manhood is right in front of us and has been all along. We’ve just been reluctant to use it. Worried that if we rely too much on historical interpretations of masculine attributes, we could compromise the progress women have made, or the way men have evolved in modern times.

But if we’re to unlock the very best of male traits for our twenty-first century brothers, sons and lovers (and in my case fictional characters), we can’t afford to disregard the wisdom of the past. This map to manhood that history’s mothers and fathers put into place came at great cost and through a harrowing process of trial and error.  ​They gave us our heroes and villains. Our rituals and rites of passage. Enabled the very freedoms women now enjoy, and the equal partnership between the sexes that we currently hold as ideal.

So, that’s where we’re going to begin – with the ancients. They are the logical first point on our map and we can find our way from there.

Sports Evolution Facts: The Greeks, Romans & Us | The Fact Site

Classical Greek male virtues were ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. Who can argue with that? These are tenets of manhood that linger on, regardless of whether men are perceived as living up to them or not. 

The Romans were a bit more elaborate, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry and could use more fleshing out. As cute as the Roman’s were in their togas and gladiator outfits, they weren’t particularly romantic in nature. If we want to understand what a woman really craves in a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by women (and the world), we’ll do best to keep our eyes trained on fiction. Because it’s only in the novel, the story, that we get off the main highways and take a more scenic route to manhood.

Ahem. I said fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur onward will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Tales of chivalry and love are particularly good at clearing away the cultural debris on our path, and allowing us to see what it takes to be the kind of man that makes a girl jump on the back of his horse and ride away with him to an uncertain future. One she is confident he can navigate. Stories like Don Quixote, Dracula, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild, The Count of Monte Cristo, even Sense and Sensibility in its quiet, mannered way, chronicle the kinds of masculine characters who answer the call to adventure, and in the process, endeavor to do right by those they encounter. They use the knowledge they gained during their exploits not only for their own personal fulfillment, but to be of better value to society at large.​

As we move further down the map, mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, Salinger, and even gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson give us a different perspective. They show us what a man wants to be at his wildest, while illustrating how perseverence, duty, even when a man is flagrantly shaking off the shackles of domesticity, keep him from straying too far from his role. Some of these authors – Salinger comes to mind – are especially adept at revealing to us what can happen when a man foregoes the map entirely and walks off into into unchartered territory. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass, despite his intelligence, talent, and courage at war, becomes so alienated from his family and society that he feels he is no longer of any use and kills himself. As appealing a character that he is, he’s a cautionary tale about the perils of going rogue.

More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer an updated and more feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. Yet despite a few tweaks, their heroes still display all of the classical traits that have been written about for millennia. They may be more overtly emotional in their presentation – a bit squishy on the outside for the likes of your average knight or lone cowboy – but are solid granite just beneath the skin. These new, improved men know how to talk to a girl, not just provide for her, rip her bodice and take her right then and there. That’s no small upgrade, in my opinion. Like leaving a village and entering a metropolis.

Diana Gabaldon’s Jamie Fraser: bodice-ripper and great talker to boot.

But of all these authors mapping out the hero’s journey, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them seem to understand that when it comes to women’s most unfeigned expectations of men, it has always boiled down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force. The protector of her heart and her person.

That is the maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, and the most desired realestate on the map. It hovers unspoken in almost every genre, too. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – is prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress: The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin.

SNEAK PEEK: Top Casino Movies
She didn’t deserve him.

In my own fiction, I give a lot of thought to how much a romantic story – a term I use loosely – really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. The kind of guy both the ancient Greeks and the girls in a modern day book club can appreciate. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be compelling and worth living in. It better be one of virtue. Or, if he’s the bad boy type, become one of virtue in the course of the story, and usually due to his valiant efforts.

I aim to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days, and make his direction clear. Draw up the kind of guy we all want in our lives. One who exemplifies the very classical virtues that, when followed, internalized, can make an evil man good again, and a good man great.

I find the points of interest in the rituals he performs. The ones that usher a boy into manhood and unveil opportunities for him to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously under-appreciated concept in my view, and rituals play an important role in a man’s development, giving him the ready, set, go! signal he’s been waiting for. The one that dares him to put his virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card to getting a driver’s license, graduating, being challeneged to that first schoolyard tussle, having that first kiss – these all let a guy know that it’s time. To move on, to step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About where he’s willing to go and what he stands for, what he’s willing to do and risk everything for. Otherwise he ends up untethered, just wandering all over the map.

Because that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, isn’t it? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s virtues and ideals may tell him how he should behave, but his rituals let him know when it’s time to employ them. They show him and everyone watching whether he has the mettle to actually behave in the way he wishes others to see him. In the way that he will ultimately be judged and remembered when he comes to the last stop on the road.

Savage Island, excerpt

By Victoria Dougherty

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.​

Savage Island is on sale for $.99 for a short time only! Get your download today.

Reflecting on the Old; Ringing in the New

Happy New Year, my friends. I know that most of you are probably quite happy to see 2020 end, and I won’t pretend I’m not ready to say sayonara. My own inner circle has seen death, ill health, financial insecurity, and all the drama that comes with living under semi-quarantine. Cabin fever can be no easy thing to navigate when there’s no clear end in sight.

But there has been magic this year, too. Many office slaves have been able to kick their commute to the curb and work successfully from home. The more industrious of us have picked up new hobbies, read more books, finally lost those stubborn pounds around the middle. Others have grown closer to the ones they love, and looked at their lives anew, perhaps getting a deeper, wider perspective on who they are, where they want to be, and how to get there.

Others still, may have had the worst year of their lives, yet remained standing. Tests of survival, the ones that show us what we’re made of, have their own brand of fairy dust.

In that spirit, I’d like to share some of my favorite family photos of 2020. Ones that caught us off-guard, and showed our quirks. Or just captured a genuine emotion.

After you’ve perused my little photo album, I have something special for you. It’s a long and winding conversation that’ll take you to many unexpected places. This is one for the books, my Cold companions, and I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Ready?

​This woman is my spirit animal, whoever she is.

My pre-COVID venture into the wild world of the KISS concert raised some eyebrows. As my New Year’s resolution last year, I vowed to accept every invitation to get out of my house – no matter what it was. I admit, I’m not exactly a KISS fan, but I stick to my resolutions, dammit.

And you know what? It was a ball.

Sadly, my resolution came to a grinding halt at the end of March, when we were all forced into lockdown. In those short, few weeks, however, I made new friends, reconnected with old ones, and experienced an onslaught of fresh, out-of-the-box experiences the likes of which I hadn’t even endeavored to try since becoming a mother. For a brief period there, I actually went to bed after 9:00 p.m., and told my family they were on their own for dinner. 

Yes, it was glorious. 

At the same time, no matter how much fun was had, I always looked forward coming home.

I had no idea that people actually followed KISS around like they’re the Grateful Dead and dress up as band members. It’s a great community of folks.

​​I love this picture of me and my girls. Late this spring, we decided to shake things up and celebrate the loosening of quarantine strictures with Shirley Temples and calamari at a local Italian joint that has a great patio! I’ll clarify: They had Shirley Temples and I had a glass of wine. 

On any other night, in any other year, they would’ve probably had other things to do on a beautiful Friday night​. ​In a rare thanks to COVID, their weekend plans for most of the past several months, were often my plans, too. We’ve cooked, watched movies, played music, gone for bike rides, taken walks, and sat by the stream and just talked. I don’t mind for one minute that I was their first choice only by default in 2020. This may have been my last chance to spend large chunks of time with them without resorting to bribery.

My husband and son were camping at this time, so we girls later got into our pajamas and watched “The Office” and “The Haunting of Hill House.”

​The Dougherty family spent the dog days of summer at the Blue Ridge Swim Club – a totally hippie, “green,” spring-fed pool (from 1913, no less, and I believe it’s the oldest working swimming pool in the USA). Swimmers must share the water with tadpoles and brave a slippery, muddy bottom at the shallow end. And let me tell you, this pool is COLD. As my husband, Jack, observed – “It is scrotum-tighteningly cold.”

Jack and I brought a stack of books, and lounged on some adirondack chairs while our kids practiced doing flips off the diving board. After daring me, begging me, telling me there’s no way I’d do it, I finally told my daughters to zip it and take a seat. I walked up onto that board, jumped hard once, and did a front flip for the first time in thirty years, thank you very much.

Image may contain: 4 people, including Jack Dougherty, people sitting, tree, grass, child, outdoor and nature
Father’s Day at Blue Ridge Swim Club

My kiddos, and my “extra” son, who’s my oldest’s best friend, lounged around by the fire after Thanksgiving dinner. It was a quiet, intimate night. No fuss. Just a home-cooked Indian dinner and lots of laughter. Honestly, even though we love our busy, more boisterous, and bigger family holidays, this is the best one we’ve had in years.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting, sleeping, living room, table, shoes and indoor
Everyone seemed to love just cooking the food we wanted to eat, instead of making our usual Thanksgiving recipes.

My daughter, Josephine, sang “Santa, Baby” on Christmas Eve – with her own lyrics! She wrote them as a Christmas present for her dad: “Papa, darling, there’s no one else quite like you – so true – I love the light in your eyes, Papa, darling, so hurry up and tell us a joke. One of your bad ones, please.”

It was a loving gesture that was simultaneously a tribute and roast. That’s how we roll.

I would’ve loved to post the video footage of Josie actually singing the song, but she put her foot down on that one.

This was a year of keeping up with friendships, too. At least to the best of our abilities. Despite many legitimate concerns about social media, apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and Zoom, just to name a few, enabled us to keep in touch when we couldn’t actually socialize in person.

So last, but not least, I’d like to invite you to take some time and listen to a brand new conversation I had with my friend, Ricardo Lopes, on his wonderful YouTube show and podcast, The Dissenter. Ricardo had me on last year and it was so much fun that we vowed not only to do it again, but to do it every year from here on out.

If you have a curious mind – and I’m assuming since you’re here in The Cold, that you do – I can’t recommend Ricardo’s show enough. He invites, artists, intellectuals and academics from a variety of areas and disciplines, ranging from Literature and Philosophy to the Social Sciences and Biology. He has interviewed the likes of Noam Chomsky, Gad Saad, Patrick Lee Miller, Gordon Gallup, and so many other fascinating guests.

This time around, Ricardo and I dig deeper on the kinds of stories we love, and on the cultural trends that interest us, as well as drive us crazy. We talk about religion, politics, comedy, writing fiction, and what makes an interesting villain! Honestly, he and I never run out of things to chat about and I always look forward to sitting down with him.

So, put on your headphones, pour yourself the beverage of your choice (I prefer wine or whiskey if it’s after 5), and put your feet up – you’re in for one hell of a conversation.

The Dissenter and I sit down once again. Just click this link to join us!

And if you’re interested in some of the fruits of my labor this year, please check out BREATH, the first book in my epic new historical fantasy series.

And Savage Island, the first companion novella to the BREATH series:

Readers and Reviewers are calling the BREATH series “Breathtaking” “Romantic and enthralling” “Unlike anything I’ve read before” and “The story of a lifetime!”

Merry and Bright

Barney in his Christmas sweater

As of this year, Santa is no longer much of a factor in our house, so we decided to shake things up a bit and have our big meal and gift-exchange last night, on Christmas Eve (the traditional Czech way). I have to say – it was wonderful. The presents were heartfelt, the laughter spontaneous, and the joy everpresent. I didn’t realize how much I’ve missed celebrating this holiday in the evening, even if I know I’ll eventually miss being dragged out of bed at zero dark thirty to drink hot cocoa and watch my kids rip open their presents in a frenzy as close to bloodlust as I’ve ever seen. Those memories are a treasure and one of the delights of being a parent.

But so is cooking a Beef Wellington with my son, discussing adult topics as we sit around an ancient, pot-bellied stove, and staying up late into the night without a thought about the next day.

My oldest child and sous chef

I can’t help feeling blessed and grateful despite all of the turmoil this year, and hope that all of you are enjoying your holiday with those who are closest to you. I’ve heard over and over how that’s been the silver lining of Covid restrictions – the fact that we are spending so much time with our most essential loved ones. A girlfriend of mine confided to me just the other day, “It’s so nice to have no frills holidays, isn’t it? No pressure, just us. Covid’s been a great excuse to do exactly what we want.”

While I do love a big, boisterous holiday celebration full of love, family gossip, and even the occasional drunken mishap, I admit it’s been a guilty pleasure having my children and husband all to myself.

The Christmas Beef Wellington turned out perfectly (it was a disaster last year – the first time we tried making it)

We spent most of last night just cooking dinner and listening to Christmas carols. My husband made perfect Manhattans, and we opened one of our favorite bottles of red. We lit candles, and said a prayer of thanks before the food orgy commenced.

“Mom, I got diarrhea, but it was so worth it,” one of my kids, who for dignity’s sake shall remain anonymous, said.

Dinner is served

This morning, as I write this, I’m sitting next to our Christmas tree and thinking of you all. How grateful I am that we’ve all found each other here in The Cold. That you read my stories and share yours’ with me – offering me an intimate look into your hearts. Thank you. That’s a gift that keeps on giving all year long.

Merry Christmas

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