icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

What We Keep

You must remember this

 

Lately I have seen a proliferation of Facebook posts displaying things such as metal ice cube trays and flour sifters, or steering column mounted gear shifts, with instructions to share if you know what they are. I always know what they are, but that's beside the point. More than mere things, there are skills we have lost, ripped from us by modern technology as surely as automatic ice makers and plastic have relegated the metal ice tray, compete with handle for loosening the ice, to a Facebook meme.

 

Who these days knows how to kite a check? Believe me, that used to be a life-saving skill and it depended on the fact that a check deposited on one day took about a week to make its way back to the originating bank and be deducted there. Say you needed fifty dollars and your brother didn't have fifty dollars either. Brother wrote you a check for fifty and mailed it. A day later you wrote him a check for fifty and mailed that back. When his check came, you deposited it and spent it, while your check to him arrived in time to cover the check written from his account. He then sent you another check to cover your check. You kept this up until someone actually laid their hands on fifty dollars and put a stop to the process.

 

Telegrams. You paid by the word, so the composition of a good telegram was an art. These belong mostly to my parents' era, but there was something both ominous and lovely about a telegram delivered to your door. Possibly someone was dead. But possibly your agent had good news and the Post had bought your serial. Or the baby was a girl. Or your son had been expelled from yet another school. (I have among the Family Papers a telegram from my grandmother to my grandfather announcing exactly that.) Or your show had closed, alas, on opening night. You never knew.

 

Telegrams were eventually eclipsed by the long-distance telephone and it was expensive too, so it required careful management. There were two ways to make a long distance call before direct dialing, both through an operator. A station-to-station call was cheaper but you started paying as soon as anyone answered. A person-to-person call was more expensive but you didn't pay if the person you wanted wasn't there. I would call my boyfriend person-to-person and if he was there, he would claim not to be but that he was expected any minute. Both parties on either end could hear what the other was saying. I would thank the operator and tell her I would try again. Then I would call station-to-station.

 

My family developed an elaborate code when I was in college in Virginia, built around the now also vanished half-price student standby flights. A person-to-person call for myself meant that I had made my flight home to California. My parents would tell the operator that I was not there, and I would say brightly, "Thank you, Operator, I'll try again about seven." When I missed it, I called for Mr. Charleston DeLay or Mr. L.A. Sunday. A great deal of information could be conveyed this way. My parents checked on the schedule of their weekly poker game with participants outside the local calling zone by calls for Mr. Jackson Low. Mr. Low wasn't there but he was expected at six o'clock on Friday. One player achieved immortality at this racket by reminding the hostess, who was notoriously forgetful, to thaw the chicken meant for the game dinner with a call for "Madame Poulet deFrost."

 

We shall not see her like again. I miss being able to jerk the phone company around almost as much as I miss the rotary dial telephone, which at least prevented "Jacob" with the almost unintelligible accent from calling from "The Medicare" to ask me how I am today.

1 Comments
Post a comment

The West Pasture

The ghost of a Roman camp

 

The ghosts of old Roman forts still appear in aerial photography two thousand years later as crop marks. This one was the start of a story that's now included as a bonus in the e-book version of The Wall at the Edge of the World, since it features a descendant of that family.

 

 

THE WEST PASTURE

 

     "What's that bite out of the edge of the west pasture for?" It still perplexed Clytie, that triangular piece of overgrown land jutting into the field and putting two bends in the hedgerow as if someone had shoved the corner of a large box into it.

     Her uncle's gardener looked up from the cold frame. "That's the old boundary. That's always been like that. And stay out of it."

     "Why?"

     "Just do." When she didn't move, he added, "And if they give you something, don't take it."

     "Who?"

     He didn't answer and in the few weeks that Clytie had occupied the spare room at Low Farm she had learned that if she got two sentences out of Old George, that was more than most people did. As she walked away he muttered something that sounded like "Pharisees" and she recognized the country term for those folk whom it was not a good idea to name. She grinned. If that was all, she thought she might go exploring. Nobody but Old George had said not to.

     Clytie had come to Low Farm to get her out of her father's hair in London, and away from the German bombing raids that were becoming more frequent and more deadly. She was too old for school, barely, and unlikely to marry with a war on and all the young men at the front in France. A widower with a job in the War Office needed peace and quiet at home, and his bachelor brother managing Low Farm with most of the young staff gone could use some help. That was what her father said anyway. Clytie was aware that he lived in terror of losing her too.

     When she packed herself a basket lunch in the kitchen and mentioned her expedition, Rose the cook told her not to as well. "Keep out of those woods," Rose said, lifting the cloth from a bowl of rising dough. "I'm not saying as it's anything supernatural, but Tom Dennehy's horse got loose and spent the night in there and when Tom got hold of him he was all saddle marked and sweaty."

     "Isn't it witches that do that?" Clytie asked, slicing the end of a ham while Alice, the half-setter bitch who had accompanied Clytie to Low Farm, leaned against her skirts.

     "I'm not going to argue which nonexistent thingamabob rode Tom Dennehy's horse," Rose said. "Just leave it alone."

     "Why was it left to woods anyway?" Clytie asked, undeterred. "Everything else here is field or pasture."

     "For the lord's sake, I don't know," Rose said. "Nothing grows there was what I heard. It's been cleared and plowed a few times but never a good crop."

     "All right then. We'll just go for a walk." Clytie packed up her sandwiches.

     "Come back in time for the Women's Committee meeting." Rose punched the bread dough down. "If they corner your uncle again about the fête he'll be rude to them."

     "All right." Clytie's main duty so far was to represent Low Farm on the Women's Committee for the War Effort so that they didn't drive her uncle mad.

     She called Alice to heel with every intention of walking sedately to the village but Alice turned toward the west pasture on her own, and Clytie didn't see how she could help that. Whoever owned it would probably have to clear and plow it soon anyway, good land or poor, to help with the food shortages. Bread flour was already scarce. The loaves Rose was making would be doled out carefully and Clytie had sliced her sandwiches paper thin.

     They passed Joey, Old George's grandson, sweeping the stableyard and he waved to Clytie and beamed at her when she walked over to him. "I have a new hat," he informed her. "Found it in the loft." He took it off his head and offered it for inspection, a melon-crowned object apparently belonging to the late Queen's reign.

     "That's very handsome, Joey."

     "Thank you, Miss Clytie. Now I have sweeping or Rose will shout at me."

     He returned to his work, setting the hat on his pale curls again. Then he stopped and looked over his shoulder, slyly. "If you go to those old woods, you won't get hurt."

     "How do you know that?" Joey was accounted to be simple and his information on any subject generally unreliable.

     There was no answer. Joey returned to the stableyard and the barn which now housed only the cob that pulled the pony trap. Every riding horse in the country, no doubt including Tom Dennehy's, had been bought up for the war, and as many work horses as could be spared from their farms. Clytie followed Alice's nose into the rough grass of the field, holding her skirts above the damp. There were rabbits probably. Alice seemed to think so.

     At the far end the hedgerow loomed, an apparently impenetrable wedge thrust into the geometry of the west pasture. Alice, however, with her mind on rabbits, found a gap and wriggled in. Clytie followed, pushing her way through blackthorn and wild privet, dog rose and hawthorn, disentangling herself as she went. Someone obviously came this way fairly often. Joey maybe. That might be the source of the household supply of rabbit pies.

     Beyond the hedgerow were woods, thick and cool. The trees were still in late summer leaf but the canopy shed enough light to see a man perched on an outcrop of stone. He had dark hair and a bony face and wore what looked like some sort of gymnasium costume, loose breeches and a tunic faded to a reddish brown. Clytie stopped abruptly.

     "I am so sorry! I didn't mean to intrude on you. Alice, come back!" She had never seen him before and it occurred to her that he might be a German. There had been rumors of spies landing on the coast and making their way inland.

     "You can see me?" He looked startled.

     She had not been prepared for that reaction. "Shouldn't I?"

     "I don't know," he said. "Except for Joey, people can't as a rule, unless we work at it. Who are you?"

     "I'm Clytie Evans. I'm staying at Low Farm," she said warily. "Who are you?" If he was a German she needed to tell someone right away. Joey wouldn't have thought of it.

     He paused and then said, "Justin." He held out his hand to Alice, who sniffed it and sat down on his boots in a canine demonstration of approval.

     "Just that? Do you have a last name?"

     "Crow."

     He looked as if he might take flight. There was something intangible about him, even though he looked solid. The light in the woods was odd, greenish even though the trees were beginning to turn their leaves.

     "What is this place? Why does it shove into our pasture like that?" If he was a local, he would know.

     He stood. He didn't look much older than she was and wore boots that laced over his breeches like a circus performer's. He said, "I'll show you."

     He motioned with a nod of his head to follow him. She hesitated, but Alice was generally a good judge of character and seemed to have no doubts. She was also big enough to defend her mistress from an unarmed male. They needed to find out who he was. Clytie made up her mind and picked her way after him while the undergrowth dragged at her skirts.

     "Everyone says to stay out of these woods," she commented as they walked, side by side now. "For fear of the fairies." She'd see what he said to that. His speech had a curious formal quality but he didn't sound German; but of course he wouldn't if he was any kind of spy at all.

     The man laughed. "It isn't fairies, it's just us."

     "Us?" Maybe they were gypsies. That would be an adventure. My mother said I never should play with the gypsies in the wood. That bit of verse came back to her and she ignored it.

     "Us. We died here."

     Clytie cocked her head at him and raised her eyebrows. "You don't look dead," she told him.

     He faded slowly from her vision until she could see the trees through him.

     "Wait!"

     He rematerialized.

     Clytie stared at him, getting her breath back. Not gypsies then. Or a German. He looked solid now but there was no denying what she had seen. "Who are you?"

     "We called ourselves Romans," he said. "But by the time the emperor said that Britain must look to its own defense, we weren't anymore, not really."

     Clytie blinked at him, shook her head to readjust her perspective, like realizing that one has been looking at a painting upside down. The world had felt lately as if it were tipping anyway, with the war. Maybe ghosts were part of that. And late summer was an odd time of year, with one foot already into autumn.

     "I was decurion of the first cavalry squadron," he said. "Second Legion Augusta, the last to be called back. When the troop ships sailed, some of us stayed behind."

     "Why?"

     "To fight off your ancestors, I expect. Saxons and Danes and the Norse just waiting for the last defenders to leave."

     Clytie extracted the pertinent facts from her schoolgirl history book.

     "They came anyway," she said.

     "They did. And we were badly outnumbered and went down like a bug under a shoe. And we stayed here again, out of sheer pigheadedness, I suppose." They had halted in a little clearing now. "Our fort was here, our last posting. That odd wedge into your pasture follows the line of the walls. It's been the boundary since the walls were still standing, people have just forgotten. This is the bit where the fort headquarters stood and the chapel of the standards."

     Clytie looked around the clearing, wondering if she imagined the faint wisp of walls that seemed to be visible only on the periphery of her sight. She remembered the standard bearer in his lionskin hood illustrated in her history book. "Then how do I understand you? Don't you speak Latin?"

     "After all this time? I followed along, you know. Language changes very slowly. Even when new people come in, there's an overlap."

     "How many of you are there? Why can't I see the others? Joey can see them, can't he?" She remembered what Joey had said about the woods not hurting her.

     "His head's a bit different, I think," the Roman said. "A bit like Alice here maybe."

     Alice looked up at her name and went and leaned on his boots.

     "Can you eat? I have sandwiches."

     "No, not really, I miss it though. You go ahead."

     A stump with a pair of logs on either side looked suspiciously like a table and benches. He pointed at it and she sat and unpacked her sandwiches. Alice transferred her attention to Clytie.

     "I don't know why you can't see the others," he said. "I don't know why you can see me, if it comes to that. Does it matter? I like the company."

     "I never met a ghost before." It seemed reasonable to be matter of fact, now that the picture had turned right side up. There was no point in pretending that she hadn't seen him disappear like that. "I'm not sure my uncle would approve," she added.

     "Do you care?"

     "Not really." She unwrapped her sandwich. "I've been sent here to be out of the way while my father does important things in the War Office. And to keep me away from the Zeppelin raids. Mainly I'm to prevent the Women's Committee from feuding with each other and all trying to run things at once. Apparently Low Farm is top of the village hierarchy and expected to lead in times like these. Uncle doesn't want to lead the Women's Committee." That thought brought her round abruptly and she consulted the watch pinned to her shirtwaist. "Oh heavens, I'm late!"

 

     "Will you have more tea, Mrs. Allen?"

     "Thank you, dear." The vicar's wife held out her cup and reined in the ladies gathered in the Low Farm parlor with a practiced glance. Clytie was very young and they were growing argumentative. "We're very grateful to you, Miss Evans, for heading up the fête, as you have much the best space to set up the tents, and of course the village is used to looking to Low Farm. The town green simply isn't large enough with most of it plowed up for garden."

     Mrs. Dennehy, wife of the mayor, gave a sniff to indicate her disagreement. Miss Radcliff, who was held to be dangerously modern and went walking in bloomers, said, "I don't see why we can't each just contribute money instead of knitting gloves to sell to each other. It would be simpler."

     "That would not involve the village, dear," Mrs. Allen said while Clytie was wondering the same thing.

     "Everyone must be a part of the war effort," Mrs. Dennehy pronounced. "We lead by example."

     "Of course," Clytie said. "The Women's Land Army has been recruiting volunteers for work at the remount depots," she added wistfully.

     "Riding cross-saddle in breeches?" Mrs. Dennehy looked appalled. "Certainly not. Your uncle would never approve of that."

     "Not until after the fête, of course," Clytie said. "Will you have more tea?" And I know who rode your horse, she thought, with a small, secret pleasure.

     "Young William Hawkins joined up yesterday," Mrs. Allen said. "My husband married William and Susan Moorehouse this morning." She sighed. "They're barely old enough. It seems a shame but it's better than taking chances," a comment that everyone understood to mean risking a baby out of wedlock. "I think he's almost the last in the village."

     "Mrs. Comstock told me that her husband wants young Joey to join up," Miss Radcliff said. "Some vicious female handed him a white feather at the railway station last week and they're embarrassed." Old George's daughter had married the village postmaster and ran the shop attached to it, but Joey had been bounced back to his grandfather at the farm once it was clear that his assistance in either shop or post office courted disaster.

     "Oh not Joey!" Mrs. Allen said. "Anyone can tell he's not fit."

     "That's what I told her," Miss Radcliff said. "He won't be sane by the time he comes back."

     If he does, Clytie thought. It didn't seem right. Joey wouldn't understand the army. "Surely they wouldn't want him?" she asked.

     "They want anybody now," Mrs. Dennehy said. "I'm not saying it's the right thing for Joey but I don't doubt they've taken worse."

    

     Clytie voiced her worries to the Roman the next week when Joey asked her if the army would let him come home from France on the weekends. Clytie and Alice now made the woods a regular, secret part of their ramblings and the Roman appeared whenever they slipped through the hedgerow.

     "What do I call you?" she asked him the first time that she went back. How formal should one be with a ghost? And did Romans have titles?

     "Crow. That will do."

     "Is that really your name?"

     "That's the English for it."

     "How many of you are there?"

     "Just a handful now. A lot have gone on over the years. There isn't much to do here but sleep and make a pet of Joey. We taught him to throw dice."

     "For money?"

     Crow laughed. "And let him take a Roman coin home and fill up the place with antiquities hunters? For stones. Or bits of tile from the bath house floor. He's like a magpie. Anything shiny."

     "I thought the old fort was all buried?"

     "There are doors. For us anyway. I'd be wary of taking you through them. Sometimes doors like that don't open again. Or open somewhere else."

     "I still don't see why I can only see you," Clytie said. "Or see you at all."

     "Maybe it's because I'm more rooted here than the rest." Crow looked at his feet as if they might actually be. "The others stayed because I was their commander maybe, but the first of my family came to Britain before Hadrian built his wall. Around 120 by Christian reckoning."

     Clytie considered that. Three hundred years in Britain would make you a Briton, by the time the orders came to leave. And then another fifteen hundred here while the fort they had tried to defend crumbled around their bones and sank into the earth. And what would happen to Joey if he died somewhere in France? Would he know how to go where he was supposed to?

     "It's not that he doesn't think, you know," she said. "He just thinks differently. I asked him to start collecting the eggs because he's just about the only staff we have left since Jenny joined the Land Girls. He started looking for them so often that the hens got upset and quit laying. He'll be in trouble constantly, he'll get his orders confused. And then he'll be punished for it, I imagine."

     "He will," Crow said. "Speaking as an officer." He scratched Alice's ears and she laid her head on his knee. "I spent thirty years in the army and most of the time I had a dog. I miss them."

     Clytie looked doubtful. "You don't look that old."

     "This is what I looked like when I was twenty-five — I think. It's been so long. We seem to be...malleable. I could probably look like you if I tried."

     "Don't! That's a horrible idea. That makes my skin crawl."

     "It would probably be better than what I looked like when I died," he said. "I thought you might like it better this way."

     They were sitting side by side on the log bench in the clearing while Clytie ate her boiled egg and salt and Crow watched her wistfully.

     "Did you have a wife?" she asked him.

     "I did. The girl I wanted married someone else because she didn't want a man in the army. Thought I'd be killed and leave her. Then her husband died when the Saxons began to raid the southeast coast  — they had a farm there — and after that life seemed too chancy to worry about so she married me anyway. She died of a fever not long before me and she's buried near here. I couldn't bear to leave that either. What about you? Do you have a young man?"

     Clytie took off her hat and straightened the pins in her hair. It was cool in the wood but the little breeze felt good. "I haven't had time," she said sadly. "They've all gone to fight in France, and I wouldn't want to be like Susan Moorehouse in the village who got married one day and sent her husband to war the next. Like your wife, I suppose."

     "Susan in the village may have had her reasons," Crow said.

     It was hard to imagine him as fifty when he so plainly looked twenty just now. He had dark brows that winged up a bit at the ends like his name, and a strong nose that was probably its origin. His arms and legs were muscular and his hands callused. There was a small callused spot under his chin too, as if a helmet strap had rubbed at it over the years. He wouldn't have been out of place in a drawing room though. She had thought his clothing just a gymnasium costume at first.

     "I suspect you'll marry," he said, "when it's all over. If you still want to."

     "If there's anyone left," Clytie said miserably. The casualties were an ever increasing stream of the maimed and the slowly dying. When she wasn't walking Alice or trying to manage what she was coming to think of as the Horrible Fête, she rolled bandages and knitted socks, or emptied slops at the hospital and read to mangled boys barely conscious enough to hear her. "How do I know whether I will or not? I haven't even kissed anyone."

     "Do you want to?"

     "I'd like to see what it's like."

     He bent his head and kissed her. He was surprisingly solid, and warm to the touch.

     "I didn't mean now," Clytie said.

     Crow looked apologetic. "I'm sorry. I know you didn't. It's been a long time since I kissed a girl."

     It was nice though, and Clytie allowed herself to think that maybe he would do to practice on. There wouldn't be any lingering complications from kissing a ghost. She tilted her head up and let him kiss her again.

     She met Joey on the way home, crossing the pasture with a rabbit snare dangling from his hand, melon-crowned hat jauntily atop his curls. He smiled at her and she smiled back.

     They had passed each other when he stopped suddenly and said, worried, "Will I have to shoot a gun in the army? Grandpa doesn't let me."

     Clytie turned back. "I think so," she said and he looked distressed. "Don't join the army, Joey. We need you here, you know," she added.

     "Pa says I'm no use, and they gave me a feather."

     Clytie gritted her teeth. The fashion for handing out white feathers to shame men not in uniform disgusted her. Several of her London friends indulged in it, clothing themselves in a patriotic righteousness, and Clytie had dropped them for it. "Don't listen to them," she told Joey, knowing the inadequacy of that advice.

     "And it's not as if he'd be anything but a liability," she told Crow two days later. "He's starting to fret over it all the time."

     Crow looked grim. "He'll come up before his commander for something or other without knowing why and it won't go well."

     "I wish he could just stay here in the woods and throw dice with ghosts. There's talk of clearing this land, though, to plow," she added.

     "They won't," Crow said. "It's been tried but we make them nervous even if they don't know why." He faded to a wraithlike transparency as if to demonstrate.   

     No wonder, if they saw that, Clytie thought. "There was another Zeppelin raid," she said. "Our guns aren't very good at taking them out but one of our fighter pilots set it alight with an incendiary round. The Zeppelin crew all burned to death or jumped. I tried to pray for them but I just couldn't."

     Crow nodded. He had become interested in the war and how it was being fought, asking Clytie for the news on every visit. He had been — was still, she supposed — a soldier after all. War was his profession. "Germans," he said now. "Again."

     "Again?"

     "Saxons are Germans," Crow said. "Or were until they got here. The land takes its invaders in after a while."

     "Not these, please," Clytie said. "And not pleasant for the invaded. And quit calling me a Saxon. There must be some Briton in me too. Evans is a Welsh name."

     "Well, there you are," Crow said. "That's why you can see me. We're probably related. Likely I'm your grandfather."

     "You kissed me," Clytie said, mildly horrified. "If you're my ancestor, that's indecent."

     "We don't know for sure."

     "I have to see the man with the tents for the fête and keep Mrs. Dennehy from changing the layout again. Think about what to do about Joey."

     Crow didn't answer and she packed up the remains of her lunch and told Alice to come along.

 

     She went back the next day with a newspaper featuring an illustration of a Zeppelin because Crow had wanted to see one.

     "Astonishing," he said, studying it. A sinister sausage shape hovered over a dark shoreline while fire exploded out of the ground below it.

     "You didn't know about air flight?" Clytie asked. The things he knew sometimes startled her, as did the things he didn't know.

     "We sleep a lot, I think. Time gets stretched in some odd way for us, or maybe compacted. I'm not sure." He shook his head. "I seem more awake now."

     A deep hum filled the woods, like bees in a box, as if his wakefulness had called to something. They both looked up. A fighter squadron crossed the sky overhead, simultaneously fragile and dangerous. Crow swiveled his head to follow them.

     "Rome always had better weapons than its enemies," he said. "Until that didn't matter anymore. Until we were overwhelmed, too few against many." His face was somber now, and restless.

     Clytie studied him. "You're wishing you could go, aren't you?"

     Crow kept his eyes on the dragonfly shapes of the fighter squadron until they disappeared in the blue distance, the hum fading gradually behind them. "Not in those, no; far too much like Icarus. But yes. Go fight Germans. I would. It seems like a good substitute for fighting Saxons."

     "Can you get killed? Again, I mean?"

     "I don't know," he said. "Probably. The Boatman comes around now and again still to see if I want a lift."

     "And you've never gone with him?"

     "No. I don't even know why now. There didn't seem to be a point to it." He stood up and stretched, looking remarkably solid. "Tell young Joey to come and visit."

 

     The next day was Sunday and Clytie went dutifully to church and brought flowers from the Low Farm garden for the altar and shook her head with Mrs. Allen over Joey. "My husband had a talk with his father," Mrs. Allen said, "but I don't think it's done any good."

     Clytie thought of something Crow had said. "It won't take him a week to get court martialed for something he doesn't even know he's done. He thinks he can go home on the weekends. I'm terrified. They shoot deserters."

     Mrs. Allen sighed. "I know, dear. I'm afraid that's very likely. I've prayed about it, but I think God has rather too much on His hands right now."

     Clytie saw Joey at the service, standing between his parents and his grandfather, looking perplexed and uncomfortable, and afterward striding off across the west pasture. She decided to go to the hospital instead. Let Joey have the woods to himself today. If they sent him to the army, he wouldn't come back and he wouldn't even understand what had happened to him.

 

     In the morning she walked through a dank, depressing mist to the village to get the post and found Joey's mother putting up a sign in the shop window.

 

WHY AREN'T

YOU

IN KHAKI?

YOU'LL BE WANTED

ENLIST AT ONCE

 

     "Our Joey's joined up," Mrs. Comstock told Clytie proudly. "Done what his father asked him."

     Clytie's stomach heaved. "Oh, no..."

     Mrs. Comstock nodded. "He seemed different, do you know?" she said to Clytie. "Odd, but not in his usual way, more at himself this morning than I've seen him. Maybe this will be what he needs."

     Her husband leaned across the postal counter with a satisfied expression. "Make a man of him. I've a note here for your uncle, Miss Evans. He can send Joey's last pay on here."

     Clytie took the note and the handful of letters for Low Farm and fled. A double-decker troop transport full of recruits rumbled through the square, dark and sinister looking in the mist. Joey sat on the top deck. He turned to look at her and for a moment the bones of his face shifted, rearranged themselves, settled into Crow's face and then it was Joey again. Clytie put her hand to her mouth and the lorry turned the corner of the square and lumbered into the fog.

 

     After supper, Clytie called Alice and they walked across the pasture in the autumn twilight. The mist had burned off through the day and the pasture was dry, rustling with field mice disturbed by their footsteps and the seedheads of grasses going dormant. The hedgerow loomed ahead in the deepening dusk and shimmered into a strange translucence as she came to it. Through the dissolving briars she could see the clearing, bathed in the sunlight of a different century. Joey sat in the middle of it throwing dice with someone invisible. For a moment she saw the fort too, timber gates and whitewashed barracks buildings roofed with tile, and then they and Joey and whoever he was throwing dice with sank into the ground and the gap in the hedgerow closed up.

 

 

4 Comments
Post a comment

A hole in the sky

Cat contemplating the fourth dimension

 

Portal books have a special kind of magic. The idea that anything, a wardrobe for instance, or a rabbit hole, may be a passage to another world opening onto something far other than old clothes or rabbits, is a notion hard to resist. Once, I made my own. I could never go through it, but I could look, and there were the stars of another universe, just looking back at me.

 

When my son left home for college, I seized the opportunity to reclaim his bedroom, the original "back parlor" of our old house, and turn it into the dining room. After excavating the strata left behind — deflated basketballs, lone socks, every piece of paper he had ever been handed since the age of eight — all cemented together with various forms of nameless gunk, it was fairly clear that the gunk might have been all that was holding the room up.

 

Something had to be done about the ancient horsehair plaster beginning to buckle behind multiple layers of old paper on walls and ceiling. Preferably something that did not involve stripping the plaster off down to the lath and replastering. More paper sounded like just the ticket, and just about what we could afford. So we had the walls covered with "faux old Italian courtyard wall" in a variegated pale yellow that disguised the various bulges in their aged contours; and the ceiling repapered to hold back the crumbling drifts that seeped from tears in the previous paper. The woodwork was repainted off-white, the floor refinished, and the ceiling paper spackled over with a pale stucco-like compound that looked beautiful with the new walls. Not period by any means, but very arty.

 

That was when the toilet in the upstairs bathroom overflowed, and its contents poured down through the new ceiling, leaving a patch of stained paper surrounded by the hanging shreds of the new stucco finish. It looked as if someone had grabbed the ceiling in their fist and yanked a chunk out of it. I half expected to see sky through it.

 

So why not? We were out of money. I painted the exposed ceiling a dark blue-black and dotted it with stars. The effect was startling, as if you really were looking clear up into the sky. Or maybe into another universe, given that there ought to be a second story between this ceiling and the usual sky.

 

I was still congratulating myself on the idea when a window air conditioner upstairs iced up, and then thawed unnoticed, producing a second hole in the ceiling. I decided that more stars would give the general effect of having been bombed in some mad military error, but that when you have a good idea you should stick with it. So in the second hole I painted a pale blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. After that, I occasionally thought I saw birds fly though it out of the corner of my eye, and our ginger cat, who was crazy anyway, used to sit on top of the radiator cover and watch it. It may have been mice in the ceiling, but I always felt as if, if only I was small enough to crawl through, there would be something besides floorboards on the other side. Tiny space stations maybe, or comets.

 

We have since sold that house but I hope that while it is night on the west side of its tiny dining room planet, it is still day in the east.

 

 

2 Comments
Post a comment

Digital immortality of the worst kind

 

Puck distributes your latest tweet.

(Honor C. Appleton, 1879–1951)

 

These days when anyone may accidentally turn themselves into a cat on Zoom or leave embarrassing objects on the shelves behind their heads, I've been thinking about the usefulness, nay necessity of squelching one's capacity for embarrassment, especially since these things now have a half-life of the existence of the internet.

 

Thus I have been channeling my male forebears, specifically my father and grandfather, both of whom were excellent men but cared very little for certain appearances when practicality was involved. My father was the bane of my teenage years because he kept his raincoat (for the rare California rains) in a zippered plastic pocket in the car, and wore the zippered pocket as a hat when the raincoat was deployed. He also mowed the lawn in an umbrella hat.

 

My grandfather, who was a judge, tended to put on his winter wear with the shortest garment on the outside, sweater over jacket over overcoat. He once appeared at my aunt's apartment in New York in this outfit, plus a deerstalker hat. When my aunt said, "Dad! Did you come here in that?" he replied, "No one noticed. I ran all the way."

 

In these days when that picture of you with Something Awful in the background may as Puck said, put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes, it's as well to remember what politicians voluntarily put on Facebook and then have to take down again (alas, screen shots live forever) and that the one with your bra hanging from the doorknob is probably small potatoes. Sweep the room for embarrassing trinkets and gin bottles, and hope for the best.

Be the first to comment

First boil your ostrich

 

In the course of researching any past culture and its ways one occasionally comes on something that begs for experimentation. Cooking for instance, which tends to be largely experimentation anyway when I get my hands on it.

 

Wanting to get the menu of various fictional dinners right, and to know what one would eat for breakfast, I acquired a translation of the classic work on Roman food, the first-century recipes of Apicius, by two mid-twentieth century kitchen scholars who actually made most of the dishes before publishing their text.

 

Billed as "A Critical Translation of The Art of Cooking by Apicius for Use in the Study and the Kitchen," like many ancient texts this one derives only from copies of copies, preserved in two ninth-century versions of a fifth-century manuscript. Large chunks of it seem to be additions by the fifth-century editor, so there are the inevitable difficulties. One term, for instance, can mean either artichokes or mussels, which is going to make a difference in your recipe right there.

 

And there is the issue of measurement, because there isn't any, mainly. A sauce for boiled ostrich (should you be serving one) lists only the ingredients for the sauce but no quantities or instructions, other than to boil that too and pour it over the ostrich.

 

Naturally I want to make something out of this book, and am fortunate enough to have two mad friends who want to do so as well. When we can cook together again, I'm thinking of Chicken in the Numidian Way with the Spiced Wine Surprise.          

 

Be the first to comment

The Plot Hole

 

I have just finished going over a copy editor's suggestions, fixes, embarrassing errors caught, and changes to be argued with, regarding The Border Wolves, the new fourth volume of The Centurions (out in April!) and I am reminded of when my son was about five and I read him Make Way for Ducklings. That was when I realized that even classics are not immune to the dreaded plot hole.

 

     "Why would they go back to that island and raise the ducklings after Mrs. Mallard said it wasn't a good place because of all the bicycles?" my son inquired.

 

     "Oh, well, they've all hatched now," I said, trying to get on with it.

 

     "The bicycles are still there," he pointed out, relentlessly.

 

     "Well, it's a plot hole," I said, giving up, and explained that writers sometimes put things in their books that don't make sense. He was aghast at this, and then fascinated. "By mistake?" he asked. He apparently hadn't thought of authors as fallible before, an illusion I was sorry to dispel.

 

     The dreaded plot hole waits for us all. Sometimes it gets past editors too and is discovered only when the thing is in print. I made an error in Roman naming conventions in the first Centurions novel in 1981 and now I am stuck with it. The Border Wolves contains an attempt to explain it away in historically plausible terms but I wish I had caught it then.

 

     Sometimes it's a corner we paint ourselves into. My Aunt Anne wrote novels and short stories, and during the Depression, when money was short and pulp magazines prolific, thriller serials that routinely left her hero hanging from a cliff, metaphorical or otherwise. In the next episode he would cleverly extract himself and get on with it.

 

     Deadlines and the need for cash often spurred her to finish a chapter without quite knowing where the story was going from there. In one episode she allowed the villains to bind her hero with steel chains and throw him into a well, where she left him until next month's installment.

 

     Unfortunately, when the time came she couldn't come up with any even faintly plausible way to get him out again. She sat down at the typewriter and after chewing the ends off several pencils, typed: "With one burst of superhuman strength, Jack broke his bonds and shot to the top of the well."

 

     My Aunt Anne remains an example for us all.

2 Comments
Post a comment

The West Warlock Time Capsule

My parents on New Year's Eve

 

It's one of those dreary, gray January days that inclines a person to pessimism. The air outside is dank, the yard is a muddy slough churned up by the dog who is now tracking it all over the house, which needs cleaning anyway, and where did all that detritus in the corners come from, a miserable drift of cat hair, cracker crumbs, and nameless substances.

 

And then the mail arrives, bringing with it not one but two of the coveted green envelopes, checks from the Writers Guild for residual payments on my late parents' screenplays, extracted from various production companies on my behalf according to the Guild contract in force at the time they were produced. These envelopes are like lottery tickets — occasionally they contain several hundred dollars, and once I got one for thirty cents. Today's haul is $3.20 and $17.30, both for reruns of old Alfred Hitchcock scripts on heaven knows what channel: "Back for Christmas," "Banquo's Chair," and the wonderfully titled "West Warlock Time Capsule."

 

This time there is something else in there. I shake the envelope and a little gray mist comes out, gray as the day outside but warm and friendly, like a gray cat. It resolves itself into a tiny black-and-white television through which my mother's image takes shape, sitting at her typewriter, with a basket on the floor beside her, and suddenly I am four years old again. The basket has toys, dime store selections from which I am allowed to choose one every half hour, and play with my mother for ten minutes, if I will then leave her alone to write for the other twenty. It is an excellent system, although it has occasionally appalled people I have told about it, either in the conviction that I was a cruelly neglected child bribed with cheap toys to lead a solitary life, or in horror at the thought of trying to write in twenty-minute chunks, interspersed with conversation with a four-year-old. It depends on who I am talking to.

 

I open the other envelope and my father is there too, apparently asleep in his recliner, in a pair of black pinhole glasses that make him look like a bug but which he believed strengthened his vision, and indeed that treatment did allow him to stop wearing glasses. He looked like a praying mantis in them, though. And he is not asleep, he is dictating to Mildred, his secretary, who typed his scripts.

 

I put the checks in my wallet for the next time that someone is going to the bank, or I get the energy to learn how to use the mobile deposit app, and the little televisions fade out too. But the day has picked up somehow, more than twenty dollars' worth.

2 Comments
Post a comment

That Old Song

 

St. Helen's Bishopsgate, London

carved screen

 

This season of carols, I find it easy to get lost in that old music, and wish for the millionth time that I could sing.

 

I am almost, but not quite, tone deaf, with just enough ear to allow me to sing horrible, vaguely recognizable versions of songs I love. I always appreciate it when people sing in groups and I can sneak in quietly. I can actually get closer to the right note if I sing with someone, but not alas actually on it. My husband knows more weird old ballads, my favorite genre, than almost anyone else. His repertoire includes dismal train wreck songs ("murdered upon the railway and laid in a lonesome grave"), songs about seal lovers and cabin boys who turn out to be girls, and Hank Williams classics. And Christmas carols, oddly. He's not a fan of Christmas but even my Jewish husband gets caught up in their song, and surely we can agree on "O Come, O Come, Emanuel," a carol for all eventualities.

 

In my twenties I worked as a copywriter for a rock radio station and listened to Top 40 hits all day whether I wanted to or not. It was years after I quit that job before I could turn on the car radio, scarred by too many repeats of "Wildfire" and "Kung Fu Fighting." By night I hung out with boys who sang folk songs. Maybe that is the basis of my occasionally unfortunate susceptibility to guys who sing, including my husband, who is one of the fortunate instances. Another semi-serious crush was on a guy with an angel's voice who's now a priest. A Lutheran priest, I might add, I'm not that bad. He insisted that he could teach me to carry a tune, and he did get me closer, but the ear just wasn't there. It's like being color-blind maybe. You just don't have that fine tuning. Another was the kind of guy who leaves you wondering what in holy hell you thought you were doing, but oh, he could sing.

 

It was my husband who, in the long ago before we were married, introduced me to Jimmie Rodgers and to Richard Fariña and to folk music that went beyond the pop versions of the Kingston Trio. I read somewhere that you imprint on the music of your adolescence, and nothing else ever sounds as good to you. That would explain a lot.

3 Comments
Post a comment

Just a Few Suggestions: A Post in Praise of Editors

 

My normal approach to revising a manuscript:

 

     Read editor's notes. They are lengthy.

     Stomp about swearing and listing the many ways the editor is Wrong.

     Read notes again.

     Decide that maybe a third of them are sort of reasonable and I can do those.

     Begin at beginning of notes, as that is the easiest way.

     Decide that more than I had thought are sensible, and a couple are brilliant.

     Find four to stand my ground on.

     Decide that maybe I should do one of those too, because it's not half bad.

     Decide that it's not half good either and I will revisit it.

     Write cogent summary in defense of not doing the other three.

     The fourth one now somehow looks much more intelligent than it did.

     Do that one too.

     Admire the difference all this has made to a previously lumpy manuscript.

     Decide that I am adamant on the last three.

     Send it all off and have a drink.

 

     All of which is to say that a good editor is a godsend, and should be rewarded in heaven with the pleasure of removing the extra apostrophes in all those damn Christmas cards from the Baxter's.

     If you are a writer, you know the value of a good editor, or you should. No one is the best eye on their own work. I have read too many self-published books lately that prove that, clogging an otherwise good novel with clunky syntax, erroneous word choice, and characters who vanish for no reason halfway through the book. Writers who get too famous for their own britches also do themselves no favors by deciding that they are too good to need an editor. I've read a bunch of those too.

     So this is my Christmas carol in praise of editors, having just completed the above process for a book that will be out this spring. Thank you, Kit Nevile of Canelo, long may you inhabit the right hand Markup column.

Be the first to comment

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

"Are you sure about this?"

 

I think there may be an arm of fate or a discerning muse who, if a writer has been Good, will keep her from certain cliffs. Both my new books are sequels, of a sort, and were intended to have been written years ago, but set aside for various reasons. When I had the opportunity to finish them, I found that large chunks of both old plotlines were trite, implausible, and in one case historically impossible. I am grateful to whatever anti-muse kept me from writing them as-is all those years ago.

    

I had to re-read the previous books, of course, and did so with some trepidation, but apparently I was more restrained in those, or possibly had a good editor who said, "Good grief, think again," or words to that effect. For whatever reason, the old ones seemed to me to hold up, although I did want to make the kind of marginal notes that I am in the habit of jotting down for writing students. You know the kind of thing: "Stilted dialog."  "Overused analogy."  "Can you find a fresher image?"  "This sentence has escaped you entirely."

 

One thing this new venture into old projects has taught me is this: Never throw away that manuscript that no one wanted. You never know when someone will, and if there are excellent reasons why no one wanted it, you will most likely see them now and do something about that. I can't remember how often I thought about tossing those, clogging up the basement shelves in those wonderful sturdy cardboard boxes that typing paper used to come in, just right for a manuscript. I think maybe it was the boxes I didn't want to part with. You can't get them now and I guard my small hoard of them. So here's to the muse that put them on the shelf for my own good, and the goddess of office supplies who whispered in my ear, "You may want those boxes."

 

1 Comments
Post a comment