The Soft Constellation – A Bit o’ Fiction

Photo by Paul Volkmer on Unsplash

(The following is a short story I tailored for an anthology submission, but it admittedly got away from me and took on a life of its own. Even so I like the story just the way it is, and I like Maisie and Alice just as they are. I hope you enjoy it!)

The Soft Constellation

I knew I loved Maisie McCorkindale the moment she picked up that shovel. Something about it was so wrong—not the fact that she was going to dig a hole to bury my Roy, but that she somehow seemed solid to me for the first time, her who was all soaring clouds and shooting stars. It was like she had come down to earth just for me.

She pretended to spit in her palms and winked at me when she drove the spade into the ground, and anything in me that might have held back that love gave way.

We would laugh about it after: me seven months pregnant, squared up like a gunslinger in front of Roy as he staggered off the porch of Maisie’s summer cabin, emptying his daddy’s pistol into his chest. Maisie had given me such a look, a look that said she was exasperated, a little bit proud, and more than a little bit tickled. “Oh, Alice, why’d you have to go and do that?” she’d said, shaking her head with her hands on her hips. “I killed Roy ten minutes ago.”

She tried to shoo me away, sent me to wait inside, but I wanted to see it through to the very end. I think Maisie recognized that need in me, so she let me keep her company while she laid him down. She huffed and puffed as she dug, working up more color in her cheeks than I’d ever seen, but she kept talking to me as if we were up at the big house, me tidying up the living room or fixing her dinner.

“The stars told me you were coming, you know,” she said, and I could see that twinkle, the mischief in her. She knew I didn’t go in for all that, but she’d always liked to tease me.

“I should have known they were talking about you,” she said, pausing just long enough to tie her hair back and point to the sky. “Just look at how bright Spica is up there in Virgo—might as well be written in neon! But I was all wrapped up in what they had to say about the when and how of seeing to Roy.” She eyed him and made the grave a few inches longer. “I slipped him night-blooming jasmine and Japanese star anise in the whiskey I keep for company—my little way of saying goodbye.”

When she was ready to cover him up, Maisie paused and waited on me, but I shook my head. Everything I ever needed to say to Roy had already been said. I might have let him hit me, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to let him hit my baby girl. I told him so, and when he took a swing at me I twisted his arm behind his back and drove his face into the wall a few times. He had all the answers he was ever going to get, and the look of surprise on his face told me they were not the answers he expected.

Maisie and I drove to the quarry outside town when Roy was in the ground, and she threw the gun into the cliff side of the lake, her talking the whole time to fill up the quiet and put me at ease. She told me how she’d managed it: how she’d invited him up to the cabin, offered him a stack of cash to skip town and leave me be, how she’d brewed a pot of tea but he grabbed her whiskey, just like she knew he would, and how she’d let him wheedle for more money, let him play at being a big man for as long as he liked, right up till the poison started clutching at his gut.

I sat listening beside her with my head back and window down, holding my belly, feeling sick to my own stomach. I hadn’t made any plans for after the cabin, didn’t really know what was supposed to come next. Maisie took me back to my apartment and walked me inside like it was any old April night. I grabbed her hand, and she let me hold it.

“Don’t you fret, Alice—everything is going to be just fine,” Maisie said, setting me down on the edge of my bed and looking me right in the eye when we were inside, then turning to pack up a couple of bags with anything that looked like it might be important to Roy. “Smell that?” she asked. “That’s a good rain coming. It’s going to make everything new for you. And by next week you’ll be up at the house with me.” She scanned the room and nodded, as if everything were settled.

I can’t say exactly when I fell asleep, only that I fell asleep believing her, fell asleep to the sound of rain.

The police didn’t come round until Roy missed his Friday night poker game, which was maybe the only commitment he could ever bring himself to stick to. Deputy Dunning glanced at my belly, saw Roy’s clothes and needfuls were gone, and sized things up pretty quick. I told him what Maisie had told me to say, and we drove up together to see her at the big house.

He was a world different up there, wiping his shoes, holding his hat in his hands, sitting where he was told, saying “Yes, Ma’am” to every line Maisie fed him. She told him the whole unvarnished story, save for the killing. The deputy didn’t even pretend to write anything down. I had plenty of questions myself—about Roy’s car, about the blood, about all the evidence any half-assed search would turn up at the cabin. But Maisie’s story lined up with everything Dunning already believed about Roy. And that was that.

Maisie brought me up to live with her in the big house midway through the next week, just like she said she would. She settled up the last months of my lease and fitted up the guest bedroom next to her own as a nursery, had Jack Hansom knock a hole through the wall and put in a door. Folks said it was the least she could do, rich as she was, hard as I’d worked for her. And once Birdie Nash said it was a good and proper thing—just like when Dottie McCorkindale took in in Ida Underwood after the war—there was nothing more to be said.

Maisie paid no mind to town talk herself. Telling tales about her family had always been a popular pastime in Embry. She never said a word about all the arrangements she made for me, either, except when she wanted to know what I might like, what I might prefer.  She never said a word when I crawled into bed with her the night she moved me in. She just made a space for me in her big bed, curled herself around me, stroked my hair, kissed me like I needed to be kissed. At last she said she’d always loved me, and I knew it was true.

When Astrid was born the joke around town was that she was Maisie’s natural daughter. There I was, six feet tall and broad-shouldered, freckled, suntanned, and callused from fifteen years in gardens, yards, and kitchens, and there was my Astrid with her blonde curls and blue eyes, like an old-fashioned porcelain doll, a perfect miniature of my Maisie. It felt so good to see them together it made me ache.

Maisie urged me to leave off keeping house for folks in town, to get some rest and enjoy myself, and so I tried. It took some getting used to—it had been a long time since I’d been with someone who wanted me around as much as she did. She wouldn’t let me tend to all that needed doing in the big house, either. She took up a share of the daily chores and hired Cecily Fox to come by twice a week, though that arrangement only lasted about a year, until Cecily’s daddy told us she was setting aside all her pocket money for nursing school. We sent her off in the fall, Maisie paying for her schooling and her daddy paying for her room and board, and we got a little better at cleaning up after ourselves.

All the while Maisie kept at her work, which was more like a calling than anything I had claim to. She’d wanted to leave off, to spend more time with me and Astrid, but folks spread out over three counties knew to visit Miss McCorkindale if they had a big risk in mind or thought they’d found a sweetheart worth keeping. She’d sit with them in our parlor, working out her charts of the stars, and tell them how things looked for the long haul. She was just too soft-hearted to send anyone away, especially when the stars always had something to say about luck, or love, or all the things in this life that really matter.

I didn’t know what to do with myself, but Maisie insisted that I needed time to be with myself, time I had never had much of. So I did what I did when I was a girl, back when spending time with my daddy outside was pure pleasure. I kept busy in the garden and the orchard in the spring and the summer, though I made plenty of time to go fishing, too. I hunted deer in the fall and grouse in the winter. I did a bit of woodcarving—just simple things, animals and such. I even tried my hand at tanning deerskin leather, setting up a rack behind the summer cabin. I got good at it after about two years.

And when my days away were over, I’d walk or drive back to the big house and find Maisie and Astrid waiting on me. The best part of going out on my own was having a family to come home to.

We spoiled each other for nine years, the sweetest nine years I could ever imagine. I took Astrid out on long rambles some days, and sometimes the three of us went out together. Sometimes we’d spread a blanket at the edge of the orchard so we could watch the clouds roll by and get caught out in the rain on purpose.

Astrid had a green thumb like I did, and she loved our days in the garden, but we could tell early on her head was in the stars. She never got tired of watching Maisie draw her charts, and the refrigerator was covered with the ones she worked up herself, all white crayon on black construction paper. On fine nights we would spread our blanket out just after dark and watch the sky, Astrid nestled between the two of us.

On one of those unseasonably warm March nights Maisie pointed out Spica in Virgo, one of the few stars I knew on sight. “There’s your momma’s star!” she said. “Look how brightly she’s shining tonight!”

“So that must be you,” Astrid said, sure of herself, picking out another bright star nearby, “and that’s me over there!”

“That’s exactly right,” Maisie said, leaning in. “That’s a bit of Corvus and a bit of Libra in the old-fashioned way of reading stars, but what you’ve picked out is what I call a soft constellation, the most important kind. It’s a map of the stars we draw with our hearts.”

I cuddled our girl between us then, reaching over Astrid to squeeze my Maisie’s hand, and for the first time, with an intuition that rolled over me like a cold wave, I could feel Maisie fading.

By the end of the week the doctors confirmed what I already knew: Maisie would only be with us for a few months more. Maisie had herself a good cry in my arms at the doctor’s office, but she was her old self by the time we got home to the sitter.

As for me, I could only manage a brave face when we were together with Astrid. I was more than a little ashamed of myself—me who should have been comforting her—but it couldn’t be helped. Nine years wasn’t nearly enough. I wanted nine lifetimes.

Eventually we sat Astrid down and told her together. We were ready with all the comforts and consolations we could think of, but she surprised us both. “It’s okay,” she said, sitting between us and holding our hands. “I talked to the stars about it, and they promised you both would always be here to watch over me—stars in the sky, just like them.” She nodded, looking at us as if we would be silly to think anything different, and then went back to playing.

I swear I wouldn’t have done what I did if Maisie hadn’t proposed it. I was afraid I’d get it wrong, but if she’d asked me to pull the moon down from the sky for her I would’ve. And when I understood what she really wanted and why she wanted it, I loved her all the more.

The time Maisie spent in Embry with her doctors, lawyers, and old friends I spent in the library with Astrid, figuring out how to do what Maisie needed me to do. At night we treated ourselves to whatever we liked for supper and dessert, and then we snuggled up with Astrid to watch movies or play games. After we put Astrid to bed we would slip out into the yard and make love until Maisie fell asleep or pretended to, always in my arms, always under our stars.

When Cecily Fox got word about how Maisie was doing she signed on to be her home nurse, stopping by every morning to see her before she left to start her shift at Fairlawn and every evening on her way home, though the big house was well out of her way. Cecily was a first-rate nurse, and if there was any pain to be faced, Maisie didn’t feel it. She even made sure Maisie had her daily colloidal silver at our request, though she wasn’t one to go in for alternative medicine. Together we asked Cecily if she would help us when the time was right, and she promised us she’d do as much as she was able.

And the right time was set to come too soon. Maisie worked out one of her charts with Astrid by her side, and she settled on a night in mid-May, a night when the moon would be full and the sky would be clear. I had myself a good cry in private most every day after that, but Maisie caught me and held me and told me to feel whatever I wanted and to cry whenever I liked. “You’re mine and I’m yours,” she said, “and that’s the way it will be till the stars go out. When I’m inclined to cry, Alice, I think back on the years I’ve had with you, and I can’t help but smile.”

The night Maisie was meant to pass on we fixed it so Astrid was away at a slumber party with her friends in town. We’d let her sleep between us in the big bed the night before, making much of her and holding her close, saying everything shy of goodbye. Cecily came and went, right on schedule, and I got myself ready.

We drove up to the summer cabin and watched the stars come out, me holding her as tight as her body could bear. Maisie seemed so happy, so radiant, and she looked to my face and looked to the stars in wonder, as if they were one and the same.

Like she promised, Cecily had helped as far as she was able. She had left a syringe full of morphine for me earlier in the week, and when Maisie was ready—when she saw Spica, held my hand, and nodded, I gave it to her. And then the two of us said “I love you” again and again and again, making sure those were the last words we’d ever hear from one another. I kissed her and she kissed me, and she raised her hand to touch my face. When her hand fell away I caught it and pressed it to my heart, and she smiled the sweetest, dreamiest smile as she drifted off.

When I was sure she was gone I let myself cry, burying my face in Maisie’s hair. It took me a half hour to collect myself, but when I felt able I gathered her up in my arms, walked halfway down the drive, and presented her to the stars. I couldn’t compose myself enough to say “thank you,” to say all I wanted to say, but I felt sure that they knew what I meant.

Then I brought Maisie inside the cabin and got to work.

Though he took some convincing, Mr. Osborne at the funeral parlor at last let me have my own way. Part of it probably had to do with the distinction of making the arrangements for a McCorkindale, which was a big deal in Embry, but when he saw how I’d settled Maisie down in the satin he realized he had no cause to worry about his reputation. She looked joyful, luminous, almost holy, just as she looked when she left me.

Close to three hundred folks came to the service, which obliged some of the men to stand in the back so we could squeeze them all into the church. Only about thirty of us went to the cemetery to lay her down in the family vault and pay our respects, and while we were there Maisie’s sister June took me aside to let me know that she’d talked it over with the clan and they meant to save the place beside Maisie for me. I’d managed to hold myself together for most of the morning, but that kindness did me in.

Folks came up to the house in the afternoon, and we played some old country music and ate little chicken salad sandwiches and swapped stories until the sun dipped low. June, Cecily, and a few friends helped me clean up, and Astrid and I went to sleep early in the big bed, with her being careful not to let her little body slip into the space that belonged to Maisie.

When Astrid was ready to return to her own room a few nights later, I tucked her in, put out the lights, and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. Her eyes were half-closed, but when she saw what I’d done she sat right up and held me tight. Together we looked at the shining silver stars I’d made and arranged on the ceiling above her, the soft constellation we had grown up around us—her, our Maisie, and me. At last the tears she’d been holding back came, and I stayed with her there all night, the two of us missing Maisie and looking up at those shimmering stars while they watched over us.

For almost ten years Astrid slept beneath them, and she’s since gone off to college to study astronomy, which I’m sure would tickle Maisie. Sometimes when I’m missing her I’ll sit out on our old blanket after dark and look up at the stars, imagining how they look from where she’s standing.

And on those nights when I’m alone in the big house, feeling it echo and creak with my own footfalls, I slip into Astrid’s room and stretch out on her old bed. It always makes me feel better—closer to her and closer to Maisie. Above me I can see the bits of Corvus and Libra that Astrid claimed for us, pulling us together in our own pattern, like a little promise the stars made when they first caught fire.

There’s so much of my Maisie in that pattern, the whole of it glowing soft and silver just like she did when I carried her into the cabin, but when I drift off I always find myself gazing on Spica, the star Maisie picked out just for me, and holding my hand to the place above my heart where I cut it loose on a sweet night in mid-May to join her in the night sky.

Tracking Numbers

As someone who just spent twenty minutes following up on a step in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness proceedings at the behest of the student aid hierophants, only to be told I am not at all eligible to do the thing I was specifically instructed to do, I have fairly strong opinions about data analysis and associated forms of number-crunching.

There are, of course, useful numbers. When a story or poem is rejected, especially with kind words from an editor, it can be comforting to know that your piece was one submission out of 250, 500, or 1000. There are Clifford Garstang’s Perpetual Folly rankings, indispensable resources for gauging the relative difficulty of placing a story or poem in any given publication. And there are the numbers I track on my own computer, which tell me what percentage of my fiction and poetry I’ve published. I’m not much inclined to get too bogged down looking at spreadsheets (I just use Word documents for tracking, truth be told), but anything that offers me a sense of the overall lay of the land is valuable.

I think there are also some advantages to be reaped from a bit of amateur analysis, too. When I look at patterns of acceptance and rejections, for instance, I can usually see errata–outlier stories that I probably ought to revisit before considering starting the submission engines again. I’m currently revising just such a story, one I find quite beautiful but (to my thinking) falls in the Neither Here Nor There category. It has speculative elements, but it’s not horrific enough to be salable horror, nor is it fantastical enough to be salable fantasy. It’s a subjective assessment, of course, but I figure any evaluation that prompts me to re-imagine the shape of an unpublished story probably arises from an intuition worth pursuing.

And at bottom it does my heart (such as it is) some good to look at a chronicle of rejections that ended in an acceptance. It took me a sizable quantity of saved-up gumption to start submitting my fiction back in the day, and while I’ve landed a couple of pieces in lovely homes on the first go, I think one of the more important writerly lessons we have to learn is pure, dimwitted persistence. I think it’s more than sensible to set a piece of work aside after a dozen rejections, but the creative marketplace really is–really and truly, no foolies–predicated on that elusive quantity called fit.

The fact that a story or poem doesn’t land right away does not mean it’s garbage. It just means a single reader (perhaps a screener, perhaps the editor themself) is not picking up what I happen to be laying down. And when I imagine that uncontrollable facet of the work in those terms, I sleep a little easier at night. I just get back to telling the best stories I know how to tell, and trust in time and persistence to tend to the rest.

Double-Dipping

Image by Tony Detroit at Unsplash.com

Today’s post is something of a reminder to myself, as this spring I’m writing to spec a little more aggressively than I normally would. That means I’m keeping an eye out for calls for certain kinds of stories, ideally in publications that will carry the sort of cachet my university will recognize. I find that writing to spec–writing for a specific audience or venue without any guarantee the piece will ever see the light of day–keeps my creative juices flowing, and in many cases it helps me to drain my perpetually overfull Stories to Be Written folder.

I heartily recommend writing to spec when you can, especially when it seems your brainpan feels a little on the dry side. But I offer that recommendation with three asterisks.

First, try not to force it. I tend to do well under deadline pressure, and my mind likes to tweak, twist, and recombine ideas, which usually means I can come up with a good fit for a collection or a special issue on fairly short notice. There are times, however, when I recognize that my idea isn’t especially interesting or original, or when the topic involves an expedition well outside my wheelhouse. Sometimes it’s energizing to face and embrace that sort of challenge, but it’s also worthwhile to recognize that there are stretches in our lives when we’re just not ready. If you fiddle with an idea or start drafting a story and it just doesn’t seem to be working for you, it’s well worth saving the file and setting it aside for some other time. and you can be sure that another call for a special issue is somewhere on the horizon.

Second, going in it’s worth knowing that even a very fine story might not find a home at the destination you have in mind. This piece, for example, was written in response to a specific call, but the length of it, my sense that I didn’t have many profitable ways of expanding it, and a few other variables made me realize I’d probably have a hard time revising it or finding a home for it elsewhere. It’s not a bad idea to write with open eyes, knowing that your story (while tailored to a specific call) is best left open enough to travel well. One collection I’ve submitted to, for instance, has received 240 entries for about ten spots, per the editor. I wrote that story, however, with enough circumspection so that I can put it back into rotation easily if it doesn’t fit into one of those vacancies. It’s determinedly tailored to suit the needs of the collection, but it stands well enough on its own that I think it will find a spot in a different venue somewhere down the road.

And with that in mind, it’s a good idea to maintain a hopper so that you can sit on a story that doesn’t fit a given collection or special issue for a little while. In the case above, more than 200 writers are going to be left with 200 stories that are focused on a given topic, a given theme. Those pieces will flood the submission market as soon as the special issue is filled. Lots of editors are going to see lots of stories that look a little same-y. Knowing that’s going to be the case, I plan to set my submission aside for several months if it’s not accepted. I’ll revisit the piece to see if I can slough off any content that was tailored to the venue I had in mind, and with luck fresh eyes will sharpen and brighten the story. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get the piece published somewhere down the road, of course, but I hope it will translate into fewer pieces finding their way into The Folder of Misfit Stories.

Respecting the Reader

Photo by Pierre Bamin on Unsplash

Not long ago I finished a draft of a novel, and I plan to leave it in the hopper for a few more weeks so that I can look at it with fresh eyes when I’m between other writing deadlines. The manuscript is far too long, a bit over 115,000 words, but by the time I’m done revising it I expect it will be closer to 95,000.

In On Writing, which is a lovely and valuable guide, Stephen King recommends trimming by about 10% from the first draft to the next. In most cases, however, I find I can trim quite a lot more because of two pronounced tendencies of mine: I tend to use quite a lot of apposition, and I tend to overexplain the narrative state of affairs to the reader. Apposition is something of a stylistic tic for me. It’s never a pure echo or simple repetition, but an effort to add depth and tease out nuance. I’ll certainly snip away some instances of it, save a few words here and there. The real word-count savings will come, however, when I lop off slabs of prose I added to guide the reader.

That’s a hard habit to break. As a professor, part of my job is to reach both seasoned and less experienced readers, so that we can all take a long look at craft. I routinely loop back and recap so that folk can see where we’ve been and where we’re going. As a reader myself I often lean toward mysteries, where I know full well that clues are hidden away in bits of exposition. While it’s perfectly fair game to slip in a single surreptitious hint and never mention it again, I tend to enjoy the reading experience more when missing some critical bread crumb is not the end of my engagement with the game. The authors I like best tend to present the same clues in different guises, so the conclusions their detectives finally draw are foregone, if not obvious.

Deciding what the reader needs, however, always feels to me like finicky business. As the author I always know where things are going, so it can be hard to spot those moments when a little extra connective tissue would do the reader a world of good. At the same time, too many callbacks to passages past can make reading feel like a chore, or–the far greater sin, in my opinion–make the reader feel as though the author doesn’t trust them enough to piece the sequence together.

When I revise this time around I’m going to try to err on the side of respecting the reader, clearing away some of my overgrown attempts to steer them down the main trail. I hope that by doing so I can gently encourage them to look around and enjoy the prose a little more, trusting that the path will still get them to the end, even if they have to cross a few grassy patches. So that’s my little takeaway for the day: when in doubt, cut–but save the file before you do, just in case.

The Only Way Round

Like most humans/humanoids, I go through fertile and fallow periods. For long stretches my head is intensely generative and creative, snatching up stuff from the aether and turning it into something substantive. Like most humans/humanoids, I’ve also found it challenging to navigate These Uncertain Times™. Some days I’m grateful for the distraction of a pending obligation or project, but on others I struggle to muster the requisite energy to get even a little bit accomplished. Because I’m a high-functioning weirdo, however, I often have enough oomph to wake up and get what needs doing done.

One consequence of These Uncertain Times™, however, has caught me by surprise: for the past three months or so I haven’t really daydreamed, haven’t really fantasized, haven’t really flexed any imaginative muscles in a conscious, purposeful way. I should probably qualify that a bit for clarity: I’ve planned and schemed and executed a few designs, but not much is happening on the ideational front. When I stare at the proverbial stucco, not much is going on. Nothing new intrudes and asks for my attention.

That might seem like a strange claim to make, but it’s one I’m confronting today. In sifting through my Big Folder of Percolating Projects I realized the latest new entry is dated September 24th. I spent much of the time between then and now chipping away at the novel, of course, but in the early part of the writing process my mind was routinely coming up with oddities that got stuck in my cognitive craw and that I jotted down for later use. These days, that’s not often true. It might be that I don’t see much on the horizon to look forward to in the near term, and it might be that my brain has exhausted most of its usual objects. Without a little challenge, change, or provocation, even the spiciest fodder can seem a little stale.

Because this is a writerly blog, however, I think it’s worthwhile to squint hard enough at those clouds to spot the silver lining: The Big Folder of Percolating Projects is a real thing, and at present I’ve got about sixteen fresh-ish ideas to work with and build on. I’ve got older notions foldered away here and there to tide me over as well, enough to ride out several months in the bunker. As a takeaway life lesson, then, my avuncular advice is to keep on hoarding and storing–to sock away plenty of stuff to work on when the Idea Fairies aren’t visiting quite as often as you like. The writing life involves more than a little patience as we see things through from start to finish, and if we find a few stray seeds when we’re tending to the old growth, it’s not a bad idea to pot them up, stow them in the hothouse, and see what’s sprouted when better weather comes around.

Potatoes and Molasses

Let us first enjoy one of the more delightful musical productions of the 21st century:

And now let us speak of narrative craft.

Over the past several months I wrote my first novel, completing it on December 14th, just a couple of weeks off my projected schedule. Right now the manuscript is languishing in a drawer (and on about 19 backup USB drives), and I’ll revisit it when I can look at the story with relatively fresh eyes.

In terms of composition, perhaps the most useful thing I did was allow myself to Draft Deliciously, by which I mean self-indulgently, quieting the inner editor who would prefer that I pause and hammer at every word choice and syntactic gesture until I’m convinced that I have it more or less right. You can see a good example in that last sentence: the existence of “thing I did” offends me, but it’s better to get the essential idea down and move along than to sit staring at the screen for five minutes trying to decide if “strategy I adopted” or “element of my approach” will appease my authorial superego, who’s kind of an ass.

What that means, practically speaking, is that my first editorial run will involve more cornstarch than anything else. And cornstarch, in this context, is all-purpose thickener, any additive one might use when the gravy is a little bit too watery. (You know what else you can use as an all-purpose thickener? Instant mashed potatoes. See how I brought that around? They hand out doctorates for that.) For instance, in plenty of places I signal the tone of a moment with a simple expression or gesture: the word “smiled” appears 83 times total in my novel, alongside 26 occurrences of “grinned.” (To my credit, characters only “beamed” twice.) It’s a long document, about 117,000 words in the Delicious Draft version, but those sorts of cues always seem lazy to me. When I go back in for the first edit I’ll do my best to signal emotion with contextual cues to indicate fitting feelz. Instead of “Cordelia smiled,” you’ll get “Cordelia splashed a little Irish cream in her hot cocoa, stirring it in and appreciating the delicate clink of the spoon against the sides of her mug.” I won’t dispense with “smiled” entirely, of course, but I’ll try to use it more sparingly if I’m able to convey the tenor of a scene without leaning on it as a placeholder.

You can probably see the problem with that approach: the manuscript is already overlong, and adding cornstarch and/or instant potatoes will add a couple thousand more words. I’m actually fine with that–but the risk involved is that I’ll bog the novel down with gestures of that kind, the molasses I prophesied back in the header. I don’t have an easy answer for addressing those excesses at this point, and I know already (based on notes to myself I’ve jotted down over the past two weeks) that I’ve got to add a little content here and there for clarity. Plus it’s a horror novel, so I’ll be splashing a few buckets of blood on certain scenes as well. The standard length of a horror/dark fantasy novel (he said, reaching out from a landslide of asterisks) is about 75,000-100,000 words, so I’ve got more than a little work in front of me.

I know that the last run of revisions will find me giving my superego free rein as I Edit Ascetically. With luck that more murderous version of your friendly neighborhood bald man will be vicious enough to whittle the manuscript down into fighting trim. In general I have a healthy mistrust of Future Me, who has historically been fairly unreliable, but I have reason to believe I can at least depend on that guy to be an unrepentant jerk.

Leave Them Laughing

(As promised over on the Fiction page, this is the first of the Wiggedies, unpublished stories that I like too well as they are to change. I thought it would be a fine representative piece to get the site up and running. I hope you enjoy it!)

Alisha glanced at the slab and squinted at Rich suspiciously.  “What exactly am I looking at?” she asked.

Rich hid his face behind his clipboard, and Alisha could tell he was trying hard not to laugh.  “These,” he said with great seriousness, “are the mortal remains of James Jurowski, better known as Jiminy Sprinkles.”

Alisha glanced at the slab again and pursed her lips.  “Rich, this is a cake,” she said.

Rich doubled over, his palms on his thighs, a fit of laughter overwhelming him.  It took him a full minute to get it out of his system and catch his breath.  When he looked to Alisha again his eyes were watering.  “I know,” he wheezed.  “Can you fix it?”

Alisha studied Jiminy.  The face, a hyper-realistic rendering of a classic clown in red and white greasepaint, had been mauled.  Four ragged lines began at the brow and raked diagonally downward, tearing through layers of frosting, fondant, and sponge.  One eye had been torn in two, and the clown’s nose had ruptured and was leaking raspberry jam. 

Alisha frowned, nodded, then indicated the ventriloquist’s dummy perched on a stool beside Rich.  It was dressed like Jiminy, from its miniature conical hat down to its own floppy red shoes.  “And what’s that for?” she asked.

Rich clamped a hand over his mouth, and his whole body shuddered.  “That’s Bitsy Sprinkles,” he managed, tears streaming down his cheeks.  “He’s here to supervise.”

It took Rich a long time to compose himself, and by then Alisha was well into the work.  She began stirring, whisking, and mixing straight away, collecting flecks of fondant and frosting to recreate the colors, and Rich pieced the story together as far as he was able. 

Jiminy Sprinkles, he had been told, worked for Currier and Croft’s Circus, and during the evening’s show a lion had swiped at Jiminy as he danced by, chased by a pack of skirted poodles.  Several spectators called for an ambulance, but by the time the EMTs arrived the strongman had hauled Jiminy out of the tent and the ringmaster had announced he was just fine—the mauling, he claimed, was part of the act.  Although the EMTs asked around there was no clown to be found, but they were paid a thousand dollars apiece to deliver the cake to the funeral parlor.  That’s all Rich could say for sure.

The EMTs both believed the mauling was a put-on.  They saw no evidence of an animal attack, no blood in the sawdust or on the lion’s paws.  It was the clown’s twentieth anniversary with Currier and Croft, they learned, so they assumed it was just a gag to get the circus a little ink in the newspaper.  The anniversary also explained why they had a full-sized cake on hand.  Some prankster must have clawed the frosting as a joke.

Rich had his own theory.  “I bet they’ll bury the real Jiminy Sprinkles out in the woods somewhere,” he ventured.  “If a mauled body was brought to the morgue they’d have to put the lion down, wouldn’t they?  I doubt a traveling circus could take a hit like that.”

He kept talking as Alisha reassembled Jiminy carefully, almost reverently, losing herself in the work.  She molded a new eye from gelatin, closed the gashes in the fondant, refilled the nose with fresh jam, and blended buttercream and food coloring until she matched every shade of frosting on the clown’s painted face.  “I probably shouldn’t ask,” she said, “given what you’re paying me, but why did they turn to a funeral home to repair a cake?”

“It’s weird,” Rich admitted, “but it looks like they have an account with us already.  We handled arrangements for a trapeze artist six years ago, and Currier was apparently impressed with our willingness to accommodate their requests.  My guess is they just like that the boss doesn’t ask questions if a client pays in cash.”

Alisha finished up at half past midnight.  She circled Jiminy and nodded, satisfied.  The reconstruction was perfect.  Rich whistled.  “He looks terrific, Lish,” he said, “and I’ve seen some amazing repairs in my day.”  She offered him a beater, which he licked greedily. “That’s one delicious clown,” he added.

Together they lowered the cake into a mahogany casket, which struck Alisha as ridiculous.  Rich, however, shrugged it off.  “I don’t think we’re actually meant to bury it,” he said.  “We’ll just replace the lining if any frosting gets on it.  There’s a viewing for family at ten, a public wake at noon.  I’m sure they just want to snap a few pictures of Jiminy lying in state.  Feel free to come back—it should be a hell of a show!”

And Alisha did return; the whole affair was too strange to resist.  She wore a black dress just in case, but she intended to spend the hour peeking out from behind a velvet curtain while Rich patrolled the parlor.  He was in the process of taking down the signs for the viewing and preparing for Jiminy’s wake when the first and only mourner arrived through the side entrance:  a pale, angular woman draped in black.

She stood by the casket for several minutes, whispering to Jiminy.  She then made a little bow to Bitsy Sprinkles, who was perched on a stool nearby, flanked with white roses, and finally exchanged a few words with Rich.  He nodded, indicated the curtain Alisha was hiding behind, and walked the woman over.

The woman clasped Alisha’s hands, lifted her black veil, and kissed them.  She left a crimson lipstick stain ringed with white foundation makeup.  “I know our ways must seem strange to you,” she said, “but we are grateful for your work.  My Jiminy looks as handsome as ever.”  She spoke in English warmed with an Italian accent, and her voice was choked with emotion.   

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” Alisha whispered.  She was flustered by the woman’s seemingly genuine grief and, feeling more than a little ashamed for mocking the elaborate arrangements the circus had made for a cake, couldn’t meet her gaze.  “I’m glad I could give you some comfort.”

The woman lowered her veil, and Alisha thought she saw a melancholy smile or something like it.  “It’s a sad day,” she conceded, “but a day for family to gather, too, and for new beginnings.”  She squeezed Alisha’s hands.  “Will you stay for the wake?”

“Of course,” Alisha said.

The woman returned to the casket, bowed over it, and murmured some words.  Then she stepped to Bitsy’s stool, picked the dummy up, and laid it down beside the clown, tucking it carefully in the crook of Jiminy’s arm.  Finally she closed the casket and nodded to Rich, who escorted her out.

Alisha joined Rich outside after the viewing, glad for a breath of fresh air.  “That was disappointing,” he said with a sigh, “but maybe the wake will make up for it.”

Alisha stood just inside the viewing room an hour later as mourners filed in.  They didn’t look like mourners, however; they seemed more like bewildered tourists dressed for a weekend outing than grief-stricken circus folk. 

Rich greeted each arrival, and two men acted as if they already knew him.  He nudged Alisha as he passed by.  “Those are the EMTs that brought Jiminy in,” he whispered.  “They were given invitations.  That clinches it.  These people must’ve attended the circus last night—this is some promotional thing for sure.”

Alisha grew increasingly irritated as the seats filled.  The whole scene felt wrong, with solemn whispers giving way to casual conversation, with teens tapping at their phones, with children ignoring their parents’ pleas to sit still.  And though she knew it was absurd—there was nothing but cake in the casket, after all—she was becoming angry on behalf of Jiminy Sprinkles.  These people were behaving abominably, and she strode to the front of the room, intent on upbraiding them.

Alisha stood before them, almost shaking with rage, when the pale, angular woman arrived.  She passed by Rich, ignoring his whispered welcome, and glided to Alisha’s side.  She took Alisha’s hand, squeezed it, lifted her veil, and gazed into her eyes.  And Alisha at last understood; a profound, prayerful calm washed over her.  “To new beginnings,” Alisha whispered, smiling.

“To family,” the woman replied, her smile creasing her greasepaint.  And then she knocked on the lid of the casket as if she were knocking on a door, her knuckles rapping out the jaunty shave-and-a-haircut pattern Alisha’s grandfather always used. The woman held Alisha’s hand as the lid burst open and a host of clowns—an impossible, wonderful number of Bitsies—clambered out of the casket.  Alisha beamed as they overran the ill-mannered mourners, their floppy shoes slapping against the carpet, their belled wristlets jingling, their smiling faces smeared with frosting, raspberry jam, and something somewhat darker, somewhat redder.  There was screaming, too, she knew, but above it all Alisha heard circus music, frolicsome and lovely, a calliope calling her home.