A Talking Ancestral Portrait

30 Dec

The following is a scene I removed from a dark fantasy novel, The Vanquished and the Surviving, because it’s not necessary for the plot, and because I’m currently cutting down the word count in order to increase my chances of getting accepted by an agent and a publisher. The novel is set in a slightly different Regency England, one with a lot of ghosts and demons.

*

After dinner, Vincent wandered about the house, with the two cats following him. The galleries and hallways seemed to echo with the absence of Nathaniel. Passing down a corridor and admiring ancestral paintings suspended from chains on either wall, Vincent didn’t dare visit Nathaniel’s bedroom or laboratory. He stopped in front of the paneled door and imagined the laboratory unused, looking as it did last time Nathaniel used it, with glass tubes, bottles, and vials, and the mysterious jars of whatever Nathaniel collected for his experiments. Vincent imagined glass beakers full of blue and purple fluid…and the fluid suddenly bubbling, coming to life, as though an invisible Nathaniel were experimenting and inventing.

Vincent inhaled as he backed slowly from the door. He yawned and knew he should retire for the night. One of the cats rubbed its cheek against the door frame, and the other rubbed against Vincent’s trouser leg.

Entering a long gallery lined with portraits of ancestors, Vincent yawned so fiercely that his eyes watered. He picked up his pace and headed toward his bedroom, when the cats both arched their backs and ran down the hallway. Vincent thought he saw someone moving to his right. He turned to look directly at his companion…and found himself peering up at the portrait of his maternal great-grandfather. He blinked and stared at the portrait.

Great-grandfather Augustus wore, Vincent surmised, the latest fashions in the 1780s. His black hair was curled and only lightly powdered. He wore an extraordinary embroidered, green silk suit with knee breeches and gold-buckled shoes. The old fellow was quite a dandy in his time. The portrait blinked.

Vincent stepped a little closer to gaze at his ancestor. “Ah, forgive me for staring. Great-grandfather, I presume?”

The portrait was life-size. Great-grandfather Augustus grasped the bottom edge of the ornate gold frame and leaned forward. The cats hissed and ran away. Augustus lifted his heretofore hidden lower limbs over the frame and stepped out onto the wood floor. He grasped his hands behind his back and bowed. “Yes, I’m your grandfather, on your mother’s side of the family.”

Vincent bowed in return, more deeply. “Oh, yes, that’s right. I suppose I should have known that without your telling me, but you see my other great-grandfather is also in this gallery.” Vincent glanced at other portraits, but when his venerable ancestor began speaking again, he focused his attention on the ghost.

Great-grandfather looked somewhat translucent. “You can’t have known me well. Nathaniel was the elder boy—if he were here, he would remember me.”

Vincent sighed. “Please forgive me. Regrettably, I’ve forgotten.”

“No matter, dear child. You were only two twelvemonths old when we met. I can’t expect you to recall it.”

“If memories fade so easily in the short time I have lived, what must it be like if one lives a hundred years?”

“La, more than a hundred, dear boy! What must it be like if one has been a ghost for quite some time?”

A Scene I Cut out of a Gothic Novel

29 Dec

Editing my queer and supernatural gothic novel, The Hauntings of Claverton Castle, I cut down the word count by 21,000 words. I figured my chances of getting an agent and getting the novel accepted by a publisher would be better if the novel wasn’t, um, about 127,000 words.

Below is a portion I removed from the novel.

*

After assessing the needs of the pantry and creating a shopping list, Charis Dunn, the housekeeper, took off her pinafore and prepared to head to town to purchase supplies. She reached into a canister in the pantry and pulled out money set aside for the household, and she tucked it into the reticule she kept in the same canister. She headed back to the servants’ hall and took her black, beribboned bonnet off a peg. As she tied it under her chin, she headed out the back door, the same door she thought an orphan like Miss Ponsonby should use.

In the village of Midsommer Norton, Charis walked down a muddy road. She passed shops in two-story stone structures on her left and the River Somer on her right. The mud sucked at her boots with a distasteful squishing sound, and often she had to pull her feet up forcefully to remove them from the mud. She would have taken the compact and lightweight Prendregast brougham, but Mr. Reginald was using it to call on friends, and she did not have the authority to take the barouche. Glancing up at a dark gray hovering cloud, she recalled Miss Ponsonby’s intrusive questions and grudgingly recalled her youthful beauty.

Charis had been alive more than long enough to know the contrast between how people—especially males—treated attractive girls of Miss Ponsonby’s age and how they treated women of her own advanced years. Before she had reached the age of forty, Charis had observed that those around her treated her with a strikingly different attitude than they had when she was young and comparatively pretty. At the thought of Miss Ponsonby, Charis smiled ruefully and acknowledged that compared to this striking golden-haired beauty her own prettiness had been nothing.

However, Charis’s youthful prettiness had been sufficient for her to attract the admiring eye of young men—and even older men—in the village, not to mention comments that she did not wish to hear. Some of those men and boys were so forward! They certainly, she thought, believed they were entitled to comment on her appearance as though she cared a fig what they thought of her. Knitting her brow, Charis remembered feeling ashamed of herself because, in a way, she did care what they thought; but she only cared in that she wished to be respected as much as any lady. They would not dare behave that way to a genteel girl like Miss Ponsonby.

Sometimes during her youth, when she went to the village of Midsomer Norton to purchase items for the kitchen as she was doing now, or to enjoy her day off, Charis walked past the shops and the pedestrians with her head bowed and wished she were invisible. If she were invisible, she thought, men would not have made unwelcome comments such as, “Oy, buxom hussy!” or, “Love, meet me at the Primrose Tavern for a drink.”

By her late thirties, content with her unmarried state, Charis walked past the store fronts on her day off and received no comments. Two youths passed her and looked straight through her; directly behind her, she knew, were two slender girls approximately the same age as the boys, who grinned and lifted their hats to the girls. This incident conjured memories of when young men treated her the same way and discomfited her. In her youth, she wished to be invisible, and now she was. As though to confirm her thoughts, a man in a cap and overalls pushed past her with a wheelbarrow full of coal and did not so much as glance her way.

Thoughts of her youth brought Charis back to when she was a lowly scullery maid at Claverton Castle. Charis pressed her lips tightly together. Sixteen-year-old Charis had most certainly not sat in the drawing room and entertained guests at the pianoforte. No, in the kitchen and the servants’ hall, she had fetched and carried and scrubbed pans and swept the ashes in the fireplaces. She wasn’t so much as a housemaid, like that girl, Jane, until she was over the age of twenty. But like Miss Ponsonby, she had been an orphan. Charis narrowed her eyes toward a shop window displaying fashion illustrations; they were a far cry from her sober black frock.

When the youthful Charis was not receiving impertinent remarks from men in the village, she was scrubbing away and working her fingers to the bone. A Sensitive who had the ability to levitate objects could have done the same work with a great deal of ease. As a young scullery maid, Charis had sometimes fantasized about having such a skill. She imagined being able to merely think of scrubbing the pots, and to immediately see a brush scrubbing them, faster than she scrubbed away, roughing up her hands. She had often feared a Sensitive joining Claverton Castle’s staff and ultimately acquiring her position. Then Charis would have been out on the streets.

With this thought, she yanked her right foot out of the mud with a loud squelch. She never lost her position, more than anything because the scullery maid had such a lowly position that it was scarcely heard of for one to be a Sensitive. Charis had always been struck by the irony: one of the most grueling and undesirable jobs that would have been nearly effortless with Sensitive powers was also one of the servant positions rarely held by a Sensitive.

Fortunately, Charis gradually progressed from scullery maid to the highest station she could reach, that of housekeeper. Years ago, she had the distinction of catching the eye of the lady, Mrs. Prendregast, and becoming the lady’s maid. The lady of the house enjoyed having Charis as her personal servant, helping her dress and style her hair. “Dunn, you have quite a talent for this kind of work. Who would have thought—you were wasted in the kitchen.”

“Well, Ma’am, I’m here now, so it’s nothing I care to fuss about,” Charis replied.

“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Prendregast said. “You’re so happy with your lot. That strikes me as an unusual trait.”

“Unusual, ma’am? It shouldn’t be, if you ask me.” The lady chuckled; Charis knit her brow, wondering what amused her. Mrs. Prendregast chuckled frequently, a trait she passed on to Master Reginald.

Charis worked as lady’s maid for Mrs. Prendregast for nearly ten twelvemonths, until the housekeeper died of heart failure. Mrs. Prendregast easily convinced Mr. Prendregast that Charis Dunn could do the job, at least in the interim. By then, Charis had witnessed the lady not chuckling as frequently, and staring into space as though lost in thought. She watched the ceiling a great deal and often lapsed into frowning silence and sighs. It was not long after Charis became housekeeper that Mrs. Prendregast died. Angry with grief, Mr. Prendregast demanded that servants refrain from talking about his wife or her sudden death.

Now Charis entered a dry goods shop and approached burlap sacks of flour. She selected a bag and exchanged glances with an apron-clad shopkeeper, who nodded and clomped across the floor toward her. Charis reflected that she could have done worse with her life, never mind that she was not genteel like Miss Ponsonby.

Charis sniffed at the thought of that girl, interrogating her about family secrets. Prying into such things was hardly a way to demonstrate gratitude to her entirely too hospitable host. Pampered and admired as that girl was, she was no real princess.

“Do you see that cab?” Charis nodded toward the large front shop window. The shopkeeper replied in the affirmative. “I need the flour in there. I’m not carrying it all the way back to Claverton Castle.”

“Yes, ma’am.” the shopkeeper handed back her change. Charis slipped it into her reticule and showed her back. Next, she must go to the street market for cheese and milk.

Dreams of Baubles and Gold

28 Dec

I had a dream in which I was joining a commune or going on a meditation retreat. I was in a plain room with some other people, and a woman in her sixties explained that I couldn’t wear necklaces, so I took out all my necklaces and put them in a bin. I took off my rings and put them in a Ziplock bag, because someone said the only jewelry allowed was earrings, which I don’t wear. But a little later, I noticed people wearing rings, at least wedding rings, so I got a hold of that Ziplock bag and searched for my rings. There were tiny things, such as seed beads. I had found a gold wedding ring recently and was searching for that and other rings I wore to the retreat center, but I searched in vain. I kept searching and searching in that bag.

I had a dream in which I was with a talking cat in a room that didn’t have many furnishings. There was a long table along the far wall. There was a litter box full of used kitty litter… but it also contained tiny gold things here and there. It was gross, but I resorted to using my bare hands to get old the gold stuff, beads and such.

Hmmm, I suspect that last dream has to do with traits that I need to pay more attention to, like being an empath and its significance and working at developing my psychic skills, not throwing them away…or not throwing empath abilities away.

I Dreamed that My Dad Survived

27 Dec

I dreamed that my dad survived cancer.

The year was 2014 (the year that he actually died). Dad was in a hospital. I felt guilty, because my siblings and I had been neglecting him, leaving him alone at the hospital.

So I went to the hospital. It was on a derelict street that could have been a suburb of Chicago or the outskirts of the city. There was hardly any traffic, and a chain link fence was by the hospital.

I pulled up and parallel parked, only to realize it looked like an illegal parking place. I got out and walked around outside the hospital to find a legal place to park (or did I drive around?). Behind the hospital was some parking. So I started walking back to the car. Strangely, this involved walking around a chain link fence just north of the hospital. Someone drove past me. I felt lost and confused and had no idea what to do. I remembered where I’d parked my car, but somehow it was taking me a long time to get to it. I ended up huddling next to the chain link fence.

A Chapter I Removed from a Dark Fantasy Novel

21 Dec

I’m currently editing down the word count for a dark fantasy novel, The Vanquished and the Surviving (it’s a working title). It’s set in a slightly different Regency England, in which people called Sensitives have magic/psychic powers. Vincent, the protagonist, is a teenage boy who accidentally killed two powerful people shortly after they murdered his brother, Nathaniel, before his eyes. The novel is based on a dream.

This novel chronologically takes place right before my gothic novel, The Hauntings of Claverton Castle. Literary agents have rejected both novels, and I’ve come to realize that cutting down the word count in each novel will raise my chances of getting the books published.

*

On the eve of Yule, the most important winter holiday, Vincent occupied an armchair by the fireplace on the ground floor of the tower. The shutters were closed, and the only light in the room came from the blazing hearth and a candelabrum centered on the dining table. Though the shutters were sturdy enough wood, they didn’t entirely muffle the howling wind, which made the shutters creak. The open book in his lap wouldn’t have impressed either of his tutors; it was Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto.

Vincent strove to focus on the meaning of Yule rather than the prospect of spending the holiday without his family. He closed his eyes and reflected on its prehistoric roots, when people of the British Isles genuinely feared that the sun wouldn’t return.

Yule was the shortest day of the year, when the darkness lingered late into the morning and returned in the afternoon. To this day, many Druids, such as the Montmorency family, remained awake all night, until the sun rose the next morning; it had become celebratory rather than fearful, and it was typically accompanied by wine and dancing around bonfires. Vincent’s family typically stayed up all night telling stories before a fireplace and exchanged presents after the sun rose.

Here in the tower, he was alone. He scanned the room and listened to the wind and the rattling shutters. Customarily he enjoyed solitude, but not on this day, a day meant to be celebrated with family. He closed his eyes and breathed in and out, slipping into a meditative state. He focused on his breath for about an hour.

Vincent heard the customary scratching at the ground floor door, before the servant Oakes entered with a floating tray of food. Strangely, Jenkins followed immediately behind, also waving his hands about and focusing his unblinking gaze upon two trays gliding in the air before him. Vincent recalled Jenkins’s comment about servants dismissed for letting one plate slip and break. Vincent grimaced.

The first tray displayed the customary breakfast food: eggs, mushrooms, a pot of a hot beverage, and toast and rolls with butter. Vincent raised his eyebrows at sight of a pot of marmalade; he’d requested this treat several times to no avail.

The second tray appeared to carry luncheon: cucumber sandwiches, oranges and pineapple, pudding, and tarts. A teapot and cup accompanied all this. To Vincent’s further confusion, the cook entered manually carrying another tray, which he set down before lifting the lid and reveling what appeared to be a veritable feast, considering the monotony of Vincent’s meals since his imprisonment began three months ago: bean and cheese casserole, potatoes and French beans, chocolate tarts, mince pie, and even a bottle of sherry with a wine glass.

Vincent wondered if the Organization was attempting to fatten him up and eat him for their Yule feast. “What is this?”

The cook twitched his hands impatiently. “As tomorrow is a very important holiday, we shall away tonight to spend it with our families. We have every intention of returning and resuming service for you the following day.”

Jenkins waved his hands, and a strip of purple brocade, accompanied by two matching purple candles, floated through the air and landed on the dining table. “We have taken the liberty of bringing your lordship an altar cloth and candles for your altar.”

Vincent visualized these objects on the altar with his goddess statue upstairs. He turned back to Oake. “You’ll spend the holiday with your families, while I spend the holiday alone here.”

Oake cleared his throat and spoke in a voice as chilly as the night air. “Most of the guards will remain tomorrow, milord. With that in mind, you won’t be entirely alone, though I expect you’re unlikely to see the guards.”

Jenkins held a napkin out to Vincent. “Unless your lordship sees some guards from the window or on the tower roof.”

Vincent took the napkin and refrained from sarcastically saying, How reassuring.

One tray settled down on the deep stone windowsill of a shuttered window. Jenkins waved at it. “Given the perishability of some of your food and beverages, we shall keep them chilled by placing them in front of the window.”

Vincent shuddered. “I’ve stood by that window. Yes, that’ll be sufficient.” He was struck, more so than ever before, by the coldness of Oake and the cook, compared to servants with whom he’d grown up. No doubt the Organization hired them because they didn’t sympathize with him. Jenkins didn’t strike him as cold, so that was hardly a consistent theory.

Vincent knew he must seem spoiled, and the servants might consider him a criminal deserving of punishment. Why should they be punished for his crime? No, they deserved to enjoy the holiday with their families. Whether he did was questionable.

As he thought this, Vincent felt a lump form in his throat. The thought of his crime, or alleged crime (a sentiment he increasingly considered wishful thinking or delusion) conjured the memory of the dark city street, Lady Hester and Sir Hubert standing on the walk, and Nathaniel glowing green. He sank into a chair. If the leaders of the Organization hadn’t died, they would have killed me.

The following morning, Vincent found no presents under a Solstice tree. The bedroom fire, he found as he pulled aside the bed curtains, had dwindled to tiny flickering flames, and he recalled that he would have no servants for the entire day. If the fire went out completely, he wasn’t sure how he’d start it anew with logs and tinder.

He slipped out of bed, padded across the ice-cold stone floor, and took hold of the poker and managed to encourage the flames to leap and spread. He knew he must do the same in the sitting room and the study, since it would be a cold December day with nobody else performing household chores. Watching the fire grow, Vincent rose from his crouch before the hearth and realized he’d taken servants for granted all his life.

He opened the large wardrobe and pulled out a pair of black trousers, which he slipped on. He turned to the goddess shrine but decided to finish dressing first. As tempting as he felt to be slovenly in such solitude, Vincent thought it disrespectful to stand in his nightshirt before the shrine, especially on Yule.

After donning a fresh linen shirt, a black wool waistcoat, and a black frockcoat, Vincent wrapped a maroon muffler around his throat rather than a cravat and approached the shrine at last.

A solitary ceremony was a far cry from the family celebrations in which he’d participated all his life. This thought inspired pressure on Vincent’s heart. He emitted a deep sigh and draped the purple altar cloth onto his altar. He placed the Mother Goddess Anu statue, the goblet, the bell, and the wand back on the altar and arranged a small cluster of holly directly before the statue. Lighting the purple candle, he bowed his head and chanted:

Goddess bright and sky dark,

Mother of the universe, hark!

I beseech you: bring back the day

And never let it entirely go away.

 

Vincent reminded himself that he should be grateful. He wouldn’t occupy the tower forever, and his family would be waiting for his return. While the lack of pleasant company on such a celebratory day brought him melancholy, he had the entire day off from his studies and wouldn’t see his abrasive tutor, Caldecott.

Vincent spent most of the day reading and indulged in a nap in the early afternoon, something he rarely did. When he awoke, sunset had already begun. Watching the sunset through an open window, Vincent resolved to meditate through the solstice night until the sun rose.

Bundled up in a quilt and the muffler, he sat in an armchair in front of his shrine. Meditating with his eyes nearly closed, he listened to the crackling of the fire and frequently ruminated before reminding himself to return to mindfulness of his breath. Memories of past Yules rose: happy family memories, including at the sacred grove behind his parents’ estate and similarly behind Goblin Hall, the manor house where Sir Bryant, Margot, and Roland lived.

When Vincent was ten years old, his family spent December as houseguests at Goblin Hall. On Yule, the children helped servants create a bonfire, which the servants lit at dusk. Vincent and his brother danced around the flames and whooped and hollered. Margot joined them; even Roland did after a clandestine gulp of holiday rum.

Vincent recalled Nathaniel leaping before the crackling fire. Now his lips trembled, and his throat constricted. He wondered how he could have joyful memories of Nathaniel. Would grief always feel like this? Would he eventually have thoughts of Nathaniel without tears? He couldn’t turn to his parents, or to Margot or Roland, and ask them these questions.

Dollhouse Dream

20 Dec

I dreamed I was with a woman who had a huge, fascinating dollhouse in which she took pride. I think she made it and all the miniatures. It had various wings and was several stories tall.

We were with the dollhouse—which filled most of the room—inside a building, several stories up (I think a skyscraper), when there was an earthquake or something. The floor became uneven or moved around.

We were sliding around, and so was the dollhouse, and it broke apart—separate wings separated. A wall of the building we occupied opened up (like a dollhouse, you could say), and people came to rescue us and the dollhouse. A helicopter?

We ended up, with all parts of the dollhouse, in the back of a truck, maybe a semi or one of those U-Haul trucks. I was confident that with carpenter’s glue, the dollhouse would be fine. I think I voiced that opinion. I felt calm and confident at the end of the dream.

A Triple Goddess Dream

18 Dec

I dreamed that a mortal woman in her fifties, maybe 60s, visited three goddesses (probably Celtic) and at night traveled with one of them, the goddess who had bright red wings. They had probably three such trips. This goddess also owned a book that was red and gold, and the mortal wanted to read the book.

After the first two nocturnal journeys, the goddess with the red wings was sleeping on the wings with the mortal. They slept on a circular gold platform. But the mortal wasn’t asleep; she had the book in front of her and opened it.

Next, they were at the place, in the woods, where they went on these nighttime journeys. They took a path, and the goddess was sleeping beside the mortal, but the mortal was awake and stood facing an upright image on a pole.

They’d seen the image—series of images—on the previous journeys. They were pictures of goddesses, and though they were up on a pole, they were like a big picture book, with pages that you turned to see the various images. The images were maybe two feet tall, and they included what looked like a woman with a cape made of peacock feathers.

The mortal glanced over at the sleeping goddess and started flipping pages and knew what she was doing was forbidden. She flipped to a page and started to trace it, I think, and accidentally tore the delicate paper.

The other two goddesses suddenly appeared, and the first one woke up, and the mortal felt guilty and embarrassed and knew they’d punish her, so she was very nervous.

One of the goddesses was loud and boisterous, joking, all, “Well, what have we here!” She put her arm around the shoulders of another goddess and indicated the book with the torn pages. The mortal began to think that maybe they weren’t angry at her for touching the book and tearing the page.