Report on The Last Ekphrasis

IMG_3748Last night we enjoyed one another’s company for the last time — at least, it was the last time that Ekphrasis will gather under my auspices with its regular purpose of sharing and critique, since I’m moving to Texas to start my PhD at Baylor. It was a magnificent meeting! There were food and flowers, hilarity and drama, literature and art. In attendance were myself, Sharon G, Devon W, Eric M, Richard B, Curt D, Laura W, Andrew S MacD, Betsy G, Jeff H, Amanda L, and two newcomers, Thaina D and Diante R.

Even though it was a sort of a going-away shindig, it was really just an ordinary hard-working meeting. Lots of people shared excellent work.

IMG_3744(1)At the beginning of the meeting, Thaina and Devon shared the hot-off-the-press Spring 2016 issue of Xanadu, Lehigh Carbon Community College’s literary magazine. Thaina and Devon, along with Diante, are student editors of the magazine this semester, and I’ve been a faculty adviser to it for six years. This semester’s may have been the most professional issue of the magazine we’ve ever produced: the design is streamlined and debonair. Diante has a poem published in it; Thaina has a few poems and several pieces of prose.

indexThen Sharon G read another chapter of her Robin Hood novel adaptation, Mercy and Justice. This chapter included a sad story of a poor, cast-off, single, expectant mother, helped by Marian and Robin, which was a good way of revealing their compassionate character. Sharon has completed about half of this novel and hopes to draft the rest of it this fall, after finishing her current novel-in-progress, Chrysalis!

13184680_1014038361966917_2053915199_oRichard B and Eric M each showed pieces of their artwork. Richard is writing and illustrating a comic book starring his Jack Windsword character. Eric is working on drawings he’ll bring to the Baltimore Comic Con. Their work is somewhat similar–both depict heroes, villians, mythic, archetypal characters with bold lines and swift action–but their techniques are quite different. The black-and-white image to the right is from Richard’s book. The colored images below from Star Wars and Star Trek are some of Eric’s works of art.

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Then we moved into a sort of stage-like area we had set up, in order to watch several theatrical scenes.

First up was a stage adaptation of a bit from a Brandon Sanderson novel, by Betsy G. It was a scene packed with secondary-world-building, lots of neologisms and names and cultural references. In it, an experienced con artist is teaching her apprentice how to fool her potential victims by posing as a foreign princess. The prize? Her dupe’s boots. 13184742_935769666536853_1112604979_o

Next up was a selection from Jeff H’s recent full-length adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, which was recently produced by Players of the Stage. This scene was Toad on trial for causing a motor car accident–which is really just a cover for his enemies to lock him up and take his ancestral mansion.

Then came my short play, Galatea Awakes, which I wrote for my creative writing class at LCCC, and from which I previously posted a selection. It’s a retelling of the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, and I’m exploring themes of the artist’s isolation and relationships, the idea of the art as a child, issues of voyeurism and objectification, questions about the nature of beauty, etc. It was admirably performed by Richard, Andrew, and Sharon, and much hilarity ensued–sometimes when it wasn’t in the script, such as when Pygmalion whispers to his animated statue to “scroll down, scroll down” for him so he can read his script!

We got to see another play from my creative writing class, too: this one by Thaina. It is a side-splittingly funny drama entitled Why Deals With the Devil Never Work (And You Should Always Read the Fine Print). I’ll give you just a tiny snippet here to give you an idea of how funny it is:

ASH: Look man, I just really want my soul back. Please? Pretty please? Have a heart.
SATAN: What part of Lucifer, Demon, King of Hell, do you not understand?
ASH: I know you’re Satan and all, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a jerk!
SATAN: Do you listen to yourself when you speak?
ASH: Hm? Of course I do! My soul is gone, not my hearing!

Yup, it’s all like that. With a great twist at the end.

And we were treated to a performance of a powerful slam poem by Diante, a tale of troubles and salvation. It is meant to become his final project for Creative Writing class.

Finally, Laura W ended our evening with a mind-boggling 2-min mystery: a piece of flash fiction in 500 words. Since Laura won most of the weeks of Signum University’s “Almost an Inkling” flash fiction contest, you won’t be surprised to hear that it was magnificent!

There were some amazing conversations, too, about the “Artist-as-inspired-romantic-genius” myth, about the use of profanity and taking the Lord’s name in writing and drama, about anachronism and style and craft. These are the talks on which my soul feeds.

So, yes: a fitting ending for, what, eight years, I think, of Ekphrasis meetings. I’ll miss you guys, and I hope you carry on!

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Matryoshka Mind

As I wrote in my previous post, I’m writing along with my students this semester. Here’s my second piece of “Creative Nonfiction.” As always, your comments are very welcome.

InsideTheBox_053_BLOG1Matryoshka Mind

I am curled in the tiniest of spaces. My knees meet the support of one wall; my vertebrae curve against the other. My toes are folded in a corner and my neck is bowed beneath the top, chin tucked in. No one else can fit in here with me. Nobody at all. I wiggle into a more comfortable fetal compression, drawing the warmth of my small room around me, listening to the friendly quiet. No news can invade.

That is the point of my retreat, after all: To keep out the news. Nothing can penetrate my box, not airwaves, radio waves, or radio bands; not analogue signals or digital transmissions; no wires or fibers or cables or cords; no wireless misery streams into my brain. The agony feed isn’t fed into me.

I know what’s outside my hideaway. That’s why I crawled in and shut the lid. One headline eating another, each bigger than the last. A school shooting. Police displacing homeless migrants. The latest fatal epidemic. Refugees drowning in a far-away sea. Boxes within boxes; wheels within wheels.

Times within times, too: the past is embedded in headlines, as they play variations on the themes of our species. World-wide wars. Famine and child labor. The slave trade and the Middle Passage. Go back, go back, to when religious wars tore Europe, to a time when hangings and drawings-and-quarterings were the norm. Enough. Enough, I say, before I even make it back through the Middle Ages to the millennia before, to ancient empires of crucifixion and gladiatorial games, of human sacrifice and infanticide.

But it’s just news, part of my brain says, inside my safe case. Numbers. Statistics. Strangers.

I remember my favorite writers, in the middle of the 20th century, asking: How is sympathy supposed to work? When my best friend is hurting, I empathize. But humans used to know only their families, then just their clans or tribes. Then larger people groups, then countries. And as communication increases, we knew more and more people at once, and know their pain. Today, they said, the newspaper and the radio broadcast more tragedies than we can comprehend, all day, every day. Are we supposed to feel everyone’s pain in exactly the same way? Is that even possible? Am I responsible to feel the sorrow of every soul? Am I supposed to go mad?

What would they think today, these 20th-century friends, if they were on Twitter? Look how the horrors pour in, at the speed of thought. My phone chimes, and I wince: it’s the BBC, and I’m Pavlov’s dog.

It’s nothing to do with me! I shout. I’m safe in my box, shut away from the noise. I’m a spot on a map, a snail in a shell.

But I am inside a place, a race, a history, and it always has to do with me. The little newspaper facts slowly unfold, the origami of agony, and I see. The shooting was at a school just like mine; it could easily have been mine. My best friend is a medical director, fighting the latest fatal epidemic with sensible policies and community health education. The police are displacing people in a city across the ocean, and I have been to that city, and my sister is marrying into that blood.

And those refugees drowning in a far-away sea? That sister of mine, dancing to the tune of new love, swirling in the colors of travel, planning, visas, dresses, flowers, food: she lives in a place into which refugees stream, day after day. She has a dear friend, a native of that suffering land. The friend just got engaged, too—and as she rejoiced, she heard the news: her family, fleeing from terror in the country next door, refugees at the mercy of governments with quotas and concerns, her family had drowned. Lost in the waters between two lands. Fleeing from one home and seeking another, they were taken by the cold sea without hospitable shores.

Migrants drowned off the coast.

The headline pings into my box. My sister is in my thoughts, and my thoughts are in my tiny box. I may be a dot, inside a box in a town, in a county, in a state, in a country, on a continent, on the globe—but I am the planet; I contain multitudes. I hear the ping, and all people, all headlines, are all enfolded, nested in my Matryoshkan mind.nesting-doll-template-2

The Wordliness of Winter

I’m teaching a Creative Writing class this semester (yay!), and I’ll sometimes write the assignments along with the students. Today’s piece is a short work of Creative Nonfiction. I’d love to know what you think of it!

IMG_3391The Wordliness of Winter

The mineral surface lay three feet thick over everything, splashed four or five feet high against houses and barns, lapping in dimples around tree trunks and stalks. The snow was a second landscape, overlaid above the first, obscuring and transforming its contours, glittering and gorgeous. All was turned to a single substance. But this was not my neighborhood’s real topography, and it would not last.

In fact, I was already hard at work defiling it. Cutting paths in it, trampling it into mush, flinging it high into rubbishy heaps: I undid the beauty the storm had carefully crafted. And while I did, a guy dropped by to talk. I stopped shoveling. He stood there, ruddy-faced in the nippy air, chatting about this and that. I don’t know him well, though he has lived next door for six years. Indeed, I didn’t even recognize him, and I wasn’t sure who he was until he talked about his kids. His kids, the weather, work, their dog that died, the weather, sports, health, and the weather again. All this time, I wasn’t digging.

No, I didn’t dig. I let the conversation ripple along the surface of the snow, leaving no tracks. But all the time, there was so much underneath. Rocks and roots. Soil and stains. Bones. My muscles itched to move, but how could I stick my rude spade into the bright patina of his simple talk? How could I go deep, when he skimmed along the top? And isn’t this how we always talk?

Suddenly, I was at every cocktail party and casual reception and “let’s just hang out” I’ve ever attended, and my abs clenched. The pain of the pretty tablecloths covering scarred planks. The suffering of stiffened make-up masking lonely bruises. The agony of expensive fabrics covering wounded skin. Hovering in a corner, gripping a drink, clenching fingers around a fragile glass stem, hoping against hope that someone would ask a real question.

Why can’t you ask me about things that matter? I thought. About teaching, about writing, about editing. Why don’t you ask me how my latest book is going? Oh, wait: you don’t even know that I write. How can I shove an unruly novel under your frost-reddened nose unbidden? I cannot let out my clamoring narrative dilemmas, my wayward characters, and my stilted dialogue into the winter air. Let them lie with the tulip bulbs until spring.

But there’s more, beneath that, I think, as he pauses and we stand there in that awkward silence when neither has anything to say. Poetry defies the laws of physics, packing two things into one space at one time, or three, or more, in a single line, an image, a word. Frost, for instance—the poet, or the chilly lace patterned on window panes?—in “Fire and Ice.” Flames and freezing. Desire and hate. The end of the world.

Why can’t you ask me about things that matter? I thought again, as a snow plow trundled by and spattered my neighbor’s legs with slush. About love, about death, about grief. About God. About doubt. About fear. All that is here, under the three feet of diamond-dust snow, waiting for sunlight, waiting to grow.

I pick up my shovel, and off he goes.

February Meeting Report

On Tuesday evening, we eccentric Ekphrasians gathered in the wild world of Wegman’s. It was a glorious meeting. While the skies froze outside, we heated things up there in the cafe with our readings, performance, talk, and laughter.

First, Jeff Harvey started us off by imitating Andrew Stirling MacDonald’s approach to 2015: he shared a list of ambitious creative writing goals for the next 12 months or so.

spitfireThen Marian Barshinger showed her very great confidence by performing a dramatic monologue right there in the grocery store! She’s taking a course in Acting for the Camera, so her focus in this piece was on facial expressions and voice, rather than blocking or gesture. She chose a speech from The Spitfire Grill: a heart-rending narrative of abuse. She performed it very powerfully, with depths of expression and serious focus.

Next Betsy Gahman read a revised chapter of her novel Dragonhoard. This novel is a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast tale, and in her version, the Beast is a dragon. In what we heard on Tuesday evening, our narrative-perspective character finds himself transformed into a dragon. Betsy’s revision goal was to get into the physicality of dragonness, and she achieved this admirably.dragon_symbol

A performance of another kind followed: a reading of of a scene from Sharon Gerdes’s play Rifton. This is a lively, funny, thoughtful family and small-town drama. It is really coming to life as she reworks it, deepening the relationships and exploring the pain of misunderstanding.

Following this reading, Eric Muller of Hand-in-Hand artworks shared more of his amazing drawings! It is a huge blessing to have a professional artist in our midst. He showed us the final, colorized version of a book cover he has recently created, plus several original portraits of U.S. Presidents for Pastime cards.eric

Switching to creative nonfiction prose, Carl Hoffmeyer shared a really gritty tale of torture–with a surprising historical twist. Carl has a gorgeous reading voice and a masterful command of narrative pacing, so his reading is always a supreme pleasure.

Continuing with our successful streak, Richard Berrigan honored us with the first few pages of his new comic book, starring the same characters from his ongoing Jack Windsword world. His style is lively and active, with exciting plotlines and mythic figures.

Then there was more fiction: a back-story chapter from Earl Pape to go with his dwarf-human saga. This was an account of a battle between minotaurs and their mysterious opponents.

We have a new member of the group, Devon, and she graced us with a piece of tragic creative nonfiction. We hope to hear more from her in the near future!

Since we still had more time, we got to hear yet another scene from Sharon’s Rifton and yet another of Carl’s gripping stories. This was an unforgettable tale of dinosaurs in the backyard!!

Do join us sometime with your own work to share.

 

“Those Who Trust the Stars” by Richard Berrigan

Here is a story by Richard Berrigan. It’s a bit older and doesn’t necessarily reflect the current version of Jack that he’s working on now. Your thoughts are welcome!

THOSE WHO TRUST THE STARS

By Richard Berrigan Jr.

Jack’s teeth grinded together.

He threw the doors open, and the people in the office craned their necks towards him, sitting up like dogs that had heard their names called. Each of them had a startled look: the raven-haired noble wearing the blue frockcoat and an assortment of gaudy rings, the plump middle-aged woman with stacks of papers in her lap, and Mayor Jetta herself.

Jetta’s red hair was pulled back into a ponytail. She wore a dark purple coatiehardie and sat at a massive oaken desk that was neatly organized. Bookshelves stood against the far wall, and the eight foot by eight foot window behind her gave her a prized view of Capitol City’s sprawling gables and orange and yellow treetops. Her violet eyes narrowed slightly, and she folded her hands together in front of her lips.

“Guildmaster Windsword, and Alusus. To what do I owe this honor, gentlemen?”

“You care to explain what’s going on here?” Jack thundered.

“I’m having a meeting. Mayors do that, sometimes.”

Jack dismissed the remark with a wave of his arm. The middle-aged woman flinched. “You know what I’m talking about. I just got word from Alusus that you’re giving those thirty acres of land out in Maple Field to him.” Jack pointed at the noble, who now reclined in his plush arm chair, grinning.

Alusus crossed his arms. “We were under the impression that you were going to give the land to us, Madam Mayor.”

“It’s my land. I can do with it what I please.”

“You went back on your word,” Jack accused.

Jetta perked an eyebrow and shrugged. She leaned back in her chair. “I said I could give it to you. But now I’m giving it to him because Baron Ponitus offered me something that you can’t.”

“What?” Jack asked.

“Money!” Ponitus laughed.

Alusus muttered an oath and put his hands on his hips.

“Ten crowns worth,” Jetta added.

Jack crossed his arms and narrowed his flinty brown eyes. “You know the Hunter’s Guild needs that land.”

“There is other land I could give you.”

“No. We need those acres and you know it. It’s barely within a mile of the city. My hunters need training grounds and space to build a prison that’s still close enough so we can be here fast if there’s trouble. We need it. And the city needs us. But you’re going to give us the shaft for ten grand?”

“The city does need your guild, Jack. But the city also needs money.”

“It has enough.”

Jetta offered a snide, airy laugh. “Consider this. Your guild protects this city from wizards, cults, demons, monsters, and all that lovely business. But do you protect them from themselves?” Jetta rose from her desk and turned to the window, leaning towards the pane and gazing out at the horizon. “There are at least ten thousand people in this city who are starving, Jack. And they cause the majority of standard crime. Remember what that is? It’s what your guild doesn’t deal with. But commerce will generate jobs for needy people, which will drastically reduce the crime and decay of my city. Baron Ponitus has offered to buy the land and turn it into a commerce area.”

Ponitus cleared his throat and turned over a glinting coin in his fingers as he spoke. “Yes. I have plans to begin a large business operation. I’m going to set up trading outposts, restaurants, smithies, and coaching services. And I’m not going to use workers from the guilds to run them. I’m going to use free agents. Risky, I know.”

“So you see, Jack,” Jetta continued. “Ponitus is offering something you can’t offer. Yes. We need your protection. But we need more than that.”

Jack put his hands on his hips and shifted his weight to one leg as he looked to his partner. Alusus just shrugged his armored shoulders. What was there to say?

“I—I have a suggestion,” the middle aged woman spoke up in a squeaky voice. Jetta and Ponitus drilled incredulous stares into her like hungry falcons, and she shrank under their gazes. But when her eyes met Jack’s inquisitive stare, her cheeks flushed. She stared at him for an awkward moment. At last, she broke her stare and looked down, shuffling the stack of files and papers in her lap. “Forgive me. I spoke out of turn.”

“Indeed,” Ponitus growled. “I swear upon my ex-wife’s grave, the only thing you’re worth is your weight, Bimi!”

“I’m sorry, Lord Ponitus.”

“As always.” He waved his hand at her and looked away, disgusted. He looked at Jetta and added, “My ex-wife’s sister. I promised her before she passed that Bimi would always have work—you know how it goes.”

Jetta nodded absently while she studied Bimi.

Ponitus rose with a grunt. He straightened and smoothed his coat, tucking his coin into his pocket while absently fishing for his pocket watch. “Perhaps we’ll take our leave, m’lady. I think we’ve already covered everything of key importance—you do have the handouts I gave you, yes?”

“I have—”

“Bimi!” Ponitus hissed. “Give her the paperwork.”

“I’m sorry,” Bimi said, flustered. She fished through the papers and folders and slapped some more papers on Jetta’s desk. “I thought I’d already given—”

“Well we both know what happens when you attempt to think, don’t we?” Ponitus grumbled as he stepped away from the chairs and made way for the doors. He looked back at the mayor. “If you have any questions, send a runner.” He bowed. “Till the next!” Ponitus opened the doors and shoved through them; Bimi clumsily caught one of them as they fell closed behind the baron. While clutching a messy stack of papers to her chest, she squeezed through the doors, but not before casting one more flushed smile back at Jack.

Jack gestured to Alusus, and his partner nodded back and left the room, closing the doors behind him.

Jetta stepped around her desk and leaned against its edge, arms folded. “I’m surprised little Kimmy let you out of the house today.”

Jack wheeled towards her and spoke in a hushed, angry voice. “Cut the crap, Jetta. We both know why you cheated me out of that land, and I’m getting sick of it. This has to stop.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“This isn’t the first time you’ve denied my office funding. I can count at least two other times in the last year you’ve done that, and I know why. It’s time for you to grow up and get over your heartache. Just because I dumped y—”

“Oh that’s preposterous!” Jetta tossed her arms in the air. “I had a very legitimate business reason to sell that land!”

“Bull!” Jack shouted. He quickly closed the gap between them. “You could have given him all of Cedar Acres! You only gave him that land because I wanted it.”

Jetta’s lidded eyes studied Jack’s chest.

“Ponitus got the land because he made me an offer. You haven’t got ten crowns…” She ogled his pecs and swept his whole body with her appreciative gaze. “But you could still make me an offer. You’ve got something that Ponitus can’t give…”

Jack grunted and crossed his arms.

Jetta straightened, and Jack took a step back from her. She let her hair down, shaking it around so her bangs drooped over her eyes. “You always preferred my hair down. Is this better?”

“Stop.”

She pressed her body to his. He didn’t pull away.

“I know you still think I’m beautiful. Remember how well we used to fit together?” She ran her fingers over his arms. She drew her lips towards his. “I know you still think about me,” she whispered. “About us. Let’s stop kidding ourselves already.”

“You’re only…proving my point,” he whispered, drinking in her every breath.

“Your heavy breathing is only proving mine,” she whispered back. “Don’t you want to taste me?”

“I…” Blood surged through Jack’s veins. His head became light; he teetered slightly. Her soft flesh was just centimeters from his powerful, hungry hands, hands that still remembered their way around Jetta’s body the way he remembered maps of towns.

“I’m still your favorite flavor…”

And he knew that she knew his weaknesses better than his greatest enemies.

He peeled himself away from her and inhaled.

“Kimmara’s my new favorite flavor.”

Jetta wrenched her hands away and moved sharply around her desk, putting it between them.

“Jetta…”

“I’m very busy. I have a city to run.” She put her hair back up in a ponytail. Jack’s heart sank.

“We can’t let this get in the way. We have a greater responsibility to the people—”

“I said I’m busy!” she shouted.

“I’m not going to—” Just then a bell began chiming. Both Jack and Jetta froze at its sound. It was the emergency bell to summon the city guard.

The doors burst open and Alusus barged in. “Jack! The alarm!” Jack, Jetta, and Alusus crowded around Jetta’s window and gazed out to see a small gathering swirl of clouds, like a miniature hurricane, not thirty feet from the ground. Magic.

“You’re busy too, it seems,” Jetta said gravely.

Jack cursed, wheeled, and darted out of the office, Alusus in tow.

#

Billies made cheap help, especially for the turban-wearing Pavan Takshak, zealot priest of the southern Bendalyah deserts. The yellow-eyed Alaman’s quest to summon the old god Uru had at last neared completion. All that he had been lacking was the Brazier of Bardi, a sacred Bendalyan relic that somehow ended up north here in Ravina. Jack and his hunters had been looking for Takshak for quite a while for murdering children as sacrifices, so the savage man-goats of the Tehhran Mountains, the Billies, were more than eager to help Takshak in his quest if it meant getting another shot at the last Kimmeriorian.

The body count was already in the double digits by the time Jack, Alusus, and another hunter arrived on the scene. Alusus, the blond-haired, silver-armored knight in a crimson cape, wielded Thunderstroke, a master sword with lightning powers. Knives, one of Jack’s first rate hunters who was adept at knife throwing, was the other man who was available to answer the call.

Soldiers from the army had already arrived to help fight the Billies, but the captain of the city guard didn’t understand what was happening, hence his presence was ineffective.

Two Billies, draped in hauberks and carrying iron-tipped spears, attacked Alusus. The warrior glided between spear thrusts and countered with electric sword strikes.

“You were a bit harsh with Jetta,” Alusus called out to Jack as they battled.

Jack had his back to the knight, and at least ten paces separated them. A Billy swung a heavy club, which Jack sank beneath and countered with a disemboweling slash across the animal’s stomach; the stroke was one fluid motion, drawn from the scabbard at his side like a samurai. “I thought I told you to leave the room,” Jack answered.

“I did.” He grunted and vaulted over a goat who was charging with its horns. He landed and wheeled, severing a goat head in a flashing arc. “But I heard some of it through the door. She’s lonely, Jack. If you’d just spend a night with her, this would all go away. We’d get land to build a bigger guild. There are worse prices you could pay if you think about it.”

Jack stepped aside from a spear thrust, allowing it to pass close to his ribs, so he could clamp the weapon down with his arm. Then he grunted and shoved the spear back through the steely grip of its owner; Jack drove the blunt end into the wielder’s chest, then lopped off the goat’s head. “I’ve been trying to quit my addiction,” Jack said, tossing the spear—and the corpse attached to it—to the ground. “My wife doesn’t like it when I drink from other cisterns.”

Knives, who was holding his own with acrobatic kicks and precision knife stabs into arteries and veins, entered into the conversation. “I believe in this guild, gentlemen,” he said, ripping a knife from a goat’s throat and kicking the dying foe aside. “And I’ll do whatever it takes to see it flourish.” He paused to look at his superiors and declare: “If the mayor needs a bedmate, I will make that sacrifice for the sake of my team!”

“Shut up, Knives,” Alusus mumbled. He glanced up to see a huge dark shadow drip down from the eye of the swirling cloud overhead. He squinted at Takshak. “What did this guy want again?” he asked.

“Conquer the world,” Jack answered. Then he turned towards Takshak, who was eight paces away and surrounded by five Billies. “Or destroy the world. I forget now.” Jack flung his sword at the ground; it stuck in the street like a crooked sign post. Jack spread his arms wide at his side, then crashed his palms together in a mighty clap. The ensuing shockwave floored the Billies, hurled Takshak backwards five paces, and spilled the brazier and its glowing magical incense. It also blew Jack’s hat from his head. Immediately, the clouds overhead vanished, and some ethereal specter gave a howl of anguish that faded away. The afternoon sunlight returned to the sky.

Jack plucked his sword out of the ground and winced at the surrounding damage: Three buildings now had cracked walls, shattered glass, and at least two private residences now lacked flowers and shrubs out front. “Nuts,” he grumbled, picking up his hat and dusting it off. “That’s property damage. Again. City council will be thrilled.”

“What’d you say?” Alusus shouted.

#

Night came.

A humble fire crackled in the hearth of Jetta’s office as she continued to peruse papers. Her eyes were still slightly puffy from crying. She had sent the guards home for the night; she wanted to be alone anyway, so no one would see her looking at the old picture of herself and Jack that she kept in her desk.

It was time for a drink.

As Jetta poured some Cognac into a crystal tumbler, someone rapped gently at the door, which was ajar. Jetta’s heart leapt into her throat, and she snatched the loaded flintlock that she kept in her top right drawer. She rose swiftly and pointed the barrel at the crack in the door. “Who’s there?”

Baron Ponitus’ secretary slipped her head into the room. She had a sheepish expression on her round face.

“Bimi?” Jetta squinted.

“A thousand pardons m’lady. I was out late, and I saw the light burning here, so I thought I’d chance a visit.”

She returned the gun to its place and sank back into her plush armchair.

“If I’ve inconvenienced you I can—”

Jetta shook her head while she grimaced from a sip of her drink. “No, no,” she said. “Good drink should be shared after all.” She retrieved another tumbler from a cabinet and poured Bimi a drink.

“Oh thank you,” Bimi said as she took the drink and sniffed it.

Jetta leaned back in her chair and let her drink hover just under her lips. “So what brings the secretary of Ponitus back to my office at this hour? Certainly it wasn’t to drink my brandy.”

“I…I hope you don’t think it forward of me.” Bimi set her drink down and slid to the edge of her seat. “But they…they say you used to be a witch…” Bimi tensed, waiting for Jetta’s reaction.

Jetta just perked an eyebrow. “They? They is a conspicuous and slanderous entity. You shouldn’t listen to ‘they’, you know.”

“All I meant was that, I…I know you used celestial magic. You prayed to the stars.”

“Hm.”

“I pray to the stars too! I just wanted to know. How—ah, how can I say it? How do you actually…get what you pray for?”

Jetta stared at Bimi for a space as she swirled her drink. A wry grin crept across her ruby lips. Jetta sat up in her chair and sipped her drink. “Tell me, Bimi. What is it you pray for?”

Bimi blushed. “I—why?”

Jetta’s grin got bigger. “I saw how you were looking at Jack Windsword today.” At these words, Bimi stiffened and cast her eyes at the carpet. “You don’t have to be embarrassed. He’s handsome, isn’t he?”

Bimi could only nod.

Jetta smacked her lips on her drink. “Quite handsome.”

“Weren’t you two…er…” Bimi caught herself in mid sentence.

“Once. A long time ago.”

“It was only two years ago.”

Jetta looked at Bimi hard enough to slam her against the back of her chair. “It was a long time ago.”

“Forgive me, m’lady. I’ve taken this conversation too far.”

“It isn’t your fault. Things just…” She poured some more liquor as her words trailed off. “Just didn’t work out.” After a space, she snickered. “Of course that doesn’t mean it can’t work out for the two of you.”

“Oh m’lady, please! Let’s be honest here. He’s the Mightiest Man in Ravina. Young and strong. I’m old. And I have the figure of a rum barrel.”

“Jack isn’t shallow, Bimi. Take it from me. Character goes a long way with the owner of the Godblade. If your character is strong, your chances are strong.”

“He barely looked at me today.”

“Then get his attention.”

“How?”

“Do him a favor.”

“Like what?”

Jetta shrugged and sat back in her chair. “I’m sure you can figure something out. But it needs to be big. Remove an obstacle from his path, for instance. He’ll take note of you for certain then.”

Bimi’s brow furrowed, and she looked to the side pensively. “An obstacle…”

Jetta slid her drink aside and took a blank sheet of parchment. Using her pen, she carefully drew a pair of circles on the paper, adding lines and dots, creating what looked like small star charts, side by side. She labeled each one and passed the leaf to Bimi. “Here. They’re called Sigillums.”

Bimi’s eyes widened. “Witchcraft? But witchcraft is outlawed now. If I used these powers, Jack would notice me alright. Shackle my hands he would. Or maybe smite me with his great sword!”

“Or you could prove your worth,” Jetta countered. “Jack is hard-pressed to admit this, but his Hunter’s Guild needs a spellcaster.” Jetta smiled. “Take those Sigillums, pray to the stars. Then show Jack that you can use your powers—your faith—to serve his needs. His cause. That’s what he’s really looking for.”

Bimi glanced between Jetta and the paper repeatedly.

“It’s getting late,” Bimi said, rising from her seat. Already, Jetta could see Bimi had become preoccupied. “Thank you for your help, Mayor Jetta.” Bimi curtsied and left as silently as a specter through a wall.

Jetta quaffed her drink.

#

It was early the next morning when a servant found Baron Ponitus in his drawing room, hurled against a pillar with superhuman force. All of Capitol City’s council members (who did not trust the Kimmeriorian) who knew of the contest for land between Ponitus and Jack swarmed the Hunter’s Guild, demanding his ouster. Alusus did what he could to buy the guild time to investigate, among those things, he convinced Jack to voluntarily turn himself in until his name could be cleared.

At least he had time to draw a little.

Jack reclined on his bunk in a holding cell at the Hunter’s Guild, which was nothing more than a small, weather-beaten counting house. The cell walls were made of Nullstone for the purpose of containing spellcasters and magical beasts. Unfortunately, his magic strength and healing powers were completely nullified. Alusus was kind enough to let Jack take some of his art equipment into the cell with him.

Knives stood on the other side of the bars. “This is insane,” he grumbled, shaking his head despondently.

“Relax, Knives,” Jack said unperturbedly.

“How can I relax? You’re the boss. What will the others say when they find out about this?”

“Nothing worse than they already do, I’d imagine.”

Takshak was in the cell beside Jack’s. He sat solemnly on his bunk and glared at anyone who came near his cell. At Jack’s last remark, Takshak began to chuckle. Knives thumped his fist on Takshak’s bars.

The click of high-heels brought Knives around. Jack heard the footsteps, but never looked up from his drawing. He knew who it was.

Jetta crossed her arms and shook her head, all with a wry grin on her lips. “So it really is true,” she said.

“Get back to work, Knives,” Jack commanded.

“But—”

“Just cuz I’m in here doesn’t mean you get a holiday.”

With one last mean look at Takshak, he slipped silently from the guild, leaving Jack and Jetta alone.

“They’d said you had murdered Ponitus, but I didn’t believe it until now,” she said.

“They? Since when did you listen to they?”

“Since I investigated it for myself.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Where’s your partner? Out searching for a different killer?”

“Yep. I suspect we’re looking for a magic user. Someone with wind-powers.”

“And Alusus thinks the same? Then why did he lock you up?”

“I’m just keeping the guy’s seat warm for when we find him.”

She huffed a laugh. There was a silent pause.

“If you would have just spent the night with me, you wouldn’t be in this mess, you know. I would have vouched for you.”

“Uh huh. My wife would be the first one you vouch to.”

“And what has SHE said about all this?”

“She doesn’t know. I’ll be out of here before sundown. Al’s the best. He’ll find out who did this.” Jack put his pad down and swung his legs over the bunk, resting his elbows on his knees. “Unless, of course,” he began as he peered up at her from under his eyebrows. “You’d like to make a confession.”

“Excuse me?”

“If I find out you were somehow involved in this…”

“That’s absurd. I’m out ten crowns because of this mess. Why would I have killed Ponitus? Besides. I haven’t cast a spell in years. You know that.”

Jack’s gaze was too intense for her to hold.

The doors of the guild opened, and Bimi stumbled in, clutching a green cloak to herself. Surprised, she looked at Jetta and asked, “What are you doing here?”, as she clip-clopped towards her. When she saw Jack in the cell, she balked and covered her O-shaped mouth with her hand. “Oh…oh my…” she said.

Jack squinted at her. “You’re Ponitus’ assistant. I remember you from yesterday.”

Bimi stood stiff as a post, her eyes darting nervously between Jetta and Jack.

Takshak rose from his bed and stood at the bars of his cell, glaring at her. He spoke in a Bendalyan accent:

“Lo there, the spirit of death hangs

Murder dealt by her hands

A magic serpent with poison fangs

A killer in our midst now stands.”

Jack moved to the wall of his cell. “What’d you say Takshak? No more rhymes! Answer me straight! What did you mean? One of them is a killer? Is that what you said?” Takshak smiled grimly and returned to his meditative state on his bed. Jack thumped the wall. “Takshak! Answer me!”

Bimi cast horrified eyes at Jetta. “He’s…in jail?” she asked. “That’s not what was supposed to happen.”

Jetta nervously crossed her arms.

“What?” Jack asked, pressing his head against the bars. “What did you just say?”

“Be quiet, you twit!” Jetta growled back.

“You lied to me!” Bimi growled back. “You told me the stars would answer my prayers! You told me!”

“Alright, that’s it!” Jack said, pointing through the bars. “Neither of you move! You’re both under arrest!”

Takshak started laughing again. Jack couldn’t argue. He looked silly giving orders from behind bars.

“We can discuss this later,” Jetta answered Bimi through gritted teeth.

“No!” Bimi turned away and bawled. Her sobbing sounded like hysterical gibberish, and neither Jack nor Jetta recognized what she was really saying until a fierce wind stirred up around Bimi. Like a dust devil growing out of the little woman, papers from the desks flew around the building into the air in a spiral pattern. Jack shook his bars; some sediment rained down, but without his super strength, he was stuck.

“What’s happening?” he cried.

“Stop praying, blast you!” Jetta shrieked. “You’re gathering energy!”

“You lied to me,” Bimi said, over her shoulder. “You told me that if I helped him…that he would…would…”

Knives dropped down from the second floor, landing eight paces behind Bimi. Before his feet touched the ground, he let fly a glinting dagger that sank into Bimi’s back up to the hilt. Bimi howled in pain. The wind disappeared and she crumpled to the floor.

“Good thing I never left,” Knives said, approaching the fallen woman.

“Is she dead?” Jack asked.

“I didn’t aim for anything vital.” He knelt down over the groaning, writhing figure and picked up a crumpled sheet of paper in her hand. He unfolded it and found a Sigillum. “We’ll patch her up, she’ll be fine.”

Jack rattled his cage again. “Get me OUT of here.”

#

Alusus froze.

“I don’t remember letting you out,” said Alusus, who stumbled into the smelly old counting house. Jack stood by the cell that he’d once occupied. Bimi now sat in the cage, her upper body wrapped up in healing cloth. “What happened?”

“We caught the real killer,” Knives said, sitting on the edge of one of the desks. He was absently fiddling with one of his blades.

“She all but confessed to it,” Jack said. “Apparently she killed the baron with some kind of wind-spell Sigillum. She was trying to do me a FAVOR. Hnh!” At those words, Bimi buried her face in her hands and turned away from her captors.

“Sigillum?” Alusus asked. “Jetta used Sigi—”

“I know.”

After a pause, Alusus asked. “Anything we can arrest her for?”

Jack shook his head. “It’s Bimi’s word against hers. Since Jetta appoints the judges…”

“The fat woman did tell us one interesting tidbit though,” Knives added. “Turns out the good baron had already paid for the land. A MONTH ago. They were in the process of transferring the deed over when you and Jack interrupted them. Ponitus never signed.”

Alusus’ eyes bulged. “By the sword. So Jetta—”

“Has all the money and all the land,” Jack growled. “And this woman is the one who goes to prison for it.”

Takshak rose from his seat, gripped the bars, and spoke:

“She who sits behind bars

Has now a life of regret

To heal her scars

For only doom awaits

Those who trust the stars.”

The hunters grimly nodded.

 

Prepping for 3DNC: A Murder in the Making

10396971_10204404368292214_5713215754949200709_oWho is getting ready for novel madness? I am!

Last year, seven members of Ekphrasis participated in the Three-Day Novel Contest. Four of us went away to a cabin in the woods, while the others worked from home. We shared spiritual solidarity with others who were working far away. At the cabin, we wrote over 100,000 words total! Jeff H and Stephanie H each pounded out a complete draft of a novella in the three days!  Nobody at the cabin finished the whole novel in a weekend, but Sharon G finished hers in November and I finished mine in January. The others are doing really well, too.

So now it’s nearly time for the next 3DNC madness. We don’t know who will meet where, exactly, but other plans are proceeding apace. I’ve been plotting for months. Mine is going to be a murder mystery entitled Ready-Made Grave. I needed to do a whole lot more planning that I did for my story last year, The Four Senses, because even though that had a complex, embedded-narrative structure, at least it was basically one person’s linear story. A murder mystery is different: I need to know where everyone was, at every moment, all the time.

So I started out with a basic premise: Thirteen very eccentric, eclectic, memorable members of an artists’ group (sound familiar?) gather for an inspirational day outing at a cemetery. Right? Right. Throughout the day, they have adventures both artistic and interpersonal, until one of them dies a terrible death. The others find themselves locked in, and they spend the night in a mausoleum interrogating one another and trying to figure out whodunnit.

Doesn’t that sound fun?

After inventing the premise, I had to develop the characters. I bought a beautiful Moleskine and devoted two pages to each of my thirteen eccentrics. Here they are, in brief:

1. Kyrksen Royall — singer-songwriter, poet, novelist, composer, film director, actor.
2. Chloë Crawford — dancer
3. Axel Hirsch — video-game designer
4. Leo Phillipides — sculptor and architect
photo5. Aubrey Romano El-Hirsi — photographer and fashion designer
6. Errol Wanless — Australian adventurer and travel writer
7. Greg Adamson — saxophone player
8. Fay Winterville — singer-songwriter, Goth model
9. Vera Oka-Shan — violinist
10. Crofton Fishburne — spoken word / slam poet, preacher
11. Zita Soto — memoir writer, ghost writer, painter
12. Keela Conwell — actress, model, guy magnet
13. Dorcas J. Wesley — taxidermist.

There’s the cast. The list of suspects (well, all but one).

Then I had to chart out where they were and what they were doing all day long. That’s where the post-it notes came in. I had to keep moving them around as I realized I had one person in two places at once, one person nowhere, somebody doing nothing for hours on end, and so forth. I’ve almost got it. I have one character with a few blank hours yet, which means not that I have to invent something for him to do, but that I haven’t developed his character trajectory fully enough yet. It’s good, this plotting. Now for the writing!

May Meeting: Mahlika and Hildegard

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Mahlika Hopwood

I am behind the times! I haven’t carved time out of my other reading, writing, and editing projects, both academic and creative, to keep up with Ekphrasian blogging. But here at last is a report on our May meeting. I hope to follow up with reports on our three-ish June meetings soon.

For our May meeting, Medieval scholar Mahlika Hopwood traveled down from the Bronx, where she is pursuing a PhD at Fordham University, to talk to us about Hildegard of Bingen. I learned a lot about this fascinating Mystic from Mahlika’s talk.

But first, Betsy G shared a little short story that turned out to be a dream. We discussed how to revised this work to take it from mere dream-record into the realm of the “literary.” And then later, our talk about dreams proved relevant to thoughts on Hildegard’s visions.

Hildegard_von_BingenHildegard of Bingen was an amazing person. She was a nun and abbess. She was a rock-star gardener; poet and Inklings scholar Malcolm Guite has a great sermon about her ecological work.

Two themes in Mahlika’s talk stood out.

1. Visual Art

Although it does not appear that Hildegard was herself an artist, she fostered the visual arts among those in her convent. Check out this site with a slide show of the works she commissioned. What astonished me is how “Eastern” these works are: they look like nothing so much as Buddhist Mandala. Their ideas are very similar to Charles Williams‘s concepts about holism, coinherence, and exchange. She pictured the universe as an egg, or as a heavenly rose like Dante’s. She had vivid visions of God’s presence and working in the world, such as the one on the left, in which the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is like a fiery hand gripping her head and forcibly transferring the revelations to her mind. We can see her writing them down, but her faithful secretary also waits off to the right to help her capture her visions in words.

Hildegard enjoyed a startling degree of academic, religious, and personal freedom for a woman of her time. She ran her own Abbey. She was highly literate in several languages. She wrote her revelations in influential forms. Her visions were approved as genuine by the Pope after an examination for their doctrinal soundness. She even traveled around preaching! And… she wrote music.

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2. Music

Another part of Mahlika’s presentation that I found very impressive was Hildegard’s musical skill. She was a composer; check out her music here or here or listen to some of her compositions on youtube. More than that: she thought of the world in musical terms; she used music as a metaphor, or a fully-developed allegory, for spiritual reality. But it was more than an allegory: it was a unified, spiritual-scientific way of picturing the cosmos. The planetary spheres sing, and their harmony holds all things together in musical relationships. It is far more complex than that, but I hope that you go and read up on her life and work for yourself!

 

Workshop-and-critique

After Mahlika’s presentation, several members of the group shared their work, and we had the usual lively discussions, full of remarks about what we liked and suggestions for revision and improvement.

Jeff H shared a chapter from the novel that he wrote during the 2013 Three-Day Novel Contest, entitled No Sand for a Beach. You can read his prologue and first chapter here.

Earl P read the opening section of his Tolkienian narrative of elves, dwarves, and — spoiler alert! — dryads: a short story with the preliminary name “Jotori Chronicles.”

Richard B shared drawings from the Kimmeriorian character set; you can see some of his other work here to get a sense of his style. These pictures led to a very, very lively discussion (debate?) about the perceived sexism of his depictions, both written and visual, of women. We talked about working within and/or subverting the expectations of the graphic novel/superhero genres.

Finally, Joshua L shared some of his photos from Players of the Stage’s production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. The director, assistant directors, and major members of the cast are all Ekphrasians and were present to enjoy his beautiful photos.

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