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After a hiatus, I’m jumping back into Teaser Tuesday, with yet another piece of flotsam from my random crap files.

***

Muddaubers

The hill to the preserver’s house was steep and sandy, no obstacle to the brown woman making her way up it.  She trudged against the grade, her eyes focused on the bit of hill ahead of her.  The child, however, glanced up frequently, perhaps watching how the sky, dark with promised rain, leaned down over the yellow stones of the building.  Every third or fourth step, the child stumbled and the woman wrenched its arm to keep it upright.

The preserver shook his head when the woman and child reached the portico.  It had been many years since he had been willing to provide for a muddauber’s funeral.  He mentioned the name of another preserver whose price was more likely to be attainable, and the woman said, “Ain’t here for that.  Looking to find a place for my girl.”  Under the layers of dirt, the child was female then.

“I wouldn’t pay a single coin for an apprentice that young, and a girl for that matter,” the preserver said.

“I didn’t know as whether you could use her as a prentice.” The woman laughed, and then the laugh turned into a deep, bubbling cough.  “I don’t mean to sell her.  You can have her, if you’ll feed her.  It’s all the reason she stays near me.  You can hear that soon enough I won’t be in the way of doing that.”

The woman coughed harder and brought up something into a rag.  The preserver recoiled, as he always did from the living.

“Can she work?” he asked, intrigued despite himself at the prospect of a free slave.

“She knows how to clam.  I guess she can learn anything else.”

“If she can go down to the market and learn the price of imported lavender and how to wash her face clean, I will take her on.”

“And will he feed me?” the girl said.  She had had the hawkish look of someone familiar with hunger.

“I will feed you if you can manage that.”

After the girl was gone, trotting toward the market, the muddauber woman began to make her way back down the hill.

“Won’t you stay to see if she manages?” the preserver asked.

“If she can’t do for you, then she must do for herself from here on.”

The woman walked on, pausing once to double over with the force of the cough that was killing her.

When she returned from the market, the girl parroted back the prices she had been told.  Her face was also relatively clean.  The preserver sent her to carry twig bundles to build up the fires under the nitrate vats.  She did it without question, her small dirty feet busy.  When she finished, he sent her into the dry room to take a message to his assistant.  The message said only, “Tell me what she does when she sees the bodies.”

Her reaction was not even curiosity.  Living on the river, she had probably seen bodies.  They were likely nothing to her, although they were everything to the preserver.  She looked perhaps five and the preserver guessed she might be as much as eight.  When offered food, she ate enough for two. After she ate, he put a blanket under the front table, where he received bodies in the first step toward preservation. The girl lay down on it, but her eyes were tirelessly watchful. Perhaps she expected some encroachment from him, and left on her own, she likely would have been in the hands of a pimp within a day or two.

Such things happened, but the preserver had no interest in them. He saw beauty only in the dead.  The girl was a pair of hands and feet to him, someone who might do work and so earn money.  Nor was his assistant interested in the living, although his passion for the dead went more deeply.  So, the girl slept unmolested, and in the morning, the preserver frowned when she told him her name: October.

“A person can’t go about called by a month.”

“I was born in the eighth month.”

“It won’t do,” he said, and as there was no one waiting for his attentions, he went into his quiet room and browsed through his preservation records, looking over possible names.  When he sat down with his assistant to discuss ordering of supplies, he broached the topic.

“She needs a better name.”

“You intend to keep her?” The assistant saw only the annoyance of a living creature under foot who might require his care.

“For as long as she is useful, but I won’t call her October.”

“What about Tulip?” The assistant did not have the benefit of the preserver’s records, but in his mind he kept a list of those for whom he had felt something special.  So in that way, was he made to feel a bit of fondness for the muddauber girl.  She was called Tulip and each time he heard the name, he thought of that lovely girl, just sixteen, with soft lips, who had died of a snake bite.  Her left leg had been swollen and black, a grotesque of flesh, until it was properly lanced and drained and pressed and painted.  Once she was perfected all over, she had gone to the vats, where the assistant’s love for her faded, and the preserver’s love was born.

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I was considering posting another Completely Random Crap Teaser today, but then Cindy Pon brought up the movie Bright Star, which she saw recently.  That got me thinking of John Keats, dead so young, and that in turn made me think about the very idea of my Random Crap folder, from which spring all these Random Crap Teasers.

Negative Capability

Negative Capability

Keats was the one who put forth the idea of Negative Capability, which entails people being able to accept and embrace the fact that not everything can be resolved.  The ability to exist comfortably in the presence of uncertainty and the unknowable.

That is at the heart of my Random Crap folder.  It is a collection of ideas that bows before  pragmatic reality: they cannot all be written.  When I put a story file into the Random Crap folder, I acknowledge that in all likelihood I will never finish it.  For every idea plucked out of the folder and written to some form of completion, another dozen have crawled into that dark cavern to languish, perhaps never to see the light of day again.

I am okay with that.  It’s the nature of writing.  If I dropped dead today, killed by boredom at a departmental meeting, I would never get to work on those ideas.  I would never do final revisions on THIRTEEN.  I would never finish a first draft of HORNBEAM.  I would never find out why Axyl Witt has a daughter named Ninja.

Are you okay with that?  When you read my Random Crap Teasers, does it trouble you to know that they’re scraps of some larger work that only exists in my brain?  Do you lie awake at night worrying about the stories in your Random Crap folder?  Do you try to imagine what would happen if you died before finishing your magnum opus?

Keats opined that a person who possessed Negative Capability was a “Man of Achievement,” but I suspect it’s just a matter of type.  There are people who require resolution and people who don’t.  Some people are okay with books that end uncertainly.  Others prefer that all the questions be tied up in the last chapter.  Different genres even cater to that dichotomy.  Those who like all the ends tied up perhaps prefer murder mysteries and romances.  Those of us who don’t perhaps prefer literary or oddball books not easily classified.

As for the writers who die before they complete the next book in a series, you can find a glaring absence of Negative Capability in the people they leave behind.  Robert Jordan, JRR Tolkien, and Douglas Adams have all been raised from the dead to assuage the readers who don’t hold with Negative Capability. (And more likely to satisfy the publishers who own the rights.)

As for me, I would have to decline.  Even if offered a posthumous sequel to such beloved and ambiguously-ended books as Invisible Man and Maurice, I would prefer to embrace my Negative Capability.

How about you?

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More random crap! This is the opening to a spec fic piece that has dogged me for a while, but never completely taken form.

***

Dr. Brouse said, “Don’t bring any baggage.”  At first I took it as a metaphor, but it’s literal, too. My luggage is a six-inch cubed, padded steel shipping case.  It looks like it’s made of a shiny metal quilt and it smells of industrial newness.

New everything, starting tomorrow at 6 am.

That’s only eight hours away and I’m already down to the bare minimum.  I’ve given away my furniture, books, dishes, stereo, computer.  Everything that’s worth anything.  I’m down to the clothes on my back, plus one last clean set, two boxes of sentimental crap, a sleeping bag, and a container of yogurt in the fridge.  If I can keep it down, I plan to eat that before AIF picks me up in the morning.

Baggage

Baggage

The steel case sits in the middle of the empty living room next to the boxes.  I look through the photo albums, trying to decide what to put in the case.  Mom and Dad and Ryan and I at Yellowstone, with a geyser blowing smoke against a cloudless blue sky behind us.  Chipmunks, lots of pictures of chipmunks from our trip to Yellowstone.  Studio portraits that make my family look like victims of a Sears catalog fashion crime spree.  I settle on the picture from my sixth grade year, before Ryan and I turned into sullen teenagers, but after Mom stopped wearing that goofy blond wig.  I also pick out a couple of Polaroids, even though they’re already fading from a lack of fix stop.  For all I know, when I open the box in five years, I’ll just have ghost pictures.  That’s all they are now, I guess.

I spend some time crying.  I’m not even sure for what.  I’m not really leaving anything behind.  I have some friends, some of whom might be sad when they don’t hear from me, when I literally drop off the face of the earth.  That said, nobody’s going to break down crying when I don’t show up.

I manage a nap, almost two hours, and wake up scared of the dark like I haven’t been since I was a kid.  I go around the apartment, turning all the lights on, wishing it were morning already.  Wishing I weren’t alone.  Wishing it weren’t too late and too forbidden to go out to a bar and bring home a stranger, but it is.  The bars are all closed and it’s against official protocol to risk that exposure before stasis.

Looking through the boxes, I settle on the obvious: my mother and father’s wedding rings.  I used to think I would get married and wear my mother’s ring, but now it’s just something to rattle around in a box for five years.  There are also bronzed baby booties, but there’s only room in the case for one.  I pick Ryan’s.  Even though it’s a little dirty, I take off the t-shirt I’m wearing and wrap the bootie and the rings in it.  I close the case, turn the latch and notice the plaque riveted under the handle.

0000013, it says.  I’m the thirteenth passenger and I wonder why.  A little finger of superstition pokes at me.  Lucky 13.  After I think about it for a moment, though, it’s probably just that my name is Mariann Eddy.  13 out of 40 passengers.

That’s going to change in a couple hours.  After AIF picks me up, I’ll never be Mariann Eddy again.  I’ll be Passenger 13, and then after that I’ll be Eva.  It’s what I picked—my middle name.  Dr. Brouse encouraged it.  He said, “You’ll be starting over in a way few people ever will.  I want you to leave your old life behind.”  I do, too.

At 5:45, I’m dressed in the last pair of clean clothes I own.  I carry the other stuff down to the curb.  It’s strange seeing those boxes and my sleeping bag sitting next to the trash can, but before I can think about how scary that is, a white van turns down the street and flashes its lights.  Along one side is a discrete logo for Agricultural Investment in the Future: the I in AIF is a slender tree with a tuft of leaves at the top.  I go back into the house and grab my purse and my steel case.  I leave the apartment key on the kitchen counter for the landlord and turn out the lights as I go.

Standing on the porch, I realize I’m not done.  I take my lip gloss out of my purse and put some on.  From my wallet, I take my AIF ID card.  Then I walk down to the curb, lift the lid off the trash can, and toss my purse into it.  Wallet, cell phone, everything.

As I cross the street to the van, I swing the steel case for Passenger 13 in one hand, like a kid.  The van driver leans across to open the door and the dome light comes on like a beacon.  I’m light as a feather.  Good-bye, Mariann Eddy.

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Back by popular demand: more totally random crap from my writing files. Okay, fine. There was no demand for random crap, but it’s what I’ve got. This is a scrap from a historical that’s been put on a back burner about a dozen times. The pleasures of research have also slowed down forward progress, but I still like the story idea. Someday I’ll get back to it.

***

The woman who answered the row house door was poisoned on gin, her teeth rotted out, her eyes sunk in their sockets.  Not long for the world if she went on drinking that way.

“Good day to you, ma’am,” I said and let a schilling wink between my fingers for a moment.  Her rheumy eyes caught the gesture and went bright even under their haze of gin.  Not too far gone to want a coin.

“Mrs. Jakes sent you from ’round the corner?” she said. “It’ll cost you a deal more’n that bit of silver.  My daughter’s a virgin.  God’s truth she is.  Ne’er been touched by a man.  Not e’en her own pa.”

She cracked a toothless smile at me, making me wonder if she was too far gone to do business with.  Then it occurred to me she was expecting someone and didn’t know I wasn’t him.  I simply needed to play the role to get what I wanted.

“How much?”

“A virgin, I swear it.  Milky white skin, innocent.  Only fifteen,” she leered.

Fifteen and still a virgin.  An unlikely proposition in that neighborhood.

“What’s your price then?”

“A gentleman like you,” she hinted.  To her, I suppose, I was a gentleman.  Clean and dressed in fine clothes, but that was all a costume.  A thing I’d learnt to put on.  “A crown, sir.  Never been with a man, she hasn’t.”

Highway robbery unless the girl was pretty and truly a virgin, and that was unlikely.  A shocking expense, too, when all I wanted was information.

“The girl—her room is above stairs?  Does it face the street or the mews?”

The woman’s eyes narrowed, gone suspicious of me that quickly.  It was a fool thing to say, a beginner’s mistake.  “What’s that to you?”

“Only that I should like to know the prospect from the room,” I said in my blandest dandy voice, the one I’d learnt from Robert Letour before he hanged at Newgate.

She shrugged and said, “To the street, an’ it please you, sir.”

“A crown it is,” I said.  “You’ll have the first half now, but the second after I’ve satisfied myself that she is as innocent as you say.”

With any luck I’d bluff my way out of paying the second half crown and she seemed to fear that, too.  When I produced the two coins, held them up, one in each hand between my thumb and finger, she hesitated, eyes glowing with desperation.  She was terribly thirsty.

I presented her with the half crown in my left hand and returned the second to my right pocket, to feel the reassuring presence of my pistol under my coat.

“This way, sir,” she said.

The house was worse than the street.  The only window on the first floor was covered with greased paper and in that foul darkness the stink of unwashed flesh and gin and rotted food was like a blow to the face.  I gagged against it and kept my hand against my pistol.  In the reeking darkness, the old woman hesitated at the stairs until I feared an ambush, but she was only hesitating because the coin in her hand spoke of gin to her.  The time to walk me up the rickety stairs would keep her from it a moment longer than she liked.

“Up and to yer right, sir.  Just undo the latch and mind you don’t let her out.”

Kept prisoner then.  It didn’t surprise me, if the woman was pimping her.  I half-expected to be set upon in the narrow stairwell or at the landing, but I made it to the top unmolested.  From below, I heard the outer door opening and closing.  The old woman going out to the gin house.  To Mrs. Jakes, where she thought I had been sent from.

The upper door was closed with an iron latch, and when I slid it back, a quiet voice said, “Is that you?”

My Mary

My Mary

The girl was too lovely for that place.  Pale and thin, with chestnut hair and soft brown eyes.  Her cheeks flushed when she saw me and she stood up from her narrow bed, looking me up and down with wild eyes.  Abruptly, the fear dropped away and she smiled.

“Oh, you ain’t who I was expecting.”

“And who were you expecting?” I said.

“Her.  Or some scoundrel come to—to pay her.”

“I have paid her, but I don’t intend any assault on your honor.”

She laughed, cheeks going pinker, and sat down again on the bed.  “My honor?  Oh lord, you’ve learned a fine way to talk.”

“I was forced to deceive the woman below, but I shall be quite direct with you, Miss.  I am a representative for a gentleman investigating the disappearance of a young woman, whom I believe was recently in the house directly across from yours.  Directly across from your very room, I believe.  May I look out your window?”

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I don’t know about you, but I have this folder in my writing file called “Random Crap.” In it is every random story idea I ever had. Some of them are spindly little affairs, a few hundred words before something even shinier caught my eye. Others are a bit fleshier, tens of thousands of words written before I gave up or moved on or ran out of time. (It’s true! Some ideas come with expiration dates and if I can’t make them work before the buzzer sounds, I’m out of luck.)

Other items in the Random Crap folder are things I just haven’t gotten around to, but hope to some day.

So for today’s teaser, you’re getting Random Crap, but I’m not going to tell you which kind. It could be that there’s a half-written novel that goes with this, or it could be this is all she wrote.

***

“I am just what they told you I am.  It’s true.”  The boy smiled, his teeth glinting white in his tanned face. He had plucked the thought, the question from her head.  “The collar, no.  Your Elders are not magicians. They have no powers to constrain me.  They’re just paranoid old men.  Whatever power you had is gone now and it was never in these chains.”

As he reached up to open it, Yerma saw that it was unlocked.  Perhaps had been unlocked for days as he awaited an opportunity.  What held it together was a red silk thread.  He snapped it, but instead of tossing the collar aside, he held it out to her like an offering.

“Now,” he said.  A pair of young mercenaries grasped her arms.  Men who had been hired to guard the boy, to protect her. She didn’t bother to resist.  They were enormous men with meaty rough hands.  She would only do herself injury to fight them.

“You came to kill me, priestess, but you will never reach Kanheral in time for the Kinging festival.”

Yerma assumed he meant to kill her, but he only snapped the collar in place around her neck.  From the front of her robes, he retrieved the key, where she had carried it all along, safe.  Even when she slept.  She thought of the night she had drunk too much wine.  Or thought she had drunk too much wine.  Drugged.  Who had taken the key and returned it?

He plucked that thought out of her mind, too.  Gesturing to the shadows behind him, he said, “Come to me, my beloved, and see your loyalty rewarded.”

From behind him came Nathor–slender as a reed, wide-eyed but proud.  She gave Yerma a triumphant smile.  An underling rising up against her mistress.  A dagger in the heart.

“Say farewell to your mother, Nathor.  You will not see her again.”

Nathor frowned, searching for metaphor in his words.

“Ah,” he said tenderly.  “She didn’t know she was your daughter?  Of course, you would not have risen to your high place if you had claimed her.  And yet you kept her so close to you.”

Nathor’s face tensed and her lip quivered.  The triumphant look was replaced with something much darker.  It was the nature of betrayal–it required hatred from any wellspring.  She would learn to hate Yerma, because she would need to, to soothe the guilt of betrayal.

in the desert

in the desert

“Let us go.” As the boy turned to go, he cast his gaze over the contents of the tent.  Yerma watched him calculating the likelihood of her escape, before he brought his foot to rest against the brass water ewer.  He smiled as he rocked the ewer toward her, rocked it back.  Back and forth a dozen times until it toppled, the sour desert water gushing into the thick wool rug of the tent floor, and below that into the thirsty sand.  He wetted his fingers in the rapidly absorbed puddle and reached for the lamp wick.

In the darkness, she heard their departure. Laughter, champing horses, and then a steady count: “Heave one.  Heave two.  Heave three.  And over.”

The roof of the tent crashed down on her, knocked her to the ground, the stone anvil striking her gut and forcing the air from her.  There were two other blows on her back: the other tent poles being knocked in, the rest of the tent’s weight toppling on her.  When she got her breath back, she struggled to roll off the anvil, although the tent pressing on her made it like swimming through sand.  When she managed it and lay flat beside the anvil with the weight of the tent off her, she felt the damp of the water soaking into her robes.  Water lost, life lost, that was the lesson of the desert.  She would learn it.  That was his intention.  She would lie there unable to move, pinned down and chained, dying slowly without water.

The weight of the tent was oppressive, steadily absorbing the heat of the air and slowly the damp wool that sustained her was leeched dry by the sand under it.  In the broiling heat and darkness, she prepared to die, parsing the pieces of her regrets and successes.  She remembered the slack lips of the girl she had allowed herself to dote on.  How foolish she’d been to trust Nathor just because she was her daughter.  Foolish to imagine that blood unknown made loyalty.  Perhaps if she had told the girl, but there had been too much risk in that.

Yerma couldn’t gauge time, beyond the vague shifts in temperature and the steady loss of moisture, but she believed it had been three days.  As quickly as the weight had fallen on her, it was drawn away and light pierced the thin flesh of her eyelids.  Rough hands grabbed her shoulder, turned her onto her back.  Thick fingers thrust into the gap between the collar and her neck.  Struggling to swallow, to speak, she opened her eyes.

The rough hands released her, dropped her, and there was a sharp hissing sound of surprise.  She pursed her lips, an unspoken plea forming there.

“Water?  I’ll wager that,” said the voice that went with the rough hands.  A Jento mercenary.  She squinted, brought him into focus–dirty face, dirtier hair, and filthy black fingers that he slipped under the collar again.  Of course, he had come to finish her.  The gold collar must be worth a great deal.  Enough gold and jewels to set a man like that for life.

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