Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Rus and the Ship

A story for Christmas. Happy holidays, everyone!

Rus and the Ship

Rus ducked under one of the big ship frames arcing up from shoulder-height like a tree branch, slapping his calloused hand on the wood as he passed. Good solid wood, this hornbeam was, brought up from the south and seasoned for two years in the shipyards here at the edge of Quartermoon Bay.

“Time yet?” he bellowed to the other side of the building stocks. In a few weeks this cargo ship would be planked, but now his deep voice carried right through the riblike frames to where Vander and Kell worked on another frame, adzing its rough shape.

Vander shook his head without even looking up. The sun had already dipped behind the snowy Teeth that rose west of the city, and though the sky held a bit of pale light still, the harbor water was dark. They were all waiting for the bell that would signal the end of the day, and their release into the pubs along the waterfront.

Rus turned back to the frame he was planing. The sweeping curve of golden wood rested on five sawhorses, and he ran the hand plane across with the grain, chewing his beard as he watched the line and the ribbon of wood that curled back across his tattooed forearm a foot, four feet, ten feet.

“Enough!” Kell’s voice came like a summons through the unbuilt ship. “We’re thirsty!” And just then came the toll of six bells from the far point of the Hook.

Rus put down the plane and sighed. None too soon. He buttoned his wool shirt against the wet wind that came swirling off the harbor -- there was always a land breeze as night fell -- and followed Kell and Vander out of the shipyard, scuffing through piles of fragrant wood shavings.

Before they even reached Stone Road, he stopped. Had he heard something, back at the shipyard? Vander and Kell trudged on ahead. Rus moved to follow them, but then heard it again: the creak of oars.

“Wait a moment, you thick slops!” he called, but Vander and Kell waved their hands at him without even turning back.

“Idiots,” Rus growled. Back to the shipyard he went, though he ached for the cool dark taste of ale. And tonight Old Mother Tallero was going to tell them the story of the Witch in the Cave.

Well. He would deal swiftly with whatever fool was trying to row into the shipyards, and then hurry over to the Smoking Owl and not miss much.

When he reached the shipyards it was nearly dark, and he could just discern a small rowboat pulled up on the rocky shore, with a figure standing next to it, holding an oar.

“You!” Rus called, letting all his impatience thunder out. “You can’t land here!”

The figure leaned on the oar, and Rus saw it was an old man, with lank, grey hair framing a wizened nut of a face, and a tangled grey beard. Overhead, the first stars gleamed in the dark blue.

“I ... I am,” the old man said in a thin voice.

“You are, you are,” Rus snapped. Old Mother Tallero had probably already started. He grabbed the man’s elbow to encourage him back into the little rowboat. But the man stiffened.

“Wait!” he said, and his voice was stronger. “Wait, please. I am ... so tired. I have come far.”

“Not far enough,” Rus said. “Come on, then. Back you go.” A gust of wind blew in from the water, carrying the salty and thick sea smell, but also something else. Rus inhaled. It was a clean smell, like wet iron.

Then he noticed that the stranger was dusted white. As the old man straightened, the dust fell from his shoulders. Rus touched it, and his fingers stung with cold.

“What ... snow?”

“Aye, snow,” the old man said, and his voice, louder now, rang like a bell. Behind him the sky was dark and jeweled with stars, and Rus could hear the far sigh of the surf.

“I have, as I told you, come very far. Very far.”

The man’s hair, Rus now saw in the starlight, was not grey but white like snow, and though his mouth and eyes were wrinkled from smiles, his eyes were grave and dark.

“Rus,” the stranger said, letting go of the oar. It clattered to the ground and he reached inside what Rus now saw was a sort of leather traveling coat, covered with buckles and flaps and little pockets, all of it stained and worn.

“Here,” the man said, and held out a gloved hand. Rus took the small object, unwrapped it, and held it up to the stars to see. It was a tiny model of a ship. But this was more detailed and intricate than anything he’d seen. Every mast and spar, every little flying jib, a working rudder and wheel the size of kernel of corn, even a web of rigging like silver hairs.

The world swayed. Rus put out one arm to balance himself, and planted his feet so he wouldn’t sit down. Because this -- this tiny model -- was something he had wanted when he was small, wanted it so badly he dreamed about it, talked about it endlessly, infuriated his parents and friends with the idea of just such a tiny ship. For Yuletide, he told himself. No, my birthday. No, Fishmarket Day. Okay, maybe Yuletide.

And then, as so often happens, he forgot about it. Years passed. Decades. And now he was standing on the beach with a stranger in the cold wind. His cheeks were wet and he rubbed them dry.

“How ... how did--?” he said, but the stranger held up a hand.

“I always come,” he said. “I always come.”

“But I’m grown now,” Rus said. The tiny ship was a relic of his childhood, and he felt a pang of the old want like a dream, but he was no longer a child. “I grew up.”

The man frowned. “Has it been so long?” He knelt and picked up the oar with surprising agility. “Has it truly been so long? Sometimes I cannot tell.” Then he smiled. “But you have a son.”

Rus was startled. “Ye-es,” he said. “Corin. He’s ... he’s six.”

The man nodded and rattled his little boat down the pebbled beach. The black water reflected the stars, and for a moment Rus’s head swam: it looked like the boat was floating through the sky.

“Your son, then,” the man said, and started to row. “I have much to do tonight. Goodbye, Rus.”

Corin, Rus thought. He would love this.

He carefully pocketed the tiny ship, marveling again at the intricacy and craft, and strode up the beach, thinking of his own childhood. He walked fast, and turned his collar against the first grainy flakes of snow.

As he reached Stone Road he turned not right toward the pub, but left, uphill, in the direction of home. He did not look back at the harbor, and he did not hear the splashing of oars stop, and the low chuckle of warm mirth, and the sploosh as if a large object -- the size of a rowboat, perhaps -- was lifted from the cold waves into the sky.

Yet as Rus stepped to the doorway of his little house, he paused. For even as the wind carried the iron tang of snow and the salty breath of the sea, it seemed he also heard the far ringing of bells under the stars.

Monday, December 21, 2009

I Come From The Land of the Ice and Snow

I've never known what two feet of snow looks like. Now I do. And although it resulted in eight hours of shoveling and no small amount of sore muscles, it also enabled long afternoons by the fire, surrounded by books, soft pillows, and dozing cats.

It makes me think of Chabon's werewolf-pulled sledges, goblins cracking whips in the frozen air; Lewis's "always winter and never Christmas;" Pullman's wild and muddy trip to the far North; of Angmar and the Citadel of the Stars; of the snows of Kilimanjaro and frozen leopards; Scott's men in their last tent, in the howling dark.

Why is it that winter seems so much more evocative than summer? Or is it because I'm IN winter right now, when for most of the year it's temperate and, well, not covered in two feet of snow? Do children in Spitzbergen dream of the desert, of trackless dunes and sultry nights where the stars glow like jewels, just as we dream of the iron smell of coming snow and the northern lights glowing on fields of white?

Unfortunately for my characters, I'm fascinated by almost any geography, and sending them to experience it is the next best thing to traveling there myself. Because I've found my favorite stories have a rich sense of place, of being there. And everywhere is interesting.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fever Dreams

Interesting night last night. Plunging sense of well-being resulting from the onslaught of a head cold and a query rejection (la, inevitable but still stings) sent me early to bed ... to lie awake feeling a vise squeezing my sinuses.

At 2 I gave up and took a decongestant. Knowing this would keep me awake, I also "took" some Glenlivet (la, it is medicinal). Tossed and turned until the Glenlivet wore off and then lay, wide awake, heart pounding (I blame the decongestant) until 4:00, when I gave up and arose to read. Got bored, came back to bed, and started mulling over, in a haze of forehead-crushing sinus pain and a dry mouth, the following problem:

It's winter. Too cold for epoxy to cure. Yet I need to install the chine "logs" on the boat. These are actually three pieces of long wood, each about one inch square by sixteen feet. I need to warm them and the spot where they attach to at least 70 degrees, otherwise the epoxy won't work.

Now, working through winter before, I've heated small areas with a tenting of plastic, lights, and a digital thermometer. But I'm beginning to think I may have to tent the entire boat, frames and all, bow to stern, like the house in E.T.

Or so it seemed to my humming mind in the wee hours of the morning. Thus, today: a doctor visit and more cogitation. How do you warm a sixteen-foot-long area when the ambient temperature is in the low thirties?

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Crickets Beware

I have recently come to realize that if I want to build a boat that looks more like a boat than the closing half of a parenthesis, I'm going to need to be able to get to the port side.

Two years of boatbuilding and garage-storage has littered the wall of the garage with scrap wood, boat frames from an abandoned project, great loops of rope, a few cardboard boxes filled with smaller cardboard boxes of screws, firewood, a rake, two shovels, 200' of 14-gauge extension cord, and so on.

For the most part I've been able to teeter on a stack of 2x4s (as perilous as it sounds) or reach across from the starboard side, or wiggle in under the building jig (crickets, spiders, and nightmares galore).

But as I now need to dry-fit and install the port chine, well: time to clean!

Last night I opened the garage door, donned what I hoped would be cricket-proof gloves, and pulled out as much detritus as I could. Most of this was scrap wood: little knobs of locust, or strip cutoffs, or things accidentally epoxied to each other. Some of it might have been good firewood, but I gotta boat to build, there's no time for discernment! Into the big plastic trash can it all went, to be sorted through later.

Now that side of the boat is not only accessible, but swept clean of dust and the bones of spider victims. In all of this, I saw not a single cricket.

Which means they have massed themselves somewhere. Probably inside my pillowcase or under my toast or somewhere equally ghastly.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The grass is always greener

I have the wooden skeleton of a sailboat in my garage and the always-in-revision third novel on my laptop. Both are wonderful and long projects. And still I find myself daydreaming about the next boat. The next book.

Partly it's the idea of starting fresh. Right now I'm far enough past the beginnings of both projects that I have to struggle to remember how daunting it was to have no momentum, to just ... start.

And partly it's the half-adulterous feeling that "sure, this boat is good. But that one ... that one could be better!" Except unlike spouses, we can accumulate boats and books and grow and learn with each one.

Wait a second, maybe that's exactly like spouses.

*rim shot!*

If for no other reason than wanting to avoid uncertainty when these projects are done, I've already begun thinking about what to do next.

There's always the Folkboat plan, of course, except that wouldn't fit in the garage. Paul Gartside draws some beautiful boats that have helped me couch-sail on many a winter's evening. There's Joel White's bewitching lapstrake double-ender, the Fox Island Class -- if only it had a centerboard I might be building it right now! Because my oh my that beauty looks fun to sail. And then there's Paketi, which I would do with a small cabin and a gaff topsail because life is short. With that flat bottom and all that sail area she would fly downwind.

There's the story of the girl driving west with her loser father. Or is he really that much of a loser? The snow adventure. The desert. More, oh so much much more to say about Rigel and his friends.

There is, I am pleased to discover, so much to do.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Asymptotic quality

Once upon a time, in a cold desert where men performed cruelties by moonlight, an old slave woman had a map of the known world tattooed on her tongue. When she swore, which was often, the juicy invectives passed over rivers and caves and winding blue paths; and when she wanted you lost she closed her mouth with a foamy snap.

Okay, now. The trouble with revising is that ... well, I don't want to do it. I know: wah. But I keep thinking about other stuff I could be writing, strange and fascinating stuff, and then I turn back to my manuscript -- also strange and fascinating, let me not forget! -- as it grinds toward quality.

I have a theory about quality. It is, no doubt, not original, but I like to pretend that I'm the first to have thought it.

In algebra (I'll wait. With me? Okay.) when you graph an equation, say "x=y^2" for example (I'll wait. With me? Okay.) the result is an arcing curve. This line, always changing, soars ever closer to an imaginary limit, but never reaches it. Never reaches it. This imaginary line is the asymptote.

It is perfection. We never reach it.

And so when I change a word, then rethink it and change the sentence, then rethink that and change the paragraph, and then start to have doubts about the whole lousy paragraph and don't get me started on the scene or voice or pace or rhythm (yes, they're different) or metaphor or imagery or tension ...

... it means I'm sliding along toward the asymptote, sluglike, slow and laborious.

Sometimes I think one great side effect of being a writer is the ability to complain in metaphor! Anyway, happy weekend to all and to all a good night.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Twelve pages

Twelve pages. Twelve. Pages. Of single-spaced notes, questions, failed attempts at a workable query. The process is a great exercise -- and I mean 'exercise' in the training-for-a-marathon sense -- because it has forced me to think about what's really at the core of my story.

What it all means. Why it matters.

Simplicity, I've learned once again, is hard. But finally, I think I've landed on something workable.


The port city of Quartermoon Bay teems with shipbuilders and captains home from the sea, fishermen and priests and menders of nets. People call fire from the air with a twist of their fingers, and an old woman’s storytelling silences a pub of rowdy sailors.

Twelve-year-old Riga has never seen much point in the stories Grandmother keeps trying to teach him. Until one bright morning, when six strange ships attack and burn his city to the ground, slaughtering the weak and the aged, and enslaving the rest. Grandmother has time to whisper one final story to Riga: across the mountains, hidden in a sea cave, lies the last Ship of the Light, a half-mythical relic of the old wars.

Riga escapes, killing two guards and fleeing into the mountains. He’s driven by the wild hope that he can find the Ship and strike back against the invaders who destroyed everything -- and everyone -- he’s ever known. But as he grasps the terrible significance of the ancient stories, and his role in them, he must weigh revenge against survival, and loyalty to his friends against the true burden of carrying the stories of the dead.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Go, monkey mind, go

I don't think I made up the term "monkey mind" myself. It refers, I've decided / read, to the magical quality of total innocence. Say, when you first learn to bowl and roll a strike because you're not hung up on your shoes or your form, or how crooked your pinkie has to get.

When you don't know it can't be done, in other words. There's a freedom there, before you get down to the nitty-gritty of "technique" and "precedent" and "details" and sometimes -- rarely, but it does happen -- you just ... do it.

Sometimes I'll be daydreaming and ideas will start circling like angry birds, wheeling and coming in so fast my head aches at the thought of writing them all down. I used to lunge for pen and paper, and scrawl incomprehensibilities like "Queen wall bricks" or "Lollipop paper -- semicolon not Tennyson!!!"

This was anti-monkey mind. True monkey mind just lets all those ideas slosh around for awhile -- overnight is best -- before plucking them out.

Other times I'll just forget. Monkey mind is not infallible; there's a reason it's not called Cyborg Mind.

But sometimes, if you can sneak up on a problem (e.g., "who's that bald guy, the lead singer of Genesis, who is NOT called Paul Simon even though that's all I can come up with"; or "how can I get this big meaning into this little sentence") and surprise it after not thinking about it ... you can trap it and figure it out. That's monkey mind.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

How do you think he does it?

I don't know. What makes him so good?

These days I'm listening to Michael Chabon read his "Summerland" (book on CD). It is very, very good. A few months ago I read "Gentlemen of the Road," by the same author but very different in style and tone. And also very, very good.

So my question to myself is: Self, although you are certainly dashing and freakishly cool, this appears to be quite the mystery. How is Michael Chabon so good?

Is it innate talent? Practice? A clean workspace? Maybe he does Internet searches more than me. Or less. Or exclusively. Or never.

Maybe I need a plant in my writing room. Maybe I should vacuum it. Maybe I should put more clothes on the floor. Or put away the half-empty epoxy containers.

Or maybe -- just maybe -- none of these mean a damn if you don't just sit down. And get to work.

Perseverance, I believe, is a spark of heat on a cold day. A cold winter. Nothing matters if you do not carry on.

Yes, I will read more, and not just as someone in the audience but as a technician: how does he do that? Why does she make this choice instead of that one? Why so many verbs? Why this pace and not faster? Or slower?

In the meantime: back to work! Still on the query. But I'm close: it is sneaking around my peripheral vision, flicking my ear and melting into shadows when I turn. But I know where to find it: in the corner. And I step toward it.