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The Wolf in the Garden

Sunday, November 22nd, 2009

It was dusk when I finally drove into the city of W–.  A series of mishaps had dogged my journey, making me feel almost as though the Fates themselves were conspiring to keep me from my destination.  First, the cloak of fog that engulfed the airport and delayed our flight by nearly four hours,

Fog surrounds the Airport

Fog surrounds the Airport

and then, when I finally reached the airport, some 25 miles outside W–, the clerk at the car rental, so hunched over that he seemed to be barely as tall as the counter itself, insisted I had no booking.  When I produced my documents, and insisted on speaking to his superior, he informed me that only he was on duty—this with a smile so malevolent that it made my blood run cold.  Still, I held firmly to my position, that I had reserved a car, a full-sized sedan, and that I would help myself to one on the lot.  However, I discovered to my dismay that try as many of them as I might, none of the cars on the lot would start.

Finally, with another of his evil smiles, the clerk announced that he would find me some manner of vehicle.  And some manner is the best that could be said for it, dirty on the outside with many dents in its body, it still was better out than within, for the interior stank of mold, and much of the floor had rusted out.

The Car of my Nightmares

The Car of my Nightmares

By now, I was beginning to fear for my safety more at the airport than in the car, and so I took it, vowing privately  to exchange it for another in the morning.

I had promised my dear Maude that I would be with her in time for tea at her office, but by the time arrived, all the gates had been locked for the day.  My cellphone couldn’t pick up a signal outside the massive iron gates.   I finally roused a guard, who although surly at having his evening meal disturbed, did ring through to the Countess J—‘s private office.  As I thought, Maude had waited for me, faithful Penelope that she is, and came scurrying through the gardens to the gate where I was standing.

“You made it!”

Waiting at the Castle Gate

Waiting at the Castle Gate

In the dim light, I couldn’t see her face, but the relief in her voice was palpable, and she hugged me with a convulsive fervor unusual in her.  Maude is always full of energy, but seldom of a demonstrative emotional nature.

I told her of my difficulties in reaching the Countess J—‘s gates and felt her tremble in my arms, but she dashed off her seeming distress and said, with an assumption of her normal brightness of manner, “You’re here now, that’s all that matters.”

Maude drew me through the gardens, where some late roses still bloomed, to the side door that led to the Countess’s private rooms.

Castle gardens in late summer

Castle gardens in late summer

The castle was the main seat of Prince Benedict, the Countess’s cousin, who governed the territories around W–, and held many odd corridors and turrets, where those of high rank lived as well as worked.  The Countess was the Prince’s most trusted advisor, and we in the town of C—had felt great pride and excitement when the Countess chose Maude to be one of her own personal secretaries.

Maude’s mother and I had been dear friends since earliest childhood.  We had scored our first field hockey goals together, learned first-order second-degree differential equations together, field-dressed our first rabbits together, laughed at each other’s jokes, and forborne to laugh at each other’s lovers.  In short, no friends were more inseparable, and, childless myself, I had been one of little Maude’s adoring aunties as she grew to adulthood.  She repaid my love with a thousand acts of kindness.

Her parents were in the Antarctic, where her father was designing igloo-based kitchens and her mother setting up a much-needed sanitation system.

Maude's Father in the Igloo Kitchen

Maude's Father in the Igloo Kitchen

They would not be able to leave until the brief Antarctic summer arrived in some four months, and so when trouble came to Maude, it was me she texted, begging me “2 drop evrytng & cum 2 W @1s”.

It wasn’t until we reached the room in the Countess’s private apartments set aside as Maude’s bedchamber that I had time to look at her more closely.  Maude’s normal bright complexion was grey with fatigue, and even, I thought, fear, and her dark eyes were red from much weeping.

“What ails you, dear one?” I clasped her cold dry hands in mine.

“Ails me?  Why, nothing at all, now that you are at my side, dearest Auntie Calliope.”  And she behaved most strangely, darting from door to door, as though checking for eavesdroppers.  The windows, although we were on a high floor, she treated with especial circumspection.

“Four nights ago, I saw wolves in the castle gardens,” she whispered to me.  “When I told the Countess she laughed at me and told me the politics of the castle were wearing me down.  But then—I went to confide my fears to Jay, and he behaved most strangely to me.”

The Wolf in the Castle Garden

The Wolf in the Castle Garden

Jay and Maude had been playmates and lovers for years, and he, too, had been offered a job on the Countess’s private staff.  Privately, I had always wondered at their friendship—Maude, so open and impulsive, Jay, subdued, curled into himself like a snail.  Even physically—Maude was radiant with health, her skin dark and clear, while Jay, tall and emaciated, so white that he might be a Belgian endive, living etiolated in a cellar.  And yet everyone agreed that he was a brilliant scholar of naval policy, and, as the city of W—was situated at the mouth of an important harbor, he was a key member of the Countess’s household.

“Strangely how?”

“Told me he had no time for my silly girlieness, that I needed to grow up and learn how to live in a castle, and stop inventing games.  He said that no wolves had been seen in W—for more than a century, unless at the zoo, and that while Prince Benedict and the Countess were negotiating a treaty with the Emperor of K–, it was imperative that I not bother them with these fantasies.”

“And is that why you sent for me?” I didn’t know what to say: Maude was never an imaginative child.  Indeed, Jay, with his withdrawn silences, seemed more the dreamer of the two.  But—wolves in the private gardens of a major castle, in the heart of a great city?  It was scarcely credible.

“I see you don’t believe me, either,” Maude said mournfully.  “And yet, look at how hard it was for you to reach the castle.  None of the cars worked at the rental agency.  You couldn’t use your cellphone at the castle gates.  The text I sent you was the last message I was able to send, and I had no real expectation that you would arrive.  Only people whom Jay knows have been able to reach the castle for the last three weeks.  And during that time, he has sometimes seen me in the halls and pretended not to know me.  I asked him if he had taken a new lover, if I was the one ignorant person in the castle—and he said he had important work to do and didn’t have time for private jealousies.”

“Perhaps you should take a leave of absence,” I suggested.  “Maybe the Countess is right, that the politics of the castle are wearing you down.  When you work for a powerful prince, everyone is competing for his attention, after all.  And with your disposition, so prone to openness, you may not be best suited for this competitive, back-stabbing atmosphere.”

“Aunt Calliope!” Her dark eyes flashed.  “I won’t listen to such talk.  Didn’t you and Mama always teach me to be a fighter, not a quitter?  How can you suggest I leave the Countess now?”

Maude at Dinner

Maude at Dinner

“All right, child, all right—but—“ I didn’t finish the sentence.  She trusted me, she needed me, I would not turn my back on  her.

We went down to dinner in the dining room where the Countess’s staff ate.  Tonight five of her eight personal staff, including Jay, were present.  I tried to pretend I’d had no private conversation about him with Maude, and asked him the usual dull questions aunts ask their niece’s friends.  I noticed that he drank heavily, but only toyed with his food, although the Countess’s chefs are famous for their light, flavorful locavorian cooking.

State Dinner, by Jacqueline Duheme in "Mrs. Kennedy Goes Abroad"

State Dinner, by Jacqueline Duheme in "Mrs. Kennedy Goes Abroad"

“Jay, are you ill?” I asked bluntly.  “You’ve scarcely touched your dinner.”

“I’m perfectly well, thank you.” The words were polite, but the manner of speaking was so cold, so rude, that he might as well have said, “Mind your own business.”

“And to drink so much wine on an empty stomach—it’s not healthy.”

Now he did tell me to mind my own business.  “I seem surrounded by women who think they know more about my life than I do myself.”

“Jay!  Aunt Calliope was only concerned about your well-being!”

Jay stood so quickly that he knocked over his wine glass.  As the red stained the white linens which the Countess’s grandmother had embroidered, his eyes glittered and his hands began to shake.  He squeezed the damp spot on the cloth and licked his fingers and then, as if realizing how we all were staring at him, gave an embarrassed laugh and bolted from the room.

Red Wine on the Tablecloth

Red Wine on the Tablecloth

We stared at one another in dismay, but no one could speak.  Instead, in unspoken accord, we all began to rise from the table, when the door opened to admit the Countess herself.

So many pens more gifted than my own have described the beauty and presence of the Countess J—that I will not add to their words.  Tonight, although she was fatigued, seeming almost asleep, she still held herself erect.  She wasn’t wearing the famous emerald necklace of the House of J–, but had draped a green scarf around her neck instead. She remembered me, although we’d only met twice before, and turned her charming smile on me.

The Countess's Emerald Necklace

The Countess's Emerald Necklace

“You had a difficult journey here, yes?”

I was astonished that she knew, but merely murmured an assent.

“All journeys to the castle these days seem fraught with difficulties.  But Maude will see that you are well housed.  Tell Jean-Philippe that your aunt may stay in the guest tower.”

“I thought she might share my room, Countess,” Maude said.

“The guest tower, child.  We are not deficient in rooms here in the castle.”

That was a command, and Maude could only acquiesce.  As the Countess ate—very sparingly—Jay returned and began reading dispatches to her, ignoring the rest of us.  The countess, too, paid us no further heed, bowing her head over her clasped hands and listening to his voice, which was soft, and hypnotic only by virtue of its monotone, not from any special eloquence.  The countess moved only once, to tell the rest of us we might leave the room.

I myself know nothing of castle politics or decorum, but I felt compelled to beg Maude to leave at once and return with me to C–.  This heavy atmosphere was no place for a healthy girl.  And if Jay were to continue to act so coldly, so rudely, and the countess to be seemingly under his spell, then no good could come of Maude’s remaining.

My girl resolutely refused to consider “such craven behavior,” and yet she was afraid, finding it hard to leave me in the guest tower.  Finally, around midnight, when I was feeling too overcome with fatigue for further conversation, I promised to leave a light burning in the window.  The guest tower lay directly across from the Countess’s private apartments, with the rose garden between them.  Maude could look to my light and be somewhat less lonely in the night.

The Guest Tower

The Guest Tower

I slept for perhaps two hours, before a noise roused me.  The candle I’d left in the window was burning still; some instinct made me cross the floor on my hands and knees, so that the flame would not cast my shadow on the walls of the room.

I knelt at the casement and looked into the garden.  The noise, a kind of snuffling, came again, and I watched in horror as a large wolf appeared.  It was carrying something in its mouth.  In the moonlight, it was impossible to see colors, but it looked like the green silk scarf the countess had been wearing at dinner.

I darted from the room and ran down the four flights of stairs to the garden.  The door was locked; on the far side I heard the snuffling, chuckling sound of the wolf. I ran up the first flight of stairs and found a window that opened, and launched myself onto the wolf’s back.  His snuffles turned to an outraged howl.

I jumped away and ran through the garden, looking for the countess.  The wolf was far faster than I; he knocked me to the ground and stood over me, eyes glittering red in the darkness, his breath wet and heavy on my face, his tongue licking my throat.  I scrabbled frantically among the plants and grabbed one of the stakes the gardeners used to tied the roses.  Scarcely knowing what I did, I plunged it up into his belly.

He fell away from me, howling loudly, writhing in the grass.  My arms were trembling so violently I couldn’t move, but finally, he lay still.  And in that moment, the moment of death, he assumed a mortal human shape, that of Jay.

I turned in horror from the sight, and found Maude at my side.  Jay’s death howl had wakened her, and she ran to the garden.  When she saw the scarf, abandoned near us in the struggle, she cried, “The Countess!”

The Countess near Undeath

The Countess near Undeath

We found her sleeping beneath one of the benches, blood from the open wound at her neck staining the front of her frock.  Even as we looked, though, the wound seemed to be healing, and, by the time we had carried her inside  and given her into Jean-Philippe’s capable hands, only the blood on her dress served as a reminder of her near encounter with the world of the Undead.

The Countess restored

The Countess restored

“The scarf,” Maude whispered.  “I didn’t understand why she no longer wore her emeralds, but—she knew she had to conceal that dreadful bite.  Oh! To think he and I once were—“

She could say no more, but flung herself into my arms.

“Working in the seat of power has turned stronger heads than Jay’s,” I said.  “Don’t judge him too harshly.  Remember him as your childhood friend, not as the Vampire of W–. “

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A Weighty Matter

Saturday, November 21st, 2009

I was a chubby kid.  When we lived in town, a couple of boys in my school used to stand on the sidewalk and chant a rude verse at me on the way home (“Fatty,” it began.  I sometimes worry that as my brain disintegrates with age, that verse will be the last thing I retain.)  I was almost thirty when I lost weight, going to Weight WAtchers.  I don’t know what WW is like now, but back then, you’d get on the scale, and, if you’d lost anything, the group would applaud; if you’d gained, they offer warm support for the struggle. I lost 60 pounds, I’ve more or less kept them off for 30 years, but I still have days like today, where I cleared out all the ice cream in the freezer.  Ten years ago, I finally got rid of my size 18 clothes, but I’m thinking I should have kept an outfit, just in case.

At the same time I was struggling with my doctoral dissertation, which I did, ultimately, finish, but that was a long battle, too.  I had a friend who was doing her own dissertation, and going with me to Weight Watchers meetings, and we thought we should start “Dissertation WAtchers,” where you weighed you output each week.  “Two more ounces, well done, Eileen.  Ooh, threw out six ounces, too bad Sara, but you’ll do better next time.”

I think about DW often because writers seem obsessed with how many words they’ve written.  I belong to another blog, the Chicago OUtfit Collective, and people talk about doing their weekly stint of 7500 words, or brag about producing 5000 words a day.  I know the feeling, counting the words, as if it had something to do with the quality of the story.  I do it myself, and yet, when the writing is flowing, the number of words is irrelevant, and when it’s ground to a halt, as it has for me this week, the lack of words on the page feels like a summary of all my inadequacies.

Okay, enough whining.  Here’s something real to worry about: death threats against President Obama are 400 percent higher than against previous presidents.  And cute kids on the religious right are using a Bible verse as a cloak for, asking God to kill the President.  And they’re getting support from Fox media. Surprise.

Rachel Maddow on Psalm 109

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Will Write For…

Wednesday, November 18th, 2009

A violinist I know who’s part of The New Millennium Orchestra told me they’re working on a business plan these days.  Up to now, if they had money they paid the musicians; if they didn’t, everyone played for free.  The musicians are all young, energetic, and very hard working.  They travel long distances to teach to make enough money to continue with their art.  Or their profession.

They grapple with making old music fresh.  When an orchestra looks bored, they lose connection with their audience, even if they’re still playing well–anyone looked at the CSO strings lately while they’re playing Brahms?

Last night, I heard Dawn Upshaw singing Golijov’s “Ayres” with 8th Blackbird, and the stage was so filled with vitality and virtuosity that all of us in the audience were completely swept away.  I was so envious of Upshaw, of her voice, her artistry, and, at the end, of the big smooch the composer gave her.

Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, DG cover

Osvaldo Golijov with Dawn Upshaw, DG cover

8th Blackbird is a wonderful dynamic young group, but they’re known for playing modern music, and it’s very hard for the members to get paying gigs if they have a hankering for Haydn or a desire for Devienne.

All this sounds familiar.  Libby Hellmann recently blogged on her long tour on the road, often reading for 1 or 5 people.  I know those blues; we all do.  We’re essentially playing, not for free, but at a loss, because of the time and money we’ve spent to get to the place where we’re performing.  And yet, we still have to respect the one or two or three people who came to see us, give them a fresh performance.

Libby added a link to Declan Burke’s blog on how he’s just about ready to throw in the towel because of his inability to get published, or sold once he’s in print.

We may want to write a novel set outside the mystery/thriller genre.  Good luck, our publishers tell us.  We’ll pay you when you come back and write what you’ve done a thousand times before, not when you stretch your creative wings.

A concertmaster told my violinist friend, “You will play with many terrible conductors.  If you let them define music for you, you will not be able to love music.”  Similarly, we all will meet many dreadful, inadequate editors–more, as publishing shrinks and editors are chosen more for their spreadsheet skills than their book skills.  We can’t let those people be in our heads instead of the word that nourishes us and brings us life.

New Millennium is working with the Arts & Business Council of Chicago to learn how to put together a business plan so they can work for food instead of for free.  You have to be a 501C-3 to qualify for support, but surely there are resources available for individual artists as well.  Anybody know of any?

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Waiting for???

Saturday, November 14th, 2009

Earlier this year I was at a dinner for the Freedom to Read Foundation, and was privileged to be seated at the same table with a gifted Y/A writer, who is not only an outspoken supporter of freedom to read and write, but is also very popular.  Her publicist was at the table and mentioned that thousands of kids line up when this woman appears at events.

This remark sparked a hot argument among the rest of us: who would we wait in line for hours to meet?  I said, “No one.” Not because there aren’t people I admire greatly–but because I don’t want the glazed eyes, the smile that goes to people in a crowd of thousands.  I want to be recognized, my special Sara-ness acknowledged.  I waited once for Renee Fleming when she was autographing CD’s, and was treated to that glassy face.  I understood her need for self-protection, but I still felt disappointed.

Suddenly, though, I remembered Richard Burton.  As soon as I said his name, all the women at the table  swooned in unison.(The men guffawed, but started slavering over Liz Taylor).  Yes, we women agreed, we would wait for hours for Burton, but only if he read something to us–preferably love sonnets of John Donne, but the phone book would be acceptable.  I almost drove off the road once, listening to a cassette of Burton reading Donne. (The link in this paragraph takes you to a Harper Audio site where you can hear Burton read Donne.)

Richard Burton as Hamlet

Richard Burton as Hamlet

Is there anyone you’d wait to meet?  Would there have to be, as in my Burton fantasy, a personal connection, or would the glassy shielded smile be enough for you?

(I don’t have the Y/A writer’s permission to mention her name, which is why I don’t give it here.)

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Life and Death in Shanghai

Monday, November 9th, 2009

Nien Cheng died on November 2.  She’s been one of my heroes, ever since my son Tim introduced me to her work some 15 years ago.  Cheng spent almost seven years in one of Mao’s prisons for the crimes of having worked for Shell, studied abroad, and for speaking fluent English.

Nien Cheng

Nien Cheng

While she was in prison, her only child was murdered by the Red Guards for refusing to denounce Cheng.  She survived horrifying conditions with wit and anger, and, according to her memoir, Life and Death in Shanghai, poetry.  She had memorized a great deal of classical Chinese poetry during her youth and it came to her rescue in prison.

The easy way in which Mao stirred the youth of China  into a violent mob is not unique or isolated.  The Fascists did this with ease and effectiveness in Italy, home of Dante and Verdi, and the National Socialists were equally effective in the land of Beethoven and Goethe.  A recent Italian novel set in this period,  The Jewish Husband, is more heart-stopping than any horror or serial killer novel.  We read a lot of fiction and history about Germany, but very little about Italy’s approach to race–this novel, brief, powerful, beautifully and urgently written, helps fill that gap.

I am uneasy, even frightened, by the way Republicans in Congress and radicals in the talk-show world are stirring up mob passions.  On November 7, Congressional Republicans organized an event in Washington to show opposition to health care reform.  They used images of Dachau and Auschwitz as part of their action.  As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post,

“the best of [Rep.] Bachmann’s recruits were a few rows into the crowd, holding aloft a pair of 5-by-8-foot banners proclaiming “National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945.” Both banners showed close-up photographs of Holocaust victims, many of them children. Immediately in front of this colorful scenery, various House Republicans signed autographs and shook hands with the demonstrators. Rep. Virginia Foxx (N.C.)…recently said the health-care bill is more dangerous than terrorists…”Rep. Jeb Hensarling (Tex.) exulted as he stood in front of the Dachau banner.”

I know you come to my blog because I’m a fiction writer, not because I’m a political commentator.  And I know my novels are  criticized in the blogosphere for being too political, a charge that worries me.  But–we are living in a time of upheaval and, in my opinion, danger, and I think it would be irresponsible of me not to reflect on the times, either here, or in my fiction.

As always, I welcome your reaction.

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How Much Is Enough?

Friday, November 6th, 2009

I have a friend whose husband won the Nobel Prize.  We were all thrilled, but he didn’t interpret it as success: he thought he needed two before the restless face in the mirror, the critical voice in the head, stopped saying, “You’re basically a failure.”

I cringed at the time, mostly because I really did feel his pain–I have a good career, I have good success, but I must not really be any good because Fred and Lily and Cindy outsell me, or are on op-ed pages more often, or have more friends than me, or can do more headstands, or–whatever.

Like most writers, I do what I can to promote myself and my work.  For Hardball, I hired a  skilled publicist to help me.  Her name is Kimberly Burns, and she created a bit of a stir in the blogosphere when she responded to a New York Times piece about how publishers are falling over themselves to get their writers on Glenn Beck’s show.  The piece listed a number of highly successful writers who’ve appeared with Beck.  They mostly write thrillers in the Ludlum vein; they’re all male, they’re all white.  I know some of them, and they’re decent guys.

Kimberly wrote on her facebook page that she’d rather have dental work without novocaine than book one of her clients on Beck’s show–that’s what caused the outburst.  He sells books, and you shouldn’t turn your back on him, plus, you’re a censor, seemed to be the consensus.

Me, I’m proud of Kimberly.  But the furore made me think about my own insecurities, how badly I want to be as successful as the guys I know  (they outsell me by about 15:1).  And then I thought of my friend Michael Lewin, and his mantra that “sometimes money is just too expensive to buy.”  You can pay too high a price in self-respect to consort with someone you believe is a danger to the Republic.

I believe that Beck uses the same tactics that worked so well for the National Socialists in the 1930’s.  He repeats slander and inuendo, loudly, and repeatedly, and takes advantage of a part of the population that is terrified already by change, by the economic meltdown, and the threat of terrorism, and plays on their fears.  Like the National Socialists, he finds scapegoats that his listeners can blame for their own fears.  When I see a ragtag group of poor people protesting health care reform, I know he’s been a success: these are the people who will become homeless if they have a catastrophic illness, but they are sure that Beck, and his cronies like O’Reilly and Hannity, are right to oppose government-sponsored health care, because all of these broadcasters have identified the real problem as belonging to feminists, or Muslims, or blacks, or President Obama, or all of the above.  These broadcasters have persuaded a significant fraction of America that President Obama is a Muslim and a terrorist, that he wasn’t born in the U.S., and even that he has set up concentration camps in Arizona.

Even if an appearance on Glenn Beck would put me in the heady company of list-leading writers, I don’t see how I could appear with him.  Even if the penalty is ending up like Winston Smith, poor, broken-down, feebly weeping at Big Brother’s face on the screen, I’d still feel better at the end of the day.  I guess it’s good to know, in the middle of my insecurities and longing for success, that there’s at least one thing I won’t do.

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Mad as Hell?

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Or, Testosterone Fights Back.  Publishers Weekly has published its list of the ten best books of 2009, and they are all by men.  Some, like Richard Holmes’s Age of Wonder, are deeply thought and researched.  Others, like Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, are tired old paeans to the Male Member–and I don’t mean of Parliament.  Yes, doing lines under a Tintoretto ceiling in Venice after your well-humped lover has left you in the lurch, that is a worthy addition to the canon.

WILLA has started a Wiki list of books by women that might have merited a second glance this year.  It includes one of my own favorites, Laurie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs.  You can add your own.  I think it’s a great resource for finding new books to read, but I’d love to have your own suggestions here–the best books you’ve read in 2009, whether by men or by women.

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