Although my favorite thing to read is a novel, I also love linked collections of short stories. The forgiving nature of a series of discrete narratives doesn’t make me feel guilty when my schoolwork prevents me from reading a novel straight through.
Sometimes these collections are linked by place; there are many of these. Others are linked by characters, such as Justin Cronin’s Mary and O’Neill. By an object: Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Some by concept: Her Infinite Variety by Pamela Rafael Berkman. Sometimes by theme: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer.
And sometimes a collection is linked by all of these.
Printz Award-winning Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick contains seven linked stories which travel backward in time on a remote and unusual island near the top of the world. They explore the themes of love and sacrifice in the myriad ways that love and sacrifice impress themselves on our lives, sometimes obvious and sometimes not. But the writing is never obvious, never predictable. Sedgwick’s work is often, I think, categorized as YA, but even if you don’t usually read in that category, give this one a try.
Eric and Merle are two characters who orbit each other in time, meeting each other in different ways. Sometimes in love, sometimes bound by a family relationship, sometimes tossed together by external forces, their interactions show the breadth of love and sacrifice. The writing is lush without overpowering the reader. The stories are based on an actual historical painting, Midvinterblot, but everything else in the novel comes from Sedgwick’s own imagination.
Honestly, I don’t know what else to say about this book that won’t give too much of the story away. Aside from the writing being enjoyable even down to the level of the sentence, I love the structure, how each story is illuminated by a subsequent one, how the orbit comes around in such a satisfying way, how the island itself is a character, how the names of the characters evolve, how the dragon flowers on the island and the image of the hare anchor the narrative. There is a hint of the fantastical in this book, but I wouldn’t call it fantasy; magic realism is more its purview.
This novel-in-stories accomplishes what the 1994 film Being Human tried to do but couldn’t. Midwinterblood captures two important facets of the immensity of human experience with crystalline clarity. And like a faceted prism, this story reveals a depth of possibility in every interaction, that we are part of something larger than ourselves. That love and sacrifice cannot be contained. It asks the question, is life truly this rich?
It might be tempting for someone over the age of maybe thirty to read the dust jacket of Katharine McGee’s The Thousandth Floor and dismiss it as a story about entitled rich kids and their #firstworldproblemz.
Thank you to everyone who visited my Virtual Book Fair booth this past week! As promised, here are the winners of the giveaway:
Puppy Doc (Phoebe)
Michelle VanDaley (@scottysmom2004)
The giveaways were conducted across all my social media: this blog, Facebook, and Twitter.
Winners, please get in touch with me at forest [dot] of [dot] diamonds [at] gmail [dot] com and put “Virtual Book Fair Giveaway winner” in the subject line so your email doesn’t get lost in my inbox. Tell me your preference for prize: illustrated print edition of Finis., Finis. poster (limited quantity on that), or your choice of one of my poetry art cards (design choices here). I’ll get it out in the mail to you by Monday after Thanksgiving at the latest.
I’m so excited to have been selected to participate in the Virtual Book Fair! Don’t you love my snazzy booth picture above? (It’s probably best no one lets me design my own book covers.)
So Finis. is the book being featured at this fair, and below you’ll find a story synopsis, some advance praise, and links for it. You can also see in the image above my booth’s Scavenger Hunt number, which is part of the larger Virtual Book Fair involving Amazon giveaways and other prizes. Be sure to check out the other authors’ booths; there are numerous genres and books being featured — and all are discounted to only $2.99 or less during the Virtual Book Fair.
But I’m also doing my own giveaway — actually, more than one! For everyone who shares this blog post on their social media, or who follows Sappho’s Torque (who wasn’t already following it), or who participates in the interactive fun below, you’ll be entered into a drawing that has several prizes. The contest closes at 11:59 p.m. on November 19th. I’ll announce the winners on this blog the next day and on my Facebook pages and Twitter, and then you can contact me to let me know where to send your prizes.
Thank you for stopping by and for participating! Now on to the nitty-gritty…
Elsa’s family grows more unkind by the week. Her boss, a seven-foot-tall rage demon, has control of everything but his anger. And her cat wants to eat her. Things could be better.
In a world where one’s Animal Affinity is a sign of maturity and worth, Elsa’s inability to demonstrate hers is becoming more than a disappointing nuisance; it’s becoming a danger. She has no confidence she’ll ever conquer her Plainness by “blossoming.” She also fears both the wolf packs that prowl her neighborhood and being stuck in a life plummeting rapidly from lackluster to perilous. Fortunately, she has a cousin and a co-worker who know her better than she knows herself and can see through to what society won’t.
Finis. is the magic realism of our time, a story of finding one’s way to the end of things, of persevering through the dregs of life to discover something more.
ADVANCE PRAISE FOR FINIS.:
“It’s not often I get that viscerally emotional on behalf of a fictional character. In a setting of overt fantasy, Angélique Jamail has created some of the most real people I’ve encountered via text in a long time.” – Ari Marmell, author of Hot Lead, Cold Iron and The Widdershins Series
“A silver vein of irony runs through Angélique Jamail’s fantastic Finis. It is a witty tale of conformity, prejudice, and transformation, in a world that is disturbing as much for its familiarity as for its strangeness. In a place where everyone is different, Elsa is the wrong kind of different, and that means facing pity, discrimination, danger, and sharp teeth. Dive into this story, readers, and confront them for yourself; it may just change the way you feel about things…” – Marie Marshall, author of The Everywhen Angels and I am not a fish
So sure, a blurb is great if you want a quick and general idea of the story set-up, but haven’t you ever wished you could ask the main character of a novel more about the story? What about supporting characters or the antagonist? Have you ever wanted to know more about what’s going on with them?
Well, Elsa is available for interviews, and so is every other character in Finis., so ask your questions in the comments section here, and I’ll make sure they answer you.
Remember to share this blog post on your social media, or to follow this blog (if you aren’t already doing so), or to participate in the character and author interviews before 11:59 p.m. (Houston time) on November 19th to qualify for these prizes. Do all three and get three chances to win! So what am I giving away?
* A paperback edition of Finis. with illustrations by Houston-based artist Lauren Taylor. Her drawings lend a whole new dimension to the story with their unique interpretation. (Note that the ebook version is not illustrated.)
* A glossy 11×17 poster of the Finis. cover art, gorgeously designed by Lauren Volness.
* Your choice of one of my handmade poetry art cards, which feature tactile art and fragments of my original poems on them. Cards are made on high quality stock and come with matching envelopes; they’re blank on the inside. They’re also great for framing. Click here to see all thirteen designs.
I asked all the students in my sophomore English classes to recommend a book they’d read for pleasure — one not assigned for school — in the last five years. It had to be a book they liked enough to recommend it to someone — in particular, their classmates, as we embarked on the new free choice reading unit in my curriculum.
Here’s what they came up with! Any books here you’re interested in? Any you’ve read? Please leave a comment below.
P.S. — The subtext of this post (and its chronological distance from the last one) should indicate to you I’ve been really busy getting the new school year off the ground. You would be correct in that assumption.
So this morning, as I was packing up to leave for the Sawyer Yards Arts Market, I received a text and an email from the show’s organizer saying it was cancelled. Bummer! But we’re having some rough weather in Houston, so this is probably for the best. Alas.
Never fret, though — I’ve decided to have a Rainy Day Sale here on my social media instead! It will go this whole weekend, starting now, until 8 p.m. central US time Sunday (tomorrow) evening. Here’s what available:
my poetry art cards (13 designs in all, blank inside with envelope, sold individually for $7. or as a set in a lovely decorative box for $70.) — see the designs below
I’m offering 10% off all of these items if you buy them from me directly. (I’m happy to ship them to you for the cost of whatever the postage and insurance you choose will be.) If you buy the books from Amazon or any other bookstore, you’ll pay their price, since they’re not participating in this impromptu Rainy Day Sale. Just post in the comments here or send me a direct email to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Rainy Day Sale” in the subject line to tell me what you want. Let me know, too, if you want the books signed.
I’ll update here when I know more about the rescheduling of the arts market. Thank you for your support!
Hello, all. I’d hoped to post more frequently to the blog this month, but most of my social media interactions have been on Facebook and Twitter lately because I’ve been traveling a fair bit. I do have some newsy bits to share, though.
First, the discounted price on the Finis. ebook over at SmashWords is ending soon — July 31st, I believe — so if you want to take advantage of it, please head on over and do so. I’ve included an excerpt from the book below to whet your whistle. Of course, if you’d rather pay full price…okay, feel free! Head on over to Amazon and get the illustrated print version if you’re so inclined. (They have the ebook there, too, in case you’re wondering.)
Second, if you’re in the Houston area on Saturday, August 13th, come by the Sawyer Yards Arts Market, where I and fellow author Adam Holt will be authoring it up good like we did back at MenilFest in May. We’ll both have our various books for sale, and I’ll have my poetry art cards available as well. In related news, those cards have been a huge hit! (Thank you!)
You can even purchase the full set of thirteen designs at a significant discount and thus be prepared for a wide range of card- and gift-giving opportunities. I’ve seen several examples of people who’ve received the cards putting them into frames and hanging them up as visual art, which makes me oh-so-happy. (Click the link above for information on how to get to the market.)
Third, I’m going to be traveling just a teensy bit more before school starts up again, heading out to the Labyrinth of Jareth (and yes, that is as cool as it sounds). I’ll be sure to post pics somewhere on my social media afterward, so be looking for that awesomeness. And when I return from that, I’ll be heading back to school (like, within days), and hopefully getting into a more regular posting schedule here on the blog as well.
Be well, enjoy the rest of your summer, read the following excerpt from Finis., and go get yourself a copy. Maybe one for a friend, too. Or several. Thanks!
FINIS. by Angélique Jamail (excerpt)
Elsa’s parents and sister have become meaner than usual, and her cat, Jonas, resents her. She has a nagging concern he wants to eat her.
“He bit me again this morning — I woke up to find half the toes on my left foot in his mouth! I kicked him away but he just came back, all fangs and hissing, till I locked him in the coat closet.”
But that’s only the beginning, Elsa tries to explain to her cousin Gerard. She has to speak in short bursts: he’s conducting his water exercises, his head bobbing in and out of the water in orderly arcs. She knew she’d be interrupting his routine, but this morning’s episode has brought things to a head. On her way to work, anxiety commandeered her every thought and movement. Before she could catch her breath, she found herself tearing through Gerard’s garden gate and rushing to his salt-water pool.
“Oh, Elsa,” he says, his feet spiraling around a large stalk of kelp just below the water’s surface. He runs a watery hand across his spiky brown hair, and brine curls down his back. “What are you going to do?”
“What’s even worse, my landlord left another threat-of-eviction notice today.” She sets her briefcase down near a baby potted corpse flower and ventures closer to the pool. “I’ve done nothing wrong. My rent is always on time. I’m a quiet, orderly tenant. I thought getting a cat would mollify the building association, but unless I become a cat, I don’t think it’ll help.”
Gerard dunks, flips neatly into a ball, and spins back up; he swims to where she stands at the edge of the pool and rises. “Have you had any hints of your self?” He looks at her carefully, scrutinizing, and she wants to shrink into the empty void of mediocrity. Still, his voice is tender. “Anything at all?”
“No,” she murmurs, mesmerized by the ripples his body makes, the way the water slaps against the side of the pool and then laps backward over itself, folding the brine under to dissolve in a never-ending cycle of thrash and renewal.
“I’m not sure I approve of where you’re living, anyway. Those nasty gangs — I read about them in the newspaper. Packs attacking Plain Ones right and left, even children.”
“I saw that, too. They usually go for adults, though — people who ought to have blossomed by now.” Her shame for the disgrace she’s caused her family burns on her face.
Gerard smiles. “Come in for a swim. You’ll feel better.” He shoots backward through the water, darkened spiny ridges flashing on his skin.
She almost wants to but imagines how painful it would be. “I can’t,” she says, then makes an excuse. “Work.”
“Of course. The monster.”
“I’ve never been a swimmer, anyway.” Even standing for too long in the shower makes her skin feel prickly and sore; she usually just soaps up before turning the water on and then washes her hair in the sink. “I think I’m allergic to water.”
He laughs. “Off you go, then. See you later –” His words bubble as he dives backward.
Elsa trudges out the gate, hardly even waving back at the friendly centaur trimming his hedges next door.
Elsa hears the snarling from all the way downstairs and pushes the six button again, as if that would make the elevator go any faster. She doesn’t want to be late. As the doors finally, slowly open, she rushes out, bumping her shoulder on one of them. An accountant from the third floor, his mottled brown and gray hair in disarray, crashes into her as he flies toward the exit.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, helping him collect his fallen papers. Quietly she asks, “Are you all right?”
He pushes his round, dark-rimmed glasses farther up his beaky nose. “Those two new secretaries missed a staff meeting last night.”
He doesn’t have to say any more about the displeasure of the monster behind the big oak desk.
Elsa adjusts the neat hair clip she always wears and steps cautiously into the sixth floor receiving area, unwilling to navigate the labyrinth of cubicles to her own workstation next to the monster’s room. She can see fresh piles of beige folders on her desk, but horrible sounds are coming from the boss’ office. She realizes with chagrin her briefcase is still on Gerard’s patio and panics, turns quickly around and walks back out to the elevator bank. Artwork on the walls and a large aquarium filled with colorful fish and other placid creatures calm her. One young man from her office, a new hire, is staring mindlessly at a large, abstract photograph as if trying to lose himself in it. Another employee rushes out to stare at a particularly soothing canvas of gray paint.
She presses her fingertips to the front of the aquarium and several fish swim up to her. The larger ones seem to smile; the smaller ones seem to be trying to suck her fingertips, through the glass. Watching the kelp and anemone and angelfish tranquilizes Elsa’s nerves enough for her to go back inside. She turns around.
Lois, the switchboard operator, quietly beckons her. Thick glasses usually cover her pretty orange eyes, but today the spectacles sit atop her head, holding back a curly mane of dark copper hair that looks mussed, as if from dodging projectiles. She doesn’t look frightened, though, despite the palpable fear among the rest of the staff. Elsa hurries over.
“Are the secretaries going to be fired?” she asks. Three empty coffee cups clutter Lois’ desk, and dirt smudges highlight a dent in the tan wall behind it. The heavy wooden door to the monster’s interior office shakes suddenly as if something the size of a potted tree has just been thrown at it.
“Already done. The question now is whether they’ll have to be carried out.”
They watch for several tense minutes as the growling and yelling and sounds of people running around and things being thrown continue to distract everyone from working.
Suddenly a shriek from the interior chamber makes Elsa cringe. She recognizes the voice of that secretary — another Plain One, she’s sure, although the woman tried to keep it a secret. But Elsa knew, could see it in the nervous way the woman watched other people interact, in the dejected slump of her shoulders when she thought no one was looking at her.
Elsa debated whether to approach her, whether she would welcome sympathetic company.
Or perhaps they would each make the other more of a pariah, since no one liked it when underdogs banded together. Maybe the secretary would be angry and offended, would keep trying to hide who she wasn’t.
Or maybe Elsa was wrong about her and would be rebuffed, her position as outcast further solidified.
She finally decided it was easier not to try to be understood.
There’s another crash. It sounds like her inner debate is quickly becoming irrelevant.
A tap on Elsa’s shoulder makes her jump. Gerard is standing there, holding out her briefcase.
“Elsa, my dear, you need someone to look after you,” he says.
“No, I don’t,” she mutters.
“Who are you?” Lois purrs appreciatively, shaking his webbed hand.
“My cousin Gerard,” Elsa says. She holds up the briefcase, annoyed with herself for having forgotten it. “Thanks for bringing this.” Grudgingly she adds, “You’ve saved my hide.”
The monster’s door opens, and one secretary — not the one who piqued Elsa’s curiosity — stumbles quickly out, red hair up like a coxcomb. Her sleeve is gashed open. She points sloppily toward his office and mumbles, “Kelly…ambulance.”
There’s a roar, and Elsa clutches her briefcase to her chest. They can see the horns and hairy shoulders. The boss is nearly seven feet tall.
Lois sighs and picks up the phone on her desk. “I hope he’s paid up on the workers’ comp policy,” she says.
“That supervisor of yours is a nasty customer,” Gerard says evenly. “Somewhere in Crete a maze is missing its pet.”
Elsa knows she ought to try to find a new job. The monster has too much of a temper, and this sort of thing is happening more often.
It’s Elsa’s mother’s birthday, and she’s been summoned to dinner at her parents’ house, but just being around her family puts Elsa’s stomach in knots. After a Salade Niçoise she couldn’t even choke down, her mother announces that Elsa’s father has bought her a swimming pool for her birthday; they’ll break ground within two weeks. Everyone else is excited. When Elsa doesn’t muster the same enthusiasm as the rest of the family, her father asks what her problem is.
“Dad, you know I can’t swim –”
“No, you won’t swim,” he grouses. “There’s a difference.”
This is technically true. Elsa chooses not to submerge herself in vats of acid, too.
“I should’ve just thrown you into the water when you were little instead of listening to you whine.” He harrumphs, a gargoyle hunkering over his dinner. He and Elsa recall her traumatic first experience with a swimming pool in very different ways. “Faced with sink or swim, I’ll bet you’d have figured out a way to dog paddle.”
Elsa stares at her plate, pushes the food around on it. She nibbles a little at the bacon wrapping the shrimp and has eaten half her wheat roll, but nothing tastes good.
Her sister Joan is there with her husband Neil and their eight-month-old son, Stuart. The evening continues in its typical way: Joan and Neil and Stuart are the stars with their gaiety and antics; Elsa greatly vexes her mother (Why doesn’t she ever go out? Why doesn’t she ever bring friends over at the holidays? Is she ever going to get married?), which makes her father grumble, which makes Joan suggest Elsa do something different with her hair or her clothes or go out more or do something, which makes Neil pay more attention to Stuart, which makes Elsa’s mother say how much she loves grandchildren and would like to have more someday while glaring at her younger daughter.
“Sure, Mother, I’ll have some grandchildren for you. Right after I sprout two more legs and some wings and become a butterfly.”
Everyone becomes quiet then, the family’s frustrated dance around the subject of Elsa’s Plainness stuttering to a halt. Her mother looks wistful, as if she hopes such a transformation might one day come to pass and doesn’t understand why it hasn’t.
Elsa surveys them all: her parents, prominent figures in society, their stateliness exuding from every pore even in the privacy of their home; Neil with his raven coloring; Stuart, soft fuzzy hair on his velvet scalp, just like Joan had when she was young. And then Joan. Tall, graceful, even her freckles a lovely blanket over golden skin. Like her mother, a perfect giraffe.
“Elsa, I have the number of a doctor I want you to call,” her mother says. “One of my friends suggested him.”
“I’ve been to see doctors before,” Elsa reminds her. They examined every inch of her, inside and out, subjected her to the most embarrassing questions ever, but could find no evidence of her animal affinity.
The last doctor, a specialist, recommended shock therapy as a way to bring out Elsa’s true nature. “Your whole life will improve once we figure out what you’ve got hiding away inside of you,” he said, his small black eyes like beads in his ruddy face. “No one will question your intelligence or competence ever again.” He grinned at her with thin lips. “You might even find a boyfriend finally.” At Elsa’s surprised look, he shrugged. “Your dad told me you can’t even get a date. No worries, though. Once we figure out what you are, the whole world will see you in a more favorable light.” He cleared his throat and pinched his prescription pad, began scrawling notes. “I recommend eight to ten sessions –”
“Absolutely not!” Elsa said, tugging the medical gown tighter around herself. She wouldn’t endure some medievally-inspired torture just so her parents could feel better about their unusual kid.
The doctor cast her an indignant look. “Has anything else worked yet? Without an evident affinity, you’re only half your self.”
Elsa leveled an angry look at him that was more fear than backbone. “I’m not interested in shock therapy, thanks.”
“Fine,” the doctor replied coolly. “Enjoy being a Plain One.” Then he left the exam room, closing the door behind him with a little more force than was strictly necessary. Elsa put her clothes back on and left as quickly as she could. Her parents were annoyed with her for that, too.
“He was one of the best, Elsa,” her father said. “I had to pull some strings to get you that appointment. He’s usually booked seven months in advance.”
Elsa still can’t decide whether she appreciates her father’s efforts, or if he simply wanted to reassure himself it wasn’t his fault she’s so deficient. Either way, she knows she isn’t going back.
Dinner ends with a hedonistic dessert to which Joan politely demurs. “Watching my figure,” she says, smiling. As if Joan has to worry about that — she grazes all day and never puts on an ounce. Elsa takes a bite of the mousse cake and finds it delicious. Suddenly she’s hungry, but she hasn’t eaten three bites before Joan stops her. “Seriously? That’ll go straight to your hips.”
Later, when Elsa gathers her purse and keys to go home, she glances back at everyone chatting away and realizes no one is noticing her. The family room — a concoction of Stuart’s toys and Joan’s knitting bag and a book Neil brought over for her father to read — is filled with the presence of Joan’s family. Nothing of Elsa’s anywhere, except for the plain white envelope on the small table by the door. It contains a check, a small monthly supplement because Elsa’s income hasn’t kept pace with the rising cost of living, so that she can have an apartment of her own.
Nights like this, Elsa just knows her parents wish they’d stopped with the first child.
It takes about six months for Elsa’s parents’ pool to be finished. The deck takes another week, and then her parents arrange a pool party to celebrate the start of summer and their new backyard oasis. Elsa receives an invitation in the mail with her monthly check, a subtle but firm reminder that her attendance is expected.
“They could’ve just called me,” she says to Jonas, showing him the card. He swats at it with his front paw and knocks it out of her hand. Despite her attempts to buy his affection with toys and catnip and, those having failed, a tiny mouse that just made her sick when she had to clean its guts off the floor, their relationship has not improved in the last six months any more than her feelings toward her family have.
In fact, very little in her life has changed, but the time has passed quickly because she’s always working. Besides seeing Gerard sometimes, she has no life outside of that horrible job. She hasn’t quit, though, since she isn’t sure she can find another one. Work is thin for Plain Ones, even those who are educated, as she is. In the three employment applications she started to fill out, the box which was once labeled “Special Skills” now asks for “Animal Affinity.” It appears that in a tightening economy, employers can’t afford training people who will never reach their full potential, never understand the world in a complex way, never truly mature.
The monster has gone through three more secretaries. Elsa and Lois have started eating lunch together once or twice a week in the building’s cafeteria, and Elsa finds her laid-back attitude about work soothing, but she isn’t any closer to understanding this woman who’s like a patch of sunlight in the middle of a corral of scurrying, dismal creatures.
Elsa rummages through her dresser to find her bathing suit, to try it on before showing up in it at her parents’ house. She bought one for sunbathing, but that was years ago, and she isn’t sure she can still fit into it.
She finally finds it in the back of the bottom drawer: a glaring purple bikini she grimaces at and decides she’ll replace even if she is still that size. Sure enough, it doesn’t come close to fitting properly. The bottom is too tight and no longer covers her. This is no surprise — she knows women get rounder as they get older — but the top doesn’t fit anymore, either. Elsa never thought her chest would get any larger. It’s always been disappointingly average but now seems to have a certain fullness. The purple top stretches across her breasts obscenely, and she has trouble clasping it shut at the back. Elsa removes the bikini immediately and tosses it into her wastebasket. She takes the clip out of her hair — she can see even despite the tangles it has grown so long while she wasn’t paying attention — and looks at her naked body in the mirror.
“I’ve never been curvy before,” she says quietly with an optimistic smile. She looks across the room to Jonas, lying on the bed. “What do you think, kitty? Time for me to go shopping?”
He rolls over onto his back and turns his head to the wall. She walks toward him and rubs his belly just a little, the hopeful overture of peace an extension of her buoyed spirits. He even begins to purr, but then the wail of sirens a few blocks away interrupts the moment. He bites her hand hard enough to draw blood. She recoils in surprise and anger as he licks his lips repeatedly, staring at her.
It occurs to Elsa that she can make her own social event if she just insists on reserving the time to do it. At lunch on Friday, she invites Lois over for dinner the next weekend.
“My cousin Gerard will be there. He’s the one member of my family I have anything in common with.”
Lois raises her eyebrows.
“We both like seashells and hot chocolate,” Elsa answers.
Lois looks at her in surprise, as if to say, That’s all? Then she smiles, genuinely. “Yes, your party sounds fun. It’s strange, I think I’ve only ever seen you at work.”
Elsa replies slowly. “I’ve been something of a social leper ever since I…started working here.” She moves her corn around her plate. “I’m tired of it.”
Lois thoroughly enjoys a bite of her tuna salad before saying, “Well, it happens to everyone who works for the monster, sooner or later.”
“But not you. You go and do fun things on the weekends, don’t you? And you’ve been working here for as long as I can remember.”
“But I work for the building, not for him, and there’s never any work for a switchboard operator to take home. Besides,” she smiles, “I don’t let things bother me. I let other people’s problems get tangled in my hair during the day and then preen them out at night so I can sleep.”
“I could try that,” sighs Elsa, “but then I still have all these other things to worry about which are my problems.” She takes a bite of her roll.
She feels too embarrassed to tell her co-worker about the ongoing gang attacks in her neighborhood, which for starters isn’t the safest, but which is the best she can do under her present circumstances. The fact that the area is so unsafe is probably the only thing stopping her building association from kicking her out. She doesn’t want to mention her crumbled relationships with her parents and sister, that they lost their patience and renounced their hopes for her when she didn’t blossom into something greater than herself by the time she reached adulthood. She’d in fact rather not acknowledge her Plainness at all. Likewise her fear that she’ll never be better than what she is, and that the world will never forgive her for it.
Lois contemplates Elsa’s face while she chews, then asks, “Why are you still in the cubicle maze, anyway? Haven’t you been working here for years?”
Elsa knows why she hasn’t ever been promoted: her boss is no better than the rest of the world. And although she’s worked her tail off her whole time she’s been here, he still refuses to see her work as equal to that of a fully realized person. But Elsa keeps silent, staring into her food, chewing ever so thoughtfully.
“Hmm,” says Lois, her orange eyes almost narrowing behind her glasses. She looks back down at her plate and then up again with a smile. “So what time shall we get together?”
Lois arrives first. Elsa is still buckling her shoes when the doorbell rings. She hops to the door, nearly tripping over the hem of her long green skirt. She checks her face in the mirror in the hall, noticing for the first time a large crack in the bottom half of the glass. She pushes her hair out of her eyes and opens the door.
“Hi,” says Lois. She looks calm.
“Hi.” They just stare at each other a moment, until Elsa remembers to move out of the doorway. Lois walks in and looks around the apartment, taking in the blue and green tones of the walls and furniture. There are photographs of a younger Elsa here and there, posed with people she doesn’t see much anymore. An antique snorkel collecting dust on the mantelpiece, a nautilus drawing taped to one wall — both things she found years ago in a thrift store and bought because they reminded her of Gerard when he was off at university. Jonas walks right up to Lois and curls, purring, around her legs.
“Hello,” she coos, picking the cat up and nuzzling him.
Elsa stares. “That’s Jonas,” she says.
“He’s sweet.” Lois rubs her face against his; it looks for a moment like Jonas’ whiskers are poking out of Lois’ cheeks. Elsa has never heard such loud purring.
“Do you want him?”
A strange silence as Lois seems to evaluate whether this is a joke. She lets the cat down but he doesn’t run away.
Elsa says, “Make yourself at home. I just need to finish my hair,” and wanders off to her bedroom.
“Take out your barrette,” says Lois, following her. “I’ve never seen your hair down before.” Reluctantly Elsa does; her hair is a mass of tangles falling, falling. “It’s so long! I had no idea.”
“It’s constantly snarled, too. Even after I wash it, I can’t get a brush through it.” She thinks of the way Joan’s hair used to tangle after her swim lessons when they were children, and the way she howled when their mother would yank the knots free with a paddle brush. Frightened by this ritual, Elsa refused to take lessons herself, but now her hair tangles that way, too. “It’s like I’ve always just gotten out of the pool.” She looks at Lois’ smooth copper curls. “I’ve tried keeping it short, but it grows so fast I’d be at the salon every three weeks just keeping it above my shoulders.” And salons are too expensive to frequent that often on her salary. Elsa has tried cutting it herself, but she can’t ever get it even and doesn’t know how to cut layers into it to “work with” its texture.
“No wonder you keep it clipped up.” Lois touches the dark tangles. “What color is this?” she asks quietly.
“I don’t color it. It’s always been this way. Strange, too, because my mother and sister are strawberry blondes.”
“It shines like the moon on the ocean.” Lois gently bats the ends of the tuft she’s been playing with.
“It’s my one unusual feature, and I have to hide it because it’s so messy.”
Lois just looks at her, as if she barely understands. She digs a large-tooth wooden comb out of her purse and begins coaxing the ends of Elsa’s hair. Some of the tangles give way to recognizable curls, but when she stops combing, the hair seizes back into its former mess. Elsa sighs. Lois seems genuinely confused.
“Don’t worry about it,” Elsa says. “I’m used to it.” She puts her hair back up.
Dinner is pleasant. Lois seems very interested in Gerard’s job at the aquarium, which he discusses with candor while keeping a wary eye on Jonas, who seems to be trying to smell him from the comfort of Lois’ lap all evening. When Lois excuses herself to use the bathroom, he says quietly, “I understand what you mean about that cat. Maybe Lois will take him home with her.”
Then sirens blare down the street and they hear the sound of glass breaking at a distance.
“And perhaps you can get a nice Doberman,” he adds.
Over dessert, Elsa mentions her parents have put in a new swimming pool.
“A chlorinated one?” Gerard asks, wrinkling his nose. “So harsh on the skin and hair.”
Elsa invites them both to her parents’ pool party. Lois’ smile fades. “That sounds very nice. But I don’t swim.”
“Oh, well, you don’t have to swim. I don’t. Just come with me, and um, enjoy the festivities.”
“I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad just to sit in the sun for a while.” She clears her throat. “My sister drowned in a river when we were young, and I’ve never been much for water. Pool parties really aren’t my thing.” Quickly she adds, “But I’ll go to keep you company.”
Elsa doesn’t know how to respond. She can say she’s sorry about Lois’ sister, but that feels so typical. What surprises her most is that someone has shared something dramatic and personal with her. Even beyond that, the woman’s life doesn’t seem to have been ruined, only affected, by the event. But then she realizes that if Joan drowned in a river, she might not get all weepy, either.
Gerard asks, “Were you there when it happened?”
The orange eyes look a little distant for half a second, then the dark copper curls bob up and down yes.
“I’m really sorry.”
They nibble in silence until Lois says, “It didn’t seem like a scary place at first. The river just sort of took up space in the middle of a forest. It didn’t look too big, maybe a hundred feet across, but it was mean.” She speaks slowly. “Some people we knew from school called it a ‘silent killer’ because you could never see any movements or hear any disturbances on the surface of the water, but the undercurrents were fierce. And in the rainy season, it could get as deep as twenty feet in some pockets. People would go out there to fish¾there was great fishing there, they said…”
Elsa knows this place; it’s only a couple of hours away. Her stomach turns inexplicably.
“…and they’d slip and fall under the water, be carried out by the undertow. They never came back, not alive. The river just took up space until you got close, and then it started killing people. It wasn’t surprising to hear of at least four people a summer dying.” She clears her throat. “At least it’s a peaceful death. Supposedly the senses dull, like being wrapped in cotton.” She shrugs, affecting nonchalance, but Elsa knows this is probably an act. “I hear it doesn’t hurt at all.”
Elsa has been to this river before. Close to a small salt dome in the hill country, it’s the only salt-water river for thousands of miles, and this makes it something of a tourist novelty. Her roommates in college took her there one weekend for a camping trip; she was coming into the realization that she might be a Plain One and feeling depressed about it, and they thought she might enjoy getting out of town for a while. Being with them was nice, but the notorious river gave her nightmares and they cut their weekend short. After graduation, those friends moved away to other cities, and Elsa doesn’t talk to them anymore. “Why’d your sister go in?”
“We didn’t know any better. It was right after we’d moved from Europe.”
Elsa almost jumps for joy at the subject change. “I didn’t know you lived in Europe! Where?”
Lois smiles softly, understanding. “All over, really. Would you like to hear about it?”
Elsa would. They don’t talk about the river again.
Eventually Lois stands up to leave, and the evening ends. At the door, Gerard has to shove a cloying Jonas away with his foot rather more forcefully than the cat likes. As he leaves, he reminds Elsa to lock all her doors and windows — or perhaps she’d like to stay at his house for a few days?
“No, thanks, I’ll be fine here.”
Reluctantly, he walks to his car and drives away.
* * *
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