Today, I was going through my files, trying to figure out what I have in them. In general, my writing files are very organized. But in both my story and poetry files, I have a folder called something like “current” or “working.” And I had completely forgotten what I had in those folders. Well, as it turns out, in my story file, in that folder, I have stories that I started but never finished. A long, long time ago, because nowadays I never start a story that I don’t finish. (Seriously. By the time I start a story, I have the entire trajectory in my head. So the story is always finished, always eventually published.)
I thought I would post a little bit of what I have in that folder, just the first few paragraphs of a couple of unfinished stories I have in there. What do you think, should I finish them? At this point, I would rewrite them, probably from the beginning. I’m a better writer than I used to be (at least, I hope I am). But I still remember what these stories are about, who the characters are and how the plots go.
Here they are:
Red as Blood and White as Bone
There is always a kitchen maid. Who do you think sweeps the ballroom, the morning after a ball? In poorer kingdoms, she dusts the Wicked Queen’s mirror, washes the Prince’s underwear. When the Princess begs to be let in, she says “We don’t need your kind here” and shuts the kitchen door. But she is never, ever important.
This is not that fairy tale.
I. Black as Night
It had been raining all day, and I had been crying for at least an hour in a corner of the kitchen. Every once in a while, I would wipe my eyes and look at the cabinet where Frau Greta kept tea, sugar, anything else she thought might be stolen or eaten by mice. On its highest shelf, behind a locked door, lay the only book I had every owned, other than a Bible the Mother Superior had given me on the day I left the convent.
“Fairy tales!” Frau Greta had said, snatching it out of my hand. “So this is what you’ve been doing, while I’ve been ironing Miss Teresa’s sheets! What do you think the Mother Superior would say, if I told her you were reading this trash? If she hadn’t asked me herself, I would never have taken in such a careless girl. Can’t you see that the meat is almost burned underneath?”
She was right, the venison roasting on a spit in the kitchen fireplace had an undercoat of black char. I had been told to turn it slowly and steadily, but watching the spit turn around and round had made me so sleepy that I had gotten the book from under my mattress, where I kept it hidden. It would do no harm to read as I turned, and anyway reading would keep me awake. I had been in the middle of “The Old Woman of the Forest.” I had not heard Frau Greta coming up behind me.
“Clearly the time I’ve taken to teach you has been wasted. I’m going to do my duty and throw this trash into the fire, where it belongs.”
“No!” I cried. “Oh, you can’t! My mother gave it to me.” I clutched at Frau Greta’s apron and pulled, which made her tilt forward and almost fall on top of me.
“Stop that at once! Where are your manners? You’re behaving like a monkey.” She pulled her apron from my hands and placed the book on the top shelf of the cabinet. Then she locked the door and slipped the key into her pocket. “I’ll decide what to do with your book later. You make certain that meat doesn’t burn. I’m going to finish the potatoes. And I warn you, miss. I’ll have my eye on you.”
To Merlin, With Love
Will you read this letter? I know so many things: that the Black Death is caused, not by exhalations from the northern marshes, as our physicians have supposed, but by the bacterium Yersina pestis. That the two-headed Worm Grimante, whose bones were discovered by Sir Bedivere, is a Tyranosaurus rex curiously entangled with a common cow. But the sun will burn itself out from its own brilliance, and this great clock, the earth, will wind down toward its final stillness, without my knowing if you have read this letter.
(Who would have thought the girl had so much poetry in her? It is the influence of our English poets. I have, over the years, spent considerable time with poets. Shakespeare, for instance. A short man, balding, fond of cats.)
But I am wandering. Toward the end, I am inclined to wander. Perhaps whatever separates the worlds begins to slip, as my mind ages. Or perhaps the old are always closer to madness.
(You will think I am mad, certainly, if you read this letter.)
One of the novices brings me breakfast. I am the only one at the convent for whom they knock, the final courtesy due a discarded queen. In the garden below my window, doves are walking along the paths, between knots of chamomile. One roosts in the apricot tree that has never yet bloomed. I could tell the sisters that it will never bloom in this English climate. But it was sent at great expense from a convent in Boulogne, and the sisters wait for it to bloom with patient pride. They would say to me, with faith in the Lord, everything is possible.
You and I place our faith in the laws of the universe. How well I remember the scientific instruments of which you were so proud! Your astrolabe, your crucibles created by the glassmakers of Venice, your dragon’s egg. (If I had the time, I would describe an emu. Although it occurs to me, what do I have but time?) Perhaps that is why we understood each other, you and I. Neither of us believed in a benevolent power guiding the universe. But you never trusted me. You could never bring yourself to trust beautiful women.
A Thief in the Night
“The Latin mus, meaning mouse, comes to us from a Sanskrit word meaning to steal. The Book of Leviticus calls the mouse unclean, which we might be tempted to connect to its activity in the granaries of the Israelites. Even soldier of the Great War, who found the insulation on the wiring of their vehicles chewed by small teeth, identified the mouse as a thief.”
Letitia Easton shuts the book, using her pencil as a bookmark. The eraser and the end of the yellow shaft have been chewed. Sometimes she wonders if she has begun to catch their habits, if when she does not notice her nose twitches.
It is time to feed the mice.
She puts the book beside her on the bed, which is already covered with books: The History of the Mouse in twelve volumes, Our Mutual Friend, the most recent issues of Mouse Fancy. The floor around the bed is covered with books, in piles. She should put them back on the shelves, in the paneled room her father called the library. But those shelves are occupied, and anyway she is small. She has no problem sleeping on one side of the bed.
She stands, a process that takes longer than it used to. When did her back begin to ache? Perhaps it comes of sleeping with twelve volumes beside her on the bed. Not that she sleeps much, nowadays. She lies awake in the darkness, listening to their sounds: scamper across the floors of cages, shuffle of paper, rattle of exercise wheels. She finds it soothing, like listening to the sea in a shell. Sometimes, after midnight, she wanders around the house. She does not need a flashlight, has known it since childhood. In the darkness, the silver satins shimmer like ghosts.
But now it is time to feed the mice.