I’ve decided to put an excerpt of each of my previous NaNoWriMo efforts here. Sorry in advance. The first year’s excerpt was a no-brainer; day one of novel one. Since I haven’t actually read the story that was also the easiest to find. This installment of NaNoWriMo hit parade is a little tricker. I spent the next eleven months of my life on this story as well, adding more than editing, letting the story sprawl. There are many parts much better than day one. The thing is, I have no idea what day they were, or even what month they were. So I have gone back to my earliest version of chapter one. This is not exactly what I wrote on November 1, 2002, but it’s pretty close.
I’ve edited this chapter a lot since then. A lot. (The reason I have such old versions is to test the format conversion for newer versions of Jer’s Novel Writer.) So while this isn’t exactly what I produced that lovely November day, as I sat in Callahan’s on day one of “30 days, 30 bars, 1 novel”, it’s reasonably close. I think the only major change after day one is that I experimented with giving people pretty heavy dialects. I wanted to differentiate Jane’s speech, but the result is some hard reading.
Also, this is pretty wordy. That was the point, after all.
My current version of the chapter is a total rewrite from the ground up; it may be that no phrase at all from this version survived. While the new version is definitely better I think this first spew of words did a decent job setting the tone of who Jane is. (I was tempted to give you chapter two here instead, it’s tighter and introduces the world better and is overall a better chapter one than chapter one is, but then I got tired of thinking and just decided this will be a series of November 1sts.)
A side note I discovered as I worked on this story: one of the most difficult things about world-building is inventing a good system of cursing. I believe that one day I will come up with a vocabulary of epithets so integrated and natural that they will give me both the Hugo and the Nebula, with a Pulitzer for garnish.
Jane was just a little girl when her mother died of the shakes. Her mother had tried to shelter her from the truth, that she was dying, but Jane knew something was wrong. Late at night she would awaken to the sound of her father giving futile reassurance to her mother as she silently wept.
It wasn’t until Jane overheard a neighbor talking that she knew what was wrong.
“Such a shame,” the woman had said, shaking her head. “The shakes, and her so young. Such a sweet girl. And she with them little ones, too. An’ thet lass a queer duck, ‘erself. Gives me the shivers when she looks a’ me. She’s a touch o’ the dark blood in her, I’d nae be surprised.”
“It’s thet way she talks,” another agreed. “Like a steamin’ princess.”
“Thet’s ‘er Ma’s doin’. She thet it might ‘elp ‘er rise in station.”
The first woman clucked. “Jest made the lass odd, is all she did. Jest talkin’ like a steamin’ richie don’t make yeh one. Jest look at ‘er with thet book.”
They hadn’t realized that Jane was listening, or they would not have mentioned the shakes. There had been a careful conspiracy to keep the truth from Jane, as if that would change anything. Nobody ever got better when they had the shakes. The disease was as inexorable and unforgiving as it was painful and humiliating. Jane had seen someone with the shakes once before, a neighbor in the crowded row house, another woman who worked the wonders down at the factory. Her screams had echoed up and down the hallway. By the time she died, the whole building let out a sigh of relief.
Jane pretended she did not hear. She just sat quietly, forming the letters in her most treasured possession, a reading and writing primer she had found on the ground outside the school where the children who didn’t have to work went to learn. Nobody paid any attention to her as her tears smeared the lines where her fingers passed over the inscrutable shapes. The corner of the room where she sat had markings all over the floor, from the times she had a scribbler and she practiced making words. Jane fancied that it was a spell she had placed on that corner of the room, that the simple words were actually powerful runes to deflect any evil that might try to reach her there. She didn’t mind when her mother made her clean them, for it gave her a chance to replace the simple words with longer ones, and now even whole sentences.
Jane’s mother never made her clean the markings if she didn’t have a writing stick to make new ones.
She wished she had a scribbler now. She wished that her mother had let her practice her writing in other parts of the house, to create words that could keep the shakes away. She reminded herself that they were just ordinary words, not the mysterious symbols used by the Great Ones, but she wanted to be able to do something, and that was all she had. No one would stop her from writing wherever she wanted right now, but she didn’t have a scribbler and there was not going to be any money to buy one.
After a few weeks her mother’s tremors were undisguisable. She started to forget things, and remember things that had never happened. The tremors started in her hands and slowly spread throughout her body. For a few weeks there was no other indication that anything was wrong. When mother slept they would look at her and fool themselves that everything was as it had always been.
As time passed, however, Jane’s mother slept less and less. The last two weeks were marked by the catastrophic loss of bodily control and sanity. When her voice gave out she continued to rave in a hoarse whisper, seeing things that were not there, speaking with people long dead, and crying piteously in terror as unseen demons tormented her.
It was on a quiet morning that she died. The sudden stillness in the building was unnerving. The entire block paused, took a breath, said a prayer for the departed, and after a moment moved on.
The stillness continued in the room that Jane’s family called home, however. They all just sat, Jane, her father, and her brother. Her brother was still too young to understand what was going on, but he took his cues from the other two. Finally he asked, “Is mama better now?”
Jane’s father took a moment to answer. “No, John, she’s passed to the shadow world. The spirits came and took her by the hand and showed her the way to somewhere where she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” To Jane’s ears, it didn’t sound like he believed what he was saying.
“I want to go there, too, Papa. I want to be with Mama. I want to go to the shadow world.”
The neighbors who were visiting then all sucked in their breath. Some of them made motions in the air to ward off bad luck or worse. Even Jane’s father seemed alarmed. “Nae, lad, Yeh mus’ nae ever say a thing like ‘at. Nae even breathe it. Nae even dream it. Yeh nea ever know the dark ears what may be listenin’. Yeh will be goin’ to see yer ma anon, boy, long hence, I pray, but if yeh go tae soon ye will nae be ready, so the dark ones will take yeh for theyselves, to eat yeh or worse. The dark ones alway be lookin’ for the little boys they can fool into followin’ them, but yeh must not listen to ‘em. Yeh have to work your whole life to earn yeh place there, so yeh can be in peace there.”
“When will Mama come back?”
“She’s nae comin’ back tae’ us ever, little mon. ”
John’s face started to cloud as he began to understand. “I want mama tae come back.” The tears were coming.
“Aye, I know.” The big man gathered his son into his arms. The hard man was crying too. “I know.”
Jane watched them cling to each other from across the room. She wanted to go over to them, to share their sorrow and comfort, but she did not know how. She watched as Father’s big, gnarled hands took in her brother and built a fortress to protect him. Her father looked up and his eyes met hers, and she felt that he wanted to cross the gulf as well, he wanted to give her comfort and protection, but he was just as lost as she was. When a neighbor came to the door, it was Jane that answered.
The visitors had become a procession, bringing food and words of condolence to the most recently grieving family. A display like this happened every week in the building, it seemed. Everyone pitched in, because they knew that it might be their family next. Jane often had carried the offering to the bereaved; for some reason the gift was better received when delivered by a child. Perhaps it was without the taint of obligation when it came from someone who didn’t really understand what was going on.
Jane did not take comfort in any of her father’s platitudes. She did take comfort in the knowledge that her mother was no longer suffering, but she did not believe they would be together again in some happy place some day. While she allowed that there was a remote chance her mother was in some improbable better place, she was confident that was a place she would never go. She didn’t believe, and the place she didn’t believe in was a place only for believers. So even if she was wrong she was out. She knew that there was a shadow world, she just didn’t believe the descriptions of it that she heard, since no one had ever come back from there.
Days passed, and slowly the sympathy visits dried up as new tragedies supplanted the old, and gradually life settled into a new routine. There were still some women who would call, women who had lost husbands to the lumps or to the blood cough. They would bring food and dote over the children, praising them and giving them sweets. Their own children would never come over with them.
This parade, too, slowly petered out as Jane’s father began to drink more and more.
The first time had been about a week after Jane’s mother had died. He had been sitting in his chair, quiet, brooding. Suddenly he had jumped up, startling both children. “Look after the lad,” he said to Jane. “I need tae get some air.” He didn’t come home until the middle of the next day. He had staggered in, disheveled, reeling, reeking of vomit, and had gone straight to bed. Hours later he called out “Breakfast!”
Jane did her best to make him something, but there was almost no food in the house. Her father had been angry at the thin broth she had given him. “Yeh air the goddam woman innis house now, and I expec’ yeh tae act like it. There’s nae mon will want yeh like this, sniveling and whining. Get down to shop and bring me some proper kip.”
She was relieved to get out of the house. She went down to the shop that her mother had always taken her to, and walked in as if everything was normal. She selected her bread and eggs the same way her mother had, and approached the counter. She had to stand on tiptoes to see the butcher over the counter. “A pound of bacon, please.”
“Well, bless me if it isn’t Jane! She’s been a far time since I’ve seen yeh, lass. And now yeh be grown up and doing the shopping for the family.” He paused. “And how is your lovely mother?” He asked the question casually, but Jane could see that he was very interested in the answer.
“Mama died. She had the shakes.”
The butcher’s face lingered briefly on sympathy before resting on caution. “The shakes, eh?” He shook his head and made a gesture to ward off bad luck. As if he could catch it. He recited an old proverb. “The spirits are greedy, always taking the finest ones. And how will yeh be payin’ today?”
“On the account, just like Mother did.”
“Ah, darlin’, do yeh know what thet means, account?”
“It means that yeh’ll pay me later. Yeh already owes me quite a pile o’ money. For yer ma, I was willin’ teh wait ‘til she could pay it, but if she’s gone I’m afraid thet I can’t be lendin’ yeh any more coppers until I have the silvers yeh already owe.”
“But I don’t have any money.”
“Nae anyone has any coin, Miss Jane, but if I gave everyone free food then I would be theh one starvin’. Yeh unnerstand?”
Jane nodded solemnly, although she didn’t. She didn’t want him to explain any more, though. “I need to bring breakfast for my father,” she said.
“I’m sorry, Miss Jane. I wants to help yeh, I do. But I’ve got enough problems of me own. I can’t help yeh with yourn.”
She fought the urge to cry. She pushed that part of her back inside herself until she couldn’t feel it anymore. “But I have to bring him breakfast.”
The butcher was becoming less sympathetic. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but nae wi’out money. Yer pa is working. ‘E must have some coppers. Go and get some coin from ‘im and bring it back. Then I can give yeh ‘is bacon.”
Jane wasn’t sure why she was confident that would not work, but she couldn’t think of any other plan. She dragged her heels as she walked back home, not sure of the reception she would receive.
Her father was sitting at the table when she came in, head cradled in his hands. He wasn’t wearing any trousers, and he smelled bad. “Did yeh get me kip?” he asked.
“No, father. The man said I had to give him money.”
“Well, of course yeh hae tae give im money. ‘ow the ‘ell dae yeh expect tae buy tings wi’out money?”
“But I don’t have any money. He said to get money from you. He said we already owe him money for the account.”
“Account? Account? Weh don’t owe thet goddam shyster a goddam bean! Yeh get yer goddam arse down there and bring me me goddam breakfast!”
Jane scampered from the house and started walking back down to the shop. Listlessly she avoided the puddles of filth and worse in the street. There were few others out in the lane, and they moved like animated corpses, which some of them were close to being. She passed a man with oozing sores on his face. He stood staring directly at the weak sun, muttering unintelligibly. Most of the families on the lane knew each other, but she was not surprised that she did not recognize this man. When they had the sores they tended to drift about in the tide of traffic, finally washing up dead in some lane far from home. No one would take in one of these – a simple act of charity could wipe out an entire family. Jane passed as far from him as she possibly could. She hoped he would move on before he died. Sometimes it was a long time before anyone would come to this neighborhood to remove the corpse.
She still had no money and she knew that there was no way she was going to be able to come home without her father’s breakfast. She followed her feet, with no particular destination.
Some time later she realized the day was failing. She watched the sun sink in the west, chased by the fat, lazy, river, which rose and fell with the tides of the mysterious sea beyond. Jane had never seen the ocean, but she wondered about the vast water that was alive somehow. It breathed, its great watery lungs rising and falling, pushing the river back on itself and lifting the ships anchored there.
Jane was not supposed to go down to the docks, but she found herself there now. She was far from home. She turned and started walking quickly back the way she had come.
Without the sun, the autumn air turned cold in a hurry. Jane walked as quickly as she could, which helped keep her warm, but slowly the cold crept into her fingers and toes, stabbing her with tiny needles. Still she pressed on. Eventually the pain in her extremities was replaced with a welcome numbness. She imagined she was walking on pillows; it didn’t seem like she was touching the ground at all.
That is how they found her, floating dreamily on frozen feet, pretending her light jacket was a set of wings, flapping it and feeling it carry her away over the rooftops. It was not her father who found her, but one of the neighbors he had pressed into the search. By the time she had been delivered safely home her father was there waiting, along with some of the women who had come over to look after young John while the men went searching.
As she came through the door Jane’s father rushed forward and swept he up in his arms. “Oh, my wee one, my sweet, I thought I hed lost yeh, too. Yeh’re all thet I have left of me dear Shannon.”
Jane rested in the warm embrace of her father’s hands and felt his strength, protection, and love. She felt far away. Somewhere down below her knees sensation was returning, the promise of agony to come. Her mind felt fuzzy and detached; she was watching herself being held. It was just like watching her brother sitting in her father’s lap; somehow the love he was showing was directed at someone else. She watched as he wept and promised never to do wrong again. She watched him promise to be a good father, the way he always had before she died. She listened to him promise that he would support them all and they would never want for anything. Even from far away she knew he didn’t believe the promises himself, but he felt the need to make them anyway.
He held her in his arms while she slept, and massaged her feet and hands to restore the circulation. Neighbors came visiting again, bringing hot food and contradictory advice. Jane drifted through it all, knowing she was the center of attention for the first time in her life, and liking it, but also knowing that the situation was fleeting at best, and hating the world for that.
Eventually she recovered with all her fingers and toes, and not long after that father disappeared again. His absences got longer and more frequent until one day he didn’t come back.