“The Good Husband,” Rilke, and the end

My latest story, “The Good Husband,” is just about wrapped up. I had a good workshop session last Sunday with Alexa Duncan and Theodora Goss, and the end is finally in sight. This short story collection will be in the mail before the month in done. Really, this time.

I have long been referring to this as my ghoul story, though now it’s something a little different. I don’t know if there’s a ghoul in it or not. But I know there’s cold air, and heartache, and death. There are things moving under the earth. And that’s what makes my blood move.

This is the poem that first inspired the story. It’s my favorite poem from my favorite poet. Even reading it now, I get goosebumps.

Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.   by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

There were cliffs there,
and forests made of mist. There were bridges
spanning the void, and that great gray blind lake
which hung above its distant bottom
like the sky on a rainy day above a landscape.
And through the gentle, unresisting meadows
one pale path unrolled like a strip of cotton.

Down this path they were coming.

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.
His senses felt as though they were split in two:
his sight would race ahead of him like a dog,
stop, come back, then rushing off again
would stand, impatient, at the path’s next turn, —
but his hearing, like an odor, stayed behind.
Sometimes it seemed to him as though it reached
back to the footsteps of those other two
who were to follow him, up the long path home.
But then, once more, it was just his own steps’ echo,
or the wind inside his cloak, that made the sound.
He said to himself, they had to be behind him;
said it aloud and heard it fade away.
They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

The god of speed and distant messages,
a traveler’s hood above his shining eyes,
his slender staff held out in front of him,
and little wings fluttering at his ankles;
and on his left arm, barely touching it: she.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death, which was so new,
she could not understand that it had happened.

She had come into a new virginity
and was untouchable; her sex had closed
like a young flower at nightfall, and her hands
had grown so unused to marriage that the god’s
infinitely gentle touch of guidance
hurt her, like an undesired kiss.

She was no longer that woman with blue eyes
who once had echoed through the poet’s songs,
no longer the wide couch’s scent and island,
and that man’s property no longer.

She was already loosened like long hair,
poured out like fallen rain,
shared like a limitless supply.

She was already root.

And when, abruptly,
the god put out his hand to stop her, saying,
with sorrow in his voice: He has turned around —,
she could not understand, and softly answered
Who?

                           Far away,
dark before the shining exit-gates,
someone or other stood, whose features were
unrecognizable. He stood and saw
how, on the strip of road among the meadows,
with a mournful look, the god of messages
silently turned to follow the small figure
already walking back along the path,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
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Cook away your fears – macaroni and cheese edition

Mia is making the jump to sixth grade this year, and last night her new school held a potluck picnic at a nearby park so the new kids and parents could meet the crew, buy some used uniforms, and fill out the requisite paperwork.

Yes, you read that right: potluck.

I used to work in a kitchen, but that was years ago. I was younger, and foolish. Doing things that I didn’t really know how to do did not intimidate me. Most of my experience was behind the line at a restaurant, which is very much like working an assembly line in a factory, or heating up gruel for roughnecks in the Gulf. Since then my culinary ambition has not extended beyond scrambling some eggs or slapping some lunch meat on bread. If I ever had any skills in the kitchen, they are long gone.

Now there is only fear.

A typical cupboard in my "kitchen." The plastic pumpkin is the closest thing to anything food-related you will find in there.

My kitchen has a microwave oven, which is where all the action happens. Everything else is storage space.

My counter. None of your fruitbasket fripperies here. Behind the bottles are some volumes of witchcraft. I stay away from that shit.

I’ve been meaning to change this for a long time. Since, oh, Mia was born. She’s eleven now, so I think it’s time to start. I was going to bring something to the potluck, and it wouldn’t be bean dip. My friend A gave me a recipe for homemade macaroni and cheese, which she assured me would be easy.

“Don’t be intimidated by the roux,” she said.

Roux? That’s some old-school New Orleans shit. Real cooks fuck with roux. I was starting to get scared. But I went to the store to get the ingredients anyway. I was going to push through this. There were going to be a lot of people very happy to judge me at the picnic. I was determined to blow their minds with my mac and cheese.

I went to the tv dinner store. Apparently they sell other things too.

I had to buy basics, like flour, and salt and pepper. I thought food already came with all that stuff included. What the hell?

Get some flour, the recipe said. Look at this ridiculous selection. The rational mind breaks down. Mia in the foreground: "Daddy, I'm frightened." Me too, kiddo. Me too.

We went home, laden with foodstuffs, and I set to work. Mia patted me on the shoulder. “Congratulations, Dad, you’re actually going to finally cook something after talking about it my whole life!” Then she retreated to her room, well out of the blast zone.

In the thick of it. The laptop is there because it has the recipe onscreen and also because life is a pointless abyss if I'm not plugged in.

The recipe told me it would take me ten minutes to prepare. It took me more like twenty-five, and things did not go according to plan all the time, but it got done. The resulting batch was enough to feed two hungry people. Not enough — at all — for a potluck.

I would have included a picture of the finished product, but we ate it before I remembered to. It pretty much looked like macaroni and cheese.

So we made an emergency call to my mother and she promised to make her tater tot hotdish the next day. She did, there was plenty of it, and people devoured it. A culinary success.

I am, however, heartened by my first real kitchen experiment. I made a roux. I used pots. There was some flour involved in there somewhere. The end result both looked and tasted like macaroni and cheese. This first minor success has encouraged me to try cooking more often.

Fire, knives, and Tabasco sauce … what could possibly go wrong?

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Tor.com, Hellnotes review Naked City, “The Way Station”

Brit Mandelo reviewed Naked City over at Tor.com, coming down decidedly in its favor. She highlights a few stories, one of which is “The Way Station”:

“Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Way Station” is another story of the sort I’ve come to expect from him: emotionally intense, riveting, and deeply upsetting in many ways. It deals with loss, with the aftereffects of Katrina on a homeless alcoholic who’s haunted by the city itself before the flood, and in doing so it’s wrenching. The strangeness of the haunting—city streets in his chest, floodwater pouring from his body—creates a surreal air, but the harsh reality of the world the protagonist lives in anchors that potential for the surreal into something more solid and believable. It’s an excellent story that paints a riveting portrait of a man, his city, and his loss.”

Dave, at Hellnotes, has this to say:

“An expert example of embracing the theme of the collection, is “The Way Station” by Nathan Ballingrud. Alternating between the cities of St. Petersburg, Florida, and New Orleans, Ballingrud looks to the latter as ghostly inspiration. Beltrane is a former inhabitant of that tortured city, and literally carries its woes within him. Now haunted and homeless in Florida, the disenfranchised African American remains at loony loose ends. The reality of his world is allegorical and ambiguous: “A small city has sprouted from the ground in the night, where he’d been sleeping, surrounded by blowing detritus and stagnant filth. It spreads across the puddle-strewn pavement and grows up the side of the wall, twinkling in the deep blue hours of the morning, like some gorgeous fungus, awash in a blustery evening rain. It exudes a sweet, necrotic stink. He’s transfixed by it, and the distant wails he hears rising from it are a brutal, beautiful lullaby.” Tinged with poignant pathos, “The Way Station” exemplifies the lingering horrors of the souvenirs of loss.”

Thanks, Brit. Thanks, Dave.

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Odds and ends

I’ll be going to get Mia on Sunday, and life will be back to normal here. I can’t wait. She’ll have a full month before sixth grade begins, so there will be plenty of time for end-of-summer activities, like white water rafting and blueberry picking. While in Alabama she got a mild case of what might be poison oak. When I asked her how the itching was, she said, “It’s doing its job.”

Damn I miss my kid.

Last weekend Jeff and Ann VanderMeer were in town for a Steampunk Bible/Thackery T. Lambshead event at Malaprop’s Bookstore. I hadn’t seen them in a couple of years, so it was nice to spend the evening with them. I’d forgotten how much fun they are to talk to. It was a very cathartic and welcome experience. We went to the Battery Park Champagne Bar and Book Exchange the night before the event, which is one of my favorite places in the city, and had champagne cocktails.

There are two floors in this place, with narrow paths winding through high shelves. It is seriously one of the best places I've ever been.

It’s possible that I’ll be going to World Fantasy this year, and sharing a room with Lucius Shepard and Bob Kruger. As with all things, it depends on money, but this looks pretty doable.

And the writing continues apace. Revisions are nearly done on the last short story before submitting the collection (behind schedule, but what else is new?), and the novel is still in progress.

Malaprop's. Yes, I am one of those jackasses who writes in a coffee shop sometimes. Live with it.

Life barrels on.

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And I died nobly, like a man

 

Siren, by Robert Haas

Here is the poem I meant to write
But didn’t
Because you walked into my study
Without any clothes on.

I had just been thinking of how the Aegean sun
Must have lit up the faces of Troy’s fallen heroes
When you walked into my study
Without any clothes on—

Walked in and stood there,
Holding a glass of sherry
Over your left breast,
Which looked soft and firm as Brie.

Your tone of voice this morning
Should have warned me
That you might walk into my study
Without any clothes on.

I should have lashed myself to my chair
And stoppered my ears with wax.
But I forgot.
And I’m glad I forgot

Because when you walked into my study
Without any clothes on
You sang sweetly, sang sweetly,
And I died nobly, like a man.

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The airless summer

Each morning, when I drive onto the Biltmore Estate to go to work, I drive by the cornfields, and I track the summer’s progress by its growth. A couple of weeks ago the stalks were standing between four and six feet high; now they’re well above human height, and in the late afternoon they cast the road into shadow. Summer has always been my least favorite season — I’m built for cold weather, both physically and temperamentally — but the growing corn makes me think of autumn, and crisp weather, and jack o’ lanterns. Reprieve is coming.

This is two weeks old. It's several feet higher now.

Mia is gone for most of the summer, which is another reason not to relish it. She’s down visiting her mom in Alabama, and I worry about her there. The apartment feels empty without her, of course. Her room, with her books and her dolls and her art projects, is a time capsule. The air in there is like a held breath. I need her to come back home and start the world moving again.

She was back for one week, though. We celebrated her eleventh birthday and went out to see some fireworks.

In the meantime, I have been filling the days. In June I went to the Sycamore Hill Writer’s Workshop, where I submitted a new story called “The Good Husband” for a critique. It was very well-received, and the problems the others found there were consistent with my own diagnosis, so the revisions are coming easily. The stories this year were of a very high caliber; I think my favorite was a very quiet, beautifully written apocalypse piece by Molly Gloss, called “The Grinnell Method.” This is what Andrea Barrett would write if she wrote about the end of the world.

The workshop cabin at Sycamore Hill

So there are revisions to finish, and the novel to write, and the cannibal priests which have been too long neglected.

And soon my little girl will be home again, and we’ll be spending all of our energies getting ready for sixth grade, and the new school. And then the corn will be ready for harvesting, and the temperature will break, and I will be able to breathe again.

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“The Way Station” is a love letter

A few days ago Naked City: New Tales of Urban Fantasy hit the shelves. This one features “The Way Station,” which is kind of like my farewell-to-New-Orleans story. This book has been a long time coming, and I’m glad people will finally get a chance to read it.

This one is special to me, for a couple of reasons. In some ways it’s about how the city haunted me for years after leaving, and how hard it was to let it go. I’ve said before, perhaps excessively, that New Orleans was the first place I truly felt at home. It still makes up a large part of my heart’s country. Beltrane, is loosely based on a homeless man named Sunbeam who used to come into the Pub. He was dearly loved by the regulars, ad when he passed away it was a hard day for more than one of us. Sunbeam will soon be getting a post of his own here; he wrestled bears in his youth, after all (a detail which does not appear in the story).

This is also the first story I ever wrote as a love letter to a woman. Every sentence was spun by her eyes in my mind. I wanted it to be beautiful for her. Perhaps it’s an odd love letter — but I’m not a particularly normal man.

So this one has special relevance to me for these reasons. Looking at the cover art, I can’t help but think readers diving in for Dresden Files-type stories will be baffled or frustrated by it. But it’s a good one, I think, and I’m proud of it.

An excerpt:

“I was haunted once too,” Davis says quietly. “Then the ghost went away.”

Beltrane stares at him with an awed hope as Davis slowly fishes through his pockets for a lighter. “How you get rid of it?”

Davis lights both cigarettes. Beltrane wants to grab the man, but instead he takes a draw and the nicotine hits his bloodstream. A spike of euphoria rolls through him with a magnificent energy.

“I don’t want to tell you that,” Davis says. “I want to tell you why you should keep it. And why you shouldn’t go see your daughter tomorrow.”

Beltrane’s mouth opens. He’s half-smiling. “You crazy,” he says softly.

“What do you think of, when you think of New Orleans?”

He feels a cramp in his stomach. His joints begin sending telegraphs of distress. He can’t let this happen. “Fuck you. I’m leaving.”

Davis is still as Beltrane hoists himself out of his chair. “The shelter won’t let you back in. You said it yourself, you gave up the bed when you left. Where are you going to go?”

“I’ll go to Lila’s. It don’t matter if it’s late. She’ll take me in.”

“Will she? With streets winding through your body? With lamps in your eyes? With rain blowing out of your heart? No. She will slam that door in your face and lock it tight. She will think she is visited by something from hell. She will not take you in.”

Beltrane stands immobile, one hand still clutching the chair, his eyes fixed not on anything in this room but on that awful scene. He hasn’t seen Lila’s face in twenty years but he can see it now, contorted in fear and disgust at the sight of him. He feels something shift in his body, something harden in his limbs. He squeezes his eyes shut and wills his body to keep its shape.

“Please,” Davis says. “Sit back down.”

Beltrane sits.

“You’re in between places right now. People think it’s the ghost that lives between places, but it’s not. It’s us. Tell me what you think of when you think of New Orleans.”

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Sycamore Hill and the goal for the summer

In a few weeks I’ll be attending the Sycamore Hill writers’ workshop in Little Switzerland, NC. I went once a couple years ago, and workshopped my werewolf story, “Wild Acre” (appearing later this summer in Gary McMahon’s anthology Visions Fading Fast, he added in his best huckster’s voice). The story had been struggling to find its title until Karen Joy Fowler gave it to me there. It’s a friendly but intense environment, kind of like Clarion with brass knuckles. I’m looking forward to going back.

I’m racing to finish the new story on time. This is also the last story I have to finish before sending the manuscript of the collection to an interested publisher, so there is extra incentive to get it done. It’s going to be a watershed moment.

Also this summer I have taken up Theodora Goss’s YA challenge. Now, I’ll be honest here: I usually steer very, very far from this kind of thing. A friend of mine calls it a stunt, and I have to acknowledge that it has that veneer to it. I feel the same way about NaNoWriMo. I always thought that if you’re a writer you just write the damn thing and it takes as long as it takes.

But I took this up for a couple of reasons. One, this isn’t being done as a stunt. Not by Dora, and not by Livia Llewellyn or Alexandra Duncan (who are also taking part; Dora has the full list over at her site (I can’t speak for the others, since I don’t know them, but I will assume their intentions are noble (looking over the list again, I notice with some amusement that I am the only man represented there; do I care about this branch of literature more than most men because I’m a single parent? Hmmmm … (But I digress)))). I don’t think anybody gives a damn what the world at large things about the endeavor. Two — and for me this is the crux of it — I have always been an undisciplined writer, and I’m working to change that. While I believe an undisciplined writer can produce great fiction, it’s almost a given that there will not be much of it. Furthermore, it’s all but impossible to develop professional momentum without a rigorous work ethic.

I am very comfortable with the idea of letting the work stand on its own. At the end of a writer’s life, and afterwards, readers don’t talk about how quickly that writer produced, or whether or not he adhered to a daily word count. They could give a shit. What they care about it what’s on the page. The result is what matters. I believe that fundamentally.

That being said, I don’t like the fact that I don’t have books out yet. My ego wants that gratification. I want to do readings and sign books, because ultimately I am a vain man. All writers are narcissists on some level. And this will be a great stride toward that end.

Finally, and most importantly: I have this great idea. It’s been sitting in my head for a while. It’s perfect for a young adult audience, I think. It’s something I haven’t read before, and I’m excited by it. So what the hell. The pieces are in place. Why not take advantage?

So here I go.

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The Cannibal Priests of New England, part five

V. The Carrion Angels

There were four of them. They emerged from the lantern-smoked alleyways of the nameless port town, building themselves from shadows and burnt rags. Seven feet tall, their thin bodies wrapped in fluttering black cloth, they listed back and forth as they walked, their bones creaking like the rigging of ships. Their heads were hunched and birdlike, fleshless jaws underslung and tooth-spangled, red eyes trailing coils of smoke.

They stalked the narrow avenues of the town with measured deliberation, going unseen by most of the population, and sending those few that did see them shrieking and scattering like frightened gulls. Some of the more foolhardy among them turned and fired a few wild shots before running. The carrion angels were oblivious to all of it, their bodies accepting the violence they way a corpse accepts the worm. They swung their great heads toward each juncture of road and alley, lifting their snouts and huffing deep breaths as they tracked the scent.

They followed it to a darkened warehouse where they found the corpse of William Thickett, the back of his head cratered and his brains splashed across the stacked crates and the packed earth. The stink of it made them drunk and they lost focus for a moment, hunched around this glorious fountain of scent, this unexpected confection. But they remembered their duty. Turning aside for the moment, they creaked slowly through the warehouse.

They knew almost immediately that the heads had been taken.

The trail resumed at the bay door, wending down toward the docks. But before they pursued it, they returned to the feast that had been left them. They surrounded the body of William the Bloody and stooped to feed, lowering their heads into the bowl of his corpse. They ate with a grateful reverence, the sound of wet meat and cracking bone giving measure to an almost absolute darkness.

Outside, the town had erupted in a panic. Word of the carrion angels’ presence had spread fast and the narrow roads were choked with men fleeing for their ships. Pirates and sailors careened drunkenly, lurching, stumbling, trampling the fallen. Throughout the town panicked men shot and stabbed at shadows, and the road to the sea was marked by the bodies of the dead and the dying. Most of the women stayed inside, shuttering the windows and locking the doors; others, often the youngest and least experienced, followed the pirates to the docks, forgetting in the terror of the moment the temperament of these men, and remembering only when they were beaten back or shot as they tried to climb the gangplanks to safety.

The ships were alight with lanterns, riggings acrawl with sailors making ready for the sea. Boats were dropped from the sides and men were set to towing the vessels from the port. Gunsmoke hazed the air and the bloom of violence was a grace upon the town. They walked in their slow, swaying gait through it all, like four tall priests proceeding sedately through hell, confident in their faith.

The scent ended at the docks. The crate of heads had gone to sea.

It was a small thing to sneak passage aboard a ship. The carrion angels dissolved into rags and dust, blowing like so much garbage in the wind, carrying over the water and into the rat-thronged hold of one of the several pirate ships, settling amongst the refuse and lying as still as the dead.

The captain of this very ship, a hard old man called Bonny Andrew, who harbored a longstanding terror of these creatures yet misjudged their physical nature, waited until they had reached some distance from land and ordered his ship to turn about, offering its broadside to the town. At his command the ship fired its complement of guns in a poorly orchestrated yet devastating volley, sending cannonballs smashing through weak wooden walls and bringing whole buildings to the ground. Another ship took inspiration from this and fired as well.

Within moments the nameless port town and its luckless residents were reduced to broken wood, and smoke, and blood. The pirates, satisfied at their own efficiency, rounded out to sea, dark under a moonless night.

The carrion angels slept in the hold. The scent’s trail was a road, even over the sea. They were sure of their step.

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Kid fears

Last night Mia was sitting on the counter while I puttered around in the kitchen. She was talking about the last science project of the year, due two days before the last day of school. It involved dropping an egg from the roof in a box designed to keep it from breaking. I was only half paying attention. She said, “I can’t believe I’m leaving this school in seventeen more days.” I nodded and said something like I know or It’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? And then she said, “Do you think anybody there will remember my name?”

I looked at her. She was staring back at me, and she had that intent, serious look on her face that indicates big emotions held in check. “Of course they will, sweetheart,” I said, and put my hand on her head. “Are you worried about that?”

She nodded and started to cry.

Next year she’s not going to the middle school the rest of her friends are going to. She was accepted to Hanger Hall School for Girls, a private school focusing on grades six through eight. She was thrilled to be accepted, and with its smaller classes and more intensive curriculum — not to mention the female-positive aesthetic which characterizes the place (when I visited the first time I noticed the walls were covered with biographical posters the girls had done, all focusing in women in history — Joan of Arc, Harriet Tubman, Coco Chanel, Hillary Clinton … ) — I’m thrilled she’s going there too. On the day she received her acceptance, as I was tucking her in that night, she said, “Daddy, tonight I’m going to dream happy dreams about middle school.”

I’m fairly certain that sentence has never been uttered before, in all of human history.

Nevertheless, the reality of it is beginning to sink in. She’s worried about being forgotten. “I feel like I’m drifting away from my friends,” she said, citing two in particular. “I don’t think people even know my name.” She thought for a second, and said, “They just know me as the sensitive girl.”

Which is code for the girl who cries easily.

I assured her that she was leaving a much better impression than she realized, and that we all tend to think of ourselves more harshly than other people do. I told her to gather the names and phone numbers of her friends so she could stay in touch; we would have sleepovers and picnics. Regarding the impression she feels she’s leaving behind, and the friends who are already starting to drift away from her, I told her I did not find friends who lasted more than a year until I got to high school. And I reminded her that one of the good things about going to Hanger Hall, with all its new faces, is that she could have a fresh start. She didn’t have to worry that because she cried a lot in the third grade, everybody still remembers it and judges her for it. She could present the face she wanted to present, and begin anew.

Of course, you always carry yourself around with you. I was struck by how many of her fears are the ones we carry with us our whole lives. How they reflect my own fears when I stare at the ceiling in the middle of the night. I don’t want to oversell the idea of a clean slate to her; I am well aware of the dangers of learning too well the lesson of flight.

But sometimes it is just the thing. I have reinvented myself more than once in my life, and most of those times I have been been invigorated by it. I can be excited by the prospect of radical change because to me it suggests the possibility of a better paradigm; but then, I have my own life to teach me that. This is brand new for Mia. She has been at this school and known these people for a little over half of her life. She’s both excited and terrified. She’s both elegiac, and crackling with possibility.

It’s a strange and humbling thing, watching your small child wrestle with truly adult emotions. You give lots of hugs. You guide as best you can. And because you know there are hits that cannot be avoided, you hope that it’s enough.

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