Anyway, for once I will shut up about that - or will in a minute. Up, Back, and Away took my about six years to write and I did it more or less in secret so that no one would 1.) ask me how it was going or 2. laugh at me.
Now that it's done, however, I am like that formerly shy girl in the locker room who's now running off to bra fittings and co-ed saunas with the best of them. (Not really, but you know what I mean).
The point is that I have started another book Thing is, I need a little push on this one and a some early response might be good too. I like the idea of writing a thing serially - lots of better writers than me have done it to good effect so, I'll give it whirl. The first two chapters are below. Maybe some of you good people will read them. Maybe you won't and I'll give this a rethink. I am not sure a blog format could work long term, if long term is what we're talking about here. I'll figure that out later. In the meantime, here's the first few chapters of the next book, laid bare in its infancy.
Somerset Maugham wrote, "people ask for criticism but they only want praise." He was right about that as he was about so many things, bless Somerset Maugham. I'm happy to find that anyone has the least bit of interest so all non-troll thoughts and opinions are welcomed.
Two more chapters will be posted here next week and we'll see how it's going. Thanks for coming by and for your kind attention. Please leave a comment or send me an email if you are so inclined.
A Daughter of the Country
May 23, 2073
My Very Dearest York,
Since you surprised me at the groundbreaking last month with your question about the true origins of Sanctis – actually, let’s not say “true.” The version in the annual report every year is accurate enough, and so not untrue, although I grant that it is ludicrously incomplete. Anyway, since you asked, I have been pondering what answer to give, if any.
Coming as it did at my time of life (at eighty two, one is unwise not to be prepared for one’s latter end), and because Sanctis, bag and baggage, will go down to you when that end comes, your question presented me with a real conundrum. I have thought for weeks about whether it is right to tell the full version – it may upset many apple carts - for me, but also for you. But, turn as I might I come back to the fact that you have asked, and you deserve an answer, and only a true one will do. This letter, if that is the right wor for it, is so thick because the truth is complex and it requires a full telling if it’s to be told at all.
A key proviso, however, is that you are not to share it with anyone while I am still living – nor to use it to have me locked up! (I’m not actually joking. You’ll see what I mean presently).
I am in this way appointing you trustee for the things that you will learn here. They are precious things – and I don’t mean the formulae for the potions (I always preferred that term to “drugs”) that are still under patent to Sanctis.
All right. Enough preamble. I will start at the very beginning. As the old song says, that’s a very good place to start. I hope you know that you have all my love, and my trust. Now, buckle on your helmet, fasten your safetybelt, turn the page and get all of my story.
P.S. And for goodness’ sake, or my sake, don’t leave this lying about for prying eyes!
1. Surprise Pond
It began on August sixteenth, Bennington Battle Day, a holiday recognized only in Vermont, that summer when I was fifteen.
BBD did not then, and does not now, have anything fun attached to it – no parades, no festivals, not even any good sales. Apparently the American victory over the British in the battle of Bennington during the Revolutionary War may be sufficiently honored by giving a day off work to Vermont’s public employees. (Odd that the fighting actually occurred over the border in New York, given its place in the Vermont calendar, but never mind about that). It meant only two things to me that year: the town library was closed and Goof (a/k/a “Geoff” – my mother’s unspeakable live-in boyfriend) had a day off from his job at the correctional facility. My mother’s employer at the time - Dunkin Donuts, as I recalll – had no unionized employees and so did not honor Bennington Battle Day. Jillian wasn’t much of a shield from Goof, but she could sporadically rise to the occasion. She had told me, forewarned me in point of fact, that she would be gone from six in the morning until at least three in the afternoon.
Making matters worse, on August fifteenth, my brother Perry had left for his second year at college. I was, predictably, bereft.
So I was in need that day of some activity that would keep me out of the presence of Goof for the duration and perhaps bind my bleeding heart. I had no money for a movie or other entertainment and, as you know – you’ve seen the house where we grew up - we lived miles from any shopping district. I settled pretty quickly on hiking up to Surprise Pond on Ashburton Mountain. My father had taken Perry and I there many times before he died and after that Perry and I went when we could – whenever Perry had a day off from whatever job he was working and the summer weather permitted a swim. It was our “happy place” as people used to say back in the teens.
Soon after sunrise on Bennington Battle Day, I made my silent preparations. I found my father’s saggy old canvas backpack, packed it with two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, a plastic water bottle, the last of the granola bars Perry had bought for me, and the compass that they had given us at Girl Scouts in sixth grade.
I wasn’t planning to use the compass. I knew just where I was going, but our troop leader, a leathery woman with ugly sandals and the survival skills of a Green Beret, had warned us always to have a compass when we were in the woods. She also terrified us into learning to use it properly. (As you will see, this turned out to be a very good thing, though probably not for the reasons you are thinking).
I also packed my bathing suit, the least-threadbare beach towel I could find, a pair of pink flip flops, and a paperback copy of Fifth Business by a writer called Robertson Davies. I had bought the book for a quarter at the library book sale that summer. Six hours is a long time to kill and I was counting on the book to fill some of that time. (It came to the rescue in quite a different way, but more on that later). I gathered those few items, jotted “gone for a picnic” on a note that I stuck to the fridge with a kitchen magent, and then rode my bicycle as quietly as possible down our rocky driveway.
Surprise Pond, as you may recall, is about halfway up Ashburton Mountain. It’s location on the side of the mountain is the “Surprise.” I took you there once when you were in the fourth grade, though I didn’t give you any hint of its significance at the time. Do you remember? We went early on a summer morning and you complained that the dew made your sneakers wet. When we got to the pond you had a nice swim. I thought of it as a kind of baptism, though of course I said nothing about it at the time.
In case you don’t remember, there’s a waterfall on the east face of Ashburton. It drops from a cliff onto a kind of shelf. The falling water has scooped out a goodish sized pond on the plateau.
It was eight miles from our house in AshburtonVillage to Ashburton Mountain Lodge, and uphill all the way. At fifteen, I hadn’t even gotten my learner’s permit and the ride up to the ski resort on my cheap ten-speed and wearing Perry’s heavy hand-me-down hiking boots was an exhausting and slow business. The chain slipped off with every bump in the road. If I hadn’t needed to kill the whole day, I would have called it quits when I finally reached the big resort parking lot. I actually thought of doing that that. (Wouldn’t everything have been different then?) But at home… Goof lurked.
So, after I got to the parking lot, I ate a sandwich and a granola bar, locked my bike to “no parking” sign by the ski shop (closed for the summer), and started up the broad ski trail that would take me eventually to the pond.
The climb, as you may recall, is not terribly challenging. Even a child can do it with a little effort, but it is steep in places and I’d already been riding my bike for more than an hour. The sun was growing stronger with every step, and by the time I got to the footpath that led from the broad ski trail up to the pond, I was desperate for a swim.
The water was at its late summer best, cool, but not too cold. I swam in and out of the waterfall. I lingered in the pond until I my blood temperature seemed to have pulled even with the water temperature. Then I went dripping to the broad flat rock, warm from the sun, where I had spread my towel. I flopped onto it and was promptly lulled to sleep by the sound of falling water.
I’m not sure how long I slept, but when I woke I was warm, too warm really. I remember wondering if I should read for a bit before I went back in for another swim. Fifth Business was in good shape and I wanted to keep it that way by not holding it with wet hands. As I was considered my next move, however, something caught my eye in the sky above me. I blinked the sleep and sun from eyes as I thought they must be deceiving me.
There was a person dangling from a kite, an enormous three-tiered crimson and black thing with gold edges. This kite was turning in circles, which got smaller and tighter as I watched.
As startling as the kite was, its pilot was even more bizarre. As he descended, I could see that he was wearing a kind of vest or bodice, the word “doublet” leapt to mind (though I wasn’t sure at the time and am still not completely sure just what a “doublet” is). It was the same dark red as the kite. His sleeves were puffy from shoulder to elbow. He was wearing tights, yes, tights, with a diamond pattern in red and black. At his waist hung, I won’t call it skirt – it was more like a series of black handkerchiefs, with their pointed ends down. His black shoes were slightly pointed and tied at his ankles with wide, red ribbons. He wore a red cap, with the brim turned up. It was perched at a jaunty angle over his left eye. There was a puff of dark blue downy feathers over his right ear.
I was so startled by this apparition that I forgot for the few first few moments to be afraid. My initial worry was about where he would land. It would either have to be on the pond or on the small ledge where I had been sunning myself. There was no place else for him to go. The woods came right to the edge of the pond. That thought was chased out of my head by the realization that a madman was about to land from the sky right next to me and that I was all alone halfway up a wooded mountain.
I belatedly scrambled to my feet, slid my feet into my flip-flops, and began shoving the rest of my belongings frantically into my backpack.
In my efforts to jam them all in the pack at once, I was clumsy. I dropped the book and the hiking boots wouldn’t seem to fit. I had just got one stubborn boot in the bag when those be-ribboned black shoes spun into my field of vision and the wooden heels clicked down on the rock, not three feet from where I stood in a half crouch.
“Oh. Hi,” I said. (The brilliance of my opening haunts me to this day).
“Hello,” the kite flyer replied, very cordially though he was clearly straining to keep his kite aloft. There were silver bells sewn at the tips of the black handkerchiefs and these tinkled as he struggled to keep his place on the rock. He controlled the kite by means of two handles, and it was, apparently, not an easy task. He looked away from the sky and into my eyes long enough to say, “Please don’t be afraid.”
“Oh. I’m not afraid.”
I was terrified, of course. But I had heard somewhere that you should not show fear I think that advice was to do with facing down black bears or vicious dogs. I simply, without thinking, applied ot to jesters from the sky.
He had to be a jester, of course. I worked that out from the outfit. He looked just like the joker in a deck of cards, although his hat was different – no sticky-outy things with bells at the end – just that red velvet cap with the blue feathers. Also, he was not smirking. He was struggling with the kite as though it were three pterodactyls rather than three sail cloths and the end of the guidelines.
“Are they making a movie or something?” I asked, hoping to be able to dodge around him and make my getaway.
“No. I don’t think so.” He tried to smile in my direction while keeping an eye on his kite. It was turning increasingly wobbly circles aloft.
Of course my instinct was to get away, but the ledge we occupied was too narrow. If I had tried to push past him, he would have gone into the pond and he was bobbing from side to side in an acrobatic effort to control the kite. As I looked around him, I noticed then that there was another string dangling down from the kite that was tied to a bar behind his knees, like the kind you lean against on those old-fashioned rope-tow ski lifts. He was also wearing a kind of pack on his back, made of the same red velvet as his coat.
I couldn’t help myself from then from staring at his jacket. It was gorgeous velvet, embroidered in gold with an elaborate “A” and “R” on either side of his chest, just above a scooping gold braid. It was fastened with two gold bands buttoned on either side of his chest with bright gold buttons. A white silk shirt collar showed beneath the larger red velvet collar of the coat. Now that he was so close, I could see that hundreds of tiny blue feathers had also been embroidered on the velvet. He took a big step toward me as he wrestled the kite. The bells at his waist jangled again.
“I crave pardon, lady, but I have an presssing need to which I must attend,” he said. “Would you hold my lines? Only for a moment?”
He held the handles of his kite in my direction. Beads of sweat sood out on his broad, creased forehead. He was blinking sweat out of his eyes. His discomfort was palpable.
Now, I can guess what you are thinking. I am thinking it myself. The wise answer, the only proper answer, of course, would have been “no.” I was a fifteen year old girl alone in the woods with a kook! A kook gorgeously dressed yes, but a kook for certain, and quite possibly dangerous to me.
As I expect you have learned for yourself at this stage, however, there are times in life when one must make critical decisions in a heartbeat. The man’s face was kind, he was very civil, and the note of urgency in his voice was real. I hesitated for, perhaps, the space of a breath, then I shoved the stray boot into my pack, fitted the pack straps over my shoulders, and seized those warm wooden handles.
And with that gesture, my dear grandson, my fate (and yours, among many others), was sealed.
2. A Strange Trip
It was very awkward for a moment we had then. Of course, I assumed the poor man had to pee, and when I took those lines I hoped he would do so promptly ( and well away from me). Instead, he slipped the velvet pack from his own shoulders and had it opened in a twinkling. With another fluid motion, he shook out a length of fabric and cunning arrangement of thin ropes.
“What are you doing?” The kite tugged furiously at me with the insistence of a living thing, desperate to be away. I pulled back with all my might. “I’m going to have to let this go!” I shouted.
“Don’t!” He spoke with such command that I dared not disobey.
With another graceful motion, and not another word, the Jester shook the ropes out and the length of fabric that he had pulled from his pack blossomed over the pond. It was another kite, just like the one in the sky above us. It filled with a wind that had come out of nowhere, and joined its twin above us.
“You’ll never make the whole trip if you don’t get the bar behind your legs.” He bent and pulled the bar that dangled from my kite behind my knees, as it had been for him. Just as quickly, he pulled a similar bar from the his kite and deftly placed it behind his own knees.
“What!? What trip?” The kite yanked me and I felt the bar come up under my bum as my feet left the rock.
“Stay close. Not so close that you tangle our lines, mind. You may be cold for a bit, but that can’t be helped and it won’t last long. At least I hope not.”
And that was it. Up I went. It happened so swiftly that by the time I realized that I was no longer in control I was above the trees – too high to let go. I was startled into speechlessness. The Jester swung up next to me, easily as if he had mounted up an escalator. I could only look at him in open-mouthed astonishment. I was wearing my bathing suit (it had the one advantage of being a one-piece) and a pair of supermarket flip flops.
“Sorry about that!” he said as he pulled even with me. It sounded like a real apology. “But I’m afraid we have no time to waste. The corridor is never stationary nor open for long and we must get back through while it is still to be found and before it closes.”
“What’s happening?!” I screamed in his direction though it was quite peaceful in the sky at that momen. As I yelled, I inadvertantly tugged at the right handle and my kite lurched toward the Jester. We nearly collided.
The Jester yanked his own right handle and slipped down and away. The bar on which I sat scraped at his puffy sleeve and tore it a little. He quickly came eye-level with me again.
“Please don’t do that. The kite is very responsive, but it doesn’t need to be guided. It knows the way!”
“The way to what?”
I followed the Jester’s gaze was to a bank of tall clouds, tinged with purple. “The Corridor,” he said, sounding worried. “Blast, where has the damn thing gone?”
I looked down and saw my white feet in their pink flip flops against a the background of dark green clumps of trees, far below. Strips of clouds whooshed beneath me, obscuring the view for a moment, then melting out of sight. This isn’t really happening, I thought. I have fallen asleep on that warm rock after swimming and I am having a dream. I closed my eyes and tried to relax. Doing so almost cost me a flip flop. I felt it slip and clenched my foot. I saved the shoe, but lost my comforting illusion. This was no dream. I was flying over Vermont on a bewitched kite and being led on by a clown who was kidnapping me. I started pulling widly on the lines, trying for the ground. The kite made an ominous flapping sound and the Jester was immediately at my side.
“What are you doing? Do you want to crash?”
“But… You are required!”
I didn’t answer, I kept pulling. His emphasis on that last word doubled my terror for some reason. My flailing soon caused the kite to buckle and I dropped with sickening speed. The Jester was instantly at my side again. He somehow managed, though we were both spinning like tops, to rearrange my lines that my kite could again hold air. I was snapped back skyward. The Jester came even with me again.
“Lady, please, you must not! There can be no failure now.”
“Where are you taking me? I want to go home!” I started to cry and then, though you will not believe it possible, something even stranger happened.
I realized that, in fact, I did not want to go home.
It was a moment of perfect clarity, and it stunned me. Could that be right? That I wanted to fly away with this bizarre creature to God only knew where. Could it be? I closed my eyes again and tried to make some sense of my heart. I felt myself being hauled upward then with great speed. It was like dreams I’d had of flying. I didn’t open my eyes. I thought only about my breathing. As I breathed in and out, very slowly, a picture seemed to gather on the back of my closed eyelids.
The darkness took on a second dimension and I felt I was looking at a wall, brownish red. I stared and saw, dimly, that in the center of the wall there was a narrow window – if the wall had been made of bricks, it was as if two of the bricks in the center of the wall had been removed. Though the opening was slight, it allowed me a glimpse of a skyline crowded with spires and domes. It was oddly drained of color, all in tones of brown and red, and reminded me of some sketchs by Leonardo da Vinci I had seen during our unit on the Rennaissance in Geo Civ.
People were always talking about “signs.” I had never seen a sign before. But I felt sure that had just changed.
I opened my eyes and turned to the Jester. He was looking at me with a worried expression.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked again, quite calmly this time.
He sighed. “To the place from whence I came and to which I must return - and at which you are required.”
“Does this place have a name?”
“Do not ask me to speak it on this side of the Corridor. In fact, silence will aid us.
“I’m freezing,” I said.
“It shouldn’t be long now, Lady. It will be warmer on the other side of the passage. If you will only be quiet, and look ahead.”
I found it strange, of course, that he was addressing me as “Lady,” but he was clearly anxious about this corridor business so I didn’t ask for any explanation. We were both faced now with towering, billowing thunderheads just before us. The sight was not conducive to conversation. The great cloudbank that was all contours and curves in the varying shadesof a bad bruise. I felt the lines of the kite begin to shiver. The wind seemed to be blowing in every direction at once. The kite dropped like a stone then jerked upward again. When it steadied again, I saw one of the dark curves on the face of the cloud change from a crescent into a full, black circle. The circle then lengthened into a tunnel, like a great, horrible throat. Purple-black clouds swirled on its walls and it was lit up and down its incredible length by flashes of lightning.
The Jester flew up even with me again. I felt myself swing forward on my bar, as though I was being pulled toward the tube. “We must pass through,” he said in an urgent half whisper.
My mouth was dry. “It’s not as bad as it looks, right?” I croaked.
The Jester smiled consolingly. “No, Lady. No it’s not. Your kite will keep you in the center of the passage if you will let it. I recommend that you let it. Do not pull the strings. Be as still as possible, and as quiet, until we are through.”
“Can I close my eyes?”
“If it helps. The important thing is to be still, keep your mind quiet if you can and hold fast to your grips. Do not pull on the leads and do not let go. Do not let go, no matter what and we will be through before you know it. Are you ready?”
I nodded. I wasn’t ready, of course, how could I have been? But it was clear to me that a point of no return had been passed and there was simply nothing else to do. The Jester slowed his forward momentum with a deft pull on his lines and swung in behind me, like a tail rider for a kid who is learning to ski.
Then, though the vortex was a picture of violence, the wind stopped blowing. We were drawn inward with an eerie slowness and all was silence, as if sound itself had been sucked away by the swirling clouds. This silence was somehow worse than the howling wind. I felt a sickening dread, one that has recurred to me in nightmares in the years since. It was like the anticipation you feel when you are being pulled up the first hill of a roller coaster, multiplied by several factors of ten. I was waiting for the roar of wind and crash of thunder as I was pulled into the tube, but there was nothing.
Our flight continued in this way for a time that I cannot now measure. At one point I was put in mind of Alice on her way to Wonderland. I remembered thinking about how Alice had fallen so slowly down the rabbit hole that she had time to take a jar of marmelade off one of the shelf and then to return it to a shelf lower down. Of course, our tube was no friendly Victorian pantry. It was full of violence and anger. Why it didn’t seem to touch us, I could not understand. Perhaps, I thought, it was all an illusion.
Shortly after that thought about Alice occurred to me, however, I sensed a change. I looked down the tube and saw a girl’s face take shape in the clouds on the right side of the tunnel. The face was simply enormous, like as the back end of ocean liner. “Alice” I thought, because Alice had been on my mind and because the cloud face looked like the illustrations of Alice I had seen over the years: long hair pulled back with a head band from a young and beautiful face with a pert nose and narrow chin. It was colorless, or rather, the color of cloud, but it was as sharply defined as if it had been carved in stone.
I looked at it with amazement that quickly turned to dread. Alice’s eyelids were closed, and just as I determined to look away, they snapped opened and peered, it seemed, right into furthest recesses of my soul. The irises were swirling purple cloud and the pupils were black and contained their own mini vortexes. There was a flash from them that blinded me. “Lightning!” I screamed and, without realizing, tugged my kite far to the right.
I thought I heard the Jester yelling behind me, but it was as hard to understand as underwater screaming. I tried to look behind me but couldn’t see anything. I’d been blinded. I somehow managed to keep hold of the handles of the kite while I rubbed my dazzled eyes but the rubbing motion set the kite bobbing in a way that felt dangerously unsteady. When I next dared open my eyes, my vision had cleared sufficiently for me to see little. I turned to check on the Jester. It was as though his face had been melted and stretched, and his mouth was frozen in a big “O.” I screamed in that same strange underwater way and in doing so lurched to the right. The kite veered so that my foot dragged across Alice’s chin. I felt nothing on my foot, but Alice’s mouth opened a black, noiseless scream and her features twisted into a vision of hatred and anger before melting back into the swirling wall of the tunnel.
The face disappeared, but the little section where my foot had dragged across the cloud opened into a black gash. The edges of the gash curled back and in the dark center, where my big toe must have penetrated the cloud wall, I saw some skittering motion. I watched with horror as from the foggy innards an insect emerged. It was a wasp, larger than any I had ever seen, it was about the size of a lump of charcoal and nearly as dark.
I’ve always had a terror of wasps, as you know. One of my first memories is of standing one summer day behind the house where we lived for a time when I was about three years old. I remember looking at the door into the garage and wondering if I dared walk through. Wasps had built a big, papery nest in the upper right corner of the door frame. I watched them crawling in and out as I considered whether I could go through. Finally, I tried to go through at a run, but the door had been locked, or perhaps had swollen shut. The jolt was enough to send them into a frenzy. I was stung half a dozen times before Perry, who was seven at the time, came to my rescue. He had seen what was happening and came out with the blanket we kept on the couch. Luckily I didn’t have an allergy, or that would have been the end. Still, I have had a phobia of wasps ever since.
The mammoth creature that emerged from the gash in the clouds flew around my head with a terrible buzzing. I felt it dangling legs catch in my hair. I almost let go of the handle, but remembered the Jester’s warning just in time. I couldn’t stop myself swinging at it, though, and as I wheeled my arms, my kite went careening around the tube. Even with all my wild motion and the crazy swinging of the kite, the thing managed to land on my right arm, just below my shoulder. It poised it’s stinger at that same spot where nurses always seemed to aim their needles. I tried to wipe it away while keeping a hold on the handle but the sensitive kite swirled, then crumpled again. I dropped sickeningly. I had one very clear moment, in which I felt very sorry for Perry, since I would be dead and he would always wonder what had happened to me, but in the next instant the Jester was back beside me. He managed to grab my right hand and handle with his left and the crazy motion stopped.
His face was not distorted now, but his mouth moved in slow motion and his voice was like a record played at a horribly slow speed. I could decipher that he was shaking his head, and closing his eyes in a way that I came to understand he wanted me to imitate. When I closed my eyes, something like calm was restored. The Jester kept his hand on mine, his fingers enclosing my hand and kite handle as well as his own. I could feel its warmth in the strange stillness and it comforted me.
Was it wicked little wasp’s feet against the skin of my arm? I couldn’t tell, but I found that not looking helped. It occurred to me that the wasp might not have been real, maybe just some sort of horrid illusion. I was not stung, I knew that much.
We floated on this way for some period of time I could not calculate, then or now. I was beginning to wonder when it might end when a noise, like the wind we had heard at the approach to the vortex, began to grow. The whooshing and wild swinging came back. I looked ahead into a maelstrom of swirling cloud and flashing lightning as the very breath was sucked from my lungs.
“Hold fast!” the Jester shouted, his voice restored to normal. I squeezed his hand for all I was worth, and then all was darkness.