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A Christmas Story – experimental opening to a new novel

A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story – draft 1 – opening.

The night sky is poked through with the inverted peaks of the mountains hanging from the firmament above our world. That upside-down land, among blue cloud mountains is where the Others live. Tonight they will come and it will be for the first time – at least for me, for this is the first Yuletide I will remember.

Shadows and light, these are my memories from before this time – though I remember my mother telling me we must prepare the way, prepare for Him to come. We call him the Lord of Years, the God of the Axle-wheel.

The tribe is happy to prepare for his coming as they have done, they say, for generations. This I learn later. This first year I it is my job to create objects of remembrance; for now it is all new to me.

“First things first, little one,” my mother smiles. She of the brown locks, long, braided. Winter flowers in that hair from the winter hedgerow by the fields and iron trees; the freezing water her laugh pealing in the winter light. She wears winter; the traditional dress of the season, long gown, blues and whites, shade of nightbound glacier, frozen air, night shadows, and white the teeth of the forest wolves, the shivering of the field creatures: iridescence.

So we prepare. There will be a procession, so first there is the making of the torches. The binding of precious oil-soaked cloth around the haft, the putting in place of the tray to catch the drips. “Like this,” she shows me how to bind the cloth. “Like this, too,” and we put the guard there for small hands, my tiny hands. Fire. The golden energy that eats the Gods of the Night, that sends away the shadow wolves stealing behind walls waiting to pounce yet never willing to leap so long as the brand is held high. Only the light that keeps them from attack, as it has always been from the beginning, light our only defence.

The wrapping of the cloth has a song that goes with it, to bind the power of the light.

‘Of The Light’, a title that speaks of honour: the goddess Syumak Of The Light, who also creates the heat for the oven where bread rises, new life imparting homoeopathically to all who eat the same life. From the belly of the oven, life is given to the bellies of the family so the old saying goes. My mother speaks: “The bread grows and takes shape in the oven as a baby does in the womb, and this is how life and bread are one and the same. We worship bread and the cutting down of the corn, an act of sacrifice that gives new life to all.”

Cycles, the world is circles. Just so with the wrapping of the cloths and the incantation that goes with all ritual work:

Syumak says round the brand once
And light will come as the sun shall shine
Syumak cries round the brand twice
And the rain shall feed the corn and vine
Syumak laughs round the brand thrice
And Barley green turns barley brown to cut and grind
Syumak shouts four times round and more
And we feel the heat of the oven’s roar
And light shall raise the dead to life
and shadows run from shining knife

We strike the brands into light once the cloth is wrapped. The shining knife is the brand we lift above our heads as we step out, myself, my mother and father into the frozen night, and we proceed down the steps to join the river of villagers ahead of us, each with brands held high, and we mingle in sound and light and heat and air, the slow chanting and murmur of hymns rising up to the sky with a cloud of vapour voices hanging and echoing until the sound dissipates, to be replaced by the next cloud of sound, rich, intense, earnest.

“Sing, my son, sing – louder, so the Lord of the Years can hear us and the great Axle-wheel will turn, with our world upon it.”

Child of the years
Father of time
Two faced god
See the world
Through your eyes
Round the circle of darkness and light
Make the world afresh in your sight
Sleep and rise again
A world beyond our pain

So we make the procession to the House of Divided Paths – the Wishmaker’s Hut, low in the glade – a building made of all that is good and all that is bad. Its smell is of spice and sweetness in some moments, but not for long. It is never stable. I pull back at what I see, a growing sense of fear at this vision that plays before my eyes; the brand shakes in my hand.

My father lays his palm on my shoulder and explains in amused voice.

“Isn’t it a wonder, son? This Wishmaker’s House is one of the Winter Mysteries – existing through difference, unstable, shifting between possibilities.”

– He is right, it is a wonder. One moment a lowly hovel, the next a castle the next a ruin, a cottage prim and proper surrounded by apple trees and moss and gold and light. In this later version it settles as we approach – a line of apprehensive children, our eyes popping out in excitement and fear. The younger ones in the line ahead of me look as afraid as I am, the older children almost embarrassed at wanting to come back here, as if the secret it offers is for a younger version of themselves, or as if they are in on a secret they know they cannot share.

I step forward under the torch light as one child after another disappears through the doorway. For those who wait, our blazing brands fill the air with black smoke that sits heavily in our lungs causing a lazy cough in us, and it seems, a stupor sometimes – lethargy falling through limbs, weighing them down as if they are made of lead or gold. I see my arms shining, reflecting, metallic and see the metal of the knife in the brand I hold above me – the gold that is the source of the sun, forever, unchanging. The catechisms and wisdoms of my very earliest memories the chants of the elders in exactly this way. Yet, tonight most of my past is behind me beyond a dense cloud as if I am new born here.

And the singing goes on, and the stars that are the ice-bound peaks of the inverted Otherworld above twinkle in reflection of our brandlight, and the night becomes a whirl of shadows and faces and light and stars and the breathghosts of life and the dark creatures in the wood, the chill deathghosts of the children before us. The spirits of the woods have gathered here, those of the tribe who haunt the barrows and towers of death, and who a few times a year venture forth to see their children’s children are performing the rites correctly.

One after another, the children are consumed by the Wishmakers Hut, it seeming now to be the mouth of a great worm breathing reeking fumes into the air. And the fumes lay heavy on my lungs.

At the entrance, my parents push me forward and tell me “Just go. Go forward. You will see.” And so I go inside.

I am not sure what the building was when I entered the doorway. Inside it is a lowly hut, and there is someone sitting, I see it, a shape in the darkness that beckons me forward.

“Come to the mirror” she says, an old crone with lines on her face. In the next instant a red-headed girl who smiles at me and says, “Look and I shall know your wish.”

I look at her a moment longer, and perhaps it is the smoke, perhaps it is something else , but I wait and know the world to be different from what I have always imagined, less safe than my parents told me, and colder, and stranger, and crueller.

I feel lonely then, as I look into the mirror and see the swirling darkness of the Old Gods take shape in its depths. A movement there in its shadows, the first fumblings of matter, into shape, directed by my awareness – though I can not know that, not now, for I am a child and do not understand how we make our worlds.

She smiles and pulls the mirror away, and laughs. A woman in her prime, beautiful, blue eyes with black, black hair the colour of the darkest night, of forest sighs, of the deep web of growth that lives below the tree roots.

“And there it is. The Christmas Child!” she shouts with delight. She twists a piece of gold into a shape between her glowing white fingers and says:

“You are a rare one. Here is your wish – ” and hands it to me, now a silver-bearded man in a green cape.

It is shaped in a twisted loop – uroboros – the elders call it. It means a circle. I look at it and do not understand.

“How can this be a wish?”

I glance a challenge at her, for she is now back to the old crone.

“You will see.”

Her: Opening section to a new novel by Matt Wingett

Love.

Am I actually glowing, or is that a trick of the light? Is this really love? Really? I mean, what do I actually know about it? She laughs gleefully. – Except – I’m in it!

Jo Parris stands ecstatic and naked before a mirror, a sensation rising in her core as if someone has reached down and benignly electrified her insides. Gorgeous-beautiful-ache happy-delirium bursting-joy-pain. This is it all right. The real thing.

The early summer air is hot around her. Even at this time of day, when the shadows are cast on the ground by the red light of dawn, she feels so hot her skin might catch fire. Glorious morning light.

"Her" - cover art

“I’m home,” she says in a whisper, stepping to her bedroom’s sash window, through whose mouth cooler morning air kisses her skin.

Sol, the old currant bun, Helios, Starfire, shaking out his bedhead, she thinks, as he bounces a shaft against a car window and lights her up: a young woman exultant in a town where she only ever expected to feel marooned. She revels in the spotlight, picked out by the sungod, radiance washing through her.

Love’s like catching fire. It burns. Weird.

A passing gull dims the dazzle a moment and she recollects the meeting scheduled for later that day. A cloud of dismay dims her mood.

What will Aunt G say?

Her question to herself refers to her secret (because, yes, I have a secret!, she tells herself excitedly). Yet, today, even for Aunt G and her disapproval she feels indulgent – as if she might forgive her former attempts to shape her life and lead it in the old woman’s preferred direction –

I don’t know why, Jo puzzles to herself. – All her weirdness… Over all these years… Fuck that! This time, it’s different. He’s my secret. No answers to prying questions, no breathless revelations about relationships.

Her gut agrees – a compass-needle-north feeling that points to her resolve –

I’ll handle her. She shakes off the thought and soaks up the view from her first floor flat: green of common, leaves of palms, elms neat-queued beside a path first laid for holidaymakers when seaside was a novelty of mass transportation. Distant: a low castle, built in the time of one Henry or other. Beyond, unseen from her position, a blue margin, whose saline presence fills her sinuses.

The sea, the sea. She half-consciously registers it. Magic pool of life. Home of possibilities. Bucking road to all compass points. All life comes through this town she hugs her arms to herself and lowers her giddy head, breathing it all in as if she wants to contain the world, right here, right now. Life is fucking ‘A’.

Movement behind her – snorted breath. Pirouetting with dizzy delight to the source of her reverie, she wonders, – is he waking up!?

Earlier, before slipping excitedly from her bed, she lay for half an hour, transfixed, torn between waking him and just watching. Beautiful man. My secret.

Thus her excited turn about her bedroom – a space once a Victorian family’s living room; now, where once resided the primmery of Imperial life, her hot lover snores abed. She draws him in through her eyes. Still asleep, she registers, hoping his dreams are hooking him to the surface – and if not, they’re of her.

She stretches. Arms sideways, bracing invisible pillars; arches her neck. Yawns.

With him she is all herself. An innocent in the forest who looks up, breathless at the world around her, and loves it for what it is, knowing she is loved in return.

Maybe not actually innocent, she thinks, because he has been the source of seriously good sex from day one, – And it only gets better – she tells herself as she feels the full stretch.

Satisfactorily yawned out, she drops her arms and relaxes her shoulders.

I hated it here, she tells herself in wonder. Till two weeks ago. Hated.

She rests her elbow on her navel and plants chin on palm to think a moment. Considers The Shrine on the chest of drawers – a little resident goddess standing immobile, watching them both.

“It all changed with You,” she whispers to Her, half-playfully reverent. The target of her gratitude is a carved figure in a homemade leaf bower. A doll of exotic origin. The one she calls Her.

Jo feels the same pull she felt the first day she found Her. Steps over to Her. Imagines She is sentient – somehow watching the scene in the room.

Now Jo lifts Her. Near-religious tenderness. Eyes Her wooden face – my breath is tremoring!? – As if magic will happen!? Of course it does not, though a little bit of Jo thinks it could.

She holds Her a while longer, replaces Her on the chest of drawers, then walks back to the bed and looks down on the man she is in love – or at least in lust – with.

Still asleep. Breathing his dreams through his mouth – can I get an idea of what they are? They smell sweet.

She scents his sweat, too, the tang of last night’s sex. Jumbled sensations flash through her mind – and she remembers: exhausted, falling into black sleep together, winding around each others’ dreams, smell of fellow human, warmth of skin. This morning, her brief and by now familiar flash of surprise and joy when waking to find – Yes! he is real.

She takes a breath as all these thoughts wash over her, reaching a conclusion as she stretches her arm to wake him –

Yes. I’m in love!

The Snow Witch – Designing the Cover

Following on from my previous blog about using old pictures to illustrate your book, I finally came to designing the cover.

I’ve had various ideas for the cover for a while. A friend of mine is a model and I at first considered adapting a photograph of her, as follows:

Esme Shard, photograph (c) 2014 Steve Chatterton, SJC Photogpraphy www.chattertonphotography.co.uk

I finally came up with this.

However, I wasn’t convinced by this, and felt the image was in some way cluttered. What’s more, with the illustrations inside the book now decided upon, I wanted some drawn artwork.

I went back to the Bible I had been using earlier, but the Witch of Endor was portrayed as an old hag, not the young woman in my story.

So, back to the book collection, which includes a thick, heavy volume from 1894 called “PEN DRAWING AND PEN DRAUGHTSMEN: THEIR WORK AND THEIR METHODS A STUDY OF THE ART TO-DAY WITH TECHNICAL SUGGESTIONS”.

Leafing through the images, I found this:

The figure of the woman, drawn by A Montalti, was perfect, though there was a lot of image around her to lose.

Eventually, I got to this.

Still stark, I thought.

After some experiments with colour, I came to this:

This is the one. Subtle, mysterious and eyecatching. I now have my cover!

The Snow Witch – finding those illustrations

Some of you may know that a little while ago I completed writing a novel called “The Snow Witch”. I’m currently in the throes of laying it out, and have been hoping to get some illustrations to head up each part of the book.

I was at something of a loss. The story is allegorical, quite beautiful (I think, anyway!) and tells the story of a young woman who comes from a mystery tradition separate from Judaeo-Christianity, and yet connected to it.

One of my other jobs is dealing in rare books. About 15 years ago I bought a pair of stunning, extremely heavy 18th Century volumes filled with luscious copperplate engravings. Last night, I decided to dig those books out from my collection. And, well, I think I have what I want.

Here are the images I’ve chosen.

This is for Part 1 – this section includes reminiscences of the central character’s childhood, in which she was trained in in herblore by her mother.

Part 2 includes a section in which a wild wolf runs loose. This image seemed appropriate:

Part 3 comes to the crux of the story, and includes a narrative about the ancient archetype Lilith, who in Jewish mythology was Adam’s first wife before the unfortunate Eve. This seemed perfect:

Finally, we have an Epilogue. The image of the Phoenix from the bible seemed appropriate enough!

Scanning the 250 year 0ld images has been quite an education. Only once you start to manipulate the image and blow it up, do you see the extraordinary detail of the original craftsman, who scratched the image in reverse on to a copper plate with a steel stylus. The physical strength, endurance and patience it took is humbling for a 21st Century man who often ends up cursing Adobe Photoshop.

We sit on the shoulders of giants.