Excerpt: from ‘Salutaris’: Darkness Beyond Nature

THE FINAL rehearsal for the spring concert was held in Renato’s church at night. It could have taken place in the afternoon, but Hance wanted his singers to get the feel of performing the Tallis and watching for their cues in dim lighting. Only one of the choirs was front and center in the sanctuary. The choir with the strongest musicians was up in the choir loft, which was over the entrance. The remaining four choirs were positioned in pairs across from each other in the side aisles. The idea was to envelope the listeners in the piece’s layers of polyphony. It always worked.

Renato was edgy. Protestors had tossed garbage at campers who were leaving for work that morning, and a puddle of gasoline had been found in the driveway. Renato said he had called the police, but the officer was useless. “He thought one of the campers had brought in a container of gas for a portable generator. I told him there weren’t any generators because there wasn’t a source of electricity out there. He thought someone might have hooked up an extension cord to an outlet in the garage, but I didn’t see one then and I didn’t see one this evening.”

The orchestra had been setting up for the first part of the program when Renato pulled Hance aside to tell him this. Hance wished he was closer to the back door; he wanted to see for himself. “Did you hear anything running on electricity back there?”

“Nothing.”

“What about landscaping equipment? It’s spring. Some of those men work for landscapers. Maybe they’ve got leaf blowers.”

“Leaf blowers? Do you think somebody could walk off the job with a leaf blower attached to his body and nobody would notice?”

Hance remembered seeing backpack blowers with tubes the size of an elephant’s trunk affixed to the groundskeepers at the college. “I’m trying to be reasonable. What else could the gas be for? A barbecue grill?”

“There isn’t supposed to be any gas in the camp at all! It’s one of the ground rules. I thought you knew that.”

“I didn’t.”

“No gas, no propane. They aren’t even supposed to have cigarettes.”

“They’ve got to make fires for food and warmth with something.”

“Yes, but I draw the line at propane and gasoline. Matches and cigarette lighters are enough.”

“If you’re so concerned about the gas, then wait until a break and I’ll go out there with you and have a look around. Do you have a flashlight?”

Ren balked. “I don’t know, John. Maybe we should leave well enough alone.”

Never had Hance seen Renato in such a state. “What’s wrong? These are the people you’ve been sheltering since last September. What do you think is going on out there?”

“I don’t know. And that’s the problem. I do not know. It’s too quiet. And dark. As if the place is deserted. But I know it’s not.”

“Don’t some of them work at night?”

“It’s not that kind of quiet. It’s a stillness. A vacancy. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I smell nothing. And it’s cold. A raw, steely cold, like the interior of an unheated subway car.” Renato shivered. “Just thinking about it skeeves me out.”

“Good heavens, Ren, it’s your backyard! It’s no different now than when you saw it in daylight.”

“Except there was gas out there, and no one could say where it came from.”

“I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation. Be patient.”

Though Hance projected reason and calm, Renato’s news left him uneasy. He suspected Marsden was involved, but he refused to give in to fear. The best way to reject Marsden and to rally poor Renato was to press on as if nothing was the matter; nothing existed but the music.

The rehearsal was set up later than expected, started later than expected, and ran much, much later than expected. Hance never did go outside with Renato at the break because there was no break. Once they had warmed up, the choristers wanted to keep going. They had been enjoying some success with the Tallis in the rehearsal room; they couldn’t wait to hear what it sounded like in the church. Despite Renato’s plea for him to leave the lighting alone, Hance had the lights turned down far enough so the choirs could still read their music and see him. He brought his singers through the work until he was certain they were irrefutably confident with their lines and his directions..

When rehearsal was over and the musicians left for home, it was after midnight. Though the church would be locked for the night, Renato raised the lights and left them burning. Hance detected the quiet that his colleague had spoken about. It ranged well beyond the ordinary quiet of the premises. It was the hush of a house that was not a house, where the walls were the illusion of walls, the floor was the earth, the roof was the sky, and what he wore on his back was what had been hiding in his heart, exposed for all to see. He remembered Marsden and what Marsden had done to him on that patch of snowy earth.

Not again. Not tonight. Dear God, not tonight.

Renato was beside him, tentative. “Shall we?”

“Shall we what?”

“Go looking for where that gas came from.”

“I don’t think that skulking around in the dark, waking people out of a sound sleep, is the way to go about it.”

“What should we do?”

“Get some rest.” Hance pulled his car keys from his pocket.

“You’re going? Aren’t you too tired to drive? I can make coffee.”

No need to ask what was wrong. Hance smelled Renato’s fear.

Poor soul. He doesn’t want to be left alone.

Hance smiled. “Coffee sounds good, thanks. Emmy?”

She leaned against the pew, yawning, her arms wrapped around her backpack. “Coffee, yes,” she murmured, and with half-closed eyes went into the rectory with Hance and Renato.

Renato turned on every light he came upon. He asked Hance and Emmy if they’d mind helping him with the lights upstairs. There were so many, and he didn’t want do it all by himself.

“But you’re not by yourself, Father Ren,” Emmy said. Her tone held no allegation of cowardice, no presumption that he was being silly.

Still, Ren didn’t go upstairs. Nor did Hance make the ascent. He didn’t want to leave Renato and Emmy.

The three sat over empty cups, waiting for the coffee to brew. Emmy rested her temple against her fist, eyes closed. Renato had the inward stare of someone so seized by horrific possibilities that he’s lost his grip on the reality beneath his nose. Hance attempted to bring him back. “A shame you don’t have a piano.”

“I don’t play.”

“No, but every now and then you have company that does.”

“Oh.”

Renato reunited with his ruminations for some moments before telling Hance, “Sing something.”

Suffer little children. Especially when they’re little boys afraid of the dark. “I really don’t have a voice at this hour.”

“I don’t care. Just sing. It’s too quiet.”

The first thing that came to mind was “Gute Nacht,” from Schubert’s Die Winterreise. The range and phrasing were simple enough, and the text was not inappropriate.

“Fremd bin ich eingezogen, Fremd zieh’ ich wieder aus . . .” A stranger I came, a stranger I leave.

“Der Mai war mir gewogen, mit manchem Blumenstrauss.” May woke me with its abundance of blossoming flowers.

Sluggish with sleep, Renato pushed himself away from the table and got as far as the parlor couch, where he fell upon the cushions. “Just keep singing, John.” The command was slurred. “Keep singing . . . so we know you’re here.”

We? Small chance Emmy would know anything. She was already asleep at the table, head on arm, her cup of coffee pushed well clear of her point of repose.

What was going on out there? When did it start? Why didn’t everyone notice when they were leaving the church after rehearsal?

Half muttering, half singing the rest of the song, Hance went into the parlor and peeked between the edge of the shade and the window frame. There was no moonlight or starlight or any suggestion of artificial light in the camp within the trees. There was only darkness so pure and dense—so undeniably absolute—that it couldn’t belong to nature. No wonder Renato was frightened. But sleep was no escape. There was no escape. There never had been and never would be.

Whither shall I flee from thy face? If I ascend into heaven, thou art there: if I descend into hell, thou art present. Perhaps darkness shall cover me: and night shall be my light in my pleasures. But darkness shall not be dark to thee, and night shall be light as day: the darkness thereof and the light thereof are alike to thee.

“Father John?”

Emmy. She stood like a four-year-old, her arms limp at her sides. He imagined a teddy bear dangling from her fist. Her face was white, shining with tears. She sniffled.

He went to her, to draw her into his arms. As he reached for her every window burst, blasted to bits by a fire that had not grown by degrees but was there all at once, raging, enshrouding the rectory, the church and the woods.

The Writing Process

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I’m doing something a little different today: talking about why and how I write, as part of a collective blog tour about the writing process. Massive thanks to the wondrous V.R. Christensen for inviting me along on this event! In addition to being the proprietor of Captive Press, V.R. is the bestselling author of the luscious Neo-Victorian novels Cry of the Peacock and Of Moths & Butterflies, as well the short story collection Sixteen Seasons. A third novel, Gods & Monsters, is on the way. Please do stop by V.R.’s  site, http://vrchristensen.com,  to learn about her own approach to writing fiction.

1)      What am I working on? Right now I’m working on In a Giant’s Hand, a historical, set during the War of 1812, about a marriage eviscerated by the arrival of child long thought dead, and Meeting Amalek, a YA Civil War novella about a Southern family who thinks they’re hiding a Confederate deserter from a murderous general by having the deserter pretend to be the father, who’s fighting for the North. Both stories are first-person narratives. I prefer the intimacy of the memoir approach to historicals, though third person was best for the gentle screwball comedy of Acquaintance, a Regency whose title was inspired by the one-word titles of Jane Austen works.

2)      How does my work differ from others of its genre? I like to think I have an arch way of looking at and expressing things. I don’t follow formulas, and I like to layer with insight and unexpected allusions and analogies. I don’t write quickly and prefer not to write down the first thing that comes to mind just to get something “out there” in record time. I began In a Giant’s Hand three years ago, and there was a three-year gap between when I started and finished Salutaris. Meeting Amalek began much further back: 1998. In between, I moved and lost all my notes and research for the story.

3)      Why do I write what I do? You might as well ask why I write at all! I think I was born with a book in my hand. A love of reading since I was teeny tiny evolved into writing tales of my own—tales meant to do more than entertain me and provide some diversion for others. I like to explore why things are the way they are, conditions of life, and how we enter or escape or long to escape those conditions. Lots of my characters, even the ones in the comic Regency Acquaintance, are propelled by introspection, doubt, a sense of loss, and a need for retribution or validation. To paraphrase Socrates, the unexamined life is not worth sharing.

4)      How does my writing process work? I don’t have a process. But I’m not a “pantser,” writing by the seat of my pants and letting characters and events lead me scene by scene. Like a sculptor envisioning a completed statue, I “see” the entirety of a story before I begin. I know how it’s  going to end and how I want to arrive at that ending. I don’t write thrillers or mysteries, but I do like to toss in twists and turns to keep readers guessing the outcome.

Next up on the tour, on June 16, is Mary Ann Bernal, author of The Briton and the Dane novels. Mary Ann is an avid history buff whose area of interest focuses on Ninth Century Anglo-Saxon Britain during the Viking Age. While pursuing a degree in business administration, she managed to fit creative writing classes and workshops into her busy schedule to learn the craft, but it would take decades before her “Erik the Viking” novel was ultimately published.

Mary Ann is also a passionate supporter of the United States military, having been involved with letter writing campaigns and other support programs since Operation Desert Storm. She has appeared on The Morning Blend television show hosted by KMTV, the CBS television affiliate in Omaha, and was interviewed by the Omaha World-Herald for her volunteer work. She has also been a featured author on Triangle Variety Radio, The Phil Naessens Show, and The Writers Showcase, and has been interviewed extensively by American and European bloggers.

Mary Ann is a New York “expat,” and currently resides in Omaha, Nebraska.You can read more about Mary Ann and her work at her site, http://maryannbernal.blogspot.com/And don’t forget to stop by on June 16, when she shares some thoughts about her own writing process!

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