Bloom, Chapter 1

Welcome to the first installment of Bloom, a Round Robin Blogvel. Table of contents can be found here. And now, I give you:

Chapter 1

Mom and dad were poor. So, so poor. They couldn’t find jobs in Oregon, so they looked everywhere else. They both found work out of state. They were vague about all the details except one: they couldn’t bring us kids with them.

That’s why they dropped Jamie and me off at Grandma’s house and left for New Mexico. But even Gran can’t explain why we never saw them again. She filed a missing persons report when they’d been out of touch for a week. The police traced them as far as a campground in Albuquerque, and then . . . nothing. They paid for one night of camping, but the camp host couldn’t remember if he’d seen them actually set up camp or not. I said it seemed like they’d been abducted by aliens. Jamie said that was ridiculous. He doesn’t have much of an imagination.

Jamie is my brother. He’s a genius. And before you ask, yeah, it looks like he’s headed in the direction of Evil Genius.

He’s at university right now, studying something evil-genius-ish. He’s kind of closed-mouthed about his plans for the future, actually . . . well, he’s closed-mouthed about everything these days. And he’s not coming home for the summer, either. He didn’t even bother making excuses like “I’m too busy”; he just sent a letter saying “Not coming home. I’ll come for my furniture the last week of August.”

Maybe he’s just a Douchebag Genius?

It wasn’t always this way. Back when mom and dad were still around, he used to be nice to me. Of course, sometimes being nice to me meant things like stealing candy for me–but still, he could have stolen the candy and kept it all to himself.

These days he doesn’t share anything, ill-gotten or otherwise. Not with me, anyway. He doesn’t even email or update his Facebook page anymore.

Wow, this is getting depressing. Anyway . . . I just graduated from high school. I’m no evil genius, but I was in the top ten. I had my name in the paper–Jessica Henley, 3.7 grade point average.

Jamie didn’t make it to graduation.

BUT! Now it’s summer, and I’m working at the flower shop in town, and Gran helped me buy a car, and in the fall I’m going to college (not the same school as Jamie. Who wants to be the less intelligent Henley sibling?).

I guess I’m feeling a little lonely. My friends Sarah and Amy are both away for the summer, camp counselors in the mountains, and I have two days off per week and no one to hang out with. I’m spending a lot of time in the woods taking pictures. I’m going to study botany. Plus, photography is very therapeutic.

Today is the hottest day of summer so far. It’s hard to tell with June: sometimes it rains all month and the temps barely rise above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, other years it’s suffocating by the middle of the month.

This is one of those suffocating years. Another reason to spend a lot of time in the woods–shade. And there’s a creek about a half mile down the trail from Gran’s back yard. It’s mostly fed by snow melt from up the mountain, so it’s freaking cold. It’s shallow, but sticking your feet in ice water will cool you off no matter how hot it is.

Jamie used to splash me mercilessly every time we came to the creek together when we were younger. Once he got into high school, though, he wouldn’t come into the woods anymore. He said there was nothing interesting happening there.

Sometimes evil geniuses are kind of dumb.

Anyway. Hot, muggy, and the mosquitos are swarming. Gran makes me this special insect repellent with essential oils and stuff, because she says she won’t cover her grandchildren with poison just to keep the bugs away. It smells really good, and it works almost as well as the kind in the aerosol can. Sometimes Gran is awesome. Of course she’s really strict, too, but I figure that’s because she’s old.

I’m on the trail (wearing jeans and boots because there’s poison oak), and the trees are creaking and shaking their leaves, and there are about a million crows arguing up in the highest branches. Even though I’m only halfway from the house to the creek, I can already hear the water in spite of the crows. I’ve got my camera in my backpack, and a notebook, and (thanks to gran) two apples, a bottle of water, and a granola bar. Gran is a fervid believer in healthy snacks.

I’m just about to the place where the trail forks–the left fork goes to the creek, and the right fork goes straight through the woods to the elementary school playground–when I hear a sound like aluminum cans clinking together. Maybe it’s just because I’m bored, but righteous indignation at the thought of people trashing my woods with beer cans makes my whole body tingle. I step off the trail and pick my way through the ferns and fringecup toward the noise.

I don’t stop to wonder why I don’t hear any voices or human noises until I step between the trunks of two red cedars and see . . . not an underage drinking party at all.

It’s stunning. It’s . . . a sculpture, I guess. It looks like a stand of flowers–sort of like sunflowers, but not exactly. The flowers are made from metal, I think–but I have no idea how the artist found so many colors of metal, or fused them together so seamlessly to create the dappled petals. The flowers are all in different stages of the bloom cycle–some are tightly closed buds, some half open, some fully opened. One of them is even sculpted to look like it’s wilting, and a petal has fallen off. It lays on the soil at the base of the twisted silver stem.

When the breeze picks up again, I discover the source of the clinking. The flowers sway and knock against each other like any flowers would–but with a lot more noise.

Who would make a piece of art like this and leave it in the middle of the woods? Why isn’t it installed somewhere public?

I put my backpack down and dig for my camera.

I look up again just in time to see another petal fall from the wilting flower.

I clutch my camera and shiver in spite of the heat.

After a few minutes I step forward and touch the fading blossom with one fingertip.

The rest of the petals fall to the ground, clicking against each other as they land. What will I do now? I broke someone’s art project! If that’s what it is. I pick up one of the fallen petals. The metal between my fingers is so thin I could tear it like aluminum foil. Each petal is a deep coppery shade at its base, fading to a pale bronze at the edges. The disk flowers remaining on the stem are pale gold. I run my fingers over them, and a few fall off. I crouch in the soft soil beside the flowers.

I grab my pocket knife and dig at the base of the wilting one: it has roots.

Impossible. Completely freaking impossible.

If this is an art project, the artist is a genius to rival Jamie.

Jamie. He’s the person I would go to about this if I could.

Would he listen to me if I took one of the flowers to him? Would he believe me if I told him I think they’re GROWING here somehow, in defiance of every natural law ever? Or would he tell me not to waste his time, like he did last summer when I wanted him to help me clear garlic mustard out of the back yard because it’s so invasive?

This is definitely a little more exciting than garlic mustard. But I don’t know if Jamie will listen.

And for some reason I don’t feel like I should talk to just anyone about this. I don’t know if it’s because they’re in my woods or what, but I feel sort of protective of these crazy plants. If that’s what they are. I don’t want people crashing through the woods to look at them, trampling the wildflowers.

In the end I take 127 pictures and trudge home.

I load them onto my computer and google “metal flowers,” “metallic flowers,” “copper flowers,” and finally “alien flowers”. By the end of the evening I’ve found a lot of references to The Little Shop of Horrors and expensive steampunk jewelry, but nothing that looks like my flowers.

I dream of carnivorous plants and wake up with a killer headache.

It’s going to be a long day at work.

Chapter 2 will be posted next Monday at Creativity Rebellion. I hope you’ll all follow along!

My Favorite Reads of 2011

I usually try to get out my top ten reads of the year before the year is actually over, but (obviously) that didn’t happen in 2011. Still, I wanted to share my favorite reads of the year, because I like to tell people what to read! I consider it a service to my friends who have less reading time than I do.

Overall 2011 was the year of the surprise. Many of the books I was most looking forward to weren’t as awesome as I hoped, and many books that I didn’t expect to like turned out to be new favorites. Not surprising, however, is that most of the books on the list are YA: 8 out of 10, in fact.

It was actually hard to whittle my list of favorites down to ten, but I struggled through on your behalf. See how much I love y’all?

10. The Peach Keeperby Sarah Addison Allen. All of Allen’s books have a heavy serving of Romance, but I felt like The Peach Keeper was just as much about women’s friendships as it was about romantic relationships. Sweet and tender and sad and funny by turns, I think it’s her best work since Garden Spells.

9. The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. An anthology of short stories centered on the theme of animal brides, The Beastly Bride is one of the strongest short story collections I’ve read. Usually I only find one or two pieces in such a collection that I love. I was pleasantly surprised by how vibrant and satisfying I found almost every story in this volume. Charles Vess’s whimsical line illustrations added to the charm.

8. Heart’s Bloodby Juliet Marillier was another big surprise. High fantasy tends to bore me a lot, but something about Heart’s Blood really caught my interest. I’m not even sure I can pin down what it was that I loved so much about the novel. I guess I loved it because I’m such a sucker for stories about love and redemption, and for fairy tales themes. And Heart’s Blood is a revisitation of Beauty and the Beast, so it has all of the above.

7. Red Gloveby Holly Black. I was shocked by how much I loved White Cat last year, and Red Glove was just as good, if not better. The second in Black’s Curse Worker’s series, Red Glove avoided the usual pitfalls of second book in a trilogy. Far from feeling like filler between set up and resolution, Red Glove upped the stakes and covered a lot of new territory. I can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy, coming out later this year. I think Holly Black’s work just keeps getting more amazing.

6. The Trickstersby Margaret Mahy. I’ve already rhapsodized about this one over on Greenwoman: I’ll let those of you who haven’t read my review check it out there, lest I annoy everyone by repeating myself.

5. The Monstrumologistand The Curse of the Wendigo(I get to lump them together because they are part of a series. It’s totally fair! Shut up!) by Rick Yancey. Yancey must be some kind of crazy genius, because his writing makes me love a series of books that does all the wrong things and leaves me panting for more. The Monstrumologist and its sequels are overwhelmingly male (usually guaranteed to bore me half to death), and are fucking gross (usually guaranteed to make me shut the book and decide the author should stop writing and start intensive therapy). They are also full of melancholy. I’m pretty sure Pellinore Warthrop is bipolar.  Will Henry is an adolescent orphan living with the man who is responsible for the untimely deaths of his parents. But between the gorgeous prose and the portrayal of the protagonist’s tangled feelings of tenderness and resentment, Yancey keeps me coming back for more. Yes they are creepy and gruesome. I recommend them anyway.

4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Collector’s Editionby Sherman Alexie made me cry. Several times. Oddly enough, I didn’t cry at the sad parts. I cried at the tender parts, the happy(ish) parts. I cried every time the protagonist encountered an unexpected moment of humanity. There’s so much loss in Alexie’s semi-autobiographical novel, but I didn’t come away from the story saturated with sorrow–I came away full of hope and compassion. And the voice! Oh the voice. I love the voice in this story. Completely priceless. This one isn’t new, so you might even be able to find a used copy somewhere. If you haven’t read it, go read it now! It’s excellent.

3. Daughter of Smoke and Boneby Laini Taylor. Laini Taylor is kind of my (s)hero. Of course I’m biased toward her because she’s a Portlander, and all the best things and people are from my adopted home state. Also she has pink hair. BUT, neither of those things are why her books are awesome. Her books are awesome because her writing is fantastic. I adored the atmosphere and beautiful prose of Daughter. I made Oh My God noises at the surprising ending. I can’t wait for the rest of the story. According to Taylor’s blog, it’s scheduled to come out this fall! No title announced yet that I know of, but I already can’t wait.

2. Anna Dressed in Bloodby Kendare Blake. I hoped I would love this book because the cover is freaking fantastic. Thankfully I DID! I loved it A LOT. And it was creepy. Another surprise–the older I get, the more I like creepy scary things. But there’s a line I can’t cross, and Anna Dressed in Blood walked that line very close to the edge. Awesomely creepy, great storytelling, I totally adored it. There’s more of the story to come in August! Can’t wait. And the cover! I want to frame the cover and hang it in my room.

1. The Space Betweenby Brenna Yovanoff. You all know how I loved this book. I talked about it at great length already. If you only read one book off my list, read this one. SO beautiful! Read it right away, and remember that I totally accept thank you presents.

Do you have a top ten list? Tell me about it, or post a link!

First Sunday Short Fiction: Journey

Welcome to the September edition of First Sunday Short Fiction. If you’re interested in participating, you are welcome to join! The invitation can be found here. And if you’d like to read the stories from other months, select the “First Sunday Short Fiction” category in the sidebar.

Just one other participant this month: Steph Kayne’s September offering in her ongoing romance series can be found here.

And now, here’s my story.

Journey

Descending thirteen stone steps, you stand on a gray shore, your senses full of the smell of mud and water. You are looking for answers, and you’ve been told you might find them if you take this journey. It is not dangerous, they say. No one has ever died from taking the black boat across the still water.

But no one who takes the journey comes back unchanged.

You step into the waiting boat. It tilts, once, then stills as you settle onto the hard bench seat. There are no oars; you fold your hands in your lap and wait. The water hardly stirs when the boat slips away from the land.

You pass through reflections of mountains and trees, and they waver and blur on the surface of the lake. You pass higher and higher peaks, until the image of their snow-capped summits turns the water’s surface white. You wonder how long you will travel, and what you will find when you arrive. You sleep, and wake, and the mountains recede. The lake narrows, pushing your tiny craft into a small, dark harbor, where summer-green trees crowd rustling and whispering right up to the water’s edge.

Under the trees, the shadows are thick. Anything could wait there, and you hope you’re not expected to enter the woods. The boat scrapes on the shore. The belt of sand between water and forest is just wide enough to hold it. You sit, peering into the shadows, and feel certain something looks back. But you are cold and stiff from being still, and you have not eaten today, and sitting here in this boat forever will leave you a skeleton in the end. If you are going to die today, you might as well make it quick.

It isn’t the shadows that take you. When your foot hits the sand, the earth sucks you in. You do not fall; you are swallowed, pulled sluggishly through viscous soil. And just when you think the dark, close ground will be your grave, you drop to your knees on the floor of a womb-like cave. The fire burning in the center of the floor is the first warmth you’ve felt since you descended the steps, and you move closer to the flames, tucking your knees up to your chest. You get as close as you dare, and the heat washes over you. So far, you think, this journey has not been what you expected at all. You were told you would be tested. You brought a knife, sturdy boots, and all the courage you could muster, but there have been no monsters, no enemies to fight. There has only been waiting, and wondering, and weariness.

You blink, and lifting your eyelids requires herculean effort.

When your eyes open, she’s there. She sits beside you, cross-legged. Her face and form are shrouded by sweeping black. You know she’s the one you came looking for, but you don’t know who she is. For no reason you can name, she terrifies you. You’re afraid to speak first, but after several minutes of listening to the crackling fire, you realize she’s waiting. And she can afford to wait forever.

You remember you brought an offering and open the pouch at your waist with trembling hands. Yesterday when you left home, the fruits of the Hawthorn tree that grows by the creek were jewel-bright and luscious. Now they are desiccated and nearly black, barely clinging to the thorny twigs. You want to think it’s impossible, but you know you left the rules of the ordinary world on the gray shore. You wonder if you will ever go back.

You hold out your offering. You want to apologize, to say it’s all you have, but your tongue is curled at the back of your mouth and your throat feels full of sand. She inclines her head toward the fire, and you toss the shriveled offering into the flames. They blaze up with a bright flash and a series of loud snaps. The fire returns to its subdued monologue, and you look back at the figure beside you.

You breathe around the chaotic thundering of your heart and ask, “Who are you?”

She leans forward. You hesitate, not sure you’re brave enough to see what’s behind the veil. But you have not come this far to go back without your answers. You pull the dark cloth free. It whispers as it falls.

When you see her face you understand the answers you thought you wanted are not the answers you need. You understand she is the answer, you are the answer, the journey is the answer. You see yourself mirrored in her eyes as you truly are: broken and perfect, tiny and infinite, lost in the universe, exactly where you need to be.

Copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011

Artwork: “Mary Magdalene” by Claudia Olivos. Used with permission.

Claudia Olivos is a painter from Chile who resides in Arlington with her painter husband Sergio. They teach art classes and sell artwork from their studio. You can learn more about Claudia and Sergio at their blog.

Skeleton Key Chapter 1

Welcome to the first installment of Skeleton Key, a Round Robin Blogvel–a traveling blog novel. A list of participating blogs can be found here. And now I give you:

Chapter One

I swallow the bite of sandwich I’ve been chewing and look over at my lunch buddy. Normally I would think Genevieve is too pretty to talk to, but on my first day here she gave me a chocolate cupcake with pink frosting. What can I say? My friendship can be bought. Cheap.

I lean over, nudging her with my elbow before whispering “Do you ever think Laurel might be a vampire?”

Genevieve’s bright green eyes skate over Laurel’s back. As usual, the dark haired, wraith-thin head of human resources is hunched over a cup of coffee.

Genevieve rolls her eyes at me. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she says.

I take another bite and go through my mental checklist again. Laurel never goes outside. Her office is in the basement–no windows. She never eats. She’s pale as copy paper. She’s obscenely beautiful. And she never smiles.

Of course that list could probably be applied to most fashion models, too, so maybe I’m full of shit.

But there’s something weird about Laurel. And I don’t think it’s that she’s secretly a model. I’ve been here three weeks, and I’ve never seen her go to the bathroom. Of course, that could be because I don’t spend much time in the building. I’m a runner–which is a more flattering term than “gopher”, but it amounts to the same thing. Go for coffee, go for lunches, go for pens and paperclips.

Laurel’s not the only odd thing about my new workplace.

For one thing, no one but me ever seems to leave the building–not even for lunch.

For another, I’ve never seen my boss. He talks to me via intercom, and I sometimes see his shape moving around behind the frosted glass of his office door, but I’ve seriously never seen him in the flesh.

He has a great voice though. His voice has featured in some night-time imaginings, let me tell you. I’m pretty sure this is wrong. I don’t let that stop me.

Weirdness aside, the job is more interesting than serving coffee, and it pays better. My options as a former English major with student loans are limited; I’ll take a little eccentricity if it comes with good benefits.

When I get back to my desk after lunch, my intercom beeps. It’s my boss.

“Rebecca,” he says. “I’d like to have a word. Could you step into my office?”

I stare at the intercom. A car alarm goes off outside. A bird soliloquizes in a tree near the window.

“Rebecca?”

Oh. Crap.

“Sorry. Yeah, I’ll be right there.”

I pause outside the frosted glass office door and look myself over. My dress code is casual, but I’m relieved to see I didn’t absentmindedly wipe mayonnaise on my jeans or spill coffee on my sweater. I clear my throat, smooth my hair, and knock.

Mr. Harvey’s office is not what I expected. It’s neither sleek and modern nor classic masculine craftsman; instead, it’s crammed full of exotic looking plants. Vines climb the curtains and drape over the curtain rod so the light coming through the window casts a greenish glow over everything. He stands with his back to me, staring out the window. He’s tall. His suit fits him perfectly. His black hair is cut very short, and seems to absorb light; looking at him is like looking into an unlit alley, all shadows and secrets.

“You wanted to see me?”

He doesn’t turn.

“You’ve been here three weeks now. How do you like it so far?”

Is this a trick question?

“I can’t complain,” I say finally.

He nods. “Everyone says you’re doing a great job.”

Doing a great job isn’t all that impressive; it’s not like the tasks they give me are difficult. But I’m not about to say as much to the guy who signs my paycheck. I settle for thanking him.

“Genevieve mentioned to me that you’ve been asking some questions about the staff.”

Crap. I never would have pegged Genevieve as the type to run to the boss. Especially about a flippant comment. I don’t know how to respond.

“It’s no more than I expected,” he says. “Though it’s ridiculous to accuse Laurel of being a vampire.”

“I was joking,” I say. Sort of.

He chuckles. He doesn’t sound angry.

Then he turns around.

He’s black.

I don’t mean he’s a man of African American descent. I mean he is BLACK. Crow-wing, midnight in central Oklahoma, pint-of-Guiness black. Except his eyes are bright yellow, and slit like a cat’s.

I’ve never been a fainter, so I settle for stumbling back a few steps. A chair bumps my knees and I fall in to it.

He smiles. His teeth are toothpaste-commercial white–and a little pointy.

“Laurel’s not a vampire,” he says. “She’s a succubus. Contrary to popular misconception, the two species are not at all alike.”

I really, really want to faint. Why can’t I faint? If this were a novel, I would totally faint. Damn sturdy constitution.

I have a strong stomach, too, so bolting for the bathroom and enjoying a vigorous vomiting session is also out.

I could walk out I suppose. But my traitorous legs are the only part of me sticking to the cliche response. They’re shaking, all right, and I’m pretty sure I’d end up eating carpet if I tried to walk. Yuck.

“So . . . um . . .” I finally manage to say.

Mr. Harvey walks around his desk very slowly and eases in to his chair. He’s watching me the way I would watch a mouse I want to catch; like he knows if he makes a wrong move I’ll run.

“Will you feel better if I promise none of us intend to hurt you?”

Probably not, I think. But what I say is, “By ‘us’, you mean?”

He smiles again. I wish he wouldn’t do that. It’s really not helping, what with the pointy teeth and all.

“Oh, everyone,” he says.

“Everyone?”

“Everyone.”

Well hell.

“Are you all succubuses? Succubi? Whatever?”

He shakes his head. “We’re a very diverse cross-section of the supernatural population.”

“O . . . kay . . .”

I’m a font of witty repartee today.

“We hired you,” he said, “because we need your help.”

Oh hell no. I’ve read this ballad. It never ends well for the human. As soon as my legs start working, I’m gonna get far away before I end up some kind of blood sacrifice to restore the fertility of the earth or something.

But until then, I need to keep it together.

“What for?” I ask.

“It’s going to be a little hard for you to accept,” he says. “Judging by your response to what I’ve told you thus far. But hear me out, and I’ll give you a bonus. And if you decide you’re willing to stay, and help us, I’ll give you a raise. A good one.”

I knew I shouldn’t have worn my I’m a liberal arts major: would you like fries with that? t-shirt on casual Friday. Now they all know how much I need money–and how few options I have for getting it. Damn my overpriced education to the seventh circle of hell. I cross my arms.

“I’m listening.”

He leans forward a little and steeples his hands. The human CEO gesture doesn’t suit him; I think he realizes it, too, because he immediately gives it up and leans his chair back.

“This building is a sort of transit center for the supernatural,” he says. “If you’ve read any folklore–and I know you have–then you’re familiar with the idea of multiple worlds, and the passages between them. Our building has a lot of those passages. Are you with me so far?”

I close my eyes and lean my head back. I wish I could go back to the beginning of the day and stay in bed like I wanted to. I could be at home reading a mystery novel and drinking tea right now.

“I’m with you,” I say.

“These transit centers are scattered all over the world. Each center is staffed by beings who watch the entrances and exits, and make sure any creature entering the human world knows how to keep a low profile, how to blend in. And who make sure nothing too destructive gets loose.”

He pauses again. I guess I’m expected to respond. I nod.

“And each transit center is under the control of its creator, or doorkeeper. Only the doorkeeper has the ability to lock and unlock the doors from one world to another.”

Doorkeeper. That’s creative.

“Okay.”

“But our doorkeeper was murdered.”

“Wait–I thought you guys lived forever or whatever.”

“Anything can be killed if you know how,” he says.

I don’t like the sound of that. I tuck my knees up to my chest and wrap my arms around my legs. They aren’t shaking anymore. They’ve gone limp and lifeless instead.

“Moving on,” he says briskly. “Since our doorkeeper was killed, we’ve all been trapped here.”

My muscles all loosen with relief. He’s totally lying. I come and go as I please. This is all a joke. I say as much, and he rubs his eyes.

“The magic doesn’t work on humans. Not full-blooded humans, anyway.”

I can feel my eyebrows rubbing against my hairline.

“That’s convenient,” I say.

“I would explain it all to you, Rebecca, but it would take years of learning before you’d understand it. And since some of us are starving in here, we don’t have time to send you to remedial supernatural education.”

Riiight.

“Okay so . . . how exactly am I supposed to help you? Not being all magical or whatever.”

“The one who murdered the doorkeeper made a key from her finger bones. It can open and close the portals. He took it into the human world and disappeared–and we want you to find him.”

I start laughing. I can’t help it. And I can’t stop. I’m like some crazy hysterical volcano erupting with giggles. My eyes water.

Mr. Harvey sits quietly while I get control of myself. He’s way too dignified. I wonder what he is. I decide I don’t want to know. I hold my breath, and stop laughing.

“So let me get this straight,” I say, wiping my eyes. Another bubble of laugher slips out, but I swallow hard and suppress it. “You need me to go find . . . a skeleton key.”

He actually laughs. His tongue is very pale pink.

“Yes, I suppose you could put it that way.”

I turn another hiccup of laughter into a throat-clearing, and put my feet back on the floor.

“And you think I’m the one to help you with this . . . why?”

“Oh,” he says casually, straightening a stack of papers on his desk. “We knew you were the one for the job the minute you came for your interview. You see, Genevieve saw you in a vision.”

copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011.

Chapter Two will post Monday, June 6, at Inner Owlet.

Valerian Tastes Like Dirty Feet: Plant Basics for Fiction Writers

As a sufferer of fiction and flora focused Multiple Obsessions Disorder, I find myself in an odd position when I’m reading fantasy novels. I often know more about plants than the author of the novel I’m reading. And I often notice glaring errors. And I wonder: don’t publishing houses have fact checkers or something? Why didn’t they bother to use them? Did they assume no one would notice?

Plum Blossoms in the SPRING

Probably. There’s a popular conception out there that those who enjoy fantasy novels are, without exception, pasty, doughy, bespectacled, socially awkward brainiacs huddled in darkened rooms eating potato chips and drinking Mountain Dew whilst devouring the latest 900 page epic.

I suppose it is, like most stereotypes, sometimes true.

It is not, however, universally applicable. Some of us readerly and writerly types actually quite like going outdoors. Many of us garden. (I actually started gardening BECAUSE of an obsession with herbs inspired by reading fantasy novels.)

That’s right, authors and publishers. When you get the details wrong? We notice. And fantasy novels are constantly getting plants wrong. And every time I read a major error about plants, I am pulled out of the story by my need to launch a tirade on the foolishness of “city folk” trying to write about plants. (It’s especially ugly when I’m alone in the house.)

So, I’m going to share some very basic plant information for fiction writers, in the hopes that it will lead to fewer incidences of improper plant depiction (say THAT five times fast).

Rosemary: Not a Swamp Dweller

1. Plants have very specific needs. Some plants like to grow in shade. Others need full sun. Some like to live in wet places, some in dry. If I read one more novel where the heroine gathers LAVENDER in the FOREST I am going to have an aneurism. (Lavender is native to the Mediterranean. It likes full sun and well drained soil.)

2. Every plant blooms at a specific time of year. This time depends on temperature, the amount of rainfall, and a number of other conditions. Bloom time may vary by a few weeks in either direction depending on the weather. But you can at least be pretty sure that Violets will bloom in early Spring, and Lavender will bloom mid to late summer. So, when your heroine goes into the forest to collect Lavender blossoms, she cannot gather them at the same time as she gathers Violet blossoms (which you actually CAN find in the forest, by the way).

3. Herbs, much like pharmaceuticals, usually require multiple doses before achieving a desired healing effect. Please think about this. When you have Strep Throat, and you go to the doctor for antibiotics, do you take only one dose and then all of your symptoms disappear and you are well again? Um, no. You take several doses. The recovery is gradual. It is the same with plants. While some herbs are very powerful and you will notice a difference immediately, no herb is going to immediately make anyone 100% well. It takes time. So remember: When deciding how many days it takes to get to the frozen mountaintop swamps to gather Rosemary? You need a couple more days than you think you need–because once your heroine returns, it will take a while for the plant to do its thing. (Please note: I can’t speak to how applicable this is to poisons and antidotes. I haven’t studied that area of herbalism at all. Mostly because I imagine it involves a lot of spectacular vomiting. I have a thing about vomiting. It’s not a good thing.)

Borage in July

4. The really potent medicinal herbs often taste like ass. So, if you want to put someone to sleep by giving her Valerian? The wine you put it in will NOT taste strangely sweet. It will taste like someone with really poor hygiene left their dirty socks in the wine barrel. Or maybe their whole nasty, fungus-covered foot. No, I’m not saying all herbs taste bad. Some of them are delicious. Elderberries, rosehips, rose petals, violet flowers, all yum. But if it’s a root, it probably tastes yucky (yes there are exceptions). If it’s a poison, it’s probably bitter and will probably make the inside of your mouth feel like it’s full of fiberglass insulation.

OBVIOUSLY all of my statements are generalizations. When it comes to plants, there are exceptions and deviations all over the place. Because plants, like people, are individuals. My advice to fiction writers would be this: If you are going to name specific plants, then research the plants you want to name. Or ask someone who knows about them. And if you don’t want to do the research, or don’t want to take the time? Don’t name names. OR, make up FAKE plants. Especially if it’s a fantasy novel–you’re making up a whole world anyway. Just make up a few more things.

Gardening and herbalist friends: what are some other plant rules that are constantly broken in fiction? Educate us!

Recommended Reading: The Tricksters

If you consider all paranormal fiction to be fluffy and escapist, I highly recommend you read Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters.

Of course you’ll want the synopsis:

As the Hamiltons gather at their holiday beach house, Carnival’s Hide, for their Christmas celebrations, the warm, chaotic familty atomosphere is chilled by the unexpected arrival of three sinister brothers. Who are they? Where are they from? Only 17- year-old Harry, the middle daughter, is close to seeing the truth. Are these brothers her own invention, or are they truly descendants of Teddy Carnival who drowned there many years earlier? As the brothers gradually reveal their purpose, long-hidden family secrets are also unfurled. No one emerges unscathed.

The novel is, obviously, about Tricksters and magic of (mostly) a sinister sort. But there’s so much more going on in this story than the intrusion of magic on the every day world. Mahy looks at the family dynamic, and the assumptions we make about the people we are closest too. She looks at the roles we cast for each other–the shimmering glamorous pretty one, the quiet unassuming brainy one, the detached clueless athletic one, the steady perfect father, the serene comfortable mother. She looks at the ways we sometimes alter our behavior to better fit the images our families project on us. And she looks at the ways the truth of ourselves will always find an outlet, sometimes with upsetting consequences.

And, as the best Trickster stories do, she shows us what happens when Trickster energy enters our lives.  Because Tricksters aren’t just deified comic relief.  They are the personification of chaos, and they teach us that chaos is never truly random. The chaos sweeps through, disturbs us, sometimes frightens us, angers us–and occasionally shatters our lives irreparably. And in the wake of that shattering we learn truths we would never have discovered without it.

Mahy’s writing makes me long to visit New Zealand, where the novel is set. That’s a big deal, considering that I really hate to travel. Take this line, for example: “The ragged crests of the waves drew light into themselves and advanced in lines of broken luminosity across the dark surface of the harbor.” As my friend Elizabeth said, “Whatever. Showoff.”

I’ve loved Mahy’s work since I read The Changeover when I was in Junior High, and I think The Tricksters is one of her finest novels.

And for a final note, if you’re interested in reading more about tricksters, there’s a wonderful article on the subject in the archives of The Endicott Studio’s Journal of Mythic Arts

First Sunday Short Fiction: Visitation

Welcome to the second installment of First Sunday Short Fiction. If you enjoyed the stories this month and would like to join in next month, details can be found here.

Once again we have only one other offering, which you can read here.

MONDAY MORNING EDIT! Apparently there was an email skerfuffle, and one of the contributors message to me went astray. SO, I am adding her entry now, though she posted it yesterday. Welcome to the party, The Creativity Rebellion.

Hopefully next month we’ll get more takers.

And now, my offering.

Visitation

Flashing lights, tow trucks, white Honda on its roof, red stain spreading over the pavement. Both lanes blocked. He pulled his car to the shoulder of the road and cut the engine. He would probably be here a while. His gaze fell on a sun-bright gleam in the weeds by the road.  He stepped out, the air in his throat like icy little knives, and watched his breath drift over the hood of his dented Dodge. He surveyed the litter among dried stalks of yellow dock poking through the dirty snow, until the gleam caught his eye again. He pushed aside a waterlogged copy of Field and Stream to reveal a tiny disk of rich gold worn almost completely smooth with age. In spite of the chill of the day, the gold felt warm in his fingers. He tucked it into the pocket of his jeans, and looked up to see the tow truck drive away. The police started directing traffic past the accident site. He climbed into his car and went on his way.

Huddled under her blankets, hiding from the draft pouring through antique windows, she heard a sound outside like a man moaning in pain. She put her pillow over her head, but guilt prodded her from her bed. She stuffed her cold feet into snow boots, pulled a parka over her nightgown, and stepped outside. The night air burned her sinuses and made her eyes ache. Her flashlight caught a frantic movement by the fence. A tiny bird, brown and speckled, fluttered uselessly against a length of fishing line tethering its foot to the chain link. The bird went still as she worked at the line, though she felt its heart speeding under her hand. When the bird was free she stood and released it. It skittered across the ground and up her nightgown. She froze with surprise, felt little sharp nails and soft warm feathers flit up her leg, and then, nothing.  For a moment her heartbeat drowned out the other noises of the city night. Wondering if she was still dreaming, she trudged back to the house and returned to her bed.

Two lattes. One mocha. Sprinkle of cinnamon, sprinkle of nutmeg. All morning the demands of the coffee shop crowded last night’s too bright dreams from his memory. He ignored the burning of the little coin in his pocket. He couldn’t leave it at home, these past six months. He looked up at the quiet voice asking for hot chocolate, saw it belonged to smooth dark skin and shining dark hair, and a full-moon belly under a pale cotton dress. The coin flared in his pocket and his heart flared in his chest. She had to repeat her order twice, but she smiled at him. The circles under her deep brown eyes didn’t make her less beautiful. He read her name when he swiped her debit card, spoke it as he handed over the cardboard cup and lid, watched her walk awkwardly from the shop. His hands lost their certainty whenever he thought of her, and he felt lucky to still have his job at the end of the day.

She wasn’t sure if it was the baby or the secret that weighed her down more, but the secret frightened her most, because what if it meant she was insane? The first week of throwing up she’d remembered the goddess Coatlicue, who stuffed a ball of feathers under her dress and found herself pregnant with no explanation to satisfy her murderous children. When the pregnancy test had revealed its pale blue plus sign, she’d remembered Leda, visited by Zeus in the form of a swan. No one would ever believe her. She made up plausible explanations in her head, but there was no one to ask questions anyway. She’d come to the city seeking anonymity, not realizing how entire her isolation would grow. The boy in the coffee shop was the first person whose eyes had looked at her face instead of her belly since the thing had swelled to titanic proportions. She went back to the coffee shop on Saturday, and the boy with the light brown eyes and tattered gray sweater came to her table during his break. He remembered her name. He showed her the coin and told her about the dreams of beings too bright to look upon. She told him the story of Danae, seduced by Zeus in a fall of gold. Then she told him her story and waited for him to leave. He took her hands, warmed them between his own, and believed her.

The night of the first freeze, she squeezed his fingers until his bones creaked; and he fed her ice chips from a plastic cup. The new baby girl shone like the gold coin from the roadside, but the nurses and doctors made no comment. Maybe they couldn’t see the glow.

That night she dreamed the god came to claim the child, and woke in a cold sweat. She sat in a rocking chair for hours, holding the baby tightly in her arms, afraid to sleep.

When she told him her dream, he pulled the coin from his pocket and turned it so it caught the cold light from the window. He kissed her and left the hospital. He drove to the coast through a storming afternoon, thinking of holy wells and sacrifices. He stood over the water with the burning coin in his fist. As he threw the coin to the waves, he prayed it was enough. The wind snatched the wish from his lips and carried it to the gods.

copyright Michelle Simkins, 2011.

Once again the artwork is a piece by the incredibly talented Claudia Olivos. Used with permission.

Learn more about the artist at her website and purchase her beautiful artwork at her on line store.