A long time ago Ray Bradbury wrote a short story called “The April Witch” about a love sick teenage girl named Cecy. Cecy has been born into a “remarkable” family as they call themselves. They are witches, Cecy is specifically an “April Witch”. She has the ability to leave her body and travel the night “like a black kite on the wind” and invade and occupy the consciousness of anyone or anything, a bug, a bird, a boy or a girl. In another girl’s body she falls in love vicariously with a muggle, but Harry Potter is still a good 60 years away and it cannot be. Poor Cecy.
I’ve read that story many times, and it only recently occurred to me what the story is actually about. The interior metaphor of the story is Ray Bradbury himself, the fantasy writer jumping into the consciousness of a young woman who jumps into the consciousness of the young man she fancies. The writer as incubus. The incubus as succubus. What fun!
I think the hardest, and most awkward stretch for a male writer is to inhabit the other gender well enough for the reader to see herself there. This is the soul of erotica and romance literature, the crossing of the abyss between lovers and trying to imagine what pleasures them. Usually male writers create deciding characters that are male, and women writers create deciding characters that are female, because, as they say, write what you know. But sooner or later you have to step off into the dark and challenge the world of the story through the eyes of someone you will never be. In my case a very disenfranchised young woman.
For instance, before I go on, here is a longish fragment of one scene of a story I’m working on, one which is pulling in all my creative attention like a black hole. This is only the opening movements of a much longer scene and the story may not be ready for months. When I have a big one on the hook, there’s nothing I love more than working with a slow hand:
“ . . . . . Nixie opened the little Bible in the middle and ran her fingertips down the thin onionskin pages, lips moving, guessing at the sounds the stately ink marks would speak, picturing herself speaking as Father Ambremelin would, preaching a stern homily to the cannibals. Without knowing the words, only knowing the sweat scented leather and the paper and the tiny marks of ink, even the nostalgic little sigh of blood on the inside of the back cover, Father Ambremelin’s gift was a thing of beauty and kindness. Once she was in the convent, a bride of Jesus with the Augustinian sisters, they would teach her to read this book. She would be an educated woman.
There were people in the hallway outside the closed door. She stood still and listened, feeling them through the door, irritated, wishing they would go away. A soft, almost apologetic tapping and then silence. Thrown out like a prayer, waiting for an answer. Nixie waited too, gathering stillness around herself like a wall. She waited for the person to go away. Another soft, diffident rapping. Another silence.
The air seemed heavy with anticipation. At last, defeated, she closed the little book and pushed it away, got to her feet and crossed over to the door. “Jah?” She waited on her side of the door.
The tapping came again, more insistent now. They wouldn’t go away, knowing now she was awake at this late hour. Maybe it’s important. Something bad has happened. She turned the knob, opened the door and Wloji was there. Nixie sensed someone else, maybe Papa, behind her further down the hall, also waiting. “Yes?”
Wloji stood firm and waited.
“Are you fine, goose girl?” said the African. “Dinner good?”
Nixie felt bewildered. She thought of the battered pocket Bible on the desk, with its blood stain from far away lands, Father Ambremelin’s blood. She thought of the Cameroons. “Come in.” She stepped aside and Wloji entered.
“So nice now, yes?” said Wloji. “A fire? Sitting late?” Wloji stood next to the desk and planted herself there. “Nice time, yes?”
Nixie closed the door. “Wloji,” she said. “Is everything all right?”
“I want to ask you, what my Uncle Snorri said. Are you a slave?”
Wloji stood a little straighter. The room had become disturbing with the African filling it, her exotic skin and being of menacing ironic deference hinted of a merciless and alien way of life.
“Are you Uncle Snorri’s slave woman? He says you’re just monkeys, not people.”
Wloji turned her back and opened the window. She lifted the frame to let in a little more of the air and closed the curtains. “It’s nice tonight. Sorry, goose girl.” She went to the little desk, gently opened a drawer and took out a small wooden hairbrush.
“Nixie, that’s my name. Please.”
Wloji drew the chair away from the desk and set it next to the big bed. “Sit, now. Nixie girl.” She patted the back of the chair and waited. A cuckoo bird was calling in the dark, and the wood fire gave a rosy spiciness. As the night air lifted the curtains the world seemed so perfect and mysterious for a moment that it seemed a shame to leave it for a stuffy cloister. She came over and sat in the chair. The tall African stood behind the chair and bent close, whispering in her ear. “Fire nice. Evening nice. What is not fine, Nixie girl?” The fingers behind her were lifting her hair in a bunch, caressing and straightening it. The hair brush bristles slipped delicately against the strands and began to move. She closed her eyes. “Slave,” said the voice behind her. “In the Cameroons, we have moth, yes. This moth she come only night time, like Wloji. She so big because she have so much food, yes. She drink tear. Tear from elephant, she cry. Tear from bird, she cry. All tear. But she moth, she most like tear from woman. So sad womans in my Cameroons, many slave womans, you ask me. She big fat moth from drinking so much cry tear. At night she come, knock on you door, knock on you soul so she come inside. Inside you sad dream, she stay. Too much tear, my land.”
Behind the strokes of the brush it seemed the woman was smiling or laughing, maybe at her. Just like everybody.
“Once upon a time,” says the woman to the little girl, “There was a tortoise.”
The little girl is seated on a little stool next to a butter churn, before a fire in a stone hearth. On a hook over the fire an iron pot of soup is boiling, rattling softly against the lid. The farm woman’s calloused and knobby fingers scoop up a handful of the girl’s cornsilk soft white hair, pick at a lump of mud and begin stroking it with a silver hairbrush, a wedding gift from her husband’s wayward brother Snorri. The brush rises and falls, rises and falls. The pot bubbles. The girl ducks her head like a kitten under the easeful petting.
“This was a very happy tortoise, who had many good things. He lived in the forest near a lake, and he ate lots of mushrooms and flowers and caterpillars and no one treated him badly and so you see, he had a very good life.”
The girl wipes her nose on her arm. She had come home crying again. The tears have dried and crusted on her cheeks.
“But the tortoise crawled on the ground, as he does, and he saw the small birds that could fly very fast and the butterflies in the meadow who float on the air like sailboats. And the tortoise thought – why can’t I fly? Why can’t I be like them instead of a slow clumsy tortoise? If someone would teach me to fly, I would fly so fast, faster than any of them.”
The fire snaps sharply on a knot and the girl ducks her head a little more. Her mouth feels suddenly very dry and she wants water. She looks at her hands.
“There was an eagle who lived in the forest and fished on the lake, and the eagle was so strong and so beautiful and the tortoise thought of the eagle, soaring high over all on his big wings, and diving down to the lake and snatching up fish in his fierce claws. Das Experten! said the tortoise. He should be my teacher, because he is the very best of all. So he went to the eagle and begged him, every day, to teach him to fly. Soon the eagle became worn out because the tortoise, you see, was very stubborn. So the eagle said ‘yes tortoise, I’ll bring you up high and you can practice flying with me.’ So the eagle picked him up in his big strong claws and together they flew high, high, very high in the sky.”
“Mama.” The little girl is holding out her arms and feet, like a kitten being carried.
The woman smoothes her hands soothingly over the girls head and together they sigh with pleasure. “And the tortoise, well, he was very happy as the eagle carried him in the clouds, in his pride of place, and far below the forest and the lake, they were so beautiful. And the tortoise began to flap his little feet and little legs like the eagle does and said ‘I’m surely flying now!’ but the poor eagle was so tired, because the tortoise he was very heavy, you see, and he said ‘Tortoise, I have to let you go now. You must fly by yourself.’ And he let the tortoise go.
“Mama.” The little girl is clenching her hands into fists and holding out her fingers. She blinks at the fire and her eyes grow wide. “Mama.”
“The tortoise fell down, down, down from the sky and landed on the rocks and was broken all to pieces. And as soon as he was dead, well, seeing there was nothing to help it, the eagle came down and gobbled the poor tortoise all up and away he went.”
The little girl is shaking violently. She blinks her puffy eyes and looks again and a golden aura is expanding brightly around her hands. Her ears feel wooly and big and hot. She turns suddenly and looks at the woman’s face and the golden aura is glowing there too. “Mama,” she says, softly. “The angels are coming.”
Nixie pushed Wloji’s hand away and began to weep. She felt the warm weight of the woman’s palms pressing on her shoulders as the tears burst. “Aie, mein gott,” she whispered. “I’m so alone!”
A shadow moved behind her. The woman’s perfumed hair was next to her nose. Cool large lips kissed the edge of her eye, and then the wet of her cheek.
Rough Draft fragment from
“The Tortoise and the Eagle” by C. Sanchez-Garcia
Aristotle said that fiction is good for you. It’s good for your soul. It’s good to write it. It’s good to read it. A good love story makes you kinder and better. A good love story stretches the heart even as it gives love a bad name. Aristotle believed that stories were essential for the emotional education of a person. The vicarious suffering or difficulties of a fictional character were an exercise in compassion and awareness of humanity.
I’ve become more and more convinced that the most important thing, even more important than the love of God is compassion. Passionate love of God is so often about being in love with an idol, an image of God we’ve constructed for ourselves or more likely allowed authorities to construct for us. Idolatry leads to cruelty and spiritual pride. Compassion is what you have in common with other people, and other people will defeat the idols you make of them every time.