So, I'm stuck here with a sick child today which means no writing is happening. But I'm trying to make the most of it by updating some much needed information on the contemporary fiction series that I'm working on. As you know I'm currently editing/revising/slashing/burning the manuscript for The River Maiden. But wanted to provide a little peek into where the series is going. As I said in my post a couple of weeks ago, I'm working on outlining the whole series. With that in mind. I have given The River Maiden its own page and added pitches for the next two books Old as Stone and King of Mist to the Once and Future page. Also on the Once and Future page I have added a copy of the ballad that Sarah is researching for her dissertation. She calls it The River Maiden (hence the book title). It lays out the mythos for the entire series. Although the series is interwoven with many actual Celtic legends, The River Maiden (the ballad) is made up by me. I tried to follow common conventions and structure of traditional ballads. I also included themes like the lame king, cauldron of plenty and stone that will be very familiar to students of Celtic lore so that this would assimilate aspects of Celtic culture that readers may already be familiar with.
On the page for The River Maiden (the book) I have added a new excerpt. This is a flashback to Sarah's childhood that I recently added to the manuscript. For those of you who have read the other excerpts, I won't force you to go hunting for it. I'll reprint it right here. I hope you enjoy.
Mòrag jumped when she heard the door to Mama’s room upstairs open and close. She held her breath as her heart beat in time with her mother’s footsteps through the hall and down the stairs. She reached a shaking hand out to gather her crayons that were scattered across the worn table. Maybe if she cleaned up her mess, Mama would feel better.
She put the crayons neatly in her box and closed it. She rose to go put the box in it’s place on the little bookcase in the parlor, but Mama was blocking the doorway. She stared hard at Mòrag, like she was a problem that needed to be solved. It was the same way she looked at the puzzles they liked to work on to pass the time when they got snowed in. Mòrag stood there beside her chair, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot wondereding what to do. She never knew anymore how to behave around Mama, not since the bathtub.
Now, Mama lived like a ghost; there but not there. She didn’t talk. She rarely ate though she sometimes came to supper, like now. Her skin hung from her bones. She almost never spoke. Some days Mòrag tried to make Mama feel better, but it never seemed to work. Just today, she had painted a picture for her at school. It was the prettiest picture that she had ever done. She ran all the way home from the school bus stop with the paper streaming behind her like wings. She was so excited, sure that something so lovely would cheer Mama up.
Mòrag had found Mama and Granny in the vegetable garden. They’d been digging up weeds and their hands were covered in dirt. Mòrag went straight to Mama who was on her knees between the rows. “I made this picture for you, Mama! Look! It’s like a fairy tale.”
Mama looked up from what she was doing. Her gaunt face was smudged with dirt and some of her hair had come down to drift around her face in little wisps. For a second, just a second her mama smiled at her. Looked her right in the eye and smiled at her like nothing was wrong, and Mòrag could almost see the old Mama. The one that used to play with her and love her.
Then Mama looked down at the picture and it all changed. Her eyes darted across the picture from one thing to another taking in the castle and the princess, flowers and sunshine and her face became a mask of rage. Mòrag watched as the old smiling Mama drained away and was replaced by something terrifying. Mama slowly lifted her hand to touch the painting. Mòrag thought about pulling it away because her hand was so dirty. The fingernails were green from the weeds and there was black soil every crevace. Before she could though, Mama grabbed the painting and tore it from Mòrag’s hands crumpling it and causing the thick paint to flake off and scatter in the dirt. A raw pained sound came from Mama’s throat like a wounded animal as she slammed the painting to the ground and began to stab it with the trowel that was in her other hand.
“A’ mise, mo bheancachd.” (Come with me, my blessing.) Granny said grabbing Mòrag gently by the shoulders and pulling her toward the house. Mòrag walked toward the house still watching Mama over her shoulder as she began to throw dirt on the painting that was now in tatters. “Tha Mami glè sgìth.” (Mama’s very tired.)
That’s what Granny always said, Mòrag had heard it a thousand times in the last couple of months. She wanted to ask why Mama was so tired. Why didn’t she eat? Why didn’t she play anymore or talk above a whisper? Where was the mother that had loved her? She wanted to ask her Granny all these questions, but she couldn’t seem to get them past the big lump in her throat.
So she just cried. She hated crying. It made her feel like such a baby. Big girls in first grade didn’t cry. Babies cried. She hated Mama for making her cry. Granny tried to make her feel better with a biscuit with honey on it. Mòrag tried to take a couple of bites to show Granny that she was alright. She’d show Mama too. She’d get out her crayons and draw a picture just as pretty as that painting, but this time she would give it to Granny or Ol’Duff.
That’s why her crayons were all over the place when Mama came downstairs for supper. Mama stood there staring as Mòrag until Granny stepped between them. She put a bar of soap in Mama’s still filthy hand and gave a short nod toward the sink. “Nigh do làmhan.” (Wash your hands.)
Mama didn’t argue. She just turned to the sink and began scrubbing the dirt off her hands. Mòrag took the chance to step into the parlor and put her crayons away. She stayed in the parlor, but watched through the door as Mama stayed at the sink giving her hands a good hard scrub with hot water. She was still scrubbing when Ol’ Duff came in through the back door. He usually only stayed around the farm in the winter, but Mòrag knew he was here still in the late spring on account of Mama. Duff was the only way that Granny could get a break from watching and caring for Mama.
He came in and took off his old and patched overshirt and hung it on a peg by the kitchen door. Mòrag liked Ol’ Duff. Most people couldn’t see past his often dirty wornout clothes and his long hair and beard. They just thought he was a drifter or a hippy, but he had kind eyes, and always a good word for a lonely little girl. Mòrag glanced over to her little shelf on the bookcase and the box of tiny wooden animals that Duff liked to carve for her.
Without a word, he stepped up to the sink where Mama was scrubbing her hands. Steam was rising from the sink. Duff whispered something to Mama that Mòrag couldn’t hear as he reached over and turned off the tap. He grabbed a towel from the rack beside the sink and used it to gently dry Mama’s hands. Mama let him dry her hands, but she never looked at him. She would shift her eyes everywhere, but Duff’s like she was afraid to look at him.
“Tha biadh deas.” (The food is ready) Granny said in her brisk manner as she set the serving dishes on the table. Mòrag went into the kitchen and straight to her chair which was next to Granny’s. Mama and Duff sat on the other side of the table. As always in spring supper was made up of whatever they could get from the garden and the forest. Tonight it was fish that Duff had caught that morning along with spinach sautèed in bacon grease and mashed potatoes and some sliced radishes. There were also biscuits that Granny made every morning.
Since Duff started coming into the house for dinner, they had fallen into a routine of eating supper and talking about their days. Duff would talk about the wildlife he’d seen and what he would go hunting for the next day. Granny would talk about the still and how it was working and what plans she had for the garden or foraging. They both made a point of asking Mòrag about her school day, and the antics of the other kids in school.
They were almost like a normal family. Granny and Duff tried very hard not to act like there was a ghost sitting at the table, but they all knew she was there. She would pick at her food. Sometimes she even took a bite, but most of the time she just pushed it around her plate and stared down at the table. The rest of them tried to ignore her, and most of the time she made that easy to do.
“Did you have your spelling test today?” Granny asked. She always spoke English at the dinner table on account of Duff not having the Gaelic.
Sarah swallowed the bite of potatoes she had just taken and mumbled. “No, ma’am. That’s tomorrow.”
“Then we’ll go over your words while we do the dishes.” Granny nodded to her. Spelling and dishes was also becoming a routine.
“Sing any good songs in music, this week?” Duff asked her. He loved to hear Mòrag sing.
“There is this one funny song about a cat named Don Gato. He falls down and breaks a bunch bones. It sounds kinda sad, but the song is really funny.”
“Well, sometimes you gotta laugh or else you’ll just cry.” Duff said with a wink. “Maybe you can sing it for me when you’re done with…”
Suddenly Sarah felt eyes on her and looked up to find Mama watching her. Silent tears streamed down her face. The others noticed too and stopped talking. They all sat there for a frozen moment staring at Mama while she stared back at Mòrag. Mama looked so sad, but Mòrag didn’t believe that look anymore. She’d seen little else but sadness from Mama in the last couple of months, and her sympathy had just about run out especially after Mama had destroyed her painting.
Feeling a little reckless, Mòrag did something she had never done before. She lifted her chin ever so slightly and looked her mama right in the eye. She waited to see if Mama was going to say anything; maybe explain why she had destroyed the painting, why she had turned herself into a living ghost, or tried to drown her baby a couple of months ago. Mama didn’t say anything. She just sat there staring at Mòrag with fat tears rolling down her sunken cheeks.
When her mother didn’t speak Mòrag just shrugged in indiference and went back to eating her dinner. She cut off a bite of fish with the side of her fork and was scooping it up when she heard Mama’s fork clatter onto her plate and Mama’s chair scrape across the wood floor. With an explosive energy that none of them had thought her capable of, Mama had sprung up from her chair and tried to reach across the table for Mòrag. Her fingers hooked like claws went straight for Mòrag’s throat. Fortunately, Duff was quicker and stronger. In a flash he was on his feet. He wrapped his arms around Mama pinning her arms to her side. At the same time Granny jerked Mòrag’s chair back from the table and put herself in front of it in case Mama got loose.
Mama and Duff struggled for a moment until the soothing rumble of his voice saying “Easy, Molly, easy now.” found its way through the rage that had once again clouded Mama’s brain. When he got her calmed down enough that he could get a better grip on her, Duff walked Mama outside into the yard. Granny went to the window to watch them. No doubt Mama would calm down a lot faster without the sight of her daughter. Little Mòrag pulled her chair back up to the table and picked up her fork again. She stared down at her plate for a few seconds, but couldn’t bring herself to eat anymore. She pushed her plate away and stalked out of the kitchen and up to her room.