Monday, December 30, 2013

A Few Remarks About "Five Golden Rings"

Greetings and Happy Sixth Day of Christmas to you:

Thank you for reading "Five Golden Rings," and think I can safely assume that the only people who will read this post are those who read the previous post (according to Google's stats, it's a tiny amount), and even then, a very small percentage of them will bother with this (so essentially, only my eldest daughter will read this).

Therefore I'm making notes to myself on the creative process. But that''s what blogs are anyway, right? Documentation of one's own warped sense of self-importance. And so I will digress and progress . . .

1) Just some rambling nonsense about why I write what I do . . .

Years ago, after writing some fairy tales for my children (fantasy and quest adventure fiction genre), I got the silly thought into my head "Why don't I write a book, make a lot of money so I can quit my lousy job (I was a word processor at an insurance company at the time, and I was teaching office procedures at a vocational-tech school at nights), and get paid to think up and write stories! There were at least three other word processors who sat near me, who were all working or trying to sell film scripts. So I guess they helped me to think that working on creating writing while wasting away as third-tier labor in corporate America for health insurance, rent, and groceries, was indeed normal.

I determined early on that nobody reads the kind of thing I write (based on not being able to find anything at the bookstore that was remotely like what I do), so I went over to the bestseller wall (the now defunct Crown Books used to put the top 10 selling books on their back wall - incidentally Gone with the Wind was nearly always on that wall) thinking that I'd see what was making money and I would just write that kind of thing. Not unreasonable eh? After all, I was spending my days writing binding letters of insurance for others, why not fiction?

2) Formulaic Fiction: Not a Bad Thing (unless poorly written)

What were selling were romance novels and action novels, by people like Barbara Cartland and Clive Cussler, mostly. So I bought a few and went home and read them. I decided didn't have military or firearms experience to write the very gear-oriented action stuff but historical romance seemed possible enough to research. I then heard Barbara Cartland being interviewed on a talk show where most of the content was about her characters, what was next, but she did manage to get in a few sentences on her writing process, which to me was most interesting--mostly that there is certain kind of format or formula that she follows.

I had also heard this same idea from a writer of stage musicals in not quite the same way. He said that there have to be romantic leads and secondaries and went on so far to say that certain types of songs are assigned to the four roles and they should be presented at certain points in the first and second  acts, otherwise the audience will get confused. I will not pull back the curtain entirely on the process, but the next time you are enjoying a musical comedy, immediately go see another and just be aware of the structure and you will see things you didn't before. (Doesn't quite work with Sondheim, but he's a genius ...)

Let me say here that formulas in writing get a bad rap. They've been around a long time; Aristotle wrote about them. If a writing or movie critic wants to say a bad thing about a work she or he will say it is formulaic--to that I will say such critics are themselves committing the same sin that they accuse their subject. All artists rely upon the work of others who have gone before in creating a framework of expectation. To the extent they use more or less of established cultural expectations they will be thought marketable or boring. The genius is the person who finds the right mix to add something new in and gives all the other subsequent artists something to work with. Those who work totally outside of expectations will get comments like: "How long is this going to go on? What does that represent? A little of that goes a long way."

I tried my hand at writing a romance novel. It was not easy and it was NOT good, despite my even going to the library and finding a book on "How to Write a Romance Novel" (wow, what dedication!) in addition to my own research. Pros like Barbara Cartland make it look easy. Just like baseball players make what they do look easy. This is also universal truth of creative process. Those who try their hand at nonrepresentational art find it is easy to copy a Mondrian painting, but it is extremely hard to come up with one that is as interesting to look at. For that matter, just TRY to replicate a De Kooning brush stroke. If you can do it, you've got a bright future in forgery you're missing out on...

Inevitably I gave up that enterprise. Now I write what other people want when I'm at my day job for a paycheck, but on my own time, I write the stories that I want to read. If others like them, great, if not, that's fine too.

3) My Long-Term Project: A Historical Comic Novel About the Roman Empire

BUT . . . I did not entirely abandon the marketability thing, at least in concept. Since I am a Christian I wondered if I could bust in to the Christian fiction market which seems to be pretty big and quite receptive to still reading and buying books. Doing a little research though, I figured out I was probably not the right kind of Christian to succeed. (For those of you who are not Christian, let me just say there are many "flavors" out there. The kind you may be familiar with ARE the kind who buy "Christian" fiction.)

However, I came up with the idea of wanting to write a story about a slave boy in the Roman Empire who gets traded from master to master all over the empire. I minored in Latin in college and spent a lot of my young adulthood learning about the Roman Empire, so I've been fascinated by it and novels about it from forever. I also liked books about classical period by Robert Graves and Mary Renault, so I aspire to something like that. But, I write comically and and humorously, and so it's going to be funny as he goes from one stupid/evil/greedy master to another in country after country. But then I thought, wouldn't it be funny if he wound up owned by Jesus? (and I could sell the last volume of the series to the Christian market). Well, anyway, that's the start of my idea. It'll be years before the whole project gets done, but this sermon assignment has forced me to get the ball rolling.

4) Five Golden Rings: Peculiarities, anachronisms, artistic liberties . . . and some accuracy

What you have there is a first draft written in colloquial 21st-century American. The basic idea is to take two short but similar Holy Week passages in Mark (Jesus sends disciples on errands and he seems to predict their positive responses with pinpoint accuracy), collapse the two vendors into one and explore his motivations for complying with the will of God in a psychologically believable and hopefully humorous way. I don't think you have to understand the incidents in a "fortune teller/supernatural/use-the-force" kind of way, esp. since these are documents of faith written after the fact, but they do have that sensibility for the young and the weak-minded. Even so, they captured my imagination whenever I read them that way and I've always wanted to do a story workout.

It's a sketch basically where I think these several conversations need to go. I am going to have to translate them into what I call "Fairy Tale Narrative English"--that  timeless dialect you hear used in fantasy movies that are not trying to be satirical or self-conciously ironic. The movie Ever After with Drew Barrymore is a pretty good example of Fairy Tale Narrative English; The Princess Bride is NOT. I think I will also try to incorporate what is considered polite social interaction by way of speech pattern and gestures both within and between ethnic groups and social classes and all that, but that deep research will take time. So "Five Golden Rings" at this point is more fairy tale riff on the Bible than any kind of accurate social commentary of the time.

The gold toe rings of the toddler Jesus made from the gifts of the Magi will go away, so don't ever expect to see them again. That version is what I have dubbed to my resident children the "Hallmark TV Christmas Special" version. It's just so tidy and hopeful and squeaky clean. But I popped it out for my church as a present to them--I think they liked it, although it ran a bit long.

Some specific literary liberties I took:

There are no 5 gold rings for Jesus in the Bible.  The Magi did bring gold. If the star appeared in the east when Jesus was born, it took them a while to get there from probably Persia. That's why I made Jesus about a year old.

For those of you remember paintings of the Triumphal Entry in Jerusalem with Jesus riding on a donkey, that's the Matthew version, where they not only get a donkey colt, but a colt and its mother. And the writer of Matthew has specifically matched up "colt" to some earlier scripture that require the colt to be a donkey colt. The writer of Mark just uses the word for colt that generally means a young horse. I'm riffing on the earlier Mark version and going with Sunset Wind being a horse big enough to hold a full-grown man. By making Sunset Wind a three-year-old, unridden horse, I add the elements of unpredictability, danger, and being able to make Jesus look like a capable rider when he needs to be, and the possibility of flight.

Jesus had a reputation for being a glutton and a bibber (drinker), so I like to think that Jesus had a weight problem and ran a little heavy.

We don't know much about Bartholomew (aka Nathaniel). I think he has the kookiest name of the 12 and therefore was just asking for comic-relief treatment, so I made him a layabout, a twerp, a pantywaist, and a snob. The snob part is true I think--he is attributed with the prejudicial statement "What good thing comes from Nazareth?" You can sub in the name of any disrespected neighborhood in your area and you'll get the sense (Compton, Tracy, Bell, Waco, Dinuba, etc.).

I don't think it's unreasonable that Joseph would have developed a negative view of innkeepers in light of his experience of being put in a barn.

The owner of the colt and the owner of the upper room probably were not the same person, but isn't it  fun in my story when they turn out to be the same guy? Doing so give the extra chance to have to make slave boy Milk get one up Bartholomew there. He actually got 2 or 3 up on him. Putting Bass into both spots gives his situation a greater poignancy. His marriage was likely arranged. The only power his wife would have in her situation is the power of complaint. It think the literary trope of the nagging wife (in nearly all cultures) is an expression of the one-down situation wives historically found themselves in. Men who did not by personality have strong wills probably appreciated their wives' aggressiveness. I see Bass as a guy who chose to settle when it was forced upon him, and once settled, cast about for all the ways to make it work harmoniously.

Were there red-haired Galatians? I'm pretty sure the Galatians were Celts; the same folks as on the coast of France as well as who made it over to Scotland and Ireland where they prevailed. (The Celts made it all over the world. You should read about them sometime.) Galatia and Gaul have the same verbal root, so I'm sure they were Gallic people. Whenever I read the Letter to the Galatians, I substitute in my head the Irish and it makes a whole lot of sense.

When Milk is called out by Mir on what he has learned from being in so close proximity to an educator for so long, I think it's pretty typical that those who have access to a boon, almost as a given, don't take full advantage of their situation. The two parables I have him recall are purposely cherry-picked. The mustard seed is one of the most famous lessons of Christ, but try calling out an everyday Christian on the spot on it and I think you'll find their interpretations amusing. The fig tree is one of the most problematic parables. I would also think it's pretty funny that you would be living with the guy who came up with it and could just ask him "Wait, could you explain that again? I think I heard you wrong." But you don't because, well, because you think you can get the answer anytime.

OK, the slightly pentagonal, proto Holy Grail with five sides, a la the five books of Moses, is my "Hallmark" plot device. In the movie of your head, when you roll the credits, you should see the five toe rings of Christ now embedded on the grail--Christmas, Epiphany, the Last Supper, and Easter, all melded into one super holy object (I wonder if it shoots laser-beam-like death rays to vanquish evil?).

I had a lot of fun with this topic, it needs work, but even so, I think it's a pleasant read in its current form. Hope you enjoyed it and got a few of the jokes.


Friday, December 27, 2013

A Christmas Bonus Story for You - "Five Golden Rings"

Hello there, all you nice people out there!

Hope you're enjoying a wonderful Christmas season. Today is the Third Day of Christmas, but I'm going to jump the gun and publish to you a little something I knocked out this week instead of posting my next novel installment.

One of the guys at my church was supposed to deliver the sermon this Sunday after Christmas, but he's a man with a wife and 4 kids with no time to work on it, so my pastor asked if I could fill in. I said "Sure." You can do almost anything on this Sunday, because hardly anybody shows up to church. So I decided to kick out a first draft of part of another novel that's on my drawing board--a life of Christ told from the point of view of slave boy who comes to be the property of Jesus. I probably won't start working on that in earnest for another couple of years, but this is a trial run of what it MIGHT look like.

This episode has been brewing in my mind for a long time, so it flowed out rather easily. Since I'll be reading it on Sunday, the Fifth Day of Christmas, I've wrenched the story a bit to match the theme of the day. Hope you find it amusing. You may find disconcerting that this takes place in Holy Week, the opposite bookend holiday of Christmas. But don't worry, they wrap over each other.

Happy New Year,

Five Golden Rings: A Tale of Christmas Reminiscence

As told to the members of the Wilshire Presbyterian Church
on December 29, 2013, the Fifth Day of Christmas, by Vincent Way

© Copyright 2013 by Vincent Way, all rights reserved.

            “Father?” A 16-year-old lad came running into the stable where his father was haggling with a man who was trying to sell him a horse.
            “What is it?” said the man.
            “Someone is trying to take away one of the colts.”
            “Sunset Wind.”
            “I don’t mean the horse. Who is trying to take the animal?”
            “Some boy. A boy with red hair. Eleven maybe? He has a binding on him.”
            “A slave boy then. Does he have his master’s money?”
            “No. Says he’s only going to borrow it for a time.”
            “Hold him. I’ll see him,” said the stable owner. He turned back to the customer. “Your nag’s only got one year of useful life to her. Doubtful whether she’d even pull her feed’s worth for that year. Not interested.”
            “Oh come on!” said the would-be seller zeroing on the word “colts” the son had just said. “She’s marvelous. Look at those lines. You’re a breeder. You’d get some excellent progeny from her yet.”
            “Move on. If you run out of luck and can’t find a patsy, the tanner is outside of Bethpage. Easy to find. Follow your nose. His name is Zeb. Tell him I sent you and he’ll give you market rate. That’s all I can do for you.”
            The man went out to the pens facing the street where his son was waiting for him. Sure enough there was boy with curly red hair, covered in freckles, standing there next to Sunset Wind, a beautiful dark brown male three-year-old with white “socks” and mane. He was flashy. A Roman officer had shown interest in that colt, but for casual racing purposes more than anything else because he had seen its proclivity to run with unrestrained abandon about the pens and when tethered to a primary. No one had ridden Sunset Wind yet. He was an unknown quantity and in inept hands, someone could get hurt since he was known to be high-spirited. Training would have to start soon thought the stable owner—an idiot test rider with reckless abandon and no fear of death would be ideal.  The stable owner looked the boy up and down, down mostly. A slave. And a thief. He had all the worldly-wise mannerisms of a boy who’d lived, or rather survived, a hard life—he had seen many in his 50+ years. Few had made it to his age.
            “I need this colt,” said the boy. “My master has need of him.”
            “Who are you?” asked the stabler.
            “Name’s Milk.”
            “Milk. I see. Galatian are you?”
            “Never been to Galatia.”
            “You should go. They got hair like yours there. Large swaggering men with tattoos and fearsomely braided red hair and beards too, that you’ll grow yerself someday I reckon. Where you from then?”
            “Don’t know. Just know that they said it’s cold there wherever I’m from.”
            “Then you might could be from Galatia.”
            “Who’s to say?” murmured the boy.
            “Who’s your master what needs a colt from me?”
            “A traveling teacher. Joshua Bar Joseph of Nazareth.”
            “Never heard of him. Where’s his money?”
            “Ain’t got none. He’s poor. He got nothing. And he’s got a troop of good-for-nothing loafers with him.”
            “A teacher you say? What does he teach you?”
            “He teaches me nothing. It’s the loafers that order me about. Bunch of selfish, greedy, bossy old men.”
            “FATHER!” interrupted the son, “Why are you wasting your time on this trash?”
            “In case you couldn’t tell, son, we’re in a negotiation.”
“A negotiation? With this child?”
“Idiot. Apparently all males under the age of 20 are impervious to learning. Check the water.” He watched as his son sullenly waddled off to his duties. “So why does a boy like you not go renegade, seeing as how you are unsupervised, and there is a refuge colony not too far from here so I hear.”
“I have my reasons.”
“Red hair? Milk-white skin? In a world where everything is black and brown?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Your master does not have ‘nothing.’ He has you. You are a valuable asset.”
“Do I get the horse or not?” sighed Milk impatiently.
            “How large is your master?”
            “Average height, like you. But much heavier. He’s a man that likes his food and wine.”
            “And you say this teacher-master of yours is poor? How’d he get to be fat?”
            “I’ve never seen a man who gleans a field of free food as well as him. Better’n me. And I been on the road all my life. Sometimes he makes food outta nothin’.”
“A magician is he? I have children who make food disappear."
"Ha. Ha."
"Does he know how to ride horse?”
“I think he used to be a carpenter. Had to drive cart to move lumber, so yeah.”
“Well then, he should have a sturdier stallion, well trained, with all his gaits in easy command, in Greek, Aramaic, and Arabic. Let me show you something better.”
            “I think this is the one he wants. He gave instructions. A colt that has never been ridden. We’ll bring it right back.”
            “You will bring HIM right back. It’s a male. His name is Sunset Wind. And your master gave you nothing to offer in return?”
            “He said you’d just do it.”
            “Did he? And that would be right generous of me. And you know, he’s right.”
            “REALLY? Lord, but he can tell the future all the time!”
            “You sound surprised, that I’d do it.”
“Master said it would work and I didn’t believe him.”
“I have my reasons. Where are you riding to?”
            “Just into Jerusalem.”
            “Let go of his lead outside of the city, when you’re done, and he will return here on his own. He knows where to get fed.”
            “Won’t someone steal him?”
            “Look at this mark on his left flank. That is my family mark. But tell me, have you seen any horse that looks like Sunset Wind?”
            “I don’t pay mind to horses, but no I haven’t.”
            “He is exactly like you my young friend. He sticks out. By his looks and his carriage everyone knows who his master is. Come in the pen.” The stabler put the lead into the boy’s hand and had him bring Sunset Wind to the provision shed, where the stabler hung a day’s feed on the horse’s back. “You can lead him back here yourself if you wish, but if you do, I will keep you for a day’s labor as the worth of my hire. Tell your master that and I leave it up to his good pleasure.” And so Milk found himself wandering the village with a beautiful colt with a lustrous brown coat in tow.
            Milk kicked at Bartholomew’s feet. The pudgy fellow was where Milk had left him, napping in the shade of tree, in the high heat of midday.
            “Hey! Master Bart! Wake up!” Bartholomew startled and then shuddered in fear as the colt loomed large over him. “I got one!” He had ordered Milk to scout about in the village for likely prospects while he waited in the shade.
            “Good heavens!” said the disciple scrambling to his feet. “He’s magnificent. Excellent work, boy. In fact I think I should ride him back, just to make sure that he’s safe for the Teacher.” Bartholomew put his hand on Sunset Wind’s back to hoist himself up, but the colt snapped his teeth at the man’s fingers. “Perhaps, some other time. Let’s get going.”

* * *

            Some four days later, on the Thursday, Bartholomew found himself roaming about again with Milk in tow on another procurement mission, this time in the streets of capital Jerusalem. Master Bart, thought Milk, is just like some old woman. He was grumbling as they walked about. “Why is it always me they send out on these troublesome little errands? These shoes don’t fit well and I get blisters so easily. I wish we could afford socks. And it’s hot out again. And I’m thirsty again. I haven’t seen anyone carrying a water jar.”
“Actually,” said Milk, “I seen several. You haven’t been paying attention.”
“It’s hard to concentrate when your feet hurt. Boy, let’s circle back to that well.” Master Bart seemed to have forgotten Master Joshua’s instructions, or was ignoring them, thought Milk. Well, the Master did give the instructions to Master Bart, he just sent me to stop Master Bart from getting lost as he was prone to do.
            Bartholomew planted himself at the head of the line and began imploring the people who were drawing water in their turn to give him a drink, but he was such a whining pest, that all just pretended not to see him. And then a young man came to the head of the line, filled his jar, took pity on Bartholomew and give him a drink from his jar before sealing it. Milk looked at the jar and recognized a familiar mark on its side.
            “Hey. Mir!”
            “Who is it?” The young man looked over past the jar. “Milk?” It was the stabler’s son whom Milk now knew. Milk had personally returned Sunset Wind to its owner with instructions from the Teacher to be helpful in any way possible in return for the owner’s generosity. Mir had assigned to Milk the task of cleaning out the stables of the horses’ excrement for the day, which the red-haired lad performed with diligence and cheerfulness, such that Mir gave up his initial dislike for the boy whom he had called “trash.”
            Remembering the Teacher’s instructions to follow a man who was carrying a jar of water, he said to Mir, “Hey Mir, where are you going?”
            “My father has a business here in the city.”
            “I’d like to see him and ask him something. I’ll bet he has the answer to what I’m looking for.”
            “Another freebie? We do like to get paid, you know. At least tell me something you learned from this teacher guy.”
            “Hmmm. Oh, I know. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.”
            “What does that mean?”
            “I don’t know. I forget.”
            “What else?”
            “Uh …, you better have figs on you when you’re not supposed to have figs. Or something like that.”
            “That sounds wrong. You’re probably leaving something out. What kind of teacher is he again? Did he at least teach to write your name?”
            “How about I just carry your water jug for you?” said Milk.
            “Sounds good to me,” said Mir putting the jar into Milk’s arms.
            “C’mon Master Bart.”
            “What is it this time?” complained Bartholomew. “I hope it’s not too far.”
            In very short order, the stabler found the young red-haired boy and Bartholomew waiting to meet him as he finished up giving orders to workers in his capital city enterprise, a traveler’s inn.
            “Milk?” said the stabler-innkeeper, “I never thought I would see you again, but here we are again.”
            “Hello. This is one of the loaf . . . one of the students of my master. I call him Master Bart.”
            “Bartholomew at your service.”
            “A pleasure. My name translates to ‘Basket’ in your language, so please call me Bass. Milk, I never got a chance to ask. How did your master like riding Sunset Wind?”
            “He thought he was the greatest,” said Milk.
            “I heard that later in the day,” continued Bass, “that he took Sunset out onto the open road to Bethany and ran him at top speed.”
            “About that,” said Bartholomew embarrassedly.
            Milk interrupted. “Yeah. That was amazing to watch. He really lived up to his name! Master knows how to put a horse to gallop.”
            “You are experienced in caring for horses,” said Bass. “When you returned him, I’m told he was calmed, fed, brushed, and dry.”
“Yeah, I was groom slave to a Parthian for a while,” said Milk.
“You needn’t look worried Bartholomew,” said Bass. “There were several witnesses as to how obedient Sunset Wind could be in the hands of a confident rider. In fact, I’ve garnered several offers for him. Your master did me a service, which quite frankly, I was hoping would happen. But enough of that. What can I do for you today?”
            “Yes. What are we here for?” said Bartholomew. Their mission had slipped his mind. “Boy? Ah, we were out shopping for a water jar . . .”
            “We need a room for a Passover meal tonight,” said Milk as Bartholomew struggled to recall. “Thirteen men.”
            “Passover. Ah! Why don’t they join the meal that will be held this evening in my main hall. There is a prominent family who hosts that religious meal for pilgrims and travelers without family in the city. It’s quite lovely. We are not of your religion, but our kitchen is trained to follow all of your dietary specifications. It is our specialty.”
            “We’ll have to get back to you, but it sounds perfectly fine,” said Bartholomew.
            “My master said he needed something private,” said Milk.
            “Just checking . . ., you don’t have any money do you? Didn’t collect any tuition or donations in the last few days eh?” Milk shook his head. “Thirteen, eh? An odd number, but I may have just the thing. I am getting so soft. My wife is going to kill me. It’s on the second storey so you’ll have to walk up stairs. Let me show you.”

* * *

            Early in the evening, to Bass’s great relief, one of the Teacher’s students who was quite skilled in the particular preparations for the Passover meal—a man named Peter—showed up early to thoughtfully and respectfully instruct his staff on exactly how to cook, prepare, and serve the meal according to his teacher’s requirements. That Teacher evidently could muster men whose talents included administration, organization, and propriety.
            Since nearly all of his staff was busy with the large event in the main hall, Bass found it necessary to play the attendant to event in the upper room. The Passover meal was an easy menu to prep. Milk was assigned to be his assistant and together they brought out the courses of roasted lamb, boiled bitter greens, flat bread, and of course, wine. The two of them stood on the periphery ready to be instructed if necessary, but the meal itself was complete and the Teacher had begun to conduct his lessons, or so thought Bass.
The mood early in the evening had been remarkably joyous, but as the time wore on, the atmosphere became tense. And then something broke. As far as Bass could follow, accusations were thrown about and heated arguments with yelling were raised. A man stormed out in a huff. The Teacher threw further accusations of betrayal at another. And then, abruptly, they all rose from their couches and filed out in silence.
The last man out was a man who introduced himself as Matthew. “Mr. Basket, thank you for your hospitality. The service was excellent. However, I can only offer the service of our boy, Milk, in your clean up, as our payment.” Bass acknowledged the offer and advised he would feed and lodge the boy for the night as well. After Matthew left, Bass’s wife came up and berated him for the second time that evening for giving way their children’s bread to such charity cases.
            Thereafter, the somberness and discord of the event carried over as Bass and Milk worked in silence, clearing the tables, sweeping the floor, and washing the dishes. Bass stopped as he rinsed the ceremonial cup he had set at the Teacher’s place. He held it up in the firelight; it was a very subtly and obliquely rounded pentagon. He had it made to echo the number of sacred books of the law revered by his many Jewish clients. Few had ever caught that detail—perhaps adding some further embellishment—like gold—would bring out the religious allusion, he thought as he set it down. “Milk…”
“I do not normally eavesdrop on my clients as they conduct their affairs. It is the task of professional hosts to simply be present. But I’m sorry that I did not have a chance to speak with your master. He seemed quite wise beyond his years. I would have liked to get his opinion on a couple of situations. In my own life.”
            “This would not have been a good night to talk to him,” said Milk. “I’ve never seen him so angry or upset.”
            “He did look extremely worried. He was sweating actually. That was quite a heated exchange in there,” said Bass. “What is happening among them? Do you know?”
            “Like I told you. They’re all loafers. They’re bad students. They don’t listen to him. He gets upset all the time.”
            Bass was startled when a hand gripped his shoulder. He turned around and was confronted by the head officer from the local religious authorities with a couple of temple guards. They were armed. “Gentlemen? What can I do for you?” He tried to act as nonchalantly as possible.
            The officer spoke. “Pardon the intrusion, Master Innkeeper. Your wife said I would find you here. I understand you were hosting a Passover dinner for a certain Joshua bar Joseph of Nazareth this evening?”
            “I was, yes.”
            “Where are they now?”
            Bass had to decide how to answer. He went with usual motto: ‘Try to seem like an ally to the person in front of you.’ “I don’t know. They skipped without paying me. Have they done something?”
            “Maybe. We want to question them.”
            “When you find them, let me know. I would like to bear witness against them.”
            “Thank you, sir. We will do that. Did you happen to overhear anything at all where they might be going?”
            “I thought I heard something about the North Gate. You might try there.” And with that, the officer left.
            “They didn’t say anything about the North Gate,” said Milk.
            “Go to the kitchen and have the cook put several hot coals into a portable burner. I need to get something from my quarters and we are going out,” said Bass.

* * *

            “Teacher Joshua?” said Bass. It was a voice uttered in a garden near Bass’s inn. It was totally dark out—neither could recognize the other.
            “It is time them?” said Joshua. Bass’s middle-aged eyes could not distinguish anything in the dark, and he did not want to light anything to call attention to them. But the Teacher’s voice sounded weak and tired. Bass assumed the Teacher had been crying for a while from the sound of his voice.
            “I don’t know about that. It’s always time for something. My name is Bass. I own the inn where you had supper earlier.”
            “Ah, Bass. Thank you.”
            “Is there anything I can do for you?”
            “I don’t think so. No.”
            “Do you mind if I sit with you here on the ground for a bit then?”
            “If it suits you.”
            “Your boy said you sounded desperate.”
            “My boy?”
            “Ah, yes. My boy.”
“He’s here, right beside me.” said Bass. “So are you?”
            “Am I what?”
            “Desolate perhaps. My mother told me I was born at night. Into a dark world she said. A dark place ruled by evil, debauched kings, who do as they please harming all they touch. And they keep prevailing. And it so dark tonight. And is this how it will end? All alone, in the dark.”
            “I don’t have an answer to that. But I do have something else. Milk, pour it now please.” There came the sound of liquid being poured into cups. “Give me your hand.” Bass put a cup in the Teacher’s hand.
            “It’s hot.”
            “It’s a drink from the Far East. Hot tea. Common there, but a delicacy here. It fortifies the constitution.” The two of them just sat there together in the dark, slurping hot tea that Milk kept pouring for them. After a time, the Teacher spoke.
            “It’s a very fragrant. Both bitter and sweet,” said the Teacher.
            “Like so many things in life, eh?”
            “My dear innkeeper,” there was a slight smile in the Teacher’s voice. Speaking in analogies and riddles is my job. And trust me when I tell you, you don’t want my job.”
            “Fair enough. Easing a little pressure in the lives of people when I can, is my job. But it wasn’t always so.”
            “When I was 16, my mother’s brother, a great merchant trader, invited me to put what little money I had made as hired field worker into his caravan venture and to travel with him and he would teach me everything he knew, as I was his favorite. He had no son and I looked like him. I so wanted to do that, and become rich and wise and well traveled like him. When the time came though, my older brother died and I was obliged to take up my father’s business of managing a stable, maintaining and breeding horses and donkeys. Work that I loathed. I still do. I don’t like horses. They’re jumpy and temperamental. And donkeys! So recalcitrant. And they’re both dangerous when agitated. And yet, here I am. Consigned to merely watch others live out the destiny of travel that I had hoped for myself.”
            “So your uncle, did he make another fortune on that trip?”
            “He did, and he took my younger brother in my stead.”
            “And your brother became a rich trader then?”
            “He died at the hands of brigands not two days’ away from Bethany. His throat was slit. He was 15.”
            “That was unfortunate.”
            “I wondered if he cursed me at his end for bequeathing to him my fate of owning a short life? Who knows? And so it has been. At every turn that came where I might pick up the trading life, something always conspired to hold me in my place. A death. A marriage. A birth. An inheritance. A debt to pay off.  A promise to keep. A grudged remembered. Injured knees. Illness. And now, old age. It’s always something.”
            “And the inn?”
            “It was my father-in-law’s. I was asked to take it over too. Yet another trade I despise. And yet here I am.”
            “My father despised innkeepers too. All his life.”
            “I don’t blame him. We’re a sorry lot. Keeping and staying at an inn brings out the worst in man on both sides of the accounts register.”
            The Teacher laughed at that. “My Abba would say, ‘We live in a time and place where hospitality is supposed to be a social virtue. Hospitality wants to be free! Cursed are those moneygrubbers who prey like vultures on those who are without family and friends in a strange place. Even the Greeks at least give their own kind the courtesy of a good bed to sleep in. He had a bad experience with innkeepers, though he never talked about it with me.”
            “Just so you know from our side, we innkeepers are in bad mood all the time because people always skip on us. Or they pay you in counterfeit foreign currency. Or they accuse you of stealing their belongings or damaging their pack animals in your stable. Or of afflicting them with fleas and lice and rat bites. And they trash the place. And their children are noisy brats. And the men pinch my wife and daughters’ behinds and breasts, especially the married men. It makes you a very cynical, distrustful person. As I said, a despicable business.”
            “And yet you can afford to pour me this expensive tea. I heard your wife berating you earlier for not charging enough.”
            “I may not be able to be a caravan trader, but I do get to invest in them now and then. I got this coal-heated tea service from a recent caravan. It’s beautiful. Shame it’s too dark to see.”
            “I just realized. I haven’t paid you for your services, have I?”
            “Twice, but who’s counting? We businesspeople build bill skippers into our expectations. Consider it your father’s revenge and shall we call it even?”
            “And so the remedies of the fathers are visited on the sons then? Who said no one has had such wisdom since King Solomon? But I am sorry my friend who turns scripture on its head, I will never be able to patronize you again.”
“So my service was THAT BAD? A thousand pardons. The lamb. It was tough? In my defense I say that your man Peter did get one of the last cuts available at the Temple Butchery, BECAUSE of your late reservation . . . but let me tell you there is a priest there who has been known to slip mutton in . . . it’s not just the moneychangers there who play it loose.”
“Oh, Bass! Stop. Where were you when I really needed you earlier this week?”
“You want names? I’ll give you names. And just between you and me, it makes my wife very happy to complain about my lack of business sense. If she knew we make our real living from investments, she would lose her own sense of pride. A man can lose his tunic in the hospitality business. She loves to compare me poorly to her late father, whom she adored. I can’t take that away from her.”
            “I can see that I would have made a terrible husband.”  The Teacher laughed again. “Bass, thank you very much.”
            “For what?”
            “For making me smile, but most of all for making me remember my father tonight of all nights. The father whose demands on me were so much more easy to meet. I loved him very much and he died too early.”
            “Fathers always leave before you can appreciate them.”
            “Bass, I am going to give you something. I only own my clothes and these.” The Teacher tore the hem of his garment and produced five small golden rings. “These are for you. I have no further use for them.”
            Bass fingered them carefully in the dark, being careful not to drop them. “They are like toys. What are they?”
            “According to the story I was told, when I was about one year old, my parents received some gold on my behalf from some traveling astrologers.”
            “I’ll just say their divination seemed to indicate to them that I was a king foretold.”
“A king you say? Forgive your Majesty.”
“Yes, and it caused problems for my parents because they went public with that reading and, we were forced to leave the country.”
“Because of fortune tellers’ tall tales?”
“Think more along the lines of insecure local rulers who are unable to think symbolically or figuratively.”
“Teacher. Your learning is more cunning that I can apprehend.”
“Sorry. Too long a story. In any event, that gold turned out to be very useful to them in relocating quickly. When they eventually returned, my father had one gold coin left. He decided to hold it to give to me. But he was a carpenter, and as such, all his friends were tradesmen. And tradesmen, they trade services to each other and a metalsmith owed him a favor and he asked to make it into five little rings that he could put on the toes of the right foot of my 5-year-old self. He said it was a joke to show to my mother, for who else but a king would have gold rings on his toes!”
            “Who indeed,” said Bass. “Sounds like your father, for all his sourness to ilk like me, had a sense of humor.”
“He did that.”
“But I can’t take such an heirloom from you. This must go to your son.”
            “I have no son. Nor will I ever. Take them Bass. I don’t want to leave you with the reputation that I am someone who skips out on his bills.”
            “Very well, but this more than covers what you owe me. Come by here anytime, or send your friends who need a place for the night. I shall do what I can to redeem the reputations of innkeepers.” Bass changed his tone to seriousness. “By the way, someone is looking for you. Someone with power to cause great mischief.”
            “I know.”
            “I have a fast horse.”
            “That too I know. I love him. But he is not for me. I have something to do here tonight.”
            “Peace be with you then, my friend. That is all I can offer. And tea.”
            “And also with you. It is enough. And thank you for being in your place when you were needed. You could have gone anytime, truly, but I am glad that it was you who was there for me, Bass.”
            “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
            “Someday, you will. But I must ready myself. Your tea service has done it’s work. Boy come on. We must rouse the … the eleven. I’ve tried twice and failed twice.”
            “The loafers? Master! You just have to know now to kick them … right between the …”
            Bass gathered up his tea set as the Teacher and his boy were arguing about the students when he heard the Teacher call out his name as he made his way back to the inn.
            “Bass. You still out there? One last thing! Just want to let you know, the lamb was sooo succulent, even if it was mutton, and the wine superb! The greens needed salt though. Thank you again!”

 -end of selection

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Chapter 2 "Welcome to Dog Island" from Stay Put, I'll Be Coming for You: A Love Story of Endurance

Dear readers:

For the most part, this novel is presented in the form of journal and diary entries mostly by Dr. Clete Wong, geologist and engineer, but various other portions occur. Following journal entries are usually recalled dialogue. Action basically takes place over eleven weeks in the summer of 2012. "Xingqi" kind of means "Day of the Week," and  days of the week are numbered from Monday through Sunday, 1-7 on the island where action occurs.

A word in advance if you think you might read this whole thing; take notes on who's who because you'll be meeting everyone on this island and they all have monosyllabic names.


Stay Put, I’ll Be Coming for You:
A Love Story of Endurance

Chapter 2  - Welcome to Dog Island

Entry to Annals 1st draft

Reporter: Qin Qin, Guardian Princess of History, Prophecy, and Lore

U.S. Date:             Sunday, 24 June 2012
Dog Island Date:        Dragon, Month 5, Day 6, Xingqi 7

At 0900 western time a military helicopter arrives and sets down on the strand. Appears to be U.S.; not the Protectorate. We herd them coming long before we cud see them. It was very eksiting. We were told to stay away and stay inside. (No way I wud do that.)

They do not turn off the propelurs. So much wind. And noise. Big side door opens and a man in uniform jumps out. He puts down a platform and helps other man exit. Second man is the scientist. He wears white shirt with long sleeves, hat with big brim, sunglasses, jeans, and boots. Other man in helicopter hands several bags with handles down to scientist.  Three large, two medium. Old Rex comes out and moves the scientist away from the helicopter. First man closes platform and gets back on helicopter. Door is shut and helicopter goes away.

The scientist starts to pick up his bags, but Rex tells him to leave them and he takes him into the Protectorate. Rex seems to be walking straight today. Probly has not had a drink yet today. The scientist seems to have a little limp too.
Half hour later Lee arrives with jeep and trailer. She and the scientist load up baggage and go to the guest cottage.

[Reporter’s Note: I decided to use English for all entries regarding the scientist. Seems like a good match. I am out of practice. I need to find the dikshunary. I think it hasn't been used since Matsumoto Sensei left us. I hope he finds something intrusting here. But it is pretty boring. ]

* * *

Personal Journal Entry

Week One, Sunday, June 24, 2013

The helicopter ride was hot, uncomfortable, and noisy. I can barely recall any of it even though it was just this morning. The crew was polite, but I was just luggage to them. Even so, I must remember to write a note to the “Captain” for arranging it. Guess we’re even now.

A fat, dark-skinned, old man dressed in a khaki uniform came out to meet me. The hair frizzing out from below his broad brim looked like clouds of cotton. I started to pick up my bags but he told me not to bother and told me to follow him inside. Conversation went something like this:

“Wow, it’s pretty hot here. And the humidity!” I said.
“What are you talking about?” said the old man. By his response I knew then that I was in for some hard-won acclimation.
“Kind of odd that there’s nobody out observing. You’d think a chopper landing is not the usual thing to have happen.”
“It’s not. Only things that come here are boats. Oh, they are all watching, trust me. They are just keeping their distance,” assured the old man. “I’m Rex. I understand you have brought your own food, Dr. Wong?”
“Call me Clete. Yes I was told that I was to avoid initiating any contact with the locals and so I am provisioned to act separately and autonomously and to work around them.”
“That’s right. No outside contact. Your agency is very special.”
“How’s that?”
“I’m talking about how they got this research project approved and got you on this island. Don’t think they expected anyone to ever follow through with a permit. Let alone drop a storage building here. I don’t how you did it. There have been research permits granted before, but nobody ever bothered to follow up once they studied the dossier. I think it has just been a minor income stream for them without having to actually deliver anything. They just sell paper.”
“Who have been some of the other licensees?”
“The Japanese government, the Russian government, the Chinese government . . .”
“That explains it. They probably have tons of bureaucracies to get through.”
“And the U.S. doesn’t?”
“This project is . . . let’s just say it’s privately funded. Done that way, there’s a lot less hands for money and permissions to travel through.”
“Still,” said Rex in a tone of amazement, “that was one helluva massive chopper that brought in the shed. Must be hard to organize that.”
“Not really. I just went to my address book hired my usual contractors who move big stuff all around the world. This was a piece of cake.”
“And just who are you again?”
“I’m just a doctor of geology donating some research to some do-gooders back in the States.”
“Bullshit if I can believe that. How does a NGO egghead get an American naval warship and helicopter to drop him off on this speck of dust in the Pacific?”
“It’s complicated. But I can say it in two words: favor bank.”
“Whatever. My advice to you here is to be invisible and speak only to me and your island liaison. Some are extremely unhappy that you are here.”
“That’s unfortunate. Well, I’m only conversant in English so I don’t expect that will be happening here.”
“English is one of the primary languages for oral communication here.”
“Really? Why is that?”
“This island has been under several jurisdictions in its history. It has been administrated by English-speakers or by people who use English as an official or commercial language, so there you have it. The longest recent master was the U.K. The U.S had a presence here at some point in the island’s history as well.  The culture is somewhat Chinese due to the ethnic makeup and the ancestral migration here. The place is at least tri-lingual. They don’t write it so good. Official records and correspondence is usually done in Chinese or Japanese.”
“What else do they speak?”
“Same things. Mandarin Chinese. Japanese. Couple other things that I can’t make out. Korean maybe? Some Southeast Asian tongue too.”
“Why Mandarin Chinese I wonder? I’d expect Cantonese or Hokkien or Hakka. When did the Chinese migrate here? Since 1949?”
“Oh God no. They’ve been here forever. Who the hell cares? All their names are Chinese. I can’t keep ’em straight. All sound the same to me—Ba, Na, Fa, Ma. They all look alike too.”
                  His last comment ticked me off. “Yeah? And Fuck you too! C’mon man. If you’re going to slur me, try to come up with something original. Jesus fuckin' Christ!”
                  “The hell? You’re Chinese? Wong? I guess so. Yeah! Sonofabitch. Hey I don’t mean it that way anyway. They’re related, so they DO look alike. No offense guy.”
                  “What else?” I say.
“I’ll be your primary contact to the national defense authorities. I call in the navy if they have any kind of security or sovereignty problem. Pirates sail these waters, they have for centuries, but since there’s nothing here, they never bother this island. Just so you know, I’m scheduled to cycle off in few weeks and there’ll be a gap of a few weeks till the next officer comes on, so you’ll be by yourself with the natives until someone comes to pick you up after Week 12. But I’ll be available for a while. I was told you brought your own satellite dish for communication uploads?”
“Yes, that’s correct. I just have to unpack it, assemble it, and calibrate it and we’re in business.”
“Your shed should have juice. I hooked it up to the grid, such as it is, myself. Be aware that there’s only electricity during daylight hours unless you make special arrangements with the First Water Guardian Princess.”
“With who? Did you say ‘princess’?”
“I did. I hear her jeep approaching. She’ll be right in. Her name’s Lee. Do not get too concerned by that title. There are several around here. ‘Princess’ means the same thing as ‘supervisor’ or even ‘citizen’ around here.”
The screen door snapped open and a small, slim woman strode in. She had on a wide-brimmed straw hat, a white linen tunic, sensible black trousers that went down to just above the ankles, and on her feet were rubber-soled trail shoes. She pulled off her hat. She was medium tan with fewer wrinkles than one would expect a woman of her what I would guess to be 50-something years. Her jet-black hair was gathered up into a massive top knot.
“You are Dr. Wong I presume?” She strode in. Her movements were jerky, aggressive, and abrupt. She seemed very stern and impatient. She oozed hostility.
“Yes, please call me Clete.”
“Very well.  Clete it is. I am Lee. You will be talking to me about all matters concerning and during your stay.”
“Lee, how about a nice ‘Welcome to Dog Island’?” suggested Rex. She glared at him. She then turned her stern gaze to Rex.
“You through talking to him?” snapped Lee to Rex.
“I guess I am,” said Rex. “Good luck Doc. Feel free to come see me anytime.”
“You! Come along!” she barked at me. “I need you to help me put your large luggage in the jeep. Clete.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“You call me Lee.”
“Got it. Lee.” Best to follow her lead on tone and conversation. I worked with her in silence loading the luggage into the jeep. She motioned me into the passenger seat and she took them down a dirt path to the guest cottage where I was to stay. It was a very simple pre-fab affair. Just as silently we unloaded the jeep. She showed me the cottage, with its spare furnishings and few appliances. She saw me sweating profusely and disappeared for a moment and brought back a towel.
“You all right? You look ill. Like you are about to collapse.”
“Sorry. It’s a LOT hotter and wetter here than in Los Angeles. I’m rather stifled. Goddamn, it’s not even 10 yet.”
“There is usually rain around noon. It will feel better after that for you. I forget about the weather. Long time since we have had tourists. My daughter and I are in the cottage right there. Her name is Ling.” She pointed out the window. “If you need anything I am usually inside or in the garden area adjoining. My daughter will wash your laundry for a fee. Just leave it in the basket there. Oh, and so you know, he is nearly always asleep at the desk.”
“The government man.”
“Oh, Rex.”
“They are useless. The three old men they rotate in here; they sleep in their shed. You will breakfast with me tomorrow.”
“That’s OK I brought some provisions. . .”
“You WILL breakfast with me tomorrow. We will go over essential things. Right now, you, rest.”
“Aye, aye.  You don’t have to convince me. What time?”
“Daybreak. I will knock on your door. Do you have any questions for me?”
“Yeah, a lot, but I’m afraid I’ll get slapped.”
“Is that supposed to be a joke Dr. Wong?” Lee was utterly deadpan.
“Maybe. Your highness.”
Lee opened her mouth but hesitated. She waited a beat then spoke. “Do NOT ever call me that! Is that understood?”
“Uh. Yeah. Clearly.”
“What did Rex tell you about us?”
“That some are extremely unhappy that I’m here. You’re one of them, aren’t you?”
“I will say this. We both have our jobs to do. As long as we fulfill our duties with competence and the most basic of courtesy, I am sure that we will get along fine. Do you not agree?” Three-second pause with intense stare. “Clete?”
“I couldn’t agree more. I have no questions. And I look forward to our morning meeting. Thank you for your kind attention.” Mimic native custom, three-second pause with intense stare. “Lee.” That seemed only to piss her off more.
“Electricity is on from 6 a.m. until one hour after sunset. There is sometimes a noon hour blackout too. Good day. See me if you need something.”

I should note that I frequently offend my hosts in foreign countries, not purposefully, but they chalk it up to my casual American cluelessness and cut me slack. I later figure them out. This broad definitely has a stick up her ass, but I guess I could have played it better. She reminds of a real up-tight great-aunt of mine from when I was kid. That woman never smiled—looks like Lee doesn’t either. Lee has that kind of voice that sits right in the middle of her mouth like the back of her throat is full and her English sounds slightly intonated in the way that Chinese speakers will throw the vowels up or down. Her English has a slightly British inflection to it as well. A linguistic remnant of the U.K. occupation. 

First impression could have been a lot better. Oh well. Since I’ll only be speaking to her, the bright side of this awkward start is it’ll keep the chit-chat at the bare minimum. I should have thought to do that on purpose. Gotta put that one in the strategy book. “Be an asshole on your first contact if you want to be left alone.”

© 2012 Vincent Way, all rights reserved.