Post-Umber (or, “Hooray for NaNoWriMo”)

November 6, 2012 § 3 Comments

Thank you to those dear persons who have read my installments of Umber–you can’t imagine how encouraging it’s been to see all the times you’ve hit the “like” button, or left a comment.  I really, really appreciate it.

I’m happy to have completed this first part of my “Umber” experiment.  I was surprised by the characters that developed as I kept writing.  I wrote the last installment the day before Halloween, just in time for NaNoWriMo, which I’d decided to use as “NaNoReviseMo” to make changes (major and minor) to my story.  I understand why writers don’t usually post their writing in installments before they’ve finished the story–after a certain point, the story’s trajectory gets harder and harder and, finally, impossible to change.  But it was a great exercise in self-discipline, and I ended up with enough stuff (33,000+ words) to serve as a starting place for something.  I recently reread Ray Bradbury’s From the Dust Returned,” which was something like 50 years in the making, and was based on a number of stories he had written about the same family.  I found that inspiring, though I doubt I have fifty years left to tinker around with the Umber people.

So anyway, not being part of any writers’ group, I printed out some information about story critiques, which I’m finding very helpful.

1) I found this question thought-provoking (from a Writer’s Digest article, “3 Writing Critique Questions You Must Ask Your Prospective Critique Partners”, by Courtney Carpenter):

What characters did you feel the most strongly about?

The character I feel most strongly about is Vera, and she is the one I am least satisfied with (more about that in a minute).

I was prepared to really dislike Leroy.  He was supposed to be a scoundrel, but, in fact, I was surprised to find that, even though he was a jerk, I liked him a lot.

I loved Oleander; she seemed the most real to me.

I really liked Miss Brigid, although her scary story could have been scarier.  Also liked Ervin.  Kate seemed like a nice person, a good sister.  July Benbow and her kids were despicable (which I thought was good), but maybe too 2-dimensional.  Vera’s father and her grandparents–okay.

I wanted to know more about Father Hoolihan, and why he and Vera were attracted to one another.  I think there’s much room for improvement there–I’m afraid their mutual attraction just wasn’t that believable.  He seemed sort of wishy-washy, and I’m not sure if Vera would have liked him all that much, unless there was more to him than that.  I think he must’ve been intellectually fascinating or something, but that doesn’t come across.  Maybe I should have made him a Jesuit, a visiting priest, maybe.

Alice was absolutely my favorite character.

I liked Marla, would have liked to have known a bit  more about her.

Sebastian and the other saints–really needed more work.  I know what I was seeing in my mind’s eye, but I don’t know if any of that came across in my writing.

2) Which leads me to a thought about Vera and the plot:

Vera just did not want to fit into the story the way I had outlined it.  She ended up being buffeted around by circumstances, then sort of rescued by an outside force.  I was not satisfied with this, and neither was she, which is why she threw a dishtowel at Saint Sebastian and told him she wasn’t going to go along with his plan.  This complicated things quite a bit, and now I am trying to sort them out.  Which is why I’m glad it’s NaNoWhatever month.

Any thoughts/criticism you have would be most welcome.  I really want to ask, “Which parts were/were not interesting?” “Were the characters believable?” and “Was the ending–you know–lame?” and anything else that you might think of.  This would help a lot, since I can’t really be objective at all.

And, by the way, this all started as an attempt to create a story that would serve as the basis of an artist’s book, with many visual elements.  That’s still my plan, but the story has to be revised first.


Umber: Afterword (Sibyl’s Story)

November 5, 2012 § 3 Comments

Rummaging through the attic, I blew the dust off of a box and lifted the lid.  It contained a pile of papers.  On the top was a familiar picture.  “I miss you, Grandma,” I said to the face in the photograph.  I read the lettering on the back; it said “Marla, at the lake, 2021.”

Beneath the photo was a manuscript.  I read the words, “I first saw her at an estate sale.”

Sitting in the dim light of the dusty attic, I read the entire story Grandma wrote about someone named Vera.  That’s a nice fantasy, I thought.  I didn’t know Grandma dabbled in fiction.  I checked the first page for a title, but found none.  Maybe, I thought, it should be called, “How Dogma Carried to Extremes Almost Ruined Four Generations of the Birdsall Family.”  Or, “Lofty Principles Should Be Balanced with Common Sense.”  It was nice that Vera had people who loved her enough to want her to be happy.  Grandma made her sound like a wonderful woman.

Funny how Vera’s father was redeemed when he abandoned his principles and welcomed his daughter back home, but Vera could only maintain her integrity by being true to her promise never to remarry.  Were they both right?

At any rate, in the end they could each respect what they saw in the mirror.  That’s even better than going to Picardy.


Umber (77)

November 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

Not knowing what else to do with them, I bundled the remaining photos from Vera’s life into a large shoebox and put them in the attic.

Weeks later, I was sitting at my desk, looking out the window at ice encasing bare chokecherry branches.  I opened my sketchbook, and a photo fluttered from its pages and fell directly onto my lap.  It was one I’d never seen before, but I recognized the faces.

Sebastian sat at a table at an outdoor cafe, writing and smoking a cigarette.  Miss Brigid and a woman who looked just like her were eating gelato, and Oleander was holding some of it out to Silvertip, who lapped it up with his floppy tongue.  Father Hoolihan wore not a priest’s cassock but a tweed suit.  He was feeding a flock of pigeons that had gathered around his feet.  He held a small laughing boy who looked just like Vera.  Alice was studying a French menu.  Vera sat in the middle of them all, sketching a bowl of apricots.

I wasn’t sure if they would still talk to me, but I said, “I’m happy for you, Vera.”

Apparently she couldn’t hear me.  None of them could, except for Sebastian, who stopped writing, looked up at me and said, “Thank you for working a miracle, Miss Marla.”

“Oh,” I blushed, “I didn’t do much–Oleander did the hard part.”  I pointed to Vera and the others.  “It looks like they’re happy.  You’re in Picardy, then?”

“Oui, Madame.”  He tipped his hat and smiled at me.

“Whatever happened to Leroy?”

“July Benbow whipped him into shape.  He had a long and undistinguished career as a furniture maker.  He gave up drinking and gambling.  In his way, he was happy.”

“Well,” I said, “I hope you’ll remember me when it’s my time to–you know–pass on…”

Saint Sebastian laughed.  “It’ll be a good while before that happens, dear lady.”  And that was the last thing he said.

Umber (76)

November 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

With his free hand Sebastian pulled a GPS from his pocket and swung it left, right, and around in a circle until it became a wavering transparent portal.  He stepped through it, pulling me along with him.

We were in St. Agnes’ Church.  It was chilly and dark, except for a few flickering votive candles and the red sanctuary lamp at the far end of the center aisle by the altar.  As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see a woman in a black wool coat sitting in a pew near the vestibule door.

“Hello, Vera.”  I said, my voice faltering a bit.

She turned her face toward me.  She was very pale.  I saw that she was a young girl again, no more than seventeen.

“What happened?” she asked me, sounding weak and bewildered.

I could not think of any way to explain the events of the last few days, so Sebastian spoke instead.  “Don’t you recall, Vera?” he asked gently.  “What do you remember?”

“I was sick.  It was the flu.  I could hear Francis and Oleander talking.  I couldn’t answer or open my eyes.  I saw–someone.  Maybe it was you.  And now — now I’m here at St. Agnes’…”  She paused, trying hard to remember, then said with a small sobbing gasp,  “I died, didn’t I?”

“Yes!” Sebastian shouted, making Vera and I jump.  His voice echoed from the niches and the high ornate ceiling.  “You were deader than a doornail! Your life ended, just like that!”

He snapped his fingers.  Before I could open my mouth to protest this insensitive reaction to Vera’s demise, he announced triumphantly, “You kept your promise after all, Vera!  You were true to your word, faithful to what’s-his-name til death did you part!  You are free of any further obligation.”

Dazed, she asked him, “Where do I go from here, then?”

“We’re going to do some traveling–back in time and across an ocean.”

“Bilocation?” she whispered.

“Yes, you remembered; we discussed it, but you weren’t willing to consider it at the time, and I respected your decision, of course, even though I didn’t agree with it.  But I did admire your integrity.  And now, there’s no need to worry about breaking your vow, since you unquestionably did shuffle off this mortal coil.”

“What does it feel like–this kind of traveling?”

“Like flying.”

“You’re one of the men who travel on the wind, aren’t you?  The ones my mother used to tell me about.”

“Speaking of that, some people are waiting to see you.”

Sebastian opened the confessional door.  Vera followed Joan, Theresa, Catherine and Michael through the doorway.  Sebastian was the last to cross the threshold.  The door shut behind him with a click.

Umber (75)

November 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

“Who are you?!” I squeaked.

He lowered his hood and, sounding a bit offended, said, “Don’t you recognize me?”

I shook my head.

“Well, maybe it’s the clothes,” he mumbled.  He cast his eyes upward and put his hands behind his back.  “How about now?”

I recognized the pose from the holy card.

I gaped at him, attempting in my half-awake state to say his name.


“Yes, it’s me!  There’s something I think you should witness.  I promise to have you back before your family wakes up.”

He reached his hand toward me.  Surprised at my own lack of caution, I grasped it and asked, “Where are we going?”

“To Kearney.”

Umber (74)

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

That night, I awoke to a rustling sound.  I sat up in bed.  My husband was snoring.  Thinking I had probably heard the cat, I was about to lie back down when I heard the noise again.  I got up, pulled on my orange bathrobe, and went to investigate.

I peered into my son’s bedroom.  He was asleep; the cat was asleep next to him.

I heard the noise for a third time, and realized it was coming from downstairs.  I picked up the hairdryer from the bathroom shelf and slowly, quietly made my way down the steps.

Someone wearing a blue hoodie was standing near the bottom of the stairs.  I prepared to launch the hairdryer at the intruder’s head when he said, “You feel like taking a little trip, Miss Marla?”

Umber (73)

October 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

It’s been so good to see you, Miss Oleander Tibbs.  I hope to see you again,” I said, thinking I would pay the old woman another visit, since apparently no one else did.

“Miss Tibbs.  No one has called me that in decades,” she told me.  But I’m afraid I won’t be here long enough for another visit.  My daughters are coming to take me home tomorrow.  I haven’t seen my grandchildren for weeks!”

She stood up.  I noticed that there was more color in her pale cheeks now.  She reached for a sweater and said, “I’ll walk you to the door.”  As we started down the wide hallway, I noticed that the nameplate next to the door now said “Oleander Eugene.”

Umber (72)

October 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

She was soon finished.  She seemed so invigorated that I stared at her, amazed.  She laughed.  “I feel better already, ” she told me.  And indeed, she seemed much more robust than she’d been an hour earlier.

“Now, Marla, please hand me some of those envelopes.”  She stuffed each envelope with a pile of papers.

“All we need to do now is to place these envelopes in the collection box at the back of Saint Anthony’s Church–do you know where that is?”

I didn’t know why she wanted me to put the envelopes in the collection box, but I nodded, and she placed the bundle of envelopes in my handbag, saying, “The collection box is right next to the statue of Joan of Arc.”

I finished my tea and we talked a bit more, mostly about the weather.  Finally I said, “I guess I’d better get over to the church.”

“Oh, yes, the sooner the better!  And thank you so much, dear Marla.”  She placed her gnarled hands over mine, and I noticed that they were no longer shaking.

Umber (71)

October 29, 2012 § Leave a comment

I wondered what she would do.  She examined the ephemera spread across her room for a while.  Then she pushed a call button on the wall.  Maybe she would ask Benny to escort me out of the building, along with all the stuff I’d brought in my handbag.  But when he appeared, she cried, “Benny!  Bring glue!  Scissors!  Envelopes, felt pens and glitter!”

Benny obeyed.  I watched as the old lady’s hands, steadier now, darted about, reaching for photos, snipping some in two, some in quarters, taping others together.  She laughed aloud at times, saying “Oh, I know!” and “What if we do this…” and “No, wait, this is better!”  I wondered at the change in her demeanor.  This was no longer an old, decrepit woman–this was a magician, a whirling dervish, a small tornado, so fast was she moving, clipping, gluing, drawing, glittering.

Umber (70)

October 28, 2012 § Leave a comment

Oleander sat perfectly still for a long moment, staring into my face but not really seeing me, as if she had just heard a secret from a voice that reached her from a great distance.  She sat there for so long that I started to worry.  Maybe I had upset her.  Maybe she was having a stroke?  Maybe this was too much for her.  What if, by coming here and reminding her of her childhood, I was causing her so much stress that she was going to keel over, dead!

“Oh, saints preserve us,” I whispered to myself.

I considered calling Benny.  Just as I was about to reach over and shake her arm to see if she was alright, Oleander’s eyes refocused.  Slowly she regained an alert expression.  Then moving so abruptly that I flinched, she lifted the bag of photos.

“Well, let me look,” she said.  She scattered the photos, cards and paper dolls on her table, the dresser and the bed.