"Can there be any day but this,
-- George Herbert, from his poem Easter
Images arising from music inspired this pet novel concept of mine almost twenty years ago. The novel will require a great deal of research, and the story idea moves me so much I am afraid to write it.
In the Year of Our Lord is a fantasy taking place in the Middle Ages; its major theme is the relationship of time and eternity. Its story involves a troubadour who, in his wanderings, sees again and again in many places a mysterious woman. She always slips away from him before he can speak to her; and he comes to learn that he is seeing a vision of a woman who will not be born for several hundred years. He tries to anchor her in his own time so that his love will not remain unrequited, but this attempt has tragic results. Nevertheless, the novel as I imagine it will have an uplifting ending.
The story avoids the paradoxes which -- much as I love them -- always ruin time travel stories for me. Neither the troubadour nor the woman "travel" in time, but he sees her as she "already" exists in the mind of God, Who does not inhabit time but eternity.
This storyline would also make for a beautiful film. I envision a soundtrack encorporating the music that originally inspired it -- assorted Medieval instrumental music performed by La Camerata, the Notre Dame Mass by Guillaume de Machaut, and Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. (For more on this music, visit From Tallis to Aranjuez.)
My husband, Stan, once told me a story of a girl climbing into the sky on a mystical staircase created by the ringing of church bells, and there meeting Orion. Stan also told me of an idea for a fantasy suggested by old-fashioned sky maps, in which the earth and the heavens would be inverted -- each constellation would be either a region of a world, or a character or a thing in that world, and the regions of the earth would conversely form objects in the heavens.
I adore this idea, and plan someday to write a young person's fantasy -- or alternatively, a general audience fantasy appropriate for young people as well as adults -- based on it. It would tentatively be entitled The Bands of Orion, from God's question in the book of Job, "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?"
To read about Stan's and my idea for musical pieces based on the constellations, and about the pieces -- including Orion -- composed so far, visit The Constellations.
When I was a child, my favourite book was The Fairy Tale Book, a deluxe Golden Book translated by Marie Ponsot and with breathtaking illustrations by Adrienne Ségur. My favourite story in that book was Bluecrest by Madame D'Aulnoy, which told of the thwarted (though in the end happy) love of King Crispin for the Princess April. Due to jealousy on the part of April's stepmother and stepsister, Crispin is turned into a blue bird and April is imprisoned in a castle tower. Every night Crispin flies to April's window, bringing her a piece of jewelry from his treasury, and sings to her.
Novelizing fairy tales has been a popular pastime in recent years, but to my knowlege Bluecrest has not been done, and I would like to do it. I have already written a piece of instrumental music based on the story. To read about it, and to read a poem I wrote to accompany it, visit The Dreams that Came. To see Adrienne Ségur's illustration for Bluecrest, visit Tilted Heads.
I am the very happy mother of a boy, Gawain Roderick, born in 1991. Though he is my only living child, he is not my first son. My first son, Gareth Dominic, was born prematurely and died when only a few hours old; in losing him I lost also my ability to have children. A year after Gareth died, my husband and I adopted Greyson Benedict, and at two months old found him dead in his crib of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Another two years passed, and we adopted Gawain.
I have had occasion to read a number of books on grief, and on losing children specifically, and I have found most of them -- for me -- to be woefully inadequate. I believe that my personal experience with the subject, recorded at some length in journals while it was occurring, might form the basis of a powerful, and hopefully uplifting, autobiographical book covering those years. My current title of choice for such a book is A Trinity of Sons.
To learn more about my experience of "the dark night of the soul," visit my Via Dolorosa page.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I saw on late night public television a version of Dracula featuring Louis Jourdan as the vampire. I proceeded to have vampirish dreams all night, and these led me to conceive an idea for that most overdone of things -- a vampire novel -- which would deal with the subject from the perspective of Christian theology. The concept of the life being in the blood is both an Old and a New Testament one, and as Christians we believe that we have life in Christ by partaking of His Blood at the Eucharist. It follows then, that vampirism is a sort of Satanic perversion of a Biblical truth.
After losing my first son in 1988, I did a great deal of research on vampirism as well as on Anglican liturical worship, since I imagined my vampire novel having as its characters the clergy and parishioners of a traditional Anglican church (the kind I myself attend). After losing my second son, I worked out the basic structure of the book and named the characters, and actually wrote the prologue. However, I soon found myself falling into severe depression, and the death-centred theme of the book became too much for me to deal with coming so close upon my own experiences with death, so I put the book down and have not yet picked it up again.
Nonetheless, one day I do hope to finish Ashes to Easter. The title comes from the time setting of the book; the main portion of the story begins the day before a certain Ash Wednesday and ends on the following Easter day. The novel's primary theme will be as "Lenten" as its setting -- the vampirish happenings in the book correspond with the attempt of a young priest to cope with his continuous grief over the death of his wife and unborn child a year earlier (the subject of the prologue). The novel will also deal not only with "the life is in the blood" concept, but with the distinction between merely unending life (quantity) and eternal life (quality).
Below is a table of contents showing the structure of Ashes to Easter as I have planned it. After the contents, the prologue -- Elegy -- is printed in full. For those interested in reading a set of song lyrics written for the novel, see The Two Bridegrooms in the Songs from Novels section of my The Dreams That Came page.
Elegy (printed in full below)
The light of Easter was in her eyes, the psalmody of sunset flooding the kitchen window and causing her gold-brown irises themselves to sing from beneath shrouding lashes. As he watched her where she stood at the blue tile counter, spooning dessert into the Limoges dishes she had inherited from her grandmother, he marveled how the hymn of love she fired in him should be more resounding now than when years ago its first halting notes had been struck. Perhaps it was that she was now with child -- a threefold cord, said the wise king, is not quickly broken. But the bond between them as man and wife had been too tightly weaved already for human hands to ravel.
Bekah set one dish before the Bishop who at the dining table's head occupied the place of honour, a second before himself at the Bishop's left, and a third at her own place opposite him. There with unconscious grace she seated herself, beneath the framed saying of St. Bernard that she had calligraphed in Irish uncial: "He alone is God who can never be sought in vain; not even when He cannot be found."
As the last rays to nourish the potted herbs on the windowsill were sucked into shadow, Bishop Ambrose Gardner removed the tinted glasses that protected his sensitive eyes, eyes so shallowly blue as to be almost without colour, yet deep in their persuasiveness. He rubbed, as was his habit, the bloodshot streak under his right ear that was evidence of some old trauma, then patted his purple-shirted stomach in satisfaction. Huge of girth, still his youthfully thick, silvering hair and resonant voice conspired with the charisma of his eyes to define him as handsome.
"The lamb was wonderful, Rebekah, and by the time your baked bananas have followed it, it will prove my undoing. Though lamb loves garlic and I love it, it has no great love for me, I regret."
"If I had know that, Bishop, I would have toned down the seasoning."
"Nonsense -- after forty days of denying myself all my favourites, episcopal privilege demands at least one attack of indigestion brought on by gluttony. And what has our good deacon abstained from this Lent? Not the company of his lovely wife, I hope. I have never seen a woman with whom pregnancy better agreed."
"We'll be sure to have you for dinner again six months from now to see if you still think so," returned Bekah with a pleased smile. "By then I'll be quite nearly ready to explode, if I may put it so crudely."
"Invitation accepted, with pleasure. In six months, Gareth will be a new father to another sort of baby -- his first parish -- and will be more than anxious for an evening's worth of my grandfatherly advice."
Gareth, anxious even in the anticipation of being both priested and "papa"-ed within so short a time, deflected the conversation to seriousness. "Have you any feeling, Bishop, for which church is more in need of us? Both St. Michael and All Angels and St. Bartholomew seem equally eager to hire me as soon as I am ordained. Bekah and I don't want to make a decision based only on personal preference; but for all our prayers on the subject, God doesn't appear to be leading us one way or the other."
"I can't pretend to read the Divine mind, but my own thought is that the California congregation might make the best use of you. My sister Veronica belongs to it, as well as some other former parishioners of mine from England."
Bekah groaned. "God will have to give me a special grace if He expects me to cheerfully raise a child in the land of the midday smog."
"Bekah's a Pacific Northwest girl, born and bred," explained Gareth. "She is dearly hoping that God might see fit to give us the Port Angeles parish. I admit that my own emotions run the same way; I lived all my life until our marriage in Southern Cal, and I have no wish to go back."
"I understand Rebekah's feelings, if not yours, Gareth. I would rather be vicar again of my own little church in Yorkshire than to be Bishop of these entire United States, or the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Holy Father of Rome, for that matter. But God has called me to my present office, and with St. Paul, I have learned in whatsoever state I am to be content."
"Amen," Bekah agreed, though she sighed as she said it; then, at the sudden appearance of her black Labrador Retriever after a long absence, "There you are, Athanasius. I was beginning to wonder what you were doing so all alone and quiet. Has that guilty muzzle been in the waste baskets again? He's a trained dog, Bishop -- mostly. But we haven't been able to break him of trash digging. He especially likes playing with -- which means shredding to confetti -- the long strips torn off the edges of Gareth's form-feed computer paper."
She scratched the white stripe on the dog's chest, and he reciprocated by giving her face a thorough washing with his tongue. Then, remembering that company was present, he crossed under the table to renew the friendship struck up two hours earlier, with less than stunning success. For after sniffing him up and down with profound interest, the dog proceeded to lift a leg and pee on the Bishop's shoe.
Bekah and Gareth leapt up simultaneously; Gareth grabbed Athanasius by the collar and jerked him hard.
"Athanasius!" Bekah cried, shocked and frowning. "I'm so sorry, Bishop -- I don't know what's come over him. He's never done this before. Let me get you a wet cloth; we'll pay for the shoes if they're ruined. . . . Bad dog, bad dog."
"Sit down, Rebekah, and calm yourself," the Bishop ordered her. If the dog's action had disconcerted him, he masked it quickly with his British courtesy and charm. "I have cats at home, and he probably smells them."
"That's no excuse," said Gareth angrily, leading the dog toward the back door. Before he reached it, Athanasius began heaving and did not quite make it outside before vomiting. "Are you all right, boy? We'd better take him to the vet tomorrow, Bekah. If he's not feeling well, it might explain what he did to the Bishop. . . . Sit down, Bekah -- I'll clean this up. If you try to, you'll just get sick yourself. That's one thing Bekah has learned in a hurry about pregnancy, Bishop -- it makes one sensitive to smells."
"It also makes one pine to be in bed by 8:30," added Bekah, yawning. "Bishop, would you think me terribly rude if I said good night? You and Gareth can talk as late as you like; I'm not so jealous of his presence that I can't spare him occasionally. Leave the dishes, Gareth; I'll attack them tomorrow as soon as I've gotten over my morning nausea."
"Your husband and I will attack them directly you are gone up, my dear. Sweet dreams now, and take care for this little one." Bishop Gardner patted her stomach paternally with the hand that wore his amethyst ring, then kissed her cheek.
Gareth kissed her lingeringly on the lips, thanking God for this seventh and happiest Easter with her. And the next after this, he thought, will be happier still. I will celebrate the Paschal Mass in my own parish. Our baby will be six months old.
He watched his wife ascend the stairs, then turned back toward the kitchen. Bishop Gardner, having already beaten him to cleaning up the dog's vomit, stood at the sink with rolled-up sleeves.
Gareth, embarrassed, strode over to him. "Sit down, Bishop; I can't let you do those."
"You can't 'let' me?" the Bishop hissed. "A deacon does not 'let' his Bishop, nor does a priest -- and I advise you to remember it." His pale eyes lowered upon Gareth in unmistakable anger; Gareth was completely taken aback at this response to his own attempt at politeness. Then the anger abated as quickly as it had swelled; indeed Gareth guessed he must have imagined it as the Bishop continued quietly, "'Whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant . . . The Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister.' Jesus washed feet; I wash dishes. However, I believe I'll remove this first." He lifted from off his neck the pectoral cross which had been threatening to drag in lamb grease or soapy water, and handed it to Gareth to lay aside.
Gareth set it on the dining table, admiring it the while. "This cross is beautiful, Bishop, and unusual."
"It was designed and made for me by a man of my Yorkshire parish, in thanksgiving for my recovery. He was an unusual, and a talented, man -- a devotee of St. Luke the beloved physician, to whom he prayed for my cure." Before his coming to America to aid a small and struggling traditional Anglican denomination, the Bishop had been an unassuming priest in his native village. A brain hemorrhage had sent him into a coma from which he had not been expected to emerge; in it he had remained for fully seven years, until, one Maundy Thursday, he had been suddenly and miraculously healed. The miracle had canonized him in the eyes of his parishioners and of many others, and his gift for spiritual leadership had been transfigured from a human plane to an angelical one by virtue of his near brush with Heaven.
Gareth had heard the story of the healing, but only third hand; taking up a dish towel and drying as the Bishop washed, he prepared to ask about it. But the Bishop forestalled him with, "How long have you and Rebekah been married, Gareth?"
Bekah was a subject about which Gareth was never loth to talk. "Seven years tomorrow."
"Tomorrow is your anniversary? Congratulations! Seven years -- and you are only just now starting a family?"
"Yes, we've been remiss, I'm afraid. We told ourselves there was plenty of time, and that anyway we weren't quite sure how we felt about the big C -- Children. To be honest, we were terribly afraid."
"Afraid of . . . ?"
"Tampering with perfection. I'm sure that you're well versed in the Matter of Britain, Bishop. Do you remember the Round Table's Siege Perilous, the chair that none could sit in till he for whom it was meant came -- Sir Galahad? Bekah is Galahad to the Siege Perilous of my heart. Till I met her, I thought that vacancy would never be filled, and even seven years later, I still sometimes can hardly believe that it is. Our love could not, in an earthly sense, be better; so we have not been able to help feeling that any change must be a change for the worse. That's why we waited so long to take the plunge into parenthood, and even now we're taking it on trust."
"'Perfect love casteth out fear.' Your love is as perfect a one as I have encountered, Gareth, and I speak from broad experience. If I had chosen to marry and been so blessed as to find her, I would have wanted a wife like your Bekah. Beautiful, talented in more ways than one as I see from her calligraphy and her needlework and her cooking. . . . She plays piano, also, does she not? And she has besides a genuine wisdom which is rarely found."
"I believe she has what the Scriptures call the gift of 'discerning of spirits' -- she seems to be able to read the truth in people, even at first meeting, whereas I am rather slow that way. It's a good thing that this rector will have such a rector's wife to help him keep his congregation sorted out."
"Yes, discernment is a most valuable gift -- I shall want a full report from you as to what she thinks of me now that she's seen me from another vantage than that of pew to pulpit."
"I'm sure that she's as charmed by you as you are by her. There goes Athanasius barking again -- I'd better let him in before the neighbours complain. . . . Ouch! Dammit! . . . Excuse me, Bishop, but I've cut myself on that knife you just handed me. If Bekah were still up she'd berate me for my all too typical clumsiness." Gareth displayed the finger around which his gold wedding band with its three tiny inset emeralds wound; the blood was welling from it steadily. He involuntarily put his finger to his mouth and sucked it, and only afterwards thought what a revolting thing this was to do in front of one's Bishop.
The Bishop was indeed looking at him oddly, so oddly that at length he began to be alarmed. "Are you all right, Bishop?" he asked, wrapping his finger in a paper towel.
The Bishop was rubbing the scar beneath his ear feverishly as he was wont to do when excited or upset. "Yes, fine. It's just . . . " He looked away for a moment, and when he turned back again seemed newly composed. ". . . the sight of blood, Gareth. It has affected me this way since my coma. The one thing I remember from those years, the only thing, is a dream of blood washing in endless waves over my eyes. But you'd better take care of that finger. It's soaking through the towel. . . . " His face began to go strange again.
"I'll get a bandage, and let Athanasius in while I'm at it. In fact it's time for me to feed him, if he's well enough to eat. He's used to sleeping at Bekah's feet, but after tonight's performance, I don't want him in the bedroom till I go up myself for fear he'll be sick again."
The Bishop, having washed the last dish, dried his hands and retrieved his pectoral cross. "Gareth, to quote your dear wife, would you think me terribly rude if I retired early? I had fully intended to repay your hospitality with a meaty theological discussion lasting into the wee hours -- I know we were both looking forward to that -- but I'm afraid that my greed for another kind of meat is beginning to exact its full punishment. I've found that the best cure for an unhappy stomach is a long night's sleep."
"You go on up, Bishop; we can talk anytime. I'll just put away these last few things and take care of the dog and I'll be up myself." Though a little disappointed -- they had begun a discussion the day before on transubstantiation which he was eager to continue, as the Bishop's view of the real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the elements of Communion contained subtleties new to him -- Gareth was consoled by the fact that he never enjoyed these talks as much when Bekah was absent. Besides this, he hated to think of her lying in bed alone; she was finding it increasingly hard to sleep without him near her as her pregnancy progressed.
"Good night then, Gareth. God be with you till the morning."
The Bishop heaved his heavy bulk up the steps, and Gareth went to the back door where Athanasius sat alternately barking and whining. The moment the door was open, the dog bolted toward the stairs, and was only prevented from flying to his mistress by Gareth's firm command to stay. "You don't act like a sick dog to me. I hope that means you're hungry. Let's see what we can find for a spoiled animal. Some leftover bits of lamb to mix in with his dog food perhaps. . . ."
Ten minutes later, Gareth with his finger bandaged but throbbing was accompanied by a well-stuffed Athanasius to where Bekah waited for them both. In the brief interval between his head touching the pillow beside her and sleep, he repeated a prayer from The Order for Compline:
"Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness; through Jesus Christ our Lord."
So joyous were his dreams of Bekah that he would have regretted waking, had it not been the actuality of her that he woke to, and the anticipation of an anniversary whose plans included a trek through the woods with Athanasius, a Greek dinner, and a movie that was reported to be romantic.
In his final dream before waking, the only one Gareth later remembered, the day's activities had already begun; but the wood he and Bekah and the dog trekked through was a misty English one. (Confirmed Anglophiles, they had saved little by little since their marriage for an English vacation, which the economic realities of a clergyman's salary and an impending family had now indefinitely postponed.) The dream-Bekah walked slightly ahead of him, cloaked, booted, and carrying a walking stick, as he also was attired. At some point during their ramble, which seemed to last a long time, they stopped at a pub for food and drink; Bekah remarked that it was nice that Athanasius was allowed to lie under their table rather than being banished as from an American restaurant. Wandering on from the pub, they explored the ruins of an old abbey, and under a loose stone on one of its parapets they found a medieval crucifix which reminded Gareth of Bishop Gardner's pectoral cross. He hung it around Bekah's neck and kissed her, savouring the sweetness. Then as they looked out over emerald fields partitioned with low stone walls and studded with snowy sheep, the sun began to rise; none could fathom their awe in watching it, for it had already been day. This second dawn was the Last still bearing the First within it, the dawn of the Day unending, the ever Easter. Its light shone no longer on mere England, but on the woods and fields of her sister-country in Heaven.
He could not tell whether it was the earthly sun shining in his own face that had wakened him, or whether it was that Athanasius, their canine alarm clock, had insinuated himself between his master and mistress and was vigourously kissing Bekah's left ear.
As Gareth's grogginess wore off, he studied this homely, pleasant picture of morning devotion, the dog's equivalent of prayer. Bekah, still asleep, was turned away from him and towards the window. Her dark brown hair that was all he could see of her was luxuriously curly and soft -- he hoped that their baby inherited it, and her heart-shaped face, and her mysterious smile. . . . Of course Bekah was expecting blond-haired, thin nosed, square-jawed babies of lanky and substantial height like himself. Their eyes at least were certain to be brown, as that was the single physical characteristic he and Bekah had in common . . .
It was strange that, with Athanasius licking her so earnestly, she did not wake up; though not strange that, these days, she did not much look forward to waking, as it usually meant half an hour of dry heaves bending over the toilet. He did not himself want to wake her before she was ready, but the sooner she woke the sooner she would begin to feel well enough to proceed with this special day's itinerary.
Shooing Athanasius off of the bed, Gareth whispered into Bekah's wet ear, "Happy anniversary, dearest." He laid his hand on her shoulder.
The shoulder was utterly cold. The universe, all of it that had relation to him, dropped away. A vestige of what he called himself, refusing to believe, yet clung to the brink of the chasm; but it was another man, or rather no man at all, that turned Bekah onto her back and looked upon the face that had embodied his understanding of love. It was paste-white, and, on the side of it on which she had been lying, splotched with blue where the no longer flowing blood had settled. Her vacant, distorted eyes were slightly open, her parted lips purple -- as he was not he, so this was not his wife, but a cheat, a sadistic joke that would, if he dwelt on it, unmake his faith in the ultimate Blessedness of the tale of life. And all the while, a part of him was incapable of knowing that he would not wake from this nightmare into the solace of Bekah's arms.
And then he remembered that it was not his wife alone who was torn from him like the still-beating heart from his chest. He laid back the blankets that covered her. The finger that wore a matching wedding band to his pointed stiffly to her breasts; between them, at the nail's point, was a spot of red, as though she had scratched herself there while sleeping. His eyes travelled downward unwillingly, and everywhere upon the sheets was the blood, endless waves of it, in which her life and their child's had drained away. "Bishop," Gareth croaked hoarsely, but loudly enough, for he heard a responding stir in the guest bedroom next door. He did not recognize his own voice, and the only word he could find with which to pray was, "God." There was not, nor could ever be, more to be said.
Once he had recovered from the sight of the blood, the Bishop had been in complete and gentle command, sparing Gareth any action that might be performed by another. The paramedics, uselessly, had been summoned; the police and at last the county coroner had followed. Bekah had miscarried, said the coroner, hemorraghed to death in her sleep. He placed the probable time of her expiring at shortly after midnight. Shortly after the passing-bell of Easter, the ringing-in of her wedding day.
Three days later Bishop Gardner, assisted by Father Astin, the rector under whom Gareth was deacon, celebrated her funeral Mass; the nave of St. Simon and Jude was full to overflowing with those who had loved her. As the cemetery was next to the church, her casket, covered with a purple pall, was born in torchlit procession to her grave, while a litany for the dead borrowed from the Orthodox was intoned:
"Give rest to the soul of thy servant, O Christ, with the Saints, where there is neither pain, nor sorrow, nor sighing, but life unending. Thou only art immortal that didst create and fashion men: but we mortals are formed of earth, and unto the same earth shall we come: even as thou didst ordain, that didst fashion me and saidst unto me, Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return. Thither shall all we mortals go, making a lamentation over the grave, even in the song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."
Athanasius, held in check by an acolyte, was at the graveside to bid his mistress farewell. Gareth himself trickled earth in the shape of a cross on her bared casket. And all the while through his mind ran these words from the dying song of the Venerable Bede, "Do not leave us orphaned." He and Bekah had lost their parents in their early twenties; it was one of oh so many things they had had in common. Bekah had one much older brother, but Gareth was an only child. He was truly alone now; he and Bekah had close friends, yes, but none would follow with him where he would soon be going. For he was called to be priest, though without Bekah at his side it now seemed but an empty vocation, as the whole garden of his future had been emptied for him of all he knew as fair. The most precious flower and its seedling mowed down with one sweep of the gardener's Hand -- he had not lost his Faith, not yet, but it hung about him perilously ill, like a suit of clothes one had intended to marry in changed suddenly into mourning weeds.
The day after the funeral, he returned to the cemetery to order her headstone. At the top would be a simple cross; in the midst "REBEKAH BRAE CASSEL" with her dates of birth and death, thirty-two years apart. And beneath would be inscribed the lines of John Donne she had loved to quote when speaking of her desire for God:
"Take me to You, imprison me, for I
Except You'enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except You ravish me."