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Numinous World -- Awakening

I'm not sure whether to tag this The General's Mistress or The Order of the Air, as this bridges the gap between them. This is Elza -- and Gull and Lydias and Charmian -- in 1902. This is the same incarnation that we saw briefly in Steel Blues and will have as a more major character in Wind Raker. This story would probably go in a new anthology. I'd love to hear what you think!



It would never have happened if Fred hadn't had a terrible bout of influenza. I was sixteen and he fourteen that winter of 1902, and mother was beside herself. Everything went by the wayside, including of course her customary calls, so that she might sit with him and nurse him with her own hands. I was extraneous, of course. Not professional nurse or mother, what use is a sister?

"You might," Fred said, "Go to Bates Hall and fetch me something to read. Something I haven't had." His eyes were fever bright, but he was perfectly coherent.

"Of course," I said. "May I, Mother?"

I had never been allowed to go to the public library before. I had only been out in society for a month, and certainly children of good family were not allowed to go alone. A young lady might, but it was rather fast. Mother wouldn't have allowed it if she had been thinking, but she wasn't. "Of course, Beatrice," she said, not even looking up at me. "Take O'Leary and the trap."

But of course O'Leary wasn't coming in the library with me. He would wait as near as he might and I should be entirely alone.

And so it was that I mounted the steps completely unchaperoned in an entirely public place in downtown Boston on an errand of mercy for my sick brother. What should I get him? My mother would no doubt expect Horatio Alger or the like, but Fred hated Horatio Alger with a perfect passion. Adventures were rather better. We had both recently read King Solomon's Mines and adored it. Mother was sure to ask to see what I brought and she might find other books by the same author rather too racy, as they tended to be full of people who one might assume were not fully dressed, but perhaps I could get by if the title were sufficiently dull. Arthur Conan Doyle was safe enough. My father had a number of his books, and though we'd read The Hound of the Baskervilles a hundred times there must be other books like it. Perhaps some non fiction too, to make the adventures blend in a bit.

I looked about. Bates Hall held thousands of books. Thousands and thousands and thousands. There were floor to ceiling shelves alternating with the huge windows, winter light streaming in. I chose an aisle and walked down it at random, trailing my fingers along. Each book had a small tape with a number on it, the numbers increasing as I went. Ah. The Reign of King John had a lower number than The Age of Shakespeare. That, in turn, was lower than a few shelves on, A General History of the English Civil War Between Cavaliers and Patriots. English history chronologically. I picked up the one about the English Civil War, hoping it would be full of entertaining battles, but it seemed instead to have page upon page of discussion of parliamentary proceedings, which would appeal to Fred like a hole in the head. Battles, I thought. Battles. Or at least sea voyages and explorations. I wandered down the next aisle, letting my hand trail along the rows of books.

Dark green leather with a saber picked out in gold on the spine, the saber entwined with white roses.

My heart thudded in my chest suddenly, a rush of something flooding over me, enough that for a second I felt faint and closed my eyes, holding on to the book shelf. But of course I opened them and took the book down, feeling the prickle at my spine that came too seldom, the sense that in this moment, in this very second I was doing something that changed the course of the world, though what it could be made no sense. What can it matter if an ordinary girl of sixteen takes down a book from a shelf in the Boston Public Library?

I shouldn't. It was wrong. I wasn't supposed to know. I wasn't supposed to touch this, to open this cover like a door. It broke all the rules.

And yet I did. I never for one heartbeat thought I wouldn't.

Memoirs of a Contemporary, translated by Lionel Strachey, Being the Reminiscences by Ida St. Elme, Adventuress, of her Acquaintance with Certain Makers of French History, and of her Opinions Concerning them. From 1790 to 1815.

She looked back at me from the opposite page, the plate protected by a piece of onionskin, and I lifted it. A worn and not very beautiful face older than my mother, an old-fashioned turban draped from a glittering scarf over her hair, tight cinched high waisted dress with a lace ruff. Her eyes were light, her nose too long, her expression decidedly opinionated and at the same time interested, brows plucked fine despite bags beneath her eyes. I could hardly look at it. My eyes slid away when I tried to see it whole rather than picking out small details. My eyes did not want to focus on it except by an act of will. And yet I knew I could never forget her name, never, not while I breathed.

It was my name. This was my book and that was my face.

I held it to my chest in the stacks of the Boston Public Library in the winter of 1902.

I am ten thousand years old, like H. Rider Haggard's Ayesha. I am ten thousand years old, and sixteen. I was old when the Bible was put on paper, and I was born under the stars of January in 1886. I am soldier and courtier, cook and courtesan, spy and priestess, farmer and lover and mother and father. I am a girl sixteen years old who lives in Boston with her parents and her little brother and who likes horses and dogs and cats and last summer I met a boy who said he was Sir Bedevere. I like plays and opera and I am the story they tell.

All this went through my mind quick as fire. It washed over like wind, a thousand images and pictures flying too fast to see, the swirling refuse of a life, a whirlwind of memory. And still I clutched the book.

I could put it down, I thought. I could go along and get something else for Fred. I could pretend I have never seen it. I thought that for one second. I don't think I meant it.

I wrote this book, I thought, for so many reasons that I do not remember. And here is another -- a message in a bottle, a letter to myself. This is who you were, Beatrice. This is who you may be. Read, and welcome the whirlwind.

And so I put it in the stack in my arms and walked up to the circulation desk, my skirts sweeping against the carpets and my hat pins digging into my scalp, walked in high buttoned shoes and a corset that suddenly felt unbearably strange, in Boston in February of 1902.

Comments

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
sockich
Jun. 2nd, 2013 01:12 pm (UTC)
Ooooh, I've got shivers. I loved what we saw of her in Steel Blues and this is excellent, so I am even more excited for Wind Raker. And wait, I just realized, she's the girl in Brunnhilde in the Fire, too, isn't she? Oh, I really do love this universe.
jo_graham
Jun. 4th, 2013 10:45 am (UTC)
Oh yes! You win! This is the same girl as Brunnhilde in the Fire! And in Steel Blues. I just put up her first scene from Wind Raker.
aishabintjamil
Jun. 2nd, 2013 02:44 pm (UTC)
Wow. This would be great set in any city, but for me being set in Boston adds a little something. I've just recently been trying to research one of my grandmother's sisters, born in Boston in 1889. Of course she was from an Irish immigrant family, so there were no questions of being out in society or chaperones, and by 1902 the family had relocated to northern NH.

How long is the story? I want to know what she's going to do with this new knowledge.

Have you thought about releasing these stories as standalone e-stories until you've accumulated enough to make a reasonable collection? My publisher puts out shorter stories (5-10K) as separately purchaseable items, and they seem to sell well. Once you have that magic 50K of words that you mentioned earlier you could pull them into a collection and do a paper edition as well.
jo_graham
Jun. 4th, 2013 10:47 am (UTC)
That's really interesting how it ties together for you.

She's got everything Elza didn't -- money and security and respectability and attentive, sane parents. And it's a cage. Which she is just learning.

I could do that -- that's a good idea. Many of these are so short though, that I feel kind of bad about charging people for a couple of thousand words. Maybe the longer ones....
selki
Jun. 3rd, 2013 01:13 am (UTC)
I love it as a standalone.
jo_graham
Jun. 4th, 2013 10:47 am (UTC)
I'm glad you like it!
azarias
Jun. 3rd, 2013 08:00 pm (UTC)
The idea of being born into a life where going to the library by oneself is greatly daring is so sad, but knowing Gull she's going to grow out of those beginnings in a big way.
jo_graham
Jun. 4th, 2013 10:48 am (UTC)
She has everything Elza didn't have -- money and security and respectability and attentive, sane parents who are upstanding, reasonable people who love their kids. And it's a cage.
lferion
Jun. 3rd, 2013 08:01 pm (UTC)
Oh my, perfect shivers. Gorgeous. And the description of the library is just magical.
jo_graham
Jun. 4th, 2013 10:48 am (UTC)
Oh good! I'm glad it works for you. A library is a magical place, isn't it?

And the book is sitting right here on my bookcase....
settiai
Jun. 5th, 2013 12:05 am (UTC)
Oh, this was lovely. ♥

I have to ask, though, wasn't her brother's name Frank instead of Fred in "Brunnhilde in the Fire"?
jo_graham
Jun. 5th, 2013 09:32 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you like it!

It was! I was fictionalizing in Brunnhilde in the Fire. His real name is Fred. At that point I wasn't sure I'd write this with their real names.
linneasr
Jun. 5th, 2013 12:03 pm (UTC)
Hah. The gilded cage of respectability, and probably none fiercer than turn-of-the-century Boston bluebloods. Looks good!
jo_graham
Jun. 5th, 2013 10:18 pm (UTC)
Such a cage! She has everything Elza wanted -- nice, sane parents who are responsible and caring and protective, plenty of money, and having absolutely nothing bad happen in her childhood.

And this is what she gets. A gilded cage.

But as you see in the next piece I put up, she breaks out!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )