Are you competitive? I am. Extremely. I try to mask it most of the time, but once in a while I forget and things get out of hand. Today, however, I’m going to relish that competitive streak and use it to its best advantage. I’ll use it all month, in fact. Because I’m a NaNoWriMo girl!
National Novel Writing Month (nanowrimo.org) is held every year during the month of November. The object of the exercise is to write 50,000 words, NEW words, during the month; that’s 1,667 per day, which sounds easy but definitely is not. Especially if, like me, you’re not accustomed to writing every single day, even if you should be. (You can tell by the gaps in blog entries how my writing schedule goes.)
There are thousands of NaNos out there, more than 80 here in western South Dakota. Many people begin a new novel on November first and try to rough out a first draft from there. In my case, however, I’m trying to finish a book that’s been hanging around my hard drive for nearly a decade. It’s probably going to be the book of my heart—assuming I can actually finish it. Here are the first couple of pages. What do you think?
The Still Heart of Stones
Book 1: Corinne
Lake Superior lay still for once in its life, its gunmetal surface smooth, inviting, mirroring the flat gray of the overcast sky. Corinne Andersen hefted a fist-sized rock and flung it as far into the lake as she could.
“Unggnhhh.” The grunt sounded as much like a scream as it did exertion. It was followed by the hollow impact of stone in water, a satisfying basso, and a fillip of sound as the displaced water flung itself into the air and fell back into the lake. The ripples had barely begun to widen before another rock followed the first. She threw them, one after another, screaming at the lake and the sky and the stones as they fell, until their waves lapped at her feet and the beach around her was barren of pitchable rocks.
“Damn you, Daniel! Damn you to hell!” Panting, Corinne flung a piece of pitted driftwood into the lake like a javelin but, imperturbable, the water thrust it back up with barely a splash. It floated there, ten feet from shore, moving only in the wake of the smaller stones she rained down around it.
Her energy finally spent, Corinne slumped onto a smooth log, scoured to a satin patina by sand and water and, feet wide, dug her boots into the sand. She braced elbows on knees, hung her head and massaged the nape of her neck as she let her tears fall into the wet sand.
She was tempted to tear the letter into pieces, to grind the bits of paper into the sand and let them rot there. Instead, she pulled it out of the back pocket of her jeans and opened it again.
It’s not a big thing, but I thought you should know before the gossip starts. Daniel and Pamela had a little girl last night. It wasn’t an easy birth and the baby’s early, pretty small, but all the parts are there and she’ll be fine. Not something you want to hear, for sure—about the baby, I mean, not the part about her being fine—but I thought you should know.
PS The baby’s name is Amanda Marie. How’s that for ballsy?
Ballsy. Not nearly a strong enough word. Not even close.
She pulled her mountain parka tighter though she was still sweating from the exertion of throwing rocks. She rooted in her pocket for a Kleenex, blew her nose—twice—and slipped the used tissue into her pocket.
The lake lay before her, flat and still. The air matched it: no wind, no waves, no nothing. It was as if it were waiting for her, waiting for her entrance, waiting for her to submerge, embrace the cold of Superior’s depths, her final act.
She wanted it, the oblivion, the freedom from pain, from loss, from want, from everything.
But she had responsibilities and couldn’t hang them on others. Her parents, aging and becoming increasingly befuddled, needed her. Her husband—if you could call him that—said he needed her, though she knew her function in that relationship—if you could call it that—was mostly as housekeeper, cook and secretary. Her friends, scattered across the country, would miss her, but their lives were full and busy; her passing would mean little more than the ripples from the stones she had just thrown, now moving outward, lessening in stature as they pushed farther out, soon disappearing into the vastness of the lake.
So it came down to them: her mother and father. They were the ones who needed her. Was that enough? She had no answer.
Corinne stood, stretched her back and felt every one of her thirty-nine years. She walked to the edge of the water, hesitated, then backed away and watched her bootprints fill with water. The sharp edges of sand made by her Vibram soles softened and collapsed and, within a matter of minutes, the prints had vanished.
Is that how I want my life to go? Here for a minute, then gone, washed away, with nothing at all to show for having been here? A headstone? That’s it?
“Corinne!” The voice carried across the water like a cannon. She started, turned, and watched as her husband Ben emerged from the birch stand a hundred yards from the beach, near the house. A soft and somehow sinister gust of wind rippled the lake and Corinne shuddered. For a moment she considered that Ben might in fact be the devil, his presence provoking disorder and chaos, evoking fear and distrust. In fact, Ben did feed on those emotions, and Corinne surprised herself by smiling as he stepped over drift logs and beach debris to join her.
“What in hell are you doing out here? I’ve been looking for you for almost half an hour.”
“I’m considering death by lake.”
He looked up sharply. “What?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” She grinned, a tired effort to smooth over the bumps—no, craters—in their communication style. “What do you need?”
“A look at your calendar. We’ve been invited to the president’s house for dinner on Saturday, October 15th, and I wanted to be sure your calendar was clear.”
Corinne sighed and shook her head. “I told you last month that I have a colloquium in North Carolina that weekend. Remember? You wrote it down. I saw you.”
He narrowed his eyes, reminding Corinne of Mr. Magoo, thick lenses and heavy, out-of-date black frames. But Ben didn’t care. He was a genius, and a handsome one. With his well-maintained body and thick honey-colored hair, he knew he could get away with anything—and tried often. Corinne knew about many of the women and no longer cared. He could have them and they him. Maybe there were lots of co-eds who enjoyed bondage and his favorite submissive brand of role-playing. It was the only way Ben could get it up these days. Maybe with little girls it was easier. But then, she wasn’t even curious. Corinne was tired of the game, tired of Ben. Just tired.
“Oh, fuck. It had to be that weekend, didn’t it? Not that I’m crazy for Mrs. Liikala’s cooking, but it’s politically important. Can’t you cancel?”
“I’m speaking, remember?”
“Purification of recombinant proteins.”
He scraped rotted leaves off the bottom of a loafer against a water-rounded granite boulder and made a tsk noise. “Can’t somebody else do it?”
“So I can be your dinner partner?” She couldn’t keep the incredulity out of her voice.
He huffed out a huge bunch of air and shook his head. “You can’t just do this one thing for me?”
Corinne’s eyes widened and she pushed her chin forward. “One thing? Are you kidding? One thing?”
“Come on, Corinne. Don’t be like that.”
“Like what?” She narrowed her eyes. “Everything in our life is only and ever about you. Everything we do as a couple is your idea. We don’t go to movies, which I love. You’ve never been to a presentation—or even a lecture—of mine. You won’t go to the Chinese restaurant in Houghton, which is my favorite, because you heard from…one of your students…that somebody once got sick there.” She took a deep breath. “For once I wish you’d think about something, anything, but yourself. This presentation can get me a promotion, or maybe interest from a lab at a school with a better department.”
He scowled, made the tsk sound again, then sighed deeply.
“Oh, of course.” She made her tone drip with sarcasm. “You couldn’t move away from here, could you? You have such a reputation here. And for you it’s all about reputation, isn’t it? Well, fine.” She flung an arm out. “I’ll abandon my career so you can slip it to another couple hundred coeds before you retire. Isn’t that what we’re talking about here?” Corinne felt her face heat and she panted from the exertion of her speech.
“Fuck you, Corinne.” He turned and strode up the beach, giving her the finger over his shoulder.
“Yeah, you haven’t tried that in a while, have you? Without the handcuffs, there’s nothing to expand your reputation, is there?” She shouted after him. “Or should I say, give rise to your reputation? Inflate it? Let’s see, there must be another dozen euphemisms.”
“Bitch!” He turned, walked backwards. “If you’d been half a woman I wouldn’t need any of the others. Don’t you get that?” He pivoted, stomped to the birches and disappeared.
Corinne exhaled heavily, covered her face with her hands and swung her shoulders back and forth.
I know better than that. He’s a narcissistic asshole, but telling him that will ruffle his feathers. Upset the status quo. Why can’t I hold my tongue?
A strutting bantam rooster came to mind. An apt image. But not for a husband. Not for a marriage.
Corinne sat heavily on a smooth gray boulder, her favorite, the one she used when she needed time alone. She pulled the front of her jacket closed and, for the first time in a long time, actually zipped it. She blew on her hands, red and raw from the rock throwing, wiped them on her jeans and stuffed them into her pockets. She slid down onto the sand, leaned against the boulder and looked for the joining of lake and sky, then across Keweenaw Bay to the barest faded charcoal outline of its eastern shore. She stared at that shoreline for a long time.