Thursday, November 17, 2011

Building the House

Here's the beginning of a story I'm working on. Actually, it's probably a novella. Whatever the project, I tend to write a piece a section at a time. I'll work on the opening or the first chapter, and I don't move forward until I figure it's set. If you want to use the old house-building metaphor, that's the foundation. The way I see it, you definitely need one of those before you start tossing up staircases, a second floor, all that stuff. So I work from the ground up, section by section, floor by floor. Framing, then putting up the sheet rock and the mud and the paint, then finishing.

That approach cuts down on revision time, at least for me. The story tends to sharpen itself. Working to turn out one final-quality section after another just makes the story better -- direct, unified, solid. Mostly, I try to avoid stuff I don't like as a reader. I don't like false starts, and I don't like side trips that really don't say much, and I don't like fiction that's, well... sloppy. I try to avoid all of the above. (And, yep, I wish more authors would take that approach -- I read too many published stories and novels that read like rough drafts. The way I see it, that's just lazy.)

Of course, I don't plan everything ahead of time. Like I said, I work a section at a time. Usually I'm working a section or two ahead of myself plotwise, but sometimes a full story arc will come to me and hit the paper complete as I first imagined it. The latter happens rarely, though.

Of course, that's what makes some of the magic. I love the process of discovery, love it when things come together, especially when they come together in ways I didn't expect.

And (of course) the process of discovery can sometimes drive you a little mad, too. I've painted myself into plenty of corners over the years. But that's part of a writer's job, and so is learning to cut a trapdoor in the floor so you can find your way out.

Anyway, this hunk of story is a weird western. Right now it's called "The Church at Tierra Dura." I'm working on it along with Oktober Shadows, building them each section by section. Hope you enjoy it.

There are no shadows when the horse dies.

The rider heaves out of the saddle as the animal's legs fold up, twisting in ways they shouldn't. Black lips foam as the Texas pony hits the ground dead. The desert drinks that foam, and in the next second the rider's boots cross it, heels grinding sand as dry as powdered bones.

The sun climbs high as the rider bends low. Her left hand hovers over a dead man's pistol holstered against her thigh as she listens for a sound that doesn't belong, but the only noise out here is the sharp whistle of her own breaths. That's good news.

She sucks another breath -- a deep one. Shadows spill from her right hand as she snatches her canteen from the saddle horn. Water splashes tin. Three swallows in that canteen, and six bullets in the Colt. That makes nine, and nine will have to be enough to get her from here to somewhere else.

The woman moves on. Briskly. Her Mexican spurs notch the sand. Sparkling grains fill each slice as she heads west. She leaves no trail behind. Ahead, it's hard going. Water sloshes in the canteen, riding a dark tin curve as she follows the sun over one dune, then another. Another mile and there are only two swallows left. Then more sand, notched by Mexican spurs, filled by gravity. more of the same with her next step, and more of the same with the step after that. She counts each one, adds them to the sloshes of the canteen. The number grows, and she follows it.

Heat broils down from the sky. Soon the buckle of her belt feels like a branding iron. An hour later, the sun drops a notch. Painted shadows begin to stretch from the towering saguaro. Another hour and the black bars of the shadow fall at the woman's feet. Twenty more minutes and there are three feet of shadowed earth to mark her westward trail. Then the shadows lengthen quickly. Four feet... then six. Eight, as the woman with a dead man's gun measures her steps against the coming darkness.

Night comes on. The moon rises. Now the earth is the color of ash. The woman's lips are blistered. The canteen tips back. Only one drink left now. She stoppers the canteen, lets it swing to her side on its leather strap. Hears it slosh: once, twice, that long last drink waiting like a cool lingering kiss.

That's a strange thing to think out here, and now. The woman knows that. She wonders why she thought about a kiss at all. Her left hand brushes the Colt at her side. Only one swallow left in the canteen, but still six bullets in the gun. That makes seven, and seven is lucky. She listens again, again hears no sound. She moves forward. Now the earth is the color of a shadow. The moon goes away, smothered by clouds. The desert cools. The woman has walked another mile. When thunder rolls, she's forgotten that imagined kiss bottled up in her canteen. She doesn't think about kisses anymore, not in a way that matters.

She's thinking about bullets when the first raindrop hits her, spilling over her cheek like a tear. Thunder pounds the night. Lightning flares above. The rain lasts twenty minutes, drenching the woman to the bone. She opens her mouth, and raindrops needle her lips and her tongue. Her sunburned cheeks grow cold. Then the rain stops. The clouds clear off. The moon brightens. The earth is ash again, a cinder as far as the eye can see, and the desert drinks the succor of the sky.

Once more it's quiet. No sound at all.

Then the knocking begins.

Out there, in the distance, like rolling thunder.

Then: closer

Finally: everywhere.

In an eyeblink, the woman draws her pistol and cocks the hammer. The sound is like the click of a door unlocking, and it coils her guts. But it is the only sound in the desert that sings of metal. The other sounds are earth and flesh. Bony fists hammering wood that speaks of nailed doors honed by the undertaker's art. Fists pounding coffinwood, when there is nothing in reach but air, and night, and darkness.

They are only sounds, but they pound the woman to her knees in an instant. Brutal knocking slams her like a splintery wave. She slaps callused palms over her ears. She's in the middle of the desert but it's like she's trapped in a box, a dozen invisible carpenters framing tight walls around her. Dead fists hammer the wood. Needled splinters jab her eardrums. And even as the walls go up, dead fingers scrape and scrabble, trying to get at the live meat boxed up inside. All of them working together, dragging that box across the sand, cutting a long gristled trench as they move toward a place where the box will be opened, a place of brimstone and fire.

And then the knocking stops, as suddenly as it started.

The woman hears the creak of hinges. A door that is not there begins to open.

The night wind matches the whisper of that swinging door.

The woman scrambles to her feet.

The desert surrounds her.

No framed walls, no dead carpenters. No box, no lock, no dead men.

She runs.

* * *

Even in a desert, there are cemeteries.

This one is fifty miles from the patch of bad sand traveled by a frightened woman who carries a dead man's gun. It is a place barred with iron, chained and padlocked. No shovel has touched this earth in months. In that time burying boxes have been stacked near the gates, soaked with kerosene, torched, left smoking until black tendrils smother the desert sky like dirty veils.

But this place, like the dead inside it, endures nonetheless...