Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Solarpunk Noir 1

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21.20, summer evening. It was June 13th. I was downing my favourite poison at the Saint’s Bar, one of the quieter joints in the anointed Sun City. Older joint. I was the only one there, bar Anita, who was polishing glasses and leaving me be.

Something in the air had whispered to me that that wasn’t going to be a good night – buzzes of foreboding creeping cross my brain – but I was determined to ignore that part of me and slug it down with the rest.

Still, I didn’t look up when the door opened, but I wasn’t surprised, neither. Only straightened when she put herself in the stool next to mine.

‘Hey,’ she said.

I glanced, despite my best judgement. Six foot of pure golden rays. Curls spilling over her shoulders, the most delicious zaftig femme I’d ever seen. She swung her stool and leaned her arm on the bar, leaning forward, bosoms speaking loud. I cleared my throat over their shouting.

‘Not many people come round here anymore,’ I said, signing to Anita for another rum. ‘It’s a little…archaic, for most queers’ tastes.’

‘The stained glass…the way the sunshines through it,’ she said, looking up at the windows. ‘I like it. Reminds me of church.’

She leaned further into me and it was like a light shone on my eye and I had to meet it. I looked. She had coral lipstick on tiny round lips. She smirked.

‘I like the sacrilege of it.’

Only so much a woman can take.

I downed my rum. Anita raised her eyebrow at me and turned, ignoring my sign for another. I sighed and pushed my trilby further back on my head. I had my hair pulled back in its usual bun, but nothing was sitting right tonight.

‘Look, you want a confession?’ I said. ‘I came here to drown my sorrows, not be picked up.’

‘I have a confession too,’ she said. ‘I came here looking for you…Clara Sinclair.’

Troubles. Knocking down my door. I signed desperately for another drink but Anita still had her broad back at me.

‘Meredith,’ the angel said, tipping her head. ‘That’s my name. You’ve probably guessed I have a job request.’

Defeated, I slumped over my folded arms.

‘I gotta warn you, I can’t see as I used to.’

‘Can’t, or won’t?’

How much does this bitch know, I thought.

I didn’t reply.

Meredith turned her stool around and leant her back against the bar, staring again at the patches of light barely shining through the painted bar windows.

‘My employers are looking for a woman who goes by the name of “The Mayflower.”‘

Her.

‘I heard you were the best point of contact as to her whereabouts. You have…history, I understand.’

Jess.

‘That was a long time ago,’ I said, turning my face away.

‘Not long at all, if you’re still drowning your sorrows about it.’

Jessica May. My life, my light, my unrequited ball-and-chain, my perpetual hornet sting, my adolescence in two words. The pit I dug myself out from. Jess, with her big eyes and pointed nose and chin, her loud cackling laugh, her gorgeous hair spilling like a waterfall.

‘My employers have a great interest in learning her whereabouts. She’s implicated in a certain amount of…events…seen and foreseen.’

I said nothing.

Meredith took out a card from her handbag and slid it across to me.

‘If you look again, you’ll find her.’

‘I don’t want to find her.’

‘You’ll be well rewarded.’

I laughed.

‘It’d better be damn good.’

Meredith looked up from under her eyelashes at me.

‘You know the finding is the reward,’ she purred.

Then she was gone.

I won’t do it, I told myself. I ignored the card, as it stood prominent on the oak bar, like the moon in the sky, like a phone screen in the dark.

Anita slid a glass in front of me, filled with purple liqueur. I glared up at her. Good ol’ Anita, forty-two years old and six-three, born under a man’s name, best potion maker this side of Sun City.

‘What’s this?’

‘Forget-me-not,’ she said.

I grasped it with both hands and chugged it down. Sweet, violets, strong afterburn at the back of the throat. Slammed the glass on the table, tossed Anita a few coins, and grabbed my coat.

Guess I knew I was doomed from the start, if Jess was involved.

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Written by G.J.

26/05/2015 at 9:45 pm

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Complacency (poetry is always indulgence)

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I leave no stain on the world.

No more than the usual first-worlder.

Only plastics, carbon dioxide,

and wasted water.

I make no claim on the world.

I have struggled and found Enough.

Safety. Security.

And why not rejoice?

People would die, have died,

for Enough.

My pen lies empty.

I make no stand.

I once had plans

that washed through my fingers

and when I stood and looked again

my juniors walked ahead,

a mile away, ahead.

They speak their ambition in light tongues.

‘I might, I might.’

You will, for you are not me.

Nails crush into palm.

My pen lies empty.

I dabble in the shallows of my authorial plans.

Always Someday, Someday, Someday…

My pen lies empty.

How dare I do?

How dare I not do?

I said I would.

I said I would, but…

I have built this Enough

on this bones of my broken dreams.

I have calm.

For the first, I have calm.

And yet, O Muse, you haunt me.

Restless ambition.

Fool human condition.

This Enough is no longer Enough.

I leave no stain?

How dare I.

How dare I.

I make no claim?

How can I?

May I?

To make a stand?

I will break, as breaking does.

(How many times before I convince myself

that I am not brittle?)

How dare.

Still.

Ceaseless pen.

You urge me to write.

World.

Indulge me, please,

this once.

Allow my selfishness.

Please.

Dead conscious safety or reckless living vanity.

Either way, please indulge–

(No, only one way)

(Ever only one way)

Ever only one way.

So it is.

I write.

Urge.

I have no complacency with you here.

Written by G.J.

29/04/2015 at 11:11 pm

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Savage Writing: Maisie’s Sister

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This week’s topic was “Unbelievable.” I reread The Dream of the Rood and wrote this. Everyone said they expected this to be the start of a longer piece, which surprised me. I don’t plan to do anything more with this – I don’t see any way it can go without devolving into cliche.

__

Maisie was cracked. That was for sure. She was four days back from her latest “fallaway”, as she called it. The police had found her wandering around an old estate five miles away, in loose-fitting pyjama bottoms and a grey fleece, clutching a pillow to her chest like it was her favourite teddy bear. She was very quiet when they brought her in, but she gave her sister the biggest, most worrying grin she had ever seen as they took her upstairs.

The police stayed a while. Had some tea. Maisie’s mum forced biscuits upon them to hide her shattered pride. The girl was twenty-one years old, for goodness sake. If she was well enough to dye her hair red as she did, then she was well enough to stay put and not be an embarrassment – that’s what Maisie’s mum said to the police, when the police recommended she take her to the doctors and get more medicine.

‘When I was younger, the doctors wouldn’t have let my mother order medicines for me,’ she said. ‘Not when I was a grown woman.’

The female police officer gave her number and details to Maisie’s sister for this reason. Maisie’s sister missed them the second they were gone.

But this was four days after that. Maisie and her sister were alone at home. And with a creak and a shuffle and a creak, Maisie came down the stairs for the first time since she fellaway.

She had that big, beautiful grin set on her face.

‘Lise,’ she said. She spoke as if she expected a sound effects expert to put a reverberation on her voice: deep, pulsing, dreamlike. ‘Lise. I have…to tell you…the most wondrous…thing.’

Maisie’s sister did not wish to hear the wondrous thing, but she was trapped by love and politeness to the couch.

Maisie saw her sister was listening. The light in her eyes flashed once in excitement, and then she spoke. Not as slow, but not fast, beating rhythmic like a drum or a poem:

‘I have to tell you the most wondrous thing,

it came to me in the middle of the night.

See, I was in bed, and the stars were out, shining,

and I thought I’d see them far better down t’ street,

they looked like gems all sparkling, sparkling,

embedded in the sky like some upside-down mine

so I went outside and I looked up and up

and I looked so hard that I fell the way wrong,

and I floated among them for a days and days

but they sent me home ’cause I said I missed you,

I missed you Lise, and I could’ve been a star.

I’d’ve shone in the night and died in the day

and nothing would have bothered me

nothing

nothing at all.’

And here Maisie kept grinning, and she looked at her sister as if she’d just won a prize, and she said….

.’Well?’

‘It’s…a pretty story?’

Maisie scowled.

‘I knew it,’ she said, all cadence lost from her voice. ‘I knew I made the wrong decision. It was hard, you know. I told myself it was one of those tests, those trials of fortitude in stories, where the naked woman comes out the mirror or lake and shows you everything you’ve ever wanted if only you’ll stay with her, and you’re tempted but then you remember your family and remember to do the right thing. But I came back, and as soon as I saw mum’s face, I thought, this is Cinderella going back to the coals. I have no family. Not the loving, die-for-you, miss-you-forever kind. I should’ve stayed with the stars.’

So Maisie returned to the stairs, and thudded her way up them, and shut her door with a half-hearted slam.

And Maisie’s sister looked up the contacts on her phone. She’d kept the policewoman’s number. Not far underneath it, was a contact she called “CM.” The contact had once read “For Crazy Maisie”, on her old phone, but Maisie had found it and thrown it onto the kitchen floor and bye-bye-phone. So instead the contact was CM. She had Maisie in her phone already, of course, its picture was a selfie of them both in Tenerife on their last family holiday, before she got bad again.

Maisie’s sister dialled CM, and the familiar number came up.

A voice answered. It was Scott. Maisie’s sister knew them all by the way they said “Hello” by now.

‘Hi Scott,’ she said.

‘How are things today, Lisa? How’s Maisie?’

‘Mum’s out,’ Lisa said. ‘I cleaned the kitchen. Maisie said she’d wished she’d stayed out in the stars, that she has no real family.’

Scott started to say something and Maisie’s sister burst out over him:

‘It’s like a lady came from a lake and showed your greatest desire. Mum not so angry, everything quiet, not needing to worry every time there’s a noise upstairs, not needing to worry every time I go by her room that one day she won’t be moving when I look in. But then I remember that I have to do the right thing. I do, don’t I? I have to keep looking after her. It’s only right.’

Scott comforted her. She hung up, fix granted. Maisie’s sister looked up at the ceiling, and began to speak-chant:

‘Let me tell you the most wondrous thing,

Maisie’s sister, she does the right thing…’

Written by G.J.

20/03/2015 at 1:27 pm

Freewrite 1

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I am what I was. And I am not what I am in your mind. In your thoughts and recollections you named me Love, Witch, Desire, Fire burning bright and oh, you loved to scream my name, the false name I gave you.

I am not what I am. What I was, am, is shadow and spite, sunshine and rain, the echoes round your room at night, this is what I was, am, is, it, yes, I am, I am, I am.

You are what you are. Bright eyed. Green souled. Never, you said, I will never, never let you go, never let you come to harm. How can you harm a breeze? I am not what I am in your mind.

Grasping at wind.

And still.

Still, your arms held heat in them. Warmth. Vein under skin, blue rivers down your length, I traced them with my fingertips and we laughed because it tickled.

I am not what I was then.

Your lips, so soft. You are only a boy and I am the eternal everything, I return to nature, I am a fleeting painting made by the whole, and you – you are animal. You were birthed and you will die. You will die. And I will be in the worms that eat your corpse and in the grass that grows above your bones.

Still – ah! – that moment, when you first took my hand and, blushing, held it to your lips, trembling sweet flutter on my knuckles, human heart thumped louder than I thought an organ could move. No. I am not what I was then.

I become as I was. I return, as always. I return.

Still, this fleeting time, passing by stars in the sky, sun traverse from edge to edge, bird song day in and day out. An image made by the whole to please itself. I have enjoyed myself, this living. So fast.

I only wish I could keep this conscious. Your eyes, so pained. Cry for me not to go. You never had a choice, beloved creature. This is beyond the likes that you can control. But oh! let me keep these memories, oh world, let me remember this pain, let me carry each piece in each breath of wind I become, let me see your face, let me relive the warmth of you, the love of you. Dear world. Kind, cruel world. It is as it ever was, and I become all I have ever been.

Sweet child. Do not weep. Time will remember us when the animals have forgotten. These days passed, and they are written, and time keeps them safe in her breast under a hundred million forgotten little secrets.

But yet, remember me, while you live. I have enjoyed experiencing myself, and I rather wish it wouldn’t go so fast. How quickly I fade. No, not quick any more. But fast. Fast.

It has been my honour to know you and existence so closely.

Not goodbye. No. I will be here. But still – fare well. Fare well, in your time. Love, live, remember. Fare well.

Fare well.

Written by G.J.

08/03/2015 at 8:34 pm

Ghoul

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Katie’s husband shot himself in the head. He locked himself in the bathroom. Katie sat outside, screaming at the door, begging him not to do it.

She sent an e-mail round to her close friends and family afterwards. That’s how they know what happened. She sent it to my sister Anna, and Anna told me the night after I was introduced to Katie, and that’s how I know what happened.

She heard him pull the trigger.

He knew you all loved him, she wrote in the e-mail, apparently. I told him how much everyone loved him.

I try to imagine yelling past a wooden door. It’s so faceless, unyielding, lacks any passion or emotion. Imagine only facing that, knowing that the person you love most is going to turn their brains to goo.

Worse, I try to imagine when the door was opened afterwards. I think the police did it. She didn’t have time to call emergency services between him grabbing his gun and the deed. I mean, in that case you’d assume that you can convince them better yourselves, right? Of course you’d assume that your husband would listen to your pleas more than a policeman’s.

But imagine: shot. Loud. Then absolute silence. She calls for him again. She sobs down the phone – or talks down the phone, quiet monotone, numb and unable to process. Waits. Then they come and talk through the wood block door, stern solid words to coax him out, nothing in response. They kick down the door.

Did she shrink back? Did she peer in, despite knowing what she would see?

And what did she see?

I can’t imagine what a person looks like with their head shot through. I mean, I’ve seen it in films, but you never know how realistic they are, do you? And it’s a world of difference, I suppose, between seeing some unknown actor playing an expendable mook get his skull blown through, and seeing the man you’ve slept with for ten years with a head like a smashed egg.

God. I just can’t imagine it.

What that would do to a person. To your mind. To your perception of the world.

The first time I met Katie, she was normal. A little quiet. It happened last year, you see. I don’t know how long it takes these things to process, but I feel a year is a little too short. She mentioned she works in IT support, we joked about the kind of people you have to deal with and the nonsense you constantly put up with. She’s small. Pretty. Brown hair. Thin. Looks young for her age. Not the sort of person you’d think would have seen gore first-hand.

When I met her again, because I knew, I wanted her to look different. I tried to find signs that she was traumatised in some way, but came up with nothing concrete. I mean, everyone gets tired and down sometimes, no matter how good your life is – and she wasn’t even depressed-looking that day. She looked a normal level of tired. I wondered how she looked the days following her husband’s death. When Anna made a joke and we laughed, I wondered how long it took her after Neil’s death before she smiled again.

‘Does she ever talk about what happened?’

‘She misses him a lot,’ Anna replied, like the question glanced off of her.

‘No, I mean, has she ever told you what it was like?’

‘God no,’ she said, giving me the look that all siblings have perfected – the “what the fuck is wrong with you, you inferior being” look. ‘I wouldn’t do that. I don’t want to bring it up again.’

I wonder if it makes Katie felt better or worse, that no-one will bring it up.

‘I’m doing a half-marathon,’ she said, the third time we met.

‘Good for you.’

‘It’s for a mental health charity.’

I hesitated.

‘Oh, that’s good.’

‘I’m doing it in Neil’s memory,’ she said, eyes on the floor, no other sign of distress.

Was that a cry for help? A sign that she wanted to open up? Or was it nothing at all? What was I to make of that? Words hovered over my lips, but in the end the easy, cowardly, gentle way won out.

‘Yeah…good for you. I mean, that’s good. I’m sure you’ll do well. How much are you asking for sponsorship?’

Not what I wanted to say.

What I want to say, and what I’ve always wanted to do, is corner her one evening, get her alone, and ask her what it’s like to face mortality up close. To hear the man you love die. To see his blood. To know he chose his broken mind over your wellbeing (and wouldn’t that make you doubt how much he loved you?). I’m not sure she could answer this, but I wonder how the grief compares to other, less dramatic, more normal grief. Like, on a scale of grandma-dies-in-sleep to child-is-murdered, how fucking awful is it? I imagine it’s one of the most awful things in the world. And yet she looks normal. I don’t get it. How can you look normal, after that?

I’ll never ask her about it, of course. It’s not done, and Anna would kill me besides. Might trigger some grief relapse or something. It’s one of those things you just don’t do.

But I wonder. Every time I see Katie, I wonder. And I imagine.

Written by G.J.

22/02/2015 at 1:23 pm

Savage Writing: Jacob Wrestling

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One of the pictures we were to use for inspiration this week was quite demonic, and that and the musculature reminded me of a Biblical story. Hence, this.

_________________________________________

There is a painting above her bed: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, by Alexander Louis Leloir. Dark-haired Jacob, his red cloak flying behind him, grasps the angel around the waist. His face shows no strain, and his black eyes stare out of a passionless face, as if he is a teacher waiting for an answer from a pupil who should know better. The angel’s face is obscured by his shoulder as he tries to push away from Jacob’s grip. The muscles in his calves, thighs and forearms are taut with effort. At this moment, captured in the stillness of oil on canvas, Jacob is winning.

This is my favourite painting in our home. Man goes against what is much stronger than him, and more than holds his own: in this painting, he is winning.

Of course, in the story, the angel – or rather, God in the form of an angel – wins because he dislocates Jacob’s hip with one touch, because God can do that, and if God is anything, he is a dirty, rotten cheat.

It was gone, you know. We went out to dinner to celebrate. Mum doesn’t drink, but this once she ordered red wine, and I knew it was a victory for her because when I toasted her, she raised her glass to herself. You see, at every birthday and anniversary and event where glasses were raised to her, she would sit, mouth set in a barely-smiling line, elbows on the table and eyes firm, as if praise was something one had to endure and never accept. But yes, that night she raised her glass of wine and took a full-mouthed glug. She didn’t even flinch at the unfamiliar tannin taste. And I mentioned the irony to her later, between main course and dessert, that after years of not drinking when she could, she would now imbibe when the doctors advised against it.

‘Life’s a bitch, Rosie,’ she said.

I laughed, because what else could I do, seeing my short-haired, five-foot-one, gentle-genteel mother swear in front of me?

Her eyes were sad. I remember that. She had looked exhausted for months, of course – chemo is poison, after all – but she looked like she had come to the end of a marathon, and found no ribbon, no medal, no crowd. Only a thin, wobbling line, drawn in chalk on the tarmac, and a rat scuttling down the nearest drain.

It was gone. But turns out that it was the kind of gone that never leaves forever, like rain or winter or hiccups. They’ll always come back, no matter how glad you are to see the back of them. I wonder if she knew that, or suspected it. I never considered it. I refused to believe she would ever die, right from the start. Cancer? It’s only small, surely? Early stage? Of course it is. Late stage death cancer only happens to other people. It’s just a little scare life has put in to wake you up. Doctors, hospital, surgery, chemo, bam, done, happily ever after, back to normal. And look! We were so close! That dinner was supposed to be it: done, done, it’s over, The End, no more.

It’s the end of January and it feels like winter has been here forever. I’ll get to a sunny day at the end of February and then I’ll shout to the heavens HA! Take that! No more cold! No more ice, not ever! Only warmth and green buds for the rest of my days! Next winter, what next winter? Never. It’ll never happen. Cold is impossible to imagine in the middle of July, right? It’ll never come back.

It came back. That’s the way this illness works. The more new cells are made, the more likely that over time they’ll get a bit tired, a bit senile, forget to stop growing, forget that they depend on you to exist and that you shouldn’t hurt the ones that made you. And even if you stop them with the strongest poison and warnings, it’s as if, it’s like they still might walk into the same place a few months or years later and look around and vaguely remember it and say “yes, that was it, continued growth, shutting down the essential life systems, yes, that’s familiar, yes, let’s try that again. Mm-hmm.”

She was fighting. Everyone’s a fighter with this, I suppose – because what else do you do? She fought as hard as the rest, through the pain, discomfort, helplessness.

It was Boxing Day. Everyone else had gone home. She had a glass of wine, and I joked that at this rate she’d become an alcoholic.

‘Life’s too short,’ she said.

Not yours, I thought. You’ll live until you’re a hundred and eight. You’ll see great-grandkids. You have to, because I’ve decided you have to, because I won’t let fate do any different, it has to bend to my decision. You’ve hiked all the mountains in the UK and you’ve never smoked and you’ve eaten fish and salad instead of pie and chips and that means you’re immortal now, everyone agrees on it, you’ve cracked the formula for living forever and never dying before you’re a hundred and eight and in your own bed asleep.

It was Boxing Day. It was only a month ago. Why didn’t she tell me that she thought it had come back? Was she trying to keep Christmas special, like how she pretended Santa existed even years after we’d figured out the truth? I’m an adult now, even if I don’t quite feel like it. I can handle a bad Christmas!

I don’t understand it. She was winning. She had won.

There’s a painting above her bed, of Jacob wrestling God and he looks like he’s winning. And underneath the painting, there’s an empty bed with clean neutral linen, as she left it the day she went to hospital. It stills smell of her perfume. And did she look at that painting every day? Every day, see Jacob winning, though she knew how the story ends?

Dirty, rotten cheat of a sickness, pretending to leave, then coming back for an encore.

She was winning.

Written by G.J.

05/02/2015 at 6:58 pm

Savage Writing: Brenndur

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This week’s topic was “feed my habit.” I misread it as “fix my habit.” Either works, I suppose!

____

‘Do you weep, Skapheđinn?’

‘No…but it may be that my eyes are smarting.’

At these lines, Stina’s heart swelled close to bursting, and a squeal erupted up her throat. Though she pressed her lips tight, the noise rang between her teeth. She gripped the book binding tight in her fingers, struggling hard to contain her emotions as she forced her eyes to read on.

Skarpheđinn and Grim held one another by the hand and walked through the fire; but when they came to the middle of the hall Grim fell down dead. Skarpheđinn continued alone to the end of the house. There was a great crash. Down came the roof. Skarpheđinn could not move.

…and that was all. The scene changed to other characters discussing the burning. Please, Stina pleaded with the words on the page. Please!

‘Here have died Njal, and Bergthora, and all their sons.’

No! Another squeal bubbled in Stina’s lungs.

‘What did Kari say of Skarpheđinn?’

‘He said he and Grim were alive when he escaped. Now, they must be dead.’

The high-pitched moan seeped out of her lips before she could control it.

‘Mmmmmmmnnnnooooooo…..!’

‘Sister Stina!’

The unexpected voice tore her out of time. Stina jumped and looked up from her seat. Sister Kornelia was in the library doorway, hands on her hips. Her image seemed unreal; certainly less real than the image of Skarpheđinn looking back through the flames as the roof timbers rained down upon him…

‘What are you doing here? It is nearly time for Lauds!’

Stina glanced to the windows behind her. The sky was grey-blue, where it had been black a seeming minute before. She had only meant to read a little after Matins…

‘And what on earth could cause you to make such awful noises?’ Sister Kornelia continued, as she strode towards Stina’s table. Before Stina could protest, the older lady swept the book up in her hands.

‘Please, sister, I’m so close to the end!’ Stina said, feeling as if her heart had been pulled away.

‘“The Saga of Burnt Njall.”’ Kornelia said, reading the spine. ‘Another frivolous romance, Stina?’

‘Oh no, no, Sister, it’s historical – it’s about a feud between families –’

‘A pagan folk tale?’ Kornelia sniffed.

‘No, no – it takes place not long after the country’s conversion–’

Kornelia slammed the book on the table.

‘Enough, Sister! This night-reading habit of yours has to stop. It is interfering with all of your duties, and your devotion. I must speak with Sacrist Varđa and tell her to limit your visits here. It cannot be good for your mind, reading such things.’

Had Stina’s heart not been raw with grief for her imagined friends – had she not been awake for nearly a full day – she may have done something other than cry. As it was, her tears felt as inevitable as Njal’s tragically foreseen death.

‘For goodness’s sake, Sister, calm yourself!’

‘F-forgive me…’ Stina said. She wanted to add that she would be good and only read during the day, that she would work harder and longer than anyone else if only she could keep coming here – but she worried that if she spoke, she would only cry: “They’re dead! It’s not fair! How can the world continue as usual, when they’re dead?”

‘Yes, I will tell Varđa that you must not read these foolish books any more. They are certainly no good for you.’

‘Oh no,’ Stina cried, ‘no, please, let me read more! I know I’m crying, but, see, I hate feeling like this, but I love it as well…surely there’s no harm…and there’s so many more books to read…’

‘You are such a childish girl,’ Kornelia said, taking Njals Saga in her hands again.

‘Please, at least let me finish this one!’ Stina cried, but it was too late: the fate of Kari, and his vengeance against Skarphedinn’s killers, was already retreating, closed shut, now back on the shelf.

‘Get to bed,’ Kornelia said. ‘You will better see what is best for yourself after you’ve had some rest.’

‘Please, Sister, I’m begging you…’

Kornelia sighed and sat beside the younger girl. She took Stina’s hand and patted it gently.

‘Varđa says how passionate you are,’ she said. ‘But don’t you see? The passion you have should be directed to a better channel than these imaginary tales. It doesn’t become a pious young woman such as yourself to care so deeply about such frivolous things, when your own soul and devotion must be attended to.’

‘I can care about both,’ Stina said, trying (and failing) to force herself to be calm. ‘It – it doesn’t take away from my love for God, to love reading…’

Kornelia patted her hand again and sighed.

‘Perhaps you would do better to be less passionate. Calm and content – that is what we all must strive to be, my dear. No fires or rages or tears! Come now, wipe your face.’

Stina sniffed and wiped her face.

‘There. Now, go to your bed, and sleep until Lauds. I don’t want to see you in here again.’

Stina intended to force her expression into a semblance of calm. Instead, she burst into tears anew as she left the library for the last time.

No rest was had before Lauds. No calmness could be found as she lay in her pallet. The prospect of contentedness was abhorrent. For who would want a life without rages, tears, and fire? Who would want a life apart from the delicious agony she felt from those pages?

At Lauds, her face was white and drawn, eyelids red, mouth firm-set. In her mind’s eye, the roof of the convent fell crashing upon every head. Here died her love of prayer, worship, and her life’s purpose.

‘Sister,’ asked Sister Hudris, once service was over. ‘Have you been crying?’

Stina grinned: a bared-teeth, wolfish smile. The smile of a burned, savage man.

‘No,’ she said. ‘But it may be that my eyes are smarting.’