People say write what you know. I recently realized that this wise phrase is not only a little limited–I’d rather write what I’m learning and always keep learning!–but also a little off for me. I write about what I love plus what I hate, stuck together in a situation where they can’t get apart. Sounds tasty, right?
The Little Seer
What do I love in my first novel, which is currently being considered by 4 agents and hopefully will be published within the year? I love spiritual seekers. My main character is 12, but that’s not too young to be an honest person living a life that seeks truth and beauty.
What do I hate? Religious hypocrisy. Power-hungry people. The evil that stands between you and the truth and beauty for your life. Put those things together in one church and bam pow, what a dramatic story! The church didn’t survive, and the people barely did, either.
Music of Sacred Lakes
What do I love in my second novel, just written in July, about a young man in crisis finding his way back to his connection with life and nature through the voice of Lake Michigan? Again, there’s that honest seeker quality in my character, but this time what I love is his passion for life. He may not know it, but he is desperately in love with life. He’s just in crisis because he has inadvertently removed himself from the land that gave his life meaning.
What do I hate? Well, everything that’s keeping him away. Societal expectations, the dysfunction of his family, and the limitations of his spiritual tradition. Enter the Native American friends who have retained a truth about the nature of life that this character’s Christian ancestors forgot when they logged and farmed it nearly to death. I’m still working on this story, but the pieces are there for an intensely good novel.
What Do You Love? What Do You Hate?
In fiction or in life, what do you love? What do you hate? And what happens when those two things just can’t get away from each other? I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject in comments. Don’t just write what you know. And don’t just live what you know. Live and write what you love, and fight what you hate.
I recently told you I wrote the rough draft of my next novel in just 3 weeks in July. I’m giving it a breather before I polish it up, but it’s got me thinking about some of the issues it raised in my mind. So far this is by far the most fun I have had researching anything, because it took me down trails to learning more about modern physics, mysticism of various traditions (Christian, Sufi, Native American), nature writing, Native American culture, and even poetry exclusively about the sea (God bless you, Juan Ramon Jimenez!). Chief of all was the idea that modern life is disconnected from nature, and how and why we need to get back to the creation we are a part of.
The protagonist of this new novel is a young man in crisis, whose only remaining love in life is Lake Michigan. His Odawa friend takes him to a pipe carrier of his tribe, who tells him that he needs to live near the lake until it speaks to him. This was inspired by my discovery–which seems so obvious in retrospect–that we are not living ON this earth but IN it, since the atmosphere is a part of our world, and we are a breathing, inhaling, exhaling, living and dying part of our ecosystem. I started to think, if someone was living their life in a way that cut them off from the land that gave birth to them, what would happen? How would they get back? What would that look like? How do the rhythms and music of life relate to the land they come from? How do we relate to the land we come from?
And it took an entire novel to just raise those questions. I hope I didn’t give too many answers, because that makes for crappy fiction, but my character did discover what I did–that there is a voice in the water, in the wind, in the earth, if we can still our hearts long enough to listen to it.
This week, we had some health crises in my family and things were just nuts for a while as I tried to take care of everyone while sick myself. My 3-year-old daughter asked to look at the stars when we came home last night, and just holding her hand and looking up at that deepening expanse of light in the darkness above reminded me so quickly: this will pass, but nature endures. Nature may not be forever–it is more threatened than ever before in this history of mankind–but compared to us it endures. Even if it comes down to a terrible man-made catastrophe for the earth to rebalance itself, it will. It’s simply written into the DNA of nature to harmonize. And it will. And everything will be okay.
How many people need to hear this? How many people are living cut off from the things that give us the simplest joy: the stars in the sky, the voice of the waves of Lake Michigan? I think it is essential for us to reconnect with nature in one way or another, for our own survival and sanity. The good news is that the same music flows through us. It doesn’t take long to find your way back. Just stop, and listen. You’re tuned to hear the music.
Now this is a fun thing to be able to tell you about in my 100th post on this blog: We took a family vacation this week to northern Michigan. I had just completed querying agents, plus two publishers I thought might like my book who accepted unagented submissions. While I was staring at this view of Lake Michigan from Petoskey State Park in the upper lower peninsula, two agents and one of the publishers emailed me asking for partial or full manuscripts to review! Huzzah. There is still a ways to go to signing on with an agent and a publisher, but that’s encouraging. At least the premise of my novel is interesting to the people I thought it might be interesting to. Now my writing has to carry the day. And I only just queried agents over the last few weeks, so I may still hear from more people. Fingers crossed I find an agent I can work with long term through this process.
The other huge plus this week was that standing knee deep in Lake Michigan is like plugging directly into my inspiration, so I figured out:
- The details I need to add to the novel I wrote in July, Music of Sacred Lakes (it’s set in Petoskey).
- The spark that was missing from my next novel idea, about, well, more about that later.
- The two ingredients required to create that spark with any good novel idea. Now THAT’S an exciting discovery for me. It may not work for everyone, but it looks like the key to finding an idea that really has a life of its own for me: I shouldn’t just write what I know, as they say, but write about what I love and what I hate smashed together in a situation where they can’t get away from each other. In short, a crucible.
We had a wonderful vacation, camping near the sunny, sandy lake for 3 days and then visiting my aunt way up north in the western U.P. Now we’re back and back to work, but I’m happy things are progressing so much more quickly than I set myself up to expect. And suddenly I’m ready to publish novel 1, polish novel 2, and maybe even start writing novel 3 in the next month or two. As I said. Huzzah!
I told you last time that putting my daughter in part-time preschool and getting her to start taking a nap again had allowed me to focus on writing my next novel, and I got 10,000 words written in the first week alone. Well…
That kind of accelerated from there. I just finished the rough draft for that novel, at 50,000 words, in just over 3 weeks! I’m just floored by how quickly that happened.
Now, I need to focus on finding an agent and a publisher for my first novel while this second one percolates a bit, but I’m still just in shock.
What made this increased acceleration possible? Well, I can’t explain it entirely. I suppose I had some pent up energy from not letting myself start writing it for the whole year I researched it, while I finished editing The Little Seer. But I also was pretty careful to keep my work pace in check, believe it or not. I took breaks, even had to start icing my wrists to keep my carpal tunnel from coming back. I credit this resting with helping me keep up the pace all the way to the end. Good news for arguing with my workaholic self in the future!
Have you ever written something this quickly? How did you do it? Did it turn out the way you wanted? I’d love to hear about the ups and downs of your experience in comments.
As you know, I recently finished writing my first novel, the first 5 sample chapters of which you can find in the recent posts. I was holding back on starting my second novel until I finished this process, so that I could learn everything I could from writing a novel start to finish. But I just started writing novel #2 two weeks ago and I think the energy and ideas had pent up a bit, because suddenly I have written the first 10,000 words without half trying. My writing has also obviously improved since the first book. Awesome! But how did this happen? I need to know so I can repeat it again and again!
There were a lot of things going on in this situation, but I think the biggest component was the power of focus. Focus is only possible with time and space in which to focus, so I needed to make more space for my writing first. My husband encouraged me to make my schedule to work for me for a change, instead of just thinking of my daughter’s needs. We decided to enroll her for 3 half days of preschool a week instead of 2, and to start her during the summer instead of waiting for fall, because I was having a hard time keeping up with her needs for activity and learning and I was still feeling crazy from lack of space for myself. That was a hard decision, since I love spending so much time with her. But you know the old adage. If mama aint happy, aint nobody happy. As soon as I enrolled her in preschool, she started saying at random intervals through the day, “Mama, I’m so happy!” Yes, me too.
Second thing I needed to do: focus on one thing at a time. I don’t have a problem finishing things or anything, but I have been juggling so many projects that they have all progressed very slowly. So, I decided that this new time created by preschool was sacred to novel writing. Everything else would fit in around the edges like it always has. I drop baby girl off at preschool, drive straight home, and write until it’s time to pick her up, with a break for a walk outside if the weather is nice.
Did it work? Did it ever! The very first day she went to preschool I came home and wrote 2,000 words in 2 hours. Whoa. That may not be much for a full-time novelist, but this is a full-time mama who still doesn’t get a full night’s sleep most nights. And like I said, within 2 weeks I had 10,000 words written with only 6 extra hours per week. At this rate my crazy ambitious goal of having this novel written in 6 months in rough draft form is actually more than doable. I could get it done in 2 months if I can keep up this pace. Sorry to throw more interjections at you, but wow. With this tiny amount of time for my work, I can actually be a full-time mom (we still spend 2 full weekdays, 2 full weekend days, and all afternoons and evenings together) and keep my career moving forward, with energy to spare. What a difference a little focus makes.
I skipped a few days there posting sample chapters, because I was finishing my edit of the novel! I’m super excited to move on to querying agents and editors and see if I can get this story published. So, here is Chapter 5 of the first part of the novel. Please let me know if you would like additional chapters posted, or I will just move on to something else. Thanks!
The Little Seer, Part I: Exodus
Escaping the Darkness
“We never should have elected a treasurer with an emotionally unstable daughter!”
Ms. Nancy’s accusation hit Aria like a kick in the gut.
“How dare you!” Aria heard her mom stand up, her high heels clicking on the cold floor of the church sanctuary.
“Now, ladies, please sit down,” Mr. Stauffin said. He cleared his throat.
“I will not sit down!” Aria rarely heard her mother yell. “You can’t expect me to just sit here while you throw out wild accusations at my daughter—behind her back!—and not even give me the chance to answer the charges! Besides, this is just a distraction from the real issues at hand, and you know it.”
Aria shivered. She wished she had her sweater, which was with her mother’s things a few pews away. She couldn’t stand up now or people would see her.
“No one is charging you with anything,” Mrs. Stauffin said. “Now don’t you lose your perfect poise.”
“What?!” Aria heard her mom sit down heavily.
The other elders at the meeting shifted in their seats and cleared their throats.
Why are you all being so mean? Aria twisted her hands in her lap. You’re supposed to be our friends! Especially you, Mrs. Stauffin.
But Aria hadn’t seen Mrs. Stauffin for her weekly tea with her mom—not since the argument.
What did I do? thought Aria. What if I really am unstable?
Aria’s chest heaved just to breathe normally. On the edge of her imagination, dark winged shapes flitted up in the wood rafters. It made her stomach do flips.
Aria shook her head to clear it of her dark thoughts, but she couldn’t shake a vague sense that something was about to jump out at her from the shadows. She realized she was digging her fingernails into her palms. She studied the red slices in her hands.
Aria was supposed to have gone outside with the other kids, but Jenny and Tara just wanted to flirt with Jesse and play flag football with the youth group. Aria had crawled under a pew and was folding her church bulletin into an origami crane when the fight had erupted above her. It was a good thing the back of the pew was one solid slab that reached to the floor. No one could see her, as long as she didn’t move. But now Aria was wishing she could run.
Ms. Nancy’s comment still rolled around Aria’s mind.
What if I’m crazy? How do I know this is really God?
She heard Ms. Nancy shift in her seat and tap her loafered foot on the floor.
“Your husband can’t keep his own house in order,” she shot at Aria’s mom, “so how could we expect him to keep the finances in order in the house of God?”
Aria’s mom gasped. “What makes you such an expert on husbands and children?” she threw back at her.
Aria could feel Ms. Nancy recoil.
Several parishioners stood to their feet and started shouting: “House of God? I don’t think even God would spend this much on a building!”
“How are we supposed to know what’s going on when the elders have a closed inner circle? When we founded this church we agreed the leadership would be transparent!”
“Yeah, we were in this together! Now we’re just names on your membership rolls! Something is going on, and we demand to know what it is.”
Aria tried to breathe slowly.
What is going on? she begged the bottom of the pew above her. She pictured the squinting face of Ms. Nancy, her teacher who had taught her so much about God.
“God is wise and loving; he is always in control,” Ms. Nancy had said to her class.
The church could sure use you now, Aria thought, and rubbed her arms to warm her cool skin. If you really are that way. In the back of her mind, she could hear the winds of the tornado that had ripped through this building in her dream. She shuddered. What if God wasn’t the way people said he was at all?
“Back up!” said a voice, and Aria heard Phil Donagee stand up.
“You!” he said to Ms. Nancy. “Explain! If you’re going to throw accusations around about a little girl, I want to know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s simple!” Ms. Nancy said. “Jim and Lily let the inmate run the asylum at their house—literally!—so it’s no big surprise that Jim didn’t spot the anomalies in the budget. Their disturbed daughter is running around telling people she dreamed of Pastor Ted ordering evil birds to attack her, and we expect Jim to be able to handle our church finances?”
“This has nothing to do with Jim, and you know it!”
The yelling resumed.
Aria curled up into a ball and rested her head on the floor next to her paper crane. The bird stared back at her blankly.
Never should have told. Never should have told. Now what?
Aria crushed the bird in her hand and threw it across the floor.
Pastor Ted was still silent. Aria remembered his face from her dream. She wondered if he knew she was sitting there and imagined his eyes glowing red and boring through the back of her pew.
Help! she prayed to the rafters. She curled up into a ball.
“Psst, Aria!” Aria jumped and turned to find Mrs. Coghill crouching over her between the pews, her curly white hair glowing under the overhead lights. She put a finger up to her bright pink lips and began to duck walk her way to the glass door at the end of the row.
Aria scrambled out from under the pew. She crawled to the glass door, which Mrs. Coghill opened as she kept her head down out of sight.
She helped Aria squeeze through the opening and then passed through herself, holding her lower back as she stood up stiffly in the hall. She then grabbed Aria’s hand and pulled her away from the sanctuary.
“Where are we going?” Aria asked.
“Out,” Mrs. Coghill said tersely.
Aria cringed. Mrs. Coghill’s skin wrinkled differently when she frowned.
Mrs. Coghill seemed to soften a bit.
“I’m getting you away from the darkness in there, darling,” she added. “You don’t need to be exposed to any more of that tripe.”
Aria stared up at her senior citizen neighbor. “You mean you see them too?” she asked. “I’m not crazy?”
“Who can say if you’re crazy, honey?” Mrs. Coghill winked at her. “But really, it’s getting hard to breathe in there. Let’s get some fresh air.”
They stepped out into the sunshine and headed across the lawn.
“Oh,” Aria said, pausing as they sat down under the oak tree, “you just meant the darkness because they’re fighting.”
Oh, please don’t ask me what I mean! she thought, and hugged her knees to her chest.
From her vantage point she could see the darkened classrooms on the lower level of the church and the windows at the back of the sanctuary. Mr. Bob was standing with his back to one window, gesturing wildly.
“No, I’m talking about the demons,” Mrs. Coghill said.
Aria caught her breath.
She stared at Mrs. Coghill.
“There’s no difference,” Mrs. Coghill finally continued in a quieter voice, “between the darkness you feel because of the fighting and the darkness of the demons.”
“That’s real?” Aria said, incredulous. “I’m not crazy?”
The dark winged shapes in the sanctuary were circling like flies over the adults now. One by one they peeled off from their black cloud and dive-bombed a parishioner—Phil Donagee, Ms. Nancy, then Mr. Stauffin. They perched on the shoulders of each adult and dug their long yellow claws into their shoulders. One particularly knotty-looking demon sat right on Mr. Bob’s shoulder in the window. Its long black tongue started to explore Mr. Bob’s ear.
The demon suddenly whipped its head around to look at Aria, seeming to sense her gaze. Its totally black eyes opened wide, and its nostrils flared.
Aria opened her mouth in horror, but before she could say anything, the demon exhaled hot steam onto the window. She could no longer see inside.
Aria stood up from the grass quickly, brushing dry clippings from her dress, but Mrs. Coghill caught her arm.
“If I’m not crazy, then they need help!” Aria protested, straining against Mrs. Coghill’s grasp.
“You can’t help them right now,” she answered. “They need to figure out what’s right and wrong for themselves.”
“They don’t know?! But if they don’t know what’s right and wrong, who does?”
Mrs. Coghill paused. “Maybe you do, honey,” she said, and let go of Aria’s wrist.
“I’m just a kid!” Aria said, stamping her foot on the firm ground. “Why is God letting demons in his church?”
“He wasn’t the one who let them in,” Mrs. Coghill said with a dark look.
“I think you already know.”
Aria pictured Pastor Ted standing up at his lectern with sheet music flying past him, his eyes bulging and his mouth gaping open.
You’re right, she thought. I do know. But I don’t know why he would do such a thing. And I don’t know how! And I don’t know what kind of a God would let that happen!
“How can you be so calm?” Aria was practically crying now as she imagined demons digging their talons into her parents’ heads and brushing their hair with dark, leathery wings.
“Oh, I am upset,” Mrs. Coghill replied. “It’s why I’m not in church every Sunday anymore. I just can’t stand the state of the church sometimes. I thought these revival meetings would make a difference, but revival only takes off if people are open to God changing them with his love. It turns out that only a few people here really want to know God, so it all just spun around and went nowhere.”
Mrs. Coghill leaned back against the tree. “All of this would bother you less if you knew how God felt about it,” she said with a sigh. Then she closed her eyes, adding, “If you spend enough time with him, all of this kind of fades into the background.”
“I don’t understand,” Aria said. “How is that possible?”
She sat down heavily next to Mrs. Coghill. The bark scraped her back through her dress, but she didn’t feel it.
“What do you think would happen if you asked God all your questions directly?”
“I do ask God questions, but he doesn’t listen,” Aria said, a lump rising in her throat.
“Can I pray for you?” Mrs. Coghill asked suddenly, opening her eyes.
“I guess so,” Aria replied.
She watched Mrs. Coghill. She expected her to say a fancy prayer like they did in church during the Confession and Pardon, or to raise her eyes to heaven and shout like the revival preacher had. But Mrs. Coghill just put her fingertips lightly on Aria’s shoulder and quietly said, “Show her what you want her to see, God.”
Aria closed her eyes. Even though she was still aware of the stubbly grass scratching her legs, she also saw a movie play out in her mind.
She was walking through a field of tall grass blanketed in bright sunshine, running her fingers over the tops of Queen Anne’s Lace. A fresh wind rippled over the grass out toward the horizon.
She followed the wind to the edge of a cliff, where a bright blue sea spread out in front of her one hundred feet below. The sea breeze whipped at her back, edging her toward the cliff.
Aria took a deep breath of fresh air.
Then, a presence.
She wasn’t alone.
Aria’s heart started to pound as she turned to face a man, whose features she couldn’t quite make out. His face was in shadow against the shimmering sun.
Aria couldn’t catch her breath. She felt an intense passion radiating from the man. It made her feel exhilarated and uncomfortable all at once.
“What do you see?” Mrs. Coghill asked.
Aria snapped back to reality. “What? I—I don’t know. It’s gone now.”
“But you did see something.”
Aria was speechless. Was it him? The man she had seen in the vision that had started everything? If this was real—if she wasn’t crazy—then that could mean—
She didn’t dare think about what that would mean.
I’m still plugging away copyediting this novel to send out to agents and publishers (or to publish myself: what do you think I should do?) and have gotten about halfway through the second part of the novel. That’s about 35,000 words into it. So, here’s chapter 4 for you while I continue to finish up the rest of the book. Let me know if you want more, otherwise I will probably only post 10 chapters of the first part.
The Little Seer, Part I: Exodus
A Gift To See Things
“I still can’t believe it,” Aria’s dad said.
Aria strained to hear her parents’ low voices from where she sat in the back of her dad’s gray Porsche, snug in her leather bucket seat on the way home from church.
“He was doing it the whole time under our noses!” her dad whispered fiercely. He thumped his hand on the steering wheel.
“I know. I don’t know what to do,” Aria’s mom replied. She had tears in her eyes, and she tugged at her short dark hair.
Aria’s heart beat a little faster. She turned quickly to look out the window.
The elders were holding extra meetings during the week. Aria’s dad had come home from the last meeting with his shoulders slumping and had gone to bed early.
“We all see the budget,” her dad grumbled. “Just because I’m the treasurer doesn’t mean I see any numbers the rest of the church doesn’t see. He did this to all of us! And now that I’ve proved that I didn’t make any accounting errors like he claimed, he’s protesting that he must have made a mistake in ignorance. The gall of that man!”
Oh, great, Aria thought. Money again.
Aria gazed out the window at the dirty houses they were passing. The world smelled like clothes drying in the dryer. Power lines sagged between each house and the utility poles by the road, where the garbage cans were pushed up against clumps of yellow daffodils.
Aria snuggled down into her purple sweater and enjoyed the comforting rumble of the car’s strong engine against her back. The weather had turned colder again, but it was still dry. She couldn’t remember a spring that had ever been as dry as this one. The church lawn should have smelled like freshly cut grass by now, but it smelled like paper, like nothing at all.
“It seems like Aria somehow saw this coming,” her mom said quietly. “But how could she? She’s just a kid. When she told me her dream I honestly thought I had just put her to bed after letting her watch a movie that was too scary.”
Aria’s dad shrugged and didn’t answer.
Aria stared unseeing at her watery reflection in the window. She didn’t want to disturb either of her parents as the car came to a stop at the end of the street, a few pieces of gravel popping and grinding under the tires.
“If her dream really was a message from God, why did he tell her and not the rest of us?” Aria’s dad finally asked.
The engine purred.
“If something in church is rotten to the core, why warn a twelve-year-old and not the elders?”
Aria’s vision of the pulverized oak tree falling in the church yard replayed before her eyes. What was he talking about? Was something really rotten at church?
Someone believes my dream is a message from God, she thought. But why would God give me such a terrible dream? Ms. Nancy said he wouldn’t.
I thought you were good, God. When that revival preacher prayed for me, I thought what I saw was real.
Her breath came shallowly as she waited to hear more.
Finally, her mom spoke. “I know,” she said. “I think she has a gift to see these things.”
“But we absolutely can’t let her get involved,” she said.
“What if she needs help, though?” Aria’s dad asked, turning to look at her mom. “Shouldn’t we get her to talk to someone?”
“I have vivid dreams, too,” her mom replied crisply, “and no one has ever accused me of needing ‘help’… not to my face, anyway.”
“None of your dreams ever came true,” Aria’s dad said to the road ahead.
My dream came true?
Aria remembered the birds and shuddered. Her scars ached again, just remembering the blood. She hadn’t shown even her parents, so how could they know?
They turned into their neighborhood in silence, cruising past the tall maple trees and waving willows that had been saplings when Aria’s parents had moved there fifteen years prior. They passed Mrs. Coghill’s blue bungalow, and the Stauffins’ stucco home across the shady street.
Aria loved walking through Mrs. Coghill’s garden. She grew hydrangeas and roses in front of the house, and she kept bubblegum on top of the fridge. Aria could still hear the water in Mrs. Coghill’s backyard pond slapping against the underside of the worn wooden dock—a perfectly relaxed memory of long summer afternoons.
“It was a dream come true to move to this neighborhood with our friends and start our own church,” Aria’s mom reminisced as they rolled down the quiet street, past Mr. Bob and Ms. Gail’s house. “But what if it’s going wrong? What if this dream is really a nightmare?”
Aria’s dad set his jaw and gripped the steering wheel.
Here is sample chapter 3 of part 1 of my novel The Little Seer. Please let me know what you think!
The Little Seer, Part I: Desert
Aria passed over three crock pots of steaming baked beans on the card table the elders had set up behind her house. She gazed up at the two-story brick colonial with peeling white trim.
This house had always been home to her. The old church had been home, too, though. She missed the white wood building with the single bell in the steeple, the honeysuckle that grew under the windows—windows that opened to let fresh air in.
Aria scooped a large dollop of macaroni salad onto her paper plate, leaving room for a handful of cheddar potato chips and one sugar snap pea.
“I see you’ve got all your food groups there,” Mr. Bob said. He shuffled down the length of the table next to Aria and dug into the beans.
She looked up at him with a mischievous smile.
His red neck was spilling over the edge of his collar again. Mr. Bob always seemed to have a red face and nose, like he was holding in a sneeze.
“I have to eat my vegetables,” she replied.
She picked up a second plate with a frosted brownie on it.
Balancing both plates in one hand and her red punch in the other with a napkin and fork, Aria made her way across the lawn to where Jenny and Tara were perched on the lawn chairs by the back flowerbeds.
It was a warm spring, and the tall hibiscus stalks and peony blossoms were already starting to droop behind Jenny and Tara’s bare legs, which sprouted like pale stems from their denim shorts.
Aria smiled, but Tara turned away.
As Aria approached, she could hear Tara saying, “You know you could!”
Jenny giggled and tossed her long, dark hair.
“You could what?” Aria asked.
They both looked up at her.
“Um, you know!” Tara said meaningfully. She raised one eyebrow and wiggled a speared piece of asparagus at Jenny.
Jenny giggled again.
Aria gingerly placed her plates on the arm of a lawn chair that faced the house. “Yeah,” she said without smiling. She settled in to eat her brownie first.
She cleared her throat.
“What?” Tara asked, turning back to her with a hand on her hip.
I’m scared my dreams are going to hurt me and I want to know if God is real or if I’m crazy, and all you can do is giggle about asparagus! Aria thought, her forehead flushing hot.
“Nothing,” she said. She finished her brownie and dug into the macaroni.
A sudden yell from behind sent Aria sprawling on the grass. Something had bitten her ankles like a snake. Macaroni landed on her back, and her brownie went face down into the lawn.
She whirled around to find Jimmy wearing her chair like a sombrero.
“Jimmy!” she yelled.
Phil Donagee, Mr. Bob, and his wife Gail turned from their conversation across the lawn to look. Ms. Gail lifted her head out of her gray turtleneck, raising a pale blonde eyebrow. She reminded Aria of a turtle that lived in Mrs. Coghill’s backyard pond down the street—always pulling his head up and down to check for danger.
“Don’t hit me. I’m just a messenger,” Jimmy said with a grin.
“From whom?” Aria asked, shoving out her chin.
“God! He wants you to know, Technicolor Dreamcoat, that you’re crazy!”
Jimmy danced in a circle with the chair on his head.
Aria rolled her eyes, but she looked around to see who was watching. Ms. Nancy was keeping an eye on them over her paper cup, but when she saw Aria looking at her she turned back to her conversation with Jenny’s parents, the Stauffins. They were wearing their usual khaki, Mr. Stauffin’s slacks considerably more sizeable than his wife’s.
Phil Donagee was still watching too, but he met Aria’s gaze and smiled. He snapped his phone shut and raised his cup of punch in a silent toast to their mutual love of sugary picnic foods. His protruding belly, which strained against his polo shirt, betrayed the fact that he had seen a lot more picnic food in his day than Aria, though his stomach was as solid as a tree from his Army days—something the boys from the youth group hadn’t expected when he had invited them to punch him in the gut.
“Excuse me, everyone, can I have your attention over here?”
Pastor Ted broke the awkward lull in conversation by stepping up onto the deck and holding his arms up like Moses over the Red Sea.
“Everyone? Yes, thank you. Jimmy, put that chair down! Okay.”
Jimmy crouched down under Aria’s lawn chair and backed out to kneel on the grass. He grinned at Aria again, who crossed her arms and turned to glare at Pastor Ted.
Pastor Ted’s dark eyes held everyone’s gaze.
“I have some exciting news for you all,” he said with a toothy smile. “As you know, we have been fundraising to save up a down payment on our new building, which just passed its final inspections. Well, we had enough to roll our construction loan into a mortgage, so the new building is ours!”
He twirled his hands and took a shallow bow.
The church members tucked their plates into their elbows and clapped.
“God is so good,” Aria heard Ms. Nancy say to Jenny’s mom.
“Yes, isn’t his favor a wonderful thing?” Jenny’s mom replied with a bright white smile.
But as Aria turned around she caught Phil Donagee grumbling, “And how are we expected to pay for the rest of the building?”
He saw her watching him again and shut his mouth. He dug into a slice of cherry pie so aggressively that his fork stuck through the bottom of the plate.
Aria heard her plate crack under the force of Jimmy’s swift kick as he ran off to raid the desert table with Tara’s little sister Lydia, but her eyes were still locked on Pastor Ted.
He was watching her, too. His arms dropped to his sides, and he scowled.
Aria stared back, arms still folded across her chest.
Her skin crawled.
Why did I never notice how fake his smile is? she thought.
Then fear hit her in the pit of her stomach. What did Ms. Nancy tell him about my dream? She suddenly felt naked and looked away.
Mr. Bob came up behind Pastor Ted and whispered something to him, causing him to finally look away and run his fingers through his brown hair. He nodded and smiled at the deck as Mr. Bob explained something, then followed him to where Aria’s dad was standing by the sliding door to the family room.
Aria noticed her dad’s soft brown eyes looked troubled. He leaned against the house, ignoring the breeze mussing his sandy hair and picking furiously at the brick behind his back with a fingernail. Mr. Bob and Pastor Ted stepped into the house, and he turned to follow, escorting them inside with an outstretched arm.
An elder’s meeting during a picnic? Aria wondered. Her dad was the treasurer, but he should have been flipping burgers at the grill now, not talking money.
I wonder if they really do have enough money, Aria thought before turning away to get more food.
“Hey, Aria,” Aria’s mom called to her. “Your friends are going to play volleyball.”
“Why didn’t we set up the net in the back yard?” Aria called back with a hint of a whine.
“There aren’t as many people at the picnic this year, sweetie. We don’t need all the space in the front yard, so you kids get the run of it!”
“Fine. Keep the back yard. All you talk about is money,” Aria grumbled as she made her way around the house to the front. “No wonder people don’t want to come to church anymore.”
Aria dragged her feet through the grass on her way to the front yard, where the youth group boys were batting the volleyball over Tara’s head and laughing. Tara stretched her arm up as high as she could every time they threw the ball, screaming and laughing, but she couldn’t intercept it.
The boys paid attention to Tara. Aria was starting to realize that Tara’s blonde hair put her in a different category than the rest of the girls. She tucked her short dark hair behind her ear and joined the game that was starting in the middle of the lawn where they had always placed circles of chairs for the picnic.
Her mother had relaxed by the grill with Mr. Bob and Mrs. Stauffin and Phil Donagee in this spot the previous spring. They had laughed until they spilled their iced teas, watching Aria’s father, grill tools still in one hand, drag little Bobby Sinchak out of the drink cooler by his ankles, still clutching one soda in each fist.
Just a year ago. Was that possible? Those were noisier, happier times, when neighbors dropped in on a whim and helped fry piles of pork chops, when Aria fell asleep to the clinking of glasses and murmurs of happy conversation that carried over long past dinner and into the Indiana night.
It was before relations had started to turn cold between Aria’s parents and their friends, before Jenny’s mom had yelled at Aria’s mom after church. Aria couldn’t remember what she had said, exactly, but she remembered her mom’s answer.
“It’s everyone’s business how these revival meetings are managed,” her mom had replied, loud enough for Aria’s friends to stop their game of tag around the refreshments table and stare.
The women saw their husbands watching them and lowered their voices as they turned to hiss at each other. “You don’t manage God, Lily,” Jenny’s mom said.
“You do steward the blessings God gives you, though, and this revival thing is getting out of control!” Aria’s mom replied.
“Revival is a blessing from God!” Mrs. Stauffin raised her voice.
“Real revival, yes,” Aria’s mom shot back.
“Are you saying this church’s revival is fake?” Mrs. Stauffin gasped.
“You think it’s a sign of genuine renewal in the church when people roll around on the floor in hysterics but then get up to live their lives without any change? God comes to bless his people, to change their hearts! To heal them! Not just to show them a good time and let them go on being their miserable old selves.”
Mrs. Stauffin had stood with her mouth hanging open while Aria’s mom quickly composed herself and left to greet other congregants with a tight smile.
And then there’s the money, Aria thought. What will happen if the people still attending the church can’t pay for the building? This revival was supposed to bring in more people.
Then a terrible thought struck her. What if that was all the revival was for?
“Aria! Hit the ball when it comes over the net! Don’t just stand there dreaming,” Tara called to her. Aria turned to see the boys snickering through the net.
“Our serve!” the blond twins Jesse and Josiah said, and shifted positions for the next play. Aria blushed and hunched down to be ready to return the next ball.
Well, I didn’t get any feedback from you alls on Chapter 1 of The Little Seer, but I did see an uptick in my traffic, so here’s Chapter 2 for your reading enjoyment. Let me know what you think of it? Maybe you’ll have more to say once you’ve read a few chapters. I wish I could find a way to make the prose match at the beginning of this Part 1 and the beginning of Part 2 of the book, which was so much easier to write in one piece!
The Little Seer, Part I: Exodus
Aria gripped the sides of her Sunday school desk with aching hands. The black wings flapping in her mind had drowned out the lesson.
“God spoke through a dream…” Ms. Nancy said, and held up a book.
Aria’s head was swimming.
God. Dreams. What is going on? Could a dream like that be from God? Or me? Or somewhere worse?
Aria looked down at her arms. She had covered them carefully with a long-sleeve shirt, despite the fresh spring sun outside. Bloody scrapes peeked out of her cuffs.
She went pale and sat back in her seat.
What if I did that to myself? Her mind worked through all the possibilities—none of them nice.
Her arms and hands throbbed.
Aria tried to slow her breathing. She inhaled the fading scent of paint that mixed with the mustiness of old hymnals the church stored in the metal cabinet on the back wall.
If only the excitement of building a new church weren’t fading along with the construction smells, but there was undeniable tension in the air now that the thrill was beginning to wear off. Aria thought back to the sermon she had just heard.
“A sign of good stewardship is a consistent tithe,” Pastor Ted had said as he admonished the congregants yet again to give more money to the building fund. “You need to ask God what you should be giving, and then be faithful with blessing his work.”
“What if he tells us to take our tithe where it does some good?” Aria heard Phil Donagee grumble in the pew next to her. She looked up at him, startled. He grimaced, smoothed his thinning blond hair, and went back to reading the Bible in his hand.
“Psst, Aria!” Aria’s friend Tara was holding out a note. Ms. Nancy had briefly turned her back to write a scripture verse on the board up front.
Aria smiled and reached out to take the note.
One of her Band-aids came unstuck from her stiff hand, revealing a fiery red scratch that reached around most of her wrist.
Tara’s eyes opened wide. Aria shoved her fists into her lap along with the folded note.
How could she explain that when she woke up from a dream of birds attacking her she had actual cuts on her arms from protecting her face? How could she explain the other dreams she had been having, or how this had all started?
You seemed so good when I saw you, she prayed. Why would you let something like this happen? What is going on?
When Aria wouldn’t meet her gaze, Tara flipped her blonde hair and turned back to the front of the room.
“Aria, what does it mean?”
“In the Bible when Joseph dreams that his brothers’ sheaves of wheat are bowing down to him?” Ms. Nancy shifted the bag of Jolly Ranchers in her hand to remind Aria that she gave rewards for correct answers. She picked an invisible piece of lint off her white blouse as she waited for a reply.
“Joseph’s dream told the future. His brothers really would bow down to him when they had to beg him for food during the famine,” Aria replied.
She put her head back down on her desk. Then she raised it again.
“Yes?” Ms. Nancy turned around and squinted through her narrow glasses.
“Does God ever give us bad dreams that come true in the future?”
“What do you mean?” Ms. Nancy asked.
“What if God gave me a dream where Pastor Ted ordered crows to, um,” Aria stole a glance at her classmates, “peck out my eyes?”
They were staring.
“Aria! You know Pastor Ted would never do such a thing!” Ms. Nancy said.
“God never gives us bad dreams,” Ms. Nancy admonished her. “If you had a bad dream then it came from your imagination… or from the devil!”
She straightened her skirt as if neatening her appearance would banish the unruly thought.
Jimmy grinned at Aria around a half-eaten Jolly Rancher. He pantomimed one of his hands pecking him to death and cast his red head back across the empty desk behind him, tongue lolling over his pale chin.
Aria turned back to Ms. Nancy.
“But he did, and a tornado destroyed the church, and—”
“And what?” Ms. Nancy put her hands on her hips.
“… and—he wasn’t wearing pants,” Aria finished in a small voice, slouching down in her seat and crumpling Tara’s note in her hand.
Someone behind her let out a snort.
“I think we need to ask the elders to pray for you,” Ms. Nancy said, frowning. She paused again and repositioned her glasses on her nose before continuing. “Now, let’s get back to biblical dreams.”
Her plaid skirt flipped around her knees as she whirled around and returned the bag of candy to her desk.
Aria’s cheeks burned hot. The classroom suddenly felt stuffy, airless. She looked past Jimmy to the garden outside, where poppies the color of his hair were blooming.
A black butterfly flitted from the poppies to a stand of purple irises under the oak tree in the yard. The bright sunshine started to fade in and out as tall, whipped cream-topped storm clouds passed overhead, flipping the leaves of the oak tree upside down with a stiff breeze.
In her mind’s eye, Aria pictured herself outside, standing under the large oak as the wind thrust against it.
Suddenly, she imagined the wind toppling the tree. It narrowly missed her as she jumped backward. The bark fell off the oak tree when it struck the ground, and underneath Aria could see that the wood had rotted through long before the tree fell.
It started to rain. The wood pulp washed away, leaving just the bark on the wet grass.
“Sometimes God gives us warnings about things that are about to happen.” Ms. Nancy’s voice brought her back to the present.
The images she had just seen reminded her of last night somehow, but why?
“But they’re never negative,” Ms. Nancy said with a hard stare in her direction.
Aria twisted her hands in her lap.
Why is this happening to me? First the dreams, and now I’m seeing things while I’m awake! God, if this isn’t you then I must be crazy.
But if it was Him…. The thought gave Aria goosebumps.
What if you’re not who people say you are? she thought. Then I don’t know you at all. Neither does Ms. Nancy!
The wounds on her arms began to throb. She opened her hand, finally, and unfolded the wrinkled paper.
“I like Jesse. Who do you like?” the note said, with hearts over the Is.
Aria sighed. She held her pen above the paper.
I see things that aren’t happening. What boy is going to like a girl who cuts herself in her sleep? she imagined writing back.
She paused and then wrote, “Nobody.”