Friday, February 20, 2009

A Work-in-Progress

Things are looking up: my husband has a new job, I'm working several part-time ones, Spring may not be far, heck--even my scale is moving up (I've made it through 16 weeks of pregnancy). I've put a personal moratorium on reading about the pregnancy process, which I think has helped my addled brain to calm, even if just a bit. Here, in Western North Carolina, the skies are crystalline blue, the air bracingly cold. I think we are all hopeful for Spring, and new life.

I've worked up the gumption to post a taste of my new novel, here. Background: it's a mix of a modern and historical novel with a dash of the supernatural and sci-fi. Sounds ridiculous, I know. But I thought I'd put it out there anyway. The protagonist: Kate Pendragon Hunt, a Southern ex-pat and PhD candidate in British and Italian Renaissance Literature, working on her dissertation in Florence, Italy. She's a modern, practical sort of woman who will soon be caught up in a centuries-old secret, faced with a bevy of past lives and the man she loved throughout them all, and charged with an ancient purpose. I still haven't worked out all the details, and only have 60-ish pages, but here's a go:

Florence, Italy ~ May 2009

When the Olivetan cleared his throat from behind me, I thought immediately: I’ve done it again—I’ve sinned against the church. I stepped back from the ancient stone wall where I’d been bracing one sneaker-clad foot as I stretched my hamstring, dropped my hands from the hem of my tank top and prepared to launch into a litany of Italian phrases, all hopefully signifying abject apology. But the monk only raised one wild, graying eyebrow, threading his fingers together near the knot of his black leather cincture. He leaned back, the heels of his sandals crunching in the gravel courtyard marking the entrance to the church of San Miniato al Monte.

“You are Kate?” He asked in English, his accent heavy with the curling tones of the Florentine.

Startled, I swiped a hand over my sweat-slicked blonde hair and took hold of my long ponytail as if it were an anchor, my elbow crooked out in the air. “Yes,” I said slowly. “Have we met?”

“If you will follow me?” The monk’s eyes—an odd, primordial shade of green, like pollen dregs in the stagnant cove of a mountain lake—widened, and he bowed quite gallantly, holding one arm outstretched. I stepped backwards, the tight ligaments at the insides of my knees bumping the wall.

“But sir,” I babbled, anxious that baring my belly on the grounds of a holy site (I’d lifted my shirt earlier to wipe the sweat from my eyes) would get me thrown into a Florentine prison. “I do apologize. Mi dispiace, Signor. Mi scusi. I didn’t know. I’m so sorry—it won’t happen again.”

The monk smiled, shaking his head. “No, signorina. There is naught to fear. Per favore, to come with me.”

I bit my bottom lip, expelling a short burst of air from my nose. “Okay. Sure, I’ll come. I am sorry.”

He seemed strangely foreboding, even with the sapient green eyes. Maybe it was the black tunic, such a contrast to the fawn colors of the sunrise engulfing the medieval city below us, an incoming tide of buttery gold, rich umber and bronze, warming the terracotta-plated rooftops of the buildings on the far side of the River Arno. But the Olivetan seemed out of place, even with his shorn white hair and coiffed gray beard, and such things ought to be routine: I’d lived in Florence for three months already—I should be used to these guys by now.

He straightened, noticing my hesitance, and the sun flashed on an oddly shaped pendant hanging from a long leather strap at his neck. My eyes went to it immediately, and I stopped fidgeting in the gravel. “What is that?” I asked, my scholar’s brain twitching. “I’ve seen that pattern before.”

I stepped forward almost unconsciously, bending to get a better look. The pendant was of a primitive bronze wolf encircled by a braided silver chain; its eyes were push pin-sized sapphires, and in its mouth, clutched between sharply curved teeth, was a delicate sgian. Embedded in the hilt sat another multi-faceted sapphire, this one much larger, and a paler blue than the others.

“That’s a lady’s dagger,” I said aloud, reaching up a thumb and biting at the pad, a horrible habit of mine. My mind whirred, and I looked up at the monk. “It’s Celtic. Exceptionally early Celtic, possibly even Druidic. But how—?”

He covered the pendant with one dry-knuckled hand, patting it against the loose fabric at his chest. He cleared his throat. “Please, to come with me.”

“But, sir—”

“Come, signorina. Andiamo!” He reached out and took my elbow, tugging me forcefully toward the entrance of the church.

I looked around the courtyard a bit wildly: it was much too early for tourists, still not yet eight o’clock, with a distinct chill in the spring air. Why in the world had I thought today would be the day to see whether I could make the run up to the Piazzale Michelangelo? And why had I pushed myself to jog further, up the winding path to San Miniato?

I licked chapped lips, letting the Olivetan hustle me up a short set of marble steps. He rapped three times in quick succession on the huge wooden doors, and when they were opened by two other nondescript monks he led me into the cool church and down the nave. I pulled back on my own arm to slow him, my sneakers squeaking on the patterned pavement. “Signore, please—you’re scaring me.”

He halted immediately, the crown of his head catching a thick beam of sunlight pouring in through a small, arched window to our right. It lit him and the wooden pews nearby in the palest of gold, and he dropped his chin slightly, his surprising eyes apologetic. “I am sorry, contessa,” he said.

“Bernardo, madainn mhath. You have the American: gle mhath!”

A large, muscular man in a linen shirt and a dully-colored, traditional tartan—good God, could it really be a kilt? I wondered—galloped down the stone steps to the right of the apse. The light hit his long, copper-colored hair, his sideburns and cropped beard threaded with the slightest of silver, and he shaded his eyes with a corded forearm as he neared us. He took the monk’s hand in a beefy grip, then offered me an uncannily old fashioned leg. “I am Conrad Magoon. And you’d be our Kate.”

I snatched my elbow from the Olivetan, rubbing it as I narrowed my eyes. “You’re Scottish,” I said accusingly, recognizing the Gaelic from my studies.

“Aye,” the man replied, with an energetic dip of his square jaw. “I see the plaid gave me away.”

“Is this a joke?” I took a step back from them both, clenching my fists down by my thighs; I was completely out of my element, and it rocked me. “I know I did something stupid, but I certainly didn’t mean to show any disrespect to the Order, or the Church. It was an honest mistake—there’s no need to get the police involved.”

I blinked, nervously licking my dry lips again. “Good Lord,” I started, then blanched. “Sorry. I meant to say, if I had any Euros I’d make a donation. Will you take a donation?”

The Olivetan chuckled, said something in rapid-fire Italian I couldn’t understand, except for “carabinieri,” and the Scot grinned. “We’re not about to have ye tossed in a gaol, lass—is that what you think?”

I looked back and forth between them, and it was then I noticed a petite nun in an indigo habit—a habit color I’d never seen before—standing near the top of the stairs the man Magoon had descended. She looked young, my age or younger, and she walked to the stone balustrade, folding unadorned hands over the squared cement edge. Above her head, the intricately decorated wooden ceiling seemed a playful background with its primary colors of red, green and blue carving out patterns of interlinked diamonds along the beams, and it took me aback. What the hell is going on? I asked myself.

“Bernardo, Conrad,” she called, in a reedy, child-like voice. “Ferma! She is confused.”

“Two Italians and a Scot, what’s next?” I murmured, my eyes flitting from character to character, wondering if I should make a run for it.

Magoon narrowed his eyes at me, and it was then I noticed they, too, were green. He looked to be in his late thirties—about a decade older than I, then—and from his great, muscular neck swung a replica of the wolf pendant the monk wore. Again, my brain whirled, and my gaze shot back to the balustrade and to the nun. At her tiny neck hung what looked to be a leather strap, but from this angle it seemed if she too wore a pendant, it was hidden.

“You’re a cult,” I decided sharply, focusing on the one stranger who apparently spoke native English, “aren’t you?”

Suddenly, a wave of unease hit me and I bent over my bare legs, bracing my hands against my thighs, my fingers slick on the Lycra of my running shorts. I shouldn’t be baring my knees in a cathedral, I thought absently, before the nausea came. “I’m a doctoral candidate in British and Italian Renaissance literature,” I muttered inanely. “I’ll be a really poor bargaining chip. I mean it—no one will want me back enough to pay.”

A large hand curled around my waist, so proprietary and calming I didn’t move a muscle, and didn’t feel the need to.

“We’re not a cult,” Magoon said quietly, somehow steadying me. He moved his other big hand to my nape, cupping it gently. When I raised my head to look at him, he dipped his chin toward the monk. “This is Bernardo Alfonso di Medici, the holy lass is Vedette di Buonarroti di Simoni, and I—again, of course—am formally known as Conrad Cuthbert ban Boswell Magoon. We’re compatriots, of a sort. There are more of us. And we’ve been waiting for you.”

I closed my eyes, felt myself sway. When I opened them again I focused on my hands, my fingers slim and ink-stained where they rested on my thighs, the nails clipped short and neatly square. The silver, Celtic knot band my father had bequeathed me sat solidly on the middle finger of my right hand; my left was bare since I’d returned the diamond solitaire to Luke only a few months ago. Down from my hands my knees and calves were tanned from the sun, and I studied the slight bit of grime caught at the edge of my low-cut cotton socks. I flexed my feet within my running shoes, watched the reflective Nike swooshes move imperceptivity at the heels.

Beneath my shoes was the patterned stone floor of the nave of San Miniato al Monte, an eleventh-century church in which I’d spent hours, a place I’d used as literal sanctuary from my studies and from the entire demanding academic world for the past three months I’d lived in Florence. Could I truly be sequestered here, at this very moment, by a monk, a Scot, and a diminutive nun? It was the opening line of a bad joke: A monk, a nun, and a Scotsman walk into a bar….

“Contessa—Kate—are you unwell? Do you need a drink?” The voice was the Olivetan’s, and it was kind.

“She needs a dram,” Magoon said from above me.

I spoke before I could stop myself: “Desidererei un bicchiere d’acqua.” I shot upright, and Magoon released me immediately. “Oh, God,” I breathed. The air in the nave took on a different texture as dust motes in the sunbeams slanting in from the windows seemed to swirl and unite.

“Cosa?” Bernardo asked.

“I don’t speak Italian,” I said. “I mean, I don’t speak it well, not fluently. Not enough to ask for a glass of water without my dictionary. I repeat: What the hell is going on, and who are you people?”

I felt a bead of sweat, left over from my morning run, roll down between my breasts, pooling in the fabric of my sports bra. I had breakfast with Eduardo—my undergraduate assistant from the Universita degli Studi di Firenze—in only an hour, my apartment in the Palazzo della Signorina filled with research papers and books, my laptop on “sleep” mode, my desk an unholy mess.

This really could not be happening to me.

Magoon touched me again, rubbing his palm along my spine. It felt good, and right, and comforting, and when the words flashed through my mind I stiffened, the thought as clear as white letters on a black chalkboard: This man has been my lover.

“I’m serious,” I said loudly, hearing my Southern accent kick out on a twang. “Y’all better tell me what’s going on before I start screaming. I’m talking screaming to bring the house down. Diva, soprano-type screaming.” I looked up at the warrior-like Magoon, whose green eyes twinkled at me as if he knew me, as if he’d seen me naked. I knew when a man watched me like he’d seen me naked.

“Quit leering,” I ordered through gritted teeth.

The nun, Vedette, called out something high and sweet, but I didn’t catch it in my fury. Bernardo nodded and walked towards me, and Magoon studied me warily, as if waiting for me to make a move. Somehow, I sensed they wanted me up in the area near the crypt of St. Minias.

I held up my hands, palms out, and took a step backwards. “I’m not moving until you explain yourselves.”

Magoon sighed, then reached out and took my right hand in his, engulfing it. I tried to tug away but he held it surely, patting the back of it gently with his left. “It’s a wee bit difficult to explain, see? The truth of it is, we’re travelers: founders of a secret order of warrior-artists, bound by blood and history.”

I choked on a laugh, but I quit pulling back on my hand. These people were nuts, and I was going to turn around and walk out of San Miniato in no more than moments, and get on with my new Italian life. But, good Lord—I was also a scholar, and curiosity always got the better of me. I tugged impatiently on my ponytail with my free hand.

“An order? Like the Freemasons or the Templars, something out of the Middle Ages? Like something out of a freaking Dan Brown novel?”

Bernardo nodded, his hands folded again at his waist. “Si, contessa, but older. We are—how do you say?—a fraternity.”

I laughed, a little wildly. “Oh, just great. So where are your togas? And the keg? Frat parties are never complete without a poorly tapped keg.”

Bernardo glanced at Magoon, and the larger man shrugged and rolled his eyes. The nun clapped her hands, the sound echoing in the almost empty cathedral. The men looked up at her, and when they did she leaned over the edge and her pendant swung down, clinking against the balustrade. It was a wolf, just like the others.

“Tell her!” She called, in light, easy English.

I shook my head to clear it, just to be sure, once again, I wasn’t dreaming. I’d left my apartment at six o’ clock, crossed the Ponte Alle Grazie and made my way through the twisting medieval streets up to the Piazzale, then on to my favorite of churches. I’d passed only a few gypsies setting up shop early on, but no other runners—the Italians did not run—nor tourists attempting a head start on the day. I’d left no note, knowing I’d make it back in plenty of time to shower and meet Eduardo for our usual morning cappuccino.

My eyes blurred, then came into focus on the carved, curling wooden armrest of a pew nearby. The nave was quiet, and above the altar the mosaic of Christ between the Virgin and St. Minias glittered oddly in the light now emanating a rich, full yellow from the windows on the eastern wall. The nun watched me in silence. Bernardo and Magoon studied me with their solemn green eyes, and I felt something inside me click, an internal shifting that made me feel as though I’d suddenly lost all understanding of gravity.

Magoon seemed to sense it, and he moved in front of me, kneeling like a man calmly accepting knighthood. Bernardo followed suit, dropping on one knee and bowing his head. Magoon took the wolf pendant in his right hand, holding it out from his chest.

“We are the Order of the Cwmry-Roman Wolf,” he said, the burr of his accent somehow softer. “It is an order older than the Caesars, older than the church. We serve you, Katharos. Catriona. Katherine of the many names, the many lives. We welcome your return.”

“Bull,” I said clearly. “This is a bunch of bull.”

Magoon shook his head, and Bernardo kept his eyes to the floor. “It’s not,” the big Scot insisted gently. “You’ve just to remember.”

“This is insane,” I repeated, enunciating each syllable as if doing so would make the world clear and right itself, would make this sci-fi movie of a morning go away. “I went for a run, that’s all I did. I’m in Florence to finish my dissertation, then it’s back to the States where I belong. I’ve only got the apartment for a year.”

Magoon lifted the pendant higher, and it caught the light in a quick flash. Take it, he said, though I was sure he couldn’t have spoken aloud. Take hold of the wolf.

Without thought I stepped forward, the toe of my right Nike touching the hem of his tartan where it brushed the stone floor. I blinked, slowly, and watched my own hand as if I were watching the slow-motion replay of a sports film, saw my slender fingers wrap around the wolf pendant, felt the sapphire eyes burn into the tender skin of my palm.

The room sank away, the present tense vanished instantly, there was a blinding light in my eyes and the cool rush of familiar death, and time began to tug at my bones: pictures coming at me as if in a rapid film reel—scenes of people and places I knew as I’d once known the child I’d never had, the mother I’d never known, the lovers I’d not remembered. My lives went by, one by the thousand, and I saw myself naked and enrobed, draped in pelts and clad in sumptuous gowns, a bejeweled crown upon my head, a longbow in my arms, caught screaming at the burning stake, riding bareback on a roan horse.

Then it all went to blue: a deep, royal sea of it, and I floated amoeba-like into oblivion.

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