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by Patrick Kelly
When I came out of the darkness of the wood and creaked through the swinging front gate it was pouring rain and hailing and lightning was cracking and splitting the bruisecolored sky. I clutched to my chest my only hope: a worn canvas bag filled with dusty bones. I plodded sopping wet up the front steps of the Lighthouse and before I reached the great wooden door it was thrown open and a hooded figure leaned out into my dark night. Her swinging lantern cast a bouncing disc of warm amberlight about my soggy boots and the slickwet boards of the porch. For a moment there was silence but for the rain. The figure at the door still as a statue. I strained to find a pair of eyes in the inky darkness under the hood but there were none. From that oval of blackness a rich, clear voice washed over me.
Have ye come to study The Golden Way?
I ran my hand through my wet hair and blinked rain out of my eyes, still clutching the bag of bones close.
I have, I said.
And have ye been forewarned? The cloaked doorkeep unmoving. The lantern rocked only slightly, shadows on the porch bobbing slowly and swaying.
I hesitated and glanced around me in the night. No one else coming from the trees. No eyes peering through the mansion’s curtains. Just my wet rags and the Lighthouse and the doorkeep and the rain and my stash of bones.
Forewarned? I croaked from a throat uncertain.
The figure was yet still but I sensed a subtle shift, the promise of movement. Perhaps a grimace or a grin beneath that hood.
The Golden Way is a trial. It is a difficult journey. Many turn back in fear.
I understand, I said, nodding eagerly.
Do you, the hood said. A bolt of lightning lanced the sky and the night flashed white. Do you, the hood said again, and a shiver rolled through my dripping form. A crash of thunder.
Do you fear blood, the hood said. Do you fear the teeth that bite. Do you fear darkness.
No, I said quickly. I mean I—
You are not ready, the voice boomed, an edge of grit cutting through its silky tones. At impossible speed the stranger in the cloak withdrew from the doorway and the light from the lantern was quenched and the heavy wooden door clattered shut.
No! I shouted, and ran to the door. I had come so far. Wait! I banged my damp fist against the heavy wood and rattled the thick pane of glass with my palm. I am ready! I screamed. I’ve got my bones! They’re not much but I can do it! Another flash of lightning. I want to build something strong! I want to build something beautiful, and—and ghastly! I hefted and rattled my bag of bones. I have teeth! A lot of teeth! Deadly sharp! I scavenged them each one from the black floor of the forest and I fully intend to set each one into a gnashing fucking brutal maw.
I let my tirade fall quiet and I listened to my falling breaths and I peered through the glass and all was darkness. I turned and gazed out at the gloom of the storm. I had nowhere left to go. This place stood at the steep edge of my ghostly world. I had come so far. There was nothing else.
Then from behind me there was a clack and a creak and I turned and the door stood open. No one in sight. A faint candlelight dancing inside the grand house. I shifted my grip on my bag of bones and took in a heavy breath and let it out and stepped in out of the rain.
A grand foyer. Intricate and obscure patterns carved into enameled wood. A majestic chandelier, gently swinging, tall flickering candles set into pockets at the ends of polished brass arms bent in serpentine curves. A series of dim doorways and a wide staircase winding into the upper darkness of the great mansion. The glow of gaslight leaking from under the closed doors of the rooms. Gentle murmuring, the sounds of stones or bones clacking.
I glanced around for the cloaked figure with the lantern but saw no one so quietly I approached one of the rooms and turned the mirrored knob and pushed open the door.
A coven of dark figures sat hunched over a long table, becloaked in a fashion similar to that of the doorkeep. Black smoke from a gas lamp drifted in wisps around the room. On the table was a smatter of bones and blood and tissue and loose body parts. A pile of ears, a mound of toenails, a set of talons. A tangle of antlers and horns, some majestic and long and smooth and gently curved, some gnarled and rough and dirty and dangerous.
The occult figures paid me no attention and kept their rough fingers to work. I crept with held breath into the room, nearer to the great banquet table, and stood a short distance behind one of the ritualgoers. Though I knew better, my first impression was a rush of horror I fought to contain: they’re eating those creatures. Tearing them apart, separating their bodies, quantifying them, listing them, ordering them, then devouring them. My heart seized up. What dark ceremony is this, I thought.
But I stood and watched and before long my horror turned to wonder: this was it. The Golden Way. It was happening somewhat like I’d imagined it, in all that time spent dozing and dreaming in my dank bedchambers in the belly of the steamship. The half-dozen figures bent crooked over the great table were not rending but assembling. All different stages of the wondrous and bloody process: bones were snapped and shellacked together. Skin was stretched taut over piecemeal skeletons. Some of the clan had only a meager pile of bones before them, while some affixed with a mealy glue stiff fibers of fur, bristle by bristle, to the hides of creatures that writhed and squirmed and took adventurous steps already. Some of the dream-beasts could be held in the palm of the hand and some loomed hulking and huge. Some purring, some snarling. One acolyte stitched together a patchwork of squares of shabby leather while its monster wiggled skinless and wet and yewling eagerly on the cold tabletop. Another disciple sat beside a glass tank filled with syrupy blood and appeared almost lost in a dozy trance as he held steady a thin tube connected to the bottom of the tank that slowly sapped the blood into the apparent veins of his thin translucent creature.
Without speaking a tall figure at the head of the table stood and in the graceful gesture of a slender arm motioned to an empty wooden chair at the other end of the table. There amongst the scattered gore a small workspace had been cleared and tidied. Nervously I lowered myself into the seat. Carefully and one-by-one I removed the brittle bones from the assortment in the bag, arranging them neat on the table before me. I passed my eyes over the savage work of the others, took in and let out a breath, then reached across the table and fingered a bottle of boneglue and scrabbled a needle made of shaved bone from the table and a spool of thread spun from the sinew of some beast and I set my shaky fingers to work.
* * *
The Build-A-Beast metaphor is not an arbitrary one: my novel-in-progress is, by now, most definitely a living thing. I’ve connected bone to dusty bone, stretched skin tight over a jangly skeleton, painted on my custom creature’s new facial features: I’ve invented uniquely for my pet beast a look of joy, a look of sadness. I’m starting to understand how and why it moves the way it does. I’m building a monster from scratch. We all are. Our manuscripts, our memoirs, our poems, our scripts: we’re bashing and jamming into existence something living from nothing. Crudely at first: it’s a bloody mess, for a while, a tangle of limbs and guts, and then, one day, it starts to look like something. One day it’s moving around more like it’s supposed to and it’s stammering and it’s got a name and a personality and voila: you’ve created life. Frankenstein’s monster.
I’m somewhere around three years into workshopping this novel at Lighthouse now, and with each pass I connect a few more ligaments, install a new organ or two, and with each pass I can see it more clearly: my beautiful little monster. My creepy, hobbling, wheezing little wildchild. It’s a slow process. With skill and time and a little luck you’ll get it right and your monster will grow up equal parts handsome and deadly and the little terror will be able to say things about you and about your world that you’ve never been able to say yourself. Things you didn’t even know you needed to say.
In the past two weekends at Lighthouse, during a couple intensive Lit Fest clinics, I’ve made great leaps and bounds in the stitching-up of my own gorgeous freakshow. In four whirlwind sessions with Erika Krouse (Novel and Memoir Structure Clinic) I stumbled into not one but several pretty major plot breakthroughs. Seriously figured some shit out. Realized I could lop off a whole limp nothing-doing early section of the book and get straight into the good stuff. The meat. I built an actual physical arc of notecards in order to see the trajectory of my plot (one of the single most helpful exercises I’ve picked up at Lighthouse). Everything is so much clearer now. My monster has ears, a pointy little nose, a set of beady eyes. I can see it and it can see me. In just two sessions with Nic Brown (First Chapters that Sell the Novel) I went from having only an ambiguous idea where my novel even begins to having more great first sentences and ideas for a hooky intro than I know what to do with. Hell, I even had one or two fairly major plot breakthroughs in an hour-long informal spitball porch-sitting session with Jason Heller (one of my writerly role models; nobody tell him I said that or it’ll go straight to his head).
The disgusting bodily juices of creation are definitely flowing now. My creature-thing couldn’t speak two weeks ago and it couldn’t walk (it would just sit there and sorta gargle) and it’s arguable whether it even had a heart yet. Or a soul. But Lit Fest—thank god for Lit Fest. After just a couple down-and-dirty weekends at Lighthouse my creation is finally walking around and babbling, starting to form words. Beginning to say some pretty interesting things. I think my monster has a brain. This is a weird and cool new thing for me. I don’t know how I built a whole brain but it’s in there. And it’s growing. And there’s a heart in there and it’s beating. A set of lungs in there and they’re pumping hard like the bellows of an old accordion. The little fucker I dreamed up is alive and kicking and he’s mine. Thanks to Lighthouse I’m feeling a bit like Dr. Frankenstein these days. Can you hear my mad-scientist laugh echoing through the halls of my cold lab? It’s coming. One day, not long from now, my creation shall be ready. Beware the day I set loose upon the world this monster of flashing nails and gnashing teeth, with all my own joys and sorrows and dumb jokes buried deep in its throbbing, bloody heart.