I am so looking forward to sharing this story with all of you!
Happy Lammas Eve!
Lammas is one of those old holidays I had no idea existed until I moved to England for a time. I knew about May Day (May 1) and All Saints Day (Nov 1), but Candlemas (Feb 2) and Lammas (Aug 1) were nothing more than vague names that occasionally popped up in the English novels I read, akin to “Michaelmas,” which at one point in my childhood I thought was the British way of saying Christmas.
But no, those four days mark the four quarters of the year in Britain, and Lammas is the Harvest Festival. Its name is most likely derived from “loaf mass,” and traditionally it was marked by bringing bread made from new grains to the church to be consecrated, thus symbolically blessing the harvest.
Last Lammas, we were still in England, and I was still running my Patreon, writing monthly flash fiction, among other things, for my patrons. Since this story was published a year ago, I think I can safely share it here on my blog now, to mark this Lammas. This particular adventure did not actually happen to me, but such is the magic of Cambridge that I was pretty sure it could have, had I cycled down by the river at just the right time.
By E.L. Bates
It was the first of August, and Effie had just cycled past a two-headed dog.
It flashed past her so quickly the oddness hadn’t registered at first. By the time she whipped her head back to look again, the dog and its owner were out of sight.
Probably just two dogs so close together it looked like only one body, she told herself, but a sense of unease remained.
Usually this was the time of year she liked best in Cambridge: it was warm and sunny, the students had all gone home, the tourists weren’t too bad outside of city centre, and everything was peacefully awaiting the start of the new school year.
Today, though, everything seemed off. As she rode along the Cam, she caught glimpses of oddities all along the other side of the river … a boy with goat horns poking through his curly hair sitting cross-legged under a willow, waving cheerfully at her before returning his fingers to the holes in the panpipes held to his lips … a strange, sinuous creature that was surely no fish raising its head briefly out of the water, green riverweed dripping from its sharply-toothed mouth … a girl in a delicate green dress with meadowsweet crowning her leaf-like hair dancing barefoot along the bank … two owls sitting on a single tree branch though it was the middle of the day, watching her solemnly.
Effie applied her brakes abruptly and skidded to a stop. “Okay,” she said under breath. “This has gotten weird.”
She briefly wondered if someone in one of the houseboats that lined the river in this part had been smoking something that had affected her. It didn’t seem likely, but neither did … this.
“Whooo?” asked an owl.
Effie looked up to see it had left its original branch and was sitting on a tree branch above her head.
“Great, now I’m talking to animals,” she muttered, then cleared her throat and spoke more clearly. “I’m Effie. Who are you?”
The owl stared at her unblinkingly. Effie blushed scarlet and hoped no people had been close enough to hear her. Had she really expected an answer? What an idiot.
She glanced around, but thankfully no one was around.
That was strange in and of itself. Where had everyone gone? Granted this wasn’t the touristy part of the river, past Midsummer Common as she was, but still … there were always some people out and about.
But now, no matter how far she looked in any direction, Effie could see no other human but herself.
The sounds of cars from the road had faded, too. No boats came down the river. A swan floated serenely past, but that was the only sign of life.
Effie swallowed. “This is officially creepy.”
“Whoo?” the owl insisted above her head.
Effie glared at it. “I told you, I’m Effie! What else do you want from me?”
“You’ll drive yourself mad trying to get sense out of old Henry,” chimed in a new voice.
Effie spun around to see the goat-horn boy had crossed the river and was now standing behind her. Now he was standing, she saw that his legs were fully human, but a goat’s tail switched behind him to match the horns.
“Not a faun,” she abruptly said aloud. “You’re a satyr.”
He bowed, eyes twinkling merrily. “Well done! Come along, we don’t want to be late.” He waved up at the owl. “It’s all right, Henry, she’s with me.”
He took Effie’s arm and led her down the path before she could think to argue. “That’s all he wanted, to know whose guest you are.”
“Guest for what? Where are we going?”
“The festival, of course. I have to play for it, but don’t worry, no one will expect anything from you. Guest, you see.”
Effie didn’t see, but her new satyr friend was whisking her along at such a rapid pace she couldn’t spare any breath for questions.
At last they stopped at Stourbridge Common, or some version of it.
Wild, mythical creatures of every description filled the green, some coming up out of the river, others fluttering down from the trees, still more pouring in from every side. They had nothing in common with each other, any more than they did with Effie, save that each one carried a small, round, golden-brown loaf in their hands, talons, mouths, or tentacles.
“I’m off,” the satyr said abruptly. “Must tune up for the dancing that follows the blessing. Join the queue there, and I’ll see you later.”
He vanished into the crowd, leaving Effie utterly bewildered.
With no better options, she joined the end of the queue as suggested, right behind a naiad whose gown clung to her body and legs and shimmered when she moved.
“Um,” Effie said. “Sorry, but—what are we doing here?”
“Receiving the blessing on the loaf,” the naiad replied. “Didn’t Myles tell you?
Assuming Myles was her satyr friend, Effie shook her head.
“That numpty,” the naiad said. “Today is Lammas. We bring a loaf baked from the first harvest, it is blessed, and then we celebrate with a feast, music, and dancing.”
“I … don’t have a loaf,” Effie stammered. She couldn’t quite wrap her head around these fantastic beings receiving a blessing, just as though they were villagers going to church.
And yet, why not? Weren’t they all creatures of the same King?
She could see the priest now at the head of the queue, a centaur with a golden horse’s body and flowing beard, and the wisest, deepest eyes she’d ever seen on any living creature, human or otherwise.
“Here,” the naiad said, tearing her loaf in half and handing part over. “You can share in mine.”
Effie took the bread, suddenly deeply, humbly grateful. She had no idea why she’d been chosen to attend this celebration, why she got to experience this magic, but the memory of it would stay with her forever.
“Thank you,” she said.
The air was fresh and sweet as we started down the dirt path, our steps oddly out of synch without the kids there to balance us. We realized after only a few paces that this was our first time hiking without them since the eldest was born. Family hikes have become part of our regular rhythm, one of the things we do to define us as a family, and we love them. I hadn’t realized how much I was missing Carl-and-Louise hikes, though, until we started this one.
After we crossed the narrow bridge and started on the trail proper, winding beside the river and through the woods, our feet found their pace and we were able to keep step with each other. Carl was mostly in front, yet somehow managed to miss all the cobwebs that continually wrapped themselves around my face. Why do they always end up in one’s mouth?
The sounds of the river accompanied our hike, rushing, chuckling, gurgling, occasionally roaring where the rocks lay such as to produce a small waterfall. It’s a sound so familiar to me I hadn’t realized how much I missed it until I heard it again. I will never complain about living near the ocean, but rivers and lakes are part of what formed me in my younger days, and I feel a peace by freshwater that doesn’t come anywhere else. The River Cam was a bit too placid to fill that need, even when it wasn’t choked with students and tourists, lining the banks as well as on the water itself. It was better than nothing, but this river, hurling itself over rocks and bordered by trees, felt like home.
Carl and I talked about everything from politics (ugh) to the next things we need to do to continue making our new house feel like a home. The nice thing about a week away is that it gives you perspective, as well as a break from the regular routine that can feel so wearying after a while. I even felt more ready to paint the mudroom and the china closet, and I have been hating the very word “paint” since about our first month.
We found a likely-looking island in the middle of the river about the time we were getting hungry, and I took off my shoes and socks to wade across while Carl stretched his longer legs to go dry-shod from rock to rock. I had planned ahead and was wearing my bathing suit under my hiking clothes, and before eating I slipped into the river and let the water lap over me. It was too shallow to swim, but that was enough. The water was cool but not cold, refreshing and gentle, chuckling to itself as it diverted its way around and over me.
I could have sat there all afternoon, but my awareness of Carl’s work needs pressed in on me, so I hauled myself back onto the rocks of our little island and we ate our lunch side-by-side in companionable silence, our arms just brushing the other’s as we reached for the occasional grape or chip from the backpack. After we finished, I rested my head on his shoulder for a few minutes, and then we sighed and made our way back to the trail.
We didn’t have time to do the entire 7.5 mile loop, though we would have liked to, so we turned and retraced our steps to head back to the car. We ventured out across the rocks sticking out of the water only once more, trying to reach the island we thought we remembered hanging out on when we would hike this trail in college. The bugs as well as the height of the water defeated us, though–clearly the water had been lower the last time (seventeen years ago!) we had come through, and the bugs had been fewer, or else we’d been young and adaptable enough to ignore them.
Still, it was fun peering back at our younger selves for a short time, and Carl joked as we dashed back to the trail away from the bugs that we ought to see if Josie’s was open so we could get pizza bites and Lambrusco for supper–a combination we found thoroughly sophisticated when we were 21, 22 years old. (We returned to the house and enjoyed roast beef, potatoes, and asparagus with my parents and our kids instead, and I suspect our digestions were happier for it.)
Right before reaching the car, we found the red raspberry bushes that we had forgotten were always there, and plucked a few to sustain us the last few yards to the vehicle. Summer sweetness, bursting in one’s mouth! Black raspberries are my favorite, but wild red raspberries have a magic of their own. Far sweeter and juicier than any cultivated strain, they taste of woods and sunshine and dreams of youth.
Back home in time to greet the intrepid fisherladies from their first-ever fishing trip with Grandpa, to hear all about how they didn’t catch anything but they did accidentally-on-purpose slip in the river with their clothes on and then decided to swim a bit while they were there, and how much fun they had, and how they would all three like to do it again sometime. They had just as good of a time in their own way as Carl and I had had in ours. Mother, meanwhile, had enjoyed her time alone in her own way by pulling the weeds that were encroaching on the driveway. To each their own.
A splendid outing, a chance for peace to seep into my soul in a way I haven’t experienced in years, and a reminder that as fun as coffee shop dates are, maybe Carl and I should take more hiking dates in the future as well. Come to think of it, the occasional solo hike might not be a bad idea for me, either. Especially if I can make my way along a river or brook–or sometimes in it.
A few years back, I had finished a re-read of North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell, and was pondering on what an unusual protagonist Margaret Hale was. Someone who was quiet and reserved, yet passionate for justice and a fiercely loyal friend. It was her quietness that stood out the most to me. How often do we see a protagonist who is deeply reserved, quiet, and yet never a pushover and rarely passive?
I had already, at that point, been mulling over the possibility of writing a straight-up detective story, no fantastic elements involved at all, and one set in my home town, or at least the region around where I grew up.
My ever-present love for Dorothy L Sayers’ scholarly-minded and ruthlessly honest Harriet Vane combined with my appreciation for Margaret Hale, and behold, I had the start of a new character for a new series: Pauline Gray.
Set in my hometown of Canton, NY, in the 1930s, the series begins with Candles in the Dark. In it, we meet Pauline Gray, a young woman and scholar who graduated from St. Lawrence University with honors and has struggled to find work she considers meaningful ever since. She writes a regular column for a local newspaper and secretly supplements her income by writing cheap adventure novels, something which she is ashamed of, as she considers it an affront to her dreams of writing something that matters.
Into this imperfect but well-ordered life comes a mystery which she feels compelled to solve, because no one else cares or has the ability to pursue it. Even though her instinct is to stay as far away from anything so sordid as murder and anonymous letters as possible, her sense of justice won’t let her indulge such fastidiousness.
In Diamonds to Dust, the second novella, Pauline is a little more ready to jump into a mystery when asked to help, though she still struggles with the ugliness of it all. She has found she takes both intellectual satisfaction as well as moral satisfaction from solving troubles no one else can or will. She would still prefer not to have to write her adventure stories, but so far no better work has turned up. (It might take her a while to get her priorities straight and figure out the true nature of meaningful work.)
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Pauline, as well as her friends and neighbors, through these first two novellas. This series combines two wonderful things for me as a writer: a character I find challenging and satisfying to draw, and a setting that reflects an area I know and love well.
I am already working on the next novella in the series, and I have tentative outlines for three more after that. After that, who knows?
If this description of Pauline Gray has intrigued you, Candles in the Dark is available to purchase through all the usual channels, and Diamonds to Dust will be out August 14. One small request: if you read and enjoy Candles in the Dark, would you be so kind to leave a review at whatever retailer you purchased it from, and/or at Goodreads? The more reviews a story has, the easier it is for other readers to discover it. Thank you so much, and happy reading!
It’s time! My editor A.M. Offenwanger has sent back the MS from its final proofread, and that means we are awfully close to publishing. Which means it’s time to celebrate by sharing the cover and back copy!
First, though, you all remember Pauline Gray, yes?
Journalist by day, secretly writing adventure novels by night, she dreams of the day she can turn her attention to “serious” academic work rather than these frivolous stories she has to churn out to pay the rent. In the meantime, her attention keeps getting distracted by mysteries no else cares enough to solve. Pauline would prefer a quiet life, but she can’t deny aid to people suffering from injustice, not if it’s within her power to help. Her first adventure was in Candles in the Dark, but it’s by no means her last …
Pauline’s second adventure begins with a plea for help from a local woman bemused by a strange inheritance. It takes her outside of Canton, NY, into the Thousand Islands region, about 60 miles away.
This is the area my dad’s family comes from originally–when my sixth great-grandfather (Samuel Bates) came to the US from England, he eventually settled in Cape Vincent, buying a farm on the mainland as well as one of the smaller of the “thousand” islands on the river. My dad’s mother’s parents had a dairy farm in Clayton for years until they moved to Canton, and my dad was born in Clayton.
It was great fun for me to be able to explore beyond my own hometown and “visit” another area that has ties to my family roots in this story. One of the best parts of writing these novellas is getting to know all these places a bit better than I did before thanks to all the research I do! (And is there any better form of research than calling your dad and saying, “So, Dad, about that island our family used to own …”?)
But enough about the background, I know what you’re interested in is the story itself.
(Are you excited yet?)
(Is the anticipation building?)
Diamonds to Dust, the second Pauline Gray novella, coming August 14, 2020.
It will be available all the usual places–Barnes & Noble, iTunes, Kobo, Smashwords, Amazon, in the usual ebook and paperback formats. I can’t wait to share it with you all! My one regret in taking 2019 off from non-Patreon writing was putting this story on hold. It was worth it, though–the finished product you’ll be reading is much, much better than it would have been if I’d tried to push the book to be ready sooner.
Mark your calendars! August 14 is the day!
I sat down the other day and wrote out a list of the stories I am working on, and the ones I would like to be working on within the next few years.
It’s quite the list.
First, there’s the next Whitney & Davies book, and the two I have loosely plotted to follow that one. (Both Yorkshire and Cornwall inspired a new W&D story, and I’m really looking forward to getting those written and revisiting both places in my imagination.)
Then there’s the unexpected sequel to From the Shadows, which might??? lead to a third book? I’m still not sure. Quite frankly, there wasn’t even supposed to be a sequel, so clearly I am not the one in charge of these stories, I just go where they direct.
I have plot outlines sketched in for a total of six novellas in the Pauline Gray series, and I would hope to be able to carry that series out even longer so long as the characters and stories don’t get stale–for readers as well as for myself.
You would think that would be enough, wouldn’t you? But no–I have ideas for a middle grade fantasy book, a young adult fantasy book, and a cozy mystery series. And this doesn’t even take into account the stories that pop into every author’s imagination and demand to be written!
I’m not complaining, not at all. It’s wonderful to have such a wealth of stories to play with, so many different worlds and characters to explore and share with readers. I am in no danger of getting bored for the next several years, that’s for certain.
So tell me: what sort of projects do you have teeming in your brain these days? What are some of your short-term and long-term creative goals? Whether it be gardening or knitting or sewing (oh, don’t get me started on my knitting and sewing projects!) or pottery or painting or baking or anything else creative at all! I’d love to get inspired by what’s inspiring you.
It is splendid to live so close to the ocean again, and to have our state opened up enough that we are able to cautiously enjoy it, so long as we follow the common sense guidelines. We escaped painting, cleaning, and all other house-related duties on Sunday and fled to the ocean, where we walked along the shore, clambered over rocks, hunted for sea glass, only saw a few other people and kept our distance from them all, and came home smelling of salt and sun. It was so very much needed.
Updates since my last post: we have a couch! And flatware. Still short one dresser. Many books are still in boxes, but the girls’ rooms both have bookcases now so their shelves are slowly filling up as their boxes empty. We are done with Round 1 of painting (finished that AFTER our shore excursion on Sunday): girls’ bedrooms, living room, dining room/kitchen, entryway/stairs/upstairs hall. Round 2 will be the mudroom and the downstairs bathroom, neither of which are crucial for comfortable living right now. Round 3 will only happen after we’ve done some other big projects, like turn the wall of closets in the library into built-in bookcases, and strip and refinish the floors in my study.
We are hoping to update our drivers licenses to reflect our new address this week, likewise change our license plates on the car so people stop glaring at us when we drive through town or park at the beach. It’s okay, we quarantined, we live here now, we’re not just out-of-staters coming in to spread disease! I can understand people’s suspicion of us, but it will be nice to no longer have it be an issue. The Town Hall and BMV have both just barely re-opened, so fingers crossed we can get an appointment SOON.
We’ve discovered lots more flowers on the property, including a honeysuckle bush tucked away in a back corner by an old apple tree. Hurrah for both! We’ve also made plans to have all the pines on the property removed (hopefully next year, maybe two years from now), and replace the ones that line the watery ditch with a couple spruce trees and a row of elderberry and highbush cranberry bushes. We have lots of landscaping plans, none of which we have time or energy to tackle this year. That’s ok, as we keep reminding ourselves–for once we’re not on a time limit in a place. We don’t have to do things within one, two, or even three years, because we are staying put for the indefinite future. That idea still takes some getting used to.
Writing-wise, what are my updates? Well, I will very soon have a cover reveal for you for Diamonds to Dust, the next Pauline Gray novella, to be soon followed by the novella itself. I’ve taken a bit of a break from that these last few weeks to work on the first draft of the (unexpected) sequel to From the Shadows, but I’m starting to get back into proofreading mode instead of drafting mode, so D2D will benefit from that switch. I am also tentatively attempting some sort of writing schedule, so I am either writing, researching, or doing important writing-related things like updating this blog, every day Mon-Fri. We’ll see how it goes.
Speaking of the cover to the new novella … how does everyone feel about cover reveals? Love them, hate them, find them a waste of time? Would you prefer the cover just show up on my blog, or do you like a countdown and a big splash made of revealing it? I never know how I feel about them, so I thought I’d leave it up to my readers.
In fact, here, let me see if I can set up a poll about it:
I hope June turns out to be more peaceful and joyful than the rest of this year so far–in all our lives and around the world. Keep carrying the light, friends! That’s all any of us can do, each in our own way.