Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It Came From... - a fragment

This is the beginning of a story that occupies my mind and my writing time these days, and one of the big reasons I haven’t been very present on your blogs or on mine. I’m sorry! I’ll try to remedy this in the following days, that is catch up with my friends’ blogs.

Keep in mind it’s just the first draft – I’m still heavily editing it. As always, constructive critique is very welcome…

In his obscure and now impossible to find book, A Compendium of Bizarre Things, my great-uncle Gerardus de Kremer, the eminent anthropologist and esoterist, dedicates a miniature article to what he calls the “green hand of the Devil”, a mummified hand of normal proportions, except that the dried skin was green and it had four fingers instead of five. The brevity of the said note is rather disconcerting by comparison to the other entries where my great-uncle’s meticulousness and erudition shine through with unrelenting force. It almost feels as if he’d rather have left it out if not for his deep compulsion for rigour and truthfulness. This abandonment had much surprised me at the time, even disappointed me, given the lengths at which he had then gone to acquire its bizarre story.

There’s been more than a quarter-century since.

That I would even think of this “green hand of the Devil,” of all things, while I watched the red brick tower of Sint-Pietersstation approaching, was beyond baffling to me.

Funny how our minds tend to hop around, skidding through the most unexpected associations only to end in a place far away from where the first thought started. Or maybe not that far away. Call it premonition, if you want, or telepathy, or just plain coincidence, whichever you prefer.

I climbed down from the train that had brought me to Ghent from Paris, my little suitcase in hand, a little wobbly on my feet, like a sailor who hasn’t returned to shore for a long time. In my breast pocket I carried an envelope, the stiff reminder of what had urged me here, this long-abandoned little town of my birth.

“The time is near. Come at once to claim your legacy,” my great-uncle Gerardus had written, in his sharp, nervous handwriting. How well I remembered his harsh, authoritative manners that never suffered any disobedience yet commanded the utmost unconditional respect. The old dog! Who could think he was still alive? He’d been ancient even when I was a young boy and he dragged me with him in his wild-goose chases.

It was a crisp mid-afternoon of September. The rain had stopped just as the train was pulling into the station and, in front of Sint-Pieters, the already fading sun played into the infinite mirrors of puddles. The trees boarding Königin Maria Hendrikaplein were round and green, and the narrow houses and hotels behind them were red and yellow, and this place that had once been a part of me, seemed now only oddly familiar, like an old song giving off a vague pang of melancholy.

There were three taxis waiting at the corner, but I wanted to walk a little, not sure even if I knew what I was doing there.

I turned on Königin Astridlaan and, before I knew it, I was standing in front of the second-hand bookshop of Mr. Adhémar, my place of pilgrimage in my teenage years. I couldn’t count how many hours, days, years even, I had spent in the little store, while assisting my great-uncle. I used to be familiar with every corner, every speck of dust on those old treasures, but modernisation has brought here too its changing touches. The owners had transformed the area within the immense bay window into what seemed a cosy coffee shop; I wondered if Mr. Adhémar was still there and how he could allow the clients to browse his precious books while sipping the aromatic brew of Mrs. Adhémar.

For a moment, I wanted to turn and leave but then I allowed a whim to take me inside. With relief, I recognised Mr. Adhémar when he turned at the sound of the entrance bell, his waist hugely rounded, otherwise age clement with him.

“Oh, oh,” he said, as a recognition mixed with incredulity came over him. “My dear boy…”

He hugged me, resting his white head on my chest. His warm surprise and welcome brought discrete tears to my eyes.

How I've grown. He couldn’t believe how many years had passed since he’s last seen me, was it twenty, thirty? And what news I had about my uncle?

He’s still alive apparently, was all I could tell him.

Was I married? Did I have any children?

Yes, my wife and two sons were in Paris.

I should come teach at the fine university we have here. And I had to stay and have coffee there and a mastel, on the house of course, lest I would bring him a pain as big as his joy of seeing me again.

I agreed to this open-heartedly and I sat at one of the three tables. He returned almost immediately, the coffee steaming in the finest china cup, the mastel the biggest bun I had ever had, but then he retreated to tend to a customer.

Among the books left on the table, there lay one that caught my attention most obtrusively, due to its size and its bright yellow cover, and I took it out of the pile to flick through it. “Country Fairs and Road Shows of Western Europe in the 19th Century” was the title. It was a perfectly preserved hardcover from 1920, richly adorned with splendid sepia illustrations. Three men high, fire-eaters, fakirs sleeping on nails, sword-swallowers, giants holding dwarfs on their shoulders. I couldn’t believe the chance of falling upon such a treasure. An atlas, more, of wonders that have enchanted every child’s world. I was prepared to buy it, not only to please good Mr. Adhémar, and I turned it over to search for the price.

I don’t know how it slipped from my clumsy hands, maybe it was the high glossiness of the cover, or my unusual absentmindedness. As I dived, rather inelegantly, as not to drop it on the floor, a yellowed paper fell from the tome. I picked it up with the tips of my fingers and carefully unfolded it lest it would disintegrate.

It was an old poster – a jewel in itself - advertising the Grand Fair at Ghent, June 7 to 17, 1914. Oh! Not even the World Expo from ’13, not even the annual festival at Ghent had imprinted on the memory of the adolescent I was then as this travelling circus had. The last before the Great War. The greatest circus of them all.

I must know. I have been there. That’s where we found that “green hand of the Devil.”


Ello said...

Love this! You have me aching to read more! And the feel and tone of it is so rich and just absolutely absorbing!!!!

Ok here were just a few things I picked up but feel free to ignore.

The sentence "It almost feels as if he’d rather left it out if not for his deep compulsion for rigour and truthfulness." read awkward for me. It might just be missing a 'have' between rather and left.

When he meets the bookshop owner again. one paragraph starts "how i grew" which I thought was a little jolting til I realized it must have been what the owner says.

And I didn't notice anything else other than that I would really love to read more! I love the language you use here too. Perfect for the tone.

L.A. Mitchell said...

A brave soul you are to put up a first draft :) I adored your voice so much, I do not want to comment for fear it will dilute it. Love the supernatural tease here. Neglect the blogs, Vesper, and write on. What a gem this is.

laughingwolf said...

the ladies beat me to it, v... keep doing what you're doing, it rocks! :)

Karen said...

This story is very compelling, and I want to know more. That is, at least in my mind, a great compliment. When I begin to read a story or a novel, I'm either hooked or I'm not within the short space of a few paragraphs. This one has me. No critique. I wouldn't! You will do what needs done as you revise. Meanwhile, write on!

Lisa said...

You are an enchanting story teller. From the very first you draw the reader in and you've left us all wanting more. I remember another story you wrote in installments last year (maybe even the year before) with a girl finding a mirror in an attic. I'm haunted by that one still.

the walking man said...

Ahhh I am finding shades of Jonathan Harker as he begins his journey. Yes let us see where this journey takes us and find the solution to the "green hand of the Devil."

BernardL said...

A very enjoyable tight segment, Vesper. I would only ask you to take another look at all your 'ands'.

Aniket said...

Delightful read Vesper!
We want more... :-)

Marilyn Brant said...

Vesper, I'm delighted to see you off and running on something like this--so intriguing! You've brought us into a compelling place... Please keep at it :).

Vesper said...

Ello, thank you so much for your kind words and for taking the time to write such a detailed comment. I’m very touched. I think you’re right about that sentence. :-)

L.A., I’m so glad you liked this! You’re saying it in such wonderful words. Thank you so much! :-)

Ah, LW, but my heart is dancing… Thank you! :-)

Karen, it is indeed a great compliment and I thank you for it and for the encouragement. :-)

Oh, Lisa, what can I say… I am humbled and impressed that you like this one and that my other story stayed with you. Thank you! :-)

Mark, let us see, indeed… Thanks for reading, my friend. :-)

Thank you, Bernard! The “ands”, yes, I know of this problem; I’ll chase them out! :-)

Thank you so much, Aniket! :-)

Marilyn, I’m glad you find this beginning compelling. Thank you kindly for your support. :-)

Miladysa said...

Compelling and very atmospheric!


K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Love the voice of this piece, Vesper! What an arresting tale you have conjured.

You have spun a beginning so rich in detail and description, which makes me believe that you have a clear vision of where you are going with this. It's a gripping story, to be sure. I am definitely along for the ride!!

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Great storytelling Vesper! Very atmospheric and intriguing. A few small things niggled, but I suspect you'll pick those up in the edit. The one thing that gave me most concern though was the length of your opening sentence. Perhaps that's something you might look at on the next draft.
But great stuff and I look forward to reading more!

Rick said...

No comments for you, Vesper. Get back to work so there's more of this to read. :)

Greener Bangalore said...

Very nice write-up Vesper....

Geraldine said...

I agree with the comments above. This made me want to read more, find out what happened next. What an intriguing story idea Vesper...keep working on this, very original.

Hugs, G

deepazartz said...

Lovely tone..the voice..I was travelling along with the protogonist. Very compelling read. Would like to read the rest.

Came here via Aniket's blog..courtesy today's post:)
Even I believed his word & visited everyone mentioned in his post. Quite thrilling to've 'met' you all.

Wish you all the luck for your yet-to-be-published book:)

PS:Will wait for your book.

Vesper said...

Thank you, Miladysa! I’m very glad you liked it! :-)

Kaye, I thank you dearly for your praise. I’m smiling from ear to ear… :-) Yes, I have the whole story. The details make it truer to me and, hopefully, to any reader too. I always feel I need to do a lot of research, sometimes even for a vignette.

Thank you, Vanilla, I’m so pleased that you liked it! The opening paragraph seems a bit heavy… I have to think about it. :-)

Oh, Rick, a great thank you to you for your encouragement. :-)

Thank you very much, Greener Bangalore, and welcome to my blog! :-)

Geraldine, thank you so much! :-)
*many hugs*

Deepazartz, thank you for your very kind comments! Welcome to my blog – it’s very nice meeting you! The book, oh, that has to be written first… :-)

deepazartz said...

Same here...Will eagerly wait for your book:)

Catvibe said...

Great start Vesper. I am drawn in. And I am glad that you have found a story to work on that is grabbing you so hard that it distracts you from blogging. THAT is a GREAT thing, so don't worry about apologizing.