Am I a real author?

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Hello. I am an author. That still feels strange to type, let alone say out loud. Even though it feels really good.

About four months ago, I self-published my debut novel. It’s been going very well so far, considering that I have done and paid for everything myself, from the editing to the cover to the marketing costs. I should be feeling proud of myself, right? But then why is it so hard to even say I am an author? When it is so blatantly true.

After doing a little soul-searching, I found that the reason I feel I don’t deserve to be known as an author is because I didn’t go the traditional publishing route. There exists this idea that if you publish your own work because no publisher or agent picked up your work, you must not be a very good writer. But how can that be, when some of my favourite writers started out self-published? Margaret Atwood, Christopher Poalini, Beatrix Potter, Virginia Woolf, even Edgar Allen Poe. The list goes on. Google it, some of the names will shock you.

Over the last few months, I’ve been asked the question how and why I self-published multiple times. I’m not an expert at all, having only recently started but I’ve gotten the question often enough that this morning when I woke up, my brain wouldn’t let me do anything else until I had written this small part of my story down. Who knows, perhaps it’ll inspire some of you to write or self-publish your work.

I started writing when I was eleven years old. I’m sure it was awful when I started but it wasn’t meant to be good. I was learning to put my thoughts to paper and it helped me understand and work through some of my emotions. My imagination is infinite and boundless to the point that it can be incredibly frigthening to some. I used to read my stories out loud to my parents and friends to try and get some validation but it wasn’t until high-school when one of my friends’ mothers read one of my stories that there was a suggestion that I may be good at it. This particular person was a famous South-African writer and a really big inspiration to me. I still read her books.

Nothing really changed after that. I was just encouraged to write more. And I did. I wrote all the time. Even when I should’ve been concentrating on something else. But when I get an idea, I am consumed and it distracts me from everything else until it’s written down.

This was no different when I got the idea for “Mother of the Fire”. Originally it was going to be called “London Bridge is burning down” but that changed during the final draft editing. I was going through a very difficult time when I started writing the book. My family and I were in immigration court because the British government wanted to deport me after I had finished five years of studying in the country, and despite the fact that both my parents and two brothers had recently obtained British nationality. During the case, my right to work was taken away and I had to report to an immigration centre every fortnight to prove I was still in the country and living at my parents’ address. The case continued for three years so needless to say, I didn’t have much to do but write.

When the second draft of the manuscript was completed, I went to the London Book Fair for the first time with the bright idea to find an agent or publisher. I entered and was a finalist in “The Write Competition” that year and got to pitch my book to a panel of four literary agents. None of them took it on. I didn’t give up there and spent the rest of the fair, pitching it to every literary agent I could corner and every publisher who would listen. No takers.

After draft three, I sent the manuscript to every historical fiction and young adult literary agent and publisher I could find in the UK. Many responded with a similar response: “You’re a very good writer, we like your voice, but we cannot market this book”, or “this will never work for a mainstream audience”. Hundreds of people from the industry and not a single one wanted to give my story a chance. I was devasted. I felt incredibly rejected by both the industry and the country whose government at that point was still trying to be rid of me.

Eventually we won the case…twice, and I was granted the right to stay but I was changed forever. I went through a major identity crisis and abondoned my book. I didn’t feel “right” in the UK anymore. A year later, I met my french husband, Vincent in London and a year after that, we moved permanently to the south of France.

A few months after arriving in France, I started the journey of healing and I looked at the book again. I contacted a close friend from the UK, Emily and she agreed to help me edit the book. She had been doing editing work for businesses and relished the idea of editing fiction. On top of that, she knew me well, she understood the inner-workings of my very wild mind and she would never dream of squashing my uniqueness by forcing me to fit the “mainstream” mould. Of course it was professional so I paid her and she took her work very seriously.

During the six month period, the book’s framework changed a lot. It was a lot more me and it lost all of its young adultness and became very clear adult historical fiction. Emily encouraged me to send the book to literary agents and publishers again as it had changed. Not the story but the way it was told. I listened to her and did so but to the same conclusion. This time I sent the manuscipt to the UK and the US but still it wasn’t “marketable because it wasn’t mainstream”. Perhaps now it was even less so than before.

I complained very mournfully to a friend in France and she introduced me to famous french author and critic, Sophie who suggested I have my story translated into french and published here. She was sure french agents would never turn something down for not being mainstream enough. I decided to give it a shot and got involved with some translators. It didn’t really work out as each of them had their own ideas of what the story should be like and I felt uncomfortable.

Again, I complained to my friend in France that no one wanted to read my stories and I had done all this work for nothing and she suggested I self-publish the book. It wasn’t the first time I had considered self-publishing but it seemed so difficult to go it alone and not to mention the cost.

Though it seemed there would be no other way for me to get my stories out there and I believed very strongly that they deserved to be read. So I started doing my research. Yes, it was going cost money from my own pocket with no guarentee that I would make any back. But when I was honest with myself, I realised it wasn’t about the money. It was deeper. I needed that connection with people. I needed them to see into my soul. And for that, they needed to read my stories. I knew it would involve a lot of work and heartache but again I knew it would be worth it if even if a handful of people connected with my stories.

So I found a graphic artist and she designed an absolutely gorgeous back and front cover. I bought the ISBN and the trade number for the book. I told the french government that I intended to publish books. I found an appropriate platform to publish the ebook on. Not Amazon. I will never publish anything on Amazon. I did some online marketing. I spent many months considering giving up on the whole thing but finally on the 20th of December 2020, I published “Mother of the Fire” as an ebook.

Then the real work began. I needed to market all the time and I hated it. So I found an awesome person to help me and soon, there was enough interest that I had to consider publishing the book in paperback form. Two weeks ago, the paperback was published. It is still not easy as I am running the whole business myself. I am posting the paperbacks to most countries in the world. I am paying for all the marketing costs and liasing with everyone who is helping me. But it is worth it.

In four short months, I have had only five star reviews on Kobo and Goodreads. I was recognised as an official Goodreads author. Professional reviewers on Instagram and Goodreads are reviewing my book. I’ve been asked to do interviews. And even though I am not even close to making back the money I’ve spent and am still spending, I’ve gotten what I really wanted: the connection. People I do not know have contacted me to ask where they can get the book, people I do not know have bought the book and those people have left life-changing reviews of how much the story has meant to them.

Do not let money, fear of rejection or this mountain of work hold you back from sharing your art with the world. It doesn’t matter what the industry thinks, your audience is out there. If you paint, you are a painter. If you make music, you are a musician. If you design games, you are a game designer. If you write, you are a writer. If you create, you are a creator. Don’t even let yourself tell you otherwise.

If you are interested in reading more of this blog, please follow me.

If you are interested in reading, “Mother of the Fire”, please go to my website for the paperback: http://www.nicolevanniekerk.co.uk/

Or to Kobo for the ebook: https://www.kobo.com/fr/en/ebook/mother-of-the-fire

The Beekeeper’s daughter

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Medieval vocabulary:

*Skeps- Beehives made from upside down wicker or wooden baskets.

*Geoponica-A book with information about different types of agriculture, dating back to the 900’s.

Mudford, Somerset, England, 1460

The sun rose gently on Rowe farm that morning, casting a supernatural glow over the apiary. The eight skeps stood a metre apart under the four great oak trees where the bees were already busily buzzing to and from the skeps. The beekeeper had built a wooden shelter with a straw roof underneath the trees to shelter the bees from the elements. It was nearing the end of May and soon the honey would be ready to harvest.

The beekeeper’s daughter gazed at the apiary from where she was sitting at her bedroom window. She longed to work with the bees herself but the beekeeper wouldn’t let her. It was man’s work, he would say leaving her to cleaning, washing and cooking. On the rare occasion when he ran out of protection against the bees, he would allow her to make him a wild mallow concoction from the Geoponica, which he believed in heart and soul. From time to time, when he was feeling poorly, he would allow her to go to Yeovil and attempt to sell some of the honey as medicine. Alas, no one would buy it as the people were too poor. The beekeeper had ignored her pleas to be allowed to go to London to try and sell the honey there, swearing like many times before that he would never set foot in the city. So instead, the beekeeper’s daughter stared longingly at the skeps from her window everyday but Sunday as the beekeeper worked.

The beekeeper emerged from the small farm cottage, carrying a basket and walked laboriously towards the apiary. The beekeeper’s daughter watched as he stopped a few metres from the skeps, and took out large pieces of dried cow dung. He positioned one in front of each skep before setting it on fire to allow the smoke to confuse the bees while he retrieved the honey. As the beekeeper stepped towards the first skep, he suddenly clutched at his chest and collapsed. His daughter propelled herself from the window seat, rushed to the front door of the cottage and out into the garden towards the apiary, shouting: “Father!”

The beekeeper’s daughter did not make it to the village in time to find a healer, and would feel guilty for a very long time. Within the fortnight, most of the villagers had come to pay their respects and the beekeeper was buried in Mudford cemetery. Everyone fretted and worried about the beekeeper’s daughter. She overheard them saying, ‘She’s unmarried and twenty-two’, ‘she doesn’t have enough money to appoint someone to do the beekeeping’, ‘no one would marry her, she’s too plain, ‘the poor beekeeper’s daughter’.

A lifetime of sideways glances and poverty and was not what she wanted, therefore the beekeeper’s daughter set to work on the skeps. She did not have anymore cow dung so she took some of the wild mallow concoction into her mouth and blew into the skeps three times as the Geoponica instructed. She harvested the first honey of the year and pooled it into twenty glass containers. She taught the neighbour’s son the fundamentals of beekeeping in exchange for him taking care of the bees for two months. With the last of her inheritance, she hired a horse and cart to take her and the twenty jars of honey to London.

London, England, 1460

One month later, the beekeeper’s daughter was barely living off the little honey that she was selling. She had found lodging in a back-alley brothel that promised her room and board in exchange for her using a little of the honey’s healing properties on the inhabitants. She had used the very last of her inheritance money to rent a stall in one of the busiest market places in the city of London.

That particular day was busier than usual. The marketplace was so full that there was less than a metre between people. A boy was worming his way between them with a tray of meat, shouting: “Cooked meat, beef ribs, pie!” Farmers were selling livestock; chickens, sheep and cattle, the animals competing with the sound of the humans’ chatter. There were also the wealthy merchants wearing long gowns with high collars. The beekeeper’s daughter had five jars of honey left. If she could sell them, she would have enough money to go back to Mudford to harvest some more before returning. She did not know how long she would be able to continue as the journey was perilous and the income she made almost immediately went to living in the city.

A group of knights stepped up to her market stall, glancing over the jars of honey warming in the afternoon sun.

A young, slim man, wearing a green tunic and a black hood pulled low over his eyes, stood in the middle of the group. “We don’t often see honey sold in the market thus”, he noted, “is your husband a beekeeper?”

“My father was, sir”, she responded, warily. “After he passed on, I took his place”.

She could not see the man’s face but could tell by his body language that he was surprised. She expected him to protest the idea of a woman being a beekeeper, but instead he asked: “Where do you keep your bees?”

“On Rowe farm in Somerset, sir”.

“You mean to say that you travel all the way to Somerset and back?”

“It’s not much of a choice, sir”, she responded. “The little village of Mudford cannot afford honey, and I cannot afford to continue without the money”.

“Do you also sell wax?” he asked, interested.

“I can make it, sir but again there’s been no real need as those who would buy it regularly are the nobility who use it for their seals-“

“Indeed”, he responded,” are you married?”

“No, sir”, she responded, becoming annoyed with his manner of questioning.

“So you live by yourself now?”

“I beg you pardon, sir but I do not feel comfortable answering anymore of your questions”, she responded carefully.

“Of course, my apologies”, he answered, quickly. “I mean to offer you employment as the beekeeper of my estate…and I wanted to know if there were others depending on you. I will organise for your bees to be moved to London and I will be willing to pay you £40 a year. What say you?”

The beekeeper’s daughter stared at the hooded man, quietly. “I could not rightly take the employment of man whose face I cannot see, sir”.

As soon as she spoke the word, the man dropped his hood and a hush fell over the market place as everyone in a three metre distance sank into a bow. Prince Edward IV was standing in front of her stall.

The beekeeper’s daughter bowed too. “I beg your pardon, your highness”, she said, hastily. “I did not know it was you”.

“Well, of course you didn’t”, Prince Edward said. “I had my face hidden, didn’t I?”

She kept her eyes to the ground until the Prince asked her to rise. “Would you like to reconsider my offer? Would you consider being the King’s beekeeper?”

The beekeeper’s daughter looked into the eyes of the Prince of England and declined. “Your highness, please do not think me ungrateful. I’ve spent my whole life being the beekeeper’s daughter and now that I am almost free from that title, I do not want to trade beekeeper’s daughter for king’s beekeeper”.

In truth, everybody in the market place thought she was mad but the future king of England saw something of himself in her that day. He took back his offer and vowed instead that the King’s household would buy honey only from her for as long as she lived. Soon more and more people became aware of her honey, and within another four month’s time she had enough money to move her bees to the garden of a small house she had bought outside the wall of London. From that day on, she was known as Frances, the beekeeper.

How Porcupine got his quills (A children’s story)

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Free photo by Dušan Smetana.

A long time ago, when the world was still new, Porcupine lived in Southern Africa. His home was flat and dry with lots of tall, dry grass, thorn bushes and trees. Porcupine loved his home where he could burrow deep holes to sleep in and eat as many bulbs and fallen fruit as he could find. During the day, he would sleep and during the night, he would walk around and dig for roots.

Porcupine was the kindest of all the animals in Southern Africa. Everyday he would dig out some roots and take them to the antelope to eat. He would always say considerate things to the other animals. But the other animals made fun of Porcupine because they said that there was nothing special about him. Cheetah had her spots, Rhinoceros had his horn , Zebra had her stripes and Elephant had his trunk. But poor Porcupine had nothing but his good heart. He was just a black rodent with no spots, horns, stripes or trunks.

One day, the animals came by Porcupine’s hole to make fun of him again.

Lion laughed. “Porcupine, you look so silly! Even Hyena has spots. What is special about you?”

Snake taunted him. “You don’t have any scales, Porcupine. You can never be as special as me”.

“You’re not beautiful like me”, said Blue Crane. And all the other animals agreed.

Porcupine was very sad. He started to think of ways to make himself beautiful and special like the other animals. He tried to make a big trunk out of a long stick but it looked silly and the other animals laughed at him. He tried to paint spots onto his skin with mud but it was messy and the other animals laughed at him. He tried to stick feathers to himself with tree sap but they wouldn’t stick and the other animals laughed at him.

Poor Porcupine crawled back into his hole and cried. Hyena heard crying from Porcupine’s hole and walked over.

“Porcupine”, said Hyena, gently. “Why are you crying?”

“The other animals are making fun of me and calling me ugly and saying that I’m not special”, said Porcupine.

Hyena lied down next to Porcupine’s hole. “You know, they say I am ugly and ordinary too”.

Porcupine stuck his head out of the hole to look at Hyena. “But you have spots!”

“I wasn’t born with my spots”, said Hyena. “They came later. But they are not what makes me special”.

“They’re not?” asked Porcupine. “What makes you special then?”

“I clean up after all the other animals”, answered Hyena. “Without me, our home would be dirty and full of diseases. I also remind all the animals of the joy of laughter”.

Porcupine was impressed. “That is very important”.

“What about you, Porcupine?” asked Hyena, “what important work do you do here?”

“I am good with my claws”, answered Porcupine. “I can dig really well. I dig up roots for the other animals”.

“Kindness is very important”, agreed Hyena.

“I can see really well in the dark!” said Porcupine.  “That is useful, isn’t it?”

“It is very important”, said Hyena. “We are all very important in our own way here. And nothing would work without each one of us”.

Once Porcupine realised how important he was to the running of the animal community, he stopped feeling sad when they made fun of him. He knew he was special and important in his own way. The other animals stopped making fun of him. They saw how important and special Porcupine was when he could see how important and special he was. Then, Porcupine started to grow his own black and white quills.

Raquel’s fate: A pirate story

body of water near mountain

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*A continuation of the story ‘Raquel’s predicament’ which can be found below. I would recommend you read it first.

Just off the coast of Ponta da Piedade, Southern Portugal, 1720

The water of the Atlantic ocean was eerily silent as Fausto rowed the wooden rowboat back to the ship. A seagull screeched as it flew low over the icy water. Raquel shivered involuntarily, sending a shooting pain through her dislocated right shoulder. Fausto sneered and spat into the sea water.

Raquel was gripped with fear as they reached the bottom of the large ship known as ‘a fragata da liberdade’. The freedom frigate, captained by a formidable pirate known for his gall and unpredictability. Being the master of a band of rogues like these called for a merciless, daring and aloof person. Nicolau possessed all of those traits and more. The men feared him.

Raquel glanced up at the ship  with trepidation. The large dark wooden frigate had three tall masts, impressive burgundy sails and was fully rigged with forty guns on the gun deck. The ship that had become her home over the last four months abruptly filled her with dread. What she would give to take back the last four hours of her life. Fausto had finally decided to show Raquel the tiniest amount of pity and untied her wrists, allowing her to climb the ladder built-into the side of the frigate unsteadily with one hand.

The men had clearly been awaiting their return as they were lying or standing around, unoccupied. The deck was clean yet dark and gloomy save for the light of the moon and a few iron ship lanterns. On the top deck next to the helm, three men were playing mandolins and fiddles to fifteen others who were lying on sacks of grain below them on the main deck, singing and drinking. On the other side of the main deck, seven men were smoking pipe tobacco and gambling. Every single one of them gawked at her as she stumbled forward onto the deck, catching herself with her left arm before she fell on her face. Fausto appeared behind her moments later and directed her forcefully towards the Captain’s cabin, the door to which was located underneath the men who had stopped playing their instruments stare with more vigour.

“What has the kid done now?”

“Ramon, the Captain has been looking for you all night!”

“You’re a dead man, Ramon”.

“You better not have muddled this up, galley slave!”

The men could not manage to keep their thoughts to themselves as Fausto pushed her past them and towards the Captain’s door. Her wrists were no longer tied hence she could attempt to make a run for it, then a swim for it. It wasn’t that far back to the cave though the water was deadly icy. Before Raquel could act or Fausto could knock, the door to the Captain’s quarters opened to reveal Captain Nicolau, dressed in his black breeches and long burgundy overcoat. He was not wearing his hat and his black hair was wildly disheveled.

“Captain”, Fausto said, suddenly intimidated and took a step back. “I wonder if I could have but a moment of your time?”

The captain did not seem to have the disposition for idle conversation, though he never did. His dark brown, almost black eyes moved steadily and deliberately from Fausto to me. “Get inside”.

Fausto pulled me into the Captain’s cabin by the scruff of my neck and closed the door with his foot. The Captain watched us, coldly. The silence was so deadly that Raquel could hear Fausto swallow, loudly.

“Explain”, the Captain ordered. He often spoke in short noxious bursts that gave the impression your heart was about to explode.

Fausto gave the Captain a clear, factual account of all he had witnessed when he found her. It became clear to Raquel that the Captain had sent Fausto out to locate her. The more details Fausto gave and the more of the story he told, the angrier the Captain became. By the end of the short recollection, he had broken three glasses and kicked a hole in a pair of wooden drawers.

“Ramon!” Captain Nicolau barked. “Stay there. Fausto, get out!”

Fausto practically ran from the room, terribly grateful to have gained his freedom. Raquel stared after him, longingly. The Captain slammed the door shut and locked it before turning furiously on Raquel. She cowered out of instinct though was feeling more at ease after Fausto had left. The Captain advanced on her and suddenly, and with incredible force pushed her right shoulder back into place. The blood curling scream that emerged from her lips, sent all the crooks who were listening outside the door, scurrying off looking for something to do. Satisfied that the men were away from the door, the Captain turned back to Raquel, and kissed her. When their lips parted, he sighed: “Raquel, what the hell happened?”

“I’m so sorry, Nicolau”, she started, desperately. “It didn’t go according to plan. He wasn’t supposed to be below deck. He was supposed to be fighting above deck with you. I didn’t know what to do. I–”

Nicolau watched her suspiciously. “You know better than this. This is irreversible. You do not kill commanders unless you want to draw attention to yourself. How could you do something so reckless, so selfish?”

“He forced himself upon me-”

Nicolau frowned. “Though you were dressed like this?”

Raquel shrugged. “It didn’t seem to make a difference to him”.

Nicolau looked like he might kick another hole in the furniture. Raquel quickly continued. “But he didn’t. He tried, you see, and that’s why I stabbed him. Three times. In the back. While he was lying on top of me”.

“Where is the body now, Raquel?”

“Still in the cave where Fausto found me”, she answered, quickly. “He wouldn’t give me the time to finish burying him”.

“Why in God’s name would you bury him?” Nicolau demanded, heatedly. “You’re next to the ocean. Send him to the fishes!”

“What if he started to float and they found him?” Raquel countered. “I was afraid, Nicolau”.

“This is a bloody disaster”, he cursed, bitterly. “You know, by now Fausto would’ve told the whole crew. They’ll be out for blood, mark my words”.

“You’re our Captain”, Raquel insisted. “They fear you. You tell them what your plan is and they will follow you”.

“No, Raquel”, he answered, quietly. “Have you not been paying attention since you’ve been on this ship? We’re vagabonds. The foam on the sea. The lowest of the low. The moment they believe I am not strong enough or they see some advantage for themselves, they will overthrow me. They will expect nothing less than your death”.

“What if we told them that I’m a woman?” Raquel suggested, desperately.

Nicolau stared at her, incredulously not willing to acknowledge her foolishness with an answer. “Death is the only way”.

“I have to die?” Raquel asked, fearfully.

“Yes”, Nicolau answered, soberly. “And so do I. Still, it may suffice if they merely think we are dead or gone”.

She frowned. “I’m not sure I understand–”

“In the early morning hours, we will take the rowboat and make for the shore”, Nicolau clarified. “Not leaving a trace of ourselves, we make for America on the first available passing”.

Two weeks later, Raquel and Nicolau arrived on the coast of Delaware. The air was crisp with the promise of a better tomorrow and she could still smell the familiar and loved smell of the ocean. Raquel watched Nicolau, pick up their few belongings. The man who saved her life by abandoning his ship, his crew and the only life he had ever known. She took the hand he held out to her and they disembarked.

*Raquel and Nicolau didn’t stop pirating. They spent the rest of their lives luring passersby to their deaths by pretending to be stranded after storms, and killing and robbing anyone who came to help. Well, there is no honour among thieves.

Raquel’s predicament: A pirate story

sunset ship boat sea

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Ponta da Piedade, Southern Portugal, 1720

Raquel paused her digging to wipe the sweat from her brow with her long white-sleeved shirt which covered in dirt, blood and sea water merely served to further soil her face. She was sweating more as a result of her distress than from the physical exertion of driving the shovel repeatedly into the sludge that made up the surface of the cave . She wasn’t standing very deep inside the cave and could as easily see as hear the waves crashing onto the modest beach, separating the mouth of the cave from the expanse of the Atlantic ocean. The tide was rising. If she didn’t hurry, she would be stuck in there until morning.

Not much chance of those good-for-nothing freebooters coming to look for me, she thought disloyally.

She pulled from her trouser pocket, the silver pocket watch she had taken off a salt merchant during a coastal-raid the previous week. Both the pocket watch and the faint light appearing on the horizon indicated it was near daybreak. She had little time to dig a pit big enough to hide her blunder. Nobody could find out how badly she had botched her orders. Especially not Nicolau. It was simple…like every time before; board the ship, while the others distract the soldiers with an assault, she sneaks below deck and pockets as much loot as possible. How was she to know that he’d be down there?

She heard the familiar sound of a wooden boat being pulled onto shore. She hurriedly dropped the shovel, tore off her brown overcoat and attempted to bury her problem under it temporarily.

“Ramon!” she heard one of the buccaneers named Fausto call. He was only a few metres outside the cave. “Ramon! Where are you! I’m going to kill that boy”.

Raquel had nothing with which to hide the hole she had been digging. She would have to go outside to meet Fausto if she didn’t want to risk him storming in and seeing the mayhem she had created. She seized her banana, steadfastly and marched towards the mouth of the cave immediately upon which Fausto entered the cave, his face nearly as red as his beard.

“Ramon!” he shouted in her face, clutching her by the scruff of the neck with his large hands. “What the devil is taking you so long?” He reeked off tobacco, Porto and perspiration. His eyes widened as he took in her appearance, and more importantly the condition of her once almost white shirt then sodden with blood. Before she could think of a suitable lie, he threw her to the side and advanced, fervently on the hole she had been digging.  The force with which Fausto had thrown Raquel sent her hurtling towards the solid rock wall, the impact, dislocating her right shoulder. Her howl of pain was drowned out by Fausto’s bellow of outrage as he discovered what was hidden under the coat.

“Do you mean to kill us all!” he shouted, beside himself and storming towards her. He pulled her up, overlooking her cries of agony and jerked her towards the sight he had uncovered moments before. “You have but a minute to explain yourself, boy!”

Raquel knew better than to argue with her Captain’s first mate but she would still explain herself with dignity. “I didn’t expect him to be down there. He was supposed to be on deck brawling with you. But you kill people all the time-”

“Don’t be daft, kid!” Fausto barked, pointing at the corpse of the man, already starting to decompose on the muddy ground. “Look!” Fausto indicated the Portuguese naval insignia of a commander sewn to the coat of the dead man. “You killed a commander of the royal navy, you idiot. Even the most foolhardy corsair would never dare kill a commander”. Fausto searched the body. “How did he die? I can’t find a wound”.

“The wounds are on his back”, she responded wearily. “Three jabs of my dagger to his lower back. He bled to death”.

“Evidently”, Fausto said, regarding her blood-soaked clothes, darkly.

She took the chance to attempt to defend herself while Fausto was pondering the situation. “I wasn’t thinking”, she persisted. “He attacked me. Do you expect me not to defend myself?”

“You’re expected to think, and to think of your crew.”

“But we’re pirates!”

“Even pirates have a code”, Fausto answered directly.

“I didn’t expect-” she started.

“You didn’t expect him to be down there”, he mocked. “Spare your guile for the Captain”.

“No, not the Captain”, she started begging. “I can bury him. No one else need ever know about this. We could-”

Ignoring her protests, Fausto pushed her towards the mouth of the cave. “You are part of this crew. To the Captain you shall go like the rest of us”. Fausto forced her into the wooden row boat. “Just in case you think of risking a swim -” He tied her wrists roughly with some rope he pulled from the bottom of the boat.

Raquel groaned at the pain it caused to her right shoulder but didn’t dare say anything. It wasn’t the first injury she obtained while part of the crew and it wouldn’t be the last. “Fausto, please”, she attempted again. “We can’t leave the body rotting there. We can cover this up and-”

“I will come back to get rid of the body once I’ve delivered you to the Captain”, he said.

“He will be so angry”, she continued. “I don’t want him to think that I am not capable of serving as part of his crew-”

“Angry?” Fausto laughed bitterly. “Your actions have damned us all! They will come looking for this fellow, make no mistake. And when they do, they will be coming for all of us. You better hope the captain takes pity on you and cuts your throat. If not, it’s the gallows for all of us”.

To be continued…

 

 

Coincée dans une coquille/Trapped in her shell

Coincée dans une coquille    

 Elle s’assoit tous les jours sur le sable en regardant la mer. Les vagues tournent comme des danseurs faisant leurs arabesques et tombent sur le sable. Elle fume, pensant. Est-ce qu’aujourd’hui serait le jour où elle marcherait dans l’eau et finalement disparaîtrait ? Elle observe les mouettes qui volent au-dessus de sa tête. Elles sont libres. Elles sont imprévisibles. Pas comme elle. Elle écrit négligemment son nom dans le sable et regarde les vagues lavant le gribouillis ; comme pour laver ses péchés. Elle n’aurait jamais dû y aller, elle n’aurait pas dû essayer, elle aurait dû rester dans sa coquille. Elle traîne ses pieds plus près de l’eau en regardant les vagues se briser et tourbillonner. Quand elle lui a parlé, elle a signé son propre acte de décès. Pourquoi n’a-t-elle pas vu un signe ? C’est trop difficile de changer. ‘Il est vraiment un agneau’, ont dit ses parents. ‘Il ne l’a jamais fait auparavant’, a déclaré son meilleur ami. ‘Ça doit être moi’, se dit-elle. Elle ne peut pas revenir en arrière, elle ne peut pas avancer mais elle peut aller à la mer. Et pourtant, si elle meurt, il a encore tout le pouvoir. Cela ne peut pas se passer comme ça. Il ne compose pas son destin. Elle respire et tourne le dos à la mer.

Trapped in her shell:

She sits on the sand every day, staring at the sea. The waves seem to move like dancers doing arabesques before falling on the sand. She smokes, thinking. Perhaps today will be the day when she walks into the water and dissapears forever. She watches the seagulls flying above her head. They are free. They are unpredictable. Not like her. She writes her name carelessly in the sand and watches as the waves wash away her scrawl; like it is washing away her sins. She should’ve never gone, she should’ve never tried, she should’ve stayed hidden in her shell. She drags her feet closer to the water, watching as the waves breaking and swirling. When she spoke to him for the first time, she signed her own death certificate. Why didn’t she see a sign? It’s too difficult to change. ‘He is really a lamb’, said his parents. ‘He has never done it before’, said his best friend. ‘So it must be me’, she decides. She cannot go back, and she cannot go forward. The only choice she has is to go into the sea. But then, if she dies, he will still have all the power. That cannot happen. He does not have control over her destiny. She takes a deep breath and turns her back on the sea.

*I wrote this very short story for a French writing competition and won the first prize. As it was originally written while thinking in French, chances are the English is not as good. Hope you like it nonetheless.

 

Jeanne’s Modigliani

Paris, 26 January 1920

Jeanne stared at the painting Amedeo had left on the canvas stand. The tiny apartment constantly reeked of fresh paint. It was of her. He had painted her eyes; something he did very rarely. He believed knowing the soul of a person before painting their eyes. He would often paint them empty with a haziness to them. He’d gone walking in Montparnasse Cemetery two hours ago and had not returned. He was most likely drinking with Chaim Soutine. Soutine disconcerted Jeanne. The French-Russian expressionist liked to paint dead things; be it cows, rats, bodies from the morgue…

Jeanne stretched putting her hands on her lower back. She surveyed herself in the mirror. She was eight months pregnant with Amedeo’s second child. Their first-born daughter, also named Jeanne was staying with her parents for a while so that Amedeo could get some work done. Her parents never approved of Amedeo. Her father said it was because he was a poor artist who couldn’t provide for her but she knew that it was because Amedeo is Jewish. God forbid a Catholic marry a Jew in this day and age. Jeanne sighed and walked to the window, picking up a piece of bread to nibble on as she went. She frowned, outside it didn’t look like Montparnasse at all.

The door opened and her mother walked into the room.

“Mother, what are you doing here?” Jeanne demanded, shocked.

Jeanne’s mother was taken aback. “I’ve brought you something fresh to eat, my darling-”

“I can cook for myself in my own apartment!” Jeanne snapped at her. “Please leave–”

“Oh, Jeanne”, her mother said, softly. “You’re not feeling well, please…you should have some rest for the baby’s sake–”

“I’m feeling fine”, she fired back, instinctively putting her hand on her stomach. “Where’s Amedeo?”

“Jeanne, you should sit down now, please–” her mother pleaded.

“No, I want to see Amadeo!” she insisted. “He’s been gone for hours now–”

“Jeanne”, her mother said, gently. “Don’t you remember?”

Jeanne froze and looked again around her apartment, only this time time it looked nothing like her apartment at all. It was her old room in her parents’ house in Paris.

“I need to go home right now”, Jeanne insisted and started making her way to the door.

“No, Jeanne”. Her mother blocked her way. “There’s nothing for you in Montparnasse anymore–”

“What are you talking about?” Jeanne moaned. Glancing back at the window, she noticed the painting she admired before was her own face in the mirror. “Mother…Amedeo…is he…?”

As Jeanne started to cry afresh, her mother put down the bowl of stew and exited the room, quietly.

It was starting to come back to Jeanne. Amedeo clutching her on their bed in the apartment, delirious with fever when a neighbor found them…Hôpital de la Charité…the funeral in Montmartre…the smell of paint just a memory…

Jeanne walked back to the window and stared out again. She opened it and looked out onto the cobbled pavement. She saw Amedeo beside her and took his out-stretched hand. She remembered the joy they felt that time when they jumped into the pond with all their clothes on in Giverny when visiting Monet. She smiled at Amedeo with that same joy  and jumped…

In memory of two great artists, Amedeo Modigliani and Jeanne Hebuterne. In Pere Lachaise Cemetery, there is a single tombstone honouring them both. For Amedeo it reads: “Struck down by death at the moment of glory”.  Jeanne’s reads: “Devoted companion to the extreme sacrifice”.

*Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne, 1918 by Amedeo Modigliani. I do not own this photograph.

 

 

 

 

 

Turning into emptiness

He’s tall, dark and handsome. He always sits in corners, cigarettes hanging limply from between his lips. He’s relaxed to the point of indifference. He’s confident; beyond comfortably–he’s cocky. He’s cool, he’s collected. He conceals his feelings, his hopes, his dreams, his mistakes. He doesn’t dwell on them. They are fleeting. He’s achieved much but he is unhappy. He orders another coffee, and glances at the young boy arguing with his mother. He doesn’t ever remember arguing with his own mother. He doesn’t remember much about his childhood; he doesn’t remember much before his twenties. But he must have been a child at some point. Was there a point in his life he didn’t feel pain?

The mother and child are having dinner by themselves for the third night in a row. His father has left to go live with his mistress and since then his mother cannot find the strength to cook, or work, or sleep. She cannot bare to look at her son who watches her, accusingly with his father’s eyes. How can anyone love and hate so much in the same breath? The door opens and closes as the child and his mother leave.

The young woman behind the bar sings as she dries the drinking glasses. She smiles but nobody acknowledges it. She makes the most of a job that is just a job while she studies. The man arrives every day in the same suit with the same gold watch around his wrist at the same time. He sits down exactly two tables away from the bar where the young woman sings and dries rhythmically. He packs out notes from his suitcase and pretends to work. He orders the same glass of whiskey and ice, then watches the young woman pour it. She has been working in the bar for two weeks and he has been watching her every night for half the time. He doesn’t order another drink and the girl doesn’t pay attention to him again. The man stays in the cafe until the girl swaps her shift to take her nightly English class. Then he packs his notes back into his suitcase, glances at his gold wrist watch and leaves.  Can he still tell the difference between admiration and jealousy?

Who am I? I don’t know.

salvation_in_the_void_by_inextremiss-d6fe666

Copyright of image to inextremiss.deviantart.com

The Conquest: The Secret Will Kill Us

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Germany, 780 AD

Kimla stared with apprehension at the viking in front of her who referred to himself as Gunnar of Ludak.

Her curiosity once again won over her need for self-preservation and she posed the question that was burning her once more. “Where have you come from? The east?”

“The North”. He grinned.

Joyous that she had managed to learn something from him, she continued hastily. “What’s it called?”

He surveyed her quietly.

“She clenched her teeth, frustrated. “Why have you come here?”

He rolled his eyes and sank down in a chair at the table. “If you’re going to keep asking me the same questions, it’s going to be a really long night”.

She pursed her lips. “You haven’t given me answers-“

He sighed, heavily. “Have you ever killed a man?”

“Of course”, she answered, warily.

“Do you raid?”

“Yes-“

“Why do you look at me with such judgement when you live the same life I live?” He raised his eyebrows at her, expectantly. “Or is it because this time…it’s your people, your land?”

She narrowed her eyes at him. “I have the right to protect my home-“

“As does everyone-“ He agreed. “Even those you choose to attack-“

“What?”

“You don’t remember me-“

She stared at him, incredulously focusing on his full beard, tight muscles and intense eyes. “No-“

“I was younger then-“ He pulled on his beard, thoughtfully. “Perhaps eleven-“

Kimla bit her lip, anxiously. What was he talking about?

“You were a young woman eager to prove yourself during your first raid, I’m sure-“

Kimla swallowed under his dark scrutiny. “Do you remember the boy you killed?”

Kimla’s heart beat frantically as he rose from his seat.

“No!” She gasped.

“You embedded your axe in his lower back-“He stepped towards her and she clenched her fists in preparation.

Unexpectedly, he turned his back on her and pulled the leather wrap around his hips down to expose his lower back and the smallest amount of his backside. There across his lower spine was a thick, aged scar.

He smirked, turning back to face her. “In reality you’ve failed to kill me three times-“

Kimla was determined not to run even though every ounce of her being was willing her to. “You killed my friends”, she spat at him. “We’re even”.

“Not exactly”. By the throat, he pushed her roughly into the wooden wall; dust traveled into the air as she made impact with it. “Unfortunately I’m prone to holding a grudge -“

She struggled against his python-like hands, furiously.

“You should’ve killed me-“he hissed. He squeezed her throat too hard for her to speak. Black spots flickered across her vision and she started to feel faint. “I might have a proposition for you-“She was barely aware of his words as she felt she was starting to lose consciousness. “I won’t kill you if-“ He released his choke-hold on her throat and she coughed, relieved to clear her breathing passages. “-you accompany me to Norway-“

“What?” she demanded, hoarsely.

“You can earn your life by fighting under my command-“

Kimla gaped at him.

“Or you could attempt to kill me again-“ He gave a throaty laugh.

“I was ordered to kill you”, Kimla said, stiffly. “Something you seem to know nothing about gallivanting about by yourself-“

He grinned, amused. “I have no reason to follow orders anymore-“ He sighed, impatiently. “Let me make this clear for you…you fight under my command in Norway, or I kill you—the choice is yours”.

She squared her shoulders. “The choice is simple then”, she said, confidently. “I will not follow your orders-“

He nodded, curtly. “I understand”. He pulled his axe free from his leather wrap and swung it twice in the air. “Arm yourself, woman-“

She still had no idea where her weapons were but she knew the fight would most likely end in a stalemate again. She knew she should run if she didn’t want to die but she couldn’t bring herself to act so cowardly. Gunnar shook his head and sighed; before she could defend herself he knocked her on the side of the head with the blunt side of the axe…

The crisp, chilly wind woke Kimla. Her head ached painfully and she blinked away the tears in her eyes. She could smell salt in the air and she swayed from side to side inexplicably though she was lying deadly still.

She was alerted to nearby voices, grumbling but she dared not open her eyes in fear.

“Raise the sails!”

The sails? She was on a boat!

“Land!”

How long had she been asleep on the boat? Kimla opened one eye to see that she was indeed on a boat. The boat was abuzz with men and she was lying in the corner on the hard wooden deck. Abruptly, someone squatted beside her.

She looked up warily to see Gunnar smirking down at her. “Welcome to Norway!”

Kimla stared at him with a mixture of shock and loathing yet said nothing.

“Welcome home, Lord”. A man dressed in sheep skin and leather stood beside him.

LORD?

With dread Kimla realised Gunnar was a chief and cursed her fate, silently.

Aside

The Conquest

 

viking

Viking painting by velespainter on Deviant Art

Germany, 780 AD

He stepped out of the mist, roaring ferociously and beating his fists upon his bare chest, sprinkled lightly with dark hair. His piercing eyes sparkled with viciousness as he glared intently at the group of men surrounding him. A fierce, thick beard covered his wide jaw and slightly chubby cheeks. He was inhumanly tall with broad shoulders and large hands that held an enormous axe that he swung carelessly around in his hand. His long dark hair was shaved clean at the sides and hung in a single, long braid that swung against his neck with every turn of his head. The leather wrap around his hips covered only that which was most important to him, leaving the rest of his skin exposed to the elements in a silent cry of confidence. He bared his teeth at his attackers.
Who would be the first to step forward and swing their sword at the gigantic viking?

Kimla looked around at the men flanking her, all shrinking back with fear. She would not leave here without killing the viking. She had risen that morning with that sole purpose. She had pulled on her leather armour and braided her long auburn hair in preparation for the battle. Once again it seemed she was going to have to lead the men. Stepping back, quickly green eyes shining with anticipation, she unsheathed her sword and swung it at the viking’s thick neck. He blocked the blow easily with his ax and knocked her off balance. Only then did the remainder of the men spring into action. Kimla pulled herself off the ground as fast as she could and struck a blow to the viking’s kidneys. He fell down hard on his knees. The men crowded around him, raising their swords but Kimla called for them to stop. They retreated, obediently as she stepped forward and raised her sword, holding it steady against the viking’s main artery. She looked momentarily into his hard eyes and could suddenly not bring herself to swing the sword.

Noticing her hesitation, he jumped up from the ground and struck her on the back of the head with the blunt side of his axe…

Kimla’s head was pounding when she awoke in the dimly lit room. She reached slowly to touch the back of her head and felt it tightly bandaged with cloth. Ignoring the pain in her aching head, she looked around for her companions but instead found the massive viking sitting at a heavy wooden table, slurping something, loudly from a bowl. Her breath hitched in her throat as she stared at his strong back with a mixture of fear and determination. He had taken her weapons; she was defenseless. She rose, taking hold of a wooden chair and took soft steps towards the viking. She raised it above her head and prepared to bring it down over the viking’s back.

“Sit down”, he said in her own language. “Have some food-”
Caught-off guard by his words, she paused and he easily knocked her off her feet with a sweep of his foot. Dazed, she pulled herself back onto her feet by supporting her weight on the table.
“Sit down”, he repeated, more forcefully that time.
Kimla swallowed, tightly. “You bandaged my head?”
He nodded, unsmiling and stuffed a piece of bread in his mouth.
“I’m not hungry-”
“Eat”, he commanded.
“You’ve poisoned it”.
He chuckled, throatily. “If I wanted to kill you, you’d be dead”.
That was true; she had been knocked out for sometime and he had no reason to bandage her head if he was going to kill her.
Still anxious, she sat down at the table and drew the bowl of broth closer to her.
She swallowed a few mouthfuls before asking the question that was tormenting her. “What do you want?”
“Do I have to want something?”
She frowned, suspiciously. “Every man wants something-”
“Women do not?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Am I your prisoner?”
“You’re free to leave”.

Kimla watched him but didn’t move. She had too many questions to ask before she left. “Who are you?”
“My name is-”
“Not your name”. She tutted. “What’re you doing here? Where do you come from? Who are you?”
“Where I come from is of no importance”, he replied, swigging from a clay mug filled with pale ale. “As for what I’m doing here–we plunder when and where we see fit. Who am I? I think you know the answer to that-” He grinned.
“Who does this house belong to?”
He shrugged. “It was empty when I entered”.
She shook her head. “You take whatever you want”.
“Correct”. He raised his cup in a mock salute.
“You have no regard for life-”
“I kill only those who attack me”.
“I attacked you!” She crossed her arms, defiantly. “Why didn’t you kill me?”
“Do you want to die?”
“No”.
“Then stop asking questions to provoke me”. He rose and to Kimla’s surprise started washing his bowl and cup.
She finished her broth and watched with shocked intrigue as he washed her bowl as well.

“Where are my companions?” she asked, nervously.
“They attacked me”, he answered, nonchalant.
She clenched her fist in rage. “You killed them all?” Before he could reply, she let out a scream and launched herself at him, her fist making contact with the side of his jaw. She punched him twice in the stomach before he shoved her back. Once on her feet, she launched at him again hitting him square in the nose and hearing a very distinct crack as it broke.
He let out an almighty roar as he grabbed her by the shoulders and pressed her into one of the wooden columns holding up the hut. The wind was knocked out of her as her back made contact with it. Before she could snatch her breath back, he pressed his lips violently against hers. She pressed against him with her weight but he refused to budge as he deepened his kiss. She slapped him around the face and thrust her knee in-between his legs.
Letting out a cry of pain, he stepped backwards and she kicked him over and onto his back. She grabbed the knife from the wooden table and jumped on top of him, holding it to his throat and baring her teeth at him.
He grinned at her, infuriatingly as she pushed the knife against his skin.
“What’re you waiting for?” He taunted her.
She hesitated again, staring down at him unable to slice the blade into his throat. She shouted, angrily and threw the knife at the wall.
He threw her off him and rose to his feet. “That’s the second time you’ve failed to kill me–” He laughed, deeply and offered her his hand. “Perhaps it is time I introduced myself–I am Gunnar of Ludak”.
Why couldn’t she kill him?