My First NaNoWriMo - 4. The Home Stretch

As a long-time diarist and recipient of a B.A. in English, I have certainly heard whispers of National Novel Writing Month before, but I had never considered participating in the event. Something something fear of failure something something motivation. But after I made the acquaintance of fellow Microsoft vendor @elizaleone3 through a series of exceptional coincidences, I felt like I found someone who could help me stay inspired during the event. She invited me to be part of her digital "cabin," and during that month, I worked alongside several talented, dedicated writers who were just as excited (and just as busy) as I was, and yet they wrote.

With utter disregard for my busy schedule, I set the goal of writing 10,000 words in one month.

And I did it.

That is, I wrote 10,091 words. The novel, Epidemi, is not complete, but I consider the fact that I hit my goal to be a significant accomplishment, a confidence boost, and a step towards writing on a regular basis.

One of my final thoughts as I wrapped up my work and copy/pasted it into Camp NaNoWriMo's word counter was this: why not make every month NaNoWriMo? I clearly have the discipline, even if I was close on the word count. The solution is, as with so many things, people.

So here is the final piece for Camp NaNoWriMo July 2015:

CHAPTER 5: I AM A BIRD

As the sun set on the fifth day before my Rite, I timidly knocked on the door of Mother’s study. She seemed to always be toiling into the night; I could see the stress, exhaustion, and something else slowly crawling across her face. Fear, was it?

When she did not acknowledge my knock, I pushed gently on the heavy wooden door. To my surprise, I found that it was locked and would not budge. Something Mother never did was bolt the door of her study. In the midst of my confusion, my ears perked up at the sound of whispered bursts. The voices exploded with urgency in the first few words of each sentence but quickly decreased in volume and timbre as the sentences progressed. I could tell that the voices belonged to women, and there were two of them. I pressed my ear to the door, but their whispers continued to sound like an unreliable spring wind.

Thanks to years of solitude and a thirst for adventure, I knew of another way inside.

The summer had been unseasonably warm, so I knew that Mother would not be using her fireplace that day. Unlike the fastidious princess Portia, I was not afraid of a little cinder and soot. I slipped outside the window in the hallway outside Mother’s study and hugged the outer wall as I carefully stepped along the edge. This was not my first time shimmying over to Mother’s fireplace, but I recalled the ledge being a bit bigger last time I was sneaking around. It was frankly a wonder that I had not died many times over from climbing the outer castle walls. I had not realized how busy I had been with my preparation for the Rite; for a moment, I forgot where I was and began to ponder the fleeting nature of life. Then I slipped and thankfully my hand fell upon a craggy brick that kept me from falling several thousand feet. My usual trick calmed the panic that tried to well up within me; over and over, I assured myself, “I am a bird, I am a star.”

Though somewhat weathered by years of increasingly harsh elements, the same trusty footholds on which I had always relied still lined the chimney, waiting for my return. Carefully I lowered myself into the vacant fireplace, slowly inching my way downward by locking my toes into the successive nooks and crannies that I knew by heart. The voices grew louder as I moved, and it took everything inside me to maintain my focus in the midst of my excitement. Portia and I had been performing amateur reconnaissance missions ever since I could walk, and I had always gotten a strange joy from overhearing clandestine conversations. My sister could not teach me her inherent radiance and persuasive aura, but she trained me well in ways to listen in without giving myself away with my body language and, more importantly, how to cover my tracks if I was caught.

Although I had not yet made it to my lowest perch in the fireplace, I abruptly froze in place when I overheard Madji say, “…she did it again. Again, she did it! A mouse, this time. Little creature was gone, gone. I left it for her to find and she found it – all too well, alas!”

I had stopped lowering myself so quickly that I had accidentally dislodged the corner of a rotted brick beneath my left foot. The smooth sole of my boot – not my first choice of sneaking boot, might I add – barely held the brick in place, and I realized that I would not be able to move until Mother left her study. But when did she ever leave her study these days? I scowled and scrunched my face scrunched in frustration but quickly forced myself to smile; I did not want to develop premature wrinkles like poor studious Flavit.

The room was quiet for a time, and then I heard Mother whisper, “So. It wasn’t worth it.”

What did she mean? Was I the “it”? I did not mean to revive the mouse; it happened completely by accident! Why didn’t Madji tell her that part?

I heard a throaty sigh that could only belong to Madji, and then she said, “Did what needed to be done, you did. Lady Shael, she will not live forever. A Sixth – House Adrion must have a Sixth. You know this.”

“What can I do, Madji? What would you have me do? She can’t attempt the Rite. The Council will see; she can’t hide from them what she is.”

My heart throbbed with a burning sensation for a moment, and then my body was coated in cold. Another panic attack was coming, but I could not have it there, not there, not there, NOT THERE. My legs shook and I knew that I could not resist the fear for much longer.

Shuffling steps made their way in the direction of the door. Softly, Madji said, “Cordelah help us, help us all.” I heard the door open, the rusty latch now lifted, and I heard the door close. Mother lowered the latch once more.

At last my boot slipped off of the fateful brick, knocking a sizeable chunk of crumbling rubble down into the fireplace below. I held my breath and waited for Mother to rush to the fireplace to investigate the sound.

But all that came after was her voice murmuring in an assured voice with a flat tone, “Come down from there, Shael. Your face must be thoroughly sooted.”

I bit my lip and nodded to myself, acknowledging that my secret spot had likely never been very secret, and lowered myself into the fireplace. My boots crunched on the remnants of spring fires past, and I did my best to shake off the ashes so that I would not trail them across Mother’s floor. I rubbed at my face unconsciously in an attempt to clean it as best as I could before presenting myself. Mother hated messes terribly.

She was seated at her desk, and never before had she looked so regal and deadly. A fire lit her eyes, and for the first time in my life, I was truly afraid of my mother.

“Mother, I’m sorry. I can expl – ”

She swiped her hand across the air in a curt, horizontal motion, cutting me off without saying a word. I bit my lip again and my gaze fell to the floor. Again I felt the palpitation of heat in my heart.

“You are my daughter. You are a woman of House Adrion of no trivial intelligence.”

Startled by her words and softened tone, I looked back up at her and felt my brow furrow. I was unsure if I should thank her. I swallowed a dry wave of panic and remained silent.

“You’ve known for some time now that you’re not like the others, haven’t you?”

I nodded. My brain was frantically searching for some connection between the sentences I had overheard. What piece was I missing?

“You need to know what you are, Shael. What you really are.” She stood in one abrupt motion, startling the wooden chair across the floor. I could see then that she was wearing a tattered grey dress that weighed so heavily on her slight frame that she could not stand without hunching her back. As of late, I had seen her so infrequently and in such dim candlelight that I had not noticed that her long dark hair was growing white at the temples. Up until that point, Mother had seemed to me an eternally young and vigorous figure – not unlike one of the angels of old – but at that moment, she just looked…tired.

“Mother, I don’t – ”

“I have raised you to tell the truth.” She closed her eyes and sighed laboriously, both exhausted from the effort of the discussion and seemingly frustrated with herself. “Or, at least, so I have instructed Madji to raise you. I readily admit that I wasn’t as present as perhaps I should’ve been. But, from what I’ve read, I doubt I could have prevented this.”

Mother paced slowly over to the fireplace, and, with a flick of her wrist, lit it with one of her elaborate everlasting flames. She was the first inhabitant of Maven to deduce a way to conjure a fuel-less flame that would not burn out. Her invention further solidified our house’s nobility, but all of the inventions under the sky could not make up for the absence of a Sixth on the Council.

During some of my previous visits to her study, I had watched in delight as my vibrant, happy young mother made the flames dance around the fireplace and change color as they did so. It occurred to me suddenly that I had not watched the fiery rainbow in quite a long time. Mother did not make the flames dance now.

She paused then, and so I took her lengthy silence as room for me to speak. “I know what I am, Mother.”

At that, she raised an eyebrow and her eyes lazily met mine. “Do you, my Shael?”

Raising my chin as high as I could, I responded with a voice that only barely shook, “I am Shael Adrion, the Sixth of House Adrion and the second of my name. My duty is to advise my fellow councilors wisely and act with dignity and – ”

I could no longer continue when I realized that Mother was laughing. Laughing. What could possibly be funny about this? I felt a sudden sickness well up in my stomach.

“A Sixth, she says!” Mother continued to chuckle as she sank into her plush chair directly in front of the fireplace. It was overstuffed with downy feathers from the pen fowl kept far below the city of Maven. It was worn and frayed around the armrests and bore Mother’s imprint after many late nights of her falling asleep in it. While I only knew my father through stories, part of me firmly believed that he would never have let Mother bear her suffering on her own if he could have helped it.

All I could think to murmur was, “I wish my father was here.”

“Stupid girl!” Mother screamed, turning at me with round eyes the size of doorknobs with such swiftness that I genuinely feared for a moment that she was a woman possessed. “You know your father very well.”

I wanted to make allowances for Mother. She was tired. She did not know what she was saying. She could not know.

“Surely you know by now that you’re different from everyone else. There is not another alive like you. The Council forbade it after the disaster that was Lena.”

At the mention of the Terror of Maven, my knees gave out. I let myself crumple to the floor; the cold stone that served as the ground was soothing. Mother had laid a wool rug across the center of the room, but its fibers scratched my skin, so I rolled away from it. I felt everything I had eaten that day, from the precious sweetened yogurt to the humdrum hardtack, try to force its way up through my dry throat. No, not now, not now…

“You’re a Seventh, Shael.”

That was it. She finally said it. I was the monster that I had always feared I would be. The other children had always known; it was impossible to hide or pretend anymore. I had been a complete fool to believe that I could ever be normal. A small part of me was grateful that Mother did not bat an eyelash at the fact that I had become a pile of rags on the floor.

Of course I did not understand. Of course I had to know how this could possibly be true.

“You have no other daughters but us six. It is known. Father died when you were laden with me.”

“Have you learned nothing of childbirth, girl?” Mother only referred to me as ‘girl’ when she thought I was not using my brain. “Sometimes…things go wrong.”

I looked up at her, my eyes glazed over from the steady onset of my panic attack. I could not form words.

“Yes, Shael, wrong. There was another born before you. One who came after Portia.”

“What was her name?” I whispered, numb.

Mother did not speak for a long time. It did not occur to me until much later, after everything happened, how painful that question must have been for her to hear.

Even though my arms wobbled like the legs of a newborn calf from both my weight and from the fact that they were filled with pinpricks, I picked myself back up so that I at least sat upright on the floor. I no longer cared about cinders covering my face. For minutes on end, Mother did not move. I could have sworn that I did not hear her breathe. I counted hundreds of seconds before I finally stood to let myself out.

Just as my fingers brushed the latch on the door, I heard Mother whisper, “Vera.”

The pulsating heat that was residing in my chest left me then and I felt abruptly covered in cold once again. I had to know. I had to know.

“Who is my father?”

After I asked the question, I could not bring myself to look back at her, but my feet would not move until I knew the answer. I would wait, even if I had to wait all night.

“For your whole life, you have looked in a mirror without knowing it. How could you not? Surely something inside you sensed it, always.”

My eyes fell on my bronzed hand, still poised on the wooden latch. They were not milky white, not like the hands of my sisters. Nor were they the hue of the hands of my mother. Nor the hands of my great-grandmother Shael. My eyes were like the ones in the Lands Beyond: violet and small and piercing. I was like a creature apart. And yet there has always been one who looked exactly like me, playing in my shadow as both a friend and…brother?

“Jiro.”

I turned around to look at Mother only to find that she was standing right behind me. I never understood how she could move so silently, even amidst cobblestones and creaking wood. Her face had softened, and she raised a thumb to wipe the tears that had sprung to my eyes. “Yes, child. Now you see. Your eyes are open and you see.”

Then I did something I had not done in far too many years, years during which Mother had slowly become a stranger. I threw my arms around her and I truly wept.

Copyright Alexandra Lucas 2015

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