Haunted Bohemia: Last Czech Vampire

Everyone knows the story of Vlad Drăculea, dread Prince of Romania, father of all things vampire. But along the border between Bohemia and Moravia, they tell another story about another cruel (and equally difficult to kill) tyrant.

Here’s my rendering of the true (maybe? almost?) tale of the last vampire of the Czech Republic:

1817 in a small market-town in the highlands at the edge of Bohemia. It’s February. Ice coats the trees on either side of the Baroque bridge that stretches over the Sázava river.

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The branches clink against each other as the chill wind sweeps along the lane, but the people of Žďár nad Sázavou are celebrating like it’s Spring.

Alois Ulrich, the manager of the local estate, spent his life inflicting cruelty on the townsfolk, especially the poor. But now, after suffering from a sudden and mysterious illness, the tyrant is dead and buried. His funeral is well-attended–by people who come to spit on his grave.

Now, no longer afraid of a brutal rebuke, the children laugh as czjc025 (1)they slide on the thin sheet of ice across the bridge, when a figure suddenly appears between the statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. It looms large and dark and reeks of new death as it lunges at a nearby child. The others scatter, screaming. 

Days later, dismissing the story as child’s fancy run wild, the old scribe sets off from the plague cemetery toward the bridge. The sun is low
in the sky and trapped behind the gray clouds heavy with more snow. He feels the prickling at his neck before he sees the shadows take form.

“I know you,” the scribe breathes. “You are Alois Ulrich.”

The figure turns sharply at his name.

“But you are dead.” The scribe makes the sign of the cross, stumbling back, too afraid to turn away as the living dead tyrant lurches toward him.

After weeks of terrifying encounters, demands are made and an executioner sent for. A small crowd of brave townsfosantinizdardolnihrbitov4lk gather at Ulrich’s grave as his coffin is opened.

He lay as if sleeping. Months dead and still pink with life.

The priest holds out the crucifix before him like a shield. “I name you Alois Ulrich,” he says.

And Alois Ulrich sits up, his eyes open and still filled with the bitter hatred they held in life.

The priest shrieks and steps back while the executioner frantically swings the blade of a shovel at Alois Ulrich’s head. Fresh blood pours from the gaping wound and Ulrich’s face goes slack as the body falls back into the coffin.

The priest shoves poppy in the creature’s mouth and the executioner bathes it in quicklime–traditional protections against a vampire. They seal the coffin and bury it deep.

Silently the townsfolk slip through the gate at the Lower Cemetery, built in anticipation of a plague that never came. They carry that hope with them–that once again their worst fears will not come to pass. That Alois Ulrich, the tyrant, is finally and fully dead at last.

Haunted Bohemia: Headless Knights

Do you like your Fall with a bit of a scare and a thrill to send shivers down your spine? Me too! In the countdown to All Hallow’s Eve, I thought I’d spotlight a few haunted places and ghost stories to compliment the crispy air and pumpkin-spice everything.

As I discovered in doing research for Bohemian Gospel (out November 15th from Pegasus Books), Bohemia, or what we would call the Czech Republic plays host to some of the creepiest places on Earth and isn’t a place most of us are familiar with. So for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be posting about some eerie castles and haunting tales.

Here’s the first:

During the witching hour along the twisty, narrow Liliova Street in Old Prague,  the sharp rap of a horse’s hooves echoes against the ancient cobblestone and bounces along the lane.

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Slowly, the form of a horse and rider emerge from the shadowy night, and a flicker of errant light illuminates the red cross emblazoned on the rider’s shield–a lone member of the Order of Solomon’s Temple, a Knights Templar.

Templar+KnightHe rides, wearily, night after night, his severed head dangling from his hand. No one knows his sins. But he searches endlessly for a noble soul with courage enough to grasp the wayward rein and still his horse, claim his sword and run the blade through his penitent heart and so release him from his purgatory.

Are you the brave redeemer for whom he waits?

The Magic of Maybe

“‘Maybe,’ Mister Ernest said. ‘The best word in our language, the best of all. That’s what mankind keeps going on: maybe.’”

See? William Faulkner actually could write coherent sentences. This one comes from the end of his short story, “Race at Morning.”

I love Faulkner.
faulkner

I know, you probably had to read The Sound and The Fury in high school and got frustrated and threw it across your room and decided you HATED Faulkner. But really, that wasn’t his fault. It was the institution’s fault for forcing teachers to cram books at students before they’re ready for them and in a way that kills and autopsies the work so that it’s dead, dead, dead. And that’s why you hated it. Not him. Not his beautiful words. Not his ideas.

Like this idea of Maybe being better than a “yes” or a “no”—you have to love that, right?

We’ve become a culture of yesses and nos. This or that. Here or there. One side or the other. We pride ourselves on knowing our own minds.

But where’s the fun in that?

Is there intelligent alien life in the universe?

Maybe. I don’t know. Let’s go look.
MILKYWAY

Will I have a brownie today?

Maybe. I don’t know, but it’s a yummy possibility.
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Is there something real hiding in the dark in the corner that’s making my skin prick at the back of my neck or is it all my imagination?

Maybe. What might it be?
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(It’s the vashta nerada, people! Don’t you watch Doctor Who?)

For writers, Maybe is where the magic lives. No preconceptions. No expectations. No rules. We get to explore and imagine and wonder.

But Maybe isn’t just for writers crafting stories on a page, or readers reading them. It’s in the stories we live out each day. Open doors and hope and possibility.

The joy of the journey isn’t in finding the answers—it’s in admitting we don’t know, actually embracing and reveling in the not knowing, and then exploring all those possibilities.

This week I’m going to bask in “I don’t know.” Maybe you’ll join me.

The Readiness Is All

When I was kid, living in Podunk, Arkansas, my mom ran a for-me-only cotillion (because there wasn’t a “real” one). She wanted to teach me the essential skills of balancing a teacup on my knee, a book on my head, and my chastity somewhere between flirty and virtuous.

Such behavioral training is designed for a singular purpose—catching the “right” man. But despite my Southern cultural conditioning, I decided pretty early on that I did not need a man. Everything I wanted—education, meaningful career, kids—I could get for myself and by myself (minus a donation here or there). And so in college, I decided I was done with men.

Which is when I met my husband.

Years later, we’d been trying unsuccessfully to conceive when we decided to hold off on Baby for another year while we worked frantically to finish our dissertations so we could take the new jobs we had in a city in another state where we were shopping for our first house. Talk about stress! Whew! Any guesses what happened?

Yup. A little girl kid joyfully on the way in the midst of chaos.

So many things seem to work that way, don’t they? When we try REALLY HARD to make things happen NOW in just the RIGHT way, everything seems to slip (or run screaming) away from our determined grasp. When we quit trying SO HARD, things just happen.

Winnie the Pooh had this thing figured out:

“Poetry and Hums aren’t things which you get, they’re things which get you. And all you can do is to go where they can find you.” (The House at Pooh Corner)

Pooh is brilliant, especially for a bear of little brain. He doesn’t strategize about catching Poetry and Hums. He doesn’t work hard and harder to get them. He doesn’t blame himself or them, doesn’t give in to self-doubt or give up just because they aren’t there when he wants them.

He interacts with the world knowing that the Poetry and Hums are there. He keeps himself ready for other Poetry and Hums to find him, too. And they do.

Now certainly folks deal with problems, big ones and little ones, that need something more than Pooh’s method of problem solving, but most of us would benefit from adopting his tactics in lieu of our strategizing and micro-managing and worrying.

When we stay relaxed and positive and open to possibilities, things find us. Sometimes they are things we already knew we wanted and had prepared ourselves to accept. But sometimes a thing we hadn’t anticipated will come our way, and we discover that it was something we needed or wanted all along.

This is an especially necessary attitude for anyone writing a novel. We tend to understand this from the creative side—writing is an organic, fluid process. You prime the creative pumps, fill the creative wells, and establish the discipline so that you’re readying yourself for the words and ideas and characters to come. There’s no mastering or conquering. There’s no demanding.

But we need the same approach when it comes to readying ourselves for publication.

For the better part of two years, I determined to make a traditional publishing journey happen just how I was told it should and just when I thought it ought to. Trained by the publishing version of a cotillion, I endeavored to get the agent and go for one of the big five. I got the agent, which has been an incredible blessing of partnership, but after a few months into the submission process to editors, I realized that, for many reasons, I didn’t want to be courting those big guys. I had bought someone else’s idea of what my journey as a writer should look like.

So I asked my agent to start looking at smaller presses, and, in the meantime, I went into overdrive trying to master all things indie-publishing and wrapped myself up so tightly in learning it ALL and RIGHT THEN and JUST SO that everything, and especially writing, seemed impossible. I was ready to give up.

Which is when my husband reminded me that I just needed to “go where they can find you.”

In my case, this meant sending a submission to Killer Nashville’s Claymore Award and then forgetting about it and turning back to the writing and filling the creative well and readying myself.

I did keep learning what I could about indie publishing, but I did it patiently, without expectation, in a mind of readiness.

And then a call came telling me I was a finalist for the Claymore. I went to the conference with no expectations, and I met some wonderful writers and editors and was inspired. I went to the awards dinner with no anticipation and no worry. I was genuinely and thoroughly shocked when they announced that Bohemian Gospel (my book!) had won the Claymore. I was overjoyed when, two weeks later, several editors were vying for the novel, and I was ecstatic when Pegasus Books, one of the publishers I asked my agent to court, made me an offer.

But I was also ready. My Poetry and Hums had found me at last.

Lessons from Doctor Who–Part One

This time last year, I was saying a conflicted goodbye to 2012.

It had been a year of challenges for me: breast cancer diagnosis in January, double mastectomy in February, a serious fall down a flight of stairs (knocked-unconscious-bleeding-from-the-ears-major concussion-chin-split-to-the-bone-five-teeth-shattered-ambulance-ride-to-the-hospital-in-a-neck-and-back-brace kind of serious) in March, multiple breast reconstruction surgeries May through October, oral surgeries to repair the teeth in the fall, and surgery to remove a totally random just-for-fun kidney stone before year’s end.

I was pretty convinced that the whole Mayan calendar “End of Days” was predicted just for me.

Mayan Calendar
Mayan Calendar

Last year was also the first time our daughter decided to stay up and ring in the New Year.  We’d introduced her to Doctor Who and it timed out beautifully that she was ready for the Tenth Doctor’s farewell, The End of Time, on New Year’s Eve.  

regeneration

Watch David Tennant’s last moments as the Doctor here: 10th’s Regeneration

So we said a tearful goodbye to one Doctor (our favorite), a trepidatious hello to another, and then we watched the ball drop in Times Square.  As tough as 2012 was for me and my family, it was a year of survival.  2013 was an unknown.

But as the Doctor shows us, time and again, change comes.  TARDIS consoles, companions, the faces of the Doctor–they all change whether we want them to or not.

The trick is how we approach change.

The agonizing departure of the Tenth, who was so obsessed with looking back (the Doctor of Regret as The Moment calls him) that he breaks the rules to take a farewell tour and say goodbye to his many companions, nearly destroys the TARDIS.  And the recent regeneration of the Eleventh, the Doctor of Forget, who constantly rushes forward to something new and lives in fear of “the question that must not be answered,” happens so violently it serves as a weapon, wiping out the Daleks at Trenzalore.

One is constantly looking to the past and the other is running headlong into the future; neither of them is very good at just being in the moment–understandable for a Time Lord, I suppose.

But being in the moment is the secret to accepting change.

Someone says, “You have cancer.” And suddenly you are a little kid again, frozen with fear as you anticipate crossing a dark room.  The prickling at the back of your neck and your heartbeat throbbing in your throat battles the rational thoughts assuring you that there’s nothing hiding in the dark.  Will it snake a gnarly hand around your ankle and snatch you away?

For a planner and control freak, like me, focusing on what might be coming seems natural, logical.  But I learned quickly that imagining the possibilities–surgery, what the pathology might indicate, potential chemo or radiation, prognosis–only choked me with fear.  I don’t know what’s lurking in the dark, and I have absolutely no control over it.

Anticipating the future, living in dread of the changes that might happen or living for the thrill of them, wipes out the joys of the moment.  Likewise, looking back to what was, comparing now to then (which we almost always idealize), distorts our attitudes about change.

I walked into a hospital whole and came out transformed.  When days later I stood in my bathroom and took off the bandages and let my eyes slide from the reflection of my familiar face down to the incisions that stretched across my chest where my breasts had been, I understood vividly the choice I had to make.

I could grieve for what had been, see the ghosts of breasts that made me wait so much longer than my friends that I despaired they would ever grow, breasts that finally blossomed the summer before my ninth-grade year, breasts that nursed my children, breasts that, despite my feminism, I innately associated with my womanhood; I could let those past breasts haunt me.  I could compare my new breasts, also grown (or crafted by the plastic surgeon) over a summer, to those other breasts and forever tether myself to the past.

Or I could embrace who I am now, scars and all.

In this moment, I can find the joy of my transformed body–stronger for what we’ve been through, hopefully healthy, ALIVE.  (And these new breasts are round and firm! ; ))

Despite not wanting to go, the Doctor embraces his new self quickly and sets about the work of discovery.  (Fish sticks and custard, anyone?)

Rather than spend this New Year’s waxing nostalgic for what was or obsessing over what will be, how about we settle in to the moment and make good decisions just now and revel in the joy of what is.

 

Mommy Guilt & Unexpected Dividends

A little change of pace here.  I’ve been writing lots about Bohemian Gospel, but I promised to weave together the threads of homeschooling and professoring, too, because I imagine that many of you are also trying to figure out how to manage a writing life with all the other “stuff” that fills your days.

When I started taking my writing seriously, clearing chunks of time from an already packed schedule, I knew lots of things would suffer the consequences.

My house, for example, has not been fully, wholly, scandalously clean in a few years.  We tackle the necessaries so it’s never gross or unhealthy, but it most certainly doesn’t hold up to my mother’s standards.  And the kids have learned the oh-my-goodness-someone-is-coming-over cleaning dance (feels a little like the Mary Poppins scene when everyone takes their stations in anticipation of Admiral Boom’s daily cannon-fire).  I have resigned myself to knowing that our very lived-in home will never take on the magazine-spread look of some of my friends’ houses.

Ditto for the yard.

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See? Weedy garden. Judge at will. : )

But our neighbors love us anyway.  We ply them with excess vegetables in bumper gardening years and with  Wookiee Cookies (BEST chocolate-chip cookies EVER).

Wookie_Cookies-1

Good food can make you blind to OVERGROWN GRASS and WEEDS. (Plus, the neighbors are just wonderful people.)

Weedy yards and a less-than-pristine house are consequences I find easy to live with and well worth the gains of time to write and the joy that comes from having written.  An added bonus is that my daughter and my son will not grow up with unrealistic expectations of “keeping house.”

But my Mommy-guilt has been far more difficult to master.

At first, I stole hours late at night after the kids were in bed.  I worked my way up to claiming a few hours on the weekend, cloistering myself in the back room–one earbud in for tunes and an open ear turned house-ward, listening in case someone needed me.  Surprisingly, I got work done, some of it even good.  But it took being awarded sabbatical to nudge me toward really carving the time I needed to research and write and edit my first novel; writing was my JOB that semester, and my university would be expecting results.

Adjusting to me being home BUT WORKING took time.  My husband and I always managed our teaching schedules so one of us was at the university and the other was at home, schooling the kids.  Only now, I didn’t head off to teach; I closed a door and clocked my hours researching or writing.

And it felt good.  It felt right.

But there was still a twinge of thinking I was being selfish.  In the Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron calls that nasty voice filling us with guilt and self-doubt, the Censor.

theartistsway

I worked on not listening to it, but it was my daughter who finally slayed the beast.

She started writing.  Every day.  For months.  Until she completed her first novel, 80 some odd pages.  She was not yet 10.  And then she finished her second, over 100 pages.

She’s 120 pages into novel three.

My son is dictating a book about a dinosaur named Maple to his sister, who diligently types every word.

And my husband is working through revisions on a forthcoming book about comics. (Here’s a sneak peak from one of the chapters.)

These unexpected dividends happen, not like magic, but when you scuttle other people’s expectations of how you should live and make room for your own.

Sure our house might be a little cluttered; it’s full of stories.

Bohemian Rhapsody

“I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me.”

Queen’s classic was the soundtrack to life (especially road trips) with our large-in-body-and-in-personality Maine Coon “starter child.”  He was a very PRESENT kind of cat (not like the superior, aloof type); he met us at the door, slept with us, and was fairly sure he had equal say in everything we did.

Here he is in all his glory, holding court.
Here he is in all his glory, holding court.

But he sometimes went nuts.  Not just ordinary nuts, you know, but run-around-the-apartment-so-fast-that-he-could-race-halfway-up-the-wall kind of nuts.  And he hated the car, erupting with deep-throated, belly-aching meows for the entire five-hour trip back home.  Once, when “Bohemian Rhapsody” came on the radio, the husband and I cranked it up and sang at the top of our lungs to out-catterwall the cat.  He got quiet.  And forever after, “Bohemian Rhapsody” was his song.

That song just fit him–a chiaroscuro of moods.

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And here he is stopping to smell the “roses” . . . before he beheads them.

Music does that–fits a person or a situation or a place–in real life and, for many writers, in their fiction, too.  Some writers are kind enough to give a reader the “playlist” for their work.  Charles DeLint almost always tells what he was listening to as he wrote; he introduced me to Holly Cole’s Dark Dear Heart and the awesome Celtic band Lunasa when I read his novel The Onion Girl.  Neil Gaiman says in his Afterword to American Gods that “without Greg Brown’s Dream Cafe and the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Love Songs it would have been a different book.”  His most recent and most beautiful The Ocean at the End of the Lane was written to the soundtrack of Magnetic Fields’ Love at the Bottom of the Sea and lots of Leonard Cohen.

You can learn something about a character when you find the music that “fits.”  You can use the “right” music to transport you to where you need to go in a story.

For Bohemian Gospel, I needed go to the thirteenth century.  I wanted to hear what my characters would hear.  I found Neidhart: A Minnesinger and His “Vale of Tears” (a collection of songs written by a court musician in the late Middle Ages) on Spotify. (You can get a taste of it here.)  I also listened to a variety of Gregorian Chants.  But it was Laura Marling and Iron and Wine who sent me deep into Mouse’s head and heart to help me feel her struggles and her wants.

Apparently Hemingway listened to Bach.  (He liked Maine Coons, too.)

 

ernest-hemingway

I wonder what tunes inspired Faulkner.

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(Clearly, he was more of a dog person.)

But then . . .

“He’s just a poor boy from a poor family.”

Medieval Mouse

I love how Stephen King, in On Writing (which you MUST read if you haven’t already), talks about the writing process as one of discovery, comparing it to an archaeologist finding just a bit of uncovered artifact in the dirt and then painstakingly sweeping away debris, not knowing what might lie underneath.

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And then story emerges.

At a theater conference in Alaska several years ago, I had the privilege of hearing the acclaimed playwright, August Wilson, talk about the origins for his Pulitzer Prize winning play, Piano Lesson.  He said it started with a line that came to him–“Old Sutter fell down a well.”  Wilson didn’t know who was speaking, didn’t know who Sutter was, and certainly didn’t know if he was a victim of accident or murder.  These were the questions that drove Wilson to discover Boy Willie and Berniece and their rich family history and the battles they fought against the ghosts of the past.

Here Wilson is against a backdrop of his discoveries–snippets of dialogue and questions and lists of character names scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper as his stories emerged.

Photo by David Cooper
Photo by David Cooper

I was on the road from Nashville back home to Arkansas when Mouse came to me–a flash of a vision as I stared blankly out at the flatlands covered in defoliated rows of cotton.  In my mind, I saw a girl, dressed as a monk, looking out over a massive medieval battlefield (she was watching one man in particular–I’ll tell you about him later), and I knew her name: Mouse.  I didn’t know why she had such a strange name or what the battle was, when it was, or who was fighting.

It took more than a year for Mouse to tell me her story.

I confess I felt a bit odd having these silent conversations in my head.  Me: You know, I can’t write a book about a character named “Mouse.” So what’s your real name?  Mouse: Mouse is the only name I’ve ever had.  Me: Why?  Mouse (shrugging): No one bothered to give me another.

But then I remembered Wilson talking about his play Seven Guitars, which was supposed to be about these seven male musicians–a MAN’s play.  Wilson had a fairly routine daily writing practice–into the studio early, writing at a podium, finishing a certain word count, leaving a thread of something (dialogue, middle of scene, etc.) to pick up and follow the next morning.  Well one day, he walks into the studio and heads to the podium when the dudes in the play ask “What’s she doing here?”  Wilson looks up and sees a woman with a chicken and a radio sitting there.

He’s as baffled as anyone and asks her, somewhat belligerently, “What are you doing here?”

She replies, “I want my own space.”

Wilson heads back to the podium and starts over.  During the rewrite, he discovers that two more women have come to “claim space” in what becomes his self-defined “MAN-WOMAN play.”  So much for the guys and all their manliness.

That’s a writer’s journey of discovery–painstakingly uncovering the threads of narrative even when (especially when) they lead us (sometimes trepidatiously, sometimes resentfully) to unexpected places and people and experiences.

A great model for writing–you’re along for the ride, NOT driving the bus–and for life, too, I think.

Weaving What?

If you came here looking for craft projects or how-tos on actual weaving, I am sorry to disappoint you.  I am a crafty girl, and I suppose I could weave if we survived an apocalypse and I needed to make my own cloth.  But mostly, I’m a writer and what I weave are stories.

I am also a secular-homeschooling mom (of two) and a college professor.  I thought about calling the blog Spinning Plates or Three Rings in the Circus because, yeah, that’s my life.  But plates and rings are inflexible things, separate and in their own little spheres.  (Plus those fragile plates, up high, wobbling–anyone can see where that’s headed.)  I like to think that the roles I play interact with each other–my experiences as a homeschooler change how I shape my college classes, what happens to me as mom and prof enrich my writing, and my writing fundamentally changes everything.

So . . . weaving.

Eudora Welty called the source of her stories, the patterns of her narrative, confluenceyou know, when rivers merge but keep their distinctiveness even as they become something new.  Like this:

Confluence

Welty saw the world as an ethereal, fluid landscape that brought together past, present, and future; her experiences and research and imagination and the feel of words in her mouth and the meanings of them in her mind working like magic to weave author and characters and readers into the same narrative tapestries. 

Confluence/weaving makes a nice, organic, flexible pattern for seeing the world and all the stories in it and how they (and we) all touch each other if we can only learn to follow the threads.

And so here I mean to follow the threads of the writing life, of teaching writing, of living while writing.  If you’re a writer, I hope we can inspire each other.  A homeschooler? I hope we offer each other encouragement.  If you’re a teacher, I hope you’re a life-long learner like me and that we can share ideas.

“All serious daring starts from within.”–Eudora Welty, One Writer’s Beginnings.