The City of the Drowned: Chapter 1

Forward: To better follow the adventures of Xandr, Thelana and Emma, it helps to know a little about The Dark Age of Enya. In short, the three battled a dragon and then a centaur, in order to rescue Princess Radia, the avatar of the Goddess Alashiya. During the fight, Thelana risked her life to save Emma, turning their hatred for each other into a friendship. Radia, however, was unable to saved, and her human form became one with the natural world. After killing the centaur, Xandr vowed to come after his master, the Dark Queen Hatshepsut. But first, he and his allies have to complete the Tripod Oath, which means they must rally the kingdoms of Aenya to fight against the Dark Queen’s army of goblins. If you are familiar with The Dark Age of Enya, you may be wondering, horses? When did they get horses? Originally, the horse-napping scene was included in this story, but I since have turned it into an original short story. So if you want to know how Thelana got their horses, you can read all about it here
      
Chapter 1
Orientation
Far from any gathering of mankind, in the midst of a wild, dry, hilly country that, as far as was known to them, had never been claimed with any name, a man and two women sat closely about a fire, the gnarled boughs of the olive trees filtering the green moonlight. 
The man stoking the flame was, in the eyes of his companions, quite beautiful, even in his haggard state. Together they had endured the tribulations of a great journey, and if there was an ugly wound on him, they could not find fault in it, as they fared no better in that regard. His complete absence of clothing, even to hide his loins, was no distraction to either woman, even to the one who found it necessary to cover herself. But what had never become commonplace was his uncommon beauty. His shoulders were broad and his torso round and powerful. His arms and legs were taught and well defined even in his relaxed posture. He was natural in shape, statuesque in form. Only a great scar, from shoulder to hip, disfigured him. His dirty blond hair draped over his shoulders and a single unkempt braid rounded his collarbone, and his beard grew wild and disheveled. His nose sloped from a broken ridge, settling between eyes of deep blue with a tenderness and intensity that somewhat contrasted his savage appearance, eyes of a man who had lived to see too much.
The woman beside him was in every way his female counterpart. If ever she had known the habit of clothing or shame, it was far from evident. Like him, she was beautiful, but in a fashion that most civilized societies would consider boorish and unwomanly. Aside from her blatant nudity, she sat in an ‘unladylike’ manner, with her legs folded crossways, her feet atop her knees, her arms loose against her lap. Her skin was a ruddy bronze, lacking the complexion of high-born women, the paleness that comes from too much sitting under a roof. Likewise, she was flecked with a variety of scars, a few that might shame even a battle hardened soldier. Her flesh was hard, with fingertips like sandpaper and soles like shoe leather, but least womanlike of all, her breasts were small and stiff, barely shifting as she moved. And yet, no man could call her less than beautiful, should they become accustomed to her raw nature, for hers was a beauty universal, undefined by fickle trends. There was a gracefulness about her, in her every movement, as if her muscles were more than adequate to accommodate her, so that even motionless she contained a boundless energy. Her hair was a peppery chestnut brown, wrapped in a single braid, and her eyes glittered like emerald moons, containing depth and weight as from some sadness, but also a playfulness and innocence betraying her age.
The second woman sat across from the man and was, in this setting, the most unusual of the three, the antithesis of the first woman. Robes of pitch-black draped loosely in some places and tightly in others, worn and poorly stitched. She was both taller and fuller than that of her nude counterpart, with a robust pair of breasts showing beneath her clothing and an equally wide set of hips. The little skin that she revealed was pale and off-color. Her hair came down in long dark waves like a raven’s feathers and was nearly invisible in the night. A tiny diamond glittered in her long, slender nose, and a gold loop dangled from her left ear. Her lips were full and rosy, and her eyelashes crowned her wide, bird-shaped eyes, eyes both as dark and enigmatic as her trappings, exuding both an intelligence and timidity, and a certain yearning.
A lizard was roasting on a makeshift skewer, rotating endlessly over the campfire as the man turned it. “If that is part of the Pewter Mountain range, and we are facing south, then my guess is that we are sitting somewhere in the Endless Plains,” he was saying.
The naked woman lifted her eyes to him. “We’ve been trekking west for cycles, Xandr, I certainly hope you’re right, and that we’re not lost.”
“If what you say is true,” the robed woman interrupted, “then it must be the opposite face, because I do not recognize it; and remember I grew up in sight of those peaks. The Pewter Mountains of Northendell have always been too high and sharp to climb, so the other side was always a mystery to us. But it offered security.”
“That’s it then!” the other exclaimed with frustration. “We missed the city! We’ve wandered too far north!”
“Do not fret,” Xandr replied. “Remember that we reached Mythradanaiil by ship; there may have been no way to reach Northendell otherwise. We were too far north to begin with. After all that we’ve seen and done, we should thank the Goddess that we still live.”
“Too true,” the dark robed woman agreed. “And you were prepared to die in that abyss, Thelana!”
“I was prepared to die killing goblins, Emma, not slowly starving to death in this wasteland! Look at me . . . I must have lost ten pounds eating snake tails!”
“Oh, I believe it was you who first convinced me to eat such things, much to the disagreement of my palette!” she snapped.
“Well, forgive me if you high brow city folk are too good for it! But I grew up on this cuisine!” Tearing off the head of the lizard, its eyeballs were soon popping between her grating teeth. “Where is your servant now to prepare your four course meal?” said she, as innards spilled from her lips. 
“Hey now, I wasn’t the one complaining about it,” Emma rejoined, and she broke a charred leg between her fingers, carefully nibbling. “Hmm, needs salt, or cumin.”
Xandr rarely said a word during these interactions, but watched with amusement. It was true that the two women were different in almost everyway, and their differences would no doubt clash, but there was no real spite in their words. It appeared to him, in fact, that for a while after leaving Fire Mountain, their relationship had grown more affectionate, but it was not to be long lived, and after some days something invisible seemed to push them apart.
“I do apologize, Thelana,” Emma said suddenly, delicately wiping her lip with the hem of her garment. “I didn’t mean to belittle your culture. After all,” she added, “you did save my life . . .”
Thelana withheld a smile. “Really, Emmalina, you don’t need to keep mentioning that. We were in a fight. You were a part of the team. I had to defend you.”
“Yes, but you threw yourself—” she cut herself short as her eyes drifted unwillingly to the scar across Thelana’s mid-section. 
Oblivious, the brunette continued to chew, unceremoniously wiping her face with the broad side of her arm. “Eating vermin is not part of Ilmarin culture, anyway. We ate plants mostly, and large game, only we killed it ourselves; we didn’t have such things as butchers and markets.” Her perfect, emerald eyes shifted to Xandr, and they seemed to glitter all the more in beholding him, as if he were made of moonlight. “So, if we are, indeed, in the Endless Plains, and we are not going to Northendell, where are we then headed?”
“South, to the sea, to Hedonia.”
The two women gasped. “But Hedonia has been destroyed,” said Emma. “Or isn’t that, at least, what you told me?”
“I did not mean the city itself, but the empire. There are many coastal cities about the Hedonian Bay, that may or may not still be part of the Hedonian Empire. Whether the destruction of their capitol fragmented their statehood, I cannot know. But even the smaller factions are powerful, and can aid us significantly in the fulfillment of the Tripod Oath.”
“But how will we convince them?” asked Thelana. “Who are we out here to request an audience with governors and magistrates? We are but poverty stricken nomads. They will not even let us into the city without clothing, as you may already know.”
Xandr laughed. “Do not worry about that. Tales of our exploits will have preceded us, and even in their corrupt and backward society, a poor man who has slain giants and dragons will have more value than a pompous aristocrat who has bribed his way out of military service.”
“Or so you hope,” Emma contested. “Wealthy men have the power to invent their own histories, whereas a pauper can only pray their truth be known.”
“I suppose all remains to be seen,” said Thelana. “Let us merely hope that the Endless Plains do not prove true to their name.”
“It is named after the many travelers who, in search of a northern passage to the Pewter Mountains, became lost circling endlessly within its boundaries,” Xandr explained, “as it is said that all of the plain looks similar and there is no way to navigate it.”
“. . . and the silhouette of mountains to the north perpetually goads them onward, though it is some kind of illusion, I’ve read,” Emma further noted.
“Well at least we now have horses to carry us!” Thelana remarked.
“True,” said Emma, “but wouldn’t it have been better to take them during the night, so as not to frighten those poor people?”
“Hey, we have an oath to fulfill, and who knows how far the Dark Queen’s armies are encroaching about the bright hemisphere as we speak! We came to that stable in the morning, and I was not about to waste a whole day for the sun to be hidden.”
The raven haired woman got to her feet. “Perhaps we ought to check on them.”
“I tethered them tightly to the tree,” said Xandr.
“But how are they feeling?” Emma questioned, and walked off, Thelana close behind.
As they moved away from the canopy of brambles, a dark sky loomed immensely before them, bejeweled with innumerable stars. As they approached the silhouette of the three horses, before the sunken turquoise moon that was Infinity, a purple flash of lightning branched earthward. Now the dark robed woman brushed her hand across the snout of the blonde mare, the one that had carried Thelana, and she whispered to it, and it neighed responsively.
“What is she saying?” the Ilmarin asked. “Does she like me?”
Emma turned to her. “They are frightened by the night sky. It has never been known to them, as they were born and raised in the stable. As for you, well, she does not say. But they were miserable before, and are happy to run freely in the fields, instead of being led about a tent pole. Her only regret is that she misses her mistress, the kind woman that used to feed and comb her.”
“That must have been the woman I frightened,” Thelana mused. “I have never seen anyone so terrified. Her life will probably never be the same.”
“Well, this telepathy spell is exhaustive, what else should I ask? And make it quick!”
“Oh, ask their names!”
“This one was called by her mistress,” and she grinned, “Buttercup.”
“Buttercup! I’m not calling my horse that! It simply won’t do!”
“It’s all right. She does not like the name either. She thinks it is unflattering. Horses are a proud species. She would rather have a name befitting . . . you, actually, ‘the woman who runs free,’ or that is what she is calling you.”
“In that case,” said Thelana, “I will name her Arrow. Tell her it is the thing that flies from my bow.”
The horse neighed noisily. “Yes!” Emma exclaimed, her eyes intently shut, “that is a good name.” Breaking out of her trance, she turned to Thelana, “and I will call mine Shadow. And as for the Batal . . . the name of his horse should suit him also, so let us call him Warrior.”
***
A cool wind carried down from the Pewter Mountains and even with the dying embers of their campfire and their resilience to wild temperatures, Xandr and Thelana found comfort beneath a layer of pelts. The pelts had once been arctic beasts, but were now a necessity, serving as clothing in the snow, or rolled up as supply packs when traveling, or bed sheets during the hours of sleep. But with a sudden jerk into a sitting position, the pelt tumbled down across Thelana’s thighs, and she was wide awake. Xandr, who slumbered with one eye open, his fighting hand fingering the pommel of his great sword, was also awake. He could see Emma opposite the cold circle of firestones, laying on her side with her back to them, her robes pulled tightly about her. He turned to Thelana then, watching a droplet of terror induced sweat roll down the side of her face.
“Was it the same dream?” he asked her quietly.
She faced him, unsurprised by his alertness, and answered with a whisper, “It is.”
“Tell me again. Where did you go?”
She shifted sideways, feeling the warmth emanating from him. “All right. I will share it with you. But we must try not to wake Emma.”
At the mention of her name, the dark mages’ eyes fluttered open, but she made no other motion, as if she were continuing to sleep.
“I had gone back,” Thelana continued, “to when I was a child, just before the goblins invaded Ilmarinen, just before our family fled to the mountains. I was playing in the woods by the Old Man, hide-and-seek, and oh, two of my sisters were there. I saw Nicolita and Britannia! And Borz was there also!”
“Borz? Who is that?”
“He is my brother. Oh, Xandr, I saw them, just as plainly as I see you now. There was such beauty all about us, and such peace within my heart, unburdened by knowledge of the world beyond. Then there was something there not from my past . . . something I have never seen before. It was a lone, iron door, standing in the midst of the field where the Ilms grew, and there was no wall anywhere about it. It appeared to lead simply into the field, but when it opened, there was nothing but darkness, horrible darkness, and there came an armored thing . . . a man, I think, with a sword for an arm, and he grabbed me suddenly, and oh!” She covered her eyes with her hands. “Xandr, I was powerless.”
He lowered his gaze. “I was the only one to suffer from these nightly journeys. And now, somehow, I seem to have bestowed this curse upon you. My fate has become your fate.”
Her emerald eyes fixed upon his blue, expressing all that was within her. “Oh, Xandr, I no longer care for Fate. She is a harsh and humorless mistress. It is only this very hour that matters to me. Why won’t you hold me to your bosom, for the night is cold, and let come what may.”
“All my body yearns, with great agony, to hold you, Thelana. But I fear what may come of it . . . it has been a long time since that night in the Dead Zones. It is true that we are both Ilmarin, and our command over our own desires is firm, but now that we are joined, in love,” and the last word came softly, “the body cannot but follow. If only you were willing—”
“Oh, but we cannot! You know that! Xandr, I want our privacy; how can we do such a thing with Emma so near? And besides, she must not know about us; she will be hurt.”
“How can you know that?”
“I am a woman, and that binds me to knowledge even two Ilmarin cannot share, of things known only to women. I see how she looks at you. It is plain to see. Sharing affection in front of her will tear her apart.”
He smiled curiously, suppressing a laugh. “You once wished to kill her, remember? And now you worry about her feelings?”
“That was once, before knowing her. But now she is my friend, and I love her. We can’t do this to her. We must wait until we reach, dare I say, civilization,” and the last word she spoke disdainfully.
“All right,” said he, “lay your head upon my breast, and I, with an iron will, will think on other matters.”
She pulled herself alongside him, one arm wrapped tightly about his broad torso. Their bodies seemed to fit like two pieces of a puzzle. But it was, otherwise, a platonic union. “Oh!” she muttered under her breath. “And to think that in the Dead Zones, by the oasis, it was a hollow incident, an action of no greater worth like in that of a brothel.”
“No, Thelana,” he said gently, “it was not so. I loved you then as I love you now.”
She hugged him more closely, never having known such happiness. “As do I.”
But unbeknownst to them, silent tears rolled from Emma’s eyes and were smothered in the dust of her sleeping grounds, for there was a wound in her far more painful than any spear point or arrowhead could ever make, a perpetual, gaping wound that would not close and time could not heal, and its name was loneliness.



Go Back to Prologue
Move on to Chapter 2

The City of the Drowned: Prologue

Forward: In 2006, I started work on the sequel to my 2004 novel, The Dark Age of Enya. It quickly dawned on me, however, that POD (Print on Demand) was not a good way to sell books. Clearly, I had to seek big name publication. Two-thousand four was a painful time in my life, realizing I had to dump four years of work (1999-2003) to rewrite Enya. I also had to toss out the work in progress sequel The Dark Age of Enya 2. Flash-forward to today and the magic of the blogosphere offers me the opportunity to share Enya 2 with the world. Renamed The City of the Drowned, this is high-fantasy adventure reminiscent of Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. In The City of the Drowned, you will find exotic locations, pulse-pounding action and terrifying monsters. What more could you want? Oh, how about Xandr and Thelana, the first naturist-inspired heroes?

The story so far . . .

Thelana was forced to leave her home and family to escape the encroaching drought and hunger. But in the outside world, her people, the Ilmar, are shunned as barbarians, so Thelana is forced to become a thief to survive. After she is imprisoned for attempting to steal from the Temple in the city of Hedonia, she is rescued by Xandr, the only other of her kind, before Hedonia is destroyed by a tsunami and an amphibious race known as the merquid. The two have many adventures together, fall in love, and then one day they rescue a young girl from slavery. Her name is Emma and Thelana immediately takes a disliking to her. Through Emma, the Ilmar learn of the Kingdom of Mythradanaiil and of the doomed Princess Radia, who may or may not embody the natural forces of their world. With Emma tagging along, they reach the fabled kingdom in the North, but are too late to rescue the princess from a goblin horde. Before vanishing into the ether, Radia manages to impart to Xandr a jewel containing her power. To escape the goblin underground, Xandr, Thelana and Emma battle many monsters. At one point, Emma is wounded saving Thelana’s life. Eventually, the three make their way to a stable in Alogas, where Thelana steals some horses, and then, camped out in the Endless Plains, she dreams of her lost homeland. So opens the The City of the Drowned  . . .      
 

The City of the Drowned 
by
Nick Alimonos
10/16/2006
Prologue:
In the midst of the Ilmarin wood stood an ancient camphor tree of substantial girth with great gnarled roots that looped and twisted in great amorphous bundles from the earth. Its leaves spread a nexus of light and shadow beneath its form and skirting its foot a shallow brook washed gently. Drifting atop the watercourse, the occasional leaf dipped into a niche at the bosom of the root where it was gathered among the fallen leaves. For the young girl who stood atop the rugged bark, forearm over her eyes, it was a place like any other, deep in the wood. Among the trees she was with old company, with the soil in her toes and a mischievous wind in her braided hair. The life of the wood beat against her exposed skin, and through it, her soul. Winter was passed and there was plenty of harvest. Today was a day like any other in timeless youth, much as the day before, and now only the game held sway in her mind.
“Four . . . three . . . two . . . one,” Thelana’s emerald eyes snapped open and she glanced about, searching for clues as to the whereabouts of her sisters. There were no broken twigs or footprints to follow. But there was the faintest sound of shuffled leaves. With her chestnut braid whipping behind her, she darted about the trunk of the tree. Just as she came around to its opposite side, she spotted a slender heel slipping around the bend, marked by a watery splatter and a giggle.
“Oh, gee,” Thelana mused aloud, “I guess there’s nobody here. Maybe I’ll just look elsewhere.” With the agility of a frightened hare, she circled the trunk once more, this time catching her younger sister, who looked, with her single auburn braid, much like herself, except that she was pale and gaunt and much less boyish than Thelana, so that at times her ribs and shoulders poked from beneath her skin. Like her older sister, Nicolita was without a stitch of clothing. They were Ilmar, after all, and a covered body was an awkward sight for them. Just as their siblings, their parents and cousins, and every person they knew, they lived each and every day without shoes or undergarments of any kind, their bodies as one with the trees and the earth and the sun and the wind. Outsiders called them naked, but the word was meaningless to the Ilmar. 
“Nicolita!” Thelana exclaimed. “You should hide further away, not just behind Old Man!” It was the name she’d given the tree, as she had given names to every plant within miles of her house. But it was Old Man she loved most, her hideout for daydreaming, stargazing, and a place of play. 
Nicolita fixed her eyes on the ground. “I thought you wouldn’t think to look for me here,” she timidly replied, “I thought you would think it too obvious.”
“Oh Nicolita!” Thelana sighed. It was unspoken knowledge that her eight-year-old sister was a little slow, in both foot and mind, and for that Thelana had set herself up as a kind of guardian. “Well, come on!” she exclaimed, “let’s go find Britannia!”
Dashing hand-in-hand over the brook and across the leaf laden thicket, glancing here and there as they called out their sisters’ name, between soaring trunks and heavy boughs, they played out the seek portion of the universal childhood game of hide-and-seek.
At last they came to a hilltop overlooking a great plain and distant mountains. Fiery-amber clouds reamed with gray unfurled across the horizon like a great crumpled quilt. Wisps of pink sailed the pastel blue of Enya’s canopy. At their feet, shoots of Ilms swayed across the slope, the deep orange and bright violet petals brushing against her knees as Thelana stooped to examine the flower from which the name of her homeland derived, ‘Ilmarinen’ meaning ‘place where the Ilms grow.’ And then a rainbow colored butterfly fluttered past, diverting her eye, and she shouted a challenge to her sister, “Let’s see who can catch one first!”
Down the slope they ran, Ilms parting at their feet as thousands of awakened butterflies swarmed about them.
“Hey!” a voice shouted angrily, and up from the Ilms a third girl sprouted, much more like Thelana than Nicolita, robust in frame but blonde haired and blue eyed. “Aren’t you supposed to be looking for me?”
The girls paused and the butterflies escaped. “Oh!” Thelana exclaimed, her hands held shyly behind her back. “I’m sorry . . . you just . . . hid too well, I guess, and we got bored!”
Nicolita nodded in agreement.
“Besides,” Thelana continued, bringing her arms about to reveal, frantic between her clenched fingers, a captive butterfly. “I got one, and you didn’t!”  
“Hey, that’s no fair!” Britannia complained. “I wasn’t in on the game!”
“Well then you lose,” Thelana said.
The three of them converged in the midst of the flowered valley. “Let me see it,” said Britannia, bending to examine the prize. Nicolita watched from afar, repulsed by the squirming thing.
Suddenly, a flying pine comb smacked against the side of Thelana’s face, and the butterfly was free, and she stared angrily into the face of her laughing brother.
“Borz!”
“I am telling Mother!” Nicolita threatened.
But he continued to laugh.
“Borz!” Thelana cried again. “I am going to twist off your arm!”
“Oh yeah?”
“Yeah!”
“Ah, but can you catch me first?” He went sprinting into the eclipsing sun.
“After him!” Thelana shouted as she with her sisters bounded across the plain, where the Ilms flourished and the butterflies grazed, and high-hopping hares, mistaking them for predators, hurried from their path. 
The chase was long and Thelana was swift, indeed swifter than her older brother. But Borz had started further ahead and now had gone from sight, whereas, far behind, the other two girls’ feet fell heavily.
“Wait up!” Britannia called, panting.
“Are you tired so soon?” Thelana replied, resting her palms atop her knees.
“Let’s forget this,” said Nicolita. “We’ll be late for supper.”
“All right,” Thelana replied, “but my cheek still stings.”
“Where is Borz anyhow?” Britannia asked. “I don’t see him anywhere.”
“Oh, he’s probably still running scared,” Thelana answered. “I’ll go find him.”  
They meandered through the field, shouting his name, but Borz was nowhere to be found. After a long while, when the turquoise moon engulfed a quarter of the sky and the sun reddened against it, the three children came to a clearing strewn with boulders where the Ilms were broken and wilted. Launching herself atop a high mound, Thelana peered across the plain to where the hills sloped upwards and the forest began anew. But there was no sign or mark of Borz. Something caught her eye, a curious shape glittering in the light of dawn. As she led her hesitant sisters, they soon came within sight of it, their mouths agape in wonder.
“What is it?” asked Britannia.
“I don’t know,” Thelana replied. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.” It was strange to them in that it was of dull gray-silver, like the color of the lake in moonlight, but it was also hard and smooth, like the most well cut stone. Strangest of all, it was made up of perfectly straight lines and sharp angles, more symmetrical than their dinner table. 
“I think it’s a door,” said Thelana, approaching it.
“I’m scared!” Nicolita bellowed, ducking behind her other sister.
“Don’t touch it!” Britannia warned.
“It is a door . . .,” Thelana agreed, noticing its iron handle, “but to where . . . there’s nothing here. Maybe we’ll find Borz hiding behind it. He must have known about this. He must be playing tricks on us . . .” and with that thought her lips bent into a smile. “Oh, Borz!” she called, reaching for the handle, “we’re on to you. You can come out now—”  
“No!” her sisters screamed in unison, almost prophetically, for in that same instant the door flung open, and there was nothing behind it but darkness, and emerging from its metal frame came a human form, towering high above them, thrice Thelana’s height, and she could see that the man-like thing was fully suited in molds of the same, dull gray substance, without so much as a naked patch. The creature clattered forth and Thelana sensed that its clothing, if it could even be called such, was part of its own flesh, so that man and garment moved together as one entity. From its forehead a central horn protruded smooth and straight like a pike, and its whole right arm was a tremendous blade. There was no question that the only course of action was to flee. But Thelana’s limbs gave way to fear. She remained stunned as the left arm snatched her throat, pulling her through the door.

Go to Chapter 1: Orientation

The College of Obscurity

I am not stupid, as far as I can tell, but if I am, maybe I can’t tell. Either way, I appreciate all kinds of writing. My interests are as diverse as astrophysicist Stephen Hawking to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, from translations of Homer and French classics like The Count of Monte Cristo to modern fare like The Hunger Games and comics like Batgirl: Year One (currently reading). Recently, I cracked open a publication of short-story contest winners and, while the winning entry was well written, the finalists, how shall I put this, made me feel like a 2nd grader. I mean, I couldn’t make heads or tails out of this writing. Each sentence was so cleverly crafted, so cryptically meaningful, that to me it came across like gobbledygook (the language of goblins). Names and places were tossed at random. Metaphors met like atoms in the Large Hadron Collider leaving me scratching my head in disbelief and confusion. Paragraphs were so densely filled, they were like the super dense neutron stars I’d read about in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole. Here’s a sample:

But then she took a step backward, and saw me on the threshold, and in that motion was another inward turning because when she spoke again her voice was sweetened with courteousness, through what she said to my face all smiling is now not memorable. That seems to be the mechanism of memory, to gather in its thresher the heaviness, which is to say, not the smoothness of false sincerity but what has sunk to spread seed or to foul and rot in audacious stench. Something hateful inside. 

Huh?

After a few minutes of intense focus, this is my best translation, keeping as many metaphors as I could:

When she saw me, something turned inside of her, and when she spoke it was sweet and she was smiling, but I don’t remember what was said. Memory doesn’t keep false sincerity. I recall only the heaviness of her hatred for me, which had spread like a rotting stench. 

Better, don’t you think?

Now don’t get me wrong . . . not all short fiction is this way. I adore Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. And Flash Fiction, which I’d read in college, was composed of some brilliant, inspiring and hair-raising stuff. I also appreciated the works of my classmates, some of whom were brilliant. But with the book of contest winners in my hands . . . I am forced to wonder, is this good writing? In my view, fiction should be fiction, not poetry. I have advocated a resurgence of poetic writing in many of my posts, but if a story forces you to read the same sentence two or three times, it’s too clever for me. In desperation I sought counsel from fellow author Michael Sullivan, who wisely reminded me that there are a wide range of tastes; don’t fall into the trap that what you don’t like others won’t. Fine, I can understand that. But the question remains, outside of the classroom, who likes this stuff? Let’s face it, fiction has stiff competition in this ADHD generation, from movies, video games and the Internet. There isn’t a huge demographic for short fiction to begin with. I remember studying something similar, American Masterpiece Fiction, which nobody in my class really enjoyed. Now here we had a group of students uniquely dedicated to the written word, a minor demographic indeed, and yet our consensus was almost always huh?. But there must be people in the world who appreciate this kind of writing, like the Mexican tribes featured in National Geographic who speak nearly-dead languages, otherwise nobody would be awarding them winners of contests.

When I published The Dark Age of Enya in 2004, many criticized that the writing was esoteric and difficult to read. I’d tried too hard to be clever, I realized, and like Yoda said to Luke, I had to unlearn what I had learned. So much for college.

The danger in trying to be the next Shakespeare is that poetry can be confused with being obscure. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read is poetry makes the rock rocky. If done correctly, a well written piece clarifies, makes details pop from the page, brings the fictional world to life. Beautiful writing are the special effects of fiction. It should never make things obscure.

Or maybe I’m just stupid.

Rough Cut Fiction: A New Series

I juggle many balls. Between owning and operating a restaurant (anyone who watches Restaurant Impossible knows how hard this is), to being a father to two young girls (ages 2 and 7), to cycling (for health and hobby), I have a very limited time for writing. On my 36th birthday, I had a nervous breakdown after realizing my life had become too much for me to handle. Something had to give. But having been neglected by my own father throughout my childhood (and even adulthood), taking time away from my kids was out of the question. So I decided to work less, trusting in my delegation skills to get things done.

It’s hard to believe I started the Dark Age of Enya in 1999, which was published as a POD book by Xlibris in 2004. I did a book signing at Barnes & Nobles where I sold nine copies and did a second signing at Caliente Resort where I sold another nine. I even had a couple good reviews in magazines. Unfortunately, they were naturist magazines and hardly more popular than the book itself, so sales didn’t jump much. Of course, for anyone familiar with my life, I was chastised on Sci-Fi/Fantasy forums for going the self-publication route, by people who can never begin to imagine the enormous challenge that is traditional publishing. Despite the popularity of The Dark Age of Enya among tiny circles, I decided to dedicate the next five years to refining Enya into the masterpiece I knew it could be. Only problem? Time. Like I said, I juggle many balls. Without editing, I could have finished my 600 page novel in months. But I am an obsessive, you can say obsessive compulsive, editor. I spend, on average, about an hour per page. In addition, I believe it takes at least three revisions before a story can be its best. Right now, Ages of Aenya, which I completed last year, needs another pass. At two chapters per week (remember, I juggle a lot!) this project should take about 4 months (hopefully).

In the meantime, I hate to neglect my blog. I started The Writer’s Disease as a way to reach out to fans and to build an online presence. So far, I’ve managed to rank fairly high on Google as far as blogs go. My most popular post has garnered over 2000 hits and a day after posting The Martian Chronicles review I was contacted by Daniel Levy who is working on the opera version! Yessiree, my blog is going places . . . and yet, one more ball to juggle!

To keep my one-post-a-week pace, I am introducing a new series: Rough Cut Fiction, fiction that has only gone through one pass of editing. Why? Because if I had time for three passes, I wouldn’t be needing this series. Despite being rough cut, these stories are entertaining in their own right. In my Fan-fiction days, I won contests for stories less polished. Keep in mind, the only reason I am making this post is to alleviate my OCD/guilt for posting anything less than perfect. In my defense, I think being an author is a lot like being an Olympic athlete. In the Olympics, athletes push themselves to their limit, often breaking bones and ripping tendons. Likewise, if I were to put the same obsessive detail into everything I do, something in my brain would most certainly burst. Writers and athletes can’t push themselves that hard all the time—but a figure skater in the mall can still be entertaining to watch even if she doesn’t pull off a perfect axel jump.

The first rough cut story I’ll be posting is The Dark Age of Enya 2, the direct sequel to The Dark Age of Enya. I fully intended to publish it before I decided to go back to refine the original. The first part of the story is complete, so you won’t be reading anything without a conclusion (unlike many published books). And, who knows, some of it may end up in the official sequel to Ages of Aenya, so you, dear fan, can think of this as a sneak peek into the future of Xandr and crew. Despite being written in 2006 in Morocco, no one has ever laid eyes on it, and I hope fans of the original novel will find it worth the look!       

Grand Master, Indeed: Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury died last month on June 5th. In honor of his memory, I decided to review his 1950’s masterpiece, The Martian Chronicles. I am almost ashamed to admit that I’d never read any of Bradbury’s books before. I am familiar with many of the giants of Sci-Fi, like Wells, Asimov, Clarke and Frank Herbert, but Bradbury somehow fell under my radar.

Every now and then, when a book like this comes along, you just have to set aside writing conventions and sit in awe. At the top of my copy it says, The Grand Master Editions. Grand master, indeed. The Martian Chronicles is a work of true genius and I am hard pressed to say anything about it that doesn’t come across as trite. I have often lamented that the greats of Sci-Fi literature outweigh those of fantasy, and Ray Bradbury adds proof to this claim. Like Ursula K. Leguin or Peter S. Beagle, his prose is effortlessly lyrical. He is a writer’s writer, someone who loves words and understands how to use them. Modern books have mostly abandoned the idea that beautiful writing has merit; too many bad poets have given poetry a bad rap, so publishers urge simplicity and readable over beauty. Authors like Bradbury, however, prove that it’s quite possible to have your cake and eat it too.

But The Martian Chronicles is much more than a collection of well crafted words. Ray Bradbury definitely has something to say, using science fiction as a pulpit from which to comment on the many issues of his day. The 1940’s and 50’s was a radical time. It saw the end of the second World War, the possibility of nuclear apocalypse, and the continued struggle for race equality in America. It was a fertile time for social commentary. In The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury’s Mars is a mirror reflecting the prejudice and ignorance of human society. In this regard I identify as a kindred spirit. Bradbury rails against everything from racism to dishonesty in government to the hubris of religion and science. In one controversial story, edited out of some editions, black people, oppressed by their American “bosses” and by the KKK, build a rocket ship to find a new world of equality. Mars is a clean slate from which humanity has an opportunity to start anew; the red planet, and the Martians who inhabit it, exist as a kind of Eden, or Ilmarinen (if you’re familiar with my book). Unfortunately, the first human explorers bring their humanity with them.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. There is a bit of dark humor and silliness to be found here, as even Bradbury could not take himself too seriously. In the early parts of the book, hilarity ensues when the first astronauts attempt to make alien contact. Despite the Martians ability to communicate with Earthlings, trouble comes from the clash of cultures. As precursors to Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Bradbury’s Martians are so mentally and physiologically alien, relations between them and humans becomes impossible.

If there is one small caveat I might make, it’s that The Martian Chronicles isn’t what I expected. It’s more of an anthology than a straightforward novel. Many of the stories were previously published in Sci-Fi magazines. Despite this fact, every story is self-contained within the same chronological universe, and characters from previous stories make reappearances later on. The biggest criticism one could argue is that there are no protagonists, and I sometimes wished to continue in the same character’s footsteps, but it later dawned on me that it’s not the individuals that matter. Bradbury’s novel exists on much greater time scales, and to tell the story through the eyes of one or two people would be missing the point. The focus, rather, is on the setting as the characters move through it. Setting is the character. And just like any good character, Mars has its struggles for identity and survival and its transitional epiphany. Humanity is the other protagonist. When these two meet, there is wooing, shunning, mutual understanding, and finally, coexistence. It is, in some way, a love story.

For more on this remarkable author, visit his official site here: http://www.raybradbury.com/

What Naturism Means to Me

The worst loneliness is not to be comfortable with yourself

Mark Twain

8e736-me22521Yes, I am a nudist! Or naturist, as I prefer to call myself. I’ve been beating around the bush regarding this issue, hinted at it here and there, in articles and in my fiction, and to many of my astute readers this may come as no surprise. So here it is, my official “coming out” so to speak, or maybe “my undressing” is a better metaphor. Why else would I have dedicated the past ten years of my life to a fantasy novel with nudist/naturist heroes? I have been a nudist since I was twelve years old, from the time I visited the Cycladic Islands of Greece, where bathing suits were often too formal. I spent every summer on those beaches, and it was not long before I realized life is better without clothes, even while doing algebra. Back home in the U.S., I explored secluded woods the way nature intended, and whenever the parents were away, the clothes stayed off. But most of my friends and family would never guess that I spend most of my time in the buff. For decades, I’ve kept this a secret, fretting over how people would react, because there are too many misconceptions and negative stereotypes regarding nudism. But society is changing. With the numerous scandals involving the Catholic Church, the battle for gay rights within Protestant denominations, and continued terrorist acts associated with Islam, organized religion is losing its moral authority. At the same time, the advent of social media has delivered an explosion of understanding and tolerance. People once afraid to ask about different lifestyles can now find like minded individuals from around the globe. Homosexuality, an issue most people feared to discuss in the 80’s, is rapidly gaining popular support, and I have no doubt that in ten or twenty years, society will accept gay marriage as they have interracial couples. While nudism is not nearly as stigmatized in the public eye as is the LGBT community, I can identify with the need to hide oneself from scrutiny. But I find courage in the new society that is dawning, a society where personal identity will be an inalienable right, where people, including those who prefer not to wear clothes, will be afforded the same respect as those of differing faith and sexual orientation.

First, let me address what naturism is not. It is most definitely not about sex. My mores are as conservative as can be. I believe the best arrangement for lovers is post-marital sex, because there are far too many unwanted pregnancies and single parents in this country. Of course, it’s hard to argue that that is a realistic goal, but I’ve always followed one simple rule: sleep with someone you love. A couple can better raise a child, even if the child came about by accident. So for me, nudism/naturism has nothing to do with sex. You might find this difficult to believe if you’ve been raised, like most people, to equate the human body with intercourse. You might suspect us to be closet perverts. But from a naturist point of view, textiles (non-naturists) are the sex crazed weirdos. Think about it this way, the textile philosophy is this: every man, woman and child must be clothed at all times because, if not, we’ll all want to have sex with one another. A naturist, on the other hand, looks at a body sans apparel and simply sees another human being. We have no fear of accidentally seeing our siblings or friends in the shower or changing booth. Desire for fornication does not overwhelm our judgment. Don’t believe me? In college, I spent two days at a resort, fully naked with a girl from New Jersey. We ate naked; we played pool volleyball naked; we played scrabble naked, and guess what? No sex. We didn’t even kiss. Why? Because I hardly knew her. She was going back home the following day and neither of us wanted a meaningless fling.

On the other hand, naturists are not sexless robots. Unfortunately, this is a common misconception even among naturist communities. Nudists/naturists have been fighting the idea that nudity = sex mainly because sex was, for the past century, taboo outside of marriage. But public mores have moved on. Society no longer demonizes fornication and even the “one-night stand” has lost its stigma. I have the impression that if nudism was about sex, it might actually gain popularity. The truth is, nudists, like everyone else, appreciate the human body for its beauty and yes, its sex appeal. Does this contradict my earlier paragraph? No. Human nature is complex. These days, sex appeal is everywhere, from sports cars to clothing to movies. Needless to say, Avatar would have been far less appealing had the Navi been giant blue blobs. In Avengers, Black Widow would not have been as popular without her ass-hugging tights. Even tutus and bikinis are designed with sex appeal in mind. Does this equate going to the beach with visiting a porn shop? Of course not. Naturists appreciate the human body in the same way a man might enjoy seeing an attractive girl in a bikini, yet, just like at the beach, there is little fear at a naturist resort that an orgy will break out. We’re human beings, after all, not animals.

Thirdly, nudism/naturism has nothing to do with gawking at people. A visit to any resort will almost instantly dismiss this myth, because seeing hundreds of naked people of all shapes and sizes, from toddlers to grandmothers, is anything but arousing. And if gawking is something you crave, there are specific places set aside for that. After my second trip to a strip club, I was disgusted and have never gone again.

Fourthly, naturists are not weird. Sure, we’re in the minority, but we’re not impractical. Every time a TV show tries to make fun of us, they seem to have a hard time keeping the joke going, or they find some crazy person that doesn’t represent the movement at all. Nudists/naturists are just “too normal” for TV. If it’s cold, we put on clothes. If it’s hot, we take them off. If we’re in a public place, like a restaurant or a grocery store, we dress appropriately. Would I prefer to live naked 24/7? Certainly! But we do not live in the Amazon, or in Ilmarinen, and I no more wish to go to Carrabbas naked than anyone in a bathing suit. There is a proper time and place for everything.

Now to address a bit of absurdity: naturists/nudists do not live in colonies. What, exactly, is a nudist colony? We’re not a nation of people. We can’t show up on some distant shore to plant a flag for our people. In reality, nudists/naturists are everywhere. If you don’t immediately dress after taking a shower, you might be a nudist yourself. People also think we like to move in circles. They say we “parade” around in the nude, like we’re putting ourselves on display. We are equated to flashers, to attention grabbers, or strippers. They think we want to shock and offend people with our genitals. But nothing could be further from the truth. Visit any clothing optional beach and you will always find the naked people at the very far end, often in hiding. Typically, we get the worst parts of the coast, with the rocks and the urchins and the seaweed, because we do not want to offend anyone or draw attention to ourselves.

So if it’s not about sex, gawking or showing off, what’s the point? Answering that question is like answering why it’s fun to dance, or to swim, or to bike. You just have to experience it to understand. You’ve probably been a naturist at some point in your life already and forgotten. You weren’t born ashamed of your body. Take a diaper off a toddler and watch how joyfully they run around the living room. Clothing is a learned habit, a product of society, not nature.

OK, but clothing is certainly a good thing, right? People can’t revert to animals and go live in the jungle . . . and I agree. I will be the first to admit that “primitivism” is a bad idea. Modern society provides access to food and medicine and shelter that I wouldn’t want to live without. On the other hand, much of what modern society has given us is also harmful, like the sedentary lifestyle brought on by TV and the Internet, or the salty foods and high-fructose corn syrup that is slowly killing us. So we have to choose the good from the bad, and modern society’s obsession with hiding the human body has been and continues to be harmful, to both children and adults.

Naturism, in all reality, is a non-thing. Just like cold is the absence of heat, naturism is the absence of shame. Shame can be a good thing for the right reasons. It should be shameful to lie, cheat, or steal. But simply having a body, and being seen in that body, should never be shameful. Naturism, as a movement, exists as a response to an outdated prejudice.

To me, naturism means many things; it is a philosophy with numerous implications.

1. Naturism = Self Respect: Nudity is not uncommon in our world. We see it everywhere, from Cosmopolitan magazine to films like Machete to your local strip club. Women (and men) are allowed to show their bodies only if they fit an extremely narrow and unrealistic conception of beauty. The message this sends to young people is clear: if you don’t look a certain way, you must hide your ugliness. This is a harmful message in that it causes girls (and sometimes boys) to become anorexic, bulimic, or to simply hate themselves. If people could only see the wider range of body types that exist in the world, they might not hate their own.

2. Naturism = Equality: We are all human beings, living on the same planet, made up of the same parts. That much is simple. From an African American to an Anglo-Saxon to a Hindu to a Jew, we are all remarkably similar. Without clothes, Bill Gates looks no wealthier than a homeless man and the President no more important than his janitor. Unfortunately, the labels we create for ourselves divide us, causing us to envy, to hate, and to wage wars. It’s so much easier to kill another human being when he or she is seen as something alien. Uniforms identify the enemy. In nothing but our bodies, we find little difference between us. Imagine how quickly the Palestinian/Israeli conflict would dissolve if the people of that region focused on their shared humanity rather than on their fairy tales.

3. Naturism = Feminism: Look around the world. Wherever women are forced to hide their bodies, in Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Saudi Arabia, the women have little freedom and are deemed inferior to men. In Spain, France, Sweden and Norway, where women can go topless in public, you will find sexual equality. In Finland, one of the most liberal and pro-naturist nations on Earth, education is #1 in the world. Compare that to Afghanistan, where women were unable, until recently, to show even their eyes in public, the literacy rate was as low as 18%. For centuries, it was believed that modest dress protected a woman’s dignity. But for a man to dictate what their wives, girlfriends, sisters or daughters are allowed to wear, if they choose to be clothed at all, robs them of their right to define themselves. A woman walking the streets in skimpy shorts signals she is a prostitute, but another woman on the beach, wearing even less, is given no labels. Without the nude taboo, women could only be judged by their character. Modest clothing has less to do with sexual mores and more to do with power. What are we saying to half the population when the only time they can be legally naked is in the act of entertaining men?

4. Naturism = Environmentalism. The Religious Right and the conservative movement have long fought efforts to save the environment. Why? The reasons are numerous, but one might be found in the Bible, where, in the book of Genesis, God gives man dominion over nature. Basically, the thinking goes, we can destroy nature because we’re above it. But as a naturist, I do not see myself as a separate thing from nature. Human beings are highly evolved, highly intelligent animals, but animals nonetheless. It’s obvious when looking at the naked body how much a part of nature we are. For a naturist, devastating animal habitats is a crime against family.

5. Naturism = Health. Few websites equate the two, but at the turn of the century, nudism/naturism was considered a health movement. It was argued that sunshine and fresh air were good for the body, which is most certainly the case, but of course that part of the movement died quickly when people with more common sense argued, and I paraphrase here, “Does the sun have to shine where the sun don’t shine to get enough vitamin D?” I do believe, however, that naturism is healthy in other ways. It promotes outside activity, like swimming and hiking, which are more enjoyable in the nude, and it forces us to take care of this thing we call a body, which naturists have profound respect for. Part of the stigma that nudists/naturists face today is that the movement is made up of aged, out-of-shape people, and from my experience this seems to be largely the case. If we ever wish to go mainstream, we’ll need to shape up. Of course, this isn’t to say that we need to fit the narrow mold of beauty established by the magazine industry, but we do need to learn to eat healthy and exercise, because ingesting processed foods and sitting on our naked butts all day is far less natural, and far more harmful, than wearing clothes.

6. Naturism = Spirituality. This is a tough one to explain, especially if you’ve never experienced it yourself, but I’ve felt closer to God in my birthday suit than I have ever felt in stuffy Sunday clothes in church. There is just something spiritually uplifting, awe-inspiring even, when you’re naked in an environment untouched by civilization, without any synthetic fibers to remind you of time and place. On a beach in a Greek island, I stood on a rock where the Ancient Greeks stood, where prehistoric man stood millions of years ago; they felt the same sensations on their bare feet, watched the same tides roll in and out, looked dreamily over the same sky. Without clothing to remind me of my daily existence, past and present melded into one, and I could feel the connection between my body and an infinite universe.

7. Naturism = Romanticism. As a writer, I feel that I have a special appreciation for nature and the human body that even many naturists do not share. Writers challenge the status quo, transcending social prejudices and boundaries to get at the truth or essence of life. For me, it is no coincidence that I should love both writing and naturism. The two go hand-in-hand, especially in the literary romantic tradition (not to be confused with romance) which often romanticizes (to put simply, makes larger than life) both nature and the human body. Here are just a few quotes I would love to have written myself:

Walt Whitman American writer, A Sun-bathed Nakedness:

Never before did I get so close to Nature; never before did she come so close to me… Nature was naked, and I was also… Sweet, sane, still Nakedness in Nature! – ah if poor, sick, prurient humanity in cities might really know you once more! Is not nakedness indecent? No, not inherently. It is your thought, your sophistication, your fear, your respectability, that is indecent. There come moods when these clothes of ours are not only too irksome to wear, but are themselves indecent.

Henry David Thoreau, In wildness is the preservation of the world., Walking:
We cannot adequately appreciate this aspect of nature if we approach it with any taint of human pretense. It will elude us if we allow artifacts like clothing to intervene between ourselves and this Other. To apprehend it, we cannot be naked enough.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, from Tarzan,
Clothes he abhorred – uncomfortable, hideous, confining things that reminded him somehow of bonds securing him to the life he had seen the poor creatures of London and Paris living. Clothes were the emblems of that hypocrisy for which civilization stood – a pretense that the wearers were ashamed of what the clothes covered, of the human form made in the semblance of God.

Many other authors were naturists, including Victor Hugo, Ernest Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence, Benjamin Franklin, Franz Kafka, and Robert Heinlein. My dream, ultimately, is to inspire change in the world. But that change can never happen if we are too afraid to show the world who we are and what we believe.

To learn more about naturism/nudism, you can visit these websites:

AANR | Nudist | American Association for Nude Recreation

The Naturist Society

“The Bare Pit” by Noodtoonist

Naked Conversations with Nude Women on Vimeo

NudeState