The Weight of the Sword and the Knife

this is for...well, you know who you are

I descended in a storm of fireflies and cherry blossoms, light as a maple leaf, and glided along the snaking bend of a rivulet, forepaws brushing the grasses, nose full of the sweet, summery aroma of the earth and the last hot breath of the sunset which was dying between the mountain peaks.  I left behind the high winds, the darkening clouds, the tossing pines.  I left behind heavenly mountains and followed the rivulet, charted like a great river among hillocks heaped up to resemble massive ranges; on either side of me, my whiskers brushed the tops of tiny cultivated cedars, miniatures of great forests.  The little life-thing in my chest thrummed pleasantly.  Life tonight was sweet to me.
When the rivulet was spanned by an arched bridge, sharp as a dragon’s back, I wandered from the water’s edge and followed the stone path through a garden half-tended, half wilderness, to the silhouette of a tiny shelter within, and the dim yellow lights which glowed through its lattice openings.  A soft, warm wind came with me: spirit bells chimed as I swept around the azalea hedge, followed the walk to the building’s slat steps nearly overgrown with ivy, and there I touched the earth at last, on the topmost step.  Four tiny lights flashed and sank as each paw set down on the planking, and the shelter itself seemed to shiver, as if with delight.
There was no door: I looked inside and saw you, kneeling at a wide, low table with your back toward me, a huge and heavy lantern—quite out of place in the exquisite delicacy of your surroundings—hung above your head so that you could see your work.  You wore glasses, of the kind popular now in the West, also so that you could see your work.  No shoes: they sat beside me on the narrow fore-porch, as vibrant a red as my royal cloak, their laces as white as the tip of my bush. 
You were busy, hard at work with books and papers, laptop and phone shifting, gleaming, clicking around you, shogunates of grades struggling for supremacy on your war-table.  But even in the midst of your pitched battle you caught the tremor in the earth—perhaps you felt the wind on whose wings I rode—for you sat up straight, took off your glasses, and turned round.  You saw me.
As every sensible human will do when confronted with a wild animal, you froze.  The lantern light fell on your naked eyes, spirit-blue in a porcelain face, and illuminated the burnt gold of your hair which the wind was fingering, but you did not move.  You did not breathe.  You stared at me, and I let you stare your fill awhile, until you had got used to my presence in your sanctuary.
With one fluid movement I bent forward, opening my jaws to set down the scroll which I had been carrying between my teeth.  I hesitated, then straightened.
“Good evening,” I said, and I smiled.
You narrowed your eyes at me, pursing your lips.  “I know you.” 
“Of course.  I have come to bring you your dream tonight.”  I set my paw on the scroll.
You looked at the scroll; you looked away again a second later, but seemed to think better of it, for you stared again, harder this time.  You showed off the brave strength of the porcelain of which you were made.  “I see now.”  You, too smiled, relieved.  You met my gaze.  “It doesn’t usually look like that.”
“You know me,” I crooned: “I am fond of drama.”
“Tell me the story,” you prompted eagerly. 
But I rose and entered the genius of the shelter.  “I am cheerful tonight,” I evaded.  “I will do even better.”
Noiselessly I rushed the table, whisking by you, and leapt up among your papers.  They fluttered and chittered liked cranes on the river, floating down around me as I settled, bush swept round my forepaws.  I sank down amongst my glowing fur, eyes warm with the lanternlight.
“The tea in the pot is hot again,” I said.  “Pour us two cups, you and I.”
I saw you smile, hitched round to look down at me where you sat.  You would not know it, but I knew, looking back up at you through the veil of lantern-light: it was the smile of a warrior worn out and ready to sheath his sword, and has been asked by someone he loves to make one last charge.
You reached for the pot. 
As the steaming amber liquid filled the tiny cups, I watched, one with the flow and at once detached.  In a high, absentminded way, I said, “Summer has come.  It is warm even in the mountains now.”
“I don’t have to wear a sweater here,” you agreed gamely.  You held out a cup for me: I saw that your hand trembled.  As you set it before me, I, too, reached out, light as a feather, and touched the smooth back of your hand with the smooth pad of my paw.  A tiny light blinked and, for a second, I felt the thump-thump of your heart.  I think that you felt mine.  You took back your hand without hurrying.
“Do you like it?” I asked.
You looked up over the rim of your cup, raised to your lips.  “Do I like what?”
But I evaded, suddenly, like a wind that changes direction in the long grass.  “The warmth is good for your bones.  It makes your eyes mellow.”
You pursed your lips again and gazed down at me out of thinned eyes, not at all mellow, but calculating.  With a hard little sigh, you began to play the game.  “The cicadas made a racket this evening.  I was glad when the sun went down and they finally hushed.”
“Mm, the cicadas.”  I liked this move.  I heaved up my shoulders and stooped my head to drink the tea.  Every hair rose on end as the warmth pulsed through my body, and my whiskers coiled like snakes in the sun.  “They are summer, don’t you think?  I hear their rattle like the shaking of sabres.”
“You like that,” you pointed out.  Then, “Why are you wearing a red cape?”
“Because I like that too,” I replied, and finished my tea.
For a spell you were quiet.  You sat with your legs folded beneath you, teacup settled on your knees, and stared at me with the purse gone out of your mouth.  I settled in and waited, pleasant, while the warmth invaded your bones and your eyes became mellow. 
“It’s summer,” you said at last, as though it had only just washed over you.  Your voice was full of relief.
You looked away, through the lattice to the dark world outside.  One gardenia, white as your skin, could be seen growing over the porch; beyond that the lantern lost its strength and the world was invisible.  The mountain peaks could no longer be seen silhouetted by the sunset: night had fallen.  In the dimensionless black, fireflies lit up and faded away, like our memories of childhood dreams.  Honeysuckle filled the air with its drowsy scent whenever the wind dropped away.
“It’s summer.”
And then suddenly you were crying, chin thrust up and jaw clenched, fists tight about your teacup—choking on great, suppressed sobs.  You cried like an empress.  I did not say it—I let you cry, lowering my head so that, while I watched you out of the corner of one eye, I would not appear to be watching—but I thought that you were beautiful.  But finally the sobs died away, and the wind played gently with the spirit chimes, and the night-time silence fell about us once more.
I whispered, “You did not think you were going to make it.”
“No,” you gasped.  “No, I didn’t think I would make it.”
I got up and arched my back, drawing all four paws off the ground.  “You will ask yourself,” I said in a sturdier tone, “if it was worth it.  I would not answer that question if I were you.”
“Why?”  You turned and frowned at me—and saw that I was not on the ground.
“Because females are dangerous with philosophy.”  I lowered myself back to the floorboards.  “One thing you do know,” I went on.  “You are strong.”
You twisted your mouth on the taste of stale tears and bowed your gaze to your teacup again.  Reaching up once, you tucked a thick strand of blonde hair behind one ear.  “I do not feel strong.”
“One never does.  You are enough,” I added.  “It is enough.”
Your face darkened.  The strand slipped out and fell across your eyes so that I could see only the tremble of your chin, the hard line of your mouth.  “I want to feel like enough.  I want to feel strong.  I am tired of—I am tired.  I am tired.  It never seems to be enough.  When I don’t have any more to give, I have to give more.  It’s killing me.”
I could hear the tsunami in-rolling, felt the ground shuddering under my paws.  These were tears of desolation, not relief: I rushed up and swept round the table to your side, spraying blossoms of paper around me—one by one they folded into tiny cranes and darted toward the four corners of the room.  “Sho! sho! sho!” I crooned, as though to a baby.  I pounced upon your lap and placed my forepaws on your cheeks, drawing up your head.  Tears wet my long, drifting whiskers as they brushed your face.  The eyes which stared at me were those used to looking at nightmares.  I would not say it aloud, but the sight of them cut the little beating life-thing in my chest. 
“You are human,” I said to you, “and so small, and fragile if struck just right.  But you are human, and so you are also strong—magnificently strong.  It does not get easier, my darling, but sometimes it is summer, sometimes the fireflies dance in the cherry trees—and sometimes your animal spirit comes down to make you tea when the witching-hour is upon the world.  You are not far from the kingdom: the plain beneath its citadel is the most fought-over land.  Have courage, brave heart.  It is summer.”
I think you wanted to speak, but you were tired, and perhaps you tasted the spell which my words had hastily woven and you did not want to break it.  You gave a watery smile and reached up to stroke my mane.  The hand which touched me was sure now, and I knew I could leave you to the summer night without fear.
“Put up the sword and the knife.  Rest awhile.”  I withdrew, hovering among a storm of paper cranes.  You gazed up at me with a crown of lantern-light around your head, the post-storm quiet in your eyes.  “Drink your tea.”
I dove for the stairs.
With a flurry of petals I paused, landing on the top step beside the scroll.  You had flung round and I saw your eyes go from me to the scroll.  “Aren’t you going to tell me the story?”
I grinned, showing my teeth.  “But I already have!”
You jumped to your feet.
With a kick I took off, sending the scroll spinning into the room like a firecracker, and launched into the purple air with a cataclysm of heaped clouds and wind and firefly-lights.  Summer thunder roared through the sky. 

"An Idealist," He Said, As If To Himself

Blogger tells me I haven't written a snippets post since October. That doesn't seem right...  To make up for that, here is an oddment smattering of writing for you to nibble on.  Enjoy!

"No, I'll twist his head off for treating a de la Mare like that. But what were you thinking, Bruin, teasing him like that? Damn!"

A bridle path branched off up the hillside, disappearing into the woods; the causeway bore across the head of the slope and ducked down again through the descending elms, barred by the quiet morning light, flecked by the noiseless shadows of birds. Of a human’s passing there was no sign. 

Now it was the time for her to face him, and she did, swinging round on one heel and leaning back against the lip of the table. As she tossed up her head in that characteristic way of hers, vaunting silently over the dirt under her feet, he looked through her defensive glamours and saw her for a moment clearly, devoid of gilt shine. He saw her eyes were hollow, and that she was profoundly tired.

It is rare for me to find people that I like. I could count on my hands, I think, the number of people I am truly fond of, and have fingers to spare for the stem of a wine glass. But when I do find them,” she explained—gently, he noticed, having come to realize how softly she thrust the knife home in people whom she favoured—“I am loath to let them slip again.”

Again Eleud shrugged. “I guess until then I didn’t really believe Geoffrey would do it. And I hadn’t told, either. It didn’t seem fair. And then—” the belying, noncommittal shoulders. “I guess—what you did—it made a difference.”

The short, burnt grasses of the slopes looked like ivory, and the road was a ribbon of silver poured out in the sun.

I understand,” I said slowly, “that it is ignoble to be a bastard.” I met his gaze again. “But I also believe that we make our own nobility.”
A grim smile cracked his features. “An idealist,” he said, as if to himself. And I think he spoke it with compassion.

"The heart of man is proud, it runneth like a stag through the forests of the mountains. The Lord shall bend the bow, and I shall be his arrow, and the heart of this man will know the judgment of humiliation."
Shield!” I yelled. “Shield! shield! shield!”—and I sprinted in agony through blood and muck toward the place where I had seen Marius go down.

Through the gloom, a shaft of serendipitous earth-light filtered down, illuminating the heraldic tapestry hung above the hearth. The alabaster sea-unicorn seemed to glow with a beatific light. I stood in the midst of the great room and stared struck at it. Its scaled tail coiled tightly downward, spiralling in a nautilus pattern reminiscent of the pilgrim's winding trek to heaven; and on its head, the golden crown, spired and majestic, as though it wore Jerusalem on it brow.

Reviews & Critiques: A Difference

(a follow-up to not without honour)

As a reader, you have probably reviewed books by numerous sorts of authors, including the quick as well as the dead.  The dead, as a comment on Not Without Honour pointed out, are easy to handle: you don't have to worry about their feelings when summarizing your own feelings about their works.  But the living are not so immune, and when you are reviewing their works, especially if you know the author, there is the danger of hurting the author's feelings.
The first truth an author should realize is that, once his book is out for public reading, it will be torn to shreds.
This is one reason why I feel compelled to go back and rewrite my novel Adamantine.  Regardless of how much people have enjoyed the first draft (or whatever draft it is at now), I can see numerous flaws, too many to patch up, and I know that once I have published it, all I will have to depend on is the assurance that I have done my utmost, that I believe in it, that I know it is good.  Because once it is public, people will rip it to pieces.  Some will like it, and that will be delightful, but others will hate it, and that will be crushing.  It is always crushing.  There is no tempering the blow of discovering someone has looked at your work, into which you put more energy and care than they could imagine, and has despised it.  As the author, you have only your own conviction to fall back on.
The weight of the world is not on the reader's shoulders.
I stated in my last post that our views of a book are often extremely subjective and often reflect only our opinions of a work, not the quality of the work itself.  It is not easy to get past our own self-centeredness when we review and realize that this is only our opinion, and that our view is usually not the clearest or the most accurate.  Unfortunately, sites like Blogger and Goodreads have aided and abetted this egotism in allowing reviewers to post their opinions online in public, thus inflating our opinions of ourselves as critics.  Humans are self-centered, prideful creatures: who of us has really stopped in the middle of a review and thought, "Is this me, or is this accurate?"

Then what is the point of reviewing if we are all so subjective as I say?  Perspective.  A reader's reaction to a book can be useful to other prospective readers.  I am self-professed quixotic, and I realize the likelihood of a single blog post (e.g. this one) will not change the presiding paradigm of the reviewing public.  But I say it anyway.  When I review a book, in general I am giving my basic opinion, and I am conscious of that.  I liked it, or I didn't like it - if I'm especially lucid, I might even be able to say why.  In the end all I am doing is getting my thoughts out and hoping that they may prove useful to other readers like myself.
There is a difference between reviewing and critiquing.
This cannot be stressed enough.  There is a difference between reviewing and critiquingReviews are generally public opinions of a work, how individuals reacted to it, a layman's compass.  They are vitally important, but admittedly subjective.  They are the footprint a work leaves when it passes through the midst of you. 

Critiques, on the other hand, are professional business.  We are speaking specifically of literary works: critiques are done by educated, qualified individuals who have studied not only literature, but how literature ought to be done.  (Very important note: in case anyone is suspecting me of being aloof and elitist, I do not consider myself qualified to critique a literary work.)  Critiques useful for the author come before the work has been published.  They are solicited and private.  They are done by dependable, educated, qualified persons.  They are not reviews.  They are not opinions.  Once the work has been published, any actual critiques, once again done by qualified persons, are for the reader, not the author: they afford the reader as unbiased an overview of the work as can be hoped for, but they do not help the author because the work is already done. 
How do I review a work and still stay friends with the author?
Remember this vital difference between critiquing and reviewing.  Remember you are giving your thoughts on the work (I am assuming few of us are actually trained in the art of critiquing literature).  And above all, be rational.  No one likes to hear that a reader disliked a book, but I know that I, as an author, appreciate it when I read even a differing opinion that was still presented rationally, logically, in some cases almost clinically, and which left me as the author out of the picture.  I appreciate it when a reader takes the time to address my work as a serious object, and did not resort to treating me as a straw-man.  Even if I have to suffer the sting of knowing someone finished my book and ended up not liking it, I still respect their view because I know they put reasonable thought into it.  I often say that I will always take an honest pagan over a hypocritical Christian any day of the week, including Sunday, and this same idea applies to dissenting views that are rationally formed.  I can respect them.  We can still be friends.

(it is also a very good idea in any walk of life to never give unsolicited advice)

Not Without Honour

After talking with other authors and members of the community devoted to the excellence of the written word, I've decided to tackle this topic head on, regardless of how close I may be to the issue.  I'm a person painfully conscious of etiquette and good manners, and I often think other people could do to be plagued by the same nerosis.
They took offense at him.  But Jesus said, "A prophet is not without honour, except in his hometown and among his own household."
I have noticed a marked distinction in the way readers treat dead authors and authors who are complete strangers to them, and how they treat authors who are acquaintances, or even friends.  It is painfully embarrassing and puts the contemporary author at a disadvantage.

If you happen to be a dead author, you are in luck.  Most readers will treat you more or less with objectivity and a degree of respect.  In fact, readers may even go so far as to give the author that sublime compliment and read the book for its own sake, ignoring the author altogether.  

If you happen to be a complete stranger to the reader, you are only a nebulous presence, a dim straw-man briefly torn down or a miniature house-hold god to whom passing honours are attributed.  Your work is viewed a little more subjectively than that of the dead author, but you still are afforded a decent volume of anonymity and respect.

Woe to the author who is known and alive!  At best, friends you know will be ardent fans and you can hope they will promote what (you certainly think) is a good work of literature.  At worst, people who think they know you will turn on you and tear you - you, along with your work - to shreds publicly.  At this stage, the reader who knows the author as well has difficulty (or does not try) to separate the work from the creator.  Any review of the work is also a critique of the author as a person.  And the more a reader thinks he knows the author, the bloodier that critique becomes.  It becomes personal, it becomes unprofessional, and any semblance of an objective assessment of a work introduced to the corpus of literature is not to be found.
the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work
When you read the work of any author dead or alive, you are not meeting that author: you are reading his work.  A good author is capable of writing characters, views, and circumstances which do not reflect himself.

It is embarrassing and painful to see authors sainted by nothing better than death, while living authors have to run a trial by fire already prejudiced against them by their readers.  It is not the business of the reader to critique the author, but the work in question.  This is a rule by which I read.   The excellence or poor quality of the work will reflect upon the author's ability to employ his craft, but it will not reflect upon him as a person per se.  It is not my responsibility to go so far, nor is it doing myself or the author a service.

It ought to be our first assumption that the author, doing what he does best, actually knew what he was doing, rather than supposing that we, as the readers, having put forward no work at all into the matter, automatically know best and could have done it better. This should be recognized intuitively as rude.

One final point.  It is possible to admit a work of literature is excellent even if you do not like it.  Contrary to what may be supposed, no one died and made the reader God, so that the reader's opinion is automatically the one right, true, clear view of a book.  Not mine, not yours, not anyone's.  As readers, we ought to be as objective and informed as possible, and even if, in the end, we do not personally like the content of a work of literature, we can still acknowledge that it was deftly crafted, artfully presented, a tribute to the phenomenon of the written word. 
tolle lege!