Plucking on his lute, the seven foot monster I was pleased to call my muse sang softly, "De north wind doth blow, und ve schall hev schnow, und vat vill sveet robin do den, poor t'ink? He'll sit in a bern, und kip himself varm, und hide his head under his vink, poor t'ink." He fell to noodling with the instrument, trying out variations on the chord structure with various trills and arpeggios hung on the basic melody. I sighed, and cleared my throat.
He glanced up, humming a counterpoint, then went back to his music.
"I'm so glad one of us is creating," I grumbled. "I've been stuck for days, and all I get when I try to talk to you is nursery rhymes and fragments." I threw a pen at him. "What's the damn deal? We were pumping out the words, you and me, not so very long ago. I wanted to get fifty thousand words in thirty days, and we did that–hell, we did it in twenty-five days. Now I want to finish the book. I want to take the remaining arcs where I've told the story in hurried block capitals and flesh them out to show the story. I want to show Totenberg's plan, and Brescher's scheme, and Nyssa caught up in the middle of plots she doesn't understand. The poor girl barely knows herself, and the trip with the husband who marries her only to make his family shut up about his proclivities helps her to crystallize what she wants and where she belongs. I have notes–damn good notes, and a chronology, and the smarts to get it put together. So why won't you talk to me?"
"Em talking to hyu now," he said mildly, putting the lute down across his lap. His boots were up on the desk, as they always were when we sat in my office together.
"Sure. You'll talk to me now, when it doesn't really matter." I gestured at the broad old mission door that served as the desk, held up by two polished ironwood stumps. The gate of iron inset near the top was a handy place to drop the electrical cords for the monitor and printer. I had salvaged the door from a church that had been long abandoned and deconsecrated, and was being torn down to erect a new building–probably a Wal-Mart, I had thought at the time, grimacing. We had been on our way to Greer, had taken an unexpected detour through very rural Arizona due to traffic delays, and it had been an enormous piece of luck that brought us through that town on that day. We had wrestled that door into the back of the Explorer somehow, and I had ridden for hours with the fifty-quart cooler on my lap in order to get everything to fit. It hadn't mattered. I had bought the ironwood with an exchange of labor–a woodworker's wife fell in love with one of my shawls–an Estonian triangle of my own design–and I'd convinced her husband to finish these stumps out for me in exchange. Very southwestern and Spanish and queerly organic, this desk. I couldn't imagine writing at anything else.
"Hy talk to hyu now; Hy talk to hyu before–Hy talk to hyu all de time," he said. "Writers write, yah? Vat hyu t'ink hyu doink right now, dis very minute? Hyu writink. Hyu write about hyu desk–vich don' exist except in hyu mind–und hyu write about me sittink here playink de lute–und hyu write about vat hyu say to me und Hy say to hyu." He held up his broad hands, the size of shovel blades, claws tipping the fingers. (All the better to grab your attention with, my dear.) "Hyu writink, dollink. Vas de problem?"
"I'm not making any progress on the story I want to finish," I told him. "Every time I pick up the drive and plug it in, suddenly you go quiet. When I look at the places I've left off, I can't see where to pry at the corners or how to join the bits. And it feels like you go away and ignore me when I ask for your help. What can I do to help you help me through this dry spot?"
"Is chust a dry schpot, heverybuddy get dem–"
"I know that. I know that worrying about the dry spot isn't the solution. I know I can write–as you say, I'm writing now. My job is to write, and I do just fine there. I'm just wondering, since the flow of words on the big story has dried up–I mean, this little chat is more fiction than I've written in days–I'm just wondering if there's a problem between us."
He was silent for a long moment, then he picked up the lute again. "Am efraid," he said.
"Afraid? Of what?"
"Efraid uf disappointink hyu. Efraid dis von' be vhat hyu vant. Efraid it von' be . . . enough zumhow."
I stared at him. "We've been published before," I reminded him. "In real paper books and everything. They gave us money for our work–real money! This is the pinnacle of what a writer strives for–and I already know that it's still chop wood, haul water. How is this any different?"
He shrugged. "Dunno. Efraid dat hyu'll be sad und depressed vhen dis done–nummore Nyssa. Nummore story. All gone."
"Sure, that story; that project–all gone. But just like the eternal knitting, finishing one project allows me to start another. You know that. So work with me a little here. Let's finish this project–just the rough draft, so I can save it to a CD and it will be safe. We can discuss taking time off–and then docket the time on the calendar so I won't abandon it. Let's set aside the fear of doing it wrong, of being disappointed with the way it comes out, and just focus on the fun it is to tell the story. Let's get back to that heady schedule we were on for those twenty-five days, where the story unfolds under my fingers on the keyboard. Remember that?"
He nodded. "Vas like flyink," he said. "Op into de clouds, de vorld tumblink avay under hyu feet, only able to see bits und pieces but knowink dere vas a place for heveryddink dat vas heppenink."
"Is there anything I can do that will help you be less afraid? Remember how badly I hurt when the last computer took a dump and ate the two books I was working on? How I grieved for all the lost worlds and words? Could my sorrow and disappointment when we finish this book–and by that I mean when the rough is fully fleshed and I have the task of editing and picking and choosing the bits that make the story fly and those that hold it back–could that truly be any worse than when we found out that everything was word salad except for a writing exercise?" He shook his head.
"Okay, would it help if I save these conversations and bind them into a little book for your shrine? Would it help you to feel like I was promising that my work will remain special to me; important to me, regardless of who it's for? That I am making this for the world at large in a spiritual sense–that it doesn't matter if a specific book ever sees the light of day in more than a seriously limited edition. That I am simply following the precepts of the Nag Thomas and bringing forth that which will save me."
"But Nyssa–hyu von' be sad dot it's all over when hyu flesh out de rough; vhen hyu edit de rough und it's all over. Hyu kill her off at de end uf de book, in de epilogue. Hyu know hyu say es de only logical end, Totenberg wreppink her in his old greatcoat against de cold, buryink her in de town de Hundkin laid vaste to zo long ago vit an orange tree to mark her grave. But dot means no zequel, no comink beck."
"That's true–no more Nyssa. But Nyssa isn't the focus of the story, it's the Hounds I wanted to talk about. About what it would be to live at the intersection of strength and vulnerability; about honor and servitude and what happens when the one you serve becomes corrupt. And I wanted a raunchy slightly dark erotic story with some high adventure in it while I was at it. And I think I'm getting there.
"And see, I don't want to talk about Nyssa getting old and unlovely–about her waist thickening and her boobs sagging, about the cellulite forming on her ass. Totenberg loves her still, as much as ever he did, but I don't see Nyssa having adventures with the Hounds cum Wolfpack. Or being the female Achilles's heel that has to be rescued at the climax of every book–once is plenty, thanks!
"So that's why she dies at the end of the book, and that's why it doesn't really matter. Totenberg is in his prime when he meets Nyssa–he's a couple hundred years old, say late twenties equivalent. Old enough to have some experience and understand what he wants and young enough to have the energy and certitude of confidence to go get it. So Nyssa lives her whole life and dies when he's . . . what, in his early thirties? If that? In Oranges With Nyssa, I see him as being in his late forties equivalent–still vital and strong, but slower, more likely to think things through before he acts. He's not planning to come back in ten years and see what became of this Nyssa, or spirit her away on his airship. He's just enjoying the summer day with this kid who shares a name with his lost beloved, eating fruit under the tree and telling appropriate stories of love and loss. There's a lot to tell about Totenberg, and he's the character I really care about.
"For example, there's his life before becoming a Hound, the Change, his life before Nyssa–he's had other pets, Katarina and some unnamed ones. How did he get there? When did he decide to keep pets instead of one night stands (like the other Hounds, who will take whatever's offered). What was it like under Zerstorer? What about the wars that killed off so many Hounds before the dust settled? You could end this book with the decision to go get some fruit from the supply wagon, and the circuit back through camp when he hears someone crying.
"And then there's the time after Nyssa. What does he do then? Does he choose another pet? Is one chosen for him? What happens that kills Sascha? Why does Dmitri drift away from his friend after Sascha is no longer there? You see, we have more books about the Hounds if we want to write them. We can write short stories about Totenberg, we can write about his universe and flesh out his world more–or we can keep it in dialogue and exposition–kind of like this."
He smiled wryly. "Is dis de point vhere hyu laugh–mwah ha ha ha hah!–and threaten to crush me schlowly und elaborately? Hyu've certainly been monologink."
"Don't be silly–I would need a laboratory with the full five syllables, some henchmen, and some sort of death ray." He pointed silently at the computer monitor. "Okay, so I have the death ray." I put a hand on his shoulder. "Rather than crush you, I'd much rather work with you. I've had so much fun over the last few weeks–I think what I'm afraid of is that this will end, and I'll go back into that horrible depressing place where the only hurdles worth clearing are the ones set too high for any mortal to get over. Help me get through this project. It's important to me. I want to be done with this draft–all the arcs written out and the capital spaces removed–by November 1 so I can spend NaNoWriMo working on the story of Little Dinch and the Wild Wild West. I think we can get fifty thousand out of the burro, burro, burro."
"Hyu've written nearly six pages in the pest hour, dollink. Hy tink hyu could put zum of dat into de novel und get zumvere real fest, Hy do."
"I know. But I need some help. A place to start."
"Vell, how about tomorrow hyu schtart with Nyssa in de house vit her husband? Efter de veddink, efter the move-in, efter de discovery he ain't interested–ve ken cover dot later. Mebbe ve schtart vit de discovery uf de ‘fertitity statues' und Nyssa realizink dey might hev odder uses. Or Nyssa talkink to her doctor, de vun who prescribe de violet vand for hysteria?"
"I could do that . . . okay. As I promised, I'm going to save this as a chapter of our dialogues so I can commemorate these for you to preside over. Saving–now."
And I turned off the computer and went to bed, confident that in the morning I would fire up the flash drive and get going on the story that was frustrating me so badly.
And I did.