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Notes on Creation

Latest thoughts on the creative life

Short Story: The Story of the Scar

Jennifer de Guzman

or
A True and Amazing Adventure in the Life of a Lady Pirate,
 Erstwhile a Fallen Gentlewoman

 

Part One
An introduction to this work's Author, such as you will find her.

On my features is a singular mar -- a small scar, a line about a half-inch long, along the underside of my chin, a reminder of a story of adventure and passions, a story long kept hidden. Recent interest into the lives of Lady Pirates, and my life specifically, has moved me to uncover and describe it for the interested Reader.

The seas were a treacherous place in 1719. Ships carrying valuable goods between the West Indies and England were open quarry for pirates to overtake, raid and plunder. And such plundering we did! Precious sugar, yards and yards of fine fabrics and, of course, that nectar we call rum.

By the time I was twenty-one, I had command of my own ship, the Scorpio. She was a fine vessel, with men chosen as much for their bonny faces and elocution as their fighting prowess and cunningness at the sails and masts. They loved me as much as my enemies feared me, but both my men and my foes called me by the same name: Gentle Captain Jenny.

"Gentle" was a name so given to me because of my high birth, not my disposition. It was a name that inspired dread in the hearts of pirates and soldiers and sailors alike all over the Caribbean. All knew to stay clear of the Scorpio. If they saw from afar so much as my red scarf fluttering in the wind or the glint off my well-polished cutlass, or heard the chanting of my men at their stations -- "Full fathom five thy father lies; of his bones are coral made..." -- they knew that very soon they would find themselves in the deepest embrace of their lovely mistress, the sea.

I sailed with impunity for nigh three years, my riches outstripped only by my reputation. All sailors and pirates told tales of Gentle Jenny, lithe as a cat, brown and raven-haired, fearsome in her skill with the blade, the gun, and the lyric as well as the epic forms of poetry. "Even Italian poetry," they whispered below decks when storms raged on the sea. "They say she has several translations of Dante that have circulated in manuscript form. And the pages of her books! They are cut with clean precision -- never any frayed edges. She reads with her dagger by her side."

But then Wicked Will returned.

Part Two
Recounting the history of Gentle Jenny and Wicked Will, in which we learn something of Jenny's character.

I had not seen Wicked Will for some six months. I had assumed he had died when my men and I raided his ship, The Swallow, set our blades and bullets into his crew -- an obnoxious, foul-smelling lot -- set fire to the sails, and watched it sink. 

I realized later that if I had been intent on seeing Will dead, I would have sought him out more diligently and run my blade through his faithless heart. But I all I cared about, so I told myself, what was in the hold of his ship -- goods from an English trading ship that were rightfully mine. 

Of course I had no true right to loot Will's ship, but amongst the goods in his hold was a hefty stock of books that the new governor of Barbados had ordered for his library -- not that he read his books; they were purely for show -- including the full five-canto edition of Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock. Reader, understand that this was the most recent edition of 1717, in which the Author had added a new speech for the Heroine. I desired it most ardently, for I had been making do with the two canto edition of 1712. Furthermore, all the pirate captains, and indeed the trade ship captains, knew that books were my particular area of plunder. 

Will knew this most of all. Indeed, no one knew me so well as he did. If I teased him over his pursuits of pretty faces, he would laugh and say, "Come now. If anyone understands the -- ah, how shall one say? -- truly inspiring qualities of a lovely face, it's you, with all those poems and wavy-haired poets with which you surround yourself." He'd wink, adding, "And your crew of bonny boys."

So Will and I had been friends. And yet he used base trickery to steal my books, to steal the full five-canto edition of The Rape of the Lock so new that it still had the smell of ink on its pages! 

I blamed myself for having told Will of my plan. For having told Will anything of myself. For having come to Caribbean at all, instead of living in ignominy in England. Fallen woman though I was, surely I would not have had to raid ships in order to procure books!

But most of all, I blamed myself, for how I found myself the morning of his treachery: I woke in Will's room at our favorite Barbados haunt, the Rising Phoenix, in a terrible state of disarray and with niggling suspicion that, though I kept giggling to myself like an unschooled girl, I had done something the night before of which I ought to be very ashamed.

Will, who had been in the room with me, was then nowhere to be found.

rape of the lock.jpg

Part Three
A rake proves a counterfeit Jenny.

galleon.jpg

I thought that Will must have either confused our some of our clothes or taken mine on purpose. Whichever it was, I left his room in the Rising Phoenix in a coat slightly too large in the shoulders and one stocking that lacked a ribbon. Will had taken my hat but not left his own. My scarf was also missing.

"He spared my sword, at least," I muttered as I strapped my belt around my hips, and just to be certain, I counted my money. Not a was coin missing.

Downstairs, my boys slept beautifully, though they were sprawled on tables and chairs, or curled around table legs. Will and his men were nowhere to be seen. I headed to the docks, certain I'd find him on this ship. It was early yet, the sun just risen.

And in the distance, skimming over calm waters was The Swallow. I knew in an instant he had gone after my treasure.

"Will, you wretched lout!" I shrieked after the departing ship. Through my spyglass, I spied Will himself on the aft deck, waving my own hat at me. My red scarf fluttered around his neck. When he saw that I was watching him, he posed with one hand on an out-thrust hip and pursed his lips.

He was pretending to be me. And though Will cut a jaunty, striking figure--his wavy brown hair ruffled by the wind, the sun bright on his bronzed skin--he was carrying on this farce it without any of the kind of finesse that might have lightened my mood toward him.

His plan could not have been more clear: He learned of trade ship from me, then plied my men and me with spirits, seduced me (the shame to succumbing to Will as if I were an inexperienced convent girl was more than I could bear that morning!), then stole my clothes to pretend to be me. In this way, he would inspire fear in the crew that guarded the precious books, and then take the booty -- my copy of The Rape of the Lock included -- for himself.

"You filthy fiend!" I shouted at him. "You are an indecent pirate! Indecent!"

But he continued to wave, quite pleased with himself.

Reader, you know how it ends. I returned to the Phoenix, rousing my boys with quick switches to their lovely bottoms with my scabbarded sword. They woke like drowsy cherubs, but were quick to action when they saw their captain -- enraged, bare-headed, fiery-cheeked.

"Get to your posts," I told them. "Today, my bonny boys, you will be men."

Part Four
An adventure at sea, resulting in no good end, with some pragmatic philosophizing by the Author.

As foul as Will's men were, my boys and I got no pleasure out of killing them. There is no joy in killing creatures, and so many pirates forget in these violent times that what is important is not whom one kills, but what one plunders. However, it is an unfortunate fact that people often place themselves between one and what one desires to plunder. In this case, Will and his filthy crew formed an odoriferous barrier between myself and the copy of The Rape of the Lock that I regarded as mine.

harlot.jpg

Reader, you may regard it as very unladylike for a woman of such tender years to have taken the lives of so many men, no matter their personal hygiene. And of course your genteel scruples are not misleading you. My deeds have certainly been unladylike. Indeed, they would be ungentlemanly if I were a member of that sex which is more readily allowed such acts of violence. But if I may be so bold as to educate you, I must make it clear that the life of a pirate is something quite different from even the most scandalous events that take place in country manors and London townhouses.

But it is not so very different from the horrid and base things that take place in less polite and poorer places which would have been my home had I remained in England in disgrace. It is very difficult for society to forgive a young woman a slip, as all our best moralizers tell us, though they blame young women and not society for this. I will let the reader make of this statement what he or she will. I only ask, is it better for a young woman to live in degradation, sacrificing her soul to save her life, or for her to live with dignity and fulfillment, though admittedly with the same eternal consequence resulting?

I chose the latter and did not regret it, not even when, after felling at least a score of Will's men, I saw their captain himself jump overboard into the warm Caribbean. "Coward!" I shouted, but I did not pursue him. Finding the volume for which I had spilled blood was of more concern to me.

However, search as my boys and I might, we could not find among the morality pamphlets and the unavoidable copies of The Pilgrim's Progress that coveted tome. I was convinced Will had taken it with him, and had quite ruined it with water, along with my red scarf and a hat of which I was quite fond.

I was very vexed indeed.

Part Five
The crew of the Scorpio returns to Barbados, seemingly with no ill effects.

I had been patrolling the trade routes for some weeks, finding little worth the attention of my crew and myself. Wariness of Will's revenge was the reason I gave for my avoidance of ports, but I suspect my men knew that their captain had proven no less susceptible to the charms of Wicked Will than any other of her sex , for they knew I feared no fight. 

I had recently allowed my crew to overtake and plunder a ship with a fine haul of textiles from the Orient. Men must have something to occupy their time and bring joy to their hearts. The beauty of the silk managed to light in me some of my old spark; unlike matters of the heart, in matters of adornment I am not ashamed to claim the sensibilities of womanhood. I allowed the sewing of a new wardrobe to serve as my excuse for shutting myself in my quarters. But alas, no new frocks, and not even The Faerie Queene could rouse me from the melancholy that had fallen upon me. Besides, sewing has never been a task in which I have excelled. So finally I called my first mate to announce that we were to sail to port.

"Mr. Molko," I announced, "I am in need of a seamstress. Set a course for Bridgetown."

Mr. Molko is the best of first mates, loyal and quick, with a boyish face, and shiny dark hair of which he is rather vain. He also possesses that most necessary attribute of a good first mate: the ability to read his captain's moods and that of the crew and to be the intermediate between them. Before Mr. Molko dashed off to carry out my order, he gave me a small, reassuring smile, for he I knew was hesitant to return to Bridgetown, and even more loath to return to the Rising Phoenix.

However, he also knew my men were eager to once more find ease at their favorite establishment and that I, as a good captain, would not want my melancholy mood to infect my crew. I told myself that a captain who commands so many able men must overcome personal weaknesses, and I led them with an air of feigned merriment.  And to tell the truth, I was pleased myself to find the Rising Phoenix to be still a familiar, friendly place.  The bottles were passed around, and that night I slept soundly in my room upstairs, which the proprietress of the Phoenix, a Mrs. Fielding whose story deserves telling as much as mine, had prepared as soon as the Scorpio had been spied upon the horizon. 

faerie queene.png

Part Six
An old friend, lately an enemy, reappears.

The reader will be forgiven if she has concluded that I possess something of a quick temper. As this is a work of true events, I feel no need to hide my true character. If my purloined translations of La Divina Commeddia have taught me nothing else, it is that my reigning deadly sin is that of Wrath.

I awoke the morning (very late in the morning, reader -- if I have adopted truth as my guide, this too must be admitted) after a night carousing with my crew with no predisposition to anger. The melancholy spirit that had possessed me had dissolved in a potent solution of rum and good company, and I looked forward to the strong tea that Mrs. Fielding was to bring up to my room. I have often found that spirits prove no friend to my own spirit, making the spleen rise in my humors. But I had been in such a state of melancholy adust that I surmised the shock to  my system could do naught else but good. It was not a mood that would last, however.

Reader, you have seen me vexed in this narrative before. However, my vexation at the misappropriation of my favorite scarf and hat, and at the theft and ruination of my precious tome was unmatched by the vexation that was to overcome me when I opened the door of my room.

For the person I found behind that door was not Mrs. Fielding. Instead, my tray balanced upon his fingertips, my red scarf tied 'round his hips, in the cheeky posture of a rake, about him an air of abandon, stood Wicked Will.

divina commedia.jpg

Part Seven
A long section, containing a brawl.

A cry emerged from my lips before I could check it. My hand rose, trembling in the air for a moment, and then Will received a box to the ear such that he will never forget. The tray fell to the floor with a crash. The tea I had so look forward to spilled from the smashed tea pot, and the covered plate clattered upon the wood floor. While Will staggered from the blow, I quickly grabbed my cutlass from where it rested against the foot of the bedstead. 

Having just risen from sleep, I was in quite a state of dishabille, my hair loose and wild, my feet bare, my nightdress falling from my shoulders. This worked quite to my advantage, for even when Will had recovered from the box to his ear, he stared at me in a state of rapture, not finding his tongue until I had demanded of him several times what business he had and how he dared show his face to me when he knew I would slice it to ribbons.

"Madam," he said, finally, "whatever disagreements we have had in the past, I entreat you --"

"I do not care to hear your entreaties, Will!" cried I. "You are a scoundrel. You have robbed from me what you knew to be most precious to me!"

"I beg you, Jenny --"

My name coming from the mouth of such a man was the pique that finally induced me to rage. Will was not unarmed; his sword hung at his side, and he should have drawn it long before, so I felt no dishonor in striking at him with mine. I was in no state to be accurate, however. Will easily ducked under my slice; my sword struck the wood of the doorframe, splintering it. He ran past me, into my chamber, and still I swung my sword at him. Will jumped upon my bed, and in throwing at my blade the pillows and quilts obscured my vision with flying feathers and down long enough for him to unsheathe his sword.

"I had not meant for us to meet like this,  Good Captain Jenny, but you leave me no choice." 

He posed once again, fop-like, in the frame of the window, feathers settling around him and the sun lighting his silhouette. A water ewer stood on a table to my right, and my sword being in my left hand, (I favor, as the French say, le sinistre), I seized the ewer with my right hand and pitched it at the clear outline of Will's head. It struck him squarely, breaking, and he tottered on his feet for a moment. In gaining his balance, he waved his arms wildly, his sword cutting the air and finally connecting with the window pane. The glass shattered and tinkled as it hit the floor, and I used Will's confusion to charge him. He managed to block my blow, however, and push me to the floor. In my fall, I grabbed the curtain of the bedstead on impulse. The gauze ripped, fell about me, and my limbs and sword became entangled in it. When I  managed to extract myself, Will was standing above me, sword extended.

The floors of the Rising Phoenix are quite well-maintained, despite the motley guests who find shelter under its roof, so I was able to slide away from Will on the polished surface as he thrust his sword toward me. I grabbed a handful of the down that lay on the floor and threw it at his face, where it stuck grotesquely in the blood that had run from a wound on his head produced by the ewer. I scrambled to my feet, but could not find my footing quickly enough to evade him once again. His rapier slashed at my throat, breaking the skin just under my chin. I raised my hand to the wound, and it came away bloody. I looked at Will in astonishment.

His eyes were wide with something very like terror. "I am sorry!" he cried. "Parley, Captain Jenny! We must parley!"

"You fiend!" I screamed, rising and  grabbing from the small table next to the bed the matching basin to the ewer. This, I smashed over his already wounded head and followed it with the small table itself.

Will dropped his sword and to his knees, his eyes crossed and his mouth twisted in a foolish grin. He began to giggle.

"What is there in this to find amusing?" I demanded, but he only continued to laugh quietly. His shoulders shook and twitched; he kicked at the floor.

Mr. Molko, hearing the commotion, had arrived in my doorway at this moment. "Why, it's Wicked Will!" he cried. "And he is mad! You have driven Wicked Will to distraction!"

"Oh, I have had quite enough of this," I said, thoroughly exasperated. I sheathed my sword, crossed the few steps to Will, and began to question him, each interrogation and exclamation point a blow with my scabbard. 

"You fiend! You fiend! How dare you laugh? How dare you come here? How dare you steal my precious book? How many engravings are in that book, Will? How many? Let us count them, shall we? One! Two! Three! Four! Five! Six! Six engravings! Including the frontispiece!"

Will curled up, clutching his stomach and groaning. "There --" he said weakly, "look." He gestured toward the fallen tray in the doorway. "Beneath the lid. Look."

"Do you think I care about my breakfast?" I demanded, preparing another blow.

"No!" Will cried.  And then in a voice almost tender: "Truly, Jenny, look beneath the plate's lid."

I looked at the fallen plate, the lid of which had miraculously remained atop it, then at Mr. Molko, who bent to remove it.

"No," I whispered. "It is some trick. Run."

Mr. Molko ran.

"No trick, Madam," Will whispered in return. "If you have never trusted me before, please trust me now." His fit of laughter had ceased and he drew himself up to lean against the bedstead. He coughed, producing a small flurry of feathers. "Please."

I looked from him to the covered plate and then, setting down my sword and kneeling upon the floor, drew the object that Will was so intent upon toward me.

rape of the lock frontispiece.jpg

Part Eight
A short section, revealing a cunning plan gone quite awry.

Reader, if you have not guessed what will come next, I am quite disappointed in your powers of deduction. In the telling, events often reveal to have much sense in them, but one never can perceive this when one is in the midst of living through them. So when I lifted the lid off the plate and found beneath it, a sprig of flowers bound to it with a black ribbon, the very copy of The Rape of the Lock that I had thought lost forever, I could not understand why. I dared not to touch it, as my hands were still sticky with my blood. Quite speechless, I looked to Will for an explanation.

"What is this madness?"

Will brushed the bloody feathers from his face. "It was a gift, my lady.  My vanity and pride pricked me to the action -- I was to plunder the ship that bore it and present to you the spoils, thus proving myself to deserve you. Alas, all did not go as I planned."

"Oh," said I, reaching toward him. "You wicked man. You terribly wicked man."

Will was quite pale, and the wounds in his head continued to bleed profusely. He began to laugh again, quietly but with the desperation of one who cannot catch his breath.  Between his gasps he managed to ask me, "You are not badly hurt?"

"No," I replied. "It is only a scratch. See?" I lifted my head so that he might see the small wound.

"Oh... good," he said weakly, and then fainted dead away.

Part Nine
The end, with a Moral.

The Rape of the Lock thus restored to me, I took up my old enterprises with the enthusiasm such activities deserve, and soon was easily able to pay Mrs. Fielding for the damage Will and I had done to her inn, as well as endeavor to deserve Will by replacing his ship and crew, which I had so mercilessly destroyed.

We are often guests at the Rising Phoenix, its proprietress treating what she has dubbed our "lover's quarrel" with good humor and discretion. In the chamber where that violent scene took place we have found much pleasure, but I have also found there much time for reading and contemplation. I have found in the adventures and misadventures of my unusual life that improvement of the mind is no less a struggle than the preservation of the body, and no less necessary; that, indeed, one must be willing to fight and to die for the means to success in this struggle.

Will, looking over my shoulder as I write, asks me now, "What of Love, then, my scholar captain? Must one be willing to fight and die for that?"

I must, reader, lay down my quill to supply Will with his answer, but I hope that the preceding adventure that I have related shall, in part, be an answer to you, and that in this regard, at least, you will follow the worthy example of Gentle Jenny and her Wicked Will.

Short Story: Interior Scenes

Jennifer de Guzman

In 2016, the visual storytelling project Think of a City posted my collaboration with Kate Brown. The scene depicted (which is in the post below) was inspired by this short story I wrote some years before. I hope you enjoy it!


Interior Scenes: During the Plague

by Jennifer de Guzman

On Thursday of the sixth week indoors, when the meals of ramen and canned corn, the drone of the radio news reports, the recycled air and the light filtered through the murky plastic over the windows had become nearly much too much, Sascha had taken her kitchen scissors--eight inches long, brushed stainless steel--and shorn off her hair. Reckless and bored, she had cut without any plan, grabbing strands in handfuls and closing the blades around them, leaving piles of hair like dead leaves and long black ropes curled like seaweed at her feet.

The results weren't nearly so bad as they could have been, though the uneven edges and short fringe of bangs, matched with the sallowness and hollow expression of six weeks without sunlight, without food that didn't come from a box or can or jar, without any faces but those of her neighbors as they paced the building's hallways, gave Sascha the look of a refugee child--frightened and haunted, when in fact she was neither of these things. Frustrated and restless more than anything else, she reached another breaking point when she took the sweepings from her haircut--along with the rest of her trash that would not be picked up any time foreseeable--to the garbage chute, and the widow woman across the hall observed her short hair.

"Goodness!" the woman cried, placing a hand on her chest to dramatize her surprise. "Why did you do that?"

"I just wanted a change." Sascha tried not to look at the woman.

"You should have had someone help you." The widow woman followed Sascha down the hall. "I would have been glad to help. Or you could have asked Lynn in 3B. She used to cut hair for a living, you know."

"Well, it's done now. I think I managed well enough."

The widow woman looked at her sidelong. "Well, I don't know about that, dear." She cast a glance at the contents of Sascha's wastebasket. "You know, you should have braided your hair before you cut it. I'm sure you could have donated it to some charity after... after all this is over."

 "Yes, it's too bad I didn't think of that," Sascha said.

"It's a pity to waste things, don't you think?" the woman continued. "But even in a time like this, people are so wasteful." She eyed Sascha's trash again. "Did you realize that you're throwing away that can of beans?"

"Yes," Sascha said, dumping the contents of her pail down the chute, can of beans included. "The can got punctured somehow. It's no good."

"Oh, what a pity. That must have been a can from the emergency delivery." The woman followed Sascha back down the hall. "I already had my pantry all stocked, so I didn't need to take much from them. People thought I was crazy when I bought all that food before -- whaddayacallit -- Y2K, but now it's come in handy."

"You have cans of food that are that many years--" Sascha started to say, but then stopped herself when she reached her door. "Well, it was good talking to you, Mrs. Mitchell!" She forced herself to smile as she closed the door on the widow woman.

She then strode to the bathroom, grabbed the scissors, and  sliced through the plastic membrane that covered the window in her bedroom, the window that faced the building across the alleyway. Sunlight poured through the gash in the plastic. Too bright and clean for reality, it was the sunlight that Sascha had started dreaming of two weeks into the confinement.

On the first two days, Sascha merely stretched out in front of her window, sleeping with sunlight on her face, her gray-striped cat sprawled beside her. At night, she peered through the glass at the sky as best she could, catching the wash of twinklings that were visible now that the streetlights had gone dark, and bathing in blue light when the moon was far overhead. On the third day, she ventured to look toward the ground. A dead dog lay in the alleyway, one of the yellow mongrels that had roamed the neighborhood. She wondered how long it had been there. Not the whole six weeks, surely. Sascha closed the plastic as best as she could and did not look out the window for the next two days.

When she opened the plastic again, she brought the mirror from an old compact with her. Angling it toward the sun, she sent flashes of light toward the window opposite hers. No code, no message, only the meaning: I'm here. I'm here.

She flashed the light across the alley for three minutes, listening to the steadiness of her breathing and the whir of the air recycler, watching the window for signs of life. She did this the next day and the next at the same time. On the third day, when there was still no movement at the window opposite hers, she screamed until there was no air left in her lungs, simply to have a new sound to hear. 

The neighbors pounded on their walls and ceilings and floors, and only Mrs. Mitchell knocked at her door to see if she was all right. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Mitchell," Sascha said. "I was taking a nap and I had a horrible dream, I suppose."

Mrs. Mitchell started to tell her about the soothing properties of lavender, but Sascha merely smiled pleasantly and shut the door in the woman's face.

On the fourth day, Sascha thought she saw the plastic over the window opposite ripple; on the fifth, she was certain it had. She changed the pattern of the light flashes, quickening them, drawing tiny circles across the glass, as if to say, not only I'm here, but also Show me that you're there, too.

She waited after she had finished shining the light, watching the window, listening to the sounds of air, air moving in and out of her lungs, air being pulled through the filter and pushed back out, air pumping through the apartment building--air that everyone hoped was safe to breathe. The news reports were coy in giving details; how long the generators could power the air recyclers, how long until the next emergency deliveries, how long everyone would remain shut in like this was not information anyone seemed to know. 

An empty hour, of thoughts passing through her mind and disappearing, her eyes on the glass across the alleyway. Sascha watched the window until the sun had passed from overhead. Then she peered to the ground once more. The dead dog's body still lay in the alley, flesh sunken away. She touched her fingers to the glass momentarily, looked fleetingly at the window opposite once more, and then turned away.

For the next three days, she lay on her bed, watching the shadows on her ceiling. Her cat lay near her head and purred. At night she slinked through the dark halls of the apartment building. Faint murmurs drifted through the walls and doors. Though muffled, the voices were still recognizably strained. Sharp spikes in sound indicated arguments; low churnings were the sound of weeping. Shut back in her own apartment, the dim staleness of the hallway still clinging to her, Sascha would allow herself to sit on her kitchen floor and cry quietly, the hard linoleum cold against her skin, knees drawn to her chest. She wasn't sure what emotion overtook her on such nights; longing, despair, loneliness, or just plain, pointless melancholy--they blended and blurred and washed through her, manifesting in hot tears that she let spill down her cheeks and fall onto her knees.

When the flash crossed her vision, Sascha was lying on her bed, studying the fringes of the carpet, The Rite of Spring flowing from her earbuds, discordant sounds resonating into her fingertips as she absently traced the pattern of stylized vines and flowers. At first, she thought it was merely a reflection off the chromed surface of her MP3 player. But two more flashes came quickly after it; a pause, then three more flashes in succession. Sascha turned off her player--the battery was more than half-depleted and she had no way of recharging it--and then rolled from her bed, her limbs loose and lazy. She crept, cautious but not knowing why, to the window. Hands on the sill, she paused a moment before she peered out.

A face in the window opposite looked across the alleyway. It was a man's face, wan and hungry like hers, but hardly more than a collection of reflection and shadow. Sascha smiled waveringly and raised a hand. The man across the alley did the same. They watched each other for a moment, and their smiles turned into awkward grins, both saying, What now? Sascha shrugged her shoulders, still smiling, and then dropped to her knees, crouching under the perimeter of the window. She crawled back to her bed, settled the earbuds back in her ears and pondered the face in the window.

At three o' clock the next afternoon, the light came flashing across her bedroom once more. The young man waved when she came to the window and then bent down, invisible for a moment. When he stood again he held something in his arms. An orange tabby cat. Sascha smiled, held up one finger in an indication for the man to wait, and picked up her cat from the bed. She held the gray tabby up to the window, and she and the man smirked stupidly at each other before their cats squirmed free of their embraces. The smiles slackened from their faces. Sascha knew her face had become too small for her eyes, and she worried that the man in the window opposite would read hunger in them, as she read in his. She dropped her gaze.

She hurried away from the window to her desk, where she wrote her name in thick Sharpie marker letters on a comic book backing board. But when she returned to the window, the glass across the alley was empty. She tore off a stray length of tape that had once adhered the plastic membrane to the glass, arranged the board at the center of her window, and then returned to her bed.

The next day, a bright spot of light danced across her wall, circling in spirals, rising and falling in thin stripes, disappearing when the board blocked its way through the glass. Sascha stretched out her arm, letting the light ripple over her fingers. Her mirror lay on the bedside table. She turned onto her belly, took it in her hand, and then caught the light in the glass. Fainter now, the translucent streak of white became another one of the shapes that floated across Sascha's vision, shapes that she imagined represented her hunger, her loneliness, all the empty, in between places inside of her freed from her body, less than insubstantial.

Her legs wavered when she stood and she held onto the back of her desk chair before going to the window. The room swayed and pulsed momentarily, then settled into its usual lines. Arranging herself in a posture that she imagined disguised the ragdoll limpness in her limbs, she pulled the board from the window and looked out. A sign in the opposite window, lettering in red paint: James. The sign lowered, behind it the young man's face, smiling, but tilted to one side, an expression Sascha read as saying, "I was worried." She pressed her fingers to her temples, closed her eyes--"I wasn't feeling well." James set down his sign, pressed his hand against his chest, just over his heart--the same motion Mrs. Mitchell had made upon seeing Sascha's hair, but infused with sincerity that Sascha felt through her body, tingling in her fingertips.

The next day, she pointed out the dead dog in the alley to James, and they looked at it together, seeing the shape of the bones through the parchment skin and fur patches. When she lifted her gaze again, he returned it searchingly. "Why did you show this to me?" But she could only shake her head and remove herself from the window. She had seen the pain in his face. Perhaps someone he loved had died, she thought. Perhaps he had wanted to forget that death was lurking outside the buildings. Perhaps he had turned his radio off and turned all of himself inward, as she had done. It was impossible for her to return entirely inside of herself now, though, impossible put the man across the alley away.

Sascha wondered about the red paint he had written his name with. Was he an artist? Or maybe a kindergarten teacher, using the dredges of finger paint to share some part of himself with her? Revived to life now that she had something to think about, she began eating once more, wanting to keep her mind awake so that she could continue to think and to regret. No flashes of light had darted through her room for the past three days, and Sascha turned the regret over and over, reading her memory of James's face, the glare off the glass obscuring his eyes.

She ventured out into the building's hallways again, walked blank-faced next to Mrs. Mitchell as the widow woman offered strings of advice, repeated endlessly how glad she was for the building's gas stoves and tried to arrange a meeting between Sascha and her youngest, unmarried son once "all of this" was over. Sascha soon realized that no one else talked to Mrs. Mitchell; fewer people left their apartments than had at the beginning, and when Sascha crept through the halls at night, the voices came through the walls less frequently. 

The window in her bedroom remained uncovered. Sascha sat beneath it, slouched below the sill, her bare feet warm in the sunlight, her shoulders shaking as she cried. At the same time, she laughed bitterly at herself for missing a man she knew only through the filter of glass and an alleyway's width of diseased air. Finally, recognizing her pride as useless, she retrieved her mirror from her desk drawer and sent three flashes to the window opposite. Breath held, she waited.

James appeared, his expression shy, his motions hesitant. Sascha smiled, pressed her palms together, touched her fingertips to her mouth--"I'm sorry." He returned the smile and shook his head. 

"Why?" she wanted to ask. "Why did you come back when I called you?"

But she could think of no way of gesturing this to him. Instead, she put up a hand in a motion to tell him to wait and took from her nightstand the book she had read three times since the shutting in--Death in Venice.

James shook his head when she held it up to the glass--he couldn't read the cover. He disappeared for a moment, reappeared with a small pair of binoculars in his hand. He pointed to them, then to her, asking approval. Sascha hesitated, pushing the jagged edges of her hair away from her face, feeling her bones closer than ever to her skin, the ridge of her cheekbones announcing the orbits of her eyes. But she nodded, the thought of new eyes on her features curling the corners of her mouth upward. James raised the binoculars to his eyes, lingered for a moment, and then lowered them. He motioned to her to wait and while he was away from the window, Sascha shuffled through her closet and found the opera glasses she had bought on a lark before she had gone to La Boheme two years before. 

When she returned to the window, James was holding a book. She held up her opera glasses, tilted her head as she pointed to them. He nodded in reply. Captured in the rounds of glass, his smiling face had dark smudges around the eyes and a week's stubble on the chin. Sascha studied him, the falling sensation in her stomach reminding her that he had studied her in the same way only a moment before. He had grown thinner than he should have been, as she had; his fingernails were painted black--Sascha wondered if he had done it to fend off boredom and frustration, as she had cut her hair; his dark hair hung over his forehead in dreadlocks. The aqua-covered book he held was Love in the Time of Cholera.

A blush rose in her cheeks. Sascha set her opera glasses on the sill and hid her smile behind her hand. Across the alley, James returned the smile slyly, placed his palm against the window. Sascha took her hand from her face and mimicked him, expression and gesture, feeling cold, smooth glass on her palm and wishing she felt flesh.

[Story continues below image]

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There was nothing more they could do than look at each other across the alleyway. Sometimes Sascha would sit in her window sill and try to write in her battered notebook as James, in the window opposite, painted at an easel--he was, as Sascha had suspected, an artist. When the light dipped behind the building and dimmed, he would hold the canvas to the window and show her his progress. The painting was a menagerie of chimerical animals, awash in yellow light that was not the glory of sunlight, but the bilious sheen of sickness.

Sascha associated the color with summer, the season when the slow wasting of disease transformed into devouring plague--the season that was approaching, its fingers stretching across her window sill. The sunlight grew too hot to lounge in, even for her cat, a humid heat that left the plastic membranes ringed with steamy condensation and Sascha's imagination bloated with the image of corpses rotting in the river. Anxiousness turned to unease, heavy in her chest and throat, and she looked across the alleyway with a kind of desperation that she could not quite define but nevertheless hated; it was another weakness, as much as the frailty of her body and the cloudiness of her thoughts.

Still more: her food was running low. Sascha was down to cans of kidney beans and evaporated milk. Mrs. Mitchell's pantry, jammed full of canned vegetables and chili, became a stock character in her dreams, where she ran her eyes over the bright labels and handed cans to a young man with black-painted fingernails.

Too ashamed of the tremble in her limbs and the want that grasped beneath the surface of her skin, constantly tangible no matter what her expression, she stopped posing and gesturing to James. In late evening she would smile as she paused briefly at her window, searching the face that looked back at her for that same want and finding it there, every time. 

The despair of words that she had no way of speaking to him, of emotions that had no basis in anything solid and real, pushed her into a retreat. She lay curled on her bed for three days, watching in silence as James's flashes of light played on her walls. No use feeding unfulfillable longing, Sascha told herself. No use creating obsession. But the flashes of light soon turned into sound, into the cold tap of something hitting her window like hailstones. Sascha finally rose from her bed, steadying herself by fixing her vision on the opera glasses on her window sill, and looked out the window.

 James was there, closer than he had ever been to her. He was leaning from his open window. His lips formed the shape of her name. "Sascha!" the shape of his mouth said. "Open your window!" He gestured as if lifting a sash.

She stepped back from the window, startled and shaking her head. But James continued to form words. "Look!" He pointed down toward the alley. When Sascha peered over the edge of the building, squinting through the glare on the glass, she saw only the empty street. The dead dog was gone. She looked back up at James, who smiled, wearily, as she would smile now if she tried. But she did not try. Hand against her glass, she felt the heat that would disappear as night came, turn cold as it went on. She could not open the window.

"I'm sorry," she said, but she couldn't tell if James could understand. He had said her name, strange thing to hear. Was there longing in it, as there would be in her voice if she said his name? She tried to hear it again in her mind, willed James to call her again, but the sound had already gone fuzzy in her fatigue, and James was silent. Sascha pushed the tears off her face. She was too tired to cry, and they had fallen emptily, without a sob, and kept on falling. She turned away from the window, sunk to the ground. Behind her, just outside the glass was a possibility of something, Sascha understood -- a moment, an episode, even a life when it had seemed that all that was ending, when there would be no more moments to string together into stories, nothing more to write about or paint.

Nothing to say. Sascha closed her eyes and whispered. "Glass, light, love, cholera, death, Venice. Glass, light..." She could not say it again but waited, silently, hoping for or dreading, she could not tell which, a tap on her door, a voice in the hallway.

THE END

Publishing News! Introducing... Beauty Queen!

Jennifer de Guzman

Today is World Book Day, so it's fitting to observe the occasion by presenting Beauty Queen, a new graphic novel coming in fall by myself and artist Jamie Jo Parreno! It will be published by Charmz, a imprint of Papercutz that publishes romances for tweens and teens. 

Here is the official description:

“Mamalarang! Witch!” These are words that have followed young Renata for most of her life, all because she has a power that no one quite understands. Living in the squalor of Manila’s Smokey Mountain — a slum within a garbage dump — Renata uses her power to communicate with insects to help her with the daily task of collecting recyclable rubbish. As her family ekes out a living, the flip side of Manila is one where glamorous Beauty Queens reign supreme. When a flamboyant talent coach spots Renata in the market, he gives her the chance to be plucked from poverty into the heady world of Filipino pageants. It’s a chance to help her family that she can’t refuse. But even as she is groomed in poise and beauty, her past and the plight of the poor in Manila haunts her. And her secret power just keeps strengthening. Renata knows what she has to do, but it means revealing her power — and exposing herself to shame and scorn. Will the love of a fellow pageant girl help Renata find the strength to set her power free?

And here's some beautiful concept art by Jamie! (It was created when our working title was Miss Mamalarang.)

BALLOONS AND GHOSTS - A QUICK NOTE ON READABILITY AND COMICS!

Jennifer de Guzman

Superhero comics tend to have too many word balloons.

Look at this mess from Amazing Spider-Man Annual #42. Do you even want to start reading it? There's very little room for the art to say anything in pages like this. 

 written by Dan Slott, art by Cory Smith, Terry Pallot, and Brian Reber, lettering heroically managed by Joe Carmagna

written by Dan Slott, art by Cory Smith, Terry Pallot, and Brian Reber, lettering heroically managed by Joe Carmagna

Contrast it with these two pages from Ghosts by Raina Telgemeier, which also have both narrative and dialogue.

 by Raina Telgemeier, colors by Braden Lamb

by Raina Telgemeier, colors by Braden Lamb

The figures in Amazing Spider-Man Annual #42 are so much more rendered and speak so many more words, but they say SO MUCH LESS than Raina's expressive characters in Ghosts.

Yes, these comics are for two different audiences. Two different markets. But the market for children’s and young adult comics is thriving and growing, while superhero comics are struggling to find a way into the readership that YA comics have established.

Diversity, Creativity, and Comics!

Jennifer de Guzman

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I am so very honored and excited to have served on the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics for 2018. The winner will be announced at a ceremony on Friday, February 16, right after the Comic Creator Conference (C3!) in Long Beach, right before the Long Beach Comics Expo, where I will be a guest.

Here is my schedule of panels. Please come out to Long Beach if you can! It’s looking to be a great event.


Friday February 16
C3! 4:50 - 5:35 PM

Session 3: Getting Press Attention for Creative Works

Speakers: Three of the top journalists in the world of comics, Heidi MacDonald, Jennifer de Guzman, and Evan Narcisse (each of whom has worked as a comics writer or editor as well) discuss the challenges of how creators – especially those without the backing of a major publisher – can best get attention for their projects.


Saturday February 17
1:00- 2:00 PM 

Fanbase Press Presents: The Impact of Latinx Creators and Readers on Comics

Quince is a 15-issue comic book series being released in English and Spanish about teenager Lupe who discovers she has superpowers at her quinceañera. Comadres y Comics is a podcast hosted by three Latina women hoping to highlight the role that Latinos have in the comic book industry, not only as creators, but as consumers and fans. Join Quince creator Sebastian Kadlecik, Comadres y Comics hosts Kristen Parraz, Sara Bazan, and Jennifer Lopez, as well as writer and journalist Jennifer de Guzman (Publishers Weekly, Half a Person), as they discuss the importance of inclusivity and representation in the comic book medium in a Q&A session moderated by Barbra Dillon (Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief).  (Room 103)


Saturday February 17
2:00 - 3:00 PM

Rise of the On-Screen Black Superhero

Are Black Panther and Black Lightning the new normal or just a momentary trend? And what about other races and ethnicities and the “white-washing” seen in recent superhero and science fiction movies? Join writers Matt Wayne (Cannon Busters), Evan Narcisse (Rise of the Black Panther, io9), and Marc Bernadin (Castle Rock, co-host of Fatman on Batman) in a thought-provoking panel led by writer Jennifer de Guzman. (Room 104A)


Sunday February 18
1:00 - 2:00 PM

To the Stars! Science Fiction

Creators with one foot in both worlds discuss the differences between creating science fiction for comic book projects and other media. With Barbara Randall Kesel, Marc Bernardin, Jennifer de Guzman, Cecil Castellucci, and David Gallaher.