Churning Literary Butter

So my manuscript is with 11 amazing agents right now – 3 fulls and 7 partials ranging from 10-50 pages. I just got a lovely rejection from a great agent saying there was nothing wrong with my manuscript, just that he didn’t click and had to be very selective in taking on clients, which made me feel great, as instead of getting feedback to improve on as I was in 2016, that means my manuscript is at the point where I just need the right agent to come along and fall in love with it, like the Taylor Swift song, where some literary magic happens. One agent from #DVPit has already said they were immediately sucked in to the first twenty pages and had a mighty need to read the rest and extended me a full request this weekend, almost overnight, and she is oodles of awesome. I’m pretty excited about that one. 🙂

My top picks are Brandon Sanderson’s agent, Meg Cabot’s agent, a new agent at Aevitas that seems like my spirit animal, and a former St. Martin’s Press Editor that is amazing and fun. All the rest are amazing too – I only query agents I think would be good fits for me.

So I still have eleven shots at making this manuscript work, which is more than the two I had in February. Doing revisions for the first two agents opened the door to so much possibility. And I’m ready to play with Ivan Kupalo again, to make it even better. I think chances are pretty good that I have a shot at a literary agent – the rejections I’ve gotten (3 out of 15 so far) have all been complimentary and one Big Name Agent with lots of six figure deals even asked for me to resubmit if I ever revised the beginning. It was good to put away Ivan Kupalo and work on Chwal, and I’m hoping to finish Chwal for Pitch Wars in August. But I might go with Space Oddity because that is such a fun manuscript.

I am so grateful to all these amazing literary agents that have cheered me on and believed in me, even if they ultimately did not take me on. When I cried at my first full rejection from Neil Gaiman’s agent at the tender age of 21, at 24 I take rejections with gusto and save them in an email folder so I can carry around a bag of them like Meg Cabot does (she actually hides it under the bed), maybe frame them on my wall (especially the one from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s agent on the full he got back to me in six days, haha).

Something magic is afoot. My second short story may soon be getting published by Pantheon Magazine as it moved past the fiction team and is under consideration by the editors. Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel. I finally feel like I’ve got novel-writing a little bit figured out, and I’m barely 24. If you had told the 21 year old who had never completed a novel in her life that in three years time she would have gotten full or partial requests from the top ten fantasy agents in the business she wouldn’t have believed you. My dreams are so close to fruition, and at Beltane’s balefire I pulled an envelope with my future Tarot card – 8 of Cups, the wish card – your dreams are close at hand.

My dreams are so close. Like stars I can pluck from the sky. And it all happened because I worked through writing horrible stories since the age of 11 onwards to ones I’m proud of now. I wrote horrible query letters for two years before I learned how to actually write something that didn’t give agents a gag reflex. I blame youth and stupidity. 😛

So basically I’m just really excited. I’m going to let Ivan Kupalo rest and I’m kind of actually hoping for a conditional R&R or editorial agent as I would love to rework some bits and bobs after having not touched it since January. In the interim I have two novels to work on, flash fiction, short stories, and reams of poetry.

Even if I never get an agent, I’ll still be happy, because writing is like breathing to me.

And that’s enough to churn butter.

Waiting and Excitement

So I just got another partial request for my manuscript – meaning Ivan Kupalo is with five agents total, with about a dozen queries waiting on a response.  That’s three fulls and two partials out, and #DVPit is coming up on Wednesday.  This will be my first time pitching the revised manuscript as Adult, not YA, so we’ll see how that goes!

I’m really excited about all the fulls I have out and am obsessively checking my email only to find spam – I can’t help it!  I hope at least one literary agent falls in love with Ivan Kupalo as much as I loved writing it, but it’s okay if they don’t, I have three other projects I want to write Space Oddity first (1/4 of the way done), then Birds Away and Spider King.

Also Simon and Schuster just requested my romance novel, so we’ll see how that goes.  It’s also with St. Martin’s Press.

Things are looking exciting, and my friend said this really good quote with writing:

If things are getting hard, it means you’re close to success.

Chwal: Part 3

Part 1Part 2

Each of the angels, I learn, is a gear in a clock: put them all together and the hours of the universe turn.  As the weeks go on, they teach me – to sing in Heaven’s language, to dance the steps Jacob’s family circled in the desert, to revel in the beauty God planted on Earth.  My soul thrums with their devotion, and I feel pure as a mountain spring.

I start working in soup kitchens with momma and pa and fill piles of notebooks with prose, imagining words plucked from the Tree of Life.  I give back the love the angels pour into me to my small Louisiana town, and it’s hard to notice, but sometimes a flower will creep up through the snow where I step, and jiminy cricket if that ain’t something.

But for all that glory comes darkness.  Pain drawn to me, like I’m some candle in the pitch-black gloam.  We read a Rilke poem at Sunday school about angels: beauty is but the beginning of terror.  I wonder if Rilke walked with angels, too.  Who the other Guardians were.

The blackness comes every night now, swirling outside my window, calling me.  May, it says, I see you.  I hide under the covers in a cold sweat.

Raff takes to sleeping at the foot of my bed, snoring like a foghorn, sword at his side.  He doesn’t even bother to cover his scars now, and god dang it if he won’t tell me how the despair knows my name.  “Don’t worry about it, May-flower.  He won’t hurt you.  It’s just like a moth to a flame.  After all, you’re bright as the sun.  Just stay in and get some rest.  You’re safe as long as you don’t go outside.”

Too bad Raff ain’t that smart.  He shoulda known by now that giving me orders makes me do the exact opposite.  On the coldest night of the year, the darkness thrums, and I just get this feeling that whatever out there is waiting.  The only way I can get the darkness to stop taunting me is if I give it a good thwacking.  I take my dusty plastic light saber outta my closet for old time’s sake and climb down the gutter when Raff’s comatose.  Maybe it was a sin, but I stuffed him full of cookies and milk to get him to pass out.  I probably ain’t a Guardian after all: pretty sure Jesus didn’t manipulate angels with desert.

The black is so thick I can’t see.  I switch the blue glow of my lightsaber on and use it to illuminate the despair, earning scratches and bruises as I slide down the shingles, over the roof fronting the door, and slip down the gutter.

The Man who for so long has been watching me is there, waiting by a flickering lamppost, puffing on a cigar in a bowler hat like one of those villains in pa’s old films.  He sure can pull off a suit.  Shadows cling to him like a caul, and I can’t tell if it’s silk or bits of night.

He breathes out a snake of smoke. It squiggles up to the stars.  For however dark he is on the outside, there’s fire in the depths of his mouth.

I hesitate.

The Man in Black laughs.

Be strong, I think, like Leia or Maya Angelou or Zora Neale Hurston.  This is a smart woman’s world, after all, and smart women always win.  I point my lightsaber at him.  “You lost, mister?  This ain’t even a crossroads: it’s a cul-de-sac. I don’t have any deals to make or a soul left to sell.  Raff made that pretty clear a while ago: I’m owned, basically Heaven’s property.  Not that this Guardian thing doesn’t come with its perks.”

The shadows condense around him, leaving only flickering pitch eyes and a hooked nose that looks like it’s been broken a dozen times.  Black fog gone, I can see beyond my lightsaber’s bulb.  I turn its electric buzz off.

He chuckles all deep like a gorge, the kind I go swimming in in quarry pools with Raff.

I cross my arms.  “Not much of a talker, are ya?  You ain’t much fun at parties, I bet.”

The Man in Black takes another drag, then blows smoke in the shape of a beautiful woman at my face.  She dances and dissolves at the tip of my nose.

I swat the fumes away, irritated.  “Not a gentleman, either.  You’re dumb as a doorknob – don’t you know smoking causes cancer?  Granpa died that way.  You don’t wanna go like him, with sticky needles in your skin, hooked up to rattling machines.”

The Man in Black stamps out his cigarette with the clack of a Cuban heel.  “Poison’s in my nature.  Anyways, a few cigars never hurt anyone.  Say, little dancer, want one?”

I draw back, raising my fists.  “I’m not a smoker or a dancer.”

He fixes his cufflinks.  They’re shaped like cobras.  “Joker, smoker, midnight broker – you will be one day, ballerina, dealing in magic in societes for the sick, broken, and poor.  The desperate will flock to your light – someone that burns as bright as you can’t avoid it.  And oh, the music of your soul!  You’re dancing already: your heart’s a drum.  Every movement is a step closer to your grand finale.  In the end we bow together, go down together.  We’re counterparts, you and me, my dear.”

“I think all the fumes have made your head squiggly.  You don’t make a lotta sense, mister… mister…?”

“Mister Carrefour, spirit of the crossroads.”

“This is a cul-de-sac.”

“Close enough.  Everything moves in circles anyways – life, songs, psalms, waltzes.  We rise and we fall, take new names, play new games.   Well, want to make a wager?”

I poke him with my light saber.  It doesn’t touch him, just slips through him like a sword through water.  “I don’t make deals with strangers, much less bets, Mister Carrefour.  Momma raised me to be a lady, after all.”

Mister Carrefour looks up at the sky with finely ground pepper eyes, the irises bloody red.  “Your too-many-greats grandma did. Mistress Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  She bet her soul for power – she could bend judges and the jury with a hot hot pepper, stroke Lafayette’s ego, dance with Damballah at the bayou on St. John’s Eve and bring blessings to her people.  She struck a deal with me for the betterment of all New Orleans.  After all, all magic passes through me and my magic leaves, flower child.  You’ve got the same voodoo blood in you, little girl.  Walking the line between angels and lwa.  Now don’t ask me if it’s gris-gris dust or a fete you’re throwing, but a strange wind’s blowing your way.  Kanzo comes, lave tets go, but the song remains the same.  Dancer that I am, I hitched a ride in on your tailwind years ago.  I like this place: Snake’s Hollow.  Little country town outside New Orleans.  It’d be a shame to see it go to the dark side.  It’d be a shame to see it disappear.”

I stick up my nose in defiance.  “What exactly are you saying, sir?”

Mister Carrefour lets the blackness thread through his fingers like a fish.  “That the blackness in this town has a taste: my older brother saw to that.  Sweet, sweet angel cake, and a little bit of devil’s food from you.  Legba built up the wards strong around the people of Snake’s Hollow, nearly taking it off my map.  But are they strong enough, I wonder, when my spirits come to play?  The Ghede, the Kalfous, the Ogous. Life’s a playground, after all, and my Petro crowd likes nothing better than drums that hum like sin.”

I put the glowing lightsaber under my eyes so my face looks scary.  At least, I hope it does.  “Snake’s Hollow is my home.  Ain’t no magic to it.  And you missed Leggie by four years.  He’s dust in the wind like that song.”

Mister Carrefour laughs like black coffee and ghost peppers.  He takes a drag of his cigar.  Pretty gross, but what else to expect from the Man in Black?  At least he’s got style.  Bet he listens to Satchmo.

“Legba ain’t gone, little girl.  All you needed to do was call him.  I can show you how.”

I narrow my stubborn eyes.  Momma says I look like a mule when I do that.  Maybe it will make him go away.  “I don’t know about Marie Laveau, and I don’t know about magic.  Mess with that stuff and it bites you like a gator.  Leggie will come back when he needs to.”

Mister Carrefour chuckles again.  It annoys me.  “All it takes is some cornmeal and some rum and some candles.  Didn’t your mother teach you that?”

“Momma’s a good Christian, not a witch.”

“I bet she is.  Too bad you kids forget about us.  The lwa are hungry, you know.  Why else do you think I eat the blackness in people’s dreams?  Don’t get enough offerings these days.  Nobody likes Mister Carrefour.  Not even little missus mambo.”

He pulls a buffalo nickel out of his pocket and flips it.  It lands tails up.

“I just made a bet with myself: whether I should help you or not, little missus.  Guess I will.  I got some fiery rum and old cornmeal left over from last night’s fete.  Even got a St. Peter candle somewhere in my cliff-deep pockets.  Gotta pay the piper, I’d wager.”

I step back.  “Is it okay to watch magic?  Or is that a sin too?”

“Ask dear Raphael.  Or don’t.  I sent my spirits to his dreams.  Ever wonder why he cries out at night?  He’s your shield.”

I wince.  “I think you’re evil, Mister Carrefour.”

Mister Carrefour draws out the materials to summon Leggie.  “I’m a lotta things, child.  Angel, devil, lwa, loser.  Ain’t nobody likes Mister Carrefour.”

“You said that already.”

He finishes drawing a veve – the kind in those hokey Voodoo shops on Bourbon street.  He shrugs.  “I’ll admit I’m a bit bitter about my popularity.  Humans won’t even look at me when I come down in a fete.  Guess I’m lucky.  They don’t bother me or my friends unless they want to curse somebody.  Now that’s a fun time.”

“It doesn’t sound so kind to me.”

“Guess it isn’t, then.  Alright, here’s Legba’s veve.  A lot prettier than mine.  Legba likes to be fancy.  Wonder if he’ll bring that little yappy dog.”  Mister Carrefour lights candles and chants in Creole.  He pours rum onto the flames and they combust.  I take shelter behind a dumpster.

“You sure this’ll work, Mister Carrefour?” I call, half-ready to scale the gutter and go get Raff.

He fans the flames.  “As sure as sin, ballerina.”

“I got two left feet.”

“It’s a metaphor, baby mambo.”

“Isn’t a black mamba a kinda venomous snake?”

“You got bite like one, missus.  Mambo, mamba, one and the same – you’re a dangerous little thing.”

Snoopy barks, then comes bounding at me.  Out of the flames step Leggie in a bathrobe.

“Kalfou, you idiot!  Why’d you wake me up?”  Leggie looks around, scritching his bald head as he examines my cul-de-sac.  His rheumy eyes widen and he smacks his whorled cane on the ground.  “You stirring up trouble in my May’s neighborhood, brother?  To the depths with you, you crooked, crooked fool.”

I pet Snoopy, who hides from the flames behind me.  She’s shivering and yappy.  I come back out from behind the dumpster.

“The angels and I got a deal, Legba.  You know I like deals.  Especially ones at crossroads-

“Cut it out, Kalfou.  I’m too old for this.  You touch a hair on May’s head and I’ll beat your hide with my cane all the way to Gineh.  May, May, child, you there?”  Leggie shields his gaze from the flames.

“Over here, Papa,” I call, scooping Snoopy up into my arms.  She smells like summer grass and licks my face.

Relief washes over Leggie’s face.  “You had me scared to death, May,” Leggie says, pushing Mister Carrefour – or Kalfou, I don’t even know, what a freak! – aside with his cane as he hobbles over to me.  Leggie adjusts his straw hat then hugs me, real hard.  “Didn’t Raff tell you never to leave your room when the blackness comes?”  Leggie’s voice is stern.

“Raff didn’t tell me a lotta things.  Like where you went.  Or that I’m a Guardian.”

Leggie sighs, then brushes a curl behind my ears.  “I like the curls, baby doll.  You make me proud.  I knew this day would come.”  The keys to the Heavenly Gates jangle-jing on Leggie’s cane as he turns to Kalfou.  Mister Carrefour?  I bet the Man in Black has a lotta names, none of them very savory.

Frosty grass crunches under my feet, but Leggie is hot as jambalaya.  “You do this again, brother, and I won’t be so lenient.  You’re overstepping your bounds.”

“Boundaries shift, brother.  May-flower needs me, now more than ever.  Me and my spirits.  Just like Laveau did.  I taught Laveau her tricks, I’ll teach her too-many-greats granddaughter.  To dance with snakes, to summon the lwa.  She’s already met half her celestial family.  The angels can’t keep her all to themselves.  Us lwa, we got our claim.  She’ll need all of us, when the time comes.”

“What time?” I interrupt.

Kalfou licks his lips like he’s at a barbecue.  “Bondye be calling, little dancer.  You gonna fight for him?  For us?  Us lwa, we in bad shape.  Marinette Dry Arms wants you dead.  But you’re the key to our survival.  Marinette ain’t thinking straight.  She’s all fire death and blood.  Black swine, black roosters, rougarou amassing in the swamps on her side.  She’s setting out for Snake’s Hollow soon.  She don’t much like angels and lwa working together.  She don’t much like Bondye – our God – at all.”

I sit with Raff at dinner the next day, almost blue from shame.  I don’t dare tell Raff I went out into the darkness.  I ain’t gonna tell him we summoned Leggie, or that Mister Carrefour gave me his card.  I didn’t even know lwa had business cards.

“You hold this card over a candle flame, baby mambo, and I’ll be there.”

It’s monogrammed with a swirly M and C in the shape of two snakes.

I ain’t raring to try it out soon, if ever.

Legba fixed me up with a hug and made his dark horse of a brother go away.  “You ain’t gotta worry about Kalfou, baby doll.  Tell Raff I said hi.  Things be a bit busy up above.  Legba’s gotta hobble home and sleep.  C’mon, Snoopy.  I’ll tell you more about Marinette later, May-flower.”

Who’s this Marinette, I wonder?

That’s the problem with lwa.  They leave a lotta things unsaid.

I’m chewing on a green bean that’s real stringy when momma comes into the room, dressed in a paisley skirt and pretty blue top.  She’s got high heels on and is singing as she places a steaming bowl of mashed potatoes in front of me and pa.  Raff is reading the newspaper, but he looks over the front page at the steaming taters.  I better sneak him some later.  We all sit down, say grace (I was eating before that, whoops) and dinner begins.

I’m cutting up some barbecue chicken when I catch momma outta the corner of my eyes.

“Momma?”

“Yeah May?”

Pa looks up from his taters.  Raff closes the paper and adjusts his reading glasses.

“Who’s Marie Laveau?”

Momma and pa share a look like they just stepped on an open grave.  I swallow a piece of chicken, one of the good bits without gristle.

“She’s our ancestor, sweetheart, on daddy’s side,” momma says.  “It’s where our family name comes from: it’s French.  She was a very famous woman in New Orleans back in the day: led the Haitian spiritual community and danced in Congo Square.  There’s a lot of fiction about her.  Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering,” I mutter, stuffing my mouth with taters so I don’t have to talk anymore.

Raff clears his throat, then elbows me.  I ignore him.

My parents give each other another look then go back to talking about pa’s legal practice and how momma’s winter garden is.

“May,” Raff whispers, even though he can’t be heard.  “Did you go outside in the black?”

My kitty slinks up and purrs, rubbing against Raff’s leg.  I cross my fingers behind my back for old times’ sake and look at the floor.  “Uh, no.”

Raff narrows his honey eyes.  “May Octavie Laveau, are you lying to your guardian angel?”

The blueness of shame creeps up again.  I blush.  “Umm.”

Raff rubs his brow all exasperated-like.  “You met Kalfou, didn’t you.  And he told you.  Things.  Things about the Petro.”

“Leggie saved me!  Snoopy was there too!  I was just making sure we were safe, Raff!  I even had my light saber.”

“That won’t protect you, May-flower!  Kalfou’s a nasty trickster and a smoker to boot.  Stay far away from him.”

“Then why does he have all of Snake’s Hollow as his playground?  His blackness is like smoke all over the town!”

My kitty purrs.  Raff pets her in worry.

“The lwa are strong in Louisiana, May.  They’re intercessors like angels, saints by one name, the vestiges of African gods by another.  God, Bondye, whatever you call Him – we serve the same Man Upstairs.  Some lwa are friends with the angels, like my good man Legba, but some are downright hostile, like Marinette.”

“Who is she?”

“One of the leaders of the lwa.  She led Haiti in the revolution against the French masters.  She doesn’t think straight half the time, too drunk off black rooster blood, and the same thing she did to the French, she wants to do to the angels.  Marinette, and some of her unsavory friends like her husband Ti-Jean and their bloodthirsty Bizango and loup garou servants, think there’s only room enough in Gineh – or Paradise – for one kind of spirit, and it ain’t angels.  And any mortals the angels mentor – and who keeps the angels tied to the lwa – well by my Father, Marinette wants them gone.”

I shiver and grab my kitten.  Not really a kitty anymore, just a fat calico, but boy does she act like one.  She paws my legs and nestles into my lap, so heavy.  I gotta stop spoiling her with cream.

“She sounds scary.  What can I do?”

“Don’t go out in the blackness, May!  Listen to me, please.”

I sigh and try not to roll my eyes.  “Alright Raff, I promise.”

Marie Laveau, Marie Laveau… I think to myself, going through pa’s library in his office late at night when my parents – and Raff – are upstairs asleep.  The name is like music in my ears, and I sing to myself, Voodoo Queen of New Orleans.  I know Zora Neale Hurston did anthropological work in New Orleans during the Great Depression as ma told me – she’s gotta know something about my famous ancestor that gave our family its name!

Just when I’m climbing the rickety shelf behind pa’s desk, my hands grow hot, and the divine energy that flows through me that the angels have been teaching me to master grows piping hot like a tea kettle, leading my fingers to caress a worn paperback.  There – an energy zing like an electric socket!  I pull the book down and climb off the shelf:

Zora Neale Hurston: Of Mules and Men.  I gasp.  The pages light with my magic and open to a specific passage, where Zora Neale Hurston had visited Marie Laveau’s supposed nephew, now an ancient hoodoo doctor – he must be long dead now, a vestige of an old age where magic still bubbled under the skin of New Orleans.  Now it’s all just hokey shops in French quarter and drunken smelly tourists on Bourbon street.  I smooth the page and read from Zora’s journals:

I made three more trips before he would talk to me in any way that I could feel encouraged. He talked about Marie Laveau because I asked. I wanted to know if she was really as great as they told me. So he enligthened my ignorance and taught me. We sat before the soft coal fire in his grate.

“Time went around pointing out what God had already made. Moses had seen the Burning Bush. Solomon by magic knowed all wisdom. And Marie Laveau was a woman in New Orleans.”

“She was born February 2, 1827. Anybody don’t believe I tell the truth can go look at the book in St. Louis Cathedral. Her mama and her papa, they wasn’t married and his name was Christophe Glapion.”

“She was very pretty, one of the Creole Quadroons and many people said she would never be a hoodoo doctor like her mama and her grandma before her. She liked to go to the balls very much where all the young men fell in love with her. But Alexander, the great two-headed doctor felt the power in her and so he tell her she must come to study with him. Marie, she rather dance and make love, but one day a rattlesnake come to her in her bedroom and spoke to her. So she went to Alexander and studied. But soon she could teach her teacher and the snake stayed with her always.”

“She has her house on St. Anne Street and people come from the ends of America to get help from her. Even Queen Victoria ask her help and send her a cashmere shawl with money also.”

“Now, some white people say she hold hoodoo dance on Congo Square every week. But Marie Laveau never hold no hoodoo dance. That was a pleasure dance. They beat the drum with the shin bone of a donkey and everybody dance like they do in Hayti. Hoodoo is private. She give the dance the first Friday night in each month and they have crab gumbo and rice to eat and the people dance. The white people come look on, and think they see all, when they only see a dance.”

“The police hear so much about Marie Leveau that they come to her house in St. Anne Street to put her in jail. First one come, she stretch out her left hand and he turn round and round and never stop until some one come lead him away. Then two come together she put them to running and barking like dogs. Four come and she put them to beating each other with night sticks. The whole station force come. They knock at her door. She know who they are before she ever look. She did work at her altar and they all went to steep on her steps. “

“Out on Lake Pontchartrain at Bayou St. John she hold a great feast every year on the Eve of St. John’s, June 24th. It is Midsummer Eve, and the Sun give special benefits then and need great honor. The special drum be played then. It is a cowhide stretched over a half-barrel. Beat with a jaw-bone. Some say a man but I think they do not know. I think the jawbone of an ass or a cow. She hold the feast of St. John’s partly because she is a Catholic and partly because of hoodoo.”

“The ones around her altar fix everything for the feast. Nobody see Marie Leveau for nine days before the feast. But when the great crowd of people at the feast call upon her, she would rise out of the waters of the lake with a great communion candle burning upon her head and another in each one of her hands. She walked upon the waters to the shore. As a little boy I saw her myself. When the feast was over, she went back into the lake, and nobody saw her for nine days again.”

“On the feast that I saw her open the waters, she looked hard at me and nodded her head so that her tignon shook. Then I knew I was called to take up her work. She was very old and I was a lad of seventeen. Soon I went to wait upon her Altar, both on St. Anne Street and her house on Bayou St. John’s.”

“The rattlesnake that had come to her a little one when she was also young was very huge. He piled great upon his altar and took nothing from the food set before him. One night he sang and Marie Leveau called me from my sleep to look at him and see. ‘Look well, Turner,’ she told me. ‘No one shall hear and see such as this for many centuries.’”

“She went to her Great Altar and made great ceremony. The snake finished his song and seemed to sleep. She drove me back to my bed and went again to her Altar.”

“The next morning, the great snake was not at his altar. His hide was before the Great Altar stuffed with spices and things of power. Never did I know what become of his flesh.”

I flip ahead, anxious but excited by the power Zora spun into the words of this hoodoo doctor and the majesty of Marie Laveau, who seems to have never truly died, but lived on in the minds of her family, of New Orleans, and the lwa she befriended:

By the time that Turner had finished his recitation he wasn’t too conscious of me. In fact he gave me the feeling that he was just speaking, but not for my benefit. He was away off somewhere. He made a final dramatic gesture with open hands and hushed for a minute. Then he sank deeper into himself and went on: “But when she put the last curse on a person, it would be better if that man was dead, yes.”

With an impatient gesture he signaled me not to interrupt him

“She set the altar for a curse with black candles that have been dressed in vinegar. She would write the name of the person to be cursed on the candle with a needle. Then she place fifteen cents in the lap of Death upon the altar to pay the spirit to obey her orders. Then she place her hands flat upon the table and say the curse-prayer.”

“‘To The Man God: Oh great One, I have been sorely tried by my enemies and have been blasphemed and lied against. My good thoughts and my honest actions have been turned to bad actions and dishonest ideas. My home has been disrespected, my children have been cursed and ill-treated. My dear ones have been back-bitten and their virtue questioned. O Man God, I beg that this that I ask for my enemies shall come to pass: “‘That the South wind shall scorch their bodies and make them wither and shall not be tempered to them. That the North wind shall freeze their blood and numb their muscles and that it shall not be tempered to them. That the West wind shall blow away their life’s breath and will not leave their hair grow, and that their finger nails shall fall off and their bones shall crumble.That the East wind shall make their minds grow dark, their sight shall fail and their seed dry up so that they shall not multiply.”

Turner again made that gesture with his hands that meant the end. Then he sat in a dazed silence. My own spirits had been falling all during the terrible curse and he did not have to tell me to be quiet this time. After a long period of waiting I rose to go. “The Spirit say you come back tomorrow,” he breathed as I passed his knees. I nodded that I had heard and went out. The next day he began to prepare me for my initiation ceremony, for rest assured that no one may approach the Altar without the crown, and none may wear the crown of power without preparation. It must be earned.

I nearly cuss.  “Zora was initiated?”

Thoughts bubble in my head: that the angels had kept Kalfou, had kept Leggie, had kept half my heritage from me all my life – the Laveau blood that flows through my veins.  I want to be ready when Marinette comes, and though I can perform small miracles – parlor tricks the angels have taught me, water into wine slipped into the carafe at dinner for my momma and pa, bread multiplied for the homeless’s soup, spring flowers to bring joy in the harshest winter months to the people of Snake’s Hollow – I suddenly know in my bones that true magic awaited in the peristyle, in what Leggie had told me long ago was the holy house voodoo societes practiced in and drew down the spirits and ancestors.

Legba will never take me.  Neither would Raff.  But I just might know a dark horse that will.

I go straight to the kitchen.  I take fresh cornmeal and pour it into a jar.  I grab a matchbox and go to the center of the cul-de-sac, families all asleep now that it’s midnight.  I make two intersecting lines with diagonal snakes in a makeshift cornmeal veve.  Taking the lighter, with the blackness thick as blood, I turn it on, take Mister Carrefour’s business card, and let it burn.

The smell of Cuban cigars and cayenne pepper washes over me.  Florida water, which granmama used to get from the store and sprinkle on the porch threshold to keep out supposed demons.  Overwhelming, smoky cologne.

Mister Carrefour spreads his fingers wide like spider webs and waves them by his head like a circus freak.  “Didn’t think you’d come calling so soon, baby mambo.”

I square my shoulders and place my hands firm on my hips: “Take me to the other lwa.  I want to learn about my heritage: about voodoo.  If it’s good enough for Zora, it’s good enough for me.  I need to know about Marie Laveau, and what the angels are using me for.  I need to be ready for Marinette, whenever that haint comes calling.”

Mister Carrefour twirls a dreadlock between gloved fingers and laughs like gunpowder water.  “Alright then, little missus, to Snakes Spring we go.”

“Wait, what?  But that’s in the middle of the woods.  Billy Morse said it’s haunted – that Indians used to drown people there.  That’s not the good spring – the good spring is Calf Spring.  That’s where the tourists buy their dinky water from.  Snakes Spring is cursed.”

“All the better for me.  I do love a biting good bone-rattling curse, and death, though the Baron’s forte, is also my especialty.”

Mister Carrefour claps his hands.  A giant black draft horse-drawn carriage appears.  The wheels are writhing black snakes biting their own tails, round and smooth like tires. The spokes are femurs.  I shiver in fear.

“That thing looks downright awful.  Ain’t no way I’m riding in that,” I say, listening to the wheel snakes hiss.

Mister Carrefour adjusts his black top hat and snickers.  “Now now now, ain’t well for Bondye’s Chwal to be afraid of anything.  Come on, bless your little heart, hop inside, off to the woods we go.”

I climb into the haunted carriage and Mister Carrefour takes the reins and the draft horses gallop off, mouths foaming as they whicker.  The wind is wild as a woman shaking dust from a rug.

“What do you mean, Bondye’s Chwal?” I call over the gale.  I grip the seat as the steeds’ hooves start crushing velvet night under their keratin and we gallop off into the air.  It’s nothing like Raphael’s flying, all shaky, and for once I’m actually afraid of heights.

Kalfou’s eyes flash alizarin crimson.  “Vessel, vassal, Vaseline – you’re the Chwal, a balm to the world, a healing force, Bondye made flesh with Voodoo blood to spice things up.  All my blackness and darkness, Marinette Dry Arm’s fire, Ti Jean’s iron shavings – you could swallow them all down and spit up spring water and rainbows.  It’s a little like being the Messiah, but less Apocalyptic, and more what happens each generation: the angels choose Bondye’s successor, and she brings balance to the spiritual realms.  It’s always a young girl that knows too much and speaks too often and is too damn stubborn for her own good.  She’s also brave beyond her years, just like you.  No doubt about it, baby mambo, you’re Bondye’s Chwal.  His spirit rides you.  He be your head spirit.  You got great magic about you, deep wanga at work.”

The stars are so close I could pull them from the sky like onions after a rainstorm.  The femurs rattle and the horses neigh.  The moon is a great big steamboat on the Mississippi and Mister Carrefour is the Devil I dance with in the pale moonlight, only the dance is our words, wits clashing.

“Doesn’t Chwal mean horse in Creole?  The name for humans ridden by lwa at fetes?” I ask, recalling Leggie’s stories of the rituals of the peristyle.

Mister Carrefour glances back over his shoulder into the open carriage.  He smirks, and I wanna wipe that stupid grin from his face, what a jerk.  “Yup my girl, that’s right.  You’re a quick learner, ain’t you?”

Below, the forest spreads out like hobnobbed toothpicks covered in leaves and Spanish moss.  There it is: Snakes Spring, a bubbling hot spring, and a flock of crows fly above.  Mister Carrefour whips the reins and we land in a clearing.  He holds out a gloved hand to help me down, but I choose to jump instead, landing squarely crouched on my feet.

It’s spring, and there are wild yellow daffodils blooming, with reeds and stone around Snakes Spring.  I close my eyes and breath in the mineral water and wildflowers and run my feet through some bluebells by my ankles.  Reaching deep inside me, to the magic at my heart, I call up new buds.

Dandelions push through the grass – momma and pa would consider them weeds, but they’re my favorite flower for their strength.

Mister Carrefour laughs: “Nice parlor trick, baby mambo.  But Marie Laveau could do much more than that.  The snakes are waiting in their hollows, resting from a long winter.  Why don’t you wake those slitherers up?”

I know it’s a dare, but I want to show the Man in Black that I ain’t afraid of anything.  So I do.  I reach deep into the earth, into the crevasses around the spring and shout to the sleeping scaly secret keepers that gave the pure waters their name, and suddenly great hissing and the feeling of coiled muscles come pumping up from holes in the ground along the waterside.  A dozen black Eastern hog-nosed snakes dig their way out of the ground, some striped Diamond-backed water snakes dance out from the reeds, even a coral, black, and white milk snake slinks from under a log.

I think of the snake Marie Laveau danced with then cooked up and stuffed with her secrets.  The one that called her into her hoodoo power when she was but a girl.  The snakes slither over each other, piling up,  and they whisper in quivering words into my mind, and I know what to do.  I direct them to Mister Carrefour, and soon they are climbing the Man in Black, twining around his suit, circling his limbs, and he laughs so hard I think the sky will fall, his shadow belly rumbling.

“You good, little girl.  Choose one, why don’t you: we’ll need a gift for the Erzulie Sisters.  Every entrance to Gineh has a price.”

“What’s Gineh?” I ask, eying the milk snake, which unspools from the log towards me.

“Home to the lwa.  There’s the Petro Nation, Ghedeland, and of course, Rada Island.  That’s where we headed.  Freda be having a party, and boy does she love jewelry.  A snake will make a nice necklace for Sister Freda.  Maybe pick some flowers for Maman Danto while you’re at it.  The girls get jealous of each other, one always a mistress, one always a mother.  Ogou tries to please both but he ain’t very good at appeasing demanding women, and sisters often hate each other if they are sharing a man.”

Ogou, Erzulie Danto, Erzulie Freda – I’ve heard their names around New Orleans in Voodoo shops and of course from Leggie.  Ogou is the lwa of war and strength, Danto the mother of the Petro and hot helm of Haitian revolution, and Freda is the lwa of love and beauty.  I’ve always wanted to meet them.

I eye the pretty milk snake.  She dances just for me, and I beckon her from the shade of an uprooted tree.  She presents herself to me and I drape her over my shoulders like a necklace.  I know she won’t bite – as long as I tell her not to.  I summon the snakes away from Mister Carrefour, and he looks sad to see them go.

“Au revoir, mon amis,” Mister Carrefour salutes the slitherers.  “Well then, May, shall we be going?  Grab some flowers for Danto.”

I think Danto would like daffodils, so I grab a handful of stems and pull them from the earth.

Mister Carrefour chants in Creole, spills some cornmeal onto the ground in the shape of a labyrinth, then hops over it.  The cornmeal catches on fire, then a great portal to lush Caribbean tropics opens.

“Well, in you go, Chwal.”

I can smell tropical flowers and see manta rays swimming in coral on a beach.

“You sure about this?” I ask, petting my milk snake.  “Is it safe?”

“Ain’t nothing safe in Gineh.  But nothing’s as powerful as Bondye, and you got His blood.  Look at you, with a little Damballah on your shoulders.  Come on, before it closes.”

I walk through.

Ghazal

Ghazal preens his coal black feathers, a runt of a roc, and my bosom friend.  We sit on the sandstone cliff face above the blossoming desert, my abaya whipping in the dawn’s wind.

“Habibi, you are lost in your mind,” Ghazal sings, looking out at the goats that climb the acacia trees and eat leaves too high up for ants to dream of.  “Rani, look – the griffins come flocking to feast on fresh meat.  The phoenixes are rising – feel the stirring of djinn on the winds.  The world awakes, but you are in dreamland, writing of rajs and saqis and the love between man and immortal.  We must eat more than your pretty poems.  Come, mount my back, let us hunt.”

I smile up from my airy perch on a boulder and pack my quill, ink pot, and notebook into my camelskin bag.  “You are right, Ghazal.  What would I do without you, dear one?  Though you are my wings, you keep me grounded.  Let us get breakfast.”

I fasten the stirrups along his beak and put the saddle at the downy ridge where his feathers fan out along his neck.  Ghazal is my bonded pair, my means of surviving this flourishing backwater, a land of spirits and ghosts and so many gossamer stories.  I found him as a small girl in my father’s kingdom, and I rode him away from my forced marriage to a cruel raj to this hideaway in the desert, seeking the sweetness of freedom.

I mount Ghazal and pull on the reins.  We jet into the sky and the sylvan dakinis sing as they sit on clouds.  I can hear the hum of djinn far below at their markets at the bottom of the cliff we make our home, and by now the goats are falling to the griffins in purple and blue and scarlet blood.  Some djinn ride camels and herd phoenix flocks, scouring the sand for gems and lost treasure, for I live in a place where many people come to hide things, but the spirits take all.

My midnight black beauty finds a leopard hiding in a hollow by a watering hole.  Ghazal strikes with his beak, a sharp snap of the neck, then picks up the cat in his talons.  Another leopard falls.  Two are enough meat for both of us to be made into jerky for later and breakfast for now, and the djinn always love their skins, which we can sell for fresh fruit and more ink for my poetry.

I skin them later at our wind worn hut and Ghazal helps carry the hides down to the djinn market.  We buy pomegranates and Ghazal swallows them in his gullet whole.  I use the husks to perfume my roc down pillow, and that night, as the Milky Way stretches out like a sleeping woman, I sing my poetry to my angel of a bird and we dance by a campfire, bellies full, hearts aflame.

I never wanted to be a princess anyway, and I was born for the wild lands, where spirits roam and true poets find inspiration.  My couplets and verse are carried by dakinis on the wind, by peris who come in caravans rich with silk and saffron, and I am growing quite famous in the human world, so the djinn tells me.

Rani of the Ruins.  Queen of Poetry.  Roc Rider.

Happiness, Completion, and New Phases

So I’m making April NaNoWriMo Lite, with the goal of finishing Darn Precious Messiah before #DVPit at the end of April. I have a few 30,000 words to go but who knows, it may be longer. It is my favorite thing besides Space Oddity yet that I have written, and a delightful story that comes from my soul.

Sensitivity readers are vital when writing outside your culture, and my best friend Misha, a Haitian-American Voodoo practitioner, is certainly an expert on the lwa.  Funny thing, she told me Legba actually does have dogs due to being associated with Saint Lazarus, funny in that I included his pet because it just struck me as a very Legba thing to do.  I’ve done so much research on the lwas and Voodoo since I started the novel at around 18, plus some ritual workings with them, reading everything I can get my hands on, but at the end of the day Zora Neale Hurston isn’t enough – you have to talk with your friends who live that culture, and as an outsider, I have to err on the side of caution and respectfulness while writing diversity.  I don’t want to offend anyone and I want to get it painstakingly right.

As a white woman who is privileged in many ways besides being neurodivergent, I will never know what it is like to be oppressed.  My book isn’t about racism at all, as the whole cast is mainly African-American, and I don’t think I have the expertise to write about such a sensitive topic.  I’d probably screw it up as an outsider.  That’s why I set it well after the Civil Rights movement and it’s not another book about slavery or oppression.  Instead it’s the idea that the savior of New Orleans is none other than #blackgirlmagic, an awesome hashtag, quite literally.

My best friends – Ariel, Lauren, Misha, Gladys – they are all some of the strongest women I know and have overcome so much, having to be “twice as good to get half the recognition” of a white woman.  They make me proud.  They teach me so many things about overcoming adversity that though different, can apply to being disabled.  We were all born with stigma attached to either our ambitions – a standout woman of many talents who happens to be of color or a bipolar woman trying to hold down a professional career – or our very essence – mentally ill with no hopes of recovery, or the thought that an African American woman can’t be a neuroscientist like Gladys, a psychologist like Lauren, nerdy like Ariel, or a cosplayer like Misha.  I incorporated all of them into my character May Laveau, but she’s also a piece of myself, as all characters are.  I’m really excited to see where this novel leads to and hopefully finish it soon, if not by April, than by the summer when my dream agent opens to queries again.

Odds are good I may find representation before that, as I still have three fulls and three partials out.  But the best thing to do while waiting is to work on another project, and if my Russian novel doesn’t get me published, something else will.  I am making progress – so many requests, my query letters are in great shape, and I’m finally writing novels worthy of reading.  The agent who passed on my full last night was so sweet and said “I have no doubt you will find this an amazing home.”   Coming from someone like her, that meant a lot to me – she didn’t fall in love with the novel enough to take it on, but still loved many parts of it overall and was overall enthusiastic.  That is very encouraging and means I might actually be able to go somewhere with my Firebird retelling.

And if not this novel, than the next one!  I am very happy, my new job is going swimmingly, I love my new townhouse, grad school is fun, my friends are a blessing, and all, in JK Rowling’s words, is well.  Spring has sprung, my soul has awakened, and all is right in the world.

On Imposter Syndrome, Brokeness, and Beauty

I am, to date, my most successful at querying since I started at 22, so from 2015-2017 at a ripe old 24 years of age I’ve learned a few tricks.  I have three fulls out right now with stellar agents and three partials with top notch, six-figure-and-above dealmakers that would be dreams to work with.  If any were to offer, it would make my life, though the chances of course are slim.

It’s only been nine days since I queried my top batch of agents and I got three requests so far, with dozens more who have yet to respond.  I have never, in two whole years, ever been this successful.  Still, I wonder – am I imagining this?  Am I an imposter?  Does my writing, well, suck?

I know I’m young.  I’m barely out of college, still in grad school, and still developing my voice, or voices, seeing as I seem to have Multiple Persona Disorder when it comes to writing..  Agents have given me great feedback, but many times, they tell me they love the premise, or that I have a great concept, but that something just didn’t work.  The execution was rough.  I need more characterization.  The writing was lush and evocative, but I’m not quite there yet.  Needs more background, less background, more exposition, more action, less detail, more detail – rarely do two agents think alike!

My Firebird retelling has truly been a labor of love, and I look back at my ten paragraph queries from two years ago and the teensy awful 50,000 word manuscript it used to be and think, how could I have been so damn naive and unsavvy!  And oh god, how could I have sent this off to those patient as saints agents???

I’m not a natural at this, I’m basically a stick in the mud, who only learns when she gets hits on the head a lot.  Agents made my manuscript what it is today, and they made it that way through suggestion and rejection.  It’s the best it’s been, and while it’s not the best thing I’ve ever written (those projects are still unfinished 😉 ) it’s pretty damn solid by my own meager standards.  Which are probably not enough to get published at this rate, but at least I’m creative.

And still, I always think I suck.  That I got these requests on accident.  That agents loathe my writing and think what I create is trash.  That out of the seven requests I have out right now, they will all end in scathing rejections, even though that has never in my life happened.  Agents have only ever, at worst, given form rejects.

I’m just so used to being broken mentally, I think my writing is broken too.  That there is some piece of storytelling craft that I am missing because hey, I have OCD, manic depression, psychosis, and a host of other disorders, and under a CT scan my brain would have a shrunken prefrontal cortex and scars from manic and depressive episodes.

It ties into my extremely bad anxiety and panic disorder, bolstered by mixed episodes that combine the loveliness of suicidality with depression and crippling panic attacks/obsessive thinking and intrusive thoughts to self harm and mutilate, or just jump in front of that car, and the truth is, querying and putting myself out there is not mentally healthy for me.  It makes me unstable.  I’m managing a brand new job, a new townhouse with great roommates, a disorder where I can’t even look at alcohol, have to be in bed by 10 pm, not even drink frigging grapefruit juice, which I love, and one that ends with 1 in 4 people committing suicide.  Chances are high I won’t live past 25, and that was the date I set in my mind at the ripe old age of 15 when I realized life as a mentally ill person with snowflake diagnoses was, well, hell.

But I’m over exaggerating, and rambling, and because I’m broken, sometimes I can’t see beauty.

I’m as stable as I’ve ever been, making a great salary in a great city with a great boyfriend, working for an organization that is amazing and saves so many of my favorite animals and aids communities around the world, doing amazing work that helps people, when I may not ever be able to help myself, at least I stopped rhino poachers or saved endangered lemurs and birds or gave people with no livelihoods hope.

I am whole in so many ways, and because of that, I think it’s okay to take a break from this whole publishing quest.  I have half a mind to rescind all my full and partials and just become a hermit like the Tarot card, but I know that’s just a kneejerk reaction that is from my impulsive self-destructive craving for death and mayhem.  I have a huge Thanatos drive.  I have wanted to die so many times that perhaps a part of me has died already.  I die a bit every time I finish a story, it’s like another piece of my heart has been taken from me and eaten.  I serve my heart up on a plate for onlookers who judge its merits, when really, they’re judging my soul.  And it sometimes hurts.

I know you’re not supposed to take literary rejection personally, and I usually don’t, but sometimes, in my moments of weakness, I circle back to the thought that I’m a shit writer.  That all my successes, however small, so far have been flukes.  That my poetry is trash.  That I am trash.  I have such a low opinion of myself that sometimes I think I’d be bettering the world if I dove headfirst into the subway.  I have to stand far away from the oncoming trains, because almost every time, I have the urge to jump, even when everything is going right in my life.

Maybe it was the stress of my dad being hospitalized this weekend that made me reevaluate my creative aspirations, the thought that the person I hold dearest besides my mom could be ripped away from me by something as cruel as death, that spurred me to feel unstable.  Usually I’m the first to put myself out there, first to volunteer, to lead a class discussion or group project, I reach for the stars, and figure hey, if I fail, at least I can say I tried.

But it always circles back to the imposter syndrome.  I was trying to enjoy Girls last night, one of my favorite shows, when Hannah Horvath was interviewing a female writer, and part of it just made me cry.  All my efforts felt futile – Hannah is a struggling writer, always reaching so high but failing, not realizing what she already has, and maybe a part of me felt like I was, in a sense, this TV character I loathed.  Maybe I always see the glass half-empty.  And my mood swings be damned, I’m elated one second and terrified or a soul sucking black hole the next, even though I’m on five different medications, see a therapist once a week, abstain from even Mike’s Hards, have never so much as smoked or toked once, live a straitlaced boring existence where I do everything right, break and break and break again as I try to appear stable and sane, when inside I am mad.

Inside, I will always be damaged, but in ruin is beauty, and the cracks in my mind let the light slip through.  So persevere on I do, and no, I will never give up.

Only a sane person would.

Space Oddity: Chapter 2

Synopsis:

Ziggi is a manic pixie dream girl that went on a bender and never recovered.  At least, that’s what her bandmates think.  Pink-haired with a moonbow on her butt, Ziggi is your average punk barista searching for meaning in suburbia.  Too bad her artistic roommate Cyrus turns out to be an alien who, when not smoking weed, is busy manipulating Ziggi’s genome in order to accelerate humanity’s evolutionary conga line.  Oh yeah, and he’s been at it for centuries, meddling with human biology so long the Sumerians started a religion after him.  At least he makes a mean fettucine alfredo?

After a concert goes sour, Ziggi and Cyrus blast off into space in Cyrus’ VW Beetle when Ziggi tries to turn off the radio.  Stranded on a spaceship suited for amphibians, not punks, Ziggi learns that her new tenant Cyrus, real name Enki, isn’t remotely human.  Gone are his good looks, replaced by tentacles and, well, he basically looks like a sewer mutant.  To complicate things, Enki is the heir to the Milky Way’s dysfunctional overlords, the Anunnaki: shapeshifters who feed off information.   In order to sexually mature, Enki has to shepherd humanity into his parent’s galactic dictatorship via good old genetic manipulation.  Too bad he would rather make trippy artwork or eat pot brownies.  A leader Enki is not, thus he is stuck in perpetual puberty, with the crown always just out of reach.  No wonder he likes to get high.

As Enki gives Ziggi a tour of his spaceship, she is thrust into a world of intergalactic intrigue where the universe is in turmoil, thanks to Enki’s ruthless parents.  Opposed to Enki’s genetic tinkering is his sister Ishtar who, though against interfering with species’ evolution, will do anything to take the throne.  Soon the Brood come, and Ziggi, Enki and Ishtar are sold to the highest bidder, who happens to have a personal vendetta against the Anunnaki.  Assassination plots are hatched, space pirates abound, and Ziggi discovers her talent for survival.  She’s not alone for long, however, as her bandmates soon wind up in space, stranded on an outlaw planet after they got caught in Enki’s tractor beam.  Forced to battle in interspecies cage matches and entertain their captors, Ziggi and her friends struggle to find a way out of the gladiator ring.  Their solution?  Form a space band, Anunnaki included, and rock their way to freedom.

Music is Ziggi’s ultimate salvation, and soon entire galaxies are salivating over her riffs.  But will her new supernova stardom be too hot to handle?  What about Enki’s despotic family?  And what will Enki do when he runs out of weed?  In this spoof of alien conspiracies, all these questions, and more, are answered in this Bowie-inspired mix of Lilith’s Brood and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  Enki ascends to the throne, having overthrown his parents, and Ziggi, now a cosmic rock star, can finally quit her job at Java Lava and move on to bigger, better things, namely a record deal.

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Smoke hung like a veil over the Black Cat as my hands worked a riff on my Gibson.  Carlos anchored the song with his bass line, and Spike drummed like an earthquake god.  Cyrus stood on the fringes, taking a drag from something that was decidedly not a cigarette.

Riff finished, I sang the bridge, then belted out the chorus three more times, summoning a chaotic picture of middle class ennui in the audience’s mind.  The mosh pit moved in frenzy as we performed the final piece from our concept album about midlife crises and the 99%’s suburban discontent.  Spike drummed on his cymbals, the lights flashed, and Carlos let his final note echo.  I strummed my guitar once more, then moved into a harmonic that played like a ghost across the room.  

The crowd cheered.

“Thanks,” I said, breathless, into the microphone.  “You guys are great.  I want to bottle your blood and sell it or something.  You’re that fucking sweet.  Like Pepsi or pixie dust or, or just like, I don’t know, hot chocolate spiked with rum-”

Carlos edged over to the microphone, bass over his shoulder.  “That’s Ziggi, alright, with her vampire blood shit – she’s a parasite.  Be careful or she’ll sip you right up.”  He slung an arm around me.  “CDs are at the back, next to the band patches.  Buy them, please, and feed me.  Playing makes me hungry.”

Someone threw a hamburger at Carlos.  He caught it, shrugged, and bit in.  Ketchup clung to his lip.

“Gimme that – you don’t know who or where in the hell it’s from,” I said.  

I took the half-eaten hamburger and threw it back at the audience.  The crowd hooted.  

The floor cleared.  We worked with tech backstage to dismantle our set.  I put my electric blue Gibson back in its case.  The Gibson, christened Orpheus, was my college graduation present.  Spike hauled my amp into his van.  Cyrus pocketed bits of trash from the crowd: a dysfunctional lighter and used earplugs.

We crammed into Spike’s van to drive back to Spike and Carlos’s townhouse in Arlington for an after-party.  Spike was at the wheel, and Carlos sat shotgun, with Cyrus and me in the back.  My roommate, dressed in a white jumpsuit, smelled pleasantly of rain.  His pot smoke refused to cling to him.  Instead, it coated me, like disgusting perfume from a sewer full of junkies.  

I tried to sit as far away from Cyrus as possible.  

Carlos put on the Dead Kennedys’ “I Fought the Law” cover.  “This is my jam,” Carlos said, his labret piercing flashing in the streetlights.  He sang along: “I BLEW GEORGE AND HARVEY’S BRAINS OUT WITH MY SIX GUN!/I FOUGHT THE LAW AND I WON!”

“Shut up, man,” Spike said, then changed the track to the Pogues, cutting Carlos off mid-lyric.  Some song from Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash played.  Dirty Old Town or something.  I was too buzzed off performing to tell.

Carlos slumped back in his chair.  “Fuck you, Spike-up-the-ass.”

Spike rolled down the window, letting the October air chill the car.  “Don’t start this, man.  We both know the Clash’s version is better.  The Dead Kennedy’s can’t sing covers for shit.”

Carlos blew air through his teeth.  “What, and Shane MacGowan doesn’t sound like a wino?  Screw your tastes and screw your van.  It smells like smegma.”

Spike arched his brows.  “You know what smegma smells like?  How many dirty dicks have you sucked?”

Carlos lit a cigarette.  “I only suck clean dicks.”  Carlos took a drag, then glanced back at Cyrus.  

Cyrus hummed along to ‘Dirty Old Town,’ oblivious to Carlos’s attraction.  

That was another thing about Cyrus – none of us could figure out my roommate’s orientation.  Maybe he was sapiosexual, if that was even a thing and not a 4chan joke – we were just plebs too dumb for his artistic genius.  In the few weeks that I had known him, Cyrus had spoken of no significant other, but with his dramatic flair for dress, long hair, and androgynous looks, I suspected he might have something going on.  Despite his sex appeal, Cyrus was sexless, showing no interest in anyone and continually laughing off Carlos’s advances.  Perhaps he was married to his art.  That, or his weed.

“Hey, Ziggi, maybe you should grow a cock,” Spike said, speeding past a yellow light.  “It would hit two birds with one stone, solving your lack of a boyfriend and curing Carlos’s lust.”

I curled my lip.  “I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just suggest I become a dude.  God knows you two have enough testosterone for this whole band.”

“Speaking of the band, I think we should change our name.  ‘Iguana Knees’ is too grunge, and we’re not grunge,” Spike said.

“That’s our problem.  We never fucking know what genre we are,” Carlos said.

I looked at the silent Cyrus, and my ankle throbbed.  “Hey, I like our name.”

Cyrus looked at me, breaking his reverie.  “I think ‘Iguana Knees’ suits your aesthetic.”

“Fuck.  We dabble in so many styles, we’re unclassifiable,” Carlos blew smoke out the window.  “We’re punk one week, then glam the next.  Remember that time I dressed up like David Bowie in Labyrinth for that set we wrote about Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market?  Jareth or whatever, and Ziggi looked like friggin Sarah Brightman from Phantom of the Opera.  That was miles away from our new album about a suburban couple’s breakdown.  One’s Fairport Convention and the other’s Green Day.  I say we pick a genre and stick with it.”

“Hell no,” I said.  “Why limit ourselves?  Labels create sterility.  Anyways, we’re not trying to go mainstream.”

“Not now, but eventually,” Spike said.  “Right now we only have niche appeal.  How are we supposed to market ourselves if we don’t know what genre we are?”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said.  “You can’t just choose these things, they come to you, like the Oracle of Delphi.  We’re kinda like modern prophets of music, that’s our thing: the voice of our generation, or at least Millennials in the DC suburbs.”

“Right…”

We pulled into Spike and Carlos’s driveway and got out into the autumn-spiced night.  They lived in a tree-lined cul-de-sac in an area halfway between projects and a youth mecca.  The housing was cheap compared to most places in Arlington, filled with twenty-somethings and young families just starting out.  

We settled into their living room with beers and popped an old DVD of Mystery Science Theater 3000 into the TV.  Cyrus sat in a bean bag on the floor while my band and I sank into the single threadbare couch.  

The imprisoned character and his robot sidekicks of the cult TV show were spoofing a B-movie about hostile aliens.  The actors playing the aliens were poorly made-up, with green rubber lizard masks, and the 70’s special effects were laughable.  We munched on popcorn between sips of beer, chatting over the narration.  

Only Cyrus was quiet, his eyes glued to the screen.  He seemed almost solemn.  The movie ended, and Spike turned off the TV.

“Man,” Carlos said, “screw aliens.  They creep the shit out of me.”

I kicked my legs up on the table made of wooden crates.  “Yeah?” I said.

Carlos nodded.  “I used to watch the X-Files, and it messed me up.  I was convinced that aliens were real, and that they had nothing better to do than abduct me and probe my ass.”

“I’m pretty sure aliens don’t want anything to do with a crusty bassist’s butt.”  Spike downed the last of his beer.

Carlos punched Spike, knocking his empty beer can to the floor.  “I’m not crusty, man.”

I laughed.  “You two are idiots.  God, maybe we should make our new EP about aliens.  No, alienation.  Crust punks and their fight against the man.”

“I’m not crust punk, and the only dude I want to fight is the idiot sitting next to me,” Carlos said, ribbing Spike.

“Don’t touch me.”  Spike laughed.  “I mean, look in the mirror – you’re an anarchist, you play a jacked up bass, and you listen to crap like Venom and Motörhead, and you think the best fucking place in the world is dirty-ass Richmond.  You’re crusty.”

“Yeah, fine, maybe, but you make it sound like my skin is flaking off and I haven’t showered in twenty years,” Carlos said.  He looked at me.  “Ziggi, that EP sounds like trite bullshit.”

I frowned.  “You always shoot down my ideas.  What’s your damage?  Why can’t we put a fresh spin on it?”

Carlos shook his head.  “I don’t know, it’s just so overdone.  The world doesn’t need more angry white twenty-somethings railing against the establishment.”

Spike snorted.  “Isn’t that what we do?  Admit it, we’re derivative.”

Frustration flared in my gut.  “No, we’re not!  We’re more original than 99% of the crap that’s out there.  People hear the Iguana Knees, and it means something to them!  Think of our fans!  What we stand for!”

Carlos squinted.  “Iguana Knees.  That name’s like a stink bomb going off in my head.  Can’t we be Wombat Attack Squad or something?”

“You always go back to Wombat Attack Squad, don’t you?” Spike said, amused.

“Wombats don’t attack things, Car, but iguanas have knees,” I said, tired of my band-mate’s nonsense.  

“How do you know they don’t attack things?” Carlos said, crossing his arms.  “Have you ever seen a wombat?  I sure haven’t.  They could be badass.  With hidden superpowers, like me.  Don’t underestimate a wombat.”

“Wombats are herbivores, they have no need to attack things, save grass,” Cyrus said.  He took a drag from his blunt, then pulled out the broken lighter he’d collected from his pocket and flicked it repeatedly.  No flame came on, but he was still enthralled.

Carlos narrowed his eyes.  “I don’t buy that,” he said.  “Ugh.  Why can’t we ever agree on anything?  We can never go on tour like this.”

I nearly choked on my stale beer.  “Us?  Go on tour?  With what money and what roadies?”

“See?” Carlos said.  “You say I don’t agree with you, but you always hate my ideas, whether it’s about going on tour or how awesome wombats are.  You’re like the band dictator.”

“I am not!” I said.  “Spike, back me up.”

Spike shrugged.  “I’m too drunk to deal with you guys.”

“Cyrus?” I asked.

Cyrus bit his lower lip.  “I think your tour will come to you when you need it most.  Maybe now’s not the time.”

“See?” I said.  “The stoner sage agrees.”

Carlos looked like he had a sour taste in his mouth.  “Fine, whatever, have it your way.  We can keep our shitty name and stay in the shitty suburbs and keep working our shitty jobs, living our small lives and never doing fucking anything.”

I flinched.  “I’m not the villain.  Come on.  I’m just trying to do what’s best for us!”

“We don’t need mothering,” Carlos said, refusing to meet my gaze.

I sagged.  “Fine, if that’s what you think of me, I guess I’ll just go.  Cyrus?”

Cyrus pocketed his lighter.  “Alright.”

Spike stood, placing his hand on my shoulder.  “Don’t leave.  Car’s just being a tool because he’s drunk off his ass.  You’re both oversensitive when you’re tipsy.”

I shrugged off his hand.  “Whatever.  I’m tired anyways.”

Cyrus followed me outside like a shadow.

“Screw what Carlos thinks,” I said, looking at the stars.  The lone lemon tree by the cracked driveway was bent with age and wind.

Cyrus dropped his smoked blunt and put it out with the heel of his shoe.  “I think your ideas are valid.”

“Thanks, I guess.”

We drove back to Centreville in Cyrus’ VW beetle on I-66.  I was still waiting on my parent’s spare truck to be fixed at the autobody shop before I could drive it.  Until then, I was dependent on Cyrus and the subway for rides.

Cyrus flipped through the radio stations until he settled on classic rock.  I sat there, doubting the validity of my ideas and my place in the band, despite Cyrus’ reassurance.  I finally broke the silence:

“Do you think I’m full of crap?  Are my ideas stereotypical?  I mean, I know I’m a caricature.  I’m a pink-haired barista named Ziggi Moondust Collins in a band that’s falling apart.”  I watched the moon sail across the sky, feeling empty.

Cyrus pulled into our apartment’s parking lot.  “I don’t think so.  You should let go of your worries,” he said, his voice soothing.  “Both you and Carlos just drank a bit too much.”

“Forget an EP about alienation.  Maybe I should just write about aliens.”

The radio began to play David Bowie’s “Starman.”

I gave a deflated laugh.  “What, is the radio psychic?  I was probably conceived to this song, fuck.”  

I reached for the dashboard, squinting in the darkness to see which button to press to turn off the music.  My index finger made contact with a red triangle-

“Ziggi, no, not that button!” Cyrus said.

I pressed it.  “What are you talking about?”  

A great clamor came from the VW beetle’s engine.  A white light pulsed on the dashboard, and my seat plunged backwards, taking me with it.  The windows darkened and the car thrust upwards, like the wheels had turned into rockets.  We shot off the ground, into the air, careening past the trees.

“What the heck?”

Cyrus cursed, gripping the steering wheel hard as he navigated us through the air.  “I can explain.  Actually, it might be a bit difficult.”

We hit turbulence.  

“Oh god, oh my god!”  I hyperventilated.

The radio became static, then was replaced by a voice speaking in a sonorous language.  I shrieked as the sound’s pressure made my eardrums near-rupture.  

“Whoops,” Cyrus said.

A holographic screen appeared in front of him.  Cyrus furrowed his brow and turned a hovering dial.  The screen enlarged, and foreign script scrolled across it.

The radio’s voice grew in volume.  It seemed to be asking a question.

Cyrus bit his lip, pressed another button, then replied to the radio’s query in the same language, so unnatural when it came from a human throat.

My stomach fell into my lap.  I screamed, vomited, then screamed some more, my puke flying around the car-turned-spaceship.  The velocity built, and my vision blackened.

Cyrus held my hand.  “Ziggi.  Ziggi?  It’s okay.  You’re safe.  I’m so sorry.  I shouldn’t have let you press the launch button.  This is all my fault.”

Launch button?” I said, then vomited again.  My head spun, and the force of us flying through the air was like being pressed to death.

Cyrus wiped vomit from my brow.  “It might be easier on you if you sleep this one out.  Your body’s fragile.  I’ll explain everything once you wake up.”

“What?  No.  No!”

He pressed a button on the holographic screen and a fine mist seeped from the air conditioning vents.  I inhaled the mist and was instantly calmed.  Drowsiness lumbered into my brain and sat at the crown of my head.  Sleep dragged me down through its depths.