WIP (Work In Progress)
Though I’ve been writing off and on for most of my life, it’s only in the past six years that I’ve really been writing in earnest and with a goal in mind. What is that goal? First, to write a novel for children, and second, to have that book read. Sounds simple enough on the page, but the reality of it has been a little more complicated.
The first part of my goal I’ve figured out, or at least insofar as I’ve completed four novels for children, and I’m currently working on the fifth. I remember the elated sense of accomplishment when I finished the first book. It was an idea I’d been bouncing around in my head for years, but never did anything about, until one day I took the first big step: I sat down and started to write. And kept writing. Before I knew it (several months later, actually) I had actually written a whole novel! Looking back on it now, I can see the book’s flaws better than I could at the time. Still, if nothing else, I’d proved to myself that I could see it through to the end. But what I also learned is that once the rough draft is completed, I was only getting started.
The second goal, to be read, has been more elusive, though I have been working towards it by joining the Society of Children’s’ Book Writers and illustrators, attending conferences, having my work critiqued, and sending queries out for submission. It has been in equal parts rewarding and frustrating, but so far, the rewards have been enough to keep me going.
Currently I’m querying my fourth book, Hush-a-bye, an upper middle grade tale of the supernatural. I thought it might be interesting to share at least the first chapter of that book, if for no other reason than to prove that I am actually doing what I say I’m doing. Enjoy!
Hush-a-bye: Chapter 1
It was deep in the afternoon of the last Tuesday of summer when I kicked away a willow branch lying on the riverbank and found the head.
My eyes had been closed. I’d been imagining, for no particular reason, how the September sun would look to the mud-devils trolling the Susquehanna riverbed. Like margarine on burnt toast, I supposed. Then my foot knocked into the branch, my eyes opened, and another eye stared back at me.
Its yellow hair was tangled with twigs and mud and broken glass like some crazy bird’s nest. It had a scratched cheek, a pushed-in nose, and a grimy ball of mud in the hole where the left eye should have been. I picked up the head and held it by its ragged neck. The body, I supposed, had long since floated away.
“Poor dolly,” I said. “Where’d the rest of you go?”
I glanced behind me. My sister Antonia was somewhere along the slope above the bank, searching for flat rocks to skip across the water. She was always somewhere close by. Still, when I shut my eyes, I could pretend I was alone. Sometimes I even believed it. At least until the sound of Antonia’s scuffling sneakers or her howler monkey squeal brought me back. Or, like that day, finding a doll’s head face up at the edge of the river.
I bent down to drop the head back in the hollow space where it must have been hiding for weeks–maybe years, for all I knew. Then I glanced across the river.
Bars of light shivered across the water. There hadn’t been a single cloud in the sky since the middle of August. Nothing above us but a wide sheet of blue.
I’d come down to the river almost every summer day since we moved to Oneega Valley, a long, narrow ribbon of town just a few miles north of Pennsylvania. Antonia had found the dirt footpath hidden under a row of winterberry bushes running behind our trailer. You had to squeeze through them, shuffle sideways down the path to avoid the pricker bushes and stinging nettles that grew between the birch and willows, then slide down a low slope to get to the river bank.
There was a small island plunked right in the middle of the river. The curve of its shore matched the curve of the river bank like a puzzle piece, and it was covered in tall ash trees that jostled against each other. I dreamed about visiting it one day, but the river was too muddy for swimming, and we didn’t have a boat.
Looking across ripples of sunlight on the river’s brown face, I wondered what would happen if I tossed the doll’s head right in the middle of the water. I wanted to make the sunlight smash into a million pieces. Somehow, that seemed like the best possible thing I could manage to do that day.
I drew my arm back. It was going to have to be a good throw. I screwed up my face, dug my feet in the bank, and let my arm fly forward. For a moment, I almost felt like I was the one flying. I held my breath.
Nothing splashed in the water. Only the sounds of birds and the rush of cars passing on the distant highway filled the air.
I looked up like I expected the head had sprouted wings and soared up to the clouds. It hadn’t. I stared down at my outstretched arm. The doll’s head still dangled there, its yellow hair twisted in my fingers. Its one good eye stared right back at me.
“Can’t let go, huh?” I said. “Well, you should. If you knew anything about me you’d get away fast. Don’t you know who I am?”
It took me a few seconds to realize the voice I’d heard came from behind. I turned. Antonia stood there with her hands clasped together, full of rocks too fat for anything but sinking with a loud plop. She was smiling, and her eyes were wide open even though she was facing into the sun. I could never understand how she was able to do that without squinting. The sparkly cat barrette she’d worn on the side of her head since second grade glittered in the sunlight.
“Gross,” Antonia said, but still smiling. “What’s that?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just an old doll’s head. Come look.”
Antonia dropped the rocks, letting them thump in the undergrowth, and shuffled toward me. I lightly pressed my finger against the doll’s cheek.
“See?” I said. “Only an old broken doll’s head.” Antonia wrapped her hand around the head and tried to pull it towards her. I jerked it away.
“Stop that,” I said, a little more harshly than I intended. “There’s glass in its hair. You’ll cut yourself. I’m going to throw it back where I found it. Nothing but trash anyway.”
Antonia pouted. I tried to ignore her, but the pout always rankled me. Even though there was only a year’s difference between us, Antonia acted like such a child sometimes.
Developmentally delayed was what they called her, or at least that’s what I read in a letter from the school Mom accidently left on the kitchen counter one day. So I knew it wasn’t completely her fault. But it still bugged me.
I shook my head to break up the feeling. There were still a few more hours of this day to enjoy my freedom. No sense in ruining that with fussing over things I couldn’t change. And no sense in keeping some dirty, broken, good-for-nothing doll’s head.
Holding the head at eye level, I fixed it with what I hoped was a terrifying glare. “You won’t see me anymore anyway,” I said. “You won’t see anything.”
I stepped back towards the river and drew my arm back once again. A gust of wind shook the ash branches across the far bank. As they swayed back and forth, I thought I heard something–a faint voice whispering between the sounds of rattling dry leaves.
Take me home.
I swung my head about and glared at my sister. “What did you say?”
Antonia cocked her head to one side. “I didn’t say nothing. Must have been the doll.”
I looked at my sister for a long time, then shook my head. “Don’t be silly.”
I turned back to the doll. It swayed back and forth. For the first time I noticed its one eye was a bright emerald green. Almost like my daddy’s eyes–green and full of mischief. At least, that’s how I tried to remember them.
I bit my lip and swallowed the sour ball of pain rising up my throat. The green eye still regarded me, but it didn’t seem so bright anymore. It was dull and scratched and looked like nothing more than a cheap glass eye stuck in a poor broken doll’s head.
“It’s sad, don’t you think?” I drew the head closer and picked shards of glass out of the doll’s hair. “Left all alone here. Her little body probably washed all the way to China.”
“I heard a book about a glass bunny that got lost,” Antonia said. “He got drowned in the ocean until some fisherman pulled him out and saved him, and even then it took years and years to find his way home. That was sad too.”
I nodded. “Probably shouldn’t throw her back in the river. That would be littering.”
Antonia leaned in and squinted at the doll’s head. “She’s not garbage,” she said. “She’s lonely.” She rested her cheek on my arm. “Can’t we take her back to the trailer? We can fix her up and maybe we can find another body for her.”
I nudged Antonia away. “Mom wouldn’t like it. She’s already threatened to take a shovel to all the junk under your bed.”
“It’s not junk,” Antonia said. “They’re my precious treasures.”
Her precious treasures were a deflated soccer ball, a trunkless stuffed elephant called Mr. Lumps, a large bag full of knotted rubber bands, a paper-mache Earth with only five continents, and about a hundred other bits and pieces of things she’d picked up here and there and shoved under her bed ‘for later’.
“She’d be the most precious treasure of all,” Antonia said. She rubbed her cheek against my arm and fluttered her eyelashes. “Please, can we keep her? Pretty please?”
I breathed out heavily through my nose, and then I smiled at my sister. “I suppose so . . . if we don’t tell Mom.”
Antonia’s eyes grew wide. “Lie?”
“Not a lie,” I trailed my pinky across the doll’s stubbed nose. “A secret. Our secret.”
Antonia squealed and clapped her hands.
“Get my bag from behind that stump over there,” I said. “We’ll clean her up after dinner and hide her in the closet under all those wildlife magazines you never read.”
“I read them,” Antonia said, kicking a pebble. “Sometimes.” She ran to the stump while I picked out the rest of the glass. When Antonia brought over my back pack, I wriggled the broken zipper open and shook out a plastic grocery bag I’d brought in case I found any interesting leaves I wanted to draw later. I started to lower the doll’s head in the bag when Antonia put her hand on my arm.
“Wait,” she said.
“It’s dark in there.” Antonia clasped her hands together and pressed them against her face. “She might want to go to sleep.”
“Can I sing her a lullaby? The one Mom sings when it rains and the thunder hurts my ears?”
I shook my head at first, but when my sister started fluttering her eyelashes a mile a minute and puckering her lips like a fish, I had to laugh. She always knew how to make me laugh with that face.
“Okay,” I said. “But make it quick.”
Antonia cleared her throat and began to sing.
Hush-a-bye and good night
Till the bright morning light
Takes the sleep from your eyes
Hush-a-bye, baby bright
We stood in silence in front of the doll’s head. Her green eye glowed in the afternoon light, and the sound of the river filled our ears. A single cloud, thin as a whisper, floated just above the tree tops.
“That’s a good name for her,” I said at last as I gently pushed the head deep into the bag. “Hush-a-bye.”